The Most Liberal Part of the Country Takes a Page from Dictator’s Playbook
The most liberal part of the country – the San Francisco Bay Area – is taking a page from Egyptian dictator Mubarak’s playbook.
As leading free speech organization Electronic Frontier Foundation reports:
This week, EFF has seen censorship stories move closer and closer to home — first Iran, then the UK, and now San Francisco, an early locus of the modern free speech movement. Operators of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) shut down cell phone service to four stations in downtown San Francisco yesterday in response to a planned protest.
BART said today that it had instituted the following rules, including:
No person shall conduct or participate in assemblies or demonstrations or engage in other expressive activities in the paid areas of BART stations, including BART cars and trains and BART station platforms.
What does that mean? We can’t talk?
One thing is clear, whether it’s BART or the cell phone carriers that were responsible for the shut-off, cutting off cell phone service in response to a planned protest is a shameful attack on free speech. BART officials are showing themselves to be of a mind with the former president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, who ordered the shutdown of cell phone service in Tahrir Square in response to peaceful, democratic protests earlier this year.
U.S. and Britain Attack Social Media
It’s not just cell phones.
For example, the Pentagon is trying to manipulate social media for propaganda purposes. And the government is trying to censor any suggestions on the web and other media that powerful people might actually be acting in their own interests (and not necessarily in the interests of the little guy).
And in Britain, the government is blaming the protests in that country on social media (here are the two real causes).
But as professor of media psychology Dr. Pam Rutledge writes in a post entitled, “Social Media Did Not Cause the London Riots”:
After four days of looting and rioting across the UK, people are looking for answers. The violence that started in London, spread rapidly across not only Greater London, but most of the country, not as single oozing mass, but more like an outbreak of the measles. Its speed and range is attributed to the rioters’ use of social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Blackberry Messenger. Information and disinformation alike travel fast in social networks. As people try to make sense in the aftermath, an emerging theme is the culpability of social media. Focusing blame on social media is akin to killing the messenger and is both naïve and dangerous.
Social media is just a tool. It’s a powerful one, but a tool nonetheless. It can be used in good ways and bad ways, just like a hammer or a baseball bat.
Social media is an easy target. When you’re a politician, it’s great to have something to blame that can’t vote. Prime Minister Cameron almost immediately offloaded the blame onto social networking sites for fueling the riots and hinted at intervention. “When people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them.”
UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, is scheduling meetings with Facebook, Twitter and Research In Motion (RIM) to “discuss their responsibilities in this area.” Suggestions have ranged from banning suspected rioters from social media networks to the wholesale shutdown of social media in times of unrest without regard to individual freedoms in order to “catch the bad guys.” The key unanswered question is who gets to decide who’s a ‘troublemaker’ or what’s ‘unrest.’
We should learn from history, as well as from current societies that we do not want to emulate. Can anyone say “China” or “McCarthyism”?
Beyond rights violations, any government that thinks they can totally suppress information flows is kidding themselves. Even if it were possible, shutting down social media will not stop anything. In countries where people do not have easy Internet access or rights like freedom of speech, resourceful, persistent, and effective citizens continue to find ways around Great Fire Walls and information blackouts. Suppressing information these days is like holding a balloon under water. It will absolutely pop up somewhere else.
Social media may have accelerated the pace of information travel, bringing groups together faster, but it did not put bricks and fire bombs into the hands of the looters. Social media did not create the anger or sense of powerlessness against authorities. It did not create the heightened emotions of the group, crowd leaders, the adrenalin that comes from a sense of danger and risk, the lack of empathy for others, or the sense of no consequences. Emotion may be contagious, but social media is not.
The real danger from these events is … the wholesale liquidation of personal freedoms as a solution to deal with fear. When people are scared, they are willing to surrender individual rights to whomever tells them they can “fix” the problem. Whenever we give away our power so that we no longer have access or due process, we are on a slippery slope indeed.
The Use of Heavy-Handed Tactics Is Actually a Sign That We’re Winning
But the use by government’s worldwide of the iron fist of repression is actually a sign that we are winning.
As Truthout’s Matt Renner writes today:
Recently I sat down with two of the young adults who organized and led the Egyptian resistance movement that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. The media narrative said it took 18 days, when in fact, they had been organizing for over five years.
According to these young men, the moment they knew they had won was the day Mubarak’s government shut off the Internet and blocked cellphone communications. When people could no longer get updates about what was happening in Tahrir Square, they had to come out of their homes and see for themselves, tripling the size of the protests in one fell swoop.
The global plutocracy is terrified of dissent. In some places, the war on dissent is being fought with bullets. In others, the war on dissent targets social media and mobile communications, while repressing and deceiving communities of struggle. It’s already happening.
Indeed, the use of heavy-handed tactics – taking the velvet glove off of the iron fist – will backfire, as it will show the “emperor’s ruthlessness” for all to see.
Our Voices Are More Important Than We’ve Realized
Renner is right: the plutocracy is terrified of dissent.
Indeed, the Asch Conformity Experiment showed that even one dissenting voice can give people permission to think for themselves.
And a new study shows that when only 10% of a population have strongly-held beliefs, their belief will often be adopted by the majority of the society.
So our voices are more important than we’ve realized.