User-generated content and social networking in the Arab spring and beyond

Alex Comninos

This paper is part of a series of policy briefs on the mobile internet from a human rights perspective

A contested terrain

User-generated content played an important role in the recent protests and uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), collectively referred to as the “Arab spring” or “Arab awakening”. The recent protests and uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have both been called “Twitter revolutions” and “Facebook revolutions” due to the widespread use of user-generated content disseminated over social networks by protesters, activists and supporters of the protests, as well as by those following the events around the globe.

User-generated content refers to content that is created and uploaded to the internet by users usually for no explicit financial gain, but rather for enjoyment or passion. It includes blogs, video clips, audio clips (podcasts), as well as comments on internet forums, or status updates on social networks like Facebook or Twitter. Content created on mobile phones was particularly important in the protests as it allowed those involved in or witnessing the protests to upload content during the protests and report on events live. Mobile phones also allowed protesters to communicate with others and spread their message.

In addition to being effective tools for communication and coordination by protesters, user-generated content and social networking platforms have also been used by governments, often to crack down on protesters. These are found to be areas of contestation between protesters and governments, not necessarily balanced in favour of protesters. User content created on mobile phones and instantly disseminated on the internet was a powerful tool in the hands of the regime security and intelligence forces, as well as protesters, and it could also be used to spread fear or disinformation. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter could be used to spy on protesters, find out their real life identities and make arrests and detentions.

Recommendations on the safe use of user-generated content platforms

Lessons learned from the Arab spring and related events in 2011 about social networking and user-generated content include issues of privacy and surveillance, issues regarding the reliability and veracity of user-generated content, the strengths and weaknesses of Twitter and Facebook for advocacy, as well as the implications of their terms of service and the increasingly worrying practice of sockpuppetry and astro-turfing (the use fake online personas for propaganda) on content platforms.

Content creators should be informed about the possibilities of creating content anonymously and securely. Decisions need to be made about whether to use real names, or rather monikers in order to maintain anonymity. If anonymity is chosen, creators of content must be aware that using social networks over which to distribute user-generated may expose their identity if not done correctly.

Any platform for disseminating and sharing user-generated content raises the challenge of balancing activism with attention to privacy and online safety. Different platforms offer different strengths and weaknesses with regards to the often diverging goals of activism and privacy. Minimal privacy settings in certain conditions may be useful for online activism insofar as they help build and coordinate communities, and help to spread content virally but, in some contexts, these settings may not present the best choice of settings for activists. Each platform for the creation and dissemination of user-generated content, as well as each social networking website, have conditions of use as well as a privacy policy which users should be aware of. Users should also be aware of the national legal and regulatory environments governing privacy and the internet in the countries in which these user-generated content platforms are hosted. The relationships between governments and user-generated content platforms, or social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter, must be considered as a possible risk factor.

Facebook and Twitter have, on the whole, not interfered with the use of their platforms for protests in the MENA region and have, as outlined in the paper, provided valuable platforms for protest. However, at the end of the day, it is the social networking platform or content platform on which the content is hosted that has the ultimate control over their online content. Unless of course users have planned for this by backing up and mirroring the content.

With all the raised concerns about social networking platforms, privacy management and the legal environment it would be beneficial if activists were afforded access to social networking tools that they could exercise more control over, especially with regards to the hosting of their content, and their privacy and anonymity. There are alternatives to social networking platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, which activists should explore.

If the avoidance of state surveillance is required certain practices should be followed wherever possible when disseminating user-generated content and using mobile phones to disseminate user-generated content. Platforms offering end-to-end encryption should be defaulted to wherever possible and social networking applications, web-based email and web-based application should always be accessed through the https protocol when available. Anonymising tools such as proxies, VPNs and TOR can also be used for protecting the identity of content creators, as well as for circumventing internet filtering and censorship systems.

Photo by Paul Keller. Used with permission under Creative Commons licence 2.0

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