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Blog: Protests, Activism, Riots and the Transparency of Information



In my last post about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange I wrote that transparency seems to be a staple requirement in many platforms for informational activism. But another key ingredient is a certain degree of security and protection of sensible data (e.g. user identities), which is kind of the opposite of “transparency.”

While whistleblowers that submit secret material through platforms like WikiLeaks are well aware of the fact they might be prosecuted (hence the stress on identity protection), other Internet-using activists seem to underestimate the transparency/security ratio of the networks through which they operate. For example, Twitter and Facebook definitely enable an unprecedented organizational and informational power (in an easy-to-use and easier-to-share way), but their users can be tracked down by authorities without too much hassle.

In this year’s Egyptian revolution, which has been largely publicized as social media-ridden, the government crackdowns on Twitter and even cellphones highlighted the importance of those media, but also their ambiguities. Apart from infamously hijacking the Vodafone network to send anti-revolutionary propaganda, the Egyptian government also used the popular social networks to identify activists. Even Julian Assange, in his interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, said the most popular guide in the Egyptian demonstrations was passed on in soccer clubs and clearly discouraged the use of Facebook and Twitter, for safety reasons.

The same double-edged potential has been discussed more recently on the media, concerning the UK riots. Protesters and looters used free-messaging networks to coordinate the attacks, but they have thus become easy to study for both social scientists and the authorities, which has in some cases led to arrests and pretty severe consequences. While media theorists like Christian Fuchs point out how the real responsibility for these abrupt unrests lies in the social inequalities and structural violence of neoliberalism, people are even discussing how likely a direct government intervention to silence social media communications might be in countries like England.

Anyway, if Egypt did turn off the networks, Western countries like the UK and the US are less likely to adopt such drastic measures. Definitely the libertarian interests at stake and the controversy that would most certainly follow are good reasons, but another factor to keep into account is that the government’s technology savviness would allow the authorities to be ahead of the game. In particular, the Pentagon has been buying spy software and even putting considerable resources aside for a social network-specific intelligence corp, through which it will be possible to both spread propaganda and control potential suspects.

The transparency of information is one of the deepest revolutions enabled by new media. Scholars have been discussing for a long time how these technologies also imply a tighter surveillance on citizens, paradoxically more and more voluntary and self-imposed. But most people haven’t read Michel Foucault or Gilles Deleuze’s Postscript on the Societies of Control, so this ambiguity doesn’t appear so obvious to the vast majority of the Crowd (or the Mob, as they call it when it gets bad). A single government, though, can only control communicational infrastructure to a certain extent, at a certain time, or for a limited period. It’s a big advantage, but in certain cases – when the need for freedom or revenge is stronger than that of information – it all boils down to slower and more effective forms of resistance/attack.