by Lisha SterlingMay 17, 2018
Facebook is a marvelous tool for civil resistance organizing, but it can also be a dangerous place for activists. Some movements may decide to use Facebook in ways that create higher risk, in order to gain visibility and public support, or show that they are not afraid or intimidated. Other movements may seek to avoid risk and not use Facebook at all. These are strategic choices that activists must make, and the purpose of this blog post is to help you assess risks of using Facebook and other social media tools in your activism.
First, it’s important for activists to understand that nothing you say on Facebook should be considered private or secure, even if it’s in a “closed” or “private” group page. It is very difficult to stop infiltrators from joining your group, unless you are vetting every single person with special care. Even if you do trust everyone in your group, Facebook will hand over content from both individual and group pages to governments based on whatever the laws are for the government requesting that content.
As a checklist, ask yourself these three questions if you are organizing nonviolent actions such as marches, sit-ins, or demonstrations through Facebook:
If you know that people in your area may face repression just for organizing a protest, or if your community members may be persecuted just for showing interest in whatever you are organizing, Facebook might not be the best option for you, unless you want to accept these risks. It is possible to encourage the community to visit your page regularly without liking it or responding directly to posts if they are concerned about government attacks, but you will likely find that your overall engagement is lower that way.
Communicating through Twitter has an added value of deniability. People can follow your Twitter feed without necessarily being labeled as members of your group, since it is common enough on Twitter for people to follow the accounts of people they disagree with in order to watch what the “other side” is saying. As long as people do not like or retweet you, they can say that they were “just seeing what the fuss was about” or something similarly innocuous.
In some countries, Telegram, a cloud-based instant messaging app, has become the go-to tool for organizing demonstrations. In Iran, the popularity of Telegram has led to increased government surveillance and interference. Telegram groups are public channels where everything that is said can be read by anyone in the group. For public channels, you cannot control who follows and therefore can see the entire history of your channel. Furthermore, vital personal information about channel organizers has been handed over to governments in the past. If you feel safe standing in a public square and shouting whatever you are going to say in a Telegram channel, then by all means, use Telegram, but do not expect it to provide privacy in groups, supergroups, or channels.
If you are going to use social media under a high-risk threat model (see here for more information on how to determine this), and you want to protect your identity online, you will want to create separate, secret email and social media accounts for your civil resistance activities. Use the TOR browser when you create your activist accounts and every single time you log in. The username(s) that you use for those private accounts must not be easily linked back to you, and you will want to make sure that none of them reference your real name, regular email, or any other identifying information. Instead, start your process by creating a new private email account and a VOIP telephone number with your secret identity that you can use when those details are required. If your life or freedom is at stake, do not ever open any of these activist accounts from inside the browser that you use for your ordinary web surfing, and never connect to them without obfuscating your IP address using TOR.
Even in lower-risk situations, you may still want to have an in-group security policy. Be aware that the pictures you post on social media and what you are livestreaming at any demonstration may be used by the government or private security firms to identify individuals. Police departments have been known to repost social media images on their pages and ask their followers to help them identify and locate people who have participated in various actions. In 2016-2017 at Standing Rock, North Dakota in the United States, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department and the private security firm TigerSwan used Facebook images and livefeeds to determine which individuals they considered “high value targets” for arrest and general harassment. They also used information from social media to build cases against some of the participants in this campaign.
Be aware that any illegal activity in your activism that you document or write about on social media could be used against you. However, some people intentionally choose to document their illegal civil disobedience as a way of raising their visibility. In the case of the Valve Turners, activists who on October 11, 2016 shut down five different pipelines carrying tar sands crude oil from Canada into Washington, North Dakota, and Minnesota actively intended to be arrested to bring more attention to their cause, and to make the case in court that their actions were necessary to protect people. Not only did these activists stay at the valves until the police showed up to arrest them, they made videos, a website, and social media posts about the entire action.
The most important thing to remember is to use your common sense around social media when you are organizing. Just because many people use Facebook doesn’t mean people should use it for organizing demonstrations and other nonviolent actions. Like any tactic in a civil resistance campaign, activists and organizers should take an intentional, strategic approach, comparing the advantages and disadvantages of the online platforms they wish to use—especially considering the lives and livelihoods supporting the movement that could be at risk.
Lisha Sterling is executive director of Geeks Without Bounds, a nonprofit organization supporting open source technology in low resource situations through education, hackathons, and an accelerator program to help promising humanitarian technology projects become sustainable. She is also on the board of directors at Frontline Wellness United.Read More