The Governments’ Digital Pictures of Protesters is not a Pretty Picture for Democracy
I should be in court this week in Raleigh, North Carolina. Well, I am in a way, even though I’m writing this from Oakland, California.
No, this isn’t science fiction or schizophrenia. It’s all about a sociogram. What’s that, you say? Let me start at the beginning.
I was part of the “Foodcourt 6.” Yes, you heard it right, though originally, we we were the “Crabtree Valley Mall 6.” I was videotaping an Occupy Raleigh Black Friday protest at a shopping mall when I got arrested with five others.
Back in January, our first hearing resulted in postponing our case until the spring. Afterwards, our pro bono attorney, Scott Holmes, met with us in the Wake County Courthouse cafeteria after trying to track down the Assistant District Attorney Win Bassett, who is tasked with all of the Occupy cases. In the process of looking for Bassett to see if my charges could be dismissed, Holmes stumbled upon a poster in his office.
According to Holmes, on the assistant D.A.’s wall was a giant diagram, about five feet wide, with the photos of people arrested with the Occupy movement. I am, as you see, still at the courthouse, even if it’s just an image. Holmes said the photos were grouped by the date and location of those arrested.
To me, it sounded like an episode of Law & Order, in which suspects’ photos are pinned to a bulletin board with yarn or markers connecting them together. Of course, what Holmes saw was a more sophisticated digitally produced sociogram, or network analysis diagram.
Aside from the creep factor of my mug shot on a wall, the legal and political ramifications certainly threaten democracy, as does the digital questions it raises.
“Time Magazine made the protester the person of the year, but the police are targeting the person of the year as criminals,” said Holmes, “The Raleigh police are conducting domestic surveillance of people who have not committed a crime.”
Holmes pointed out that it is illegal to conduct surveillance based on race, gender, national origin, religion or any suspect classes within the constitution that have a special protection because of the possibility of discrimination.
“In this case, protesters are a class of people who have the right to free speech and should actually enjoy more protection than these other categories,” said Holmes, “This targets people based on the right to assemble and speak, so unless they have something else on all of these people, those photos can’t be up there.”
Aside from the legal issues, what, then, are the political implications of this simple picture?
Certainly, domestic surveillance is not new – from the McCarthy hearings to COINTELPRO against King tocurrent infiltration of activist causes across the country.
In another blog post, I argued that the Occupy arrests actually inspired more activists to participate, but historically, there is a tipping point when stepped-up state repression can start reducing participation.
“This smells of Homeland Security,” said Holmes about the poster on the wall. He has only seen this software used with conspiracy charges or Homeland Security on the federal level but never at the state level.
The Occupy movement has certainly challenged the powers that be – the 1% and its armed forces. Does the Occupy movement threaten this power of the 1%? Of course. There is no way to tiptoe around the fact that this is class war, and wars beget spies. This is not a conspiracy theory. It is happening.
And one question is if it is happening at a faster, easier rate because of the digital tools at the government’s disposal. Possibly. Digital critics, such as Evgeny Morozov,have warned of the role of the Internet in state surveillance during political movements.
Facebook, Twitter, Web sites, e-mail, listservs, YouTube and any conceivable digital platform are not just a means to disseminate information to protesters but to the police, as well. I can find my mug shot just as easily as anyone else, which made putting together the Wake County Occupy sociogram so much the easier to assemble.
However, with this onslaught of Big Data, as we like to call it, also comes, well, the avalanche of information. How is the government sifting through this data? How useful are all of this online data, and does even a sample of it really represent what’s happening?
My research on digital activism starts with what groups are doing offline and then analyzes the online engagement to see if and how the Internet really matters. However, I still get sucked into the crack that is network analysis software – a fast way to gather lots of data, such as Tweets about an issue, and then spit out a pretty picture of how all of these Tweeters are connected. In a word, a sociogram. I know exactly how the state put together the sociogram with myself as a node (an academic word for person in a network analysis).
If nothing else, being a node has sensitized me even more to researching other people and plopping them into my own analyses.
More importantly, as Holmes asked, “Where’s the Wall Street version of this chart?”