The Techtonic shift: how digital technologies change communication

A short history of the internet begins with a group of universities and entrepreneurs wanting to help design a network that would help people access information and communicate with others (hence the term “information and communication technology” or ICT). The US Department of Defense created the first model of the internet in the 1960s. Walter Isaacson details the “creative collaboration” between the military, academic institutions, industries and a group of progressive and libertarian freethinkers involved in creating the internet in his book The Innovators (Isaacson 2014).

The US military invested in an internet to enable communications in the event of a widespread attack or disaster. Some assert the military also had an interest in designing a communication platform that would enable intelligence collection on populations so that it could identify threats and prepare to intervene more quickly. While people today use the internet to advance many aspects of their lives, the military invested in building the internet to carry out its mission, including warfare and surveillance (Levine 2018).

Widespread public use of new digital technologies like email began in the 1990s, enabling individuals to communicate electronically. Social media began in the early 2000s, as digital platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube enabled people to share ideas, photos and videos, as well as comment on other people’s posts. Social media platforms are “social” because they support mass communication and collaboration. In the last 20 years, half of the people on the planet began using Facebook. It has been a giant technological experiment with human security hanging in the balance.

Communication on the internet is distinct from other legacy forms of communication in at least 12 ways. These 12 words all start with the letter “S”. They are “s-words”. And they are powerful “swords”. Each of the 12 characteristics described holds both a positive and negative potential for society. Like a sword, social media can spur people to kill or serve as a tool for mobilising citizens to defend democracy. Examples of positive and negative uses of these “swords” are summarised here, based on the case studies in this book.

Speed: Digital technologies enable instantaneous communication. The chapter on India details how a false message on social media accusing outsiders of kidnapping local children spread instantaneously on social media, leading to a mob that killed two tourists. But in Egypt, the speed of communication-enabled democracy protest organisers to rapidly spread information to mobilise collective action.

Scale: Digital technologies enable a single person to send a message accessible by hundreds, thousands, or millions of people. In Brazil, an individual could start a false rumor about a political candidate that could reach millions of people all over the country on WhatsApp. But in Jordan, a single humanitarian could post a message offering assistance that could reach thousands of Syrian refugees.

Scope: Digital technologies allow geographic access with anyone on the planet with access to digital technology. The chapter on Kenya illustrates how a global

Social Media S-Words

Figure 1.3 12 Social Media S-Words

company like Cambridge Analytica could attempt to gather local user’s information and manipulate the Kenyan election. But in Nigeria, the global scope of social media enabled people from thousands of miles away to tweet messages in support of girls kidnapped by Boko Haram.

Searchable: Digital technologies allow people to find other people with similar interests. In Zimbabwe, the government could search social media posts to enforce its ban on critiquing the government. But in Nigeria, civil society used hashtags to help civil society members find each other and amplify their concerns for human security.

Secrecy: Digital technologies give groups the option to communicate in private chat rooms or forums, away from public scrutiny. In Sri Lanka, rumours fomenting violence were spread by unknown users, perhaps automated bots, which were then shared by key political leaders so that the origin of the rumour was secret. But in India, activists used encrypted services that protected their privacy to ensure they could safely share information online.

Space: Digital technologies allow groups of people to communicate with each other by creating a shared digital space or “room” tor discussion. In Northern Ireland, groups of youth could send messages to each other to organise fights along the peace lines that had divided their city. But in Kenya, Twitter users could debate the pros and cons of different political candidates online.

Speech Freedom: Digital technologies allow an individual to post any story they want, without an editor’s approval. While some messages may be censored by tech companies or governments, the scope of digital content means that tech companies only censor a relatively small percentage of posts. In Colombia, people could post messages spreading false information about the peace process. But in Zimbabwe, social media enables local people to post messages about human rights and women’s rights.

Surveillance: Digital technologies enable vast new ways to track a user’s location and data. In Venezuela, the government created an ID system that linked food distribution to social media accounts, suggesting that people who “tweeted” a positive thing about the government might get access to food. But in Northern

Ireland, police monitored social media in positive ways to interrupt plans for youth fights.

Swift developments: The rapid growth of new technologies is also unique. New forms of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, for example, change social media algorithms that determine who sees digital content. In Myanmar and Venezuela, the governments quickly set up troll armies to harness the power of social media in ways that would undermine democracy and human rights. But in Sri Lanka, some civil society groups quickly yoked social media to encourage people to vote in elections.

Sticker price: Digital technologies provide an affordable, relatively low-cost distribution of messages. In Egypt, violent extremist groups could spread free messages to recruit new members. But in all the case studies in this book, civil society could also use social media to advance their work.

Simple: Digital technologies allow people to share material with little technical knowledge on a simple mobile phone that is accessible anywhere. In Brazil and India, easy access to digital news information makes it easier to find unverified false news online rather than to access a radio or newspaper. But in Sri Lanka and Jordan, social media technologies enabled civil society to easily participate in discussions about social, cultural and political issues via online platforms.

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