Urgent: Reports that Bassel Khartabil has been sentenced to death

Bassel Khartabil, a leading figure in the Syrian Open Source software community, has been imprisoned by the Syrian government since March 2012, accused of “harming state security”. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has declared his imprisonment arbitrary and called for his immediate release.


Khartabil’s wife, human rights attorney Noura Ghazi, has recently been contacted by insiders in the Assad government and told that Bassel has been secretly sentenced to death. (English translation/comments on Noura’s Facebook post, which is in Arabic.) It is impossible to confirm these rumors, but this is deeply disturbing news for friends of Bassel and defenders of freedom of expression anywhere.

The Internet Governance Forum in João Pessoa, Brazil, has released a statement demanding that the Syrian government alert Bassel’s family to his whereabouts and exercise clemency in his case. We at the MIT Media Lab join this call, and urge the internet community to exercise whatever pressure we can on the Syrian government to make Bassel’s whereabouts known and release him from detention.

On October 22, the MIT Media Lab invited Bassel Khartabil to join the Lab as a research scientist in the Center for Civic Media, to continue his work building 3D models of the ancient city of Palmyra, whose ruins have been destroyed by ISIS. We continue to hope that Bassel will be able to take his position at the Media Lab, and we desperately hope the rumors of his death sentence are untrue.

We ask for your help in calling attention to Bassel’s arbitrary detention and seeking his whereabouts and immediate release.

-Joi Ito, Director, MIT Media Lab (post on Joi’s blog)
-Ethan Zuckerman, Director, MIT Center for Civic Media

Posted in ideas | Leave a comment

Insurrectionist Civics in the Age of Mistrust

The fine folks at Syracuse University’s Humanities Center invited me to deliver the keynote address in their annual symposium series, this year focused on “Networks”. Here are the notes and slides from my talk, with the somewhat weighty title, “Insurrectionist Civics and Digital Activism in the Age of Mistrust.”

syracuse mistrust.002

About six weeks ago, I was in Accra, Ghana, one of my favorite cities in the world. I was meeting with a group of bloggers and social media users, because that’s what I do – I study digital media in the developing world, and specifically the ways people use media to make change. So I was thrilled with the guy in the red hat – Efo Dela – told me that he was one of the organizers of Ghana’s Dumsor protests.

Dumsor is Twi for “on/off” and that’s what’s been happening to the electric power in Ghana for the last year or so – it keeps going on and off, turning off for 12, 24, 36 hours at a time. In part this is happening because of climate change – there’s very litte rain so there’s not enough water in Lake Volta to provide hydropower.

But it’s also because Ghana’s no longer a desperately poor country, and these days, there are lots of people with air conditioning and television in a city like Accra, and they’re as pissed off as you and I would be if the power kept going off, especially because it’s 95F and humid in Accra much of the time.

Efo helped organize and promote a march of 5000 people from the outskirts of the city into the area around the capital, which got a lot of attention, because protests of that scale are very unusual in Ghana. Knowing that he’s a big figure on Ghanaian twitter, I asked him whether a lot of people in Ghana used the internet for political organizing, as he’d done. He immediately corrected me, saying, “Whoa, man, I’m not political.”

There’s a lot of places where I work where activists tell you that they’re not political, because to be seen as political is to risk your life. But Ghana’s not one of those nations – it’s a stable democracy that routinely scores higher on indexes of press freedom than the US.

So Efo wasn’t afraid of being arrested.

He was afraid that everyone else in the room would think he was an idiot.

Efo explained to me that Ghanaians are so frustrated with politics that within his generation of young, internet-savvy guys, no one wanted to be associated with either of Ghana’s major political parties. In fact, the easiest way to lose credibility in the Ghanaian internet community was for someone to declare you a member of the NPP or the NDC, the two major political parties, because at that point, anything you say is assumed to be said purely to score political points. To keep the online audience he currently reaches and to be effective at mobilizing people, Efo can’t even be seen being too friendly with politicians or prominent members of either party – he avoids even being in the same photographs with people who are closely associated with either major party.

As I listened to Efo explain his anti-politics to me, I was reminded of other conversations I’ve had in the past few years. Friends in Nigeria who took to the streets to protest that country’s removal of a fuel subsidy, which ended up raising prices on transportation and food, causing hardship for most ordinary Nigerians. Activists in Pakistan and India who collect information on corruption, reporting police or customs officials who ask for bribes, or taxi drivers who cheat passengers, using crowdmapping to document these patterns. Friends in Russia who use the internet to collect resources for people affected by natural disasters and provide relief that the government should be, but isn’t providing. What these movements have in common is the youth of their organizers, their use of digital media to organize and promote, and an insistence by their organizers that these efforts are not political.

You may have noticed that we’ve entered our 20-month long election process here in the US, and the front runners – at least in terms of pundit attention – are people who aren’t politicians – Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina – or who are at least very unusual politicians, like socialist Vermont representative Bernie Sanders. For many years, voters have been telling pollsters that they’re sick of politics – perhaps this is a year that people start voting that way as well.

If you happen to be running for office, this does seem like a wise time not to be a politician. When Gallup asked Americans in late 2014 about whether they would rate the honesty and ethical standards of a given profession as high or very high, politicians came out lower than used car salespeople and ad executives. (People who teach at colleges and universities come out at 53% in a poll in 2012, which leaves us well behind doctors and nurses, but better than lawyers.)

I teach civics, so you’re probably expecting me to tell you that this is a national crisis, that we need to figure out how to revitalize a generation of voters so that we don’t lose all that’s miraculous about American democracy, so we can strengthen what’s best in our political system and help emerging democracies in Ghana, Nigeria, India and everywhere else in the world that’s experiencing a crisis in democratic faith.

Unfortunately, I’m not that guy.

Actually, I’m having my own crisis of democratic faith at the moment. As we head into the 2016 elections, I’m having real trouble getting excited. Three years after the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook, we seem no closer to passing significant gun control legislation. We’re seeing unmistakeable signs that our climate is changing, but few signs that our legislators see this as a problem, never mind one that we could and should address.

I have enormous respect and fondness for friends like Eric Liu who are working to revitalize American democracy, appealing to our sense of patriotism and asking us to be part of the change we want to see in the world. I want them to succeed. But I’m starting to think that what’s going on in the US right now requires a different approach. I think we’re at a moment of very high mistrust, not just in government, but in large, powerful institutions as a whole. And I think if we want to revive our civic life, we need to think about a vision of civics that’s appropriate for an age of widespread mistrust.

Pew Research Center compiled dozens of polls to show the decline of American’s trust in government over the past few decades. In 1964, 77% of people told pollsters that they trusted the government in Washington all or most of the time. By 2011, that number was down to less than 20%. And while it’s rebounded slightly since that low point, I would point out that the only time in my life that a majority of Americans said they trusted the government was just before we invaded Iraq under false pretenses.

What’s interesting – and disturbing – is that Americans are losing faith not just in government, but in a wider set of institutions of public life. Gallup regularly polls Americans on their confidence in fifteen institutions. Over the past four decades, trust has increased in only two of those institutions: the military, and small business. For other institutions, trust has decreased, or collapsed. In 1975, 80% of respondents trusted medical system “a great deal or quite a lot” – by 2014, that figure is down to 37%. While no institution fares worse than Congress, down from 42% in 1973 to 8% now, it hasn’t been a good few decades for banks, big corporations, newspapers, television news, public schools or organized religion.

This rising tide of mistrust isn’t limited to the United States. Public relations firm Edelman conducts similar polls in countries around the world, asking about trust in a broad set of institutions and finds that trust is shrinking in most European nations. Where trust remains high is in a set of nations that includes successful autocracies like UAE, Singapore and China, countries that have made an implicit deal with their citizens that economic advancement will come at the expense of constraints on democratic participation.

It’s not hard to think about why levels of trust are lower in 2015 than they were in 1965. Richard Nixon’s criminal misconduct and impeachment was deeply corrosive to Americans’ faith and confidence in the presidency, specifically, and government more broadly.

The long reigns of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s were another blow to confidence in government, as our most prominent political figures told us time and again that government couldn’t do anything right and that only the private sector could be counted on not to screw up important projects.

And in the spirit of bipartisanship and fairness, I’ll note that we could argue that Clinton’s extramarital affair and the ensuing impeachment didn’t do much to increase American’s confidence in their government or the people who led it.

More recently, we have evidence that our government isn’t capable of taking on really big challenges, like protecting the residents of New Orleans from the wrath of Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flooding. Our catastrophic failure to protect people in the path of the storm and the flooding that followed suggested that the wealthiest nation in the world was surprisingly incompetent and powerless.

For those who’ve maintained faith that markets can save us if no other institutions can, the financial crisis of 2007-8 should give pause. Our most powerful financial institutions look shaky and fragile, and surprisingly dependent on government intervention to stay afloat.

The changing shape of media over the past forty years has a role in the rise of mistrust as well. Woodward and Bernstein showed us that the press was capable of exposing abuses at the highest levels of power, and encouraged a wave of investigative journalism aimed at exposing corruption in powerful institutions. The rise of the web has meant that you don’t need a powerful media organization to raise powerful questions through the media. The ability for people to publish and debate online has given us the revelations from Wikileaks and from Edward Snowden. But we’ve also seen the rise of a culture where everything’s up for debate, where the idea that the American president is a “secret Muslim” is debated for years online and off.

MSNBC commentator Christopher Hayes offers helpful vocabulary to understand this moment in his book “Twilight of the Elites”. Hayes suggests that the most significant divide in US politics today is not between left and right but between “institutionalist” and “insurrectionist” approaches to civic life. Institutionalists believe we need to strengthen and rebuild the institutions that have brought us this far, while insurrectionists want to overthrow the power of those institutions and either build new ones in their place, or see whether we’re able to exist without these sorts of institutions.

It’s not hard to see examples of insurrectionism in contemporary politics. Hayes identifies the Tea Party as the locus of insurrectionism in the Republican Party. As we’re seeing with the challenge of finding a Speaker of the House, those who would rather shut down the US government than compromise on Planned Parenthood or Obamacare are surprisingly powerful, in part because many really do want to shut down the government. But insurrectionists include those on the left who aren’t willing to line up behind Hillary Clinton because they’re not convinced that beating the Republicans would be a real victory if it leaves us with four or eight more years of partisanship and gridlock.

But there’s evidence of insurrectionism outside of politics as well. At MIT, we’re in the midst of an entrepreneurship craze – you may be experiencing this at Syracuse as well. The coolest thing you can do as a college student is graduate – or leave before you graduate – and found a startup. The lamest thing you can do is join a large, established company – and large, established companies no longer mean IBM or Bank of America, they include Google. There’s a strong sense that the way in which you can leave your mark on the universe is not through existing, powerful institutions but through small, nimble structures that haven’t yet had time to become calcified and bureaucratic.

So insurrectionism looks like more fun than institutionalism, and I’ve already made it clear that sympathetic to the insurrectionist stance, at least for the purposes of this talk. But there’s an open question for insurrectionism and civics: Can insurrectionists make meaningful, lasting social change?

My choice of images here suggests that I think the answer is yes, but I want to complicate that story. The image is from the March on Washington, one of the high points of the US civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. led over a quarter million Americans to Washington to demand an end to segregation and discrimination, and in the following years, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. But for the March on Washington to be effective, Reverend King and the rest of the movement had to influence a government that was capable of passing these powerful and sweeping laws. I don’t have confidence that a march on Washington could have this effect today, that our Congress could pass reforms on this scale. And if we can’t march on Washington, where do we march?

The model pursued by the civil rights movement is one we still use today: elect the right people to office, and influence them so that they take action on the issues you care about. In other words, our power as citizens comes from influencing the institutions that govern our country. The NRA are institutionalists when they work to influence legislators to oppose any gun control, and the Human Rights Campaign are institutionalists when they work to bring equal marriage to the Supreme Court. Despite radically different points of view, their core methods are similar, and they both depend on confidence in these core civic institutions.

But change is lots harder for insurrectionists. If we decide that Congress no longer represents the will of the people – because members are so beholden to donors, because representatives now have to speak for 700,000 people rather than the 30,000 they spoke for when we founded the nation, because partisanship is so high that very little legislation gets passed, then any strategy that involves Congress – whether it’s elections, lobbying, letter-writing campaigns, sit-ins, or even marches – can’t accomplish major change.

And so, often, insurgents are revolutionaries. They have lost confidence in the possibility of making change through any existing institutions, so they wanted to smash them all and start again. That’s what we saw in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Sudan, countries where cartoonish dictators had ruled for years and where every institution of the public and private sector was part of an unjust system. And when people rose up against those governments, we tended to root for the revolutionaries, because it seemed absurd and impossible that these corrupt institutions could be reformed or changed.

But it hasn’t gone so well for the countries of the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, where activists launched the revolution that spread throughout the region, civil society leaders received the Nobel Prize for the simple reason that theirs is the only nation that had a revolution and didn’t descend into anarchy. The successful revolution in Libya and the failed one in Syria have both turned into bloodbaths. In Egypt, we discovered an uncomfortable truth of revolutions – if you topple a powerful authority, the likely outcome is that whoever was next most powerful and organized will take power: in Egypt, it was first the Muslim Brotherhood, then the army, an institution that has demonstrated that it’s capable of the indignities and cruelties of the Mubarak regime.

Revolutions where we replace existing flawed institutions with new, different institutions are exceedingly rare. That’s one way to understand the Occupy movement. The goal of Occupy wasn’t to oust a president or a mayor, but to change the way our society organizes and governs itself. That’s a tall order – many people involved with Occupy would argue that the movement had difficulty governing itself within encampments, never mind scaling the model of General Assembly to govern a city or a nation.

If we’re skeptical that we can make change within institutions, if we’re worried that many revolutions seem to lead to more harm than good, what’s left to try?

I’m seeing lots of examples of a third way, a form of civics that starts with a simple question: “What’s the most effective way I can be a civic actor?”

In 1999, professor Lawrence Lessig wrote a book called “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace”. It was a seminal book in the field of cyberlaw, but turns out to be very handy for activists as well. Lessig wanted to explain how societies regulate behaviors. We use law to make some behaviors legal or illegal. But we also use markets to make some undesirable behaviors expensive – think of taxes on cigarettes. We use norms to regulate: no one enforces a law that says we walk on the right side of the sidewalk or a staircase, but most people do. One of Lessig’s key contributions of the book is pointing out that code – as well as architectures of the physical world – can make certain behaviors possible or impossible. Put a CD into your laptop, and your operating system will probably offer to make a copy of the disc and store it on your hard drive. Put in a DVD, and it will allow you to watch the movie, but not copy it. Code makes one behavior – ripping a CD – easy, while making ripping a DVD hard.

These methods of regulating rarely exist in isolation – we usually use a mix of law, code, norms and markets to shape behaviors. But understanding these as four particular ways to influence human behavior is helpful.

I find Lessig’s four methods of regulation especially helpful for activists. I think of the four forms of regulation as levers an activist might try to move. And when one of those levers is stuck, it’s often a good idea to pull on the other three levers. If you’re frustrated by your personal inability to make change through law – the essence of institutionalist activism – either because you think our institutions or broken, or you despair at your personal ability to change them, you’ve got at least three other ways to try to change the world.

I’m deeply frustrated – ashamed, really – by US government surveillance of domestic and international users of the internet by the NSA, as revealed by Edward Snowden and the journalists who worked with him. But I don’t have a lot of confidence that either President Obama or this Congress will make more than cursory changes to our surveillance apparatus… and I’m not sure how I’d even verify that these changes took place, given the NSA’s track record of lying to Congress.

So it’s gratifying to see a wave of activism that focuses on building tools to make communications unreadable even by intelligence agencies – Signal, Mailvelope, PGP and Tor. This software is challenging to build, and it can be complicated to be involved with these projects – friends who work developing open source security software tell me that they have a very hard time flying in the United States due to frequent supplemental screenings. But the adoption of this software as it becomes more user friendly shows the potential to make change in an area where change sometimes looks impossible.

So maybe surveillance doesn’t have you worried. Climate change should. But it’s been fascinating to watch entrepreneurs look for ways to make money and make change around alternative energy, from the boom in home solar installations, and the adoption of wind turbines as alternative revenue stream for farmers in rural areas. Most visible may be Elon Musk’s ambitions for Tesla motors, where he’s trying to build the world’s most desirable car that just happens to be battery powered. It’s worth examining whether these strategies are really routing around mistrusted institutions – Musk is seeking some massive subsidies to build his plants, and I’d be a lot less likely to put solar panels on my roof without a tax break. But these are definitely efforts that try to make change one consumer at a time rather than one law at a time using the power of markets to make change at scale.

The years since Trayvon Martin’s death have made clear that the US is not the post-racial paradise some had hoped for after President Obama’s election. And the death of Michael Brown was a reminder that black teens are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white peers. The #blacklivesmatter movement wants to pass laws, but its leaders also recognize that disproportionate violence against black people isn’t going to be ended just by passing laws or putting cameras on every police officer – it was already illegal for Michael Slager to kill Walter Scott. We need to change the norms of our society so that black men and boys aren’t automatically viewed as potential threats.

There’s a tendency to dismiss online activism as slacktivism or clicktivism – and no doubt some is. But online activism can be very powerful as well, particularly when it comes to shaping norms.

#iftheygunnedmedown was a campaign to call attention to the images used to portray Michael Brown after his death. Media outlets found Brown’s Facebook account and chose a picture where Brown was photographed from below, giving prominence to his height. Media outlet The Root found another Facebook photo in which Brown looks much less intimidating, and juxtaposed the two, asking “If they gunned me down, what picture would they use”, pointing out that how news media portrays a victim has influence on whether we see that victim as innocent or culpable. The campaign quickly became participatory with African Americans selecting pictures from their Facebook accounts that portrayed them at their most and least “acceptable”.

And like all online campaigns, it went a bit off the rails as white teenagers saw the hashtag as a great excuse to post pictures of themselves drunk at parties or behaving badly. But most contributions stayed within the spirit of the original, and soon there was a Tumblr featuring contributions.

Within three days, the New York Times had featured the #iftheygunnedmedown campaign and discussed the significance of the imagery used to portray Michael Brown. Many newspapers changed the image they used to depict Brown, and the imagine initially critiqued became hard to find online. It’s a long road from changing photo choice to eliminating racism, but #iftheygunnedmedown is evidence that online campaigns can shape media more broadly, and perhaps shape norms.

But here’s an uncomfortable truth for insurrectionists: if you’re effective in building a new system that changes the world, you probably become an institution in the process. If your solar panel company finds itself selling millions and transforming the climate, pretty soon you’ve become the electric company.

Some of the most ambitious experiments in insurrectionism are trying to build a world without institutions at all, where we’ve structurally worked our way around centralized points of control. Bitcoin is the most visible example, a currency that needs no central bank, no support from a world government to maintain it. Its architecture depends on the cooperation of thousands of people and their computers but promises resistance to the attempts of a small group to seize control over it – though there are concerns that Bitcoin may already be vulnerable to central control by unions of bitcoin miners. Some of the most ambitious promoters of bitcoin hope that these distributed architectures could provide a powerful new way to govern legal contracts, eliminating the need for branches of government and judiciary… but there real questions about whether it can even scale to be a currency that people use broadly.

Maybe you buy my argument that there are ways to be effective outside of existing institutions, maybe not. But there’s another problem we all have to cope with when we consider the future of civics. Whatever problems you or I have with institutions of democracy, they’re designed at their base to be deeply equal for their participants. The beauty of the democratic election is that each of us has a single vote, that whether you’re richer, or more famous, or have a better job, we’ve got the same opportunity to influence an election. In theory.

In theory, democracy works because each single person has one vote and all those votes are equal in the eyes of the law. But equality is not equity, and that’s an important distinction to understand for anyone working on social change. Equality implies that everyone has an equal change to participate, but doesn’t recognize that an equal chance may not lead to equal participation. Equity recognizes that playing fields aren’t level, that people may need disproportionate amounts of help to have equitable participation.

Last year, a law went into effect in Alabama that required a photo ID – usually a driver’s license – to vote. This month, Alabama announced they were closing 31 DMV offices across the state, including every one in counties where the population is 75% black. Black and white people have an equal right to vote in Alabama, but voting in Alabama is likely to be deeply inequitable.

The Voting Rights Act, one of the laws that the March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery march fought for, prevented states with history of voting discrimination from making changes to voting laws that were likely to increase inequity. But in 2013, the Supreme Court found in Shelby County, Alabama vs. Holder that this requirement to consider the effects on equity when changing voting laws was unconstitutional. After 50 years of legal protection for equity in voting, we’re likely to see some deeply inequitable voting outcomes in the next few years, a reminder of how important equity has been towards democratic practice and how hard the US has worked to put it in place.

Despite the infuriating case in Alabama, legal institutions are often a powerful tool for equity. And equity is a problem for the theories of change I’ve been celebrating here tonight. You’re a lot more likely to change the world with code if you’re a great programmer. You’re more likely to change the world by building a new company if you’ve got millions to invest. Equity even comes into play around norms based activism – you’ve got far more power to shape norms if you’re a celebrity, or if you wield a great deal of influence online.

How will we know if these changes to Alabama law exclude African Americans? We’ll monitor and see whether fewer Black people vote in 2016 than voted in 2012. Equity is about outcomes – we can’t just look the laws because it’s possible to have equal rights under the law and inequitable opportunity to exercise those rights. We need to monitor the equitability of other activism we undertake, including activism around norms using digital tools. Is online activism more powerful for #blacklivesmatter than for established politicians, brands and other incumbent powers?

“Monitoring” sounds passive, but it’s not – it’s a model for channeling mistrust to hold institutions responsible, whether they’re the institutions we’ve come to mistrust or the new ones we’re building today. When the Black Panthers were founded in Oakland, CA in the late 1960s, they were an organization focused on combatting police brutality. They would follow police patrol cars and when officers got out to make an arrest, the Panthers – armed, openly carrying weapons they were licensed to own – would observe the arrest from a distance, making it clear to officers that they would intervene if they felt the person arresting was being harassed or abused, a practice they called “Policing the Police”.

Monitoring the police remains a critical feature of democracy. We know of the murder of Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer because Feidin Santana was brave enough to film and share the video of his death. Now we’re seeing movements like Copwatch that train citizens on their rights in taping arrests. And monitorial citizenship happens through more formal ways, like civilian oversight boards that have the right to investigate police shootings.

Monitorial Citizenship is a powerful way of holding institutions responsible that benefits from technology because it allows many people working together to monitor situations that would be hard for any one individual to see. One project our lab is working on in Brazil is called Monitorando a Cidade – it invites neighborhood groups to select issues in their community to monitor and gives them crowdsourcing tools that let them map problems in their community and advocate for change.

I want to bring you back to Efo Dela, my Ghanaian friend who’s not political, despite organizing protest marches. If you feel like you can change the world through elections, through our political system, through the institutions we have – that’s fantastic, so long as you’re engaged in making change. If you mistrust those institutions and feel disempowered by them, I’m with you – but I challenge you to find ways you can make change through code, through markets, through norms, through becoming a fierce and engaged monitor of the institutions we have and that we’ll build.

The one stance that’s not acceptable, as far as I’m concerned is that of disengagement, of deciding that you’re powerless and remaining that way.

I think we have an amazing opportunity to harness the mistrust many of us are feeling and turn it into real change. That’s the challenge I’m working on and the challenge I’d ask you to join me in working on.

Posted in ideas | 3 Comments

Star Simpson at Freedom to Innovate

This past weekend, with support from the Ford Foundation, EFF and the MIT Media Lab, Center for Civic Media held a two day conference on the Freedom to Innovate. The first day featured experts on cyberlaw, activists and students who’d experienced legal challenges to their freedom to innovate. Sunday’s sessions included a brainstorm led by Cory Doctorow on imagining a world without DRM, and an EFF-led workshop on student activism around technology issues.

I was MC for the meeting on Saturday, and have only partial notes. I hope to post some impressions from these other sessions once I have more time to digest, but I’ll begin by posting my notes from opening talks by Jonathan Zittrain and Star Simpson.

The “second act” of our conference introduced two speakers who experienced situations where their innovations and creativity led to encounters with law enforcement while they were students at MIT. The first speaker in this section was Star Simpson. I asked her how she wanted to be introduced – as a programmer, a hacker, a maker? Her response, “None of those. Please just tell them I was a student at MIT from 2006-2010.”

Star told us that she grew up in Hawaii, with parents who ran a two-person jewelry business. “I wasn’t surrounded by much technology.” But she quickly discovered that she loved to learn by doing and that despite growing up in paradise, she wanted to go out into the bigger world.

When she was eight, she learned about MIT – she looked it up on the internet – and “found a promise – out there was a place where if you wanted to learn the technical skills to change the world, you could, and MIT was that place.” In high school, Star sought out projects that would help her develop her technical skills. She worked on building one of the world’s largest wifi networks, and worked with what was then emerging software with the Hawaiian name of “wiki”. “I couldn’t believe it when I was invited to join people here in Cambridge – I wanted nothing more than to join in building the future.”

Star Simpson, photo by Jeff Lieberman

Star explained that her generation might not have been promised flying cars, as Peter Thiel has suggested, as wearable electronics, 3D printers, and shared information on the internet. Those are fields where she wanted to get her hands dirty, and shortly after arriving on campus, she came across a small student group called MITERS (the MIT Electronic Research Society). MITERS, Star explained, is centered around a machine shop, and everyone is welcome as long as they want to learn how to turn ideas into prototypes. “It’s one of the few places on campus that keeps alive the spirit of Building 20”, a wartime temporary building intended to house physicists for four years as they developed tech the US would need to win the war. Fundamental breakthroughs in radiation and microwave research occurred in that famously poorly built building (it stood for 55 years, not the four it had been intended for.) MITERS began in Building 20 and now is located in a small building north of campus, but Star sees the organization as retaining the spirit of its famously creative origin.

Every semester, the MIT Media Lab hires dozens of UROPs – undergraduate researchers – who build much of the technology the lab is known for. Working with a graduate student, they built a garment that sensed posture using low-cost accelerometers. “We were building something that no one else in the world had – there were no fitness trackers, no wearables.” She wanted something of her own that had the same sense of invention to it, “a garment that would change as I, as an EE student, learned to do bigger and better things, help me take advantage of the community I was part of, help me learn from my peers. What I wanted was to become a walking open hardware circuit wiki, where anyone could participate and build something cool.”

She went about building that, attaching a breadboard – a platform for prototyping electronics –
to a sweatshirt she could wear every day. She wore it around for a week and “found out what it was like to be popular, at least at MIT. People would tell me how cool it was,” and she found the groundswell of positivity surprising and gratifying. She had “grand visions for the project – I thought friends might help me become a walking low-power FM station.” Then she would change her mind and think about building a circuit to display information about the weather. “After
about a week on campus wearing the breadboard, I discovered that like most wikis, people looked but didn’t participate.”

So Star decided to create something as a simple demonstration project. “I took a break after my intro circuits class – which, incidentally, had cut out its practical circuit building lab piece – and went up to MITER, where I arranged 13 LEDs into a star and attached them to the breadboard.” The star, a reference to her name, served as a good conversation starter, and made it safer for her to bike at night. And for Star, it was a tangible realization of MIT’s motto, “Mens et Manus” – mind and hands – “It’s not enough to think up an idea – you must be able to practically effect it.”

“I’m not here because everyone loved my sweatshirt and because you can now buy it at the GAP,” Star continued. “What I didn’t see was the project through the eyes of people traumatized and looking for terrorists. I didn’t see my project through the eyes of someone who’s let their life be defined by fear.” As a person of color from Hawaii, Star told us, she looked like everyone else on the island she grew up on, but was unprepared for the idea that her ethnicity could contribute to being perceived as a security threat.

After a week of wearing the LED-enhanced sweatshirt, Star told us she stayed up until 6am to finish problem sets, then decided to meet her boyfriend, who was arriving at Logan on a redeye. She slept for an hour and then decided to meet him at baggage claim. “Never have my plans gone so awry.” It turned out that her boyfriend hadn’t expected her to come to Logan to meet him and had already left. So she wandered around the airport, attracting attention from people who worked there and worried about the electronics attached to her chest. Someone at the airport called the police.

“The police arrived brandishing more guns than I had seen in my life,” she recalled. But Star is clear that the Boston PD reacted responsibly, and that she owes her life to their careful response. “I was told, after the fact, that I had been in the sights of a sniper. But the sniper realized that I was walking away from the airport, not to it, which wasn’t typical behavior for a terrorist.”

Star notes that, at the time she was arrested, you could legally have 11 pounds of ammunition in your luggage at baggage claim. “I had 13 LEDs.” The police restrained her and questioned her on the traffic island outside the airport, quickly determining that she was harmless. But she explained that the police were concerned about wrongful arrest laws – if she had been arrested wrongfully, she could sue. So they went ahead and pressed charges, even though it was clear that she posed no threat.

“MIT elected to issue a statement about what I had done, at a point where even the police didn’t have the facts.” The statement told the press that MIT believed Star’s actions were reckless and created cause for concern. “I will never know why MIT decided to make that statement.”

Star spent the rest of her sophomore year attending court dates. She was eventually charged with “possession of a hoax device”, an object that appeared to be “an infernal machine”. The charges eventually turned into a charge of disorderly conduct. “They needed to prove that I intended to cause alarm, which I certainly didn’t.” The threat of a prison sentence hung over her time at MIT. “I wasn’t sure how seriously to take the situation. I approached professors to see if I could finish my problem sets via correspondence.” She paused. “I was 19.”

“MIT’s statement really shaped how people perceived what happened,” Star tells us. Cycling in Boston, she would encounter people who were overtly hostile to her. A man in Copley Square attempted to push her off her bicycle, saying that she was stupid and should have done time. “He had the full weight of MIT’s words behind him.”

“It has been eight years since the arrest. My life has never been the same. I will never know what might have been.”

Star tells us that one of the most surprising outcomes is discovering just how many engineers have had a parallel experience. “Building something that’s provocative to others may just be a right of passage for engineers.” She hopes that her experiences were not meaningless, that other people who want to explore and tinker will get better protections from the institutions designed to support and nurture them.

“I have to wonder, too, what MIT has learned from this,” Star asked. “My advisor, Hal Abelson, supported me through my case, and only a few years later, would write a report about Aaron Swartz’s case. I was disappointed to learn that what MIT learned from my case is that they should say nothing at all.” Star continued, “It is clear that MIT’s choice did more harm than good… I do not believe that no action as a policy is the right policy.”

Star tells a story from MIT’s history, of a student who pulled a “hack” at the Harvard/Yale football game, a frequent site for MIT pranks. The goal of the hack was to cause a balloon with MIT’s name on it to emerge from the middle of the field during the game. To pull off the hack, the individual needed to wear a trenchcoat filled with batteries, to power the pump. He was caught by police and questioned. A dean from MIT showed up at the police station to support the student… also wearing a trenchcoat filled with batteries. The dean explained to the police, “All Tech men wear batteries,” challenging the idea that a coat filled with batteries should be cause for suspicion. (see note)

“That’s so different from the MIT I see today.”

Star thanked us, as organizers of the Freedom to Innovate conference and activists who’ve pushed for a clinic at MIT and BU that will protect student innovators. “Right now, you can build amazing things at the Media Lab, but it’s not clear whether you’ll have support if you bring them outside of these walls,” Star explains, pointing to Joi Ito’s strong support for student innovators at his time leading the Media Lab. “Instead of MIT attempting to preseve its reputation by distancing itself from creative members, I would like to see MIT using the full weight of its name to tell the world what it means to be an engineer.”

Star received a standing ovation when she completed her remarks. In the question and answer period that followed, students at the conference asked what she was doing now, whether she completed her education at MIT, whether she’s continued working on technology projects. Her simple answer: “No.” In other words, the experience she had is one that will take a long time to digest, and one that has left her far from the path she set out for at age 8.

(Note: As with many stories of famous MIT hacks, there’s distance between mythos and recorded history. According to Night Work, by institute historian T.F. Peterson, the battery story hails back to 1948, where MIT students had placed primer cord on the Harvard football field, planning to use dry cell batteries to ignite the primer cord and burn the letters into the field. One was caught, because he was wearing a heavy coat concealing the batteries on a warm day. In Peterson’s account, the dean did not intervene, but students wore coats with batteries for the following week in solidarity, saying “all Tech men wear batteries, just in case.”

Star’s version of the story – which I’d heard as well – is wonderful in that it’s great to imagine the administration defending hacking in this way. But the historical story has some resonance as well – more solidarity would have helped both Jeremy and Star, even if there was less institutional response than we would hope for.)

Posted in ideas | 1 Comment

Jonathan Zittrain at Freedom to Innovate

This past weekend, with support from the Ford Foundation, EFF and the MIT Media Lab, Center for Civic Media held a two day conference on the Freedom to Innovate. The first day featured experts on cyberlaw, activists and students who’d experienced legal challenges to their freedom to innovate. Sunday’s sessions included a brainstorm led by Cory Doctorow on imagining a world without DRM, and an EFF-led workshop on student activism around technology issues.

I was MC for the meeting on Saturday, and have only partial notes. I hope to post some impressions from these other sessions once I have more time to digest, but I’ll begin by posting my notes from opening talks by Jonathan Zittrain and Star Simpson.

I asked Jonathan Zittrain to give an opening keynote on the Freedom to Innovate because he’s one of the world’s leading thinkers about technical, legal and normative barriers to innovation. His book, “The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It”, introduces the idea of generativity, the capacity of a system to enable users to invent and create new technologies.

JZ’s talk was titled “Freedom to Innovate, Beyond the Trenches”, and began with the technologies of, and before, his childhood: computers built from kits, PCs that you could take apart and reassemble, and operating systems that – whether or not they were free software – were rewritable and modifiable. (Waxing lyrical about MS-DOS, JZ notes that the blinking cursor was “an invitation to create: you could rewrite MS-DOS in MS-DOS.”) The PC and MS-DOS were “generative”, in JZ’s language – they don’t have a fixed set of uses, but are expandable and extendable to solve new problems. (To illustrate the expandability of PC hardware, JZ shows off the PC EZ bake oven… which might also function as a helpful heatsink.)

Jonathan Zittrain, and a PC EZ Bake oven

There are three freedoms that characterize this moment in tech history, Zittrain tells us. People are free to create new technologies. They’re free to adapt existing technologies to new purposes, to “tinker around the edges”. And they’re free to join and contribute to communities of like-minded actors. He explains that the next step after building your Heathkit H8 PC was to join a group of hobbyists who’d figured out how to program the machines – learning from others through apprenticeship was core to this moment in tech history.

When Stephen King published “Riding the Bullet” in 2000 – “a story so bad he couldn’t bring himself to publish it in print” – JZ argues that he ushered in a new era of technological creativity. The story was the first widely available commercial e-book, using digital rights management technology, and despite its low price ($2.50, and distributed free by Amazon and Barnes and Noble), folks at MIT hacked to copy protection to see if they could. “I see those MIT hackers as the leading drop on the crest of the wave of content, from people tinkering in the ham radio world to tinkering in the world of commerce.”

As more media went digital, this tinkering went mainstream. Audio Grabber was a piece of PC software that let users “rip” audio from CDs using a CD-ROM player, and make copies. For the audio industry, this was a step too far, a way in which tinkering escaped the hacker community and entered into mainstream parlance.

The music industry’s responses to copying CDs added a new freedom to the freedoms to create, to tinker and to connect with a community: the freedom to liberate. If content was tied up in a bad DRM system, you should be free to find a way to liberate it from those constraints.

Prior to CD ripping, the music industry looked for ways to deal with the “digital threat”. The Audio Home Recording Act – created to govern DAT tapes – sought to ensure that even if copies of digital materials could be made, that copies could not be made of copies. And when copies were made, fees would be charged to users through a fee on blank media and put into a fund that would help artists who might be harmed by this new technology. As JZ explained the intricacies of the AHRA, he noted, “If you’re already getting sleepy, that’s the point.” These agreements weren’t trying to protect user rights, or involve users in any way – they were negotiated between big parties with opposing interests – content creators and technology manufacturers – and were about dividing the spoils. When existing actors encountered the PC, they looked for ways to “make the PC safe for the CD”, to turn the PC into something as simple as an appliance, like a CD player. Audiograbber turned this equation on its head and demonstrated that users would look for ways to liberate their content and use them in other contexts.

As the audio industry sought to cope with audio ripping and the rise of devices like the Rio MP3 player, they began to engage in behavior that resembled hacking. People who purchased certain Sony CDs – The Invisible Invasion, Suspicious Activity?, Healthy in Paranoid Times – found that these CDs had autoexec files that installed rootkits on their PCs. Sony evidently wanted to monitor all actions these users were taking, tracking what content they were playing and trying to determine the origins of all the files on their systems.

People were widely outraged by Sony’s actions, suggesting that ripping of CDs by an individual felt like less of a transgression than systemic hacking by a corporation. Sony’s transgressions suggests another right we might support under the freedom to innovate: the freedom to audit, to understand what the systems we use are doing to our computers and with our information. “We need toe ability ot look it and to say that something isn’t right.”

Five aspects of the Freedom to Innovate

  • Freedom to create new technologies
  • Freedom to tinker with existing technologies
  • Freedom to connect with communities of interest
  • Freedom to liberate content for additional uses
  • Freedom to audit existing systems

These rights – to create, to modify, to join communities, to liberate and to audit technologies, are all deeply complicated by DMCA 1201, a section of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act which shifts responsibility around the freedom to tinker with existing systems. Previously, if you altered a technology, your legal liability came from infringing a copyright by distributed cracked material. But under section 1201, simply circumventing copy-protection mechanisms is enough to face prosecution or liability. This shift puts legitimate security researchers, like Ed Felten – now Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer – who took the Secure Digital Music Initiative up on their challenge to remove watermarks from their sound recordings, and ended up threatening Felten with prosecution under section 1201.

The only ways around 1201, Zittrain tells us, are exemptions, like an explicit exemption that allows librarians to defeat copy protection so they can make the decision as to whether they want to acquire a copy of a work. “This has probably never been invoked,” Zittrain speculates. “It’s basically there to let librarians feel a little better about the law.”

“Why should this zone be one of cat and mouse?” asks Zittrain. The industry releases something and hopes the community won’t hack it. The community creates something new and wonders whether they’re going to be prosecuted over it. “There ought to be a way to have fair use without hacking to get it,” Zittrain argues. “And the best you’re ever going to get with litigating under 1201 is that you’ll get permission to hack into something like Facebook for a specific set of good reasons… now good luck hacking in!”

“Why shouldn’t the cat and mouse make peace? Why shouldn’t Facebook be required to make accessible data for certain types of research so we can understand what’s going on in the world?”

The recent discovery that Volkswagen had taught their cars to lie about admissions raises questions about the dangers of this cat and mouse game. But there’s a tension as well – we want to get into the circuit boards, review the code and figure out what the VW is and isn’t doing. But at the same time, we live in a society that is extremely paranoid about security (as we learned with Ahmed Mohamed’s clock) – will we want to drive our cars after hacking into them to review their emissions?

(Zittrain suggests that there may be some technologies where DRM is desirable to prohibit tinkering, like with CT scanners. Cory Doctorow, in the audience, argues that for that argument to hold, DRM would need to work, which it never does, and needs to be auditable because there’s no security through obscurity.)

As we head towards the Internet of Things, we’re going to fight over models for how objects talk to the internet. Will the internet of the Internet of Things be the real internet, where anything can talk to anything, and it’s up to the thing to figure out if it wants to listen. Or should it be a closed, corporate net where objects only talk to their vendors. We’ll end up resolving this against a backdrop of legal liability, a world in which things sometimes go feral. Who’s responsible when your Phillips tuneable bulb is reprogrammed to burn down your house? Amazon recently announced their platform for the internet of things, a framework that fills a genuine need, the ability to constrain what can talk to what. But Amazon is going to charge for this privilege, raising questions about whether we want to hand this responsibility to commercial entities.

When we think about the generative, blinking cursor, Zittrain tells us, MIT and other academic institutions created this environment and this paradigm. And universities have a huge role to
play in defending and promoting freedom to tinker and freedom to innovate. “I feat that this mission has been forgotten, and that people like Peter Thiel, who are encouraging people to innovate outside the university, are helping this be forgotten.” We don’t want these institutions to be oracular, to predict the future of the devices we can use and how we interact with them. But we do want them to be “productively non-neutral”. We need universities to be opinionated about the freedom to innovate and the freedom to create the future.

Posted in Geekery, ideas, Media Lab | Leave a comment

Lessig 2016: A radical institutionalist runs for President

My friend Lawrence Lessig is exploring a run for president. His first step was to ask individuals to pledge towards a $1m war chest before Labor Day, agreeing to enter the Democratic primary if he received enough support. As of this evening, over 7000 donors have pledged over $860,000, and it looks likely that Lessig will become a candidate in three days.

I’m one of those 7000 donors who is encouraging him to run. But supporting Lessig’s campaign is different from supporting Sanders or Clinton, (or Bush or Trump, for that matter), and I’m supporting his cause for different reasons than I’d support any of theirs.

If Lessig is elected, he does not plan to serve his term as President – instead, if elected, he would stay in office long enough to pass a package of voting and campaign finance reforms, then resign, leaving his vice-president (possibly Bernie Sanders, possibly Elizabeth Warren) in charge. His reforms, contained in the Citizen Equality Act 2017, would require public funding of Presidential and Congressional campaigns, seek anti-gerrymandering reforms like Single Transferable Voting, and strengthen laws against voter suppression, like the Voting Rights Act.


Lessig calls this a referendum presidency. In other words, he’s not asking people to vote on him as a potential president, but to use the presidential election as a referendum on campaign finance reform. If Lessig won the presidency, he would have a strong mandate to advocate for this legislation in Congress, and perhaps Congress would finally act on meaningful electoral reform once they saw a majority (or plurality, or plurality of electors, given our nation’s baffling electoral college system) supporting these reforms. This referendum strategy is consistent with an argument he’s offered in his last three books: campaign finance is more important than all other political issues, as we can’t make progress on other issues until we fix the laws that have turned the US from a democracy into an oligarchy.

I don’t think Lessig is going to win. He’s late to a race in which Clinton has a strong team, fundraising and endorsements in place, and where Sanders is already doing well in channeling the left of the party into a protest vote – splitting a liberal electorate with Sanders is an unlikely primary strategy. While I do think that there’s a large number of people on both the left and the right who see money in politics as a critical problem to solve, I think those who’ve aligned with Trump because they believe him to be beholden to no one will have a hard time switching their allegiance to a liberal Harvard professor. (It’s interesting to read Lessig on Trump, who Lessig concedes is a far more influential speaker on campaign finance reform at the moment than he is.)

It’s also reasonable to observe that even if Lessig did win, he’s still unlikely to accomplish what he wants. He would likely face a Republican-dominated Congress which would oppose a set of reforms that would disproportionately damage Republican’s chances in Congress. (Gerrymandering has disproportionately benefitted Republicans in Congress, and the voter suppression he’s fighting largely impacts groups that tend to vote Democratic. Both parties have some candidates with heavy SuperPAC support and others with primarily small donor support.)

What these analyses miss is that Lessig often wins by losing. Despite lambasting himself for losing Eldred vs. Ashcroft, Lessig’s failure to persuade the Supreme Court to overturn the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act became a rallying point for the anti-copyright movement, helping build Creative Commons as credible alternative to a system determined to keep works out of the public domain. Lessig was dismissed as special master from United States v. Microsoft after the software giant claimed Lessig was biased against him, but the experience helped shape Lessig’s masterful and influential book, Code… and the case was ultimately decided in ways consistent with Lessig’s arguments. Some of Lessig’s recent losses are harder to parse: the $10m Mayday PAC raised and spent without tipping a single 2014 congressional race might be read as evidence that the influence of money in politics is not as simple as buying elections by raising soft money. Or it might have been a win in drawing attention to the cause, yielding a New York Times front page profile, a New Yorker story, Washington post articles and a great deal of public debate on the topic.

Seen in that light, Lessig’s once again in a good position to win by losing, so long as his referendum attracts sufficient attention. Were Lessig to pass the threshold to participate in the Democratic Party’s six debates, he’d have an unprecedented stage to make his case, and it’s possible he could get a commitment from Sanders or Clinton to make his reforms a central priority. Even if he achieves a level of visibility where his possible inclusion in the debates is discussed, the unusual nature of his candidacy suggests coverage would focus less on personality and electability than on his issues. And the unexpected success of Zephyr Teachout, Lessig’s close friend and now head of the Mayday PAC, who captured 34% of the vote in the New York State gubernatorial election suggests that frustrated progressives may be willing to support campaigns that raise issues, even if they don’t win offices.

I respect and admire Lessig deeply, and support the reforms he wants to make. I think his strategy to “hack” the election and turn it into a referendum just might work, and that even if it fails, it could have an enormous positive effect on the 2016 elections.

But that’s not why I pledged to Lessig’s campaign. I pledged because I’m becoming an insurrectionist, and I wish I could still be an institutionalist.

Chris Hayes, MSNBC host and author of “The Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy”, offers institutionalism and insurrectionism as a new duality to help explain American politics. Institutionalists (on the left and on the right) see the challenges faced by our country as challenges of reforming and strengthening the institutions we depend on: Congress, the courts, the tax code, immigration enforcement, banks. Insurrectionists have lost faith in one or more of these institutions, and no longer believe they can be saved. Instead, insurrectionists want to overturn these institutions and replace them with something that works better.

Those lining up to seek the election of candidates on the left and right are institutionalists – they see control of the Presidency and of Congress as critically important, as these are the institutions that govern our nation. Insurrectionists, from the Tea Party to Occupy, are often unconvinced that it matters who’s running these institutions, since the institutions are so broken that it’s very hard to use them to make meaningful change. Insurrectionism helps explain both a Tea Party insistence that professional politicians cannot solve America’s problems, as they are too much part and parcel of existing broken institutions, and Occupiers’ insistence that they did not have a package of political demands to present, but rather a different way of organizing a society.

Historically, insurrectionists have preached revolution. But it’s harder to make a case for revolution in the wake of the Arab Spring, where most revolutions left their societies wracked by conflict, or dominated by the strongest institution remaining once the government was toppled. (In Egypt, the government gave way to the institution of the Muslim Brotherhood, and then the institution of the military.) Fortunately, we’re seeing the emergence of effective insurrectionism, ways in which people who’ve given up on institutions are making change by building new technologies to fight climate change and by building movements to challenge social norms.

I’m fascinated by these new directions and have been writing and speaking about effective insurrectionism. But these ways of changing the world for the better would work a hell of a lot more smoothly if we had functional institutions working towards the same goals.

Lessig is a radical institutionalist. He’s trying something deeply unconventional, but the goal is not to overturn the institutions of American democracy, but to fix them. This approach can look crazy to most of the institutionalists because it’s so far outside the realm of established behavior, where predictable candidates run for office, and engage in the “art of the possible” once they’re elected. It looks doomed to many of the insurrectionists – we don’t believe Congress will let Lessig make the changes he wants even if he receives the majority of the popular vote.

And while it might be both crazy and doomed, it’s also the most hopeful and least cynical idea of this campaign season. While I’m calculating ways Lessig can win by losing, I believe that Lessig believes that the majority of Americans both hate the way our system currently works and believe it can be fixed. I believe that Lessig believes that we can cross boundaries of party and ideology to fix a problem that’s paralyzing our most critical government institutions and keeping America from meeting the needs of all her people.

I believe that’s a hope worth investing in.

Posted in ideas | 4 Comments

Renormalizing hitchhiking

I’m publishing lots of my new writing on other platforms as well as here. It’s a good chance to reach larger audiences, and often to see how my writing benefits from editing. Inevitably, whatever I submit ends up shorter after an editor works with it – often that leads to stronger work, but it sometimes means that something I loved ends up cut. So I’m using the blog to publish the original pieces, which I sometimes think of as the extended dance remixes (rather than the director’s cut). So here’s a longer version of “Could the Sharing Economy Bring Back Hitchhiking?” published on The Conversation yesterday, and now on Fair Observer and Gizmodo AU.

On August 1st, hitchBOT, a robot that had successfully hitchhiked more than 10,000km across Canada and northern Europe, was destroyed by unknown vandals in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood. For a week, the robot’s violent decapitation was a favorite “news of the weird” story, a chance for commentators to reflect on the Philadelphia’s public image, to muse about human empathy for robots and, of course, to warn of the dangers of hitchhiking. As one commentator put it, “With hitchhiking so rare today, especially among non-sociopaths, it has increased the chance that a sociopathic hitchhiker will get picked up by a sociopathic driver.”

At the risk of revealing any hitherto-unrealized sociopathic tendencies, I want to speak in defense of hitchhiking.

I started picking up hitchhikers during my brief stint in graduate school. I was living on the border of New York and Massachusetts in a town so tiny that it was seven miles drive to buy milk or gasoline. It was, as they say, centrally isolated – a half hour drive from my girlfriend (now my wife), and 45 minutes from Troy, NY, the county seat and home to Rensselaer Polytechnic, the school I would soon withdraw from.

Anyone hitchhiking during the upstate NY winter was doing so out of necessity, not on a lark. I began to discover that some of my neighbors didn’t have cars or couldn’t afford to keep theirs on the road, and so relied on rides to Troy for groceries or essential medical services. Giving rides was a low-cost way of meeting people in my community, getting a better sense of where I lived, and doing a good deed.

It’s something I continue doing now on the Massachusetts side of the border, in Berkshire County, where I now live. I’ve learned a great deal from my riders: how easy it is to lose your driver’s license and how expensive it can be to get it back; the state of manufacturing where we live, which employers fire workers before employees are eligible for benefits and who helps blue-collar workers build careers; what being without a car does to your financial, health and romantic prospects when you live in a rural area. I’ve had a lot of good conversations and a fair share of stilted ones. But I’ve never had a ride that made me feel uncomfortable or endangered. No one has attempted to take my keys, phone or money, soiled my car, made sexual advances or even complained about what was on the radio.

(Let me pause for a moment so I can acknowledge the privileged position that I hold to be able to offer these rides. I’m male, large enough to be physically intimidating, wealthy enough that I can afford whatever extra fuel an extra passenger costs, secure enough in my employment that I can take a few minutes to drop someone at a destination. I live in a safe place. I’m not arguing that everyone should pick up hitchhikers, just explaining why I do and why I wish more people who are similarly privileged would do so.)

Hitchhiking used to be a normal thing to do. During World War II, hundreds of thousands of American men hitchhiked from their hometowns to the bases where they shipped off to war – picking up hitchhikers was a patriotic duty. But this began to change in the 1950s, and by the mid-1970s, hitchhiking was nearly extinct.

Historian Ginger Strand argues that hitchhiking didn’t die a natural death – it was killed. As early as the mid-1950s, the FBI ran campaigns designed to convince American motorists that hitchhikers were risking their lives in getting into strangers cars, and that drivers picking up riders were in equal danger. Advertisements like the one above connected hitchhiking with Communism, and given J. Edgar Hoover’s distaste for American counterculture, it’s possible that the FBI’s war on hitchhiking was a reaction both to books like Kerouac’s On the Road, and to the tendency of civil rights activists and other student radicals to use hitchhiking as their primary means of travel.

A second blow to hitchhiking came from the visibility of serial killers in the 1970s and 1980s. Widely publicized in the news media, the “Freeway Killer” – later revealed to be three serial killers operating independently – claimed to have killed more than 100 people in California, mostly hitchhikers. While these spectacular and brutal killings captured public attention and led municipalities to pass laws against hitchhiking, a California Highway Patrol study in 1974 found that hitchhiking was a factor in 0.63% of crimes, hardly an epidemic. But the apparent connection between hitchhiking and murder, combined with law enforcement campaigns to end the practice, succeeded in de-normalizing hitchhiking.

Now, with the rise of the so-called “sharing economy”, we’re seeing the renormalization of the practice of catching rides from strangers. When “ridesharing” service Lyft launched in 2012, it encouraged passengers to exchange a fist bump with their driver, and to sit in the front seat, making Lyft more like hitchhiking for a fee than taking a taxi, distinguishing it from Uber. (By late 2014, Lyft had phased out the fist bump and the front seat, perhaps realizing that it wasn’t such a bad idea to look like the clone of a business valued at $50 billion.)

Of course, neither Lyft nor Uber are promoting hitchhiking – they’re promoting unlicensed taxi services where ambitious startup companies charge users a commission to be matched with an “independent contractor”. But the language used to promote these services could be as easily used to make a renewed case for hitchhiking. Uber advertises itself as an environmentally friendly way to take private cars off the road and to reduce solo rides with its Uber pool service. Lyft no longer advertises itself as “your friend with a car”, but it offers a “profile” service to encourage passengers and drivers to meet each other, positioning a ride as a way to make a new friendship. Ridesharing companies want the benefits of social practices like hitchhiking – they just want us to pay for them, and take a cut of the revenues.

Behind the “sharing economy” is massive effort to reshape social norms around trust, work, ownership and personal space. Most of us are used to entering a car driven by a stranger – a taxi – but sleeping in the spare bedroom or couch of a stranger is less familiar, and deeply uncomfortable for some. The front page of AirBnB’s website features a video designed to address these concerns on an emotional level. A baby in a diaper walks down a sunlight hallway while a woman’s voice asks, “Is man kind? Are we good? Go see.” The service’s tagline – “Belong Anywhere” – is a direct response to the anxiety many of us would feel about sleeping in a stranger’s house: “No, this isn’t transgressive – you belong anywhere.”

In a world where it’s too dangerous to hitchhike, why are women willing to let strange men sleep in their spare bedroom? Why are people willing to get in a vehicle driven by a stranger whose background may have been only cursorily checked?

One possible reason for this increase in trust is the technology that enables it. Since eBay made it commonplace for individuals to sell goods to one another outside the traditional retail system, technologies to track user reputation have become the norm in peer to peer marketplaces. Uber, Lyft and AirBnB all rely on mutual reputation systems: you rate your driver or host, they rate you as a passenger or guest. Develop anything other than a stellar reputation and it becomes difficult to use the system: passengers won’t ride with you, owners won’t rent to you. With economic consequences attached to reputation systems, there are consequences for bad behavior, and a strong disincentive to cheat (or worse, kidnap and rape) the other party in the transaction.

In theory. In practice, these reputation systems don’t work very well. The reciprocal rating systems have a strong social pressure towards positive ratings – because ratings are public, there’s a strong tendency towards both collusion and towards revenge. Either passenger and driver give each other top marks, or if you rate a driver unfavorably, she is likely to rate you poorly as a passenger. The net effect, as Tom Slee discovered analyzing publicly available ride sharing data, is that the overwhelming majority of ratings are the highest possible, providing no meaningful way to distinguish between great and mediocre participants. It’s not even clear that these systems deter bad actors. Despite its celebrated reputation systems, eBay was so ripe with fraud that PayPal was able to develop a lucrative business as an escrow service, holding funds until both parties in a transaction reported themselves satisfied with the outcome.

If we were really concerned about our safety when entering a car or an apartment, reputation systems wouldn’t provide much reassurance. Rapists don’t attack everyone they meet. And the real disincentive against attacking a passenger in your car or a guest in your house is not the danger to your online reputation but the legal and moral consequences of your actions.

A less generous explanation for why we trust Uber and not hitchhiking is that class-based discrimination is at work in these systems. Last year, Wired writer Jason Tanz interviewed freelance yoga teacher and Lyft driver Cindy Manit for an article about trust in the sharing economy. Asked whether she was scared to pick up riders, she explained, “It’s not just some person from off the street”, distinguishing smartphone-equipped, credit-card holding technology early adopters from the hitchhiking riffraff. While technological assurances, like the connection to a Facebook account and the guarantee of a payment via credit card offer one level of reassurance, the economic, technical and social barriers to using the service offer another assurance, that the user likely belongs to a middle to high economic class. By contrast, in my experience, people hitchhiking are not doing so as a hip alternative to Uber – they often have no other economically viable way to get from point A to point B.

Questions about discrimination in systems like Uber and AirBnB are multilayered and complicated. Writer and editor Latoya Peterson celebrated Uber in late 2012 as offering an (often expensive) escape from the frustrating and humiliating experience of trying to hail a cab as a black person. In contrast, Law professor Nancy Leong worries that the ability to see the name and photo of a passenger before choosing to pick her up could lead to conscious racial discrimination, or simply to discrimination through unconscious bias. Using data from Airbnb in New York City, Harvard Business School professors Ben Edelman and Michael Luca were able to demonstrate that black hosts are paid 12% less for their properties, suggesting that renters consciously or unconsciously discriminate against black hosts, leading to market pressure for those hosts to lower prices on their rentals. It’s unclear whether the rise of Uber and Lyft will alleviate or aggravate racial discrimination. In the meantime, though, these services signal that a user is a person of means, an assurance that may lead to increased levels of trust.

Perhaps the most optimistic answer to the question of why we trust transaction partners in the sharing economy is that most people are trustworthy. The message AirBnB is paying handsomely to promote is, ultimately, true. In 2013, 1.16 million violent crimes were reported in the US, the lowest number since 1978, when 1.09 million violent crimes were reported. But the US population in 1978 was 222.6 million, versus 318.9 million now. Bureau of Justice statistics paint the picture of nation getting steadily safer since 1994, with adults now 3x less likely to be victims of violent crime than a generation ago.

Our perceptions have not caught up to this new, safer world, which is part of why activities like hitchhiking still seem so transgressive. 68% of Americans polled by Gallup believed that crime was on the rise in the US, though only 48% believed crime in their local area was worsening. The picture that emerges is one where many Americans perceive the world as a dangerous, crime-ridden place even if they’ve not personally experienced crime in their communities, an image reinforced by media coverage of incidents of violent crime that don’t talk about larger, statistical trends.

There are technological reasons as well to believe hitchhiking is safer now than in the 1970s. 91% of American adults carry mobile phones, enabling them to call 911 if a driver or passenger becomes threatening, something that simply wasn’t possible in the 1970s. The 64% of American adults with smartphones could take a picture of the driver (a possible disincentive against sexual assault) or look up a driver’s license plate to ensure there’s not an active bulletin about a stolen vehicle or a fleeing criminal.

But while hitchhiking has become safer, it hasn’t had the advantage of a well-funded campaign to renormalize it as a behavior. And while AirBnB has the resources to encourage people to trust strangers, it’s not clear that their campaign will have benefits for pro-social, non-revenue generating activities like carpooling, couchsurfing, or hitchhiking.

Graphic and slogans credited to Dennis Nyhagen,for The Stephanie Miller Show in 2004, reproduced by Al Haug

That’s a missed opportunity. Whether or not the giants of the on-demand, peer economy believe their own rhetoric about sharing and social connection, or are simply using it as a marketing strategy, realizing that we live in a nation where it’s safe to trust other Americans, for a ride or just for a conversation, is a first step in addressing inequality, racism and political division. Picking up hitchhikers, for me, has been one of the best ways to understand the community I live in and the problems my neighbors face. Whether or not it’s the right way for you to make connections is something I can’t tell you. But I can tell you that social serendipity is too important a task to hope that sharing economy startups will accomplish it as a side benefit.


For further reading:

A helpful Reddit thread on the death of hitchhiking in the US

An excellent piece by Molly Osberg on the history and stigmatization of hitchhiking

Ginger Strand’s Killer on the Road, which is remarkably pro-hitchhiking despite a focus on the connection between interstate highways and serial killers in America

Posted in ideas, Media | 1 Comment

Future of News: The View from Accra

I’m in Accra for roughly 60 hours, long enough to remember why I love this country so very much, but not long enough to see all the people I want to see, to visit the markets and streets that I miss, and most challenging, to eat all the marvelous food this country has to offer. (After landing last night, I went straight to Osu night market for a plate of omo tuo at Asanka Local. Closed, so it was charcoal chicken and fried rice at Papaye, not a bad second choice.)

I’m here for a board meeting for PenPlusBytes, a Ghanaian NGO I’ve helped advise for years, which has recently transformed from a group of trainers helping Ghanaian journalists practice computer-assisted reporting, to one focused on the challenging task of using technology to hold governments accountable and responsible. Because my fellow board members include luminaries like open source pioneer Nnenna Nwakanma and journalist Dan Gillmor, we’re using the excuse of a meeting to throw a quick conference on the future of news.

Asked to think about the future of news in the context of digital media, changes to existing business models and Ghana’s particular role in the world of news, here’s what I offered this morning at the Future of News event at the Alisa Hotel.

Kwami Ahiabenu, president of PenPlusBytes, leading our event

My friends on the panel have mixed emotions about this moment in time for the news. I suspect in the context of this conversation, I may turn out to be the optimist in the room. I want to suggest that there are three really good reasons to be excited about this moment of time in news, particularly from a Ghanaian point of view. But I also want to argue that that Ghanaian organizations face two special challenges in navigating this new age.

First, the good news. When I was a student in Ghana in 1993 and 94, I often felt like I was a character in a movie because there was a soundtrack playing at all times… as you walked down the street, every radio was tuned to the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, which had a monopoly over what everyone heard. The most noticeable change when I came back to Accra in the late 90s to start an NGO was the explosion of commercial radio. Ghana already a strong free press, and radio emerged as a powerful and often political medium that reaches all Ghanaians, whatever their level of education and whatever language they speak.

We’re at a moment in time where Ghana is recognized internationally for its free press – Reporters without Borders press freedom rankings put Ghana #22 in the world, ahead of the UK at #34 and the US at #49. The only other African nation in the top 25 is Namibia at #17. Those of us who love Ghana have gotten used to the idea that this country is in a remarkable position in terms of democratic elections, having enjoyed uneventful transitions since 2000, including the seamless transition after a leader died in office. Ghana is an exemplar to the region and to the continent, showing neighbors how it can be done, a stable democracy where the opposition comes in and out of power, a free press where we can debate, often fiercely, the problems of the day. When Ghana is experiencing problems like dumsor (a Twi word meaning “on/off”, a reference to the frequent power cuts that Ghana currently suffers from), we know that citizens can make their voices heard in the press, on the air and online, and that leaders will hear those frustrations.

Here’s another piece of good news. Middle income nations, nations where a middle class is growing, are the most promising new commercial markets for media. Global media companies are making huge investments right now in India, where hundreds of millions of new readers are becoming newspaper subscribers, and where younger ones are skipping the paper and becoming consumers of news on their smartphones. The smart companies are looking past India and towards Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya – nations with a strong, educated middle class hungry for news.

The open question is whether nations like India and Ghana can overcome the “print dollar, digital dimes” problem that’s threatening news in the US and Europe. Basically, in the US, online ads are much, much cheaper than ads in print media – as readers give up their newspaper subscriptions and read online, news organizations lose revenue. There’s no reason it has to be this way. African newspapers have the opportunity to figure out what it means to build a newsroom that’s digital first. This doesn’t just mean a newsroom that makes as much money from online subscriptions, sponsorships and memberships than it does from advertising. It also means a newsroom that expects its readers to report and participate as well as read, that sees itself as having a duty to its readers as citizens, not just as customers. I think Ghana has an amazing opportunity to pioneer new models for media that recognize the potentials of this new medium.

Here’s a third piece of good news, a statement I expect to cause some controversy. There has never been a better time to be a reader of news. And in many ways, there’s never been a better time to be a writer. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I commuted regularly between Accra and where I live in western MA. I ended up feeling like a magazine smuggler. I would come to Kotoka laden with the Economist and the New York Times Sunday magazine, and come back to the states with BBC Africa, the Graphic, the New African. Now we are all able to read from all over the world, limited only by the choices we make about what we choose to pay attention to. Writers need to be thinking this way, too – whether you’re Ghanaian or American, you need to work from the belief that you can write anywhere. An NGO I helped found a decade ago, Global Voices, serves almost as a labor matching service, helping international networks like Al Jazeera find great correspondents in Africa, Central Asia, other places where global news networks are having trouble finding local voices. There is enormous demand for good writing and for different perspectives, and not just by professional journalists. Some editors and many readers are realizing that they want and need to hear from people in other countries so they get a more accurate, nuanced and fair picture of the world. And as I argued in a piece in the Graphic last week, there are politically important reasons for Ghanaians to represent themselves on a global stage.

So, this is a pretty optimistic picture so far. Lest you think I’m completely sanguine about the future, let me mention two serious challenges, one which should be obvious and one that’s less so.

Yes, it’s a great time to read, and a great time to write, but a hard time to make a living writing and reporting. Newspapers have helped many writers find their voice, writing for a modest salary while learning the craft. In the US, at least, this is getting harder to do – shrinking local newsrooms mean that fewer people are getting that ability to engage in apprenticeship and learn on the job. Instead, young writers are finding themselves jumping into the deep end of the pool. One question we should be asking as more people in a country like Ghana are able to afford newspapers, as more radio stations are doing excellent journalism, as the economy continues to expand and advertising is a believable model to support journalism, how are we training a next generation professional journalists? Beyond that, how are we training a generation of citizens who write in public, who contribute to dialogs and make their point to their countrymen and to the rest of the world.

I would beg media outlets to think very carefully about their revenue models. As news organizations move from having a primarily offline audience to one that’s primarily online, it’s critical to look for ways of making money that aren’t purely about advertising or purely about subscription. When you rely too heavily on advertising, you end up with a temptation to put users under surveillance, to sell what you know about them to advertisers, which is unhealthy for society as a whole. But if you depend entirely on subscriptions and lock up your news only for paying readers, you lose your influence, your ability to help shape public debate. We’re starting to see public media models in some countries that rely on membership – they give special privileges for those who support a publisher, but they rely on a small number of members to make the content free for others. Finding models like this, that recognize the people who can support your work and give them special benefits, while letting your work have broad social influence, is a critical balance for news organizations.

A second, and maybe less obvious challenge. I said that it was a great time to be a reader because there’s so much to read, and a great time to be a writer, because there are so many places to share your writing. But certain kinds of writing are in very short supply. It has always been hard to find well-researched writing that criticizes powerful people and governments, what we call “accountability journalism”. It’s expensive to do, and often requires not just reporters but lawyers to make sure you’re able to publish what you find, and increasingly computer programmers to help you sort through piles of financial data or text. That’s not the only hard type of reporting – it’s incredibly difficult to get stories from certain parts of the world. When Boko Haram attacks in Baga State in Nigeria killed as many as 2000 people in january of this year, the world heard far more about a dozen people killed at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. What was really disturbing is that even Nigerian newspapers did this – in the days after Charlie Hebdo and the Baga massacre, Nigerian papers paid more attention to the highly visible deaths in France than to invisible deaths closer to home. So it’s not just a matter of having more news – it’s a matter of getting the right news, getting the news we need.

What’s the right news? What’s the news we need?

To explain, I want to go back to Ghana’s hard-earned reputation for a free press and for fair elections. The economist Paul Collier warns that it’s possible to have elections that are free, fair and bad – these are elections where voters don’t decide based on the issues or based on the performance of those who are in office. Instead, we decide based on tribe, or based on who we think is likely to give us a job or other benefits. These free, fair and bad elections are pretty common in nations that have an electoral democracy, but don’t have the other institutions of an open society. If you have elections, but you don’t have a free press – as in Zimbabwe, for instance – it’s not hard to predict how those elections are going to turn out.

Journalism is a business, but it’s not just a business. It’s a profession, like medicine or law, which means it has a responsibility to society as a whole, not just to the bottom line. We need news that helps us take action as citizens. Sometimes that’s journalism that exposes corruption and holds powerful people responsible. But sometimes it’s journalism that creates a space for us to debate the world we want, the society we want to build. Sometimes it’s journalism that’s not afraid to take a stand, to advocate for great news ways to solve important social problems.

To be very clear, I’m not talking about what people usually demand when they ask media to be professional – they ask for it to be objective, which tends to mean that it strives for false balance, and that it amplifies the voices of powerful people. I’m asking for journalism to do something much harder and much braver – to ask the question of what news we need to be more powerful, more effective and better citizens. This is a place where Ghana has an opportunity to lead the region, the continent and the world. Ghana has the political climate to permit real debate, real disagreement about the way forward, where individuals and institutions can raise their voices about what they think needs to be done. We need journalism that’s fair, that looks to amplify voices we rarely hear from, that’s brave enough to advocate for new ideas that could change the world for the better. We need to make sure that Ghana’s free press and free and fair elections escape the trap of free, fair and bad – instead, we need media that helps make us more powerful as citizens.

Posted in Africa, Media | 3 Comments

Digital Media, and Ghana’s Place on the Global Stage

I head to one of my favorite cities, Accra, later this week, to participate in a conference on “The Future of News” and to attend a board meeting for PenPlusBytes, a Ghanaian NGO that trains journalists in computer-assisted reporting, and operates Accra’s New Media Hub.

In preparation for the conference, The Daily Graphic – Ghana’s leading daily newspaper – asked me to write about Ghana and the contemporary media environment. My piece ran in the paper today, and follows below in a slightly different form. It’s written for a Ghanaian audience, so please assume that the references you don’t get are ones Ghanaians will understand.

Digital Media, and Ghana’s Place on the Global Stage

If you know where to look, it’s not hard to find Ghana online. Take #233moments as an example. At 2:33pm each afternoon, a handful of Ghanaians share a photo of what they’re up to on Twitter, a glimpse of daily life, marked with the “hashtag” #233moments so those in the know can find them. From church posters to the backs of tro-tros, from business conferences to roadside sellers, from beach resorts to lazy lunches (especially on “WaakyeWednesday”, when it’s customary to post from your favorite chop bar), #233moments celebrates what’s colorful, wonderful and unique about this remarkable nation, and shares it with anyone willing to hear. Follow the tag, as I do, and you’ll have visibility into a fascinating and diverse nation.

A sample #233moment

It wasn’t always so easy to learn about Ghana.

When I came to Ghana for the first time in 1993, as a student at Legon, I knew virtually nothing about the country that would be my home for the next year. While I had studied with Ghanaian musicians in the United States, I knew almost nothing of Ghana’s politics, history or daily life. My ignorance wasn’t unusual for an American – we hear very little about sub-Saharan Africa in the news, and when we do hear about Africa, we hear a relentless litany of bad news.

Twenty two years later, Ghana is a very different place. It’s the region’s poster child for democratic elections, an emerging economic powerhouse, but also a nation where unequal development and divides between rich and poor are showing strains in the social fabric (not to mention strains on the electric grid).

Some of the nation’s most dramatic transformations are in the world of news and media. Walking in Osu, where I lived in 1994, every radio was tuned to GBC, for the simple reason that there was nothing else to tune to! The explosion of radio journalism, talk radio, new glossy magazines and newspapers as well as digital services delivering news to our phones have led to a diverse and open media environment that Reporters Without Borders classifies as more free than the press in my country, the US, or the press in the UK.

Yet the rest of the world still doesn’t hear much about Ghana.

My research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focuses on global media coverage. Our system, called Media Cloud, collect stories from half a million publications from all over the world so we can understand what topics, what people and what nations are capturing the attention of the press. I checked our database this year to find out how many times Ghana had been mentioned in the US’s 25 largest media outlets, in comparison to two nations with similar population: Taiwan and Australia. Taiwan appeared almost three times as often as Ghana, while Australia was mentioned almost thirty times as often.

And when Americans read about Ghana, we mostly read about football. American media’s interest in Ghana peaked during the semifinal match in Malabo, when Ghana’s fans were attacked by their hosts in Equatorial Guinea. The tragic explosion at the Circle GOIL station received only a third as many stories as the semifinal victory.

To be clear, this isn’t Ghana’s fault. The US has a massive blind spot about the African continent, despite having a president with deep roots in Kenya, and increasing trade with the continent. The long legacy of slavery and the racism it has engendered in American society also helps explain why very few African nations receive much notice in the American press.

But this disparity in attention is one Ghanaians should take seriously, as it has implications for investment, for trade, and for tourism. Investors who can’t find Ghana on a map are unlikely to buy bonds or invest in startup companies. Travelers who don’t know about Ghana’s music, food, culture, color, castles and beaches won’t schedule holidays here.

Ghana’s comparative invisibility is an American problem – my countrymen are the ones missing out, choosing to live in a narrower world – but it’s a problem ordinary Ghanaians could help solve. The rise of social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and other tools – mean that anyone who is online, or has a sufficiently powerful phone, can be a publisher. We’re used to using Facebook to stay in touch with schoolmates, or using Twitter to share stories and tell jokes. But these tools can also be a powerful way to challenge the way Ghana is understood by the rest of the globe.

But when people use social media to offer their own narratives and perspectives, does anyone listen? Slowly but surely, the world is starting to. When President Obama visited Kenya, CNN reported on the dangers of the visit, characterizing Kenya as “terror hotbed”. Kenyans took to Twitter to complain, using the hashtag #someonetellCNN: “#someonetellCNN the Hotbed of Terrorism is the fastest growing economy in the world”; “#SomeoneTellCNN that we now have @AlJazeera for reliable news. @CNNAfrica @CNN is so last century…” Tony Maddox, CNN’s managing director, eventually flew to Nairobi to apologize and admit the network should have handled the story differently.

Challenging media coverage directly can work. The “Black Lives Matter” movement in the US, a reaction to the alarming trend of unarmed black people killed by US police, has used social media to demand coverage of protests and to challenge how media has portrayed police killings. When Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, many newspapers and television stations portrayed him using a photo that made the 18 year old look taller and older than he actually was, instead of another readily available photo, where his age was more apparent. Black activists began posting pairs of photos to Facebook, asking “If they gunned me down, which photo would the media use”, showing two photos of themselves taken from Facebook, one showing them in a positive light, another in a more negative light. The activists called attention to the fact that the images we choose have political significance and weight – in choosing a photo where Brown looked threatening, the media was siding with the police. The campaign was successful – the troublesome photo of Brown disappeared from most newspapers, and the other photo was widely circulated.

Social media gives Ghana a chance to talk back to the rest of the world. And Ghana has a great deal to talk about: the nation is facing the opportunities and challenges associated with becoming a middle-income nation. It’s never been easier for people to write about these issues online, using free blogging sites like Medium.com, or connecting with sites like Fair Observer, or my organization Global Voices, who are always looking for new perspectives from the African continent.

Ghanaians are never shy with their opinions in drinking spots, in shared taxis and tro-tros, on talk radio. Maybe it’s time that Ghanaians start sharing their perspectives with the world as a whole. Perhaps a few more #233moments, shared with the rest of the world, can help Americans and others see Ghana, and Africa as a whole, in a clearer light.

Posted in Africa, Media | 1 Comment

Harnessing Mistrust for Civic Action

Yes, it’s international press day here on my old, creaky blog. Friends at Süddeutsch Zeitung asked whether I could turn my Re:publica Keynote on mistrust and civics into a newspaper op-ed. Here’s what I came up with, which ran in yesterday’s newspaper.

On Monday, British comedian Simon Brodkin pelted outgoing FIFA leader Sep Blatter with a stack of dollar bills as Blatter spoke at a press conference. Brodkin’s dollar shower expressed the boundless anger football fans feel about the corruption within football’s world governing body.

When Swiss police arrested senior leaders of FIFA at a posh hotel in Zurich in late May, football fans around the world were shocked. Unfortunately, very few were shocked to learn of corruption in the world governing body of football. Instead, they were surprised that the leaders of an institution with a long reputation for malfeasance might be held responsible for their misdeeds.

This misplaced surprise is characteristic of the current popular mood in many nations. We are so accustomed to news of institutions acting incompetently or unethically that we are less surprised by their misbehavior then that such misbehavior has consequences. Whether we consider the disastrous failures of the US and UK in Iraq from 2003 to the present, the near collapse of the global banking system in 2008 or the discovery of widespread sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church over the past two decades, it’s easy to understand why there is pervasive mistrust in many institutions: governments, big business, churches and the press have failed us time and again.

In the US, mistrust in government has deepened over the past 50 years, with 24% of Americans now reporting that they trust their government all or most of the time, down from 77% in 1964. But it’s not only government that Americans mistrust: polls show a steady decline in trust in corporations, banks, newspapers, universities, nonprofit organizations and churches. The only institutions that Americans trust more than they did a generation ago are the military and the police. And while specifics of mistrust differ between the US and Europe, the general pattern is similar. Public relations firm Edelman surveys a thousand citizens in 33 nations each year to build a “trust barometer”, measuring public trust in government, business, nonprofit organizations and the media. According to their survey Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Ireland all have lower levels of institutional trust than the United States.

One predictable consequence of mistrust in institutions is a decrease in participation. Fewer than 37% of eligible US voters participated in the 2014 Congressional election. Participation in European parliamentary and national elections across Europe is higher than the US’s dismal rates, but has steadily declined since 1979, with turnout for the 2014 European parliamentary elections dropping below 43%. It’s a mistake to blame low turnout on distracted or disinterested voters, when a better explanation exists: why vote if you don’t believe the US congress or European Parliament is capable of making meaningful change in the world?

In his 2012 book, “Twilight of the Elites”, Christopher Hayes suggests that the political tension of our time is not between left and right, but between institutionalists and insurrectionists. Institutionalists believe we can fix the world’s problems by strengthening and revitalizing the institutions we have. Insurrectionists believe we need to abandon these broken institutions we have and replace them with new, less corrupted ones, or with nothing at all. The institutionalists show up to vote in elections, but they’re being crowded out by the insurrectionists, who take to the streets to protest, or more worryingly, disengage entirely from civic life.

Conventional wisdom suggests that insurrectionists will grow up, stop protesting and start voting. But we may have reached a tipping point where the cultural zeitgeist favors insurrection. My students at MIT don’t want to work for banks, for Google or for universities – they want to build startups that disrupt banks, Google and universities.

The future of democracy depends on finding effective ways for people who mistrust institutions to make change in their communities, their nations and the world as a whole. The real danger is not that our broken institutions are toppled by a wave of digital disruption, but that a generation disengages from politics and civics as a whole.

It’s time to stop criticizing youth for their failure to vote and time to start celebrating the ways insurrectionists are actually trying to change the world. Those who mistrust institutions aren’t just ignoring them. Some are building new systems designed to make existing institutions obsolete. Others are becoming the fiercest and most engaged critics of of our institutions, while the most radical are building new systems that resist centralization and concentration of power.

Those outraged by government and corporate complicity in surveillance of the internet have the option of lobbying their governments to forbid these violations of privacy, or building and spreading tools that make it vastly harder for US and European governments to read our mail and track our online behavior. We need both better laws and better tools. But we must recognize that the programmers who build systems like Tor, PGP and Textsecure are engaged in civics as surely as anyone crafting a party’s political platform. The same goes for entrepreneurs building better electric cars, rather than fighting to legislate carbon taxes. As people lose faith in institutions, they seek change less through passing and enforcing laws, and more through building new technologies and businesses whose adoption has the same benefits as wisely crafted and enforced laws.

“Monitorial citizens” are activists whose work focuses on watching and critiquing the work conducted by institutions. The young Italians behind Monithon.it, a project that invites citizens to visit, investigate and review projects paid for with European cohesion funds are monitorial citizens. So are the civilians who review complaints against the police, holding commanders accountable for mistreatment of the citizens. The rise of new tools and techniques, including video sharing and crowdsourced reporting, are helping mitigate the power imbalances between established institutions and the citizens who want to hold them accountable.

Some of the most radical thinking about a post-institutional future comes from proponents of systems like bitcoin, a virtual currency designed to free its users from trusting in central banks and the governments that back them. Internet advocates have a long track record of supporting decentralized systems, from mesh networks that provide internet connectivity without a central internet service provider, or Eben Moglen’s “Freedom Box“, a system for serving webpages that mirrors content around the internet, rather than centralizing it on a single server. But decentralization is a difficult technical problem. Technical systems like Google and Facebook have become powerful institutions not just due to the ambitions of their founders, but from the difficulty of building search engines and social networks in a decentralized way.

Could citizen monitors of FIFA have kept Qatar from hosting the 2022 World Cup? Would decentralized social networks have resisted NSA surveillance? Maybe so, maybe not. But the citizens finding ways to challenge institutions and engage in politics through other means are the ones to watch in this age of mistrust.

Posted in ideas | 2 Comments

Who benefits from doubt? Online manipulation and the Russian – and US – internet

I was asked by an editor at RBC, one of Russia’s best respected independent news organizations, to offer my thoughts on the Russian/US infowar. It was a great chance to think about Adrian Chen’s provocative tale about Russia’s Internet Research Agency (a topic that Global Voices RuNet Echo has done a terrific job of covering) and broader questions about skepticism, mistrust and who benefits from doubt. The piece ran on RBC today in Russian, but my English language text follows below.

In early June, the New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a story by investigative reporter Adrian Chen about a Russian “troll factory” in St. Petersburg, linked to Evgeny Prigozhin, reported to have close ties with Vladimir Putin. In the article, Chen interviewed Lyudmila Savchuk, a whistle blower who is suing the Internet Research Agency, her former employer, in hopes of shutting down their operations of posting pro-Kremlin comments on social media sites in English and Russian.

Until Chen’s story, many American readers had never heard of paid Russian propagandists writing online. But followers of the RuNet, Russia’s online spaces, have seen the Russian internet as one of the world’s most fiercely contested online spaces. In 2011, internet researchers in the US and Canada published a book, “Access Contested”, which suggested that battles over online spaces were progressing from censorship – preventing the posting of controversial content or preventing a nation’s citizens from reading that content – to a more complex model of contestation, where governments used a wide range of methods to disrupt dialog online: harassing users with frivolous lawsuits, rendering sites unavailable via denial of service attacks, and flooding comment threads. While these tactics have become popular worldwide, anywhere governments wish to disrupt online speech, many of them were pioneered in Russian cyberspace. My coauthors and I documented some of these early attacks, including attacks on Novaya Gazeta, in a 2010 study published by the Berkman Center at Harvard University.

What was surprising about Chen’s story was not that people were producing pro-government comments in Russian, but that this same Internet Research Agency appeared to be responsible for a set of fabricated news stories, released in English and intended to mislead US audiences. These stories have fascinated and baffled American media scholars. They are complex hoaxes, involving dozens of social media accounts, fake websites and fake YouTube videos, all towards the apparent goal of making American social media users believe that a chemical plant in Louisiana had been attacked by ISIS terrorists, or that there had been an outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta. These hoaxes were not successful in fooling many people for very long – they were quickly dismissed after mainstream news reports made clear that these tragedies had not occurred.

These hoaxes suggest an interesting new chapter in the ongoing infowar between the US and Russia. The goal of the infowar may no longer be to promote or discredit either the Kremlin or the White House. The goal may be to destroy trust in the internet, in social media and in news.

For decades, nations have worked to produce news that reflects their specific point of view. The United States Broadcasting Board of Governors oversees Voice of America, Radio and TV Marti (for Cuban audiences), Al-Hurra TV and Radio Sawa (for Arabic-speaking audiences), Radio Free Asia, and Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, which includes Radio Svoboda, aimed at Russian audiences. Defenders of these projects see them as providing objective news reporting in countries where press freedom is constrained. Others – including some US legislators – see these stations as pro-US propaganda. Until 2013, Voice of America was banned from broadcasting in the US because Congress believed that these broadcasts, played in the US, would function as pro-government propaganda. In recent years, BBG has broadened its remit beyond broadcasting, and proposed spending $12.5 million in 2016 to support internet anti-censorship technologies, intended to allow citizens of countries that censor the internet to access blocked content.

It should not have been a surprise that Russia would take to international broadcasting to promote a national agenda, joining stated sponsored channels France24 (France), CCTV (China), and Al Jazeera (Qatar). These channels have experimented with different mixes of news reporting and public diplomacy, sometimes coming under fire for compromising journalistic standards in favor of national interests.

Russia Today (RT) has taken some unusual and surprising approaches in deploying this tool of soft power. The network promotes a view of Russia as defender of the principle of international sovereignty in the face of relentless US-led globalization, a viewpoint that turns not only protests in Armenia into a US-led grab for power, but the arrest of FIFA officials for corruption into a plot to strip Russia of the 2018 World Cup. While Al Jazeera, in particular, has worked hard to gain respect as a journalistic outlet rather than a government mouthpiece, Russia Today seems content to take an explicitly pro-Russian, anti-US stance.

And then there’s the weird stuff. As Ilya Yablokov of the University of Leeds has observed, Russia Today seems to be trying to cultivate a US audience of conspiracy theorists. Yablokov notes that one of the first stories RT ran after launching RT America in 2010 was titled “911 Reasons Why 9/11 Was (Probably) an Inside Job”. The idea that the US government killed over 3000 of its own citizens, including 500 police officers and firefighters, as a pretext to invade Iraq, is deeply offensive to most Americans, and unlikely to win RT a broad US audience. But as Yablokov notes, that may not be the point.

There’s a long history in American politics of conspiracy theories gaining wide audiences. Historian Richard Hofstadter identified this in 1964 as “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, a tendency for those who feel alienated and dispossessed to see America as controlled by a secret cabal. Knowing that it is unlikely to persuade the majority of Americans to see their government as a global hegemon and Russia as the tireless defender of sovereign nations, perhaps RT is appealing to those who are predisposed to “Question More”, as the network’s slogan suggests. While that approach won’t work for most Americans, it may work for the 19% of Americans who believe the government was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev suggests that a Russian focus on conspiracy theories, especially about outside agitation in creating “color revolutions” is consistent with Russia’s preferred framing of the world – sovereignty versus agitation – rather than the US’s preferred framing – democracy versus authoritarianism. Brian Whitmore, a senior correspondent for RL/RFE, argues that conspiracy theories suggest a government incapable of taking citizen movements seriouslydocumented attempts by the government of Azerbaijan to portray the internet as a dangerous and lawless space, linking internet usage to sexual abuse of children, trafficking of women, breakdowns of marriages and mental illness. The campaign has been quite successful, keeping 86% of Azeri women offline, and helping ensure that internet penetration in Azerbaijan has stayed far behind of its neighbors, Georgia and Armenia. Turkish media scholar Zeynep Tufekci suggests that Erdogan’s government has deployed similar tactics in Turkey, working to demonize social media in the hopes of keeping his large support base off these networks, which are heavily used by opposition organizers.

Raising doubt in online media as a whole might help explain why a Russian firm would start easily dismissed rumors on American social networks. The net effect of these rumors has been to remind American Internet users that everything they read online should be doubted before being vetted and verified. And RT’s main brand message is that Americans shouldn’t trust their government or their media, as both are hiding the “other side” of the narrative, and the secrets behind far-reaching conspiracies.

But the question remains: who benefits from doubt?

Historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway have a possible answer. Their book “Merchants of Doubt” looks at techniques used by energy industry lobbyists in the US to create uncertainty and doubt about climate change. They trace these techniques back to the tobacco industry, which used similar tactics for decades to prevent tobacco from being regulated as a drug. Their key weapon was doubt. Tobacco companies sponsored legitimate medical research on other causes for cancer and heart disease. The net result was that they kept alive the appearance of a debate about whether tobacco use was the primary cause of lung cancer for far longer than there was an actual scientific debate. Similarly, climate scientists sponsored by energy companies insist that there is a diversity of opinion about humans’ role in creating climate change, relying on the media’s tendency to tell both sides of a story and keep a “debate” alive years beyond when it would otherwise be settled.

Who benefits from doubt? Ask instead who benefits from stasis. So long as there was doubt that cigarettes caused cancer, regulators were less willing to label packages, restrict their sales or ban them altogether. So long as there is doubt about humanity’s role in climate change, governments are less likely to pass carbon taxes, ban the burning of coal or subsidize the shift to renewable energy. It’s not necessary to persuade people that cigarettes are safe to smoke or that we can burn coal indefinitely without raising global temperatures – it’s enough to raise sufficient doubt to lead to paralysis.

Stasis benefits the Russian state. People baffled by claims and counterclaims over whether Russian troops are in Ukraine or whether the US toppled the Yanukovych government are less likely to demand NATO military intervention in Crimea. Russian citizens who wonder whether Alexei Navalny is an embezzeler are less likely to support his candidacy. Internet users who doubt whatever they see online are less likely to use social media to organize and topple those who are currently in power.

It’s expensive to persuade someone to believe something that isn’t true. Persuading someone that _nothing_ is true, that every “fact” represents a hidden agenda, is a far more efficient way to paralyze citizens and keep them from acting. It’s a dark art, one with a long past in Russia and in the US, and one we’re now living with online.

Posted in ideas | 5 Comments