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The Ever-Growing Role of Social Media in Social Change (& the Response)

July 7, 2011

You may have seen reported the ‘Sukey‘ app – an app that, with user support, collects information about potests and then channels it back ot the users.  The idea is that they can then use this information to avoid being kettled by the police:

The idea for a specialist piece of software was sparked by kettling, a controversial police tactic to contain and demoralise protesters.
Sukey, taken from the nursery rhyme Polly Put the Kettle On, collects messages, tweets and photos from protesters and tries to make sense of what is going on. It then sends that data back to users of the app on the ground. The app provides an in-built compass which gives an indication of the best direction to move. A red marker on the compass could point towards a police cordon or kettle so a protester caught in trouble should follow the green direction to escape. By providing this data to those who need it, the team hoped that nobody would unwittingly be caught in a police kettle. “It’s a project to help people protesting stay safe, stay informed and stay mobile,” says Sam Gaus, co-founder of Sukey.org.

In many ways this is just a step towards levelling the playing-field between police and protesters. Prior to new technology such as mobiles, the police had radios, CCTV and choppers and so had access to a level of information and co-ordination that protesters did not. However the authorities in various countries have not stood still next to the advances in social media and are now responding, often in disturbing ways. This quote is from the Web 3.0 Lab, who are doing a good job of examining and documenting much of this area:

Now that regimes all over the world are aware of Social Media the balance of power has moved to their advantage. For a poorly policed site like Facebook the combination of Social Networks and a Terror State will quickly neutralize any democratic aspirations on the that Facebook might have fostered. We saw it first in Bahrain this development in Bahrain. Bahrain was one of the first regimes in the Arab world to take its battle against its own people to Twitter and Facebook. With Gaddafi joining the war on Social Media, Facebook is no longer a safe place for Arab reformers. Gaddafi is adding a new twisted strategy in their war on Facebook. Gaddafi supporters are identifying Libyans, many who live in the west, on Facebook pages and threatening them.

What is also interesting from the article is thier assesment of the role of Facebook in all this:

It is pretty clear that Facebook’s entire history is a series of unintended accidents. Its success has been more a combination of random factors than any strength of the product. And its role in Arab Revolts was also clearly an unintended accident. Sadly Facebook own blindness may soon have very serious negative consequences.

To me, this has echoes of John Naughton‘s recent discussion of how we all too often see services like Facebook and Twitter as neutral actors in the societal space, which they are not:

What’s going on, in other words, is that our media are treating Twitter and Facebook as if they were public utilities, like the open web. In fact it’s even worse than that, as Dave Winer, one of the web’s elder statesmen, pointed out last week. “The Library of Congress,” he writes, “which is part of the government, is subsidising Twitter by doing a complete archive of Twitter before making a serious attempt at archiving the web. This helps cement Twitter as the medium of record, which is ridiculous. The market is just getting started. How can you justify the government taking sides over other equivalent (or better) ways to communicate, that are not owned by a company (like the web, for example). If this isn’t against the law, to use taxpayer funds to help a company achieve dominance over competitors, it should be against the law.”

Spot on. The illusion that corporations like Facebook or Twitter are public utilities is not only naive, it’s positively pernicious because it enables them to get away with the pretence that they are solely forces for good, rather than single-minded corporations whose loyalties are ultimately to their shareholders, no matter how soothing their bedside manners are.

(Hat-tip to Michel for the link. Also posted on P2P Foundation Blog.)

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