This week, during the royal wedding, 50 facebook groups have been shut down, all of them left-wing and anti-cuts groups. Perhaps not surprising, but certainly very frightening, this is one of many actions the current government has taken to repress its enemies and whistle-blowers. Facebook, it seems right to conclude, is no longer safe for activists. Perhaps it never really was.
I was suspicious of facebook initially. Reluctant to create an internet alter-ego, and wary of the information already present even in more traditional free email websites such as hotmail. I am the kind of person who deletes all her emails as she goes, and also the kind of person who is faced with sudden bouts of internet paranoia, especially when intoxicated- What if they are tracking me? What if they ‘know’. Of course, when I sober up, I remind myself I am neither a terrorist or a trafficker- and so not of enough interest to warrent that kind of financial investment… But even in the cold light of day, I am uneasy of a website through which any random acquaintance (or any random person if you are one of those incomprehensible people who feel no need for privacy settings) can see where I am going, who I am in a relationship with, and what I am into.
Still, despite my reservations, eventually I too was dragged into this weird world, this hazy extraneous self, my profile created by an insistent friend. She was appalled that I had not joined, and seemingly obsessed with this website. Her and her house-mates would sit in their separate rooms, not talking, but facebooking each other. I was actually astounded by this at the time, but now think nothing of doing it myself. More then any other website, facebook has begun to reflect and extend my conciousness. It serves as a map of my personality and opinions, my main method of communication, and an occasional massage for my self esteem. I still worry about privacy and do all I can to keep it exclusive, but Facebook, I have since argued, is primarily a Good Thing. In an age when many feel a loss of the sense of community, Facebook allows you to see the village within the urban sprawl, connecting you with people and allowing you to map your relationships with others. I am hooked, and many others are with me, to the sense of community, the sharing of information, and the platform it gives for discussion. It politicizes people, it allows you to form groups and raise awareness, to express what you care about- and even to start or spread a movement. It used to be that I would tell a few friends about a protest I was attending, now I tell everyone I know, in the hope that as many as possible will be inspired to attend.
The power of the social network to turn these unstructured public debates into real, positive action was illustrated poignantly by the recent revolution in Egypt. Even the most apolitical of us could not fail to be moved by such an event. What a show of humanity’s unbreakable will, a blow for the downtrodden. A beacon of hope for those giving up on change. The megalomaniac ruling right, who had of course supported this repressive and, for them, economically viable regime, struggled in their tangles of lies, exposed as unarguably amoral and self-serving for anybody still unconvinced. This motivating event has changed the psychology of a generation for whom revolution resided mainly in the history books. The first televised revolution, the first true revolution of the new millennium, and it would have been far more difficult without social networking sites such as facebook and twitter. Arguably sparked when the first of many activists, a 26 year-old woman, named Asmaa Mahfouz, wrote on Facebook: “People, I am going to Tahrir Square”, this was truly an uprising facilitated by the modern age. The message was to promote a movement which eventually led to the ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Groups such as ‘We are All Kaled Said’, ‘Operation Egypt’, and others led the rallying cries that were crucial to the revolution, mobilising huge amounts of people, reaching unprecedented amounts of protesters in an intelligent way, with discussion and pictures, and calls to contact those without internet by mobile and word of mouth. During the period of unrest, the regime cut off the internet connection for the entire country in an attempt to counteract the uprising.
The slow, queasy, shameful reaction of our own western repressive regimes was enraging to say the least. But they were taking notice. And they are now set to prevent anything akin to this from happening in the west.
The 50 facebook groups blocked included many anti-cuts protest groups, such as Bristol Uk uncut, No Cuts, chesterfield Stopthecuts, BigSociety Leeds and No quater Cutthewar, ArtsAgainst Cuts, and also socialist and anarchist groups such as Socialist Unity, Ecosocialists Unite, Firstof Mayband, Don’t Break Britain United, SWP Cork, York Anarchists (according to http://brightgreenscotland.org/index.php/2011/04/mass-facebook-purge-of-activist-groups/) All groups promoting activism, and planning protests against the current government. That they were taken down at all is sinister, that they were taken down under this government and at a time when the high-profile royal wedding was angering dissidents and free thinkers across the uk, is altogether petrifying.
This was not all our current regime was doing to suppress free thought at the time of this national embarrassment. Police were given a ‘Shoot to kill’ order for protesters, whose banners were confiscated if considered to be ‘offensive’, squats were raided across the country, and we all ‘celebrated’ to the sounds of sirens day and night. Many arrests were made. Several activist groups were shut down. (see this link for an article about some of the squats which were raided in London, Bristol and Brighton http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/guy-aitchison/political-policing-in-britain-ahead-of-big-day). All the major newspapers featured leading articles praising the event and even the headlines in the Guardian and Independent for the day of the wedding, were, quite frankly, laughable- if not horrifying. It would seem that the government, partly in lieu of the upcoming loss of over 10,000 police officers, partly in lieu of further crackdowns, decided to see what they could get away with. David Cameron’s announcement to the people to party with abandon was really an attempt to cause a ruckus- so that they were able to test a limited police force, and so crimes against free speech such as the deleting of facebook groups and the blatant censoring of the left-wing media could take place without criticism.
When questioned about the shut-down of these groups, facebook has stated that the groups were ‘technically in violation of Facebook’s terms of agreement, which state that participants in social media must not make use of a “fake name”.’ Fair enough. But it seems highly unlikely that these are the only groups for which this is true. Are all extremist right-wing groups, for example, without pseudonyms? Why, if this small violation of terms was the reason for the clampdown, were the only groups targeted those involved with left-wing, anti-capitalist activity? Even more sinister, this has happened before. ‘We Are All Kaled Said’ was also removed from facebook in november last year. (follow this link to a report from the time on the ‘We are all Khaled Said’ website about the closing of their facebook group) According to a pro-facebook article in mashable.com ”The Page mysteriously disappeared as activists prepared to substantiate what would likely be rigged elections in November of last year. It turned out someone had likely notified Facebook that the Page administrator was using a pseudonym, a violation of Facebook’s terms of service.” The question is, who did such a thing?
At best, the groups were systematically reported by the authorities. But this seems too convenient, it must take rather a while for the site to research and prove such a violation, let alone 50 of these types of groups on one day, the day of the royal wedding. It just doesn’t make sense. The government, the global corporate machine, has seen fit to silence voices of dissent. Not in China, Not in Egypt, but here, in the UK. And it is not just these activist groups that are being watched. This blogger has herself fallen victim to the facebook censorship machine. Am I on a list? I doubt it. I am, if anything, a prolific ranter, and peaceful protester. I am not worth police time. But I have had posts deleted- posts critical of the policing planned for the royal wedding, and I am not the only one. As the weekend went by, I saw more and more status updates from my more outspoken friends, about their debates being removed from their walls. I reposted mine 3 times. Third time lucky, I removed the word ‘shot’ from my post. Bingo.
I have encountered this before. I remember in the heyday of MSN messenger, I discovered that you could not update your MSN status to ‘I hate MSN’. This and swearing was automatically censored by msn back in the early noughties- I don’t use it now so I am unsure as to whether or not this is still as obvious… but my point is that it is really not difficult to write software that does this kind of editing automatically. And, of course, simultaneously searches for keywords and builds a database of people who use such words, ready to investigate when they reach a certain quota. People whose profiles are then readily available for investigating authorities to peruse at their leisure- the same investivating authorities that obviously have enough power to shut down activist groups. Just as dangerous as the obviously planned and pointed destruction of fifty dissident groups, this kind of software can make it impossible for the individual to express… to share and promote their views- even to a select group of friends. Facebook has become a reflection of my mind- and I am apparently guilty of thoughtcrime. It is nothing else but the worst kind of censorship, and a sudden threat to the internet revolution which is a movement away from the biased, corporate-led drivel of mass media.
We must fight this with all that we have. My initial reaction, which was to consider deleting my account, has quickly become resolve to defend my views more ardently, to be more outspoken than ever, and to encourage others to do the same. The fact remains that, with sheer volume, we can make it unfeasible for this type of thing to continue. It is still logistically impossible to police the internet efficiently. I shall remain on facebook, and if they do choose to investigate me, they will find me with my middle fingers pointed straight up, defiant. But let us also remember that this is symptomatic of a growing policy of repression- and let us be increasingly vigilant of our enemies.