What makes social media an interesting field to study and follow is that you simply can’t predict what will happen next; it’s a world where things change every moment, where a simple ‘tweet’ could reach millions with a press of a button and a Facebook page could help bring down governments.
The one thing that was always constant was that most people believed that humanity has finally developed a medium that is truly democratic, in the sense that is it is free from any means of control or influence which could prevent a message from reaching the masses as it was intended by the sender.
People, including yours truly, often ridiculed those who spoke of conspiracy theories that there is a person or an organization which pushes a certain agenda across sites like Twitter or Facebook.
Of course, there were always the ‘acceptable’ measures which very of us ever complained about, such as the removal of graphic or obscene content (e.g., pornography or France and Germany banning Nazi content ─ an example used by Twitter to justify their policy). Every now and then, there would be a particular page or tweet removed but this just didn’t occur enough to become an issue.
This was all true until the recent Twitter announcement that tweets can now be censored on a country-by-country basis, allowing posts that may be deemed problematic in one country to still appear in another.
As soon as the news broke, many ‘tweeps’ expressed their severe disappointment with the decision and have accused the site of censorship. The hashtags #twittercensorship and #twitterblackout were quickly formed by users who are planning to protest by not tweeting on Jan. 28 in a stand against what they see as a threat to freedom of expression and information.
Now, what will be the outcome of such a boycott movement and whether or not it will be successful in reversing Twitter’s decision is something which only time will be able to tell.
What is certain is that users would have had much more impact if they were paying for the service, as only then would Twitter be forced to listen to their demands; at the end of the day, no business would ever risk upsetting its customers.
And this is exactly the bottom line, we ─ the users ─ are not Twitter’s ‘customers’; albeit we are the beneficiaries of the service, we forget that Twitter is not a charity... it still needs to make money and this money comes from advertisers.
Twitter, like Google before it, needs to go to new markets and attract new investors and advertisers. Obviously, these markets are not all democratic ─ when Google went to China (a market nobody can ignore) they had to alter their service to be able to reach a certain arrangement with the local authorities in order for them to be able to operate. (Google later removed filters from search results in a decision which didn’t go down to well with the Chinese government.)
Now, I am all for “Glocalization” and I absolutely understand that McDonald’s is well advised not to serve beef in India or pork in Saudi Arabia, but when it comes to social media services, we are not talking about a Happy Meal; we are talking about the freedom of speech and the freedom to access information ─ things which we should all be equal in.
If the likes of Twitter start imposing censorship techniques to please governments, firms or organizations, then they will quickly become no different than the mind-numbing state-owned media outlets of the Middle East’s former dictatorships.
In fact, if Twitter or any of these sites which we have come to love and rely on think that they have become irreplaceable, then they should learn from these exact same Middle East dictators that nobody is ever too big to fall.
However, I am not one of those commentators who preach all day without providing a solution ─ I think Twitter should simply charge for its service and become totally advertising-free; it is true that countries will still ban it but people will find a way to connect. In addition, those who pay will have the right to choose if they want to remain on the service or leave if they find the content unsuitable for them. I, for one, will be happy to pay for my censorship-free connection.
(The writer is a London based Saudi journalist, blogger and social commentator. This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on Jan. 27, 2012.)