In Turkey, Erdoğan's attempt to block Twitter lasted barely two weeks. Photo: Getty
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Social media has been privatised. Why do we treat it as a public space?

Social media companies like Twitter and Facebook have essentially erected new borders where such borders did not exist before.

When members of the Turkish opposition sought to embarrass Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in February by publishing voice recordings hinting at corruption, they didn’t go to the traditional media, nor did they start up their own website. Instead, they went straight to YouTube, posting the recordings there and publicising the link on Twitter, where it spread rapidly, eventually leading Erdoğan to block the platform.

The block lasted barely two weeks; protests led to lawsuits, which led to the country’s highest court ruling that the ban violated freedom of expression. Things might have been left there, but instead the Turkish government contacted Twitter and, using the company’s own “country-withheld content” process, requested the removal of specific content. Twitter complied.

Similar stories play out every day around the world. Speech on the vast internet –  where just a decade ago an individualised website or blog was a status symbol – has been effectively centralised into a handful of platforms. Each month, more than one billion people (or about one-seventh of the world’s population) use Facebook and YouTube; both platforms cite 80 per cent of their traffic as coming from outside of the US. Twitter isn’t far behind, with around 650 million active users worldwide.

These are truly global platforms. Centralised, free, and easy to sign up for, these sites attract a broad swath of the world’s public, who use them to engage in political and social debate, organise protests, and of course, chat with each other.

Social media has, in many ways, taken on the role of the public sphere, as defined by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas as “society engaged in critical public debate,” and characterised by a feeling of inclusivity and freedom of expression and association. And yet the online social spaces standing in for the public sphere are private ones, owned by billionaires and shareholders. Nevertheless, we treat them as public spaces.

The trouble with private companies controlling our speech is that they are subject not only to shareholders, but also to governments. Many of the most popular social media companies –  most notably Twitter, which once called itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party” –  profess a commitment to free expression. But in their efforts to provide access to their services to users around the world, these companies often face an unfortunate choice: to avoid being blocked by a government’s censorship apparatus, they must sometimes agree to take down content, at least in a given country.

Take, for example, recent decisions made by Twitter and Facebook to block content at the behest of Pakistan’s telecommunications authority. This isn’t the first time the companies have responded to a legal request (both publish transparency reports outlining where they do respond), but historically, the companies tend to be conservative in their compliance, blocking or removing content only when not doing so could endanger employees in-country. In addition, Pakistani rights groups have suggested that the legal order may not be so legitimate after all.

In any case, when a company unnecessarily complies with censorship orders from a foreign government, it sends the message to users that profit is more important than free speech, something that all of the aforementioned companies count amongst their values. Furthermore, by making the company –  and not the government issuing the orders –  the “bad guy,” it becomes harder for users within a country to fight back, and less clear to users that the governments seeking censorship are the real enemy.

Social media companies have essentially erected new borders where such borders did not exist before. While it’s true that many governments have the technical authority to censor websites, doing so often backfires: Just look to Turkey, where protesters took to the streets after the government blocked Twitter, or Tunisia, where a brief Facebook ban in 2008 resulted in protests so large the ban was almost immediately reversed.

In doing governments’ bidding for them, companies are helping to normalise censorship and decrease organising toward a freer and more open internet. Instead, corporations should take the high road. Social media has, in a short span of time and for better or worse, become our go-to place for organising, sharing, arguing, and connecting with friends. If companies were to take a stand against censorship, they would demonstrate to their global user bases that freedom of expression is a universal value that should apply to all of us.

Jillian C York is a writer and free speech activist

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Meet Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far left candidate gaining momentum in the French election

Ahead of the socialist candidate in the polls, the leftwinger has become a YouTube star and has more followers than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

There are seven of them: six men and one woman will face each other tonight in the last of three debates leading to the first round of the French left’s primary on Sunday. Seven, a holy number: how could it possibly go wrong?

With the notable exception of 2002 – which saw Jacques Chirac face far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen – a socialist candidate has been in the second round of every presidential election since 1974. But given Marine Le Pen’s steady and comfortable advance in the polls, France will probably see one of its two main parties, the conservative Republicans or the Socialist party, excluded from the second round. But what if both of them were?

Two serious contenders are gaining momentum. One of them is Emmanuel Macron, François Hollande’s former economy minister currently third in the polls, and the other is Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Mélenchon is 65. He is no newbie in French politics. He joined the Socialist party in the 1970s, was a senator for years and served as a junior minister from 2000 to 2002. He has always been an outspoken character and has certainly always been heavily to the left of the socialist party. It was no surprise to see him quit the party when it fell into disarray in 2008.

He launched the boldly named “Left Party” and stood for the 2012 presidential election, finishing in a respectable fourth place behind Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy and Le Pen with 11.1 per cent of the votes. During the presidential campaign, he attracted media attention with his fiery speeches, brash style and, ironically, distinct hate of…the media.

Mélenchon has over the years very cleverly positioned himself as the people’s candidate. He has unfairly been referred to as a populist by his detractors. Anyone who has spent a little bit of time one-on-one with him will tell you that he has strong beliefs and is driven by more than just personal ambition.

Mélenchon passionately defends the idea of a new Republic that gives power back to the people and abolishes the “presidential monarchy”, wants more fiscal justice, a review of the European treaties to put an end to “austerity policies”, and a new ecological order which would see France drop nuclear power.

In more ways than one, his agenda is a traditional French hard-left platform, but the package is new. And therein lies his popularity.

Mélenchon is not just a man of strong beliefs, he is also an astute politician. At a time when many voters have become disillusioned with party politics, Mélenchon has freed himself of party bonds and is campaigning on a platform aiming to reach far beyond his traditional voters. He has branded his movement La France insoumise “Unsubmissive France” and uses similar rhetoric to citizen-based movements like Los Indignados in Spain.

To attract younger voters, Mélenchon successfully took to YouTube. He recently commented on having over 140,000 followers on the video-sharing website, which is more than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, and boasted about reaching 10 million views. On 5 February, he will hold a campaign rally in Lyons and in Paris. He will be physically present in Lyons and his hologram will address the crowds in Paris.

Unlike Macron, he is proud of his left heritage and dreams of nothing less than seeing the Socialist candidate leave the race and support him as the candidate of a unified left. The polls are currently placing him ahead of whoever wins the left’s primary.

Mélenchon is successfully capitalising on left-wing voters’ disappointment in the Socialist party following Hollande’s presidency. He is holding a rally today in Florange, an industrial town that symbolises the French industrial crisis, as the state has tried and failed over the years to save its steelworks.

Most of the candidates in the left’s primary were government ministers during Hollande’s term. Some of them resigned, accusing the French President of not delivering what he was elected for, but none of them can, like Mélenchon, claim that they had no part in what is widely perceived as a failed presidency.

At this stage, it is difficult to see how Mélenchon could reach the second round of the presidential election, but the incredible dynamic of his campaign is redefining the French left. If on voting day he confirms his lead on the Socialist candidate, the Socialist party risks imploding. At tonight’s debate, Mélenchon will definitely be the elephant in the room.

Philip Kyle is a French and English freelance journalist.