The protests in the United States against police brutality and systemic racism sparked by the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25 are showing no signs of stopping.
Rallies and marches have continued in many cities for three weeks now, with events organized in all 50 states as well as in at least 40 countries around the world. Another killing of an African American man in Atlanta, Rayshard Brooks — who was shot in the back twice while fleeing police — has only fed more fuel to the fire.
Most events have been organized and promoted using centralized, corporate-owned social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The ease of communication and ability to connect with one another that these large platforms provide have been a major driving force in enabling the activists to mobilize quickly and successfully.
As cities and states begin to unveil policing reforms in response to the widespread protests, with the Minneapolis City Council going so far as voting to disband its police department, privacy advocates have argued that those who are serious about resisting censorship and government surveillance should be wary of centralized platforms because they are controlled, for-profit entities and are subject to coercion from governments. Instead, they point to decentralized technologies and platforms as having the potential to be a safer way for activists to communicate.
Centralized social media presents risks
As of 2019, an estimated 72% of all U.S. adults use social media, and given the coronavirus-related lockdown, people have been more connected than ever. Organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement have relied on Instagram’s “stories” feature to notify protest attendees of location changes, while police scanner apps were downloaded during the initial days of the protests by hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have taken to Twitter to assume “scanner duty” and broadcast the movements of police officers for protesters.
These platforms give activists and dissidents an unprecedented ability to communicate and organize, but they are run by for-profit corporations that are ultimately beholden to shareholders and governments. This, privacy advocates argue, represents a fundamental flaw in their ability to be secure and resistant to censorship.
Matthew Hodgson, a technical co-founder of the decentralized Matrix communications protocol, told Cointelegraph that these platforms do not serve end users because their business models are to present regular users with ads. In order to best deliver ads, they collect large amounts of user data that accumulates and is at risk of being abused.
Since social media companies are also privately owned entities, they can revoke a user’s access to their platforms for any reason, especially if they are seen as too controversial or “non-mainstream,” pointed out Bruce Schneier, a security technologist and author. Those decisions affect…