Nick Cohen

How social media helps authoritarians

Rumour-mongering and censorship in the age of Twitter

How social media helps authoritarians
Text settings

Have you heard? Do you know? Are you, as they say, ‘in the loop’? When the Mail on Sunday said a ‘sensational affair’ between ‘high profile figures’ close to Cameron had ‘rocked’ No. 10, did you have the faintest idea what it was talking about?

I did, but then I’m a journalist. Friends in the lobby filled me in on a story which had been doing the rounds for months. I even know which law stopped the Mail on Sunday  following the basics of journalism and giving its readers the ‘whos’, ‘whats’, ‘whens’, ‘whys’ and ‘hows’. (Although with most affairs the ‘whys’ are self-evident. It is the ‘whos’ and, for the voyeuristic, the ‘whats’ and the ‘hows’ that stir the blood.) I cannot say any more in print. I cannot even tell you which restriction on freedom of speech is stopping publication. If I did, you might just be able to work out the names of the lovers.

If I or another journalist or lawyer met you in a pub, however, we would gossip, as people do. You would discover that the Mail on Sunday exaggerated, and the affair is not ‘dynamite’. It does no more than confirm existing impressions about the tawdriness and narrowness of our elite.

This is the way it always was before the web. By the time the rumour had run its course, a few thousand people would know the truth. The authorities could not have punished miscreants if they had tried. To prove that X had whispered to Y about the infidelities of Z, they would have needed spies in every bar and bugs on every phone. The surveillance required would have not only been illiberal but beyond the capacity of the state.

Now the old world of gatekeepers and inside information seems to have gone the way of bowler hats and three-piece suits. After the Mail on Sunday published, Facebook and Twitter were full of people who claimed to know the identities of the adulterous couple. The days when our rulers could order secrecy, and be sure that most people would remain in ignorance, are over. Social media allows everyone to join the conversation. The new world is like a pub that is open to all. Anyone can hear the chatter.

I have always been wary of utopian burblings about how the web will free humanity. But no sceptic can ignore the liberating role of Twitter, not just in minor Westminster scandals but in the Turkish protests and other great events. If it achieves nothing else, the Turkish uprising ought to shatter the respect for the clueless western commentators, who told us that Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a living example of that much heralded but rarely spotted beast, ‘the moderate Islamist’. Erdogan’s soothingly named ‘Justice and Development Party’ has not brought justice or let free speech develop. More journalists are under arrest in Turkey than in any other country. The state and its crony media proprietors limit what journalists can report. But when the mainstream media blocked news of the demonstrations, Twitter stepped in. Citizens sent two million tweets about the protests in the first 24 hours. Erdogan paid the new technologies the highest compliment imaginable when he described Twitter as a ‘new menace’ — on a par with secularism and alcohol.

This all sounds marvellous, and in many ways it is marvellous. There is a catch, however. Everyone who tweets provides evidence that the authorities can use against them — evidence that in the past would have been next to impossible to find. You don’t have to look at Turkey, or indeed Iran or China, to find examples of social media opening up new possibilities to spy and control. You can get all of that at home.

I have always been wary about those who liken democracies to dictatorships. People who shout about ‘ZanuLabour’ or the ‘EUSSR’ sound like spoilt children who have lived over-sheltered lives. But it remains the case that the techniques of censorship are the same the world over: only their intensity varies. In our case, the internet might have pushed Britain towards American-style liberalism, or the authorities might have treated Twitter conversations like pub talk. Instead they have welcomed the opportunities new technologies give them to monitor and punish. ‘Last year in England and Wales, 653 people faced criminal charges related to their activity on social media,’ reported a stunned Washington Post correspondent on 1 June. Britain, he went on to remind US readers, has ‘no broad protection for freedom of speech’.

The emancipatory effects of the global village are thus double-edged. The global villagers can find out more, but so can the global village policeman. To put it another way, the authorities can prosecute anyone who tweeted the names of the mysterious couple in the Mail on Sunday (who I am not allowed to mention) for breaking a law (which I cannot tell you about either). If the recent past is a guide, they just might.

Listen to Nick Cohen discuss this article with Paul Staines on this week's View from 22 (12:15)