Subverting corporate social networks - Paolo Gerbaudo

Subverting corporate social networks – Paolo Gerbaudo

As you are reading this article Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter is probably still rejoicing about the news coming from Turkey. The (largely unsuccessful) attempt by Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to “root out” Twitter from the Turkish internet will certainly cost Twitter some traffic from Turkey and connected revenues in the short term. But what an amazing PR opportunity for the tiny blue bird: what a spectacular confirmation for its revolutionary aura! Enthusiastic commentaries about the democratising potential of Twitter and social networking sites are streaming all over the place. However the upsetting fact is that Dorsey and his social network site are being praised for things they are not responsible for. Instead of taking the Turkish Twitter ban as a reason to cast the likes Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg as new champions of freedom of speech – as some American corporate evangelists and Department of State officials have been doing – we should take this as an opportunity to celebrate the rise of a new generation of digital activists, of Twitter agitators, Facebook organisers, and Tumblr propagandists that keep our news feed topped up with revolutionary content. It is because of these people who have occupied corporate social media platforms and turned them into spaces of critical discussion and political mobilisation, very much in spite of their intended use, that the corporate logos of Facebook and Twitter have become such unlikely symbols of revolution.

To be fair, both Dorsey and Zuckie are on the liberal end of politics, and they, as many other IT entrepeneurs starting with Bill Gates, both like to think of themselves as social benefactors and not just as rich corporate fat cats. But if it were for them, their companies and their shareholders, social network sites as Facebook and Twitter would just be what they are often decried for: spaces for cheap laughter, shameless show-offs, selfies, lolcats and celebrity news. For all the good intentions some geeks working for IT corporations as Facebook and Twitter might have, including many people stemming from social movements and alternative media projects, ultimately in a corporation profit is the bottom line. And how much more conducive to the efficacy of data profiling and targeted advertising – and thus profit in the era of Big Data – is superficial chatter, trivial jokes, and “haul” videos on one’s latest shopping missions rather than discussions about politics and revolution! Lest never forget that the top list of Facebook and Twitter, are popstars as Justin Bieber, Shakira and Rihanna, and corporate products as Coca-Cola, numbering tens of millions of followers and likes. Noam Chomsky and Occupy Wall Street still lag far behind in cyber-popularity, for how much social networks have undoubtedly given them mass reach opportunities that they could not previously attain. So why are power-holders as Erdogan so concerned about social network sites?

The reason why Facebook and Twitter have turned into bogeymen for Erdogan and before him Mubarak, is certainly not because of Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Shakira, not because of Coca-Cola or Pepsi and their fanpages, neither because of Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg. It is because of the fact that some recesses of these virtual corporate spaces – spaces that among other things have also served as informants for the likes of the NSA and GCHQ – have been forcefully occupied by digital activists and turned into platforms to politicise the members of Generation Y: a youth with high levels of education and media-savvyness but faced with the lasting effects of the global economic crisis and imbued with deep political disaffection. Digital activists from Egypt, to Spain, the US, Brazil and Turkey have appropriated themselves of these tools and used them against their preferred use. They have exploited the cracks of these corporate platforms and their hypocritical self-definition as spaces for freedom of expression, time and again negated by blatant episodes of censorship. In so doing a new generation of digital activists has tried to turn social network sites into a rather different direction than the one desired by corporate shareholders. They have contributed in turning these social networks into spaces for political debate and contention, as the venues of a new radical public sphere fitting times of spatial dispersion and global connectivity.

Starting with the Kullena Khaled Said (We are all Khaled Said) Facebook fanpage that was pivotal in the launch of  the first protest of the Egyptian revolution of 2011, we have seen the development of an array of political social media that have played an important role in the current wave of popular protest from the Arab Spring, to the indignados in Spain, Occupy Wall Street in the US, to end with the recent anti-government protests in Turkey and Brazil. In Turkey, the country in the world with most journalists in jail, social media channels as “Ötekilerin Postasi” (The Other Post) have contributed in breaking the subservience of traditional news media and to channel the views of unrepresented groups. Political Facebook fanpages and Twitter channels across different world regions have been used to create new forms of participation and collective decision-making fitting the conditions of our life experience. They have contributed in articulateing the worries and hopes of a generation of young people who largely see current political institutions as the vestiges of a by-gone era and whose future is marked by profound uncertainty. For many members of generation Y social media have thus become very much the functional equivalent of what in the early 20th century were political newspapers, political leaflets, but also also party branches and social community centres. Places for discussion, debate and mobilisation around issues of concern.

Undoubtedly we are seeing a revival of popular and grassroots politics on social network sites. But the makers of this revival are not Zuckie and Dorsey and the corporate boards surrounding them. The commitment of Facebook and Twitter to freedom of expression is opportunistic, as it has been demonstrated in a number of occasions, such as in the case of Turkish “The Other Post” Facebook page that has been repeatedly closed simply on the basis of complaints coming from Turkey, and similar problems have been experienced by the Anarchist memes Facebook page that that has been “unpublished” several times. As one would expect from good old capitalists, Zuckie and Dorsey only care about the money – to put it bluntly – and one should not expect them to do otherwise. They will they champion freedom of expression only insofar as it gives them a positive reputation but does not jeopardise their profits and good relations with government. If you expect corporate tecchies to be the new Che Guevara, as some department of State officials want us to do, brace yourself for some serious disappointment. If social network sites have become a site for freedom of expression and political mobilisation it is not because of corporate CEOs. It is because of the hundreds of activists who have captured some of the recesses of the corporate wastelands of Facebook and Twitter and turned them into spaces for political debate and protest mobilisation. It is because of the daily effort of the new political propagandists and agitators who are constantly working to turn the topic of social media conversations from Justin Bieber antics, to the corruption of the business and political class, and from chatter about where to go to have breakfast to discussions about where and when to go protest against the system.

Paolo Gerbaudo is lecturer in Digital Culture and Society at King’s College London. His current research focuses on the use of new media and social media by social movements and emerging digital parties. He is the author of Tweets and the Streets (2012), a book analysing social media activism in the popular protest wave of 2011, from the Arab Spring, to the indignados and Occupy Wall Street. He has a PhD from Goldsmiths College, where he worked under the supervision of professor Nick Couldry. He has previously taught at Middlesex University and the American University in Cairo. He is currently writing a book about the culture of the movements of the squares, from the indignados and Occupy, to the 2013 protests in Turkey and Brazil.