The Power of Borders in a Borderless World

Even without sovereign nation-states’ intervention, anonymity and community policing have become hot topics in discussions on social media networks.

After Oregon mass shooting, a 4chan thread surfaced as the perpetrator’s discussion topic for discussion on the planned attack. Anyway, in the light of these facts the thread investigated by the federal police; however, it triggered a debate on anonymity among fellow 4chan users and in general, power users of the Internet.

4chan post on upcoming Oregon mass shooting

On the other hand, in terms of community policing, Reddit might be a good example. Reddit published its anti-harassment guidelines and had fired a legendary employee who was generally loved by the community. After these series of events which users did not appreciate, we saw some incidents that can be called as online civil unrest. Users started sitewide trolling, moderators started to close down huge sections of the website and we got a chance to see what the online community’s burning barrels and cars look like. In the end, Ellen Pao has stepped down as CEO of Reddit and the community accomplished their goals.

Return of Victoria Taylor to Reddit

In my humble opinion, these events are pretty good subject in order to conduct research; however, today’s discussion topic is related but somewhat different compared to these cases. I am going to discuss the article Social Media and the Activist Toolkit: User Agreements, Corporate Interests, and the Information Infrastructure of Modern Social Movements, written by Youmans & York in 2012. The article investigates anonymity, community guidelines and states’ use of social media tools on a case-by-case basis with a rational choice approach.

The article’s underlying assumption is a game which contains three players. The activists want to increase their anonymity, and means of dissemination of information; on the other hand, authoritarian states want total control of digital networks either by compromising with networks or antagonizing them. States have a bargaining power on blocking social network websites. Last but not least, social media operators are the third player and they are in search of maximizing their revenues while trying not to alienate both states and activists.

I want to place emphasis on the state side of this equation in this blog post. As mentioned in the article, I believe that there is some positive bias towards social media in terms of the importance of these networks in social movements. Throughout the ages, we the people who have facilitated oppositions, protests, and movements regardless of which information or communication channel is used. On the other hand, sovereign states and their actions are relatively novel when they are compared to the history of civilization.

Weberian definition suggests that a nation-state is a community successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory. In the digital world, things get a bit complicated. The legitimacy of sanctions of a state is quite controversial; additionally, her monopoly is apparently nonexistent. So, even a state has to sit around the table and compromise in order to project its claim on the ability to project her power.

Thanks to being an expert user of sanction bypassing tools like proxies and virtual private networks (some cool perks of being Turkish) I believe that I can put some examples related to the article. As the article suggests, governments have three tactics at their disposal: censorship, surveillance, and propaganda.

The censorship is the most-used tool among them. In Turkey, the coverage of striking events is mostly censored by tye government after a few hours of happening in order to prevent so-called indignation. However, these bans are not applicable to social network sites, and coverage continues with the help of citizen journalists, some public figures, and anonymous whistleblowers. In this case, government bans the whole social network (a measure which is not sustainable) or, as a long-term precaution request the ban of particular accounts from network operators. A Turkish anonymous whistleblower, Fuat Avni have created an impact after his tweets on inside talks of government officials after alleged corruption cases against then President Erdoğan. Eventually, the access of Turkish citizens is restricted by Twitter to this very account. However, another account has created with the same name and this case proved the ineffectiveness of censorship in social media.

This account is restricted in these countries: Turkey, Twitter Message

Surveillance is another unpleasant tool utilized by the government. According to open reports of Facebook, we can say that government makes nearly a thousand requests per year. On the other hand, investigations that are started because of oppositional posts of some civil servants cause a quite controversial case. Because, some journalists, law enforcement officers, and government officials are not reluctant to post sexist, homophobic, nationalistic, even in some cases, chauvinistic posts about sensitive issues and they mostly get away with it. These partial acts of surveillance are open to debate; however, they are neither in scope nor reach of this blog post.

“Wolf tasted the blood, be afraid!” This apparent chauvinistic photo is shared by many law enforcement officers and pro-government accounts in a way to appreciate the effort.

The third tactic is the propaganda. The infamous community of social media users, mostly known as AK trolls, publishes content to support the government and marginalize opposition in various networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Ekşisözlük. They mostly use forced memes, hashtags, online lynching, and troll attacks on particular individuals. The most valid proof of their connection with each other is a data map created by Turkish voluntary organization Hafıza Kolektifi (Memory Collective). The data map shows us trolls’ relationship with each other in Twitter. At the center of this densely connected network, two accounts attract the attention: @esatreis and @varank. The former one is a well-known pro-government anonymous account and the latter one is an advisor to the President. In the light of this data, we can say that government tries to utilize social media as an effective propaganda tool.

The data map created by Hafıza Kolektifi

To sum up, the Turkish government uses all three tactics on different occasions. As the article suggests, the ability to project their power of governments in social media is negatively correlated with citizens’ ability to create pressure on network operators. Thanks to digital ecosystem, we have a chance to experience the world without borders. On the other hand, our sovereign states try to implement its borders and jurisdiction into this world. The possible outcomes of this tension are quite debatable and beyond my expertise.

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