While the western world was praising the revolutionary forces in favour of democracy that Facebook enabled, Evgeny Morozov gave the world a reality-check with his book “The Net Delusion”. Facebook is not a tool that is magically going to democratise the world, it is merely a tool with many applications created by a company driven by profit. Where Facebook makes communication so much easier, it also features many downsides. It makes it easy to unravel complete networks of activists, it makes surveillance much easier, and it leaves confidential messages only a password away.

Yes, in our western lives, it is wonderful how easy I can connect with friends far away or find colleagues of past jobs on social networks. The ease of communication can be wonderful in many applications. However, when it is easier to broadcast messages in a fast and effective manner, this does not mean that democracy will become stronger. Technologies have all sorts of properties that can effect the world for the better or the worse. In the case of Facebook, its dismissal of privacy can be put among the bad influences it bears.

What Your Friends Say About You
When someone visits your profile, he will probably be able to distinguish the social groups you are part of. For example, some friends may go to the same university, others come from the same town, and a couple are part of your bowling team. You can imagine that if this works for you and me, it also works for dissidents. If you are friends with certain known activists, chances are high you have revolutionary thoughts too.

Most large social networks do not allow you to hide your list, with a notable exception of LinkedIn. So trying more strict privacy settings is not going to help, and if it were possible to hide all these details, broadcasting those political statements would not become any easier. Given that social media revolve around who is connected to what, they provide very valuable insight in the social groups within a country – both to marketeers and dictators.

Surveillance Made Easy
On Dutch television, a lot of commercials mention how your friends are always nearby and how you can easily find where they are. Besides connections to people, social networks generate large amounts of connections between people and objects, brands and messages. As we know from the field of profiling, this enables very good predictions about the character of persons and their current and expected behaviour. For us, this is “merely” a threat to our free identity, but in some countries this may become a threat to the lives of certain inhabitants.

Luckily, at this point, privacy settings do provide some remedy. Once you find them, you can hide a lot of things. Nevertheless, if you have an infiltrator in your network or in one of your groups, unwanted entities can still see some confidential details you want to keep to yourself and your activist friends. Actually, the social circles-based approach of Google Plus seems a promising direction at this point, although most efforts become futile when simple tracking of the smartphone you use to maintain all those social profiles is used to locate you.

Let Me Guess That Password
It is often mentioned as a problem with cloud computing: once your master password is obtained by an attacker, everything becomes accessible. The same problem applies to social media. When I know your password on Twitter, I can read all your private messages, whether you did take the time to tighten the privacy settings or not. Even worse, all those measures you took to prevent the leakage of confidential information become futile.

The use of a single password, especially if you have to use untrusted computers, is a major problem when regarding social networks as a tool for pushing democracy and not an application built for fun. For the same reason that corporations want fine-grained security access control on the cloud computing-based solutions they use, a dissident needs thorough security too.

It’s Just a Tool With Its Quirks
In the end, Facebook and other social networks are merely tools. Although they have properties that can influence the use in practice, a lot also relies on those using it. Revolutions are made by people, whether they propagate democracy and freedom or not. We should follow the advice of Mr Morozov and aim for some realism in the digital society. Yes, the world is changing due to new technologies, but that does not mean that authoritarian leaders will not find oppressive uses for them.

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