Ten years before leading the 1989 Velvet Revolution that toppled communism in the former Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel published The Power of the Powerless, an essay describing a way in which individuals could refuse to comply with injustice. At that time, every shopkeeper in the country was expected to display government-issued propaganda posters in their shop windows. Conforming with the expectation helped avoid unwanted official attention. But, Havel wrote, if even a few shopkeepers refused to display the posters, their small but powerful acts of courage could inspire bolder action in others.

The details of his essay came to mind when I heard the news of Havel’s death last December. In a year largely defined by acts of courage and power from the powerless, it carried added poignancy. In the year’s wave of popular uprisings, we saw an even more potent mode of public defiance: rather than removing official messages from public view to register their discontent, dissenters published their own competing views and forms of evidence.

In the unruly public arena of social media, once-marginalized activists can subject those used to exercising tight image controls to new levels of scrutiny. For those living in countries where official violence, coercion, deception, and intimidation are common, social media tools have provided an outlet for dissenting voices. The people of Tunisia and Egypt in particular used them to escape state censorship, to call domestic and international attention to injustices, to enable large-scale anonymous communications, and to offer individuals with opposing political viewpoints a neutral space in which to work together.

Throughout these events, many groups and individuals used social media tools to publish material specifically intended to provoke strong reactions and deliver conclusive evidence. For those of us who create and moderate public platforms, the past year has provided both a stern test of usage policies and powerful examples of the kind of ethical, cultural, and political quandaries we can expect to arise in this new landscape.

Separating truth from fiction

Authoritarian regimes have long recognized the importance of the media in projecting a sense of calm and order through which political spin or selective ignorance can be applied to help extinguish threats to this perception. But, like all sources of information, state-controlled media lives and dies by its credibility. Through the internet and satellite television, alternative and independent sources have been able to contradict official reports to such an extent that the level of influence some regimes retain has begun to erode.

Consider the immediate aftermath of the incident that appeared to touch off last year’s protests across the Arab world. In December 2010, a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after experiencing repeated humiliation at the hands of local police and government officials. His act of self-immolation led to large public demonstrations in and around the central town of Sidi Bouzid, but the Tunisian government’s response was to attempt to contain the story through traditional media channels, strict controls on internet access, and harsh penalties for propagating anti-government sentiments.

From Facebook to Al Jazeera

In the absence of social networks, it’s likely that the government’s strategy would have prevented wider public attention to the origin and severity of these localized protests[1]. It was partly through Facebook, which had evaded censorship by virtue of its popularity[1] and perceived innocence[2], that news of the protests and the story of Mohamed Bouazizi began to spread.

Pro-democracy activists, who had long suffered imprisonment and torture for speaking out against government abuses, won a further victory over the censors when pan-Arab media network Al Jazeera broadcast footage of violent clashes with police, which had been captured by protesters and circulated via Facebook. In Al Jazeera, the new movement found a trusted source accessible to the Tunisian population and outside the control of their government[3][4]. Now an even greater share of the public were able to make up their own minds on what they saw in this unedited, untempered footage; they weren’t being told how to interpret it.

What followed, as news of Bouazizi’s death filtered through, was a collective release of pent-up energy as huge numbers of people took to the streets and public squares in a display of unity and defiance[5]. After weeks of mounting pressure interspersed with high-ranking government sackings and announcements of price cuts and fresh elections[7] Tunisian president Ben Ali fled the country.

 For the Tunisian people, online content—in the form of words and images circulated by individuals using social media platforms—was more credible than their submissive and mendacious domestic media[8]. Social networks offered Tunisians a chance to democratize the news cycle; to decide for themselves which stories and events were important and relevant.

The responsibilities of citizen journalism

Unsurprisingly, post-revolutionary Tunisia continues to mistrust traditional media filters[1]. Instead, many Tunisians rely on citizen journalism to uphold the principles of free speech, while working to build a free and fair press. But with this trust in citizen journalists comes responsibility. When thoughts of impact and timeliness take precedence over journalistic practices such as fact-checking and source protection, we all risk becoming unwitting sources of distorted information.

Self-broadcasting services like Twitter lend themselves to reporting unfolding events, but these uses require us to consider the implications of our subjective contributions and interpretations. What’s the difference between impassioned and destructive forms of protest, between shots fired in anger and celebration, or between a legitimate exposure and a cynical attack? Our contributions are influenced by our motives, persuasions, and feelings, and our assumptions are shaped by our past experiences, cultural knowledge, and biases. These factors add to the colorful mosaic of social-media reporting, but we also need to consider how others may interpret it.

Balancing impact with responsibility

The events that led to neighboring Egypt’s own revolution shared with Tunisia a tragic coincidence: Egypt too saw a surge of public anger following the death of a young businessman. But here the similarities end. While the cause of Mohamed Bouazizi’s demise was clear, there were deep-rooted suspicions of foul play following the 2010 death of Khaled Said. Two state autopsies concluded that Said had asphyxiated after swallowing a packet of illegal drugs, but witnesses claimed he’d been beaten to death after being abducted from an internet café by two plainclothes policemen[9]. It later emerged that Said had been targeted after posting a video online showing two policemen dividing up the spoils of a drug haul[10].

Within days, a Facebook group dedicated to Said’s memory was anonymously created. The page, “We are all Khaled Said,” published mobile-phone images taken from the morgue showing the full extent of his injuries. This material, coupled with video evidence uploaded to YouTube, contradicted initial police and autopsy reports[11].

Such was the public pressure created by the weight of evidence available online for hundreds of thousands to see—and the series of organized street protests that followed in Said’s hometown of Alexandria and ten other cities including Egypt’s capital, Cairo—that the authorities yielded and arrested the two officers[11].

Moderation: how much is too much?

The publication of graphic evidence of Khaled Said’s manner of death—and the effects of its publication—raises several points about ethical journalistic practice. Traditional news agencies have long accepted their responsibility to consider the legal, ethical, and political implications of material they publish or screen[12]. TV news anchors forewarn us of potentially unsettling scenes, and when documents containing sensitive information are handed to a newspaper, they must be subjected to thorough editing and clearance processes before they can be released, to protect the identities of those mentioned[13].

Journalists also follow organizational guidelines before reproducing material uploaded to public social media accounts or personal website. The BBC’s Editorial Guidelines and Reuters’ Handbook of Journalism highlight some of the privacy, copyright, and safety implications of re-using material from social media. BBC journalists, for example, should consider the “impact our re-use of a picture to a much wider audience may have on those in the picture, their family or firends (sic)—particularly when they are grieving or distressed,” and “whether the individuals in the picture are likely to have consented—either explicitly or tacitly—to its publication and public accessibility.” Reuters expects their staff to “seek to find and seek permission from the originator of the material, as we would do for any third-party material accessed in any other way” and to consider the “safety of our journalists on the ground and the risk of reprisals against them, especially (but not only) if the material were to prove bogus.” However a “strong public interest reason” or the “‘news value’ of an item” might offer sufficient justification for a BBC or Reuters journalist respectively to re-use material without prior permission.

In comparison, individuals face far less scrutiny when they publish potentially controversial content to the internet. Whether they do depends mainly on their judgment—or, if it has already been published, that of a moderator who can vet or remove it. But even if such material is swiftly removed for contravening a host’s policies, its controversial nature may ensure that it continues to burn brightly in hundreds or thousands of cached or deliberately saved copies.

Publishing platforms, of course, try to reduce the amount of time certain kinds of content remains live by posting clear guidelines on what constitutes appropriate and acceptable use, establishing a culture of self-moderation, allowing community members to notify moderators of potential violations, and setting up automated alerts for new content that receives a sudden surge of viewers. But are there exceptions to the rules?

In the case of the Egyptian uprisings, visitors to the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook group saw potentially distressing images and footage, but it was only through the publication of that evidence that the official cause of death was comprehensively rubbished. Simply put: without this material being brought to public attention, the arrests might never have happened.

Despite the arrests, the group’s administrator—later revealed to be Google executive Wael Ghonim—pressed ahead with further details about other cases of police abuse and torture and, having been encouraged by the events in Tunisia, worked with other activist groups to publicize planned demonstrations that ended Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. Who’s to say how much of this momentum could have been lost by earlier intervention by well-meaning platform moderators?

Preserving the rights of users

Prior to his ousting, Hosni Mubarak’s method of suppressing traditional opposition was archetypal of many autocratic regimes: disrupt or remove mass communication channels. This policy was ruthlessly applied to television and print media[8], while the internet got off lightly by comparison because of its perceived lack of a leadership structure[2].

In reality it was precisely this decentralized network that helped bring together the more secular leftists and conservative Islamists[14]. Bound by their shared hunger for democracy, these young activists joined forces within the neutral spaces offered by social media platforms and seized momentum from other comparatively disconnected parties[11] led by elders more than twice their age[15].

In a bid to counter the threat of a new, technically skillful generation of opposition, Egypt shut down their entire internet and cellphone network for five days[16]. This blunt and ultimately futile act served only to make an already perilous position worse, as many Egyptians openly lamented their true access to, and participation in, the wider world[16]. Households previously content with following events online were suddenly devoid of information, and took to the streets to find out what was going on. Needless to say, Mubarak’s presidency didn’t last long after.

Government intervention

The Egyptian internet shutdown shined a spotlight on the measures autocratic governments take to control access to information, domestically and beyond their borders.

Of course, it would be naïve to suggest that governmental suspicion of social networking tools is limited to authoritarian states. At the height of the riots in England last August, British Prime Minister David Cameron argued that Facebook, Twitter, and Research in Motion (the maker of BlackBerry smartphones) should take more responsibility for content posted on their networks. He later added that the government would look to ban people from major social networks if they were suspected of inciting organized violence. In response, a spokesperson from Facebook told the Guardian that it had already actively removed several “credible threats of violence” related to the riots. But given that much of the planning for these disturbances took place within the private, encrypted BlackBerry Messenger service, how far might such measures impose on a citizen’s right to secure communications[17]?

By way of comparison, broadcasters regularly resist governmental and police pressure to hand over unused footage of public disturbances, even though it may contain evidence that could lead to positive identifications, arrests, and convictions. In their roles as independent observers, they argue that police access to private content risks reducing the press to police evidence gatherers[18] and threatens the safety of and trust in their journalists[19]. For the British government to have pressed further with their plans, perhaps by passing emergency legislation granting the police powers to trawl through millions of privately-held messages or suspend a potential rioter’s account, would represent a huge shift in policy. Not only might it cause the government to stray into the territory marked “free speech,” it might put them in a difficult position when trying to convince authoritarian regimes to ease access restrictions on their own networks.

Making a difference

Last year proved that when enough people determined to improve conditions in their country have access to safe, stable, robust communication platforms, free from politically-motivated censorship, remarkable things can happen.

And though not all of us enjoy unbridled access to the internet, we’re edging closer. It’s no longer as easy for organizations or governments to control the flow of information. Nor can unscrupulous media sectors rely on false premises becoming received wisdom, or decide for us who or what is worthy of our attention—eyewitnesses wielding mobile phones have largely put paid to that.

Furthermore, the internet is nothing if not resourceful. For instance, despite the limited cellphone service during Egypt’s communications blackout, a speak-to-tweet service that combined elements of Google, Twitter, and SayNow, a voice messaging social media platform, allowed Egyptians to continue telling the story that led to their revolution[20].

Of course, even a revolution is just part of the longer process of change. In the power vacuum that follows the collapse of a stifling regime, the unity that bonds a nation in crisis can be lost in the subsequent scramble for power[21]. Once more, the internet offers an opportunity to remove divisions and encourage unified action. Efforts are underway to build new technologies to help implement more democratic systems in Tunisia and Egypt—even including a crowdsourcing platform to negotiate new constitutions[22].

Even at their most rough, angular, and controversial, online communication technology, tools, and platforms have shown the potential to shift the balance of power to a nation’s people. And we, the people who will shape the intelligent content and communication platforms of tomorrow, can play an important role in safeguarding this power. There are few social, educational, and environmental challenges that can’t be solved when motivated, passionate minds gain access to resources and data; when valuable information can be quickly created, combined, and shared; when collaboration and debate continues long after publishing; when we’re prepared to challenge our beliefs and policies; and when responsible governance and reporting means acting in the interests of the many and not the few. The internet’s role in this year of political upheaval serves as a reminder that our capacity to create, invent, and improvise is just as important as our capacity to observe, analyze, and control.

References

  1. Peter Beaumont “The truth about Twitter, Facebook and the uprisings in the Arab worldThe Guardian 25 Feb 2011
  2. Mishal Husain “How Facebook Changed the World: The Arab Spring” — Episode 1 BBC Television
  3. Nadia Marzouki “From People to Citizens in TunisiaMiddle East Report Summer 2011
  4. Robert F. Worth and David D. Kirkpatrick “Seizing a Moment, Al Jazeera Galvanizes Arab FrustrationThe New York Times 27 Jan 2011
  5. US summons Tunisia ambassador over handling of protests” BBC News 7 Jan 2011
  6. Thomas L. Friedman “China, Twitter and 20-Year-Olds vs. the PyramidsThe New York Times Feb 5 2011
  7. Peter Walker and agencies “Tunisian president declares state of emergency and sacks governmentThe Guardian 14 Jan 2011
  8. Christopher Walker and Robert W. Orttung “Lies and VideotapeThe New York Times 22 Apr 2011
  9. Jack Shenker “Mohamed ElBaradei joins Egyptian sit-in over police death caseThe Guardian 25 Jun 2011
  10. Egyptian policemen charged over Khaled Said death” BBC News 7 Jul 2010
  11. Jennifer Preston “Movement Began with Outrage and a Facebook Page That Gave It an OutletThe New York Times 5 Feb 2011
  12. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel “The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect” ISBN-10: 0307346706
  13. Chris Elliott “OpendoorThe Guardian 9 Aug 2010
  14. Michael Slackman “Bullets Stall Youthful Push for Arab SpringThe New York Times 17 March 2011
  15. David D. Kirkpatrick and Mona El-Naggar “Protest’s Old Guard Falls Behind the YoungThe New York Times 31 Jan 2011
  16. James Glanz and John Markoff “Egypt Leaders Found ‘Off’ Switch for Internet” The New York Times 15 Feb 2011
  17. Josh Halliday “David Cameron considers banning suspected rioters from social mediaThe Guardian 11 Aug 2011
  18. Josh Halliday “News channels granted legal challenge to police call for Dale Farm footageThe Guardian 16 Mar 2012
  19. Josh Halliday “ITN to fight police pressure to hand over public unrest footageThe Guardian 6 Mar 2012
  20. Christine Hauser “New Services Lets Voices from Egypt Be HeardThe New York Times 1 Feb 2011
  21. Nicholas D. Kristof “Democracy Is MessyThe New York Times 30 March 2011
  22. Neal Ungerleider “Hackers for Egypt Advocate for a Better Democracy Through TechnologyFast Company May 26 2011