As readers of my scholarly work know, I’ve been arguing that corporate social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter present activists with a sort of double-bind: on the one hand these sites have powerful network effects, which basically means that any activist can use them to get their messages to many, many other people. On the other hand, these are for-profit corporations which are largely built to drive our attention towards brand and marketing messages.
As Kevin Matthews of Care2.com argues, this tension between letting people “be the media” and being corporate-friendly has manifested in the form of Facebook shutting down protest pages. As Matthews reports,
For example, this year’s March Against Monsanto events have been popular with people across the globe, but not Facebook. An upcoming invitation for a rally in St. Louis, Missouri where Monsanto is headquartered was wiped clean from the social networking site. The administrator of the event received a very unspecific notice that the event “violated Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities,” yet it is not clear how the event would have violated any terms. What is clear, however, is that Monsanto advertises on Facebook and may have had some influence on the matter.
When the “Boycott Target Until They Cease Funding Anti-Gay Politics” group became extremely popular, employees at Facebook didn’t erase the page, but effectively shut it down anyway by putting severe restrictions on it. Not only was the page’s creator unable to edit or update the page, followers of the page could no longer start new discussions or post links and videos. A similar page that called for a boycott on BP was also rendered similarly useless after receiving the same posting constraints.
Such actions reflect the dangers of relying on centralized social media systems for activism. This is precisely why so many of the alternative social media makers profiled here in the S-MAP do what they do: try to build social media systems that are just as effective, pleasurable, and easy-to-use as the corporate systems while ensuring that censorship and obedience to transnational corporate advertisers cannot happen. The alternative makers use a variety of tools to do this: federation, distribution, free and open source software licensing, and radical democratic organizational structures.
If Facebook, Twitter, and Google continue to remove material that doesn’t comport with their pro-advertising agendas, I would suggest to activists — especially media activists — that they ought to take a serious look at switching to systems such as GNU Social (especially the Quitter.se installation), Diaspora, and Twister. Learn more about them in the S-MAP archive.