What’s a “holy shit visualization”?
It’s a way of looking at data that makes turns a statistic you might have flipped past in a book or skimmed by on a web page into something that you can’t forget. It’s a visceral reminder of the power of images and the power of looking at dry numbers in human terms.
For Mike Evans, the map below was a holy shit visualization. Properties in yellow are in tax distress. Those in orange are under tax foreclosure. Those in red have been foreclosed.
In 2014, 50% of properties in the city of Detroit were in danger of foreclosure, being foreclosed, or owned by the city. That’s a frightening statistic. But seeing what it looks like on the map makes the scale of the problem more visceral.
Evans knew this was a powerful visualization when he took the map to the county treasurer, who had his own “holy shit” moment seeing the data. Mike asks, “What does it mean when the county treasurer doesn’t know this? What does this mean for a homeowner who’s far more removed from this information?”
Mike Evans, image from Crain’s Detroit Business
Evans is senior developer with Loveland Technologies, a for-profit technology consultancy in Detroit, MI that focuses on mapping land ownership in cities, especially in Detroit. He visited Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab yesterday to talk about the community mapping work he and his team have taken on in Detroit and around the US. Loveland is a project started by Jerry Paffendorf, who had the clever idea of selling distressed properties in Detroit one square inch at a time. Detroit auctions thousands of properties at a time, and properties that don’t sell for outstanding taxes begin auctioning for $500 apiece. Paffendorf bought some of these properties and started selling them off via Kickstarter for a dollar per square inch (one of the first Kickstarters ever started), and Loveland Technologies got its start building a map that let people see their property ownership, much as the Million Dollar Homepage allowed advertisers to see their online presence purchased a pixel at a time.
Merry Inchmas from Inchy, Loveland’s first mascot.
(There was a serious side to the idea. Paffendorf felt like most people don’t get the chance to be property owners, and speculated that owning even a tiny piece of Detroit would get people thinking more seriously about the problems and challenges the city faces.)
The map, designed to visualize a fanciful public art project, began growing more complex features. But it took on a life of its own when Evans layered data from the county’s massive foreclosure action onto the map. Suddenly, the Loveland map became a resource for Detroit homeowners to tell whether their neighbors were in trouble, whether their neighborhood was in danger of attracting blighted properties, whether they might lose their homes.
“We put this out and suddenly people are calling us up, complaining that we’re illegally foreclosing on their property, demanding that we take them off the list,” Evans remembers. “We’d explain that we weren’t the authorities – we were just visualizing data. And people, not unreasonably, would say ‘You wouldn’t be doing this if you weren’t the city.'”
“It’s a powerful experience,” he explains. “You look up your childhood home and you either breathe a sigh of relief or you call your mom. You click on your neighbors and your friends, and when you get bad news, you start thinking about how you might help them.” The tool quickly became popular with churches, who would look up houses of congregants, and then raise money to rescue members who were in distress. Often churches and friends wouldn’t raise enough money to pay off people’s debt, but payments as small as $300 could often forestall foreclosure for as much as three years.
The name Evans and colleagues gave the tool – Why Don’t We Own This – has at least two meanings. Why are Detroiters being removed from their homes when no one else wants to buy these properties? And how can Detroit take ownership and responsibility for the problems facing the community?
As the map gained prominence, “We became ‘the guy who can get you things'” Evans explains. City council members began asking for reports on their districts so they knew what areas were most affected. With high-level requests for data coming in, Evans and colleagues had more leverage to ask for data. While they’d scraped the initial set of auctions data despite city objections, people within city government started volunteering data sets to the project, and the tool became more feature-rich.
In portraying the city’s foreclosure crisis, Evans offers sympathies for both homeowners and for the city. Many of these forecloses houses were left in wills by grandparents to grandchildren, he explains. The people who inherited properties didn’t know about the water bills and property taxes they would need to pay, and quickly found themselves falling behind. At the same time, it’s hard to put too much blame on the city, which is coping with municipal bankruptcy, accusations from the UN that Detroit’s water shutoffs violate human rights, and a fire department so broke that it uses a fax machines and Faygo cans filled with change as a fire alarms.
Detroit fire alarm. Really. Photo from Detroit Free Press.
Every mayor who’s taken leadership of the city agrees that a critical step towards improving the city is confronting the problem of urban blight. (Evans refers to these as “OMGWTFBBQ” properties.) Abandoned houses attract illegal dumping. They lower the property values of other houses on the street. Kids are afraid to walk to school past the buildings, not knowing who or what is in them. There’s widespread perception that every mayor has failed to address blight… but Evans points out that the city has torn down more than 25,000 buildings between 1995 and 2014. “Cities don’t get the love even when they do what they said they would do,” Evans offers. “But actually, it’s government’s job to make sure we know what they’re doing regarding blight.”
Addressing blight is a major motivation for offering open data in Detroit. Detroit has an open data portal, but it’s not exactly a marvel of usability – to really use the data, in many cases, you need to export the data to a GIS program like ESRI. Evans offers a real-world example of the importance of accessibility: a homeowner who wants to attack blight in her neighborhood by mowing the lawns of unoccupied houses on her street needs a simple way to know whether properties are occupied or not. “Accessibility is the real open data. Just having it open isn’t important if people can’t utilize it.”
The idea of accessible, usable data that Detroiters could leverage to protect their neighborhoods helped inform the project Loveland Technologies is most famous for: Motor City Mapping. Based on the success of their map of foreclosed properties, the Loveland team was invited to a meeting involving Dan Gilbert (local billionaire, founder of Quicken Loans), the White House, the Kresge and Skillman Foundations, and local projects like U-Snap-Bac, which provides funding to restore distressed properties. The team started with the idea of removing every blighted building from the city, and quickly realized that they would need a comprehensive map of Detroit’s blighted properties. The Loveland Technology team made the argument that they should instead map every property in the city, take photos and try to determine whether those properties are occupied or not.
What resulted from the discussions was Motor City Mapping, a wildly ambitious project that mapped 400,000 properties in about a month using 150 volunteers armed with Android tablets. As Evans explains it, he wanted nine months to take on the project and ended up being negotiated down to a month-long development cycle. As he was unboxing and syncing 150 new Android tablets, the data collection software he’d built was two days old and still riddled with bugs. (Evans had wanted to roll out on iOS, but the process of releasing software, waiting for Apple’s approval and reinstalling was too slow and pushed him onto Android, at a time when the tablets he wanted were just coming on the market and were hard to obtain.)
For the next month, 150 surveyors walked the streets of Detroit photographing each property, reporting its condition, identifying blight and determining whether a house was occupied. Evans and a colleague stayed in the office, fixing bugs and adding features. “It was the best kind of scope creep. We’d realize we needed Google Street View data as a double-check for locations. We’d want to add in assessor data. The tool got more complicated and more useful every day.”
Having real-time data matters when you’re trying to transform a city. In particular, it’s critically important to have data about whether properties are occupied or abandoned. Detroit’s police force is so stressed that they generally don’t evict homeowners when their properties have been foreclosed on. As a result, buying a foreclosed property at auction in Detroit is a deeply uncomfortable gamble. The property you bought for $500 might be abandoned and ready for you to fix it up… or it may be occupied by a family unhappy about you showing up on their doorstop. Most investors don’t want to purchase the occupied buildings, which is why having Motor City Mapping’s data on occupied properties is so crucial. As the project has continued from its startup phase, the team prioritizes re-surveying tax distressed properties they believe are occupied, trying to minimize situations where people are purchasing occupied buildings.
Realtime, or near realtime, mapping of a city has other positive implications. When the city wants to provide services like cutting grass, they can use the maps to scout areas ahead of time, and can mark maps once they’ve provided services.
Evans shows off the ability to generate custom maps based on queries. What properties in your neighborhood are in poor condition or recommended for demolition? The map above shows how to generate that information with a few button clicks.
It’s important, also, that maps are annotateable. The image above shows an apartment building that was in good condition when Motor City Mapping checked it out. But below, a resident has reported that the building was damaged by a suspicious fire and should now be considered a blighted structure.
Real-time mapping was challenging and expensive to accomplish. Most of the 150 workers who surveyed the city didn’t have cars, Evans explains, so Quicken Loans employees volunteered to act as their drivers. Since volunteers would be in a car all day with workers, Motor City Mapping then ran background checks on their workers, and ended up losing 30%, who had records for violent offenses or felonies. Maintaining a team of mappers long term may not be something Detroit can afford – instead, mapping may come in part from citizens who download the app and use it to maintain maps of their communities.
Loveland Tech, in the mean time, is taking on government contracts and expanding their system to include dozens of other cities. They sell the tools that allow other cities to overlay data sets on their street maps. Unfortunately, the tool is only one part of building a system like the one in Detroit. Buffalo, NY, a city that features many of the problems Detroit faces, offers a beautiful map but without information on condition or occupancy. To make the maps really useful, cities need to work with Loveland to release key data sets, a process that can trigger resistance from government agencies, some of which see selling this data as a way to address their budget shortcomings. Evans remembers that it took two months into the Motor City Mapping project before the Wayne County Assessor would give the team their data set – until they came under massive public pressure, the Assessor wanted to sell the data instead.
If the impact of Loveland’s maps makes city officials say “holy shit”, it’s worth asking how Evans and his team have been so successful in taking on these controversial, provocative and deeply useful projects. Evans credits much of the success to being in the right place at the right time, to being invited to meetings like the one that launched Motor City Mapping.
I think Evans, Paffendorf and others have a secret weapon in these battles: the power of whimsy. Before joining Loveland Technologies, Evans was the founder of PishPosh.TV, a video production company that wanted to build “a discovery channel that doesn’t suck”, showcasing maker culture and teaching people about low-cost computer hardware like Arduinos and Raspberry Pis. (It’s taken on a newsier, muckraking tone recently with Slash Detroit.) Evans heard that Paffendorf was building a free, urban minigolf course with art professor Steve Coy and decided to make a video of the project. Soon after, Evans moved his video production company in with Paffendorf’s “Imagination Station“, and became a co-conspirator on multiple projects.
Not all these projects are easy to explain. Paffendorf gained a certain amount of notoriety in Detroit by raising $67,000 to build a statue of Robocop, to be erected in downtown. Slopping reporting and online rumor-spreading led to outrage over the idea that a bankrupt city would use public funds for a fanciful sculpture – as Evans patiently explains when I bring up Robocop, all money came from donors (many from outside of Detroit), and the statue will be build from molds made by the original designers of the costume at Universal, and forged at Venus Bronzeworks, a venerable Detroit institution. But the sheer silliness of the idea has a life of its own and has led to previous Detroit mayors coming out publicly to oppose the statue project.
I think this gift for whimsy helped Evans and Paffendorf avoid some of the initial resistance they might have faced when launching projects like Why Don’t We Own This. After all, it’s hard to worry about a couple of kids upending Detroit’s foreclosure policy when they’re the guys best known for urban minigolf and fanciful Kickstarter projects.
Evans has a simpler explanation than the one I offer. When you’re broke and taking on projects out of passion, not out of profit, it’s hard for people to stand in your way. When he began scraping auction data from county websites, it was easy to ignore any potential legal consequences. “What are you going to do? Sue us? We’ve got nothing. You want to bankrupt us? Okay, here – you can have our dog.” (Fortunately, the county chose to work with them, rather than threatening legal action.) When the laughter at Center for Civic Media dies down, Evans explains, “It’s scary to those in power when people are able to do projects like this out of love, and there’s nothing you can really threaten them with.”
This morning, I’m at the Ford Foundation in New York City as part of the launch event for NetGain. NetGain is a new effort launched by the Mozilla, Ford, Open Society, Macarthur and Knight Foundations, to bring the philanthropic community together to tackle the greatest obstacles to digital rights, online equality and the use of the internet to promote social justice.
The event is livestreamed here – in a moment, you can head Tim Berners-Lee and Susan Crawford in conversation about the future of the web.
For the past six months, I’ve been working with Jenny Toomey and Darren Walker at Ford, John Palfrey at Phillips Andover, and friends at these different foundations to launch the NetGain challenges. We’re asking people around the world to propose difficult problems about the open internet that they think governments and companies have not been able to solve. We’re collecting these challenges at NetGainChallenge.org, and asking participating foundations to take the lead on one or more challenges, coordinating a new set of investments in tackling that problem.
I had the privilege of introducing a session at this morning’s event about these challenges. It was an Ignite talk, which means I probably didn’t manage to say all the words I have listed below. But this is what I was trying to say:
45 years ago, the first message was sent over the internet, between a computer at UCLA and one at Stanford University.
25 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee turned the internet from a tool for academics into something most of us use every day, by making it easy to publish and read online – he created the World Wide Web.
What’s followed on Sir Tim’s invention is a transformation of the ways we work, play, shop, argue, protest, give, learn and love.
Given the amazing transformations we’ve seen, it’s easy to forget that the internet is a long, ongoing experiment. The internet as we know it is the result of trying new things, seeing how they break, and working to fix them.
The first message sent on the internet was “login”, as Charley Kline and Len Kleinrock at UCLA were trying to log into a machine at Stanford. They only managed to transmit the letters “lo”, then the system crashed. An hour later, they had it up again and managed to transmit the whole message.
On the internet, we have a long tradition of trying things out, screwing up, fixing what’s broken and moving forward.
Twenty five years into the life of the World Wide Web, there are amazing successes to celebrate: a free encyclopedia in hundreds of world languages, powerful tools for sharing breaking news and connecting with old friends, platforms that help us organize, agitate and push for social justice.
But alongside our accomplishments, there’s still lots that’s broken.
In building an internet where most content and services are free, we’ve also adopted a business model that puts us under perpetual surveillance by advertisers. Worse, our communications are aggregated, analyzed and surveilled by governments around the world.
The amazing tools we’ve built for learning and for sharing ideas are far easier and cheaper to access in the developed world than in the developing world – we’re still far from the dream of a worldwide web.
We’ve built new public spaces online to discuss the issues of the day, but those discussions are too rarely civil and productive. Speaking online often generates torrents abuse, especially when women speak online.
Despite Sir Tim’s vision of a decentralized web, there’s a huge concentration of control with a few companies that control the key platforms for online speech. And as we use the web to share, opine and learn, quickly losing our legacy, erasing this vast new library as fast as we write it.
These problems may well be unsolveable. But it’s possible that we’ve been waiting for the wrong people to solve them.
In 1889, Andrew Carnegie gave money to build a public library in Braddock, Pennsylvania, the first of 1,689 libraries he funded in the US. These were not just spaces that allowed people to feed their minds, but in many towns, the only spaces open to men, women, children and people of all races.
Newspapers and the publishing houses made knowledge available to those who could afford it, but Carnegie made it available to everyone.
As television became a fixture in the nation’s homes in the 1950s, the Ford Foundation worked with other philanthropists to build a public television system in the US, ensuring that this powerful new medium was used to educate and enlighten as well as to entertain
The foundations here aren’t going to be able to put internet into every home the way Carnegie brought libraries to every town. But there are problems philanthropy can tackle in unique ways that provide solutions that go beyond what corporations or governments can do on their own.
That’s what led us to the idea of the grand challenge. We’re drawing inspiration here from Google’s moonshots and from the XPrize Foundation. More importantly, we’re taking guidance from the people we work with everyday, on the front lines of social innovation, to identify the challenges we need to overcome to for the internet to be a true tool for justice and social inclusion
The speakers you’re about to hear aren’t here with solutions: they’re going share with us the thorny problems they’re working to solve. We’re asking each foundation that’s a member of Netgain to take the lead on one of these and other challenges, convening the smartest people in the field, our partners, our grantees, our beneficiaries to understand what we can do together to tackle these deep and persistent problems.
These aren’t the only challenges we need to tackle. We need to hear from you about what problems we can take on and what brilliant guides – like nine speakers we’re about to hear from – can help us navigate our way through these challenges.
We’re taking this high-risk strategy of aiming at the toughest problems because even if we fall short of our goals, we think we’ll make enormous progress by working together. Every six months, we plan to bring our community together, convene around a grand challenge and start a process of collaboration and experimentation. We may only get to “lo” before we crash, restart and rebuild. But every time we do, we’ll be moving towards a web that’s more open, more just, more able to transform our world for the better.
Please join us at NetGainChallenge.org and help us identify the challenges we should be taking on.
I spent last week in Cebu, the second largest city in The Philippines, with three hundred journalists, activists and media scholars from more than sixty countries. The occasion was the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit, a biennial conference on the state of citizen media, blogging, journalism and activism. This summit coincided with the tenth anniversary of Global Voices, the citizen media website and community Rebecca MacKinnon and I helped to found in late 2004.
We’ve held the conference six times, and it’s always been an excuse to gather core members of the Global Voices community for planning, training and building solidarity. More than 800 staff and volunteers run Global Voices, and since we have no home office, headquarters or physical presence, the conference provides a physicality and presence that’s sorely lacking in most of our interactions. Since the Summit began as an excuse for holding our internal meeting, it’s always a wonderful party and family reunion, but it’s not always been the most thoughtfully programmed event. (I’m allowed to say that because I helped program some of those conferences.)
This year’s incarnation (which I had absolutely nothing to do with planning!) reset expectations about what the Citizen Media Summit could be. It was two packed days of panels, workshops and discussions, tackling some of the most interesting a challenging problems facing online writing and activism: threats to the open internet, social media and protests movements, trolling and online abuse, intermediary censorship. I found myself blogging and tweeting frenetically, trying to capture the conversations I was hearing in panels and the halls, soaking up as much news, information and perspective as I could from friends from around the world.
Global Voices editors and authors will be processing notes from the sessions into articles over the next few days, but I decided to use my flights from tropical Cebu into a northeastern blizzard to reflect on some of the key insights I got from the Global Voices community, the amazing Filipino netizens who hosted us and our guests from around the world.
Social media is moving into closed, private channels
Global Voices started as a project that rounded up blog posts from around the world, when possible organizing them into themed stories illustrating an aspect of the social media conversation in a country or region. Over time, we began offering citizen media perspectives on breaking news through the eyes of publicly readable citizen media: blogs, tweets, videos and public Facebook posts.
I’m starting to wonder whether we’re going to be able to keep operating this way in the future. Increasingly, citizen media is private, or semi-public, which raises really interesting questions about how we use it in our journalism. For example, in China, many political discussions shifted from Weibo (which is primarily public) when the company began verifying the identities of users. Many of those discussions moved to WeChat, where groups with hundreds or thousands of members feel like listservs or bulletin boards.
Is it ethical and fair to source stories from these semi-public spaces? There’s probably no general answer – it’s likely to be something that needs to be answered on a case-by-base basis. If the answer is that something can only be published if everyone on the list agrees, it’s going to make it very difficult to continue doing this work, and we’re likely to lose some of the ability to report on important conversations that haven’t reached broadcast media. If we don’t handle these questions carefully, we’re going to alienate the people we’re hoping to work with an amplify.
Whether conversations in these spaces are treated as public or private speech will be deeply important for journalism as more conversations move from explicitly public social media spaces into these complex semi-public spaces.
Platforms matter: Many of our conversations with activists suggested that the organizational work of activism has shifted from public-facing tools like Twitter and Facebook into mostly private tools like WhatsApp. When revolutionaries start planning social movement on WhatsApp, the architecture and policies of the platform become matters of intense importance. WhatsApp’s designers likely didn’t anticipate their app being used to coordinate revolutions, and once the tool is used that way in repressive environments, it raises questions of whether the platform is sufficiently careful in protecting its users. One answer is for activists to move to more secure platforms, like TextSecure. I’ve long argued, though, that most activism happens on the most accessible platforms, so it’s not easy to talk activists off from WhatsApp. That makes efforts like Moxie Marlinspike’s successful campaign to get WhatsApp to use end to end encryption incredibly important.
Platforms also matter because they control what speech is possible. Rebecca MacKinnon’s “Consent of the Networked” has been the key text for people to understand the problems of intermediary censorship, and in a session she ran on her new project, Ranking Digital Rights, Jillian York of the EFF explained that she sees community moderation policies as functionally controlling what sort of speech is possible on Facebook. Jill now worries more about corporate controls on speech than government controls, citing instances where Facebook has taken down pro-Palestinian speech that had been incorrectly flagged as supporting terrorism, while allowing far more inflammatory pro-Israel speech. The simple fact that Facebook took down the “We Are Khaled Said” Facebook group – which it later celebrated for helping organize the Tahrir Square protests – shows that the platform often gets speech issues wrong, with potentially serious consequences.
For some members of the Global Voices community, the failure to remove hate speech from these platforms is as disturbing as the potential of these platforms to be censored. Thant Sin from Myanmar described the ferocious climate of Burmese-language Facebook threads, where violent threats against religious groups, particularly the Muslim Rohingya, are alarmingly common. When he worked with other Myanmarese Facebook users to detect and report these threads, they were unsuccessful, for the basic reason that Facebook’s moderators could not read Burmese.
When I tweeted this, Elissa Shevinsky – CEO of Glimpse, a messaging app startup – asked why Facebook doesn’t simply hire Burmese speakers to address this issue. The answer is simple and unfortunate: the abuse team at any social media company is viewed as a cost center, and is inevitably under-resourced. Facebook and other companies rely on “flagging” by community members to identify content that should be further investigated or removed. (Kate Crawford and Tarleton Gillespie wrote a wonderful paper titled “What is a Flag For?” which explores the limitations of flags as a way of controlling and commenting on online speech – it’s a must-read for people interested in this topic.) When flagged content is in an unfamiliar language, Facebook has two bad alternatives: they can leave it (potentially ignoring hate speech) or block it (potentially censoring political speech.) Perhaps Facebook shouldn’t expand into markets where they cannot adequately monitor their content… but it’s hard to demand that a company develop robust mechanisms for abuse in a language before they have users in that language.
Jillian and colleagues at OnlineCensorship.org are now documenting the content Facebook and others block as a way of mapping the space of allowable speech online. I’m fascinated by this idea, and wonder whether the method Crawford and Gillespie use in their paper – flagging content to see how platforms respond – might work for Jillian. (Perhaps putting more offensive speech into the world to see how platforms respond isn’t a net positive for the world – there may be enough anger and hate online that simply documenting it well is enough.)
Images, not words I’m a wordy guy, as anyone who’s fought through one of my blogposts knows. But one of my big takeaways from this conference was the power and prominence of images as a form of political speech. Georgia Popplewell organized a massive session titled “The Revolution Will Be Illustrated”, where 13 Global Voices community members introduced us to work by cartoonists, illustrators and designers from their countries.
Many of the artists featured were traditional cartoonists, like Crisis Valero of Spain or Mexican-American cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz. But a few were graphic designers like Filipino activist Pixel Offensive, or Global Voices’s own Kevin Rothrock. Pixel Offensive produces simple, eye-catching graphics using images of Filipino politicians recontextualized, captioned and otherwise remixed. PXO’s work has a distinct color signature – yellow and black – which are the colors of the Aquino government. It’s a visual hijacking of the Presidential brand. PXO’s work isn’t as artistically skillful as that of an artist like Alcaraz, but that may well be part of the message: visual activism should be open to everyone who has something to say.
Kevin Rothrock clearly got that message. Co-editor of RuNet Echo, Global Voices’s opinionated and often controversial section focused on the Russian internet, Rothrock enjoys making trouble online, taunting the trolls who respond to his coverage. His posts for Global Voices are usually accompanied with satirical collages, where Vladimir Putin is remixed into every conceivable internet meme. Not every collage works for me, but some are hilarious, and it’s easy to imagine them spreading virally online.
What I most appreciated about Rothrock’s talk was that he encouraged the bloggers and writers in the audience to adopt his simple collage techniques for their own work, offering tricks of the trade. (Logos work well, as they’re designed to work in lots of different contexts, and Vladimir Putin shirtless, on horseback, makes any scene better.) Much as activists have learned to speak in short, tweetable statements to get their message to spread online, it may be time for activists and journalists to learn how to craft fast-spreading visual memes in the hopes of reaching broader audiences.
Representation, if not revolution In the wake of the Occupy movement, Indignados, Gezi and other recent popular protests, it’s reasonable to ask whether protest movements are more powerful for expressing dissent than they are in making fundamental changes to systems of power. Listening to panelists speak about protests in Mexico, Syria, Ukraine and Hong Kong, I thought of Zeynep Tufekçi’s idea that digital tools have made it easier to bring people out into the streets, but may have made the groups assembled with those tools weaker and more brittle. (Because it’s so easy to bring 50,000 people to a protest, Tufekçi argues, organizers have to do a lot less work ahead of time and end up having less influence and social capital with those protesters than they did in earlier years. When the protest ends and it’s time to try and influence governance, those movements have a hard time moving into power.)
One of the major messages from the conference was the idea that protest movements are increasingly focused on their own media representation. Tetyana Bohdanova, a Global Voices author from Ukraine, explained that Euromaidan protesters watched media reactions to their movement with increasing dismay, as credulous journalists adopted simplistic narratives. We tend to think of protesters as developing simple, sharp, propagandistic messages to motivate their followers. Instead, Bohdanova suggests that Euromaidan protesters were often in the odd position of fighting for subtlety and nuance, explaining the concept of “a revolution of dignity” to the press, who wanted to see the protest as a simple battle between Russia and the EU.
My colleague Sasha Costanza-Chock argues that making media is a fundamental part of making protest movements, and stories from the Citizen Media Summit seem to support that contention. From Ukraine to Gaza, activists are tweeting in English to try and influence portrayals of their movements. Understanding social media as a channel for mobilization – the most common narrative about technology and protest – gives us only a partial picture. For activists and protesters, media is at least as important once people are in the streets, to report what’s happened, to document abuses and to represent the movement to the world.
Crisis response is a driver for social media use.
The Philippines is hit by an average of twenty typhoons a year, including massive storms like Typhoon Haiyan, which killed 6300 people. Isolde Amante and other Filipino colleagues explained that citizen media has become a primary source of information in these crises, that newspapers are far more likely to hear about these events via social media than via radio or other broadcast channels.
There have been lots of stories celebrating the power of social media to assist with crisis response – how Ushahidi was used to assist recovery efforts in Port au Prince after the Haitian earthquake, for instance. But these accounts usually describe social media contributions as an epiphenomenon. Conversations in the Philippines suggest that we might expect social media to take a lead role in breaking the news of disasters and, possibly, in coordinating responses.
Social Media is about taking sides.
That phrase comes from Phil Howard’s forthcoming book “Pax Technica”, and it struck me as helpful in processing the conversations we had at Global Voices. We’ve always considered Global Voices to be a journalistic project – we’ve asked our authors to cover conversations taking place in their national online spheres in a way that’s balanced and fair, even if we reject classical notions of journalistic objectivity. But it’s also clear that many of the folks involved with Global Voices are passionate advocates for various causes: for freedom of speech online, for their nation to be represented differently in international media, for political causes.
Increasingly, I feel like Global Voices is a platform for “advocacy journalism” in the best sense of the term: much of it advocates for change in the world and features the people fighting to make those changes. And Phil’s description of social media as being about taking sides seems right to me. Those sides aren’t explicitly political – people using social media for hurricane relief are taking sides against a natural disaster and for the benefit of the victims. But the line between asking for friends and followers to pay attention to you and trying to harness that attention for change is a blurry one, and much of what works in social media presumes a position of advocacy.
For me, Global Voices summits are always a joyful time, a chance to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. This one was also wonderful food for thought, and I can’t wait to continue these conversations with the community over the next two years until we see each other in person again.
Five days with Global Voices leaves me feeling pretty good about the state of the world, and the shape of the internet. But the ‘net is not always a friendly place. Our post-lunch session on the closing day of our conference is “Do We Feed the Trolls?”, hosted by the estimable Jillian York, of Global Voices and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Noemi Lardizabal-Dado, a celebrated Filipina momblogger. In 2006, she started blogging as a mother who had lost a child. In 2009, she founded blogwatch.ph, a leading Filipino citizen media site. She’s now an empty nester after years as a fulltime homemaker. Her motivation for writing online is making a difference in her children’s lives, but by making the world a better place.
She tells us, “I don’t feed the trolls – the trolls feed me.” Years ago, she interviewed a Filipina who accused her UK boyfriend for fraud – she continues to be harrassed online by him. She called out a showbiz celebrity on child abuse and remains engaged with his supporters online. Now, in writing about the cutting of pine trees in front of a big shopping mall, she’s facing a new wave of trolling.
The trolls Noemi encounters include people motivated by their own opinions and interests, but also by bots that respond to keywords, trolls hired to do “black operations”, and the bored individual seeking attention. She shows a slide with the names she’s called: slacktivist, brandbasher, mom-blocker.
How do you ignore a troll? Do your own SEO to ensure that you’re more visible than what the trolls are saying – put your name out in the medium where they are attacking you. Use your allies as troll-slayers – let them fight your battles. When people get really awful, she blocks or bans them. She prefers not to engage in arguments, but ultimately, she believes the best goal is to show troll stupidity.
Showing a slide titled “Keep Calm and Call the Cyber Police”, she tells us about a story when she began getting death threats for accusing a politician of child abuse. The Philippines have a law against death threats, so she felt empowered to bring law enforcement into the equation.
“Trolls feed me,” she says. Often they give me ideas for stories to cover. And they give me more twitter followers (Check her out at @momblogger.) If you’re being trolled, perhaps this is an added benefit. She suggests that you should also listen to the trolls – you don’t want to be caught in your own filter bubble, your own private internet. Sometimes trolling is intelligent commentary wrapped in bombast.
Arzu Geybullayeva notes that her trolls have a different agenda. They accuse her of being a secret agent, of being a traitor, or they simply sexually harass her.
She does, in fact, speak several languages, and she notes that it’s odd to think that there are people in the world who actually believe she is an agent for Armenia, Azerbaijan’s historical enemy. She is highly critical of Azerbaijan, which leads people to see her as a secret Armenian. Since she also writes for an Armenian newspaper in Turkey, that’s further fuel for their beliefs. Others see her as an agent for secret Western powers.
In truth, Arzu focuses on building peace and understanding in the Caucuses. But this work has now made her a major figure for troll attacks online. She wishes she felt as warmly about her trolls as Noemi does, but the attacks have often been quite personal and scary.
Lina Attalah, who writes for a number of Egyptian publications, notes that trolling is often similar across different cultures – she, too, finds herself often accused of being a secret agent. In Egypt, she notes that politics has been reduced to a simple binary: the military or the Muslim Brotherhood. If you choose a third, independent path, you become a magnet for trolling.
Her newspaper covered the massacre of a Muslim Brotherhood campsite by the police. They were one of very few papers to cover the atrocity. She is very clear that she and her paper are not pro-Brotherhood, but they felt this grave abuse of rights was critical. Once they documented the massacre, the trolls came out in force.
“There is very little logic when it comes to trollers’ responses.” The same people called them Hamas supporters and Israeli spies. Trolling isn’t just an online phenomenon, she says – it is fed by the political context in which it grows.
“I don’t like responding because I don’t have energy for it,” Attalah says. Furthermore, you don’t ever want to defend your nuanced position in the face of this simplistic binary. Not being responsive to trolls is critical to maintaining their independence as a media outlet.
Kevin Rothrock, co-editor of Global Voices’ RuNet Echo, is introduced as one of our most frequent troll targets. Rothrock notes that as a man, he’s not subject to the weird sexual aggression women experience online. As someone reporting on Russia from the US, he’s not directly at risk as he would be on the ground. “I can talk about trolling as a business or an art, because I’m very far outside it.” He notes that some people at Global Voices are writing out of expertise or interest, not knowledge on the ground – when they get trolled, it’s a different, more distant, experience.
When reporting on Russia, Kevin says, I get it on both sides. RuNet Echo is funded by Open Society Foundation, Kevin is based in Washington, DC, and these facts lead trolls to believe he’s a State Department propagandist. But his reporting also tears apart many of the cherished myths of the Russian opposition. When you draw attention to this tensions, the Russian left often criticizes him as a traitor to their work.
“Do I feed the trolls? I interview them!” RuNet Echo has interviewed pro-Kremlin trolls. He worries that this may be making them stronger, but they’re a key piece of the Russian online ecosystem. When you’re writing from afar, though, trolling can be intellectually stimulating and interesting – Kevin says he gets his best troll responses when he’s waiting in line in the supermarket. It’s a form of mental exercise.
York notes that Kevin’s very first statement was about gender. Jill notes that while she usually works at a distance, she often does feel threatened by people locally who respond to her online. She asks the panel whether this sense of threat is more about gender or locality.
Arzu believes that trolling is a response to outspokenness. Threatening you with rape and sexual violence is a way of using the intimidating power of a patriarchal society. Women in Azerbaijan often do feel intimidated by male power and violence. Issues like reconcilliation, which she works on, seem to particularly trigger the trolls. But her commitment to the work keeps her going in the face of these threats.
“Being a women gives trolls more ideas”, explains Attalah. Her male colleagues get similarly attacked, but the attacks on them are not sexual and are less personal. Arzu notes that the attacks that are most disturbing don’t target her, but her mother.
Noting that Global Voices contributors are frequently targeted by government trolls, she asks the panel whether they feel targeted by governments. For Noemi, the similarity of language used by some of her trolls suggests a coordinated, anti-left campaign that is likely to have government support. Rothrock notes that the Russian government certainly sponsors and pays pro-Kremlin trolls – there’s well established research on troll factories and troll farms. These are likely owners of small PR firms who ideologically support Putin. These people interest Rothrock, because he appreciates the authenticity of their views, even if he worries that their attacks are damaging the online space for civil society. Attalah notes that researchers are investigating “electronic armies” of trollers as a different group from individual users.
York notes that when she wrote a story about Azerbaijan she got a wave of responses telling her how wonderful and beautiful the country was. Arzu notes that Azerbaijan is a country that’s happy to construct a Potemkin reality, including hosting its own version of an international Olympics. It’s not a surprise that the government would mobilize an army to respond to online criticism.
Trolling implies little, unempowered individuals complaining, but York worries most about trolling that “punches down”, with powerful individuals threatening weaker actors. Arzu notes that trolling really began to scare her when a noted television presenter, who knows her father personally, began denouncing her on air.
York holds a straw poll, asking the audience whether or not we should feed the trolls. A significant group supports feeding the trolls, a minority believes we never should, and many are undecided. Attalah, Arzu and Noemi note that they’ve got too much to do as writers and activists to feed the trolls.
As for Rothrock: “Feed them ’til they choke on it.”
Jeremy Clarke wonders if anyone has ever converted a troll, changing their view? Rothrock notes that by engaging with trolls, he’s sometimes able to get involved with more civil, productive discussions. Some of these trolls are quite smart, and he appreciates what he’s learned from them. York notes that the opposite has happened to her – she’s had an acquaintance turn into a troll.
A questioner notes that she writes online about sexuality, and routinely is attacked with sexual language directed at her and at her mother. She simply retweets these attacks and lets her reporters respond. One troll was so persistent, he attacked everything she wrote. As an experiment, she simply tweeted a visit to Starbucks – he attacked that as well. Finally, so frustrated, she asked the troll if he had the balls to meet her in person. She set a date and a time, and showed up at a café her friends own – the troll never showed up, and also stopped attacking her.
Gershom Ndhlovu, a Global Voices volunteer from Zambia, tells us that the new Zambian government bought 600 computers and gave them out to party cadres, and paid for data plans for those supporters. If you wrote anything about the government on Facebook, these guys would attack you in response. Troll armies are real and can be powerful.
Kevin Rennie from Australia notes that trolls try to dominate hashtag conversations. He wonders how this can be combatted. Rothrock notes that it’s easy to flood a hashtag. Instead, you need to rely on more closed conversations, which rely on individual thought leaders. He does note that it’s dangerous to assume that anyone who’s angry or disruptive online is part of an organized movement. It’s dangerous to dismiss genuine constituencies that disagree with your point of view. In Russia, Putin has enormous support. When people destroy a hashtag, it’s not always a bot army – it may be legitimate dissent.
Thant Sin from Myanmar notes that the internet in his country is utterly filled with religious and racist hate speech. Posts can be followed with hundreds of comments with hate speech. The experience is one of an ongoing battle on the comments on Facebook. He explains that we believe that these commenters are being encouraged by the government, but that this is unproven. His personal response is to ignore these angry threads.
A questioner addresses his question to “the male CIA agent”, and asks how he would respond to trolls speaking to him in the real world. Rothrock notes that he’d be a very different person online if he were engaged from Russia rather than from the US. He suspects he would be far more careful and would watch what he says, which would mean he’d have a very different online experience.
Filip Stojanovski references a case in Macedonia where a government news portal is run by anonymous people. It’s a trolling infrastructure supported by two hundred thousand Euros in government advertising. One popular tactic is identifying people in photos of protests, which Amira Al-Hussaini notes is popular in Bahrain. He wonders if it would be ethical for us to develop an index of trolls, at least of government trolls? Rothrock notes that he and his RuNet Echo co-editor are in a database as “pathological Rusaphobes”. York notes that some trolls have been immortalized in the Encyclopedia Dramatica. Noemi notes that she doesn’t want to give any more visibility to these trolls and wouldn’t want to immortalize them this way – they would probably enjoy them. Arzu maintains her own personal folder.
Janice from Bulaplap.com, a progressive media outlet in the Philippines, notes that her outlet is “red tagged”, accused of being associated with terrorist groups in the Philippines. “Bulaplap” is a term meaning “unearth”, but also has sexual connotations. The Arroyo government created a mirror site of Bulaplap that contained pornographic images, suggesting that the media site was really about pornography. She wonders whether those of us who control our own blogs should censor trolling comments.
Attalah tells us that the commenting policy on her newspaper has been not to censor anything. At this point, though, they are reconsidering in the case of hate speech and threats of sexual violence. Arzu closes with the observation: “Trolls are trolls. Don’t let them stop the work we’re doing.”
Many of the panels at the Global Voices summit offer a global perspective on difficult reporting challenges. “When the Stakes Are High and the Story Ever Changing: Online Crisis Reporting” Moderator Lauren Finch explains that these look like simple stories to handle: they erupt, a professional or citizen reporter offers their take, and we repeat as necessary. But that’s becoming harder and harder.
Governments routinely go into propaganda overdrive, and we need to unpack what’s real, what’s imagined and aspirational. A flood of citizen generated media means we can illustrate a crisis more thoroughly, but it also means we have an ongoing challenge to verify. People in a crisis are often going through trauma, which demands compassion and caution in coverage. And all these factors take place under an intense time crunch. Our panel features professional and citizen journalists who’ve taken on crisis reporting around the globe.
Mohamed Nanabhay, former head of online at Al Jazeera English and Global Voices board member, remembers the Egyptian revolution as an event that taught him lessons about crisis reporting. On January 25, 2011, Al Jazeera was ready to roll out a massive story: The Palestine Papers, a massive document leak that offered an inside look into the Israel/Palestine negotiations. Al Jazeera had spent months on the story, producing documentaries, online features and the whole organization was ready to break the story.
In this case, Jazeera had lousy timing. Their stringer in Cairo let them know that protests were taking place in Tahrir Square, but the newsroom dismissed the reports: there’s always a protest in Egypt. Al Jazeera is not exactly short on Egypt experts, but they were initially blind to the significance of the protest. For Mohamed, he began to understand what Jazeera needed to do by monitoring Twitter. People on Twitter were taking the revolution very seriously, connecting it to the revolution in Tunisia, and wondering why Jazeera wasn’t reporting it, speculating a Doha-based conspiracy to support Mubarak.
Al Jazeera had one small story about the protest and was working to direct web viewers to the Palestine Papers story, but that little story was getting massive attention. So the newsroom, led by Twitter and by activists demanding coverage, directed by their traffic statistics, decided to deploy multiple journalists and take on the story in a serious way.
Isolde Amante is a print reporter based in Cebu. In the 23 years she’s worked, last year featured a stretch of 23 days that were more challenging than any others she’d ever experienced. On October 15, 2013, a magnitude 7.2 quake struck in Bohol, killing over 200 people. On November 5, 2013, a tornado destroyed 70 houses. And on November 8, 2013, Typhoon Haiyan impacted near Cebu. It was the worst storm ever to hit the Philippines and killed 6300.
Given the other big stories, Amante says that her paper had fewer than 5 reporters available to cover the story. They disabled their beat system and simply covered whatever they could as fast and as properly as they could.
Haiyan is not the only typhoon to have struck Cebu – locals remember Typhoon Mike from 1990. But in comparison with past crises, social media transformed how journalists covered this typhoon. When the tornado broke a few days earlier, her newsroom heard about it not via radio, but via Twitter. Someone tweeted a report and a photo directly to the newspaper.
Social media has also made it possible to cover ongoing efforts to rebuild from the typhoon. When CNN and the BBC stopped reporting on the crisis, the Cebu papers continued, featuring stories on survivors and rebuilding, often using data delivered to them online.
News organizations are also able to be more proactive in the days of digital media. Weather information in the Philippines tends to be limited to storms within the nation’s borders. Cebu newspapers now rely on Japanese weather info and on the twitter streams of meteorologists who warn of typhoons reaching the island.
The demand for information has also become more urgent as the audience for news is changing. There are 10 million Filipinos based abroad who wanted to know what was going on in the wake of the typhoon. As a result, the most popular feature on the Cebu Sun Star’s website was a list of the missing. News organizations now see themselves serving both local and global audiences simultaneously.
Finally, social media has helped mobilize community support. Amante notes that 56% of post-typhoon aid came from the local private sector, while only 8% came from local governments. The newspapers did their part, printing lists of rural communities that had not received aid, repeating until those communities got their fair share.
She notes that the Philippines seems to be getting better at crisis response. Typhoon Hagupit was a stronger storm than Haiyan, but there were fewer casualties. “Maybe we’re making progress.”
Joey Ayoub writes about Palestine and about Lebanon. He notes he’s wearing a Palestinian keffiyah given to him from a friend from Haifa, halfway between Beruit, where he lives, and Gaza, which he often covers.
In the last Gaza conflict, over the course of 50 days, over 2000 Palestinians were killed. 78% were civilians. Joey notes that 77 families were wiped out entirely. Gaza is a very small territory, extremely poor and 45% of the population is less than 14 years old. A six year old Gazan, he explains, has experienced three major wars, or using the term he prefers, massacres.
Despite the fact that Gaza is closed, it’s easy to cover via social media. “Gazans tweet in English because they know that the only thing that can stop this hell is the West.” He features some of the tweets from Gaza that helped illustrate the most recent war, pointing to Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor who lives and works in Gaza. 13 of 16 Gazan hospitals were destroyed in the war, which meant that children needed to be taken to Egypt for emergency surgeries. Joey shows a picture of a child’s passport photo. The child is wearing a oxygen mask as the passport was an emergency one and the photo was taken of the child in the hospital.
Social media also allows for counternarratives. Ben Cohen, an online activist, posted a tweet that went viral, a photo of himself with Gazan children. It had the ironic title: “Selfie with greatest threat to Israel”. When the Times of Israel republished an oped from an American newspaper titled “When Genocide is Permissible”, online activists demanded its takedown, and documented its presence on this major Israeli news site before it was removed.
Chloe Lai is a long-time Hong Kong journalist, who after 15 years with commercial papers is now running a small website, an online magazine promoting sustainable development. She also writes for InMediaHK, which she describes as working a similar model to Global Voices, using citizen voices to document current events.
She suggests that Occupy Central in Hong Kong should challenge the narrative of Hong Kong media as open and free. Apple Daily, the sole pro-democracy newspaper, has been firebombed twice, once at their offices, once at the publisher’s home. The paper’s printing plant was surrounded by pro-China protesters to prevent the paper from distributing their papers. Online attacks rendered the paper’s website inaccessible, so for a short period of time, Apple Daily was only able to distribute news via Facebook and other social media.
Direct attempts to intimidate journalists are complemented by incidents of self-censorship. Lai shows us a video of a protester being carried off by police officers into a dark corner, then kicked and beaten by six police officers. It was shot at 3am during a night of the protests, and aired at 6am on Hong Kong’s most popular TV station with a voiceover explaining the context for the video. The head of the newsroom called the office at 6:35am and demanded that the newsroom edit it to remove the voice over.
The video, with voiceover, went viral, and reporters wrote an open letter to the newsroom chief protesting the decision. All the people who wrote the letter were brough to a meeting where the newsroom chief justified his decision, explaining “You are not the worm in the police officer’s body – how can you be sure what happened?” He ordered the newsroom to stop talking about a “dark corner” where the incident took place and demanded that they allow the audience to form their own opinions.
A reporter recorded the meeting, shared it and it, too went viral. Even when mainstream press are self censoring, social media channels are making it harder for stories to be silenced.
Foreign correspondent, journalism professor and author Howard French recently weighed in on the debate about media coverage of Charlie Hebdo and the massacres in Baga with a memorable stream of tweets. French has a deep understanding of Africa in the news, as a former professor in Côte d’Ivoire and the author of two must-read books about Africa, A Continent for the Taking and China’s Second Continent, about Chinese expansion in Africa.
French was reacting in part to a New York Times Public Editor note from Margaret Sullivan on the New York Times’s coverage of the two stories. He
references a Glenda Gordon article that notes the real problem: it’s not that we failed to value the deaths of those killed by Boko Haram, but that we did not value their lives.
Here’s French’s “Twitter Essay”:
— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015
2) NYT on Baga massacre. Editors asks: ‘Is this a big deal? R we going to deploy someone?’ Good ?s, followed by defensive, sophist answers.
— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015
3) NYT on Baga massacre. Nigeria is not "remote," even if Baga is. Largest country in Africa, close to US, source of large portion of US pop
— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015
4) NYT on Baga massacre. Ebola coverage cited here. It was also late, w costly real world consequences.
— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015
5) On Baga. Individual reporters have worked v hard, done great stuff. Time to move beyond "they're really tired," or we'll get to it.
— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015
6) On Baga. It's time for honest discussion in US media abt how African continent is covered, including staffing resources and "news value."
— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015
US press re Rwandan genocide. "Yeah, we're not really sure this is a big deal, you know, ancient tribal enmities and all. We'll get to it.
— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015
US press re: Congo wars, 5 million death toll: Yeah, big country. It's a mess. So far away. And has anyone really counted all the bullets?
— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015
US press, Ivory Coast meltdown: That's a French country isn't it?
— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015
US media on ebola early on: Hey it's Africa. Sick people? What's new about that?
— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015
US media on ebola later: Hey, Africans might contaminate us! Look, a case. (Full court press ensues… to Dallas)
— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015
US media on Baga: Hey, we just did Ebola. Isn't there someone else to call?
— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015
US media on Baga late. You know accuracy is sacrosanct to us, so until we have an exact and definitive death toll…
— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015
US media on Paris: Hey, these are our people. I mean people. I mean. Oh never mind. You know what I mean.
— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015
— Howard French (@hofrench) January 25, 2015