Activism and dissent in authoritarian technological environments

Journalist Kirsten Han is visiting St Andrews to discuss her work in the context of large technological platforms such as Twitter. Although hosted in Computer Science, this discussion should be of interest to students and staff beyond the School, as well as students interested in taking CS5055 Data Ethics & Privacy.

For many people, Twitter is/was a hellsite, with serious concerns about hate speech, the promotion of fascists and fascism, and harassment, particularly of women and other marginalised and vulnerable communities.

But for activists, journalists and dissidents in authoritarian states, Twitter has also been an extremely valuable platform for advocacy, networking, and public education. In certain contexts, a social media platform like Twitter — especially given how populated it was with journalists and editors from the international press — provided valuable opportunities to speak out about serious human rights violations and oppression. If/when Twitter goes down, the loss to these groups is likely to be massive.

Elon Musk's acquiring of the platform, and the subsequent mess that has followed, pushes front and centre the uncomfortable position that many of us occupy: we depend on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook for freedom of expression, for organising, and for seeking international solidarity. Yet these platforms are being controlled by private corporations half a world away from us, by privileged billionaires with no lived experience of the challenges that we face, and nothing to bind them to any meaningful commitment to protecting us and standing up for our rights. What we're seeing with Musk is a reminder of just how precarious a plan of relying on these centralised, privately owned social networks has always been, and how quickly things could go away.

What, then, are the options for activists and dissidents in authoritarian environments? How should we continue to engage with and harness technology for our work?

Kirsten Han is a human rights defender, a freelance journalist and a member of the Transformative Justice Collective. She has also written on labour rights, freedom of expression and transparency in national politics, among other issues. For more information see https://www.kirstenhan.com/

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