We’re used to hearing people moan about how much time they waste on social media. But recently, there’s been a shift in the focus of the discussions about social media use, from focusing on harm to our productivity to focusing on the damage wrought by social media companies themselves.
The massive and systematic violations of users’ privacy, the influence operations of foreign governments, the spread of fake news and racist incitement and ultimately, the model undergirding the entire enterprise of selling users’ data to advertisers, all prompted calls to abandon social networking websites earlier this year. And most recently have been the calls break them up or subject them to greater governmental oversight. One of Facebook’s own founders, Chris Hughes, took to the New York Times last week to propose the creation of new national agencies to “exercise effective oversight” over Facebook.
For those of us living in relative safety in security in countries like America, this may sound reasonable. To use or not use social media is largely, well, a social question.
But quitting social media is simply not an option for millions of users worldwide in non-Western countries, where, in some cases, social networking websites have come to serve crucial roles, even life-saving ones.
These women are leading a revolution against Iran’s modesty laws.
Iranian regime is cracking down on them in response.
But these brave women just won’t back down.
Despite a crackdown.
They’re dancing in public & unveiling their hair on the street.pic.twitter.com/zTbdLG45Xj— Ashraf اشراف🏳 (@ASJBaloch) May 12, 2019
Social media is also a place to voice dissent in relative safety under authoritarian regimes, and a space for marginalized and closeted communities to connect in conservative societies. In such a context, greater oversight by local governments over the use of data of their citizens by social networking websites would do more harm than good.
The fact is, the discourse around social media use in the West is detached from the reality of millions of users.
Social Media Is Essential To Organizing Against Authoritarian Regimes
Residents of the First World may be able to do without cat videos and instagrammed meals. But the lives and safety of many around the world depends on access to social media.
Across the globe, citizens living under authoritarian regimes rely on social media to remain informed and access censored information as well as publish it.
The ongoing months-long uprising in Sudan, is one such example. The Sudanese Professionals’ Association, leading the protests in the country, successfully topped the dictator Omar al-Bashir using Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter to share their message and mobilize Sudanese citizens to participate in the mass protests.
Activists also took to Twitter and Facebook to share a stream of videos documenting mass protests across the country and violent repression by regime forces under the hashtags “The cities of Sudan revolt” and “the sit-in in front of the General Command.”
It’s sad that he find this home and can sleep so peacefully in these loud
revolutionary chants. I promise you a better Sudan for you baby. pic.twitter.com/nX1VhefoEJ— بُوتِيِتُو بُوتَاَتُو تُمِيتو تُمَاتو (@itsZeeeBlack) May 14, 2019
Recognizing the importance of social media for spreading information about the protests, the regime shut down social media on mobile devices.
“Sudan does not have a free press,” Reem Abbas, a journalist based in Khartoum, explained to me about the situation before al-Bashir was toppled. “There was pre-publication censorship. At least a dozen journalists have been imprisoned. This was a very oppressive media environment. You could not get anything about the protests in the newspapers. Social media was people’s only source of accurate information.”
“[Social media] was the way members and activists communicated about organizing protests, spreading the word about the movement and its demands,” Samia Errazzuki, a Moroccan journalist who covered the protests, told me. “It was also an important medium for exposing state violence during the repression of protests and widespread arrests.” As he explained, “It transcended the online space and materialized into one of the most significant social and political movements in Morocco’s recent history.”
“Because the media are so far from where the protests took place, one of the ways we were able to cover them was through Facebook live,” Aida Alami, another Moroccan journalist who covered the events for the New York Times, explained. “It gave exposure to the movement. Facebook and Twitter were really essential tools.”
And social media was able to take Morocco’s citizens where traditional news sources could not. “After a while, journalists were not allowed to drive to the area of the protests,” Alami said. “Police checkpoints would ask journalists to go back. Social media was a way to keep following what was going on.”
Sudan and Morocco are joined by Bahrain, home to a minoritarian regime, where small-scale protests have been ongoing for years, ever since the Bahraini regime, with assistance from Saudi troops, crushed the peaceful uprising in the tiny island in 2011.
And in Iran, women’s protests against the obligation to don the headscarf and prohibition on entering sports stadiums were popularized through social media.
Students at Tehran University today protesting against stricter hijab rules being enforced on campus.
I usually worried about whether I could finish my assignment on time while at university. I didn’t have to worry about how much hair I was showing #Absurdistanpic.twitter.com/j2sPZXNU28— Samira Mohyeddin سمیرا (@SMohyeddin) May 13, 2019
Social Media Can Be The Only Avenue For Dissent
In addition to organizing protests, social media can provide a platform for dissent in countries where it is criminalized.
In Russia, where all TV channels are directly or indirectly controlled by the Kremlin, opposition leader Alexey Navalny took to YouTube to share information about corruption of high-ranking officials.
In Oman, exiled opposition activist Said Jadad uses YouTube to address controversial political issues in the sultanate.
Organizers of opposition parties in Mauritania utilized WhatsApp groups to keep track of fraud throughout the 2018 elections.
“WhatsApp is a particularly useful tool in Mauritania, where illiteracy is rife,” Nasser Wedaddy, a Mauritanian consultant and long-time activist, told me. “The app allows users to record messages without requiring them to know how to write.”
Some recordings of members of Mauritania’s working class have gone viral, spreading rumors and gossip but also exposing Mauritania’s elite to the opinions and views of people with whom they rarely interact.
“WhatsApp has become the closest thing to public school. After two decades of privatizations, the upper class and working classes rub shoulders almost exclusively on the internet — via WhatsApp,” Weddady said.
Social media also allows citizens of repressive regimes to maintain a virtual public sphere. Although increasingly risky due to surveillance by regimes of social media use, citizens in countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and China are still able to use the relative anonymity afforded by the web to poke fun of their leaders and criticize their policies.
This anonymity also allowed historian Omar Mohammed to document life under ISIS in Mosul, using the Twitter handle Mosul Eye. Omar’s tweets exposed what ISIS’s glitzy propaganda videos failed to show: widespread poverty and misery in the Iraqi capital of “the Caliphate.”
Social Media Saves Lives in Warzones
Citizens residing in war zones also rely on social media to gain access to crucial information and goods. In Venezuela, as economic conditions deteriorated and basic goods became scarce, civilians turned to WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to barter basic goods. Refugees from the Middle East relied on Facebook groups to learn about routes to reach Europe. A large group operated by UNHCR in Lebanon provides refugees with information on how to enroll their children to school, allows to report abuses against them and even help locate missing children.
A large network of Facebook groups called “Dubarah” focuses on providing Syrian refugees with information about dealing with unfamiliar bureaucracies, obtaining residency permits, and employment and scholarship opportunities. In these groups, longtime Syrian residents offer assistance and advice to newcomers. Following the success of the Facebook groups, the founders of the groups established a bilingual website, gathering some of the information shared in the groups.
Social media is also a place to help share ideas on how to creatively deal with crises. The shortage of affordable heating gas in Syria led a local man to develop a home heater utilizing widely available components such as a metal bucket, mud, plastic pipes and sawdust. His video, uploaded to YouTube helped others to construct a similar contraption at home.
Then, as Yemen descended into civil war and gas shortages, a Yemeni citizen recorded a detailed instruction video on the construction of the home furnace originally developed in Syria. The video has been watched more than one million times in less than a year.
In Yemen, the site of an ongoing civil war, residents of Saada, a city under rebel Houthi control that is often bombed by the Saudi-led Coalition, rely on a Facebook page titled “Where is the Explosion Now?” to discover which areas of the city are being bombed.
In Syria, a network of observers keep track of Syrian regime and Russian jets as they take off from air bases toward rebel-held areas, alerting residents of those areas about possible raids. The information collected by the observers is transmitted through Facebook Messenger, Telegram, Twitter and Walkie-Talkies. These alerts provide residents of opposition-held Syria to flee to shelter or far from crowded places, which are more likely to get bombed.
In Syria, a Facebook page provides information about the fate of detainees in Assad regime prisons. The few who are released memorize the names of cellmates who are still alive and those executed or killed under torture, and share that information with NGOs who then post them online to inform families of other detainees.
Oftentimes, in comments left on this page, relatives of detainees upload photos, mention names and ask if anyone has information about the fate of their loved-ones. Other pages post photos and names of detainees still believed to be alive and solicit information about their fate, hoping that released detainees scroll through the page.
Social Media Is How LGBTQ Folks Can Find Each Other Where It’s Illegal To Be Gay
Social media also allows members of marginalized groups to connect with one another, feel less alone, discuss common challenges, and even find love. There are multiple Facebook groups of members of the LGBTQ community in the Arab world, as well as groups for atheists and feminists. Many of the groups’ participants do not dare to expose their views or identity to the public, due to persecution. Often using fake names, members of these communities are able to connect to one another and, after trust is built, meet in person.
Abdullah (not his real name), a refugee in Turkey, told me that he met his boyfriend through a group of Atheist Arabs on Facebook. “As an atheist in a society whose character is Islamic, I can not express my view and can not debate any idea, especially atheists,” he told me. “I may be exposed to death threats if I leave a comment on a public Facebook page on atheism or make a public comment about this.”
The secret group was where he could be himself – and where he met his boyfriend. “My love was a member of the group,” he said. “We got to know each other in the comments of a post about the long work hours in Turkey [for refugees].” The two met in person, without knowing that the other was gay. “In the first meeting between us, I confessed to him that I am gay, because he is an open-minded and free person, an atheist,” Abdullah told me. After a few weeks, Abdullah’s friend disclosed that he, too, was gay. Several months later, the two became a couple. The two are Out to almost no one, but they love posting their photos together, presenting proximity that can be mistaken for mere friendship. The two take joy in receiving “likes” and lovely comments from unsuspecting Facebook friends.
Millions of people across the world cannot log out of social media without risking their safety and well-being; they simply cannot afford to disconnect from social media. Furthermore, social media would lose much of its utility if subjected to the oversight of non-democratic regimes.
Any proposals for government oversight of social media should be tailored for non-democratic contexts to ensure this oversight is not abused by authoritarian rulers. Non-democratic regimes invest a great deal of effort in trying to monitor encrypted communications on social media websites of their citizens. Laws adopted in the West for greater oversight of social media companies may be exploited by such regimes to demand greater ability to spy on their citizens.
When we in the West are having our discussion about whether to log off, or whether to encourage government oversight, we need to remember those who cannot, and those whose lives would be made worse — even snuffed out — if we insist on the right of governments to intervene in social media use.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Research Fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli think-tank. She can be followed on Twitter @Elizrael.