This is a repost of a piece I wrote for the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, published initially here. It is a bit more journalistic than Circuit’s usual style, but may be of interest. Next month, we’ll bring you a piece on social media in Papua New Guinea – fascinating, and so important given recent political scandals in that country and the general election later this year.
Twitter’s recently announced censorship policy essentially allows governments with a ‘valid and applicable legal order’ to ask Twitter to remove certain tweets because they violate local laws. Doing so would mean that while those tweets were still visible by users outside that country, users within it could not see them, thus defusing any domestic impact. Managing social media is an ongoing concern for many states, and Twitterphobes like China and Russia were quick to follow Thailand’s initial rush to endorse the policy publically. Thailand’s support for the policy comes as no surprise: it is part of an increasing crackdown on freedom of expression online by Thai authorities, an approach shared by states from India to Russia and South Africa.
However, despite almost instant outrage greeting the policy, the issue is not necessarily straightforward. Aside from debates about the political impact of social media raging in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the Twitter issue is interesting because it reveals the complex ways corporate social media entities can massage both domestic and international politics in the pursuit of commercial gain. Sometimes this process is overt. Facebook, for example, recently announced that it is putting together what it has described as a team of diplomats to progress its interests with governments around the world. Google has done this since 2006 – describing it as essentially a ‘foreign service’.
Sometimes the relationship between social media and state interests is less clear cut. Notably, for example, Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin have invested in Twitter and Facebook, and a key Saudi prince recently purchased a stake in Twitter. Indeed, this latter event has sparked conspiracy theories in Iran, with representatives suggesting—apparently without irony—that the new Twitter policy it is part of a Saudi move to crack down on free speech.
So where does this leave the new policy? Key commentators have argued that the policy may not be all bad, and Twitter has responded to accusations of participating in censorship in several ways. First, it has promised it will publish a list of all tweets which have been removed. Second, it has argued that users can change their settings so that they will be counted as a ‘global’ Twitter user and therefore not counted in state driven crackdowns. Third, blocked tweets which show up globally will be marked as such, with the name of the blocking country attached. The company suggests that such an approach will produce a ‘Streisand effect’, named after Barbara Streisand’s attempts to stop paparazzi photographing her house, ultimately leading to even higher prices for such photos and thus even more paparazzi attention. Twitter argues that their policy will likewise mean that blocked tweets noted as such will automatically draw attention to the fact of censorship circumventing its effect.
Others have pointed to the problematic mix of commercial imperatives and political affects, arguing that the policy is part of Twitter’s efforts to move into China. Others suggest that the move is instead part of Twitter’s plans for Europe, where strong hate speech laws make it judicious for the company to allow some government control. Still others have argued that the policy does nothing to protect those Twitter users who do not, for example, tweet in a world language, or whose cause, unlike the Arab Spring, is not of geopolitical significance to the wider world. The Streisand effect, they argue, only works when the world already cares who Streisand is.
Ultimately, the mix is muddy. If we allow that social media companies can influence politics, particularly contested politics, it means that an essentially commercial entity is unavoidably political. Mixing commerce and politics is not new. But mixing commerce, politics and social media is.