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Twenty-first century protest: social media and surveillance

The internet is a two-edged sword—a vehicle for mass surveillance on the one hand and the organisation of civil-society protest on the other.

Selling Guy Fawkes masks in Istanbul The new horitonalism: protesting in Istanbul. Bünyamin Salman / Flickr. Some rights reserved.A little over a year ago, on 6 June 2013, Edward Snowden’s disclosure of the mass-surveillance programme Prism sent shockwaves around the world. The American systems administrator laid bare the extent of illicit interception and monitoring of telecommunications at home and abroad by the United States’ National Security Agency.

A startling revelation was the level of collusion amongst the Five Eyes alliance, involving the governments of the US, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Snowden’s exposé also highlighted the willingness of many corporations to accede to and profit from unconstitutional and unethical requests.

This was shocking but not surprising. Environmental groups in Canada, the UK and the US engaged in acts of civil disobedience have been the subject of ideologically-motivated surveillance and abusive political rhetoric for several years. Yet if the internet has been a means for and object of surveillance, it has also become—social media in particular—a critical component of contemporary protest.

It is nearly impossible to organise a physical protest in Azerbaijan, to set up a pro-democracy organisation in Saudi Arabia or to establish a radio station critical of the government in Ethiopia. And even in countries with media freedom and diversity, progressive voices do not always have outlets: in 2011, there was a de facto media blackout of the Occupy movement in the US, with similarly apathetic coverage of the indignados in southern Europe. In many countries, cyberspace is the only refuge for dissent and the only arena where individuals can freely come together to express themselves.

Protest resurgent

Over the past year, there has been a resurgence of protests on the streets of Bangkok, Cairo, Caracas, Kiev, Istanbul, Phnom Penh and São Paulo, reminiscent of the wave of citizen activism which swept the world in early 2011. In many of the key sites of protest this year, such as Venezuela and Turkey, freedom of expression has been under threat, through weak media pluralism and authoritarian mechanisms respectively.

While concerned citizens and civil-society groups are finding new means of organising in cyberspace, they are also having to contend with shady corporations and the machinations of the security arms of democratic and authoritarian governments.

A report by CIVICUS highlights how the non-hierarchical organisation and underlying values of the 2011 protests are still being replicated across the world.  Many young, first-time protesters are employing similar techniques of satire, parody, popular slogans and symbols. Guy Fawkes masks, synonymous with the popular anti-authoritarian film V for Vendetta, have become part of the universal language of protest. In our highly connected world, social capital and personal connections are ever more important. Social media, as well as word of mouth, have been key to organising protests, whether in Kuala Lumpur or Manama.

This cross-pollination is fuelled by social networks. Forty-eight percent of 18-34 year-olds who use Facebook login when they wake up in the morning. In Turkey the average age of Gezi Park protesters was 28 and the bulk of the Outono Brasiliero protesters in Brazil were below the age of 29. It is therefore not surprising that roughly 85 percent of Gezi Park protesters heard about the demonstrations from their peers, both online and offline. This was also the case in Brazil, with comparable percentages of people finding out about protests via social media, their friends and family.

These new tools and platforms are immensely powerful and empowering. Although Saudi Arabia fares miserably on democratic freedoms, it has the highest rate of Twitter penetration. In defiance of serious intimidation from the Interior Ministry and the Mutaween, Saudi Arabia’s religious police, scores of women have been able through social media to co-ordinate country-wide protests against the driving ban.

Surveillance and intimidation

Nevertheless, social media also expose activists to various risks and unwarranted surveillance and intimidation—tactics not confined to authoritarian regimes. Snowden has alleged that the NSA spied on human-rights groups. This seems congruent with the US’ broader policy of aggressively prosecuting whistle-blowers, with the aim of deterring potential net activists.

Jeremy Hammond, a hacker-activist, revealed that security firms were hired by the private sector and the US government to conduct surveillance on Occupy protesters, the Anonymous movement and environmental activists in Bhopal, India. He was sentenced to ten years imprisonment for his disclosures, which many civil-society activists believe were in the public interest. Another internet activist, Aaron Swartz, a strong opponent of the controversial “Stop Online Piracy Act” being pushed through by large corporations, was driven to suicide through unrelenting judicial harassment by US authorities, who sought to create an example out of him for illegally downloading expensive academic databases which he wanted to disseminate for free.

Governments and the private sector are partnering in surveillance. Fortunes are being made in developing, marketing and selling surveillance technologies, to authoritarian and non-authoritarian states alike. Privacy International’s 2014 report estimates the value of this unregulated industry at $5 billion per year.

While concerned citizens and civil-society groups are finding new means of organising in cyberspace, they are also having to contend with shady corporations and the machinations of the security arms of democratic and authoritarian governments. This is largely due to the dominance of a neo-liberal economic model which allows for increasing overlap between the state and the private sector—and which civil-society groups have of course been challenging.

The need for transparency and democratic oversight is paramount. Activists and civil society will have to remain vigilant. 


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