Since Twitter announced its Country Withheld Content policy last Thursday, fear and outrage have spread at tweetspeed across the blogosphere and the connected media, with Reporters Without Borders director Olivier Basille firing off an open letter to Twitter’s chairman Jack Dorsey decrying the advent of “geolocative censorship” and a broad range of voices, from Egyptian activist Mahmoud Salem to Generation-Y blogger Yoani Sanchez to Bianca Jagger, weighing in to wonder if a boycott is in order.
Sociologist (and Berkman-Center colleague) Zeynep Tufekci points out that Twitter is taking a subtler approach than its detractors may realize. “Twitter’s latest policy is purposefully designed to allow Twitter to exist as a platform as broadly as possible,” Tufekci writes, “while making it as hard as possible for governments to censor content, either tweet by tweet or more, all the while giving free-speech advocates a lot of tools to fight censorship.”
Twitter’s attempt to localize censorship has the look of an experiment that’s deeply cognizant of the viral nature of civic discourse in networked culture. While the social media hardly render censorship impossible, it’s evident that the stifling of dissent takes much different forms in a many-to-many public sphere than it could in a broadcast regime. Twitter’s initiative is aesthetically fascinating as well: grayed-out tweets that act as metadata and mourning clothes, their offending content replaced with the muted, diplomatic enunciation of an absence: “Tweet withheld / This tweet from [@Username] has been withheld in [Country]. Learn more.” The policy takes shapes as a minimally-compliant measure that also meters the impact of censorship in measurable quanta. And curiously, before the first bona-fide country-withheld tweet has appeared, its characteristic formula has flourished as a new form of joking tweet:
This tweet from @julesmattsson is withheld in: UK due to explicit sexual content involving Eric Pickles & a Giraffe. Bet you’re curious…
— Jules Mattsson (@julesmattsson) January 28, 2012
The outcome of Twitter’s experiment in mounting a geolocative response to censorship can hardly be predicted. When will grayed-out tweets begin to appear? Will evidence of silencing pressure accumulate? Will such measures effect a growth in consciousness of the effects of censorship among those of us who feel we have nothing to fear? Or will the presence of silenced voices simply become one of the tolerated tendencies of our social-media streams—an occasional access of displeasure rippling through the feed, no more to be troubled over than a man standing on a corner holding a cardboard sign or a facade bristling with broken windows? After all, Twitter already works with chillingeffects.org to document tweets subject to takedown notices in IP disputes—and yet the account that tweets news of these takedowns has a mere 152 followers at this writing.
And yet despite evidence of networked complacency, we have Wikileaks, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement. It’s clearer than ever that the Internet continues to develop new flavors of sovereignty, to emerge as a domain of political action but imperfectly aligned with (and, at its most energetic, antagonistic to) the contours of power shaped by the modern nation state. In a way, Twitter’s new policy on local censorship helps to put Orwell’s face-stamping boot on the other foot; The center may not hold, but something more than some mere anarchy is afoot.