Cautious Tweeting: The Censorship of Twitter

Allia Calkins

“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, sheep to the slaughter” – George Washington

This past week, after seven years of private ownership, Twitter went public . The initial public offering of its stock was set at $26, however throughout the first day it quickly rose to over $45. It is yet unclear as to how being a public company will affect Twitter and those using the site, however, for many, the ability to use Twitter in the first place is considered a luxury. Being able to compose one’s thoughts into 140 characters represents the freedom of expression that many citizens living under authoritarian regimes lack. For these repressive regimes, Twitter represents the dangers of the Internet, and so for various reasons many have chosen to censor it.

One of the clearest examples of Twitter censorship is in China. This country has had a history of censoring web content available to its citizens, and it has actually increased this censorship as social media becomes more prominent in the world around it. At the end of 2012, in response to online scandals that exposed prominent Communist Party members, China passed new restrictions regarding blogging sites similar to Twitter. Internet users no longer have the privilege of anonymity while posting online; they must register their real names before being able to participate in any kind of online discussion. This severely limits what is said online, as posters must now be wary of anything critical they write.

While Chinese Internet users may not have access to Twitter directly, there are many alternatives for them to use. The top two micro blogging sites in China, Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo have more than 500 million combined registered users. Some citizens also manage to avoid the firewalls in place by accessing Twitter through third party web sites or a hack. However, just because Chinese citizens have access to websites that resemble Twitter, it does not mean that they benefit from everything that Twitter itself has to offer. One of the benefits to Twitter is its ability to connect people all over the globe. A person living in Argentina can read a Tweet by a Frenchman, and together these two people can interact and create new ideas. This is part of the reason that China censors Twitter; it does not want its citizens reading Tweets by Americans or people in other free countries and getting ideas about overthrowing the communist regime. Because only the Chinese uses Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, these sites suffer from negative network externalities. That is, a citizen living outside of China will have no use for them because other people in his or her network are not using these websites. This creates a network in which the Chinese users only communicate with other Chinese.

Because of the huge role that Twitter played in toppling totalitarian regimes during the Arab Spring, governments there have become wary of its power as well. During the 2011 protests, Egypt actually shut down access to Twitter, as well as the Internet to try and prevent further gathering in Tahrir Square. After the democratic election of Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian government realized that Twitter plays a huge role in the lives of the country’s young people, and Morsi made an effort to use Twitter to connect to the young population. However, this was all in vein, as ironically, Twitter was again used to rally the Egyptian people to protest and overthrow Morsi in 2013.

Twitter itself recognizes the role it plays in free speech debates, and this is why in January of 2012 it drew huge criticism for its plan to allow individual counties to determine if a tweet needed to be censored or not. Under this policy, a country, such as Egypt, can ensure that its citizens do not read a tweet that it finds dangerous, but people living in America can still view it. As the Internet continues to connect the globe, sites such as Twitter will play an increasingly important role. We have already seen its impact during the Arab Spring, and it is clear that China fears its power and is trying to limit it. Ultimately, it will be up to the citizens using Twitter to decide what it will be used for next.

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