Carrying On: Need for freedom of Twitter?

January 27, 2011

Once something is on the Internet, it’s there forever. From awkward pictures to secret government communiqués, the Internet has revolutionized the spread of information. Two summers ago, the Internet transformed the death of a young Iranian woman named Neda into “probably the most widely witnessed death in human history,” according to Time. Thanks to Twitter and YouTube, the unintentional martyr became a global symbol for the growing opposition to the oppressive Iranian regime. A mere decade ago, the death of a civilian in the chaotic streets of Tehran would have quickly become a statistic. Today, a photo shot on a cheap cell phone can crisscross the world in a matter of seconds, tweeted and re-tweeted across every national, lingual, and cultural boundary.

When popular riots in Tunisia successfully unseated an Arab dictator for the first time in modern history earlier this month, the world was once again reminded of the integral role that social media like Facebook and Twitter play in our world. News of the month-long riots raced around the world while American mainstream media largely ignored the development of the popular uprising. Besides simply informing the world about the historic events, social media offers a freer realm of expression for a Tunisian opposition that continues to clamor for democratic government.

The Tunisian uprising has sparked a wave of unrest across the Middle East. This week, Egypt witnessed the largest anti-government protests since President Hosni Mubarak assumed control three decades ago. The massive protest was largely organized via Facebook. The influence of social media has never appeared greater.

Unfortunately, the American government has not respected the democratic power that social media can wield. In post-9/11 America, the leaders of both political parties have not shied away from restricting civil rights in the name of national security. Although liberals point to the excesses of the previous administration, Obama’s has not been fundamentally different on this question. The most recent example is the government’s efforts to silence Wikileaks and its supporters on Twitter. The Obama administration has subpoenaed Twitter’s records in a developing attempt to prosecute Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, in an American court. If the US is serious about promoting democracy, it must defend, not assail, the freedom of social media.

For Georgetown students, the probe into Wikileaks and its supporters on Twitter has a potential impact on their future employment. Tweeting Hoyas, many of whom are considering a career in government service, face the dilemma of reacting to the biggest story in international relations by either commenting on it and risking their future or censoring themselves online.

In an email last month to students of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, the school’s Office of Career Services forwarded a revealing warning from a SIPA graduate who worked for the State Department. The email advised students to refrain from making comments about Wikileaks “on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter. Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government.” Although the State Department cautioned that this was not official policy, the message from the government has still been clear: silence is smarter.

The dean of SIPA eventually released a statement in strong support of students’ “right to discuss and debate any information in the public arena…without fear of adverse consequences.” Carol Lancaster, the Dean of the SFS, adopted a more pragmatic approach in a statement last month: “Our advice to students… has always been that whatever they blog about or post to Facebook could be accessible publicly and available permanently. We do think this is a learning moment; students should certainly be keeping up with news reports on the issue and thinking about what the implications are for diplomacy going forward.” This is certainly a learning moment, for the tendency of the powers that be, whether they are universities or governments, to encourage silence instead of discussion about potentially embarrassing matters has been made obvious. According to the SFS, students should be “keeping up with” and “thinking about” the leaks, but discussion and debate is perhaps inadvisable.

Though there is little doubt that efforts to constrain expression on the Internet will continue, the state is ultimately fighting a losing battle. The Internet, has accelerated the speed of innovation worldwide. There are intelligent dissenters who believe that the Internet has assisted authoritarian regimes by facilitating propaganda and surveillance. That theory was shaken in Iran in 2009, and was just knocked out in Tunisia. Tunisia’s police state, named by Hillary Clinton as one of the two most egregious Internet censors in the world (along with China), was wholly unable to quell this uprising. The power of the Internet to inform and inspire people dwarfs the ability of authoritarian governments to contain it. Despite state efforts to the contrary, the Internet will always be what we make of it.

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