Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reconciling Social Networking and Safety as Activists

As I am sitting here writing this piece I have a lot of different strands of thought running through my mind. As this is obviously a complex issue I will begin with my initial question. What is the definition of safety?

Google states that ‘safety’ is defined as ‘the state of being certain that adverse effects will not be caused by some agent under defined conditions’. Wikipedia takes it one step further and defines the term as “…the state of being ‘safe’ (from French, 'sauf'), the condition of being protected against physical, social, spiritual, financial, political, emotional, occupational, psychological, educational or other types or consequences of failure, damage, harm or any other event which could be considered non-desirable. Safety [according to Wikipedia] can also be defined to be the control of recognized hazards to achieve an acceptable level of risk. This can take the form of being protected from the event or from exposure to something that causes health or economical losses. It can include protection of people or of possessions.” (

So there we are. That’s what it means to be safe. But does it? Our world has changed greatly, with many activists having online and off-line lives. This is certainly not reserved to activists, but anyone who is online and engages in at times controversial discussion, but it is the angle that I will take in this particular post.

These thoughts have been churning around in my mind for a while now and I thought I would formulate them concretely, using a two pronged approach – (a) activist internet safety and (b) social networking and associated safety concerns.

Many online activists choose not to use their real names online. I did not understand this as well as I should have when I first became part of the online Palestinian support community. But for various reasons, once an activist has attained a certain profile or reputation, they can become targets on and offline.

This type of thing can be quite difficult to deal with, depending on who it is that searches you out. In the pro-Palestine/Palestinian support community (as well as others, depending on the cause) this could at times spell the potential for at minimum harassment. I don't want to spook anyone, but it is a reality.

This issue now certainly extends from the personal to the global – ie. to the blogging community and social networking sites.  In cases such as Facebook a user is required to provide and use their legal name. This becomes an issue when the reason for using Facebook in the first place was for activist purposes. So once again we enter the arena of personal internet safety and its associated challenges.

Facebook began as a social networking site for university students. However, I believe that Facebook and other such sites have outgrown their original purpose by far. I personally do not know many people who are not on Facebook. Many just use it for networking with their families and friends, but activists have recognized the value of this social networking site for what it is – access to millions of users for awareness raising purposes and to distribute information to. So what is one to do? Provide one’s real name and effectively paint a target on one’s forehead, or does one lie in the hope of not getting caught? Most do the latter and just wait and see…

Social networking sites NEED to recognize the potential dangers activists are at times subject to and adapt their approach to making available profiles/ accounts to both individuals and group entities using pseudonyms.

It can no longer simply be a matter of a corporation’s needs and wants, but a matter of the needs of the potentially affected individuals/groups.  Due to the sheer size of Facebook and the variety of users and user needs, Facebook is now effectively responsible for addressing issues such as this! 

Does Facebook want to be responsible for potential harm being done to someone because of their faceless corporate stance? I think NOT! Or at least I hope there is/will be a conscience behind the corporate façade…We need Facebook to do another 'about face'! Should you feel inclined to act on what was said in today's post, please contact Facebook via your Facebook account at their help center. Below are the instructions to reach their suggestion page.

1. Your account tab (top right of screen)
2. Scroll down to help centre
3. Choose suggestions
4. Fill out the form in the appropriate place.

For an additional perspective on Facebook's real name policy, please have a look at Jilian York's blog post titled 'Facebook for Activists' ( Read her blog in general! It's excellent!

~ Sofia Smith

No comments:

Post a Comment