The Tweet of Damocles

Clearly, social media are expanding dialogue throughout the world, and have the potential to radically reduce the costs of grassroots organizing. But they can also make it easy to track the words (if not deeds) of users, especially those naive enough to believe new media can somehow transcend traditional power politics. Writing for the New York Times, Scott Shane writes of how repressive governments are using social platforms like Facebook and Twitter to build profiles of dissidents, map the networks of their friends and allies, and to sow misinformation.
"The Iranian police eagerly followed the electronic trails left by activists, which assisted them in making thousands of arrests in the crackdown that followed. The government even crowd-sourced its hunt for enemies, posting on the Web the photos of unidentified demonstrators and inviting Iranians to identify them."
Of course, the ability to track the movement of memes through networks can also be used for good. It's also likely that savvy users may always find lower-risk ways to connect. But there's a serious problem with assuming that any technology is an unqualified social good, or rather, that any technology is beyond corruption. While they may not have anticipated that the Mubarak government would completely quash the Egyptian Internet, organizers were well aware that both Facebook and Twitter could be used against them, and urged protesters to communicate by more direct means (photocopies and faxes).

The same tools that move us towards a world of ends can also be used by those who desperately want to hold the center of that world. Mind the gap.

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