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In Social Media We Trust?

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Twitter and Facebook may have more in common with Wall Street than the Occupiers

By Rebecca Chao of The Morningside Post

The media lambasted Twitter for its "new" censoring policy over the last few weeks. What's strange is how un-new it all is.

"There's been no change in our policy," said Twitter CEO Dick Costolo at a media conference sponsored by All Things Digital. "What we were announcing was a capability we now have to leave the content up for as many people around the world as possible while adhering to the local law."

Yet there was no Twitter "blackout" to protest when Twitter first began operating in Thailand and began complying with its censorship laws. The reality is that social media companies, while being toted as guardians of transparency and openness, operate like businesses. Yet the public has been slow to make this distinction.

The Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that globally, public trust in social media sites have increased in two digit percentages: Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr went up 88, 86, and 75 percent, respectively, since last year. This means 61 percent more people surveyed now trust in social media.

"Traditional, hybrid, and social media are trusted in the eyes of audiences likely in large part because of their transparency and commitment to innovation," the report states.

But for social media companies, openness and transparency plays a large part of their PR strategy.

The uprisings of North Africa gave Twitter and Facebook a big boost in branding. As Evgeny Morozov has argued in The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, social media is nothing more than an upgraded fax machine, which was used as a communication tool in the eastern European revolutions of 1989. Yet the "Twitter revolution" has become synonymous with the "Arab Spring."

The public's image of social media has also been skewed by these companies' use of first amendment values when defending their policies.

Twitter's new selective tweeting policy will allow it to remove "offensive" posts only in the requesting country. The posts would remain visible to all other users around the world. Before, censored content would be removed entirely.

"It is the most honest, transparent and forward-looking way," Costolo said about selective tweeting. He added, "It is simply not the case you can operate in these countries and choose which of the laws we want to adhere to."

Critics have pointed out that selective tweeting is an attractive feature to countries like China, which might finally allow Twitter to tap its tantalizing market of over 500 million Internet users. It also legitimizes a states' authority to censor.

Thailand just recently applauded Twitter for their new censorship policy. The Chinese state-run paper, the Global Times, was also a fan. It printed on its English-language site, "It is important for it to respect the cultures and ideas of different countries so as to blend into local environments harmoniously. This is normal practice. To some extent, it is a necessary step in the evolution of Twitter. But many of its users, particularly some political activists and dissidents, have found it unacceptable."

It seems the evolution of social media is normalizing censorship.

Twitter's blog sounded eerily similar to China's state-run paper: "As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reason, restrict certain types of content..."

Facebook is now facing censorship even in India, which houses the third largest Internet-using population in the world. The Indian court-ordered Facebook to remove "anti-religious" or "anti-social" materials for the sake of protecting "national unity."

In removing content from its site, Facebook operates very much like Twitter. It does not proactively remove content but does so at the behest of a user or government.

For example, to protect "community" interests in the U.S. and because of user complaints, Facebook removed the page of famous film critic Roger Ebert, a photo of two men sharing an unassuming kiss, and a post by Arizona governor Jan Brewer. Some of the Wall Street Occupiers also noted that a few of their posts were removed. Facebook later apologized for taking down Ebert's page and the photo of the gay kiss.

These blips nevertheless raise a crucial problem with "reactive" or "selective" censorship: allowing the user or the state to define "community interest" results in unacceptable levels of censorship.

It is not hard to imagine how Facebook or Twitter may evolve if in China.

Rebecca MacKinnon, who formerly headed the CNN Beijing and Tokyo bureaus and who recently published Consent of the Network: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, warns that transparency is a double-edged sword. She wrote in an e-mail, "I think the social media sites owe it to their customers to be transparent about their polices. However, the users themselves should not be forced to be so transparent and open that they end up having no privacy. If people have no way of protecting their anonymity and no control over how their personal information is shared, then dissent and political organizing become much more difficult even in a democracy."

In an effort to control dissent, China now requires bloggers to register their names with the government. Twitter and Facebook may find themselves, indirectly or not, assisting the Chinese Communist Party detaining users.

The nonprofit organization, Human Rights First, commented on Twitter's selective tweeting policy, "Even if the rest of us are able to read tweets that repressive governments censor, tweets that are not accessible to the original posters and their networks are deprived of their utility and transformative power."

So is social media a business or should it operate like media, and adhere to journalistic standards of openness and transparency? Even Costolo finds it difficult to pinpoint what Twitter is. "We're not a media company. We're in the media business," he said.

Company, business, potato ... potaahto. Wake up Occupiers. It's time to move to Silicon Valley.