A 'Trustworthy' Social Network For The Occupy Movement: Even If They Build It, Can They Ever Trust It?
from the weakest-link-in-the-chain dept
The role of technology in the wave of protests that swept the world last year is a matter of debate. While some claim that social networks and mobile phones allowed protesters to organize themselves with an unprecedented speed and efficiency, others have seen their role as marginal – or even counterproductive, since these same technologies also allow governments to monitor events with greater ease than in pre-Internet days.
One group aligned with the Occupy movement is situated somewhere in the middle. That is, it recognizes the important role that technology can play, but sees increasing problems with today's social media. The solution, they believe, is to create a new social network specifically aimed at helping protest movements scale up their activities by linking like-minded people around the world:
What we need, at this point, is a platform that allows us to radically democratize our global organizational efforts. In addition to the local squares, we now need a global square where people of all nations can come together as equals to participate in the coordination of collective actions and the formulation of common goals and aspirations. For this reason, we call upon the revolutionary wizkids of the world to unite and assist in the development of a new online platform – The Global Square – that combines the communicative functions of the existing social networks with the political functions of the assemblies to provide crucial new tools for the development of our global movement.
The same post has an interesting list of requirements for such a system, which will be open source. That's certainly wise, since it will allow volunteers to contribute, but it does raise the question: why not use one of the existing open source social networks like identi.ca, elgg, or – perhaps the best-known example – Diaspora?
One of the key differences of the proposed social network from those is the central importance of trust, as this feature on The Global Square in Wired explains:
One challenge that all of the new efforts face is a very difficult one for non-centralized services: ensuring that members are trustworthy. That’s critical for activists who risk injury and arrest in all countries and even death in some. To build trust, local and international networks will use a friend-of-a-friend model in Knutson and Boyer’s projects. People can’t become full members on their own as they can with social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google+.
Although that sounds fine in theory, recent events in the UK suggest that it might not help much in practice. A year ago, the Guardian broke a story about a police officer there who, for seven years:
lived deep undercover at the heart of the environmental protest movement, travelling to 22 countries gleaning information and playing a frontline role in some of the most high-profile confrontations
Nor was this an isolated case, as another Guardian story reported:
Five of the seven undercover police officers in the protest movement who have been exposed so far have admitted having or have been alleged to have had sexual relationships with activists they were keeping under surveillance, despite claims by senior police officers that this was banned.
It seems unlikely that employing the "friend-of-a-friend" approach to trust would have kept many of them out of the network.
In fact it's hard to see how any social network technology can get around the problem that undercover agents will always find a way to subvert trust systems by exploiting their weakest points: other people. That means that the real challenge facing The Global Square is not technical – how to keep out spies - but social: how to cope with the fact that you can't.