Ahh, remember the Summer of Tweet-Love? Those heady days in June 09, when pundits and cable news anchors sang the praises of their beloved social media platform Twitter? Remember how we changed our Facebook profile pics to Green in solidarity with Iranian protestors?
Perhaps Eliot Madison was feeling that techno-optimism in late September, when he was arrested in Pittsburgh during the G20 protests. Police stormed his motel room, where Madison and others had set up a communications node (as part of the Tin Can Comms Collective) to gather and distribute information about the demonstrations. This hub contained hardware like police scanners, phones, computers and involved, yes, tweeting. Madison was charged with criminal use of a communication facility, hindering apprehension or prosecution, and possession of instruments of crime. The following week, police raided his home in Jackson Heights, Queens and he and his roommates were detained while the premises were searched for sixteen hours.
So where is all the journalistic gushing over social movement media now? It’s as though the corporate media collectively woke up after a sordid affair and agreed that, “What happens in Tehran, Stays in Tehran.”
Much of the news discourse surrounding the “Digital Media Revolution” during that summer fling relied on tired post-Cold War binaries, especially “authoritarian regimes vs. freedom-loving protestors.” But there are indeed some differences between the Iranian style of dissent management and our homegrown techniques:
To disband crowds, they still use clunky acoustic weapons like gunshots. We have the latest in dispersal technology: a “sound cannon” designed to scatter people via painful sonic blasts.
They still rely on a live voice delivering orders via the police megaphone. We have the Long Range Acoustic Device, whose prerecorded vocal commands sound like they were made by “Fred, the friendly fascist” (Seriously, someone’s been watching too many Philip K. Dick-inspired films).
Finally, if they rely on State-run television for informational control, we have something more insidious: State-friended social media. It is widely known that during the Iranian demonstrations a State Department rep contacted the co-founders of Twitter to reschedule a maintenance shut-down. Who needs to control communications via government ownership? Just be bros with the new media outlets! State Department, your Facebook friend request has been accepted by Twitter. (I hope they don’t get jealous that CNN’s status says that it’s “in a relationship” with Twitter).
Speaking of the State Department, perhaps they should be called in to this case as well—not as an investigating agency, but as a potential informational accomplice. It co-sponsored the Alliance of Youth Movements, a 2008 conference and web-hub of materials that distributed knowledge and skills for youth protestors around the world. Representatives came from Media Old (MTV, NBC, CNN) and New (Google and especially Facebook). The AYM produced a series of How-to videos (How to Create a Grassroots Movement Using Social-Networking Sites, How to Smart Mob, How to Circumvent an Internet Proxy). Reminiscent of insurgency/counterinsurgency handbooks, this State-sponsored guerrilla mutation also produced a “Field Manual”. (By the way, the press contact of the AYM, Jared Cohen, was also the guy who contacted Twitter during the Iranian revolts).
Of course, it’s absurd to think the Feds would be investigated as “intellectual support” for the G20 communicational organization, but it begins to pose the questions: who judges the legitimate and illegitimate uses of communications technology in social movements? Which networked alliances have State-sponsorship, and which ones face criminalization and State-crackdown?
These new friendships, alliances, and affinities shed some light on new forms of authoritarian control. Social media are relying on open network access, but this openness too easily sugarcoats itself in democratic notions (participation, interactivity, freedom). At the same historic moment, we are also witnessing an expansion, integration, and refinement of sovereign police power. When the two converge we begin to see an increase in repressive intervention into, and pre-emption of, information use. Soft and hard control merge in order to implement what communication scholar Mark Andrejevic calls the “digital enclosures,” now with added urban warfare tactics.
As much as a data cloud might fog up our conceptions of democracy, some things remain clear. Social media and information are still embedded in and rely on popular freedom. In Madison’s case, it means freedom of expression and even freedom of assembly (perhaps a new one—freedom of dissembly). It would be naïve to begin chanting “Whose Tweets? Our Tweets!” But without understanding that the expressive commons are the heart of democracy, we will continue to watch these neo-authoritarian digital enclosures rely on sound cannons and other weapons of social disruption.
Jack Bratich is Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. He is also a zine librarian at ABC No Rio in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org