When a Country Bans Social Media

Mark Zuckerberg onstage with a microphone

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Sri Lanka’s ban on social media carries an implicit, and crucial, assumption: that the internet can produce good and ill effects, but its fundamental structure—a global information network that works more or less the same anywhere on Earth—is an unimpeachable given. But what if it’s not? What if the very fact of a global social network is impossible?

Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens

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Imagine a world where many of your daily activities were constantly monitored and evaluated: what you buy at the shops and online; where you are at any given time; who your friends are and how you interact with them; how many hours you spend watching content or playing video games; and what bills and taxes you pay (or not). It’s not hard to picture, because most of that already happens, thanks to all those data-collecting behemoths like Google, Facebook and Instagram or health-tracking apps such as Fitbit. But now imagine a system where all these behaviours are rated as either positive or negative and distilled into a single number, according to rules set by the government. That would create your Citizen Score and it would tell everyone whether or not you were trustworthy. Plus, your rating would be publicly ranked against that of the entire population and used to determine your eligibility for a mortgage or a job, where your children can go to school – or even just your chances of getting a date.

A futuristic vision of Big Brother out of control? No, it’s already getting underway in China, where the government is developing the Social Credit System (SCS) to rate the trustworthiness of its 1.3 billion citizens. The Chinese government is pitching the system as a desirable way to measure and enhance “trust” nationwide and to build a culture of “sincerity”. As the policy states, “It will forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious. It will strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and the construction of judicial credibility.”

Remaking Social Media for the Next Revolution

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In 2011, Wael Ghonim was a Google executive in Cairo who helped launch the Egyptian revolution. His Facebook page, expressing outrage about a young man killed by police, became a rallying point for protests that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. But the story line of the Arab Spring soon changed. The online movement polarized into factions. The new military-led government figured out how to promote itself online—and a 2013 coup crushed what dissent remained. Ghonim had to leave the country and is now in Silicon Valley working on new social-networking tools. To discuss the promise and limits of using the Internet to facilitate political change, Ghonim spoke with Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina who studies online social movements…

Ghonim: In 2011 I did say that if you want to liberate a society all you need is the Internet. However, whereas Mubarak had largely ignored the Internet, the current regime uses the Internet in a much better way—drowning out dissident voices amidst its own propaganda and also conducting a campaign of terrorizing those who speak out online. Five years ago I thought the Internet was a power that was granted to the people and that would never be weakened. But I was wrong.

…The current social-media currency is based on likes, shares, and retweets. People are more interested in broadcasting their opinions than engaging in discussions. I once sarcastically said that I feel like it is much harder to actually stand up against the mainstream on Twitter than stand up against a dictator, because at least when I stand up against a dictator I know there are a lot of people who will support me. But when you stand up against the Twitter mainstream, they are just going to all go against you…

Tufekci: This has happened in many countries. When you’re organizing a protest or where you’re coming together, social media is a very potent tool. What I observed, and I think your experience bears this out, is that the problem starts in the second stage or the third stage. What do you do after you’ve occupied the “Square” or the “Park” and the government starts countermoves? How do you think these movements that are fueled by social media will evolve to tackle these problems?

Ghonim: I think there will be an evolution. For Egypt, our conversation today is not how to start the next Facebook page. The biggest question we keep asking ourselves is “How can we organize our next movement? How could we convert the energy and passion of people into a way that is constructive and beneficial for the country?” Because we know for a fact now that just protesting is not going to solve the country’s problems.


We are Double-Plus Unfree

Margaret Atwood

Excerpt from this article by Margaret Atwood

Digital technology has made it easier than ever to treat people like domesticated animals farmed for profit. You can no longer rent a car or a hotel room or buy much of anything without a credit card, which leaves a digital trail wherever it goes. You’re told you need a social security card, a health card, a driver’s licence, a bank card, a bunch of passwords. You need an “identity”, and that identity is digital. All your numbers and passwords – all the data that identifies you – is supposed to be private, but as we know by now, the digital world leaks like a sieve, and security on the internet is only as good as the next mastermind hacker or inside-job data thief. The Kremlin has gone back to using typewriters for a good reason: it’s a lot easier to smuggle a memory stick out of a secure area than it is to make off with a big stack of papers.

It’s not all bad, however. All technology is a double-edged tool, and the very internet that has too many data-leaking holes in it also allows words to travel quickly. It’s easier to reveal abuses of power than it once was; it’s easier to sign petitions and to protest. Though even that freedom is double-edged: the petition you sign may be used by your own government in evidence against you.

Though our digital technologies have made life super-convenient for us – just tap and it’s yours, whatever it is – maybe it’s time for us to recapture some of the territory we’ve ceded. Time to pull the blinds, exclude the snoops, recapture the notion of privacy. Go offline.

Any volunteers? Right. I thought not. It won’t be easy.