Weaponizing copyright: police tactics, social media platforms and the shrinking freedom in post-democracies

Weaponizing copyright: police tactics, social media platforms and the shrinking freedom in post-democracies

A few days ago, on Mastodon, I stumbled upon a toot with a link to a Vice article that was about Beverly Hills police playing music on their phones during protests, seemingly in an effort to trigger copyright filters of social platforms. In this case, the goal they were likely aiming to was to have Instagram block the live stream of journalist and activist Sennett Devermont. What’s reported by Vice article is not the first episode of this kind of actions by Beverly Hills Police Department. Even if the Beverly Hills PD told Vice that “the playing of music while accepting a complaint or answering questions is not a procedure that has been recommended by Beverly Hills Police command staff”, these conducts raise a few questions.

It seems to me that the facts described in the two articles published by Vice bring together some crucial issues that are at stake in our contemporary western societies: the first is social and political movements that demand structural changes and the way their demands are managed by political power, which leads us to the second, that is is the main role of policing in managing social issues (it includes the militarization of police and of society itself), the third one is related to the monopolistic power of commercial social media platforms, their role in replicating and amplifying structural inequalities united with their substantial lack of accountability and the power given to privately-owned secretly-kept algorithms, and then, last and related, there is copyright (and its enforcement).

The “algorithmic copyright enforcement” have led to many content takedowns in the last years, a few of them being false positive. But there is always “the possibility of deliberately leveraging these flaws in the system”, as the Beverly Hills PD conduct shows. And, as Nick Simmons and Adam Holland write, “when the takedowns affect the news or other socially relevant content, as with the videos of the ongoing protests, the consequences can be much more far-reaching and powerful”.

As a quick note about copyright-related issues, I’ll just translate a toot by Ca_Gi that sounds like a very good synthesis of what’s at stake:

The shared modern imagery is made of stories, musics and chants, imaginary characters, dances, drawings, culinary recipes and sculptures. But also movies, comics, video games and whatnot. But unlike ancient imagery, the modern one is almost entirely protected by copyright. The stories that populate our shared imagination belong mainly to some commercial holding.

Ca_Gi, toot

Critical approaches on how to think about and regulate commercial social media platforms are being developed by researchers and activists all around the world and this is a much needed work: the recent case of Facebook blocking news outlet in Australia is a clear example of the problem. As it was the de-platforming of Trump (which, must be underlined, happened after he lost the elections) because the use of de-platforming also follows power and inequality structures:

De-platforming is a blunt instrument. Even when triggered by genuine incitement, a ban necessarily sweeps up any innocuous speech that a user may also have posted. Claims by Trump supporters that the president has lost his ability to speak through de-platforming are overwrought; when SMCs ban State actors from their sites, those actors still have other media outlets they can use to speak publically. But for non-State actors, a ban can indeed squash their voice in an overbroad manner. And when such bans are based on an inaccurate understanding of the user’s speech – as has been the case with scores of human rights activists worldwide – the loss of voice compounds the harms often already underway in their communities.

Rebecca Hamilton, De-platforming Following Capitol Insurrection Highlights Global Inequities Behind Content Moderation

How to deal with social media platforms power? How to consider them? Media companies, publishers, gate-keepers, systems of governance? How can people (and society as a community) take back the power that we have allowed them to build? Taking power back is key and we must deal with these issues right now (before an even more dystopian future becomes our normality).

What happened in Beverly Hills happened in this broader social and technological context and it comes with no surprise that police officers try to use these “flaws” to prevent activists and journalists from filming their actions, violence and abuses. Preventing people from filming the police has often been a goal not just for police forces but also for political forces, as the recent French law proposal demonstrates.

Preventing people from filming the police is part of a vast amount of policing practices that constitute a “punitive turn” that has been carried on for more than two decades now. The punitive turn is not something that concerns just the USA, but all so-called western liberal democracies. It includes the militarization of police and the (militarized) policing as the preferred way to manage (read: repress) social movements and their demands. In a trend that blurs the difference between internal and external borders and between war and peace (the sociologist Emilio Quadrelli wrote about this blurring in depth). It should be clear that this “punitive turn” is not a mere accident of the globalization process, we can argue that these elements are inherent to the neoliberal governance theories and have been elaborated since the Seventies, as Grégoire Chamayou explains beyond all doubt in his excellent book The ungovernable society.

The punitive turn, social media platforms and, yes, also copyright laws support the same system: the examples of Black Lives Matter videos that have been taken down for copyright infringement is pretty clear in this sense.

As a form of conclusion for this post – that by no means pretends to be comprehensive on all the subjects I wrote about – I would like to point out the importance of understanding the deep interconnections that link many (if not all!) aspects of what happens every day in contemporary societies. It’s fundamental to underline these interconnections and to face each element as part of a broader structure. That’s what I tried to do in this post, tracing the contact points and context of policing, social movements, copyright and social media platforms, because tout se tient.

The opening image is a photograph by Paul Weaver, taken during the George Floyd protest in Shamokin, PA (June 2020), and it is licensed under the CC BY-NC-ND.

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