Oct
01
2011

Closer to Home, 'Digital Democracy' Loses Appeal

From Egypt to San Francisco, officials dislike protesters’ use of social media

Photo Credit: BART

Photo Credit: BART

When Bay Area Rapid Transit authorities shut off cell phone service to deter protests against police violence, the backlash went viral. And despite the stifling of social media in San Francisco-area stations and trains, dissenters may have gotten the last word with old-fashioned ink scrawled on a handmade sign: “Mu-BART-Ak?”

The quip highlighted the double-speak behind the political establishment’s attitude toward subversive applications of social media. A few months earlier, the “Twitter Revolution” was all the rage in Washington; establishment figures like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (BusinessWeek, 1/27/11) and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (6/5/11) praised the uprising against Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak—who attempted to block protesters from using social media to undermine his regime—as a victory for Western-style digital democracy.

But this summer, freewheeling San Francisco, of all places, bore a faint resemblance to Tahrir Square, as authorities tried clumsily to roll back their own wireless uprising.

When BART caught wind of an approaching protest—fueled by anger over the death of Charles Hill at the hands of transit police in July (Mashable, 8/12/11)—officials blocked mobile service for an afternoon at four key stations. BART spokesperson Linton Johnson took credit for the idea, saying that police, anxious about an earlier protest that had gotten rowdy, had asked for crowd control suggestions that were “good or bad, constitutional or unconstitutional” (Huffington Post, 8/16/11).

The protest they had sought to preempt never happened, but the draconian strategy sparked a much larger uproar. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (8/12/11) accused BART of “pulling a Mubarak” by needlessly deploying prior restraint. The Northern California ACLU (8/24/11) declared:

All over the world people are using mobile devices to organize protests against repressive regimes, and we rightly criticize governments that respond by shutting down cell service.... Are we really willing to tolerate the same silencing of protest here in the United States?

BART administrators dismissed such complaints as overreactions, but the incident marked a broader pattern of technological gagging under the pretext of public safety. Philadelphia—a city with a celebrated history of organized civil disturbances—recently imposed a curfew to keep youth from staging flash mobs, cell-coordinated gatherings that authorities see as a violent menace (State Column, 8/9/11).

When riots hit several British cities this summer, police promised tougher controls on youth, including potential crackdowns on social media platforms. Two young men received four-year jail sentences on charges of inciting disorder on Facebook (though their calls to riot never spread beyond their profile walls), prompting outrage from civil libertarians (Guardian, 8/17/11; First Post, 8/17/11).

At a recent meeting, British officials dialed back some of their original threats, but suggested they were switching their strategy from crackdown to co-optation. The BBC (8/25/11) reported that social media companies, including Twitter, recently discussed with the Home Office “how law enforcement and the networks can build on the existing relationships and cooperation to prevent the networks being used for criminal behavior.”

Whether they’re trying to beat them or join them, Western politicians’ justifications echo the hardline rhetoric of Mubarak and other dictators: Free speech principles simply do not apply to tools of digital insurrection. Twitter and Facebook were the media darlings of the Arab Spring, but got a different spin in rebellions closer to home.

While trying to shut off online organizing can have very real consequences on the street, the actual potential for public harm posed by these technologies is eclipsed by their potential to mobilize people—not just for righteous trouble-making, but also for doing serious good.

Despite British authorities’ dire warnings about wayward youth plotting rampages via SMS, a recent analysis by the Guardian (8/24/11) showed that the Twitter communications during the rioting and aftermath were primarily positive responses—for example, helping others deal with looters and coordinating neighborhood clean-up operations.

Moreover, the blockage of any wildly popular communications network is likely to spawn even more subversive creativity. In the wake of Mubarak’s Internet blackout, activists resorted to dial-up modems, rerouted their networks to bypass local servers, and partnered with helpers outside the country to transmit messages over the Web (Computerworld, 1/29/11).

In response to BART’s blackout, the hacker group Anonymous hacked the agency’s website and posted a list of demands, including retraining and disarming of BART police, a full investigation into the killing that inspired the protests, and a public apology for shutting off cell service (Huffington Post, 8/23/11). Though Anonymous’s retribution sparked controversy, it echoed the manifesto of an anti-Mubarak Internet activist a few months earlier (Computerworld, 1/29/11): “When countries block,” the dissident said, “we evolve.”

Under democracy and dictatorship alike, social media have carved out a new battleground for an age-old power struggle. That’s why, even with the signal jammed, the protesters’ message to BART came through loud and clear: Resistance is futile.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times and a columnist at Colorlines.com.

Sidebar: As London Riots Over Police Killing, Focus on ‘Constrained’ Policing

by Peter Hart & Jim Naureckas

While the August riots in Britain reflect the country’s economic crisis and draconian austerity measures, they were touched off by a police shooting—which makes it particularly odd how preoccupied some U.S. media were by the question of whether British police were too restrained.

There is a “public backlash against police restraint,” the Washington Post (8/11/11) reported, with some wanting “a tougher response to the rash of disturbances that has sullied Britain’s image.” The problem is the “seemingly halting, even timorous, policing,” according to one New York Times story (8/12/11). Another Times piece (8/12/11), citing a former riot officer, reported that “the most recent riots were allowed to rage, in part, because police officers felt constrained.”

It’s dubious enough to be talking about police restraint in the context of protests sparked by a police shooting. (While initial reports suggested that victim Mark Duggan had fired on the officers involved, ballistic tests soon indicated that all shots were fired by police—BBC, 8/9/11.) But it’s even stranger when a recent report from Britain’s Independent Police Complaints Commission (8/11) tallied a startling 333 deaths of suspects in police custody over the past 11 years; in 87 cases, inquests recommended disciplinary proceedings against officers, and criminal prosecutions in 13 cases—though none of these recommendations resulted in convictions. This hardly suggests a system marked by overzealous “restraint.”

Ignoring this report—as did most U.S. news outlets—the New York Times (8/12/11) puzzled over what had happened to the reputation of the British police force:

How did a national institution once held in esteem, or at least respect, by many Britons—“bobbies on the beat” to an earlier generation—become a force of such contention, even as, in recent years, it has taken credit for shielding the country from an array of terrorist plots?

The Times added that “in recent years the force, overwhelmingly white, has faced accusations of racism, brutality and incompetence that it has struggled to shake off.” Of course, accurate accusations are bound to be hard to “shake off.”

Diane Sawyer introduced an ABC World News report (8/10/11) on the riots with a question of her own: “Where are the British parents as their young people run wild in the streets of London and other cities?” Maybe the media should be asking: What went wrong with the parents of those officers who let more than 300 suspects die on their watch?