(Originally published at www.boydneil.com)
In a review of Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion and A. Ross Johnson’s Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, James Murphy in the Times Literay Supplement (July 8, 2011) writes:
Tools of mass connectivity may empower the multitude, but Goebbels, who knew a lot about crowds, would have welcomed them.
He’s right. Goebbels the master propagandist would have loved to twist the world, and the word, in the image of his warped mind using social networks.
There is also no question authoritarian regimes don’t hesitate to outlaw, spy on, block or otherwise interfere with troublesome civic discourse especially today on the internet.
The disquieting trend, though, is that Western democracies are now grumbling more loudly about needing greater control over how the social web is used as mechanism for social organization.
During the summer riots in the U.K. prime minister David Cameron, according to the Guardian, speculated (in one of the silliest and most troublesome declarations coming out of the riots in the U.K.),
(T)hat Facebook, Twitter and Research in Motion (Rim), the maker of BlackBerry devices, should take more responsibility for content posted on their networks, warning the government would look to ban people from major social networks if they were suspected of inciting violence online.
Shortly afterwards, Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan received stiff (too stiff?) four-year sentences for using Facebook to organize riots. And a week later the British government summoned the heads of three companies to a meeting with home secretary Theresa May “to discuss ways to prevent social media from being used to coordinate criminal activity”.
We’re in dangerous territory here. The problem comes with defining “inciting violence” and “criminal activity” on the social web. The same words have been used again and again by authoritarian regimes, police forces, and otherwise democratic governments facing social dissent to justify unlawful repression of legitimate opposition whether in the streets or more recently on the social web. This includes even the most socially stable of countries, Canada, which went a bit overboard in its arrests of protestors during the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto. Certainly, the same words were used by governments in Tunisia and Egypt to clamp down on web-based protests, and the demonstrations that followed.
Finding the right balance between preventing and prosecuting irresponsible juvenile destruction and allowing political and social dissidence – and free association to act on it as civil disobedience – is tough.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy reminds us that:
The term ‘civil disobedience’ was coined by Henry David Thoreau in his 1848 essay to describe his refusal to pay the state poll tax implemented by the American government to prosecute a war in Mexico and to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. In his essay, Thoreau observes that only a very few people – heroes, martyrs, patriots, reformers in the best sense – serve their society with their consciences, and so necessarily resist society for the most part, and are commonly treated by it as enemies. Thoreau, for his part, spent time in jail for his protest. Many after him have proudly identified their protests as acts of civil disobedience and have been treated by their societies – sometimes temporarily, sometimes indefinitely – as its enemies.
IMHO . . . governments should ask anyone – like Britain’s home secretary – charged with reviewing the social web’s role in dissent and “violence” or with defining “responsibility for content posted on their networks” to mistrust their own propensity to control.
The value the social web brings as a platform for civic discourse and valid and tolerable dissent is greater than the danger of its use for criminal activity. The danger of governments going too far – either wilfully or inadvertently – and tipping towards smothering those who “serve society with their conscience” is far greater (and with ample historic precedents) than the cost of occasional juvenile misuse.