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140 characters of freedom

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Gonzalez 1 Ana Gonzalez Professor: Erin Dietel-McLaughlin WR 13300: Multimedia Writing and Rhetoric April 30th 2014 140 characters of freedom When I was younger, about 10 years ago, I was taught to report back to my mother every half hour to see if I was ok. Nevertheless, as the years have gone by my little cousin who is now 9 years old, is accustomed to just writing a text message saying he is fine. Through the use of technological artifacts, humankind has revolutionized its ways and has created a “global communication without boundaries” (Schifer, Porto 2013). This communication has even changed the way revolutions and oppressive governments deal with their people. Throughout my research of abusive governments and their relation with social media, I have come to notice a specific trend. This tendency is characterized by the closing of Twitter and Twitter accounts every time there is a risk or an actual protest going on in their countries. Although the majority of the reports of media censorship, come from developing countries’ abusive governments such as Egypt and
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Gonzalez 1

Ana Gonzalez

Professor: Erin Dietel-McLaughlin

WR 13300: Multimedia Writing and Rhetoric

April 30th 2014

140 characters of freedom

When I was younger, about 10 years ago, I was taught to report back to my mother every

half hour to see if I was ok. Nevertheless, as the years have gone by my little cousin who is now 9

years old, is accustomed to just writing a text message saying he is fine. Through the use of techno-

logical artifacts, humankind has revolutionized its ways and has created a “global communication

without boundaries” (Schifer, Porto 2013). This communication has even changed the way revolu-

tions and oppressive governments deal with their people. Throughout my research of abusive gov-

ernments and their relation with social media, I have come to notice a specific trend. This tendency

is characterized by the closing of Twitter and Twitter accounts every time there is a risk or an ac-

tual protest going on in their countries. Although the majority of the reports of media censorship,

come from developing countries’ abusive governments such as Egypt and Venezuela, the threat

that Twitter presents can be further distinguished when even governments of developed countries

such as the UK feel threatened by the influence of Twitter as a social media.

Through my paper I intend to attract people that feel passionate about politics, justice, me-

dia and human rights. My targeted audience is people with some background knowledge of social

media, specifically Twitter and some understanding of politics. I hope to introduce my audience to

the relationship of social media censorship—specifically Twitter—and oppressive governments. I

will present Twitter’s censorship by oppressive governments and private entities as a violation of

human rights. To achieve my thesis I will expand on the role of governments as public entities and

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the relation of freedom of speech and democracy. I will elaborate on the role Twitter presents in

society and how the audience and features of Twitter make it one of the most censored media in

the world by oppressive governments. Through examples I will further develop my point and ex-

pand on the use of Twitter as “a big voice in real-time media criticism” (Poniewozik 2009) and

elaborate in the role of Twitter in revolutions around the world.

Governments are the functioning brain of every country. They are the ones that create solu-

tions and provide improvements. They are responsible for understanding the needs of its people

and resolving their issues. Together with the people and other governmental entities they form the

body of a country. Of course, just like a brain, governments need the input from other parts of the

body in order for a good job to be done. Nonetheless, when governments start to censor the people,

they restrict their own senses and start basing their actions solely on what they think. According to

Schifer and Porto, Locke referred to the basis for society’s unity in the continuous civil war of

opinions (89). There is no unity of a body if every part does not play its part, there is no unity in a

country if the government does not let its people play their part and have freedom of speech. Op-

pressive governments around the world have been censoring freedom of speech to maintain their

countries in control. Freedom of speech refers to, as in the article 19 of the Universal Acts of Hu-

man Rights, the right every person has to be free to speak their minds and express themselves. Ev-

ery government that censors freedom of speech and therefore “abuses its own citizens” (Lagon

2013) is considered an abusive government.

Twitter as a social network with an added news media component, has become one of the

most censored social network by abusive powers. In Venezuela specifically, “Twitter Inc. (TWTR)

said the Venezuelan government blocked users’ online images as opposition groups marched

through Caracas for a third day” (Laya, Frier, Kurmanaev 2014). Meanwhile in a completely dif-

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ferent continent “Turkish Prime minister, vows to eradicate Twitter” (Watson, Tuysuz 2014). Turk-

ish government party, AKP, claims to be “conservative democratic” (Dağı,İhsan 2008). And the

Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro claims to have a “democratic, constitutional, peaceful

revolution” (Interview with Amanpour 2014). Nonetheless, “Press freedom implies media auton-

omy” (Hedwig 2006) and both countries censor media therefore violate human rights. Venezuelan

and Turkish governments as established by Lagon, expose a façade of democracy but are in fact

abusive governments.

There are more than a hundred social networking sites, but Twitter seems to be the

focus of abusive powers in their intent to keep their countries solely under their control. Twitter as

an interface programmed with a space of expression of 140 characters, has created a sense of fear

in governments which has caused them to censor Twitter. There are two main factors that assert the

fear governments’ have in Twitter, its multidirectional nature and its users.

Twitter’s multidirectional nature refers to the idea that as Schifer and Porto would describe,

the user is the recipient and the creator of the information (65). This multidirectional nature com-

pares with older mediums such as the newspaper, that instead of everyone sharing their opinions,

they have a unidirectional nature. Unidirectional nature refers to, a sole transmitter of the informa-

tion and the possibility of some recipients, but these recipients cannot interfere or edit the informa-

tion provided (65). Further on, the information in Twitter, begins a process of bouncing off from

one user to another and instead of leaving it to each person to come up with his or her own idea of

the subject it creates a correlation of ideas that form from one individual to another. According to

McKinney people keep coming back to Twitter because of the “communication it enables” (2010).

They keep coming back because what they write is no longer a single news or idea but is a part of a

group of ideas. An which could be be the base for an incredible new one. Also, the buttons of Fa-

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vorite and retweet propose a positive reinforcement that promotes even more the involvement from

the user in a certain subject.

The audience, on the other hand, affects what the tweets are made of. Therefore, it affects

how they are perceived by oppressive governments. These, although under the façade of democ-

racy, are not considered democracies. Understanding that dictatorship is the form of government in

which there is an “abuse of power” (Chenoweth, Young 2001) and democracy, in contrast, entails

“participation of the citizens in the decision-making process” (Hedwig 2006). Therefore, any abuse

of power such as censorship is considered anti-democratic, and in fact dictatorial. To this point,

57% of Twitter’s users are democrats or leaned democrats (Mitchell, Hitlin 2013). Thus, 57% of

political tweets are against oppressive governments and present a claim that contradicts oppressive

governments’ ideals. This in turn reflects the fear abusive governments have of Twitter, and the

reason for its censorship. Moreover, stats show that Twitter has a “particular appeal to younger

adults” (Duggan, Smith 2013). Just in the United States, the 2008 election demonstrated that young

adults leaned strongly to the Democratic Party (Keeter, Horowitz and Tyson 2008). In Venezuela,

a completely different situation, “Students were the first to protest” (BBC news, 2014) against the

oppressive government of Nicolas Maduro. In my opinion, as a Venezuelan immersed in the poli-

tics of her country, I firmly believe students represent the majority of protesters in Venezuela.

These statistics and examples show, young adults have a tendency for democracy, and as majori-

tarian participants of Twitter they form a great part of the democratic oriented Twitter users. There-

fore, oppressive governments with their anti-democratic structure, have opposing views with more

than half of Twitter users.

An important point to be considered, is the credibility of Twitter. Mike Schmierbach and

Anne Schmierbach raise this question when stating in their research that it deserves attention to

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question “the credibility of media messages distributed by Twitter” (2013). As they made their way

to this argument, they added the lack of filtering that Twitter presents. Twitter, compared to other

online sources, that are in fact considered “as or more credible than offline content” (2013), does

not restrain the amount and quality of information that is published. The argument that Twitter

does not provide accurate information, may in fact give reason for oppressive governments to cen-

sor it.

Twitter as a news device, focuses on current events. Although it lacks filtering, its tweets

come from the people to the people. Compared to other unidirectional media, tweets grow stronger

with each new addition or retweet—reblogging someone else’s tweet—. Twitter presents three

methods that universally classify its tweets: retweeted tweets, normal tweets and tweets in trending

topics. These three types of tweets work in such a way that any new tweet would be in the normal

category, if many people retweeted it, it would show as retweeted (with the number of retweets)

and if it forms part of a large number of similar tweets in topic, it will be under a trending topic (#).

Further on, the “verified” sign next to each official account proves the authenticity and reliability of

the source. Therefore, as Castillo, Mendoza and Poblete would assert, in Twitter there are methods

that “enable users to assess information credibility” (2011). Thus, although the credibility of every

tweet cannot be assured, the truth of events and the opinions of trustworthy sources can be ob-

tained and are in fact, the predominant tweets.

Oppressive governments maintain their control by censoring media and keeping their situa-

tion isolated from the world. They need to keep it isolated because of international intervention,

but also to keep its own citizens from expressing their own views. In these two cases, governments

are censoring freedom of speech. The audience and multidirectional nature of twitter not only pro-

duces 177 million tweets per day (Maeve, Brener 2013), or an enormous amount of flow of infor-

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mation, but it can also produce revolutions. Revolution according to The Merriam Webster dictio-

nary means the attempt to “end the rule of one government” (2014). This attempt to change the rul-

ing power or even change the way a country works is the enemy of oppressive governments.

There are other social media tools that influence the political world, such as Facebook or

Instagram. Nevertheless, Twitter has the aforementioned characteristics of rapid development that

help coordinate (Howard 2013) manifestations such as the one in Egypt. Since Twitter has the

availability of spreading its news very fast; any obstacle, turbulence or sudden event can be up-

dated and resolved in a manner of minutes. As personal experience, in a protest in Venezuela in

2011, I was walking towards the meeting point in Plaza Venezuela, where the opposition leaders

would present their cases and motivate their people, but an armed group of militaries were block-

ing the way to Plaza Altamira. Through Twitter, we were able to recognize this problem and come

up with a new route to our destination and would not cause any more trouble. Twitter, more than

any other social network is a source for instant information, that can contribute to the development

of activities, political or not, around the world.

Revolutions are organized around the world to make a change. They are sometimes peace-

ful and many times violent. They seek an ideal and most of the time they protest until achieving it.

In the past, Revolutions were started by leaders who would gather up in secret meetings to over-

throw a government. As the years have passed, nothing is really secret (Schifer, Porto 2003), revo-

lutions have to be triggered instantaneously and have to reach hundreds of people very quickly.

This is where twitter comes in. the flow of information is no longer a single idea but rather is a

rapid progression of democratic ideals that although its source can be censored the idea no longer

can. Therefore, more than the user itself, oppressive governments fear the production of ideas that

can no longer be stopped or censored.

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The online activism presented in Twitter reveals the threat presented to oppressive govern-

ments. Nevertheless, protests start as a response to a critical situation. In Venezuela, they started

because of the “chaotic economic and security situation” (Peeler 2014). In Egypt they started as a

defense for “three decades of violent repression and despotic rule” (Gustin 2011). In Moldova

2009, Moldovans started “to protest against Moldova’s Communist leadership” with the help of

Twitter (Barry 2009). Protests and revolutions, start as an expression of a situation and Twitter as a

medium has been a helper in starting an organizing them. Moreover, even in Iran’s elections “in the

Twitterverse, a separate uprising took place” when Iranians demanded more coverage of the sup-

posed fraudulent election through Twitter (Poniewozik 2009). What is very important to notice is

that when oppressive governments censor Twitter they are not only trying to repress the revolution,

which could be a valid governmental decision, rather they are censoring the right every person has

to speak their mind. Twitter is an interface for expression, not an interface for starting revolutions.

Although those expressions and ideas have the possibility of starting revolutions, their repression is

a violation of a human right.

In Venezuela, my native country, Twitter has another factor for being censored. Most of

Twitter’s users, according to Maeve and Brenner (2001), have an income higher than $30000 a

year, must have accessibility to the Internet and are located in urban areas. On the other hand, the

oppressive government of Hugo Chavez preceded by Nicolas Maduro has a motto of “Nation, So-

cialism or Death” and “succeed at the polls by mobilizing and winning the votes of the poor” (Lupu

2010). With their socialist motto they have based their campaign in propagating resentment for the

higher classes. They have expropriated numerous private companies and even even sent opposing

political leaders to jail. This in turn, proposes a new factor for why the oppressive government of

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Venezuela is censoring twitter. They censor twitter not only because of what it is capable of dong

but also because there is a resentment towards the higher class. There is clear social discrimination.

Twitter as a medium according to Amnesty International “In crisis, it can become a danger-

ous medium for rumors or misinformation” (Amnesty International 2012). Twitter, as we stated,

can trigger revolutions and maintain their productiveness. But, were do we draw the line were gov-

ernment intervention is necessary? Where does freedom of expression become a risk to society?

According to the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, “free flow of information can

sometimes be a problem” (Gross, 2011). This extended use of a medium to say whatever idea

comes to a person’s mind can produce dangerous effects such as the riots presented in the UK in

2011. Therefore, in 2012, Twitter announced a change in policy that deletes certain tweets in spe-

cific countries to “abide by specific national laws” (Amnesty International, 2012). This action was

received with great distress by some of Twitter’s users, but was responded to by Twitter by speci-

fying that this new policy actually opposed less censorship. Instead of censoring a tweet all around

the world, it would just censor it in the specific country in which violated the laws. This new policy

was created by Twitter to keep its company running in certain countries with censorship laws.

Even Twitter, if used the wrong way can trigger dangerous effects in societies.

Although Twitter could potentially create disturbances in countries, or even dangerous situ-

ations, according to Schifer and Porto, one thing is to instigate violence through the mediums and

another is to express a personal political opinion that may or may not create acts of violence. True

democratic governments should not censor the opinion but rather censor the acts of violence. For

instance, people are expressing their opinion against corruption. A democracy would censor any

citizen that actively portrays a danger to society by acting against the laws, such as, murdering the

respective members of a corrupt government. Nevertheless, the opinion that corrupt governments

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are in fact a dictatorship, for example, should not be censored. Further on, Twitter, as a corpora-

tion, which users’ present 57% inclination towards democracy should not under any circumstances

compromise the rights of freedom of speech. Much less, facilitate censoring in certain countries

with abusive governments. Any government or institution which censors opposing views is violat-

ing a human right. Therefore, Twitter incorporation violates the rights of its users when it prohibits

them to post certain tweets in specific countries.

Governments need the voice of its people to function correctly. Democratic governments

hear the voice of its of people. Abusive governments, in contrast, abuse the rights of its people and

produce a threat to democracy itself. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, as Schifer and

Porto would point out, specifies the strong relation between the democratic system and freedom of

expression. This strong relation comes hand in hand with the fact that any violation of a human

right is an antidemocratic statement and is in fact an abusive one.

Freedom of speech is a human right. As such, it should be respected and guarded by institu-

tions. Any violation of freedom of speech from regulations to policies is a violation of human

rights. Twitter, a primordially democratic media with bases in justice and freedom, should not fa-

cilitate nor accept any kind of censoring. Governments with democratic ideals should not censor

Twitter nor prohibit its distribution, because in fact, more than violating their façade of democracy

they are violating freedom of speech.

For every tweet there are 140 characters, and these 140 characters have represented

throughout the world, from Egypt to Venezuela, a form of expression. They have represented free-

dom of speech. Twitter, a social media that “has contributed to regime change in repressive places”

(Amnesty International 2012) has been censored throughout the world. Governments are censoring

twitter on the account of revolutions and in the fear of its rapid development and democratic na-

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ture. A common conception is that censoring twitter on the account of its revolutions is in fact a vi-

olation of freedom of speech, but this as previously stated could be argued. Nevertheless, twitter’s

censorship is a violation of freedom of speech because abusive governments are not censoring the

revolution. They are afraid of the revolution. What they are censoring is the democratic ideals and

the access its citizens have to information and expression. In Venezuela specifically, they are even

censoring a social class. These violations from censoring pictures on Twitter to deleting Twitter ac-

counts or prohibiting tweets in certain countries, are in fact a violation of freedom of speech, a vio-

lation of a human right.

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