The Facebook Purge: Corporate power, political influence and the need for independent, powerfully popular social media networks

If Facebook have acted at the request of a state body then the ‘Facebook Purge’ of activist accounts in the UK during the royal wedding is an issue with freedom of association and assembly at its very heart.

There has been much debate as to what impact the internet in general and ‘social media’ in particular will come to have on our politics. It is clear that in developing countries, particularly those of the ‘Arab Spring’ - where the world has seen the downfall of regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and now it seems possibly Libya and Syria - many of the tools of the ‘network society’ such as SMS messaging, e-mail and social networking sites, all had major roles to play. The role of SMS and e-mail in particular - tools not present until the last decade in these countries and rare enough in the OECD countries until the 21st century was massive and can not be understated.

Social media (socially co-produced media that is “many-to-many” and is horizontal in distribution rather than vertical) such as Facebook and Twitter allowed Tunisians to inspire Egyptians and Egyptians to inspire Wisconsinites. With these new tools, news of events were easily shared, undermining the established intermediaries of information within the mainstream media that have tended to reproduce the lines of governments and powerful corporations. 

Subsequently, some spoke of how social media could signify a triumph of non-hierarchical communication over hierarchically authorized ‘information’. This seems an unprecedented gain for those passionate about undermining the ability of the powerful to frame debate on their terms while enhancing the ability of the ‘powerless’ to co-ordinate in dissent and political contention.

The Facebook Dilemma - surrendering power to the powerful?

There have been privacy concerns with Facebook for quite a while - especially since Zuckerberg hired Beltway Security experts in December 2009 so as to maximise profits from passing on user data to companies such as Yelp, Pandora and Microsoft.

Yesterday however may have marked a bell weather moment for Facebook and its willingness to compromise users, their privacy and their ability to freely associate and organise. As Guy Aitchison put it,

Profiles are being deleted without warning or explanation. In the last 12 hours, Facebook has deleted over 50 sites. It may well be that these groups are technically in violation of Facebook’s terms of agreement, which state that participants in social media must not make use of a "fake name". But the timing – on the royal wedding and May day weekend – is deeply suspicious. We don’t know for certain, but this purge of online organising groups could be linked to the wider crackdown on protest by authorities in Britain. Either way, it is a scandalous abuse of power by Facebook to arbitrarily destroy online communities built up over many months and years. These groups provide a vital means for activist groups to communicate with their supporters.

While these profiles were technically in breach of terms of use, only British anti-cuts profiles were taken down during the 12 hour period. This all being within the broader context of an offline repression of dissent that involved dozens of ‘pre-emptive’ arrests on charges as Kafkaesque as ‘Conspiracy to cause a public nuisance’. There were also raids on squats in London, Bristol and Brighton, heavy handed policing of public assemblies in Glasgow and Bristol and nearly a hundred more arrests on the day itself in and around central London for crimes such as having placards in bags and potentially offending royalist and homophobic sensibilities.

It appears that Facebook may have had contact with elements within the British establishment, be it the Home Office or the London Met. Given that these profiles could have been pulled on a technicality anyway, Facebook may have been quite willing to collaborate in shutting down these accounts, denying activist groups the ability to quickly organise around an event the authorities were determined to see pass off without the slightest possibility of protests or disruption. If this is the case and there has been interference from a political authority of some kind then this simply can’t be permitted to set a precedent. Whilst it is possible to claim that these accounts were de-activated en masse following a concerted malicious campaign by right-wingers "reporting" the accounts using the capacity offered to users by Facebook, this seems implausible given the broader context.

Will Facebook abide by the ECHR and the Convention of Human Rights when it is listed for IPO?

If Facebook has acted at the request of a state body of some sort then the ‘Facebook Purge’ is an issue with freedom of association and assembly at its very heart. Here then seems an opportunity to establish whether in the era of social media, corporations are allowed to create "private interest" commons - gated communities in public discourse, effectively - over the public interest. This would mark a massive reduction in the ability of social media to truly empower the powerless.

Facebook is itself a year away from floatation on the stock market and will persistently reiterate the point of ‘technical issues’. However even if it is the case that accounts were closed on a technical basis at the request of state authorities, Facebook still needs to be given a powerful enough incentive to resist pressure from the police and national security services in the future.

The question then is this. Does the scope of UK law cover the "social impacts" of political oversight over Facebook as set out in (a) Article 20 of the UN Declaration of human rights and (b) Article 11 of the European Convnetion on Human Rights? The answer, in brief, is that it doesn’t.

As a multinational corporation Facebook has a duty to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights outside the framework of national law be it British or otherwise. Indeed the declaration applies to all humanity,

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

Once listed, will Facebook commit to protecting the articles as listed above in both the ECHR and the Universal Declaration of human rights?

The ‘burden of proof’ upon the state should be extremely high if they want to curtail people's right to exercise fundamental freedoms to associate and assemble through social media (if indeed, they should be permitted that right at all). Comparatively, a phone tap requires the Home Secretary's permission. Such powers as might have been exercised in contacting Facebook with regards to the listed pages that were pulled down, should be no less. What needs to be established is if such powers were invested in reasonably medium-ranking individuals within the Home Office or Scotland Yard in charge of recent anti-cuts policing operations.

The Need for Distributed and Non-Corporate Social Networks

Regardless of who authorized or contacted Facebook with regards to these sites, it is nevertheless a highly significant event that has shown that social media is too precious to allow corporate monopolies to arise. In recent months we have seen its ability to empower the powerless, from the occupations of Wisconsin’s Capitol building to events in Egypt and Tunisia and the highlighting of arrests of dissidents such as Ai Wei Wei in China.

Social media has to go open-source now and move from a client-server model run by a multinational corporation as is the case with Facebook and Twitter to distributed, self-hosted and open-source models such as Thimbl, Diaspora. During the golden age of hacking some twenty years ago, the internet was powerful. Now, with two billion users globally, it is popular. Within the context of Facebook listing for its Initial Public Offering next year our mission is to render the internet and social media powerfully popular. This requires us to start using and building viable alternatives that are in every sense of the word ‘ours’, meaning that they are commons-based in production, distribution and ownership.

We have an opportunity to ensure that a once in centuries technology is not held hostage by money or governments and that a historically unprecedented means of democratic and non-hierarchical communication is not compromised. These tools are making the ‘people’ increasingly powerful, let’s keep it that way.

About the author

Aaron Bastani is a Ph.D candidate at the  New Political Communications Unit (Royal Holloway University) and is also a participant with Novara Media. He is interested in technology, politics and social change and how these three areas intersect in the contemporary context, from political economy to social movements.