On Thursday, Twitter announced that it would begin to selectively block tweets on a country by country basis. The decision prompted an immediate outcry from free speech advocates as well as a more measured response from scholars of social media, several of whom praised Twitter’s relative transparency while noting that it has no choice but to comply with the regulations of individual governments.
One of the most passionate defenders of Twitter’s new policy is Zeynep Tufekci, who described it as an “excellent policy which will be helpful to free-speech advocates”. Tufekci sees Twitter’s selective censorship as an improvement over the broad censorship practiced by other internet companies, in which content deemed offensive by one is deleted for all. Under the new guidelines, a tweet deemed inappropriate by the leaders of a particular country will only be censored within that country. To the rest of the world, it will be labeled as “blocked”, a development she describes as “excellent” because it renders state attempts to suppress speech transparent.
Tufekci, a scholar and advocate of free speech in the Arab world, has been criticized by some who see her post as a rationalization of censorship. While I disagree that this is her intention, her article does prompt troubling questions about the nature and purpose of Twitter: both for activists and their supporters. Tufekci’s thesis proceeds from the assumption that local activists get global followings. It assumes that Twitter activists are internationally connected and have a network of trusted advocates who will notice, and care, when their words are censored. This view is reflected in guidelines for online activists released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, on which Tufekci consulted, that place the onus of activism on international digital networks facilitated by interpersonal trust.
In some parts of the world, particularly in the Arab region that is Tufekci’s focus, these points might make sense. But for much of the world, they highlight a fundamental misapprehension of the role social media plays in activist networks. The weaknesses of Twitter’s censorship policy reflect the weaknesses of Twitter itself.
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Last summer, two Uzbek journalists, Malohat Eshonqulova and Saodat Omonova, went on a hunger strike to protest censorship and corruption in Uzbekistan’s state-run media. For one month, they tweeted the details of their strike from the Twitter account @Malohat_Saodat. They spoke of their physical agony, of the challenges facing reporters in Uzbekistan, and of the hypocrisy and corruption of the government of Uzbekistan. They posted videos of their strike to YouTube, and tweeted the links. Most of their tweets were in Uzbek, although some were in Russian. By the time of their final post, they had tweeted 730 times, had amassed around 65 followers, and had attracted no international media attention or global outcry. Malohat and Saodat’s near death on Twitter scarcely merited a retweet.
Why did this happen? First, Malohat and Saodat were writing in Uzbek, which few outside Central Asia can read. I translated some of their tweets into English and encouraged people to follow them, and several people did in response. But their case still attracted little interest. This brings me to my second point – almost no one cared about Malohat and Saodat because they were Malohat and Saodat. They were two journalists from Uzbekistan, a country with which few profess familiarity and whose activists do not use Twitter as a primary social medium.
Malohat and Saodat were subject to Twitter’s inherent popularity contest, in which the very few command the attention of the very many. In this system, well-connected English-speaking activists serve as the Justin Biebers of political dissidence: they attract followers based on brand recognition, and give the illusion that self-made internet performance breeds success. Malohat and Saodat did many of the things their Arab counterparts did, shortly after their Arab counterparts did them. Yet the world remained indifferent to their plight.
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This is a story of Twitter activism before Twitter censorship. Now imagine what will happen once Twitter begins selectively censoring. What will become of the activists who lack both clout and Klout? Tufekci argues that Twitter’s transparency arrangement will focus attention on maligned activists – but this assumes that people outside the censored region will care. In reality, it is people within a particular region who follow regional crises most closely. Malohat and Saodat were ignored by the world, but they were followed closely by Uzbek activists and Uzbek independent media. I do not know what Uzbekistan’s policy on Twitter will be, but given its long history of internet censorship it will likely be one of the countries that demands Twitter block controversial content. And so cases like Malohat and Saodat’s will disappear from Twitter entirely, hidden even from their limited target audience.
Tufekci is correct that Twitter’s policy is realistic – as she points out, “the Internet is not a ‘virtual’ space, and cyberspace is not a planet which can float above all jurisdictions forever.” But realistic does not mean right. Twitter’s policy privileges the already privileged, hurting nascent dissident movements and the regional activists who struggle to promote them.