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Jonathan Collyer writes: "As the Technical Lead at RSN it has been my responsibility to make sure your newsletters arrive, Facebook share buttons are working, send to friend emails go through, etc, etc. Since the story about Yahoo blocking emails with links to broke, we've seen a major upsurge in the number of emails from our readers regarding censorship. It seems an important time to take a serious look at the potential for Internet censorship, what it means for Progressives, and what we can do about it."

(art: Eric Drooker)
(art: Eric Drooker)

Are You Being Censored?

By Jonathan Collyer, Reader Supported News

22 September 11

Reader Supported News | Perspective


s the Technical Lead at RSN it has been my responsibility to make sure your newsletters arrive, Facebook "share" buttons are working, send to friend emails go through, etc, etc. Since the story about Yahoo blocking emails with links to broke, we've seen a major upsurge in the number of emails from our readers regarding censorship. It seems an important time to take a serious look at the potential for Internet censorship, what it means for Progressives, and what we can do about it.

As a native South African born a month after the Soweto uprising, I have grown up with the idea of censorship. My father produced a television show for the South African Broadcasting Corporation from 1979-1981. Under the Apartheid government, censorship was not a secret. My father had to have his weekly show approved by the censor assigned to make sure nothing got on the air that threatened the status quo. My father knew the government censor on a first name basis.

Fast forward, I was on the streets of DC in April of 2000 as part of the Global Justice movement born in the wake of the shutdown of the WTO in Seattle, with several thousand demonstrators intent on putting our bodies and our rights as citizens on the line to focus global attention on the rampant abuses of the IMF and the World Bank. During those three extraordinary days I saw several cellphones belonging to demonstrators go dead, burn out, or heat up until they were hot enough to burn you through your pocket. Were those cellphones being targeted for our political actions? It is extremely difficult for me to believe that at least a dozen cell phones would die in a three-day period for any other reason.

As the technical go-to person for a team of progressive journalists, I am constantly involved with how our service is disseminated. I pour daily over the statistics of our website visitors. I also watch with an informed eye the movements and growth of other political groups from many genera. When I saw the article on Yahoo censoring emails my reaction was not of surprise or disgust. I simply stated, "Good to see it in a video, that's exactly what I have been telling everyone!"

What's Real and What's Not

Now, before you assume that every twitter post, Yahoo email or Facebook "like" disappears into some massive centralized black hole of Orwellian information control, let's look at the numbers. After the newsletter, Facebook is the second largest source of visitors to Visitors from Yahoo email boxes number about the same as visitors from Gmail, MSN or AOL. We consistently get traffic from Twitter, Stumble and other social sharing services. RSN lives and breathes on the active participation of our readers. Stop "sharing" and RSN will wither.

The Technology Does Exist

In 1998 I spent 10 days in Beijing. China was at a turning point. The boom had only just begun. The departures and arrivals at the Beijing airport were literally being scrawled on a white board. The traffic cops did not have radios, so you could break the biking rules as long as you could bicycle away from any one of them fast enough.

The Great Firewall was in its infancy. We did some experimentation on what emails could and could not be sent home via email. "Tienanmen Square Massacre" sent. "Democracy," "Freedom," "Bill of Rights" all sent. "Sexy" did not send.

Today China exercises the most austere system of information control the world has ever known. Activists and organizers who use coded language and hide behind IP address scramblers are hunted down and imprisoned. Disinformation agents scour the web for anti-government threads. Orwell's imagination has been realized in the extreme.

Did China do it alone? Absolutely not. It was US corporations who developed the technological foundation for the Great Firewall. The search algorithms, IP address tracking and myriad techniques and tools for asserting state control over information in China are by and large an invention born in our own back yard. The results, most Chinese youth have never heard of the Tienanmen Square Massacre and US corporations possess the most advanced systems for information control ever created.

The Potential for Abuse

Did Twitter's technology help mobilize the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt? Absolutely. The Main Stream media constantly drew attention to social media as an organizing tool for the Arab Spring. Did the Tea Party rise to prominence on Facebook? Undoubtedly. Could the Progressive movement use social media to advance our cause? Sure, why not?

The issue is not whether social media is available as a political tool in a general sense; rather, we need to be aware of the power of subtle manipulations. Let's look at some examples.

When #OccupyWallStreet began trending on Twitter, the hash tag was pulled. As a result, a moment of opportunity to reach a broader audience was lost. Sure, Twitter apologized and reactivated the tag a few hours later, but the damage was already done. Did Twitter ever pull the hash tags of demonstrators in Iran? Were Libyan revolutionary Tweets given special treatment? How would we know? How much to you trust Twitter?

When you "share" or "like" or post on Facebook, Facebook uses a system to decide how important you and your posts are to your circle of friends. In theory, if your other Facebook friends "Like" your Facebook posts, then your posts will be sent to a larger audience of your "friends." Do Facebook posts from the Tea Party get the same treatment as Facebook posts from RSN? How much do you trust Facebook?

Let's say hypothetically that a Progressive and a Tea Partier both use a biased social network to "share" an article. Let's say that for every 10 people that receive an article one of them will share it with their social network. Let's say that due to the bias of the social network, the Progressive will reach 10 friends while the Tea Partier will reach 100. The Progressive's "share" will be passed on in multiples of ten, ten views for every person that passes on the article. The Tea Partier's "share" will be passed on in orders of magnitude, one hundred views will produce 10 shares, producing 1,000 views, producing 100 shares, producing 10,000 views, etc. Clearly the potential for abuse exists and the consequences are potentially dramatic.

Plausible Deniability

"If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it ..."

Let's face it, Yahoo was laughably stupid in their censorship of They actually displayed an error message! Sure they apologized, claimed it was an accident. Maybe it was an accident?

What if you were told that the message sent, but the message was simply never received? Or what if your message was sent to 8 out of 10 people you sent it to, while a Tea Partiers message was sent to all 10 people they sent it to. Let's face it, the act of clicking "tweet" or "share" or "post" or "send" is an act of faith. We believe that our messages will get equal treatment on the grounds that the services are provided by corporations with benign intentions and are kept honest by the people who use them. In many cases we probably do get equal treatment, but how do we know? When a major election can sway on a few percent of the population, extraordinary power is exercised by the likes of Facebook, Twitter or Google. Do we just assume that such power does not corrupt?

What Do We Do About It? Fight Persistent and Fight Smart

We expect news services to strive for objectivity, while knowing that many often express bias. If you are reading RSN, like me, you probably already have a high degree of distrust for "the Main Stream." You are probably distrustful of the goals or intentions of major corporations, media outlets and government agencies. For us the challenge isn't to "wake up" from the mind-numbing Main Stream drivel about Bieber's haircut or Jolie's latest adoption. The challenge is to mobilize our communities toward a just and sane future. Educating yourself is an act of defiance. Educating others is a pathway to radical positive change.

The bottom line, we know the potential for abuse exists, we know the technology exists, and we know the abuse does happen. The most difficult thing to know is how much it happens, when it happens or where it happens. If Facebook is not posting, does that mean that Stumble or Digg are blocking too? Doubtful. If your Yahoo address is not sending, create a Gmail address, an AOL address and a MSN address. They are all free after all. If you know a story, like the Occupation of Wall Street for example, is being ignored and in some cases censored, make sure you mention it to anyone and everyone you can.

Catch them in the act. Let the world know. One of the interesting attributes of US culture is that many of us will persist in blissful ignorance while injustices are visited the world over, but the moment we hear that one of our fellow citizens has been censored, we fly into a rage. The explosive popularity of the Yahoo censorship article is a fine example. If you see or even suspect you are being censored, document it however you can and let people know. If the Emperor has no clothes on ...

To me, the many-faced opaque reality of Internet censorship is not a paranoid theory, it is the most powerful mechanism for executing hierarchical control over rational minds with or without the delusion of democracy. This is not a manifesto of hopelessness. It is a call to action. Another vision exists in parallel. The power to make a real difference is literally at your fingertips. your social media marketing partner
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