What Lies Behind: The power of the technology enabling access to new media

On this blog, I have expressed skepticism about overblown claims as to the power of new media (and about its robustness as an analytical frame). Claims of the sort implied by Parmelee and Bichard’s title, ‘Politics and the Twitter Revolution’ (2012), warrant suspicion, if not quite the vitriol offered by Morozov (2013).*

Yet for all the silliness of describing events in Egypt as ‘caused by Twitter’ (as more than one excitable academic, and many glib journalists, did), it is possible to go too far the other way. It is patently absurd to dismiss new media entirely. New media clearly has power, and there are distinctive elements to that power. One test of this is surely the reactions of those in power. Repressive regimes have often reacted to perceived threats by cutting access to social media, by investing in censorship or surveillance capabilities (Fuchs, 2012), and indeed by amplifying their own messages on these platforms. (Governments not usually characterized as repressive, or called regimes, have often done the same, but that may be a separate discussion). Either a diverse group of powerful and strongly motivated individuals and institutions are mistaken, or new media has power.

If those measures restrict new media’s power, it follows that actions of resistance may increase its power. Since it is a precept of the study of new media that the technology used to generate it is essential to comprehending it (Lievrouw, 2011), we should also look to examine the technologies that widen access to those media.

As Andrew Blum has eloquently argued, we must understand the technologies and the infrastructure that underlie the internet, if we are to discuss it appropriately as a phenomenon (Blum, 2012). Projects such as Tor – its possibilities for both good and bad, its origins and its security – have received wide attention. Yet a less well-known project is equally intriguing, for the ways in which it widens access to social media, both for activists and for everyone else. The most famous and most extensive example of outright internet censorship is surely that operated by China. Freedom House called it “the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom” (Freedom House, 2015).

One brave and anonymous group of activists have sought to circumvent many of these governmental controls. Through a series of technical innovations, GreatFire has widened access to the internet across China. On World Press Freedom Day in March 2015, they launched a project that made many banned news sites accessible. For that work and much else, in 2016, they received Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Digital Activism Award. In their acceptance statement, they made a crucial point about technology and usability:

“Because there is always a workaround, it may seem as if online censorship is failing. Such an optimistic conclusion, however, would be based on a misunderstanding of the intent of the censors. Their goal is not to completely deny access to certain topics, but rather to prevent these topics from reaching the mainstream. Unfortunately, in this mission they have been successful. VPNs are only an option for people with knowledge and the means to pay. Free circumvention tools are usually difficult to find, complicated to use or unstable. Homophones on domestic social media are only understood by those who already know the story background. We believe that to make a real impact we have to reach beyond these users and offer a compelling, uncensored, mainstream service.”

That understanding – that technical accessibility is not the same as true and widespread ease of access – is at the heart of their success, and is an essential part of why they are such an important case study for scholars of new media – not for what they are saying, but for what their work allows others to say, and to know.

 

* It should be noted that Parmelee and Bichard’s actual argument is more subtle and more cautious than their title implies.

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