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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Leader: The chaos and mendacity of Trump’s White House

That General Flynn was the first of the president’s men to fall should perhaps not have caused surprise.

In his inauguration speech on 20 January, Donald Trump used the phrase “American carnage” to ­describe the state of the US under Barack Obama. The description was correct, but President Trump had the timing wrong – for the carnage was still to come. Just a few weeks into his presidency, the real-estate billionaire and reality-TV star has become embroiled in more controversy and scandals than Mr Obama experienced in eight years. His ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries entering the US caused chaos at airports both at home and abroad and damaged America’s global standing. It was a false claim that the executive order, since suspended by the courts, would make the US safer. By alienating and stigmatising Muslims, it may well do the opposite.

The decision to pursue the policy so recklessly and hastily demonstrates Mr Trump’s appalling judgement and dubious temperament. It also shows the malign anti-Islamic influence of those closest to him, in particular his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, his senior adviser Stephen Miller, and Michael Flynn, the retired general who on 13 February resigned as ­national security adviser after only 24 days in the job.

That General Flynn was the first of the president’s men to fall should perhaps not have caused surprise, given his reputation for anger and arrogance. As recently as August, the retired three-star general said that Islamism was a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” and falsely claimed that Florida Democrats had voted to impose sharia law at state and local level. He also led the chants of “Lock her up!” aimed at Hillary Clinton during the Republican ­National Convention, which would have been appreciated by Mr Trump then and today by those who enjoy irony.

Now General Flynn is under investigation by justice officials. He resigned over revelations in the media, most notably the Washington Post, that before taking office he had discussed US sanctions against Moscow with the Russian ambassador. It is unlawful for private citizens of the US to ­interfere in diplomatic disputes with another country.

Before standing down, General Flynn had publicly denied talking about sanctions during calls and texts with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December. He had also issued misleading accounts of their conversation to Vice-President Mike Pence and other Trump officials who went on to defend him. Given President Trump’s propensity to lie, General Flynn may have believed that he could get away it. As the former chief of a Pentagon spy agency, however, he should have known that the truth would come out.

The FBI had wiretaps of the ambassador’s conversations with General Flynn. In January, the acting US attorney general – later sacked by President Trump for opposing his “Muslim ban” – informed the White House that General Flynn had lied about his communications with the ambassador and was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Yet it took newspaper revelations about the intercepts to bring the national security adviser down. American carnage, indeed.

The disruptive present

How has capitalism shaped the way we work, play and eat – and even our sense of identity? Nine writers explore the cutting edge of cultural change in the latest instalment of our New Times series in this week's magazine.

The past decades have brought enormous changes to our lives. Facebook became open to the public in 2006, the first iPhone was launched in June 2007 and Netflix launched in the UK in 2012. More and more of us are ceaselessly “on”, answering emails at night or watching video clips on the move; social media encourages us to perform a brighter, shinier version of ourselves. In a world of abundance, we have moved from valuing ownership to treating our beliefs as trophies. The sexual vocabulary and habits of a generation have been shaped by online pornography – and by one company, MindGeek, in particular. We cook less but love cookery shows. We worry about “fake news” as numbers of journalists decline. We have become gender consumers, treating it as another form of self-expression. These shifts in human behaviour have consequences for politics and politicians. “The question should always be,” as Stuart Hall wrote in 1988, “where is the ‘leading edge’ [of change] and in what direction is it pointing?” The question is even more apposite today.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times