The current controversy over Twitter‘s decision to allow countries to censor material it posts just shows how fast the young upstart can quickly become the rich conservative.
British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is credited with the quote “If you are young and not liberal, then you have no heart; but if you are old and not conservative, then you have no brain.”
Twitter has been a key part of the move towards open societies and democratization round the world as for example the role it played in the Arab Spring, but like Google before it the temptation of the financial gains to be obtained by entering markets like China means that role will apparently be sacrificed.
Twitter argues that it is simply obeying local laws. This fatuous argument has been used to justify any number of outrages through history, will twitter staff in those countries with Sharia law join in the occassional stoning of adulterers because it is the local law.
In an ideal world the rule of law and doing what is morally right would be entwined. In this imperfect world the best we can hope for is that those two views can be aired and debated by all members of a community in the hope of making the gap smaller even if only by a tiny amount.
That debate certainly does not happen in China, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand (the first country to publicly support Twitter’s position), much of the middle east and many other countries.
Censorship is justified in these countries on the grounds of maintaining social order. It does not. Repression, particularly of information, leads to paranoia, rumours and uncertainty. These are the foundations of social unrest. They create a pressure cooker that can be kept under control for a while by brutality and repression but at some time the lid blows and when it does it does not care who it hits.
A former member of the Khmer Rouge’s central committee who left the movement rather than take up arms once told me that much of the killing done in the immediate aftermath of the take over in Cambodia was due to a break down in the social order and a blood letting as people who had put up with so much for so long exacted a disproportionate revenge on those who had at some time repressed them even in the most minor way.
New media should be seen as safety valve for airing those grievances and either informing or shaming the authoities to take action. The issue is not that discontent is aired but rather that it is ignored. An open society in which people are treated fairly, have a say in the running of their own affairs and can hold their leaders responsible and accountable has nothing to fear from Twitter, Online Media or letters written in flames in the sky.
It is sad that a tool like Twitter or any social media should abandon the very qualities that make it so valuable to those seeking a better society. One presumes as has often been the way with the media the financial rewards become blinding.
Even Rupert Murdoch reputedly had a bust of Lenin in his rooms at University. His newspapers, particularly The Sun, were radical, accessible and innovative when launched in the 1960s, they provided much useful information particularly regarding women’s issues when the rest of the British media just thought of such things as “yucky”. And with this freshness and honesty came a rise in circulation and success – a more than 4 million daily circulation (making it the largest english language daily paper in the world at the time). The 1 million GBP profit a week built the Murdoch empire but along the way the radical student’s papers moved away from trying to save innocent people from the gallows as his first paper in the Australian city of Adelaide did to being ardent proponents of its return.
But even an editorial line supporting capital punishment may have been justifiable (despite the serious miscarriages of justice which ultimately lead to Parliament suspending then abolishing it) but the telephone hacking scandal that came to light recently certainly is not. There was no public good in these intrusions, it was not a deterent against violent crime as death penalty proponents argue, it was just a grubby new low point on a downward trajectory that had become more steep as standards were abandoned for increased profits
It would behove Twitter to look at the history of the media, just because the technology is different does not mean the pitfalls of the business combined with the need to disseminate information have changed.
As they say in New Zealand “its the same meat just different gravy”.