A week off from Facebook? Participants in Danish experiment like this

Group who quit site for a week felt less stressed and spoke more with family and friends face to face, in study by Danish Happiness Research Institute

People taking pictures under blooming cherry blossoms at the cemetery of Bispebjerg in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Those in the Danish study that quit the social media site for week said they felt a ‘calmness from not being confronted by Facebook all the time’. Photograph: Sophia Juliane Lydoplh/EPA

“We look at a lot of data on happiness and one of the things that often comes up is that comparing ourselves to our peers can increase dissatisfaction,” said Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen.

“Facebook is a constant bombardment of everyone else’s great news, but many of us look out of the window and see grey skies and rain (especially in Denmark!),” he said. “This makes the Facebook world, where everyone’s showing their best side, seem even more distortedly bright by contrast, so we wanted to see what happened when users took a break.”

Participants aged between 16 and 76 were quizzed before the experiment began on how satisfied they felt, how active their social life was, how much they compared themselves to others, and how easy they found it to concentrate. The group was then split, with half behaving as normal and half agreeing to abstain from Facebook for seven days – “a big ask for many,” according to Wiking.

Stine Chen, 26, found it tough at first, saying: “Facebook’s been a huge part of life since I was a teenager and lots of social activities are organised around it.”

It was also a challenge for Sophie Anne Dornoy, 35: “When I woke up, even before getting out of bed, I’d open Facebook on my phone just to check if something exciting or important had happened during the night. I worried I’d end up on Facebook just out of habit.”

She deleted the smartphone app and blocked the site on her desktop to reduce temptation. “After a few days, I noticed my to-do list was getting done faster than normal as I spent my time more productively,” she said. “I also felt a sort of calmness from not being confronted by Facebook all the time.”

A week later, the group who had abstained reported higher levels of life satisfaction and better concentration, as well as feeling less lonely, less stressed and more sociable.

“My flatmates and I had to chat instead of just checking Facebook,” said Chen. Dornoy found she had longer conversations on the phone than normal and reached out more to family and friends: “It felt good to know that the world doesn’t end without Facebook and that people are still able to reach you if they want to,” she said.

The next step for researchers is to assess how long the positive effects of a social media sabbatical last, and what happens when volunteers go without Facebook for extended periods. “I’d like to try for a year,” said Wiking, “but we’d have to see how many volunteers we get for that.”



How your Facebook profile can affect your credit

Many people are guilty of over-sharing on Facebook — whether they realize it or not — and the potential consequences of what people post on social media are getting even worse.

There once was a time when the only thing at stake was your reputation, but those days are long gone. Most people are well aware of the potential risks of social media these days, and it’s no secret that a Facebook post can get you fired from a job or prevent you from getting a job in the future.

But your Facebook profile now poses a new threat — to your credit score.

According to a report by the Financial Times, some of the top credit rating companies are now using people’s social media accounts to assess their ability to repay debt. So if you want to be able to qualify for a loan and borrow money, this is just another reason to avoid saying certain things on Facebook.

“If you look at how many times a person says ‘wasted’ in their profile, it has some value in predicting whether they’re going to repay their debt,” Will Lansing, chief executive at credit rating company FICO, told the FT. “It’s not much, but it’s more than zero.”

Lansing said FICO is working with credit card companies to use several different methods for deciding what size loans people can handle, and using non-traditional sources like social media allows them to collect information on people who don’t have an in-depth credit history. According to the FT, both FICO and TransUnion have had to find alternative ways to assess people who don’t have a traditional credit profile — including people who haven’t borrowed enough to give creditors an idea of what kind of risk they pose.

According to Lansing, FICO is “increasingly looking at data on a spectrum” to determine an individual’s credit-worthiness — with credit card repayment history being the most important factor on one end and information volunteered via social media on the other end.

And social media isn’t the only alternative source factoring in to people’s credit-worthiness. Credit rating companies are also using individuals’ payment history on phone bills, utility bills and even movie rentals. One good sign to creditors is if someone hasn’t moved a lot — which could suggest they’ve had problems paying rent.

“We can now score the previously un-scoreable,” said Jim Wehmann, executive vice-president for scores at FICO.

And while this may be a great way for more people to get access to loans, it’s also a wake-up call for those “previously un-scoreable” people to clean up their digital footprint — and fast.


Social media and movements: is the love affair really over?

By Thomas Swann On July 31, 2015

Post image for Social media and movements: is the love affair really over?Social media are monitored and controlled by large corporations. Can they also facilitate the kind of self-organization that defines radical politics?

When I started my PhD in 2011 there was a strong feeling that radical politics was changing. On the one hand, there was more of it. The Arab Spring, theindignados, Occupy: they all made it seem like direct action and direct democracy, were moving out of the ghettos of what remained of the alter-globalization movement. With mass assemblies and a radical DIY (or even DIO: Do It Ourselves) politics, something was changing across the world. In the face of austerity and totalitarianism, an actual alternative was being prefigured.

At the same time, the tools of these protests and uprisings came into the spotlight. Not only the democratic mechanisms of decision-making but also the digital infrastructures that, many argued, were facilitating what was so promising in these movements.

Social media was increasingly seen as an essential element in how large groups were able to organize without centralized leadership. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter were allowing people to mobilize not as hierarchical structures like trade unions and political parties but as horizontal networks. Individual activists and sub-groups enjoyed a tactical autonomy while remaining part of a larger whole.

Almost four years have passed, and now at the end of my PhD the gloss to this narrative has to a large extent worn off. Some elements of the 2011 uprisings have been consumed by the tragedy of civil war and renewed dictatorships, while others have dispersed.

But of course, four years is not a long time in the grand scheme of things, and the examples of Podemos and Syriza suggest that perhaps these movements are in fact evolving and developing new strategies. While the story of mass mobilization and radical social movements is by no means over, what has been disputed perhaps more than anything else in the last four years is the promise that lay in the tools of the 2011 uprisings.

Social media, once held up by some as the very essence of contemporary radical politics, is now seen in a harsher, less forgiving light. A number of experiences have underlined the implicit hierarchies and inequalities that were reinforced by social media.

Others have pointed towards the ways in which social media exploit, for profit, our online behavior. The Edward Snowden saga has shown how vulnerable our online organizing is, as has the repression of social media-based activism seen inTurkey and elsewhere.

But among these critiques of social media, is there something that can be salvaged? Can platforms like Facebook and Twitter be useful in radical politics, and if so how? Perhaps we don’t need to abandon social media just yet. Perhaps it can, in one form or another, still facilitate the kind of organization that was so promising in 2011 and that continues, in many ways, to define radical left politics.

The promise of social media

Social media platforms are often discussed as means of communication, self-expression and forming public discourse. As well as this, however, social media platforms — and communication practices more generally — also act as infrastructures that support the actions we take. They allow us to share information and resources, and to make decisions that can then be enacted.

In this way, communication practices can also be understood as information management systems. This is a concept borrowed from the world of business and management and refers to any system, normally electronic and increasingly digital, that facilitates organization. Work email and intranets are of this sort. They don’t just let people talk to one another but also contribute to getting tasks completed.

What social media might offer when viewed as information management systems, as platforms that facilitate certain forms of action, is a way to make radical and anarchist forms of organization more like the participatory and democratic structures that characterized the 2011 uprisings and radical left politics since at least the Zapatista rebellion, the alter-globalization movement in the 1990s and, even earlier, the radical feminism of the 1960s and 1970s.

Social media can provide the infrastructure for both democratic decision-making and autonomous action, with activists given access to resources and information that may enable them to act in ways that more hierarchical communication structures reduce to command and control processes.

While there are significant critiques of social media from activists and scholars alike (focusing on privacy and surveillance, corporate and state control, the political economy of free labor and the psychology and behavior that is encouraged by the architecture of mainstream platforms), I want to suggest that there is still a potential inherent in social media owing to the nature of the communication practices it supports.

These practices can be described as many-to-many communication. They are potentially built on conversations with multiple actors that reflect some of the necessary foundations of the participatory democracy of radical Left politics. Social media can, therefore, be seen as systems that facilitate radically democratic forms of organization and that can support the kinds of autonomy and horizontality that have in part been seen in the 2011 uprisings.

This is the promise of social media. And it is a promise that may yet be fulfilled. If social media present opportunities for horizontal, conversational communication, and these types of communication are consistent with the ways in which we try to imagine non-hierarchical social relationships and decision-making structures, then social media can be considered as having at least the potential to be a part of a radical left politics.

Internal and external communication practices

As part of my PhD research I interviewed a number of activists involved in the Dutch radical left and anarchist scene. The pictures they provided of the communication practices of the groups they were involved in can be used to work through some of the ideas around many-to-many communication, its relationship to radical politics and the promise of social media.

Internally, the radical left groups in question all more or less conform to the many-to-many communication model. Much of this communication is done through face-to-face meetings at which members aim to reach consensus on the topics being discussed and the decisions that need to be made.

In terms of social networking technologies, however, activists spoke of the email listservs and online forums that have been common to radical left politics at least since the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and the beginnings of the alter-globalization movement.

While none of the groups used newer, mainstream platforms like Facebook in their internal communication practices, one of the groups did use the alternative social networking site Crabgrass as a core part of their discussion and decision-making infrastructure. Crabgrass was developed by people connected to the RiseUp collective that provides secure email addresses for activists. It aims to facilitate social networking and group collaboration with a specifically radical, left-wing bent.

Externally, many-to-many communication practices became much rarer. While most of the groups use Facebook and Twitter, they use them primarily as extensions of their websites, which in turn act mainly as extensions of their printed newspapers.

The three exceptions to this highlight the abilities of both mainstream and alternative social media platforms to play this role. One group, involved in community organizing, was active on Facebook not only in sharing articles and announcements but also in responding to comments and engaging in discussions with other users.

Another made use of crowd-sourced mapping in a way that reflects the scope of many-to-many communication to support autonomous action. The third example of using social media in line with this participatory ethos came from one group that printed comments and responses from Facebook and Twitter in their newspaper, facilitating some level of conversation between the group and those outside it.

Institutionalizing autonomy

The many-to-many communication social media facilitates, insofar as it allows for conversation rather than merely the broadcast of information (or even orders), is intimately connected to a radical left and anarchist vision of organization. If prefiguration, the realization of the goals of politics in the here and now, is taken as one of the core concerns of radical social movements, then a commitment to many-to-many communication might need to be seen as just as important as the commitment to democracy and equality.

It has the potential to empower activists to take autonomous action and the bedrock of participatory democracy. In this way, social media platforms can contribute towards freeing activism from the top-down structures of political parties and trade unions.

But is there another way of looking at these types of organization and of the structures suggested by social media and many-to-many communication? I mentioned at the start of this article that social media and the examples of the 2011 uprisings have lost some of what made them so attractive at the time. Activists are, it seems, increasingly (and perhaps rightly given the limitations) wary of both networked organization and networked communications. In the last year or so, however, radical politics has shifted somewhat.

In place of social movements that are completely opposed to, and autonomous from political parties, the rise of Podemos and Syriza, and indeed the surge of support for the Greens in England and Wales and the Scottish National Party in Scotland, might point to a return of the mass party as an element of radical left social movement strategy.

Podemos and Syriza, by many accounts, have become the institutional articulations of mass social movements. They haven’t replaced them and are clear that they aim to act as parliamentary wings subservient to those movements (although the current tensions in Syriza suggest that this is much more problematic that some might make out).

In the case of Podemos, this has meant a continuation of the radical, direct democracy of the 15-M movement and the party has relied on social media and many-to-many communication not in getting its message across to voters but in defining the very content of that message and of its policies.

Social media might continue to have a role in radical left politics after all. The many-to-many communication practices it supports can be, at their best, prefigurative of the goals of radical politics, of democratic and participatory decision-making. As information management systems, facilitating concrete action, the examples of the radical left groups involved in my PhD research point towards this conclusion.

Both mainstream social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, and alternative platforms, such as Crabgrass and n-1, can be an important part of radical left politics, whether in the form of mass social movement mobilizations or the articulation of those movements in more democratic political parties.

Thomas Swann is a PhD student in the University of Leicester School of Management and member of the Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy. His research focuses on radical left organization, social media and organizational cybernetics. Follow him on Twittter via @ThomasSwann1.



Fueled by outrage: Why social media ultimately drives us apart

I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more!

Above: I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!

Image Credit: Ollyy/Shutterstock

Clearly it didn’t turn out that way.

If anything, social media has driven us further apart. On top of the filter bubbles that push us toward more extreme and entrenched beliefs, social media has become an environment fueled by outrage.

Outrage is viral, outrage is easy, and with anonymity — or at least distance — screaming your outrage on social media or even launching personal attacks carries no consequences. Expressing outrage makes people feel good, allowing them to believe they are doing something to bring attention to things they think are problems. Outrage often masquerades as strength and action, and requires no admission of vulnerability or weakness. Outrage sells pageviews. And outrage is the easiest emotion to elicit.

Think about how social media platforms are designed. They are often anonymous, allowing people to yell, scream, and name call, all while remaining safe in hiding. Even when anonymity is not allowed, the physical distance between participants means nobody has to ever face one another.

The short message nature of many of the platforms also serve to discourage in-depth conversations while being perfectly designed for expressing outrage. Consider Twitter’s 140 character limit. It’s virtually impossible to have an intelligent debate in 140 characters, but the format works just fine for name calling, ad hominem attacks, and expressing outrage. Add in the fact that it is largely anonymous, and allows anyone to address anyone else, and you have a nearly perfect platform for outrage and bullying.

Compare social media conversations to real life conversations. What percentage of the people who tweet nasty things at celebrities, or even at other regular people with whom they disagree, would say these things to their face? Maybe one percent?

How many people would start real life conversations the same way they start online conversations? Imagine meeting someone at a party, “Hi, I’m Francisco, and I’M OUTRAGED MONSANTO IS POISONING US WITH GMOs!!! THE GOVERNMENT IS OPPRESSING US!!! PEOPLE USE WORDS I FIND INSENSITIVE!!! AND IF YOU DISAGREE YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!!!” and then having five people standing nearby repeat, “YES!!! I’M ALSO OUTRAGED MONSANTO IS POISONING US WITH GMOs!!! THE GOVERNMENT IS OPPRESSING US!!! PEOPLE USE WORDS I FIND INSENSITIVE!!! AND IF YOU DISAGREE YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!!!” Sane people don’t talk this way in real life but this is exactly how people communicate on social media when they post and repost links about the latest thing that has them outraged, and then follow it up by shouting down anyone who dares to disagree.

The end result of all of this outrage is that valuable, well reasoned conversations disappear from social media. As Sam Altman of Y-Combinator said recently, “Most smart people I know have decided to just not discuss anything sensitive because of the Internet lynch mob looking for any slight mistake.” Fittingly, in reply to his tweet, some people attacked Altman for what they viewed as his insensitive use of the word “lynch mob” while others accused those leaving the public conversation of being cowards — essentially they were outraged that outrage is driving the reasonable people away.

As outrage has come to be the dominant culture of social media, what started as a way to connect people has largely become a way to attack people or simply express anger. Like a giant dysfunctional family consumed with animosity and who thinks yelling is the appropriate way to communicate, social media interactions are far more likely to consist of expressions of outrage, accusations, and name calling instead of conversations. Ultimately, what was supposed to bring us together is serving to drive us apart.


Alec Empire’s latest statement on electronic music

A New Kind of Brutality

Alec Empire’s latest statement regarding the direction electronic music has taken, published in French in this month’s Trax Magazine.

It is 2015, and I feel like God’s hand has wiped us all off the continent, right into the icy water of the Antarctic. It was easy, even smooth, but with a new kind of brutality.

He is laughing at us, we can hear his deep, low voice in the winds, coming from all sides. A storm is coming. The earth is opening underneath our feet.

I have actually never believed in God or the concept of it. I always believed that we self determine our lives. I still believe this very strongly. We don’t have to believe blindly everything that other men have written down in religious books in some ancient time, when life was completely different. Believing something is one thing, but to let that drive our actions is another. The same goes for all these rules and unwritten laws in what we call “DJ culture”.

The second half of each decade is always completely different than the first half.

A new phase has begun. The first half was dominated by the euphoria we all felt about the free internet, social media and all hopes that came with it… The hope that we will be truly free. But instead, we seem to be riding on this train through a tunnel into darkness, the black hole that sucks us further into something we’ve lost control over.

Everyone can be creative, everyone can be a producer, everyone is equal.
But only if we buy certain technology that enables us to do so. This was the mantra for decades, Silicon Valley built its wealth on selling us this idea.

We witness that this hasn’t worked. We could even argue that creativity never worked this way. Now whenever creatives meet an audience online, they face a new kind of hostility. Frustration and aggressive behavior have increased a lot, I hear this from many creative people. The mob is winning. And most people choose apathy, so they don’t get noticed by the mob.

I grew up with the original ideals of the Techno movement. People should listen to the music they themselves have selected and not because context, location or their peers have pressured them to do so. Staying anonymous helps you to become who you want to be. The best DJs and producers in the history of electronic music will stay unknown, don’t win awards and don’t get a mention in history books or appear in exhibitions in museums.

Decentralization. We should set this as our highest goal again because creativity flourishes in a decentralized system. Decentralization does not happen when everyone acts like rivals on the same social media platforms, trying to become the most popular. Decentralization also means that we abandon and ignore stats systems like YouTube, Facebook or Instagram.

Our blind naive faith in technology has led us into a dead end. Many will understand what I mean in the coming years. Some are already feeling the consequences. Pay close attention, then ask yourself which headline DJ is absorbing the energy of the crowd, transforms it into creativity and then feeds it back into the crowd? We get this uneasy feeling in our stomachs, that in reality this has become a rare moment, it feels almost surreal when it does happen, it’s like a distant dream that we can’t recall after we’ve woken up.

What I am saying here is that if we give up that dialogue between crowd and DJ and the philosophy behind it, then we give up the very essence of what Electronic Music is about. A mass of people should never be brought in line by a DJ. But I see that since the explosion of American EDM, that this is exactly what everyone aspires to do. Are we witnessing how our generation is giving birth to a new kind of cultural fascism to that was unthinkable before? We can measure those changes, we can “see” them. We can see events like the destruction of Charlie Hebdo, the rise of Anti-Semitism all over Europe and the PEGIDA protests in Germany in which Neo-Nazis proudly participate without shame. These are just examples. We can try to create a parallel world in our clubs and festivals, even for a short moment. For a few hours we can agree on our core values, defend them, celebrate them. We won’t feel isolated or alone anymore. But this means that we must define those values from new, or remind ourselves of those we want to bring with us from the past into the future. I am totally aware of all those cynics out there who giggle in embarrassment right now, because this is is an inconvenient truth for them. I can only say to them, we don’t live in an ivory tower…sooner or later this will concern all of us. The music scene is always a reflection of the society it exists in.

The Electronic Music scene can continue to twiddle knobs, press buttons, like those gambling addicts in Las Vegas, who keep trying and trying to take their chance… Or we decide how the future will look like for us. I choose the second.

Stay strong, my friends and allies!

Alec Empire
Berlin , Friday, February 13, 2015


Big Data Is Watching You

The hidden price of Google, Twitter and Facebook.



Your decision to click—and even the amount of time you spend reading or watching—is a piece of data for which the advertiser will pay good money.

What are we prepared to give up in the name of convenience? ThroughoutJacob Silverman’s capacious study of the world we’re in and the world we’re making—or rather, allowing tech companies to make for us—it’s demonstrated repeatedly that billions of us are happy to surrender our privacy to save a few keystrokes. Why not log in to that other website with your Facebook or Twitter or Google ID? Why not use your real identity and photograph, with a record of your movements, all across the web? You have it on Google’s word that they’re not “evil”; what could be the harm?

Silverman’s new book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, does a thorough, if sometimes long-winded, job of explaining what the harm is and what it could become. He begins with an analysis of the philosophy, variously termed “techno-utopianism” or “cyber-libertarianism,” that drives the major social media companies. The ideology should be familiar in essence, if not in name—we’ve been soaking in it for the past decade. Media theorists, long before the advent of Facebook, were calling it “the Californian ideology.” It’s what happens when youthful rebelliousness and a countercultural, anti-authoritarian spirit meets gobs of cash and untrammeled power. It’s the myth—tirelessly peddled by optimistic tech, business and culture reporters and embraced by the customers who line up for new gadgets—that a corporation that calls its headquarters a “campus” and equips its offices with slides, snacks and free daycare is something other than a capitalist entity, with motives other than profit.

To be fair, the big tech companies—Google and Facebook are the stars here, with Twitter, Tumblr and LinkedIn singing backup—do have goals beyond their bottom line. They want to do the kinds of things that beauty-pageant contestants want to do: cure diseases, end terrorism, go to the moon. They share a disdain for government—Mark Zuckerberg is committed to the idea of “companies over countries”—but also share a zeal for surveillance.

For Silverman, the harm of social media is both specific and philosophical. It turns journalism into a clickbait race, for instance, but it also radically changes our concepts of privacy and identity. He considers the fate of those who are chewed up and spat out by the Internet’s nano-fame cycle (nobody gets 15 minutes anymore), whose embarrassing or self-aggrandizing antics, captured on video, do the rounds and attract a quick, overwhelming torrent of derision or rage. But while we might shrug our shoulders at the fate of an Antoine Dodson or a Taylor Chapman (respectively a viral hero and villain), Silverman argues that we should be aware of the numbing and alienating consequences of the viral instinct. Not only does it frequently make clowns of those who are seriously disadvantaged, and destroy reputations and careers, it also molds the larger media world in its own image. Hate-watching a two-minute video of a reality show contestant’s racist rant is a sign that you’ll give attention to this kind of content—and the site that hosts the video, beholden to its advertisers, traffics in your attention, not your intelligence or humanity.

Headlines have always been composed to grab attention, but now they can gather intelligence too. Your decision to click—and even the amount of time you spend reading or watching—is a piece of data for which the advertiser will pay good money. As Silverman describes it, the urge to gather endless data about all of us—from our spending habits to the pace of our heartbeats—is a huge, lucrative industry, driven by the fantasy that correlation is causation, that because you did X activity, you’ll buy Y product.

It may be foolhardy to make predictions about the fast-evolving tech world, but Silverman offers some chilling evidence that the world of “big data” is beginning to affect the choices available to us. Some healthcare companies will lower your premiums if you use a fitness-tracking app (and share that data, of course). Data about what you eat and buy is increasingly being used like your credit score, to determine if you are worthy of that job, that car or that home.

So what? A good citizen who eats her greens and pays her bills has nothing to fear! And if she worries that some misstep—glancing at an unsavory website, running a red light, suffering a computer hack—will damage her, she can just pay protection money to one of several companies that exist to safeguard their clients’ online reputations. Silverman has no solution to these linked problems, of course, since there is far too much money driving this brave new world and far too little government will to resist. Mass surveillance is the present and the future. But if information—meaning data points—is corporate power, then knowledge and critical thinking may be citizen power.

Silverman is too cautious and self-conscious a thinker to inspire a revolution. Instead, he advocates a kind of lowlevel “social-media rebellion”—messing with, rather than rejecting, the digitally networked world in which we live. Putting up a cartoon monkey as your online avatar might not feel like much of a blow to the Facebook assault on privacy, but it’s an annoyance to the booming facial- recognition industry—and perhaps a few million determined annoyances can disrupt the techno-utopia in favor of the common good.

Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer based in Queens, NY, and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in the Washington Post, the New Yorker Online, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal and several other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @life_savour.



‘Cease and censor’ in Turkey’s war on social media

By Binnaz Saktanber On February 20, 2015

Post image for ‘Cease and censor’ in Turkey’s war on social mediaTurkey has a track record of ruthlessly cracking down on social media users, and both Twitter and Facebook appear happy to play ball with the censors.

Photo by Murad Sezer

On February 9, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey sent his first tweet ever: “Today is World No Tobacco Day” he wrote in Turkish — bluntly ignoring the fact that it wasn’t even World No Tobacco Day — “Use your willpower against this poison and #DontGiveInToCigarettes.” Erdoğan even signed the tweet with his initials RTE in the style of Barack Obama, who signs his personal tweets -bo.

The content of the tweet was no surprise, given that the war against tobacco is one of the personal crusades of the Islamist ruler, and that everybody and their mum is tweeting today, including politicians and world leaders who often want to engage with their public personally. What was surprising was that Erdoğan, who once famously declared social media to be “the worst menace to society” and who blocked Twitter altogether on March 2014, was tweeting at all.

So what has changed? Did Erdoğan suddenly decide to embrace Twitter and stop censoring social media? Not quite. The Turkish government is no longer blocking the likes of Twitter thus keeping a façade of freedom, but it blazes the trail in a new type of censorship regime. I call it “cease and censor.”

The worst part is that Twitter seems to be helping it by implementing its “country-withheld content” policy. First employed in 2012 to block neo-Nazi accounts in Germany, the policy complies with the concerned country’s local laws and blocks a tweet or an account only in that country when faced with a legal order. This is understandable in cases of hate speech or criminal offenses, but the policy becomes awfully problematic when it interferes with freedom of expression and is applied according to local laws that are designed to censor freedom of expression at all costs, such as Turkey’s internet law.

Facebook also complies with the Turkish government’s requests to block and censor political content. @Madigudisi in Twitter and Ötekilerin Postası (The Other’s Post) on Facebook are two victims of this new censorship regime. I talked to them to learn their stories and to better understand how this new regime of censorship works.

Tech-savvy netizens versus archaic politics

But first, let’s refresh our memories. Last March, the Turkish government blocked Twitter amid alleged leaked recordings implicating Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his family members and other government officials on a corruption scandal. Another recording had senior army officials discussing intervention in Syria. The recordings were posted mainly on YouTube and disseminated via Twitter.

“We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic,” said a furious Erdoğan before blocking Twitter. A YouTube ban followed. The blatant censorship created an outcry at home and abroad. Hashtags #twitterbannedinturkey and #youtubebannedinturkey became worldwide trending topics within minutes, garnering millions of furious tweets criticizing Turkish government’s censorious antics. Every news outlet in the world reported the issue, while rights groups and the international community condemned the bans.

Turkey’s Constitutional Court lifted the Twitter ban on April 2 and the YouTube ban on June 4, stating they violated laws on freedom of expression. The court’s decision was widely applauded. Yet it did not affect that much in terms of Turkish netizen’s social media activity, as tech-savvy citizens never actually stopped tweeting, and mocked the blocks by circumventing it almost immediately thanks to VPN services and changing their DNS numbers.

At the time, I argued that ancient censorship mechanisms and archaic politics do not work in the face of technological dissent and the voice of the streets anymore. The Turkish government must have felt the same, since it soon began to employ a different tactic to keep social media giants like Twitter and Facebook on a short leash without actually having to block them: threatening them with banning their service altogether and imposing heavy fines, bombarding them with court orders, and making them block specific content and accounts.

Accomplice to censorship

When the transportat minister Lütfi Elvan tweeted “If your phones do not work after an earthquake, call the ministry” on May 28, 2014, he received a witty reply from Twitter user @Madigudisi. “This is not Zaytung [a local mock news portal similar to The Onion]. Goodbye to the brain…”

On July 13, Madigudisi received an email from Twitter’s legal team asking him if he would voluntarily delete the tweet. The message referenced a court ruling about the tweet, claiming it to violate Turkish law. In short, it was a polite recommendation of self-censorship from a social media giant that once famously praised itself as the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” and which promised to “stand with our users in Turkey who rely on Twitter as a vital communications platform” in the midst of the blocking of its service.

Twitter waited for three days for a voluntary deletion, and then censored the tweet. Instead of the original tweet, visitors now see a notice informing them this tweet has been withheld in their country. Madigudisi did not reply to Twitter or contest the ruling. Doing so would reveal his identity and bring more lawsuits.

His fear was not paranoid. Twenty-nine people were put on trial for tweets posted during the Gezi protests in a court case in which the then-Prime Minister Erdoğan is himself listed as a victim. All of the tweeters were accused of “inciting the public to break the law.” Three of them were also accused of “insulting the Prime Minister.”

The tweets they were trialled for were nothing but information on the location of police forces during the protests, passwords for wireless networks in the protest locations where 3G service was not usually available, and messages of support for the nationwide protests. In short, not that different than what millions of other people were tweeting during the summer of 2013.

In the last hearing on September 22, 2014, 27 of the accused were acquitted of all crimes. Yet one defendant was fined 8.000Turkish liras (roughly US$3.200) for “insulting the Prime Minister” and another’s file has been set apart for a future date. Amnesty International, which has been following the trial, declared that “no evidence presented in court points to criminal conduct that is not protected under international human rights standards on the right to freedom of expression,” and pointed out that the prosecution suggested authorities aim to discourage others from using social media in a country where Twitter was blocked before.

Withholding content, blocking accounts

Madigudisi is not the only casualty of Turkey’s “country-withheld content” policy. According to Twitter’s latest transparency report, Turkey had the highest number of removal requests (477) for 2.642 different accounts between July and December, filing five times the amount of requests of the next country on the list. Compared to the first half of the year, Turkey’s requests increased 156 percent and the number of accounts specified grew over 765 percent. As a result, 62 accounts and 1820 tweets were withheld.

Twitter received 328 court orders and 149 requests from Turkish government agencies to remove content ranging from violations of personal rights to defamation of private citizens and/or government officials, just like Madigudisi’s tweet.

In the report, Twitter has defended the policy, releasing the following statement:

We filed legal objections with Turkish courts in response to more than 70% of Turkish orders received. Objections were filed where we believed the order interfered with freedom of expression laws or had other deficiencies. Our objections to Turkish courts prevailed only ~5% of the time. We un-withheld three accounts and 196 tweets following the acceptance of several objections that Twitter filed in the Turkish courts in response to various removal demands.

In the last year, in addition to Madigudisi, three anonymous accounts used to reveal alleged phone conversations implicating Erdoğan in the corruption scandal were also blocked, as well as the account of the activist hacking group TheRedHack. RedHack’s last act was to hack the records of the biggest internet service provider of the country and dedicate it to Ali İsmail Korkmaz, who was killed during the Gezi protests.

Another casualty is Fuatavni, the whistleblower account claiming to write from inside the government with close to a million followers. Fuatavni’s account was blocked shortly after he tweeted details about a wave of arrests of police officers related to the December 17 corruption scandal. Having warned his followers that his account might be blocked, he now writes under the pseudonym FuatAvniFuat, but it is not clear how long this account will last.

Intimidation and despair

Madigudisi is neither a journalist, nor does he trust mainstream media. He says he opened a Twitter account the same day the Gezi protests started, with the sole purpose of tweeting about the protests and obtaining uncensored news about the events. He tweeted 24/7 (“in tears” he says) and tried to provide logistical support to protesters. For him Twitter is pivotal: “Without this platform it is impossible for us to know what is really going on in the country because the press is not free. That’s why I was so disappointed with this censorship.”

On January 15, the Turkish government warned it will shut down Twitter and Facebook if they do not block accounts mentioning documents revealing a weapon delivery to Syria. On January 2, 2014 two trucks belonging to Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) were stopped for a search by a state prosecutor, finding weaponry inside. The trucks were going to Syria and the incident sparked controversy that the contents were meant for jihadists in the neighboring country.

At the time, a court issued a ban on the publication of news related to the incident. Following tweets that publish documents related to the incident, Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) issued a warning that the March 2014 government decree banning coverage  is still valid. The New York Times reported that “networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus complied with the court order on Wednesday, removing content from accounts to avert a shutdown.”

No need for big threats for Facebook, as the company already frequently allows the Turkish government to censor content. According to the company’s latest and second ever transparency report, Turkey is the second most frequent censor of the social network, after India. Turkey restricted 1.813 pieces of content between January and June 2014, primarily because it defamed or criticized Ataturk or the Turkish state. Many Kurdish pages including the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) — the largest pro-Kurdish party in the country — are closed down, sparking an online petition from academics around the world and the suspicion that the blocks are political in nature.

“The sole purpose of this censorship is to intimidate us.” Madigudisi reflects. “I am not afraid. I will continue to voice my opinion no matter what. But I cannot help but feel despair. I am also very angry, why should I restrict my freedom of speech? There was nothing defamatory or insulting in my tweet, I just made a humorous observation.”

Politically motivated page removals

Ötekilerin Postası (The Other’s Post), a small citizen journalism outlet mainly reporting on the Kurdish issue, has had their Facebook page blocked repeatedly after they became one of the most popular alternative news sources due to its coverage of the Gezi protests. The page has been blocked ten times since July 2013, each time having been forced to open a new one.

As Fırat Yumuşak, an editor for the outlet, says: “This censorship is a direct result of the government’s efforts to suppress the internet during and after the Gezi protests. Facebook is cooperating with the Turkish government. Even government officials admitted this. This is the reason why Facebook was not blocked when other social media sites were.”

Yumusak said they have tried to contact Facebook to reverse the decisions, to no avail. After their page had been censored “because their logo of a pomegranate is found erotic” or a news item about a child sexual abuse case has been found pornographic, they have written to Facebook Europe Director Richard Alan.

When Alan gave an interview to the Turkish newspaper Radikal, he said: “Someone filed a complaint about the page and checked the box of pornographic content as a reason. We have examined the page and found no such content. Yet, we have concluded that the page had violated our terms of conditions by posting content that praises the terrorist organization PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). They were posting content that had the flag and symbols of PKK. Posting this flag is a concrete violation of our rules even when it is done without being aware of it. For example, if someone posts a photo and there is someone in that photo carrying a PKK flag in the background, this is against our rules.”

Soon after the interview, The Other’s Post received an email from Facebook’s User Operations. The email was only signed with the first name Deniz, without a surname, and apologized for providing them with an incorrect explanation about why their page had been removed. “Yet,” the email read, “you have violated our standards many times so your page will not be republished.”

According to Yumusak, the problem lies in the fact that Facebook’s said rules and community standards are not up to date and inclusive enough for specific countries: “Because the standards are designed for a global audience, they do not reflect the realities of Turkey. While mainstream media outlets can publish a picture of Öcalan (the jailed leader of PKK), when we publish it we are accused of promoting terrorist activities and get censored,” he says.

Yumusak also argues that Facebook is not transparent enough: “For example, we received messages like ‘your page has been removed because we have received a sufficient amount of complaints.’ What is that amount? We asked several times and got no answer. This lack of transparency allows Facebook to easily cooperate with the authorities. Their page removals are more political than a simple technical act. At this point my thought is that Facebook will censor a page if they want to censor a page. They will create whatever reason necessary to do so. And they cooperate with the government doing so, because they don’t want to give up their market share or ads revenues.”

A façade of freedom

Like Madigudisi, Yumuşak believes in the power of social media in voicing and organizing dissident and that’s why the cut hurts deep. “Gezi showed us that social media provides an alternative platform for popular movements to speak for themselves and to break up the information barrier owned by the dominant classes. The psychological barrier also broke. People went from thinking ‘I am the only one who thinks this’ to ‘I am not alone’. It also helps organizing and mobilizing collective action: you get to learn where the police are, who needs help and where,” he said.

Intimidating the likes of Madigudisi and The Other’s Post is easy for Turkish officials to do thanks to the new internet censorship law providing them ample power in the name of protecting “the common good” and “privacy” while infringing on freedom of expression and online dissent against the government altogether.

The new internet bill, which is cited in the court ruling Madigudisi received, gives enormous power to Turkey’s telecommunications authority. Any URL can be blocked within four hours without a court decision, hence without your knowledge. Internet providers are now obliged to store all data on user activities for two years and to provide the data upon request. The intimidation policy also works outside the courthouse, when families become scared for their loved ones who voice dissent in social media. Madigudisi said he has closed his Facebook account because his family was concerned “something would happen to him or he would get jailed.”

But more importantly, this type of “cease and censor” regime helps the government keep a façade of freedom and avoids Turkey being boiled in the same pot as internet enemies like Iran and China while censoring political content all the same. Actually, it looks like the government prefers people to tweet their dissent so that they can spot the “suspects” more easily. Less international criticism, less local protest, easy targets, and all the censorship one’s heart desires. It looks like Turkey hit the jackpot of despotism.

“Facebook and Twitter are ending lives”

We might argue that this is not that big of a deal compared to last March, when Twitter and YouTube were blocked entirely. People are so tech-savvy they can bypass the censorship easily. Encryption software, VPNs, changing the DNS settings, changing your country settings in Twitter: all easy enough remedies that people are well versed in.

We might say that Twitter’s “country-withheld policy” has good intentions. At least one can see a censored tweet in another country, or by changing the country settings. Yet, the danger in that mentality is that Twitter is actually making it less evident that censorship has occurred, thus becoming an accomplice in censoring governments whether they want it or not.

Until Twitter and Facebook become censorship-free, users are forced to cope with the situation. Madigudisi uses VPN and changes passwords every week. Yumusak says they sneak around the censorship by writing the “forbidden” words in reverse or even just posting the news with the headline “Facebook censored this content.”

Yet the responsibility to protect the freedom of expression should not rest on the shoulders of ordinary people and should not be reduced to technical gimmicks. There is no guarantee that the Turkish government will not find a way to block these technologies or pass further bills restricting internet freedom.

Erdoğan made his first speech as president-elect to the provincial heads of his party. He said: “I don’t speak via social media. I don’t like to tweet, schmeet, because you know what they cause in society. Facebook and Twitter are ending lives.” Now even he is tweeting! Maybe it’s time Twitter and Facebook start being more courageous in terms of human rights and basic principles of free speech, instead of succumbing to the censorious antics of authoritarian governments. This is what we expect of them — if they want to keep their seats at the free speech party, that is. Otherwise they should stand up and leave.

Binnaz Saktanber is a Fulbright scholar and a PhD candidate at the City University of New York. Her research revolves around the interaction between social media, politics and social movements. Saktanber is also a blogger and writer who is published in numerous Turkish and international publications. She is based in İstanbul and New York.




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