Social media helps governments monitor their citizens — but it also helps those citizens rise up

The vast quantities of information we reveal about ourselves as we move around the internet and interact through social networks — what some have called the “data exhaust” of our lives, from GPS co-ordinates to the emotional signals sent by our Facebook (s fb) likes — is a treasure trove of information for anyone engaged in surveillance, whether it’s governments or the companies whose services we use to post all that information. But that same kind of behavior is also a powerful tool for allowing dissident movements to rise up against their oppressors.
That’s the lesson I took away from an excellent piece published on Medium by sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who specializes in researching the effects of social media. Her work helped show just how crucial social media was in helping to foment what became the “Arab Spring” movements in countries like Tunisia and Egypt in 2011.

Social tools empower dissidents

Tufekci, who is Turkish by birth, talks about visiting her homeland during the increasingly violent demonstrations there against the government of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan — and in particular, she talks about how Twitter (s twtr) in particular became a crucial source of information for protesters and would-be protesters, since the traditional media in Turkey refused to cover the demonstrations, out of fear that the government might retaliate against them.

“After each volley of tear gas, protesters would pull out their phones and turn to social media to find out what was happening, or to report events themselves. Twitter had become the capillary structure of a movement without visible leaders, without institutional structure. Without even a name.”

Citizen journalism
As Tufekci has noted in her research and publishing about social-media use during the Arab Spring uprisings, tools like Twitter and Facebook don’t create dissent, but they can definitely help connect dissidents with each other — and they can reassure those who are thinking about dissent that others share their feelings and are also willing to act. This can cause what she calls an “information cascade,” which can help movements tip over into open rebellion more easily.

One big double-edged sword

Of course, all of that activity can also be seen — and blocked, or used as evidence — much more easily as well. Oppressive regimes use Facebook pages against those they wish to target, and try to block information (as Venezuela appeared to be blocking violent images of demonstrations in that country from Twitter’s website recently). And they can even send text messages like the rather Orwellian one sent to Ukrainian dissidents recently, stating simply: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass riot.”
But these tools are the quintessential double-edged sword, as Tufekci notes in her piece (which is entitled “Is the Internet good or bad? Yes”). They provide plenty of information to governments, but they also empower those who use them:

“Yet the more we connect to each other online, the more our actions become visible to governments and corporations. It feels like a loss of independence. But as I stood in Gezi Park, I saw how digital communication had become a form of organization. I saw it enable dissent, discord, and protest. Resistance and surveillance: The design of today’s digital tools makes the two inseparable. And how to think about this is a real challenge.”

Big brother is watching you / privacy / security

It’s not 1984 or Bentham’s Panopticon

Tufekci also makes what I think is an important point: everyone likes to think of today’s political and digital environment as Orwellian, because it enables ubiquitous surveillance of a kind that seems similar to 1984 — the NSA and other agencies spying on everyone, recording phone calls, etc. Others choose to see it as a version of philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon,” in which everyone is surveilled without knowing by whom or when, and therefore no one misbehaves.
But in reality, the sociologist says, what we have is unlike either of these fictional inventions (Bentham actually tried to build a prison using the panopticon model but it never opened). Surveillance tools aren’t just being used by an oppressive government like Oceania, but by companies as well — and in many cases users are volunteering for that surveillance because it brings them benefits of some kind.
But at the same time, Tufekci argues it is undeniable that the very same tools that can be used to keep tabs on our every movement allow dissidents to organize and find like-minded citizens. Does that make all the surveillance and other negative aspects worth it? Perhaps not — but at least it helps to level the playing field. As one Turkish parent put it in talking about her children and the web:

“They were right and we were wrong. We didn’t understand our kids. None of this would be possible without the Internet. The Internet brings freedom.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Richard Engel, NBC and Flickr users Petteri Sulonen and Thomas Leuthard