02 Mar 2011
Social Media in Repressive States: The Risks
Egyptians could never have removed Hosni Mubarak, or even made the case for deep reform, without reclaiming the streets. Much of the struggle of the January 25 protests centred on whether protesters could maintain a popular presence in public space. The violence meted out by police and regime supporters sought to remove people from public space, and scare away those who were thinking of joining.
It is widely thought social media played an important role in galvanizing protesters to take part. But social media works differently from public protest in one crucial respect: online content can be permanent. I doubt many Egyptians would have objected to the pictures and videos of their protests being widely circulated online. After all, they had taken the very bold step of publicly standing up for what they believed in - disseminating that image further online is surely to be welcomed. But what if the regime had stayed in power?
In more violent situations, such as Libya, the problem gets more acute. A protester who inadvertently appears on a video or picture could be a target of retaliation. Activists sharing important information by email or Facebook could have their accounts hacked, their interactions monitored, and their networks put under surveillance. This is a very real problem in the absence of https support for most of the web and government control of Internet Service Providers. More dangerous still, a protester new to the social web and lacking in web literacy might be encouraged to post an audio recording revealing personal information, perhaps not realizing the risk involved.
We also worry that many citizens may become more relaxed about putting self-protective measures in place in the current climate precisely because they feel empowered by the impact of their demonstrations. Making the decision to go out on the streets is itself a measure of a protester overcoming the fear of retribution from repressive state security services. Protesters are fighting for more freedom of expression - what better way to conduct that fight than to actually exercise such freedom of expression. But, if that climate recedes with a regime in place, as in Iran, the state has what is likely a permanent record to return to in order to track activists and their networks. Nick Kristoff reported in an Op-Ed on Feb 22 that a young man in Bahrain had been apprehended and beat by police after making a public statement accusing police of ...well...just that. On a private Libyan Facebook group a user posted this message: "Warning: Gaddafi today arresting anyone in Tripoli who appeared in Youtube videos, went on news media, or tweeted. Extreme caution please."
Advice from Witness
Human Rights organisation Witness has been pioneering advocacy strategies to tackle this problem. It argues for wider initiatives among the big players (Google, Facebook etc.) to tackle issues relating to the circulation of what is termed 'human rights content' and for companies to conduct deeper human rights impact assessments for the countries in which they work. It also calls on publishers to create a special 'human rights content workflow' for content that is high risk and must be reviewed. Witness believes social web tools should be built on the assumption of 'privacy by default'. Where that is not possible, tools should be designed to allow faces to be blurred by users before circulation and which allow for geolocation data to be masked.
We fully support these recommendations at Meedan and have adopted much of this language in a review of our existing editorial policy.
Updating the Editorial Policy at Meedan
Meedan is now a broker of some potentially very sensitive information. What is our role as a broker of this information? In our capacity as curators, translators, and publishers, what can we do to mitigate the risks to those who are represented? Several suggestions stand out, these comprise the core message from our recent policy update.
Any translators who might be publishing translations of other users' content on Twitter and elsewhere through our work curating and translating must:
Avoid circulating video or images taken within repressive regimes that clearly display citizens who likely did not consent to their inclusion in that content and might be at risk from its circulation.
Remove or obscure portions of content that identify and endanger citizens, for example by blurring faces. This is critical in cases where content is being introduced onto the network for the first time.
Encourage content creators to use defensive measures such as Tor to distribute media that might put them at risk, and generally to learn about digital security and safe communication techniques. Increased digital literacy about self-defense techniques is vital.
Encourage all participants in social networking (including creation, solicitation and brokerage) to have greater awareness of the risks before deciding to share media. It is incumbent upon those of us who will not be hurt by circulating social media to think twice before we publish and do what we can to protect those we seek to support.
Special concern for those who "solicit" information
A particular concern is any social media effort which seeks to solicit information from a sensitive area. These "primary entry points" to the web fall under special obligation to be circumspect in what they rebroadcast, and follow the recommendations of Witness. For example, in our capacity as participants in the Alive.in project to translate and rebroadcast voices messages submitted through Speak2Tweet we are discussing ways this innovative and transformational tool could better protect users. We were very glad to learn that Google is storing the submissions from these phone calls on US based servers and doing a database scrub of all sensitive data from these logs every 24 hours. This does not, however, remove the potential for local telcos tracing the outbound calls to these publicly available international numbers. For this reason, Speak to Tweet advises callers (via the #3 option on the main menu) to call in from a public phone or from a disposable mobile device. We plan to write more on a range of issues relating to this project soon - stay tuned.
If the web is really 'social' we have to learn both empathy and awareness. It is incumbent upon those of us who will not be hurt by circulating social media to think twice before we publish and do what we can to protect those we seek to support.