Friday, 27 January 2012

Twitter revolutions become a thing of the past

One of the most tedious features of the last 20 years has been politicians spouting off about the revolutionary (in both senses) potential of new media. Most of them are strangers to electronic communication: Alastair Campbell's memoirs record receiving his first amazed text message from Tony Blair, after he resigned as Prime Minister.

Politicians' advisers tell them that new media will break down global barriers. They make speeches about information wanting to be free. They also make speeches about rooting out piracy, libel, subversion and immoral content via laws and technical fixes. Freedom, it seems, is something you wish on your enemies, not your donor corporations. In fact you encourage your tech sector to export censorship software to the dictatorships you claim to oppose.

With the Arab Spring, elevated claims were made about Twitter, including the story that the White House prevailed on Twitter to postpone a maintenance shutdown because the platform was being used to spread resistance (that it was also being used to spread disinformation and threats is rarely mentioned, nor are solid actual figures: a massive rise in traffic doesn't tell you how many people are involved).

That's all over now. Twitter has announced that it intends to censor Tweets on a country-by-country basis. The US claims it has a freedom of speech guaranteed by Constitutional Amendment, but this is obviously - and to some extent understandably - limited. However, the political rhetoric has been that Twitter and other media sweep away national boundaries. The truth is that we're not in a post-national situation, and corporations don't want one. They prefer to own countries rather than supersede them: governing is boring, expensive and complicated. Twitter is, let's not forget, a capitalist enterprise. It doesn't care about your repression, or your freedom of speech. It wants to make money. If you're a woman, atheist or homosexual in Saudi Arabia, don't rely on Twitter to facilitate your self-expression or activism. The same goes for union leaders in China, democrats in Ukraine and jihadists in the UK.

We need to take a more sceptical and evaluative approach to new media. The empty speeches by boosters and politicians are shaped by electoral calculation and profit-seeking respectively. Our usage of new media/social media isn't revolutionary: it's shaped by the economic, social and cultural contexts in which we find ourselves. Blindly announcing that Twitter is (or should be) a force for freedom and apple pie is as ridiculous as claiming that space travel will get us out of our environmental fix, or that the motor car = liberation. Blindly rushing to be first in the neophiliac queue leaves commentators looking very silly later, as Hillary Clinton found when she praised net freedom to the skies, before realising that Wikileaks took her literally: in her words, 'an attack on the US'.  she and others haven't yet worked out that social media radically disperses interpretive authority (I'm trying to avoid claiming that information is power, because at bottom, millions of outraged Tweets are still outweighed by lots of guns and/or the means of production).

What have we learned?
1. Politicians: try to resist making sweeping generalisations which will inevitably be exposed the moment the demands of realpolitik change. Your citizens aren't as stupid as you assume when you make empty references to 'freedom' etc. I hope.

2. Citizens: don't put all your eggs in one basket. A pretty interface and free access doesn't mean that new media corporations are any less evil (whatever their mottos) than the big nasty companies they left behind. They're not activists or idealists: they want to make money and they will lobby governments, fund political parties, sell you, block you and silence you if that's what it takes.

3. Everybody: no issue is as simple as you think it is. This is a good thing.

Further reading: Mozorov's The Net Delusion.

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