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The shifting power of social media

By Victoria Goff
Special to the Michigan Citizen

On Jan. 1, 1994, a small group of indigenous peoples in Mexico armed themselves and took control of various cities across the state of Chiapas. They burned down police headquarters, freed prisoners being held in jails and resisted with arms when the Mexican government attempted to wrest control back from them. This group of revolutionaries called themselves the Zapatistas.

The Zapatistas were not engaged in terrorism on that day in 1994 but in violent resistance. The Mexican government has engaged in constant resource and land theft from the Zapatistas for decades — and it used perpetual low-grade paramilitary warfare to do it.

Not only were the Zapatistas completely impoverished from resource theft, but they were also imprisoned or outright murdered if they dared to resist. On that day in 1994, the Zapatistas decided they had had enough.

It was this type of militarism that the Mexican government was inflicting on the Zapatistas that environmental activists were thinking of when they created the 15th environmental justice principle, which states, “Environmental Justice opposes military occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples and cultures, and other life forms.”

Indigenous lands throughout the world face this type of militarism — and increasingly, urban areas do as well. The 15th principle is essential in helping put a name to the violence militarism inflicts on the earth — and digital justice is essential in helping to challenge that violence. And the Zapatistas were masters at digital justice.

Corporate-controlled media very rarely, if ever, work to broadcast or hold conversations around news that is important or necessary to community. As I stated in my last column about corporate media, well over 80 percent of the media today is produced and distributed by the same six corporations. When media is controlled at such an incredibly high level, it is only very rarely that a revolutionary organization will make the front pages or the late night news.

The Zapatistas were aware of this and so worked to support and maintain a worldwide network of media users that were invested in what was then known as “alternative” media.

Independent media makers built relationships with the Zapatistas and went into Mexico to document attacks and atrocities committed by the Mexican government. Those documentation efforts were then distributed to other media makers and social media users throughout the world. Eventually, millions of people knew about the Zapatistas and were not only spreading the word about their efforts, but were sending various types of resources to them and organizing different types of media campaigns in an effort to hold the Mexican government accountable. Eventually, when the Mexican government attacked another indigenous community, the people of Oaxaca, alternative media was an integral part of the resistance movement.

But it would be negligent to not notice that governments across the world, including the U.S. government, have gotten in on the power of the Internet. The New York Times recently reported that both Democrats and Republicans are currently mining Facebook and Twitter accounts for data each party could use to target potential votes. They are also giving this data to callers who will be calling potential voters before the election and who will be encouraged to use the data as a way to “help” voters decide how to vote. As the Times states, “The callers will be guided by scripts and call lists compiled by people — or computers — with access to details like whether voters may have visited pornography Web sites, have homes in foreclosure, are more prone to drink Michelob Ultra than Corona or have gay friends or enjoy expensive vacations.”

If this is what the relationship between corporations and the government looks like before an election even happens, what does it look like after the election happens? What level of monitoring is happening against people who protest and renounce militaries across the world? How is the government not just censoring people who stand against the military — how is it tracking those same people? And how is it using the information that it is gathering? Social media users throughout the world, including the United States, have been imprisoned based on the content in their various social media accounts. Julian Assange at Wikileaks stands as the most well known case of social media being used by governments to justify targeting and imprisoning a social media user.

There is a lot of power in social media. But we can’t look in the wrong direction at that power.

In the rush to push “the power of social media,” social media proponents often fail to recognize that “social media” in and of itself is an institution that has made the process of accountability in media increasingly invisible to communities — or simply non-existent. Our power comes not from “deciding elections” as the narratives around social media would have us believe, but understanding the system of control and power wrapped all around and through the institution of social media and where “the people’s” place is within that system.

If the right of social media users to report on and spread the word about the crimes of the government is protected, the power social media offers “the people” will never be realized.

Victoria Goff is on the communication team at East Michigan Environmental Action Council. You can find her on twitter at: @dcommunicates

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