Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age by Tom Flanagan, Signal, 256 pages, $29.95
Revolution in the Age of Social Media: The Egyptian Popular Insurrection and the Internet by Linda Herrera, Verso, 192 pages, $32
In the digital age, every person will have 15 seconds of notoriety. Tom Flanagan – the well-known Calgary political scientist, pundit, and former Harper aide – had his in February, 2013. At a University of Lethbridge talk on the Indian Act, an activist from the Idle No More movement inquired about offhand comments Flanagan had made years earlier on child porn. The question clearly caught him off guard, and the resulting YouTube video, entitled “Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography,” captures his rambling response.
If you watch the video, you’ll see that Flanagan never claimed to be okay with anything. He only questioned the expedience of jailing porn users for low-level possession offences, but the nuances got lost in the ensuing media frenzy. Within hours of the video’s release, he’d been denounced, condemned, ostracized, disinvited to speaking engagements, relieved from his advisory position with the Wildrose Party of Alberta, and fired from the CBC show Power and Politics, on which he was a regular commentator.
In his new memoir, Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age, Flanagan tells his side of the story. It’s a settling of scores, a polemic about intellectual freedom, and a firsthand account from the pyre at a public burning. As a work of personal journalism, the book is compelling, even terrifying, but as a critical argument about Internet culture, it’s far too self-involved.
In an attempt to explain what went wrong, Flanagan argues that 1) he had enemies, and 2) his enemies had a new weapon – thanks to digital technology – with which to attack his character. As the author of First Nations? Second Thoughts and the co-author of Beyond the Indian Act, Flanagan holds divisive ideas about the rights of Indigenous people in Canada. His positions are complicated, but they skew toward assimilation, privatization, and the removal of special legal protections. He’s used to making people angry. You can’t have opinions like his and expect to be universally loved.
Still, Flanagan contends that his opponents went after him in the worst possible way: they bated him on a controversial topic, filmed his response without permission, and posted the video to YouTube under a misleading, incendiary headline. This probably wouldn’t have amounted to much had it not been for other actors, whom Flanagan singles out as accessories after the fact. He lambastes the mainstream media for painting him as a radical child-porn advocate without seeking his input or considering his arguments. He also skewers academic colleagues for believing the hype and University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon for denouncing him, when she – of all people – should have defended his intellectual freedom.
Flanagan argues that we’re entering a new era of self-censorship: “colleagues from across the country have e-mailed me saying they’ve seen what happened to me and are resolved to be more cautious in the classroom in the future.” Going forward, he says, academics will keep in mind that Big Brother is always watching. For Flanagan, though, Big Brother doesn’t mean the state. In an the era of smart phones and social media, Big Brother is all of us.
This is spooky stuff. Even readers who oppose Flanagan’s politics will be frightened by the swiftness with which he was taken down. Flanagan implies, however, that his experiences represent digital culture as a whole. To be fair, he briefly mentions other people – Jan Wong, Harvard professor Niall Ferguson – who have been targeted by similar sound-bite-driven campaigns, but he clearly selected these stories for their similarities with his own.
This would all be fine if Flanagan were merely seeking to document an unsettling trend, but instead, he presents a sweeping argument – in the book’s title, no less – about how social media is killing free speech. That’s a bold position, and it should be based on more than just personal grievances.
In her new study, University of Illinois anthropologist Linda Herrera offers another postmortem on a major social media campaign. Her book, Revolution in the Age of Social Media: The Egyptian Popular Insurrection and the Internet, is expansive and curious, where Flanagan’s is self-involved and declamatory.
The basic facts of Herrera’s story are now well known. In June 2010, Egyptian police officers pulled 28-year-old Khaled Said from an Alexandria café and beat him to death in front of several witnesses. By some accounts, Said was singled out for dangerous anti-government subversion; by most others, he was a petty drug dealer. The confusion is understandable: Egyptian police, who wielded vast discretionary powers under Hosni Mubarak’s rule, weren’t expected to justify their brutality.
“[The] death should have been just one more tragic footnote in the annals of Egypt’s Emergency Law,” writes Herrera, had it not been for a Facebook campaign called “We Are All Khaled Said.” It featured an airbrushed version of Said’s passport photo, which quickly became the face that launched a billion clicks. Herrera attributes the page’s phenomenal popularity – 100,000 members within the first five days alone – to the savviness of its two anonymous administrators, one of whom was later revealed to be Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian Google executive with an MBA from the American University in Cairo.
Using inflated language and plenty of second-person pronouns, Ghonim and co-administrator AbdelRahman Mansour recast Said’s ignominious death as a tale of heroic martyrdom. They also lobbied popular online personalities to endorse their cause, used web analytics to locate potential sympathizers, and even posted a few ghostly missives representing Said’s voice from beyond the grave. Herrera shows that, while the Khalid Said phenomenon had the veneer of spontaneity, it began as a tightly co-ordinated campaign.
Unlike Flanagan, Herrera does not lead off with a sweeping thesis, thereby allowing herself plenty of room for exploration. It’s a smart approach, given the complexity of the subject matter. She is alert to both the benefits and perils of social media. For instance, toward the end of her book, she shows how, after the uprising, members of competing parties – including the Muslim Brotherhood and the new military government – have jumped on the social media bandwagon, disseminating misinformation while hiding their institutional ties.
Most importantly, Herrera is careful not to dismiss the Said campaign as a mere feat of social engineering. Ghonim and Mansour used clever techniques to consolidate support (in marketing speak, they isolated their target demographic) but the frustrations they tapped into were real. Young Egyptians rightly saw themselves – their thwarted ambitions and vulnerability to state violence – in Said’s shocking story. Ghonim and Mansour exploited these sentiments but didn’t create them, nor did they even realize that they were incubating a revolutionary movement.
On January 14, 2011, Tunisians overthrew President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In response, activists on the Said page called for widespread demonstrations against the Egyptian state. Mubarak was deposed less than a month later.
Both Flanagan’s and Herrera’s books document the speed with which online campaigns can draw public attention, enabling dramatic ruptures in the offline world. Is this a positive development? Clearly, for Flanagan, the answer is no. (Social media can’t be a good thing, he implies. Just look at what it did to me.) A better response, though, would be a qualified yes.
Of course, with new technologies come new risks. Social media is the voice of the people, but it’s also a forum for powerful institutions masquerading as private citizens. Still, as Herrera demonstrates, it is harder today for governments or police forces to brutalize citizens while pretending that they didn’t. This is a victory for free speech, despite the many complications it entails – despite even the disheartening situation in Egypt today.
In his final chapter, Flanagan abandons his alarmist rhetoric and instead considers how we might better safeguard academic freedom in the digital world. (He even considers the democratic benefits of a de-centred online media culture, although these arguments only show up in a few scattered, cursory sentences.) We won’t be able to stop random people from posting content on a whim, he argues, but we don’t always have to let them dictate the public conversation. At the very least, we can hold media institutions, the academy, and ourselves to a higher level of critical scrutiny. When making claims like these, Flanagan is at his best.
As an information source, social media is simply too valuable to ignore. We don’t have the option of dismissing it – and we wouldn’t want to even if we could. The question, then, isn’t whether we should engage, but how.
Simon Lewsen is a writing instructor at the University of Toronto and a contributor to Hazlitt, Reader’s Digest, Toronto Life and The Walrus.