The fragility of social networks

What would happen if we suddenly lost access to Twitter? This could happen for any number of reasons, either with activists accounts being shut down, or with Twitter itself going offline or being blocked by government.

A friend of mine is worried that if she lost her Twitter account then she would lose contact with the few thousand people that follow her and she has enquired about backing up the names of those followers. There are tools that are able to download and save the names of contacts from Twitter but there is a problem; if the only identifier that you have for someone is their Twitter name, that may not be enough to find them in a post-twitter world. They could easily have used a different name everywhere else even if you knew what service they had moved to.

So how would the anti-cuts movement cope with the loss of Twitter? I suspect that while many people could still stay in touch, whole networks would become fragmented and information would not flow nearly as quickly. Many people that do not use Facebook and perhaps do not use the relevant web pages would be unable to get information from their usual contacts through twitter. They may well eventually find out what they need to know, but it would take much longer.

I do not think that there has been a problem so far with Twitter accounts; I am only aware of spammers being evicted from Twitter, although inevitably there will be some other examples. I think that this will change and it is quite likely to follow the example set by Facebook.

Facebook is not your friend. Facebook is a privately owned business which encourages you to post updates and share information so that it can profit from you. As a private business, Facebook has no obligation to honour the principles of free speech or to provide a service. Facebook can remove pages for any reason it likes. Sometimes it removes pages because they contain discussion of illegal actions or if enough people report the page for containing spam or offensive content. Pages have been removed in the past because of fake copyright claims. The default action in this situation is to remove pages now and ask questions later. Pages could also be removed purely because staff at Facebook don’t like them and being a private company, they don’t have to have a reason. Last week Facebook removed more than fifty anti-cuts and protest related pages without warning. The removal of these pages meant that these groups of people were suddenly fractured and the lists of members and interested people were lost. This is not the first time that protest-related pages have been removed and previous removals have caused massive inconvenience to both organisers and followers. A partial list of affected pages is available here.

Clearly, then, we cannot trust Facebook when organising events, especially if the event might make them nervous or if they fear legal action for facilitating it. I think the same applies or will soon apply to Twitter, and to services such as Livejournal, WordPress, Blogger and others. Even websites are not safe. Websites are hosted by a provider and that provider can be subjected to pressure from lawyers or law enforcement agencies, and when that happens they usually cave in to pressure and pull the website. The safest option is likely to be a privately owned server in a small datacentre but not many can afford that.

Ultimately, my advice is do not trust Facebook, Twitter, or any other social network or service that serves as a point of contact. If there is a person that you wish to stay in touch with even after losing access to these networks, I suggest making sure that you have at least two different methods of contacting them apart from social media. Email and phone number are probably best. Ideally we should organise a phone tree or an email tree as a backup within our protest movements, or perhaps a combination of both.

Further reading

Facebook shoots first, ignores questions later; account lock-out attack works

Stop the facebookpurge!

Political Facebook Groups Deleted On Royal Wedding Day


Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

7 thoughts on “The fragility of social networks”

  1. Following on from your blog The Bulldog Estate, a blog which attempts to oppose the scammers, hate pages and Facebook jackers has started a petition to say “enough is enough.”

    Thanks to their efforts The Bulldog Estate has had their account revoked, then brought back and still suffers harassment from Facebook.

    Facebook is not your friend indeed.

  2. I’ve been pondering this myself. I think we could (and should) engineer a more resilient network. It’s worth remembering that exists, and the StatusNet platform it’s built on is open source.

  3. i still think myspace is the best:) it has music and other good content.but sadly overlooked nowdays because of facebook.

  4. Makes you wonder if someone will invent a free (speech) / open / distributed alternative to facebook and/or twitter. (YouTube is quite important too for getting free news out).

    at 1:46:40. Thought for the day. About how facebook/twitter are as revolutionary as the printing press. Apart from managing to say “God” at the end, I’m not sure this tied into anything religious at all. But he has a point – social media is the stuff of revolutions. Scary that it’s in private hands – but I’m sure the computer scientists and geeks of the world are ingenious enough to delivery a free solution should it become necessary.

    Maybe start now?

  5. A very good example of facebooks laws unto itself are the removal of photos and even entire accounts, without warning, for having a pro-breastfeeding message. Some accounts have been reinstated but many have not, with little or no explanation leaving many without support networks they relied upon.

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