Facebook, Twitter & Co.: Enablers of participatory democracy or henchmen of the digital surveillance state?

Breuer, Anita / Sergio Burns
The Current Column (2013)

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) (The Current Column of 5 August 2013)

Bonn, London, 5 August 2013. In a close vote on 25 July 2013, Republican and Democratic leaders in the US House of Representatives defeated an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would have limited the ability of the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor citizens’ electronic communication, including phone calls, emails, and social media posts. The strong support for the amendment reflected concern among members of both parties over the threat that bulk metadata telecommunications collection is posing to citizens’ digital privacy.

At about the same time, in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, was facing growing criticism. Documents, leaked to the press by Edward Snowden, indicate that cooperation between Berlin and Washington about data collection has intensified considerably during her legislature. In the light of these revelations, Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic candidate for the chancellery in the federal elections in September 2013, accused Merkel to have violated her oath of office by failing to protect the basic rights of German citizens. This accusation was echoed by protesters who used the Twitter hashtag #stopwatchingus to organise anti-surveillance rallies in 40 cities across Germany.

Internet enabled communication and related new surveillance technologies nowadays appear to be inextricably linked to the debate about civic rights and democratic participation. Mass anti-government demonstrations in Turkey and Brazil dominated the international headlines earlier this summer. Captured in the size and imagery of the protests was the growing prominence of digital information and communication technologies as tools for the swift mobilisation of large demonstrations.

From the Arab Spring uprisings (2010–2011), to Los Indignados in Spain, Occupy in London and New York (2011), to Bulgaria, Brazil, and Turkey (2013), social media platforms have significantly contributed to increasing participation in demonstrations.

Feeling increasingly powerless and alienated from their nation’s political decision-making, increasing numbers of citizens are taking to the streets worldwide. In Brazil, a rise in bus fares of 20 centavos in Sao Paulo sparked a nationwide wave of protest. Over June and July, in 430 cities across South America’s largest country, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to vent their anger on a number of issues, including the escalating cost of Brazil hosting the Soccer World Cup in 2014. On the other side of the world, in Turkey, crowds of people mobilised in protest against a gentrification project in Gezi Park, Istanbul, which would have involved the removal of recreational areas in the park. A wave of protests followed which soon spread across the nation.

This raises questions about the reshaping of civic involvement and democratic participation in a digital world. Are we witnessing a development towards greater participatory democracy centred around and enabled by social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and the omnipresence of mobile phones?

For many, social media platforms offer a way of extending the democratic franchise and encouraging participation in the organisation and operation of the state. Against a backdrop of street protests demanding the removal of President Mohamed Morsi, Egyptian digital activist Sherief Gaber pointed out in a BBC interview: “Democracy is not just about the ballot box (…). It’s about participation and social justice.”

However, the risks and opportunities involved in political online activism vary considerably according to the political context and political culture. The different experiences with the recent social media driven protests in Brazil and Turkey provide an illustrative example to this point.

Sharing information on social media is something that Brazilians are passionate about. According to the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics (IGBE), 71% of Brazilians consider the Internet a political tool. This perception was confirmed by the conciliatory reaction of Brazil’s President Dilma Rouseff who assured an investment of US$23 billion in public service delivery and promised to fight harder against corruption to appease the protestors.

But not every state leader is ready to accept social media as an additional channel of political participation: “Social Media”, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed on 2 June 2013, “are the worst menace to society”. While Turkey’s mainstream media kept silent on the protests, Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube – meanwhile – were keeping Turks fully informed and mobilised. On 5 June, Turkey’s state-run news agency Anadolu reported that police had detained 25 citizens for “spreading untrue information” on social media and for provoking protests.

These events, as well as the recent scandal surrounding the NSA surveillance programme, PRISM, reveal insight on one of the most important political battlefields of the future. It is shaped by the conflicting interests of Internet corporations, governments and citizens. In this triangle corporations are liable to their shareholders, governments strive to extend state control over the Internet for the sake of national security, and disenchanted citizens demand a bigger say in politics but at the same time wish to see their right to (digital) privacy protected. It will take some time for the dust on this battlefield to settle and binding rules to be established.

In the meantime, raising public awareness about digital security issues will be paramount if democracy is to be promoted digitally. This task is already being performed by a number of civil society networks as for example the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a donor-supported organisation based in San Francisco, that lobbies for digital citizen rights. Activists need to understand that Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms are neither their “friends” nor tools originally designed for the promotion of democracy. They are commercial platforms operated by profit driven corporations. In this context, the alleged participation of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US Internet giants in the PRISM programme does not come as much of a surprise. The safest bet for digital activists is to assume that the first allegiance of these companies will be to their shareholders and the governments in whose markets they wish to operate – not to protestors on the streets of Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, or Greece.

With this in mind, Germany’s political leadership would be well advised to reconsider its position towards digital privacy. A government that awards foreign dissident bloggers for their courageous civic engagement but silently acquiesces to digital surveillance of its own citizens runs the risk of losing its credibility as an international promoter of democracy.

About the author

Breuer, Anita

Political Scientist


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