Honor every death: Paying attention to terror in Baga, Nigeria as well as Paris

This has been an ugly week.

On Wednesday, two Islamic extremists assassinated 12 people in the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The next day, a police officer was killed by a pair of gunmen in another corner of Paris in an apparently related incident. Today, French authorities faced hostage crises at a kosher supermarket in the city, and at a printing plant outside the city. By the end of the week, the death toll was up to twenty – 17 victims and 3 perpetrators – in an tragic week people are starting to call France’s 9/11.

The violence in Paris demands – and has received – widespread media attention. But it has overshadowed some of the other events of an ugly, dispiriting week.

On Tuesday morning, a homemade explosive blew up outside the Colorado Springs office of the NAACP, one of the US’s leading civil rights organizations. The bombing – which the FBI has declared deliberateevoked memories of the darkest days of the civil rights struggle, where activists were the victims of bomb attacks. The NAACP bombing received little mainstream media attention, leading to a twitter campaign demanding coverage of the attack, and sparking discussion about a media tendency to dismiss white terrorists as disturbed, lone-wolf individuals, while seeing other terrorists as representing their race or religion.


Sally Kohn’s tweet from December 21, 2014 is as appropriate now as it was then.

It’s understandable that the tragedy in Paris overshadowed coverage of the NAACP bombing. But it’s harder to explain the scant media attention to another horrific act of terrorism: Boko Haram’s attack on the town of Baga.

Baga is on the border between Nigeria and Chad and has been a key battleground between Boko Haram and Nigerian forces over the few years. In April 2013, the Nigerian army, pursuing Boko Haram killed almost two hundred civilians and burned a substantial portion of the town, leading villagers to flee into the bush. On Saturday, January 3, 2015, Boko Haram seized a military base in Baga, and began launching attacks on townspeople. At least 7,000 refugees have fled into Chad and Niger.

It will likely be weeks until there’s a confirmed death toll from Baga, but Amnesty International’s Nigeria expert believes there may be as many as two thousand dead. The town has apparently been razed to the ground, as Boko Haram forces looted, then burned, houses. Since 2011, Boko Haram has killed 16,000 Nigerians, 11,000 in the past year.

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 8.03.32 PM

If you haven’t heard about the Baga massacre, that’s not surprising. Most major media outlets have barely covered the story. In the graph above, the orange line is the phrase “Charlie Hebdo”, and the blue is “Baga”. On January 4th, the day after the Nigerian army base fell, the top 25 US mainstream media ran twenty sentences that mentioned Baga. Yesterday, the same news outlets ran 1,100 sentences mentioning Charlie Hebdo. (Today’s count will likely be higher, but Media Cloud is still collecting today’s data, and there’s still four hours in the day.)

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My Nigerian friends have commented that the Baga story is not getting much play in Nigerian media either, and the statistics bear that claim out. Orange represents “Charlie Hebdo”, blue represents “Baga” as above, but now we’re looking at a collection of Nigerian newspapers, radio, television and social media. Baga peaks two days after the military base fell, and coverage of the Paris massacre has been stronger the past three days than coverage of the larger domestic tragedy.

Some commentators note that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has expressed his sympathies to the French government, but not to the people of Borno State killed by Boko Haram. Facing re-election in five weeks, Jonathan is understandably wary of discussing Boko Haram, as it reminds voters that the conflict has erupted under his management and that his government has been unable to subdue the terror group. Jonathan has claimed that a multinational force was combatting Boko Haram, but military sources claim that Nigerois, Chadian and Cameroonian troops have deserted the cause.

I was struck by how little attention the Baga massacre was receiving and tweeted about it earlier today. People have offered helpful speculation on why this is the case. Some theories my correspondents have suggested:

– The victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre were journalists, and journalists take special care to cover journalist deaths. (I wish this were true. But the alarmingly common killing of journalists in the Philippines suggests that some journalist deaths are more newsworthy than others.)

– Baga is hard to get to, while Paris is a global media city. Easier access equals more coverage. (Certainly true, and certainly important, but given the death toll in Baga, you might expect at least one global news crew to try to reach the scene. AP’s dateline is from Yola, almost 600km away. Reuters is reporting from Bauchi, a similar distance away.)

– Racism. We care more about the white people killed in France than about black people killed in Nigeria. Or, phrased differently, “a hierarchy of death“, in which some deaths always merit more attention than others.

I think this last theory is on the right track, but I think it’s more complex than just racism (though I believe race plays a significant factor.) When I teach “agenda setting” and “news values” (the ways in which some events become news and some don’t), I turn to a 50 year old paper by Johan Galtung and Mari Ruge, “The Structure of Foreign News”. Galtung and Ruge propose a set of twelve principals that they use to explain how events are seen as newsworthy. Four of their rules help me understand the disparities in coverage between the attacks in Paris and in Baga.

Meaningfulness: The central metaphor of Galtung and Ruge’s paper is a shortwave radio – of all the signals we tune into on the radio dial, we are most likely to tune into those that have meaning for us, say a human voice speaking in a language we understand. Meaningfulness includes cultural proximity: we are more likely to pay attention to events that affect people who live lives similar to our own. It’s hard for most of us to imagine living in a fishing village on the shores of Lake Chad and being forced to flee a rebel army. It’s easier to imagine masked gunmen entering our workplace (especially for Americans, where workplace shootings have become tragically common.) Once we’ve placed ourselves in the shoes of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, the police protecting them, or the grocery shoppers, the story becomes personally relevant.

Consonance: While news is usually a surprise – a natural disaster, an unanticipated death – Galtung and Ruge argue that we like our surprises to be consonant with narratives we already know and understand. The attack on a major city by violent extremists is a tragically familiar one over the past decade, a story that feels like a continuation of attacks on New York, London, Madrid and Boston.

Unambiguity: We like stories that are easy to understand and interpret – nuanced and complex events are harder to cover than unambiguous ones. A brutal attack by a group opposed to western education and most traces of modernity seems unambiguous, until one reads about the abuses the Nigerian army has committed in combatting Boko Haram. There have been two massacres in Baga in the past two years – the 2013 Baga massacre occurred when Nigerian soldiers burned the village, seeking revenge for military officers killed by Boko Haram, killing almost 200 civilians. Were residents of Baga providing support and shelter for Boko Haram in 2013? Why did those same residents become targets for Boko Haram in 2015? These sorts of questions make the massacre in Baga a hard story to understand and a harder one to tell.

Stories about people: Stories need heroes and villains. Coverage of the Paris attacks has focused on Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier and his willingness to “die standing than live on my knees”, and the long histories of the radicalization of Cherif and Said Kouachi. In Baga, we know neither the names or the stories of the victims or the attackers – it is possible that the attack was led by Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau, but no one has confirmed, and stories tend to focus on Boko Haram as a mass, rather than on the individual leaders of the movement.

The one campaign that has successfully called international attention to Boko Haram’s abuses is the Chibok Girls campaign, which demanded international attention for 200 girls abducted from a school in Chibok, in southern Borno state. The parents of the abducted girls have made countless media appearances, reminding Nigerian and global audiences of their absence.

If Galtung and Ruge’s principles hold, we shouldn’t expect attention to the Baga massacre to increase in the next few days. It’s too distant, physically and culturally, too complex and devoid of the personal narratives journalists use to draw audiences to complex stories. But it’s critically important that we understand what happened in Baga, not just to understand the challenges Nigeria faces from Boko Haram, but to understand who religious extremism affects.


Retweeted for illustrative purposes. Fuck Rupert Murdoch.

The brutal attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s staff reinforce a “clash of civilizations” narrative, in which Western secular values (freedom of expression, humor, critique) are inexorably threatened by fundamentalist religious values. (Teju Cole provocatively notes that the secular West has rarely been as skeptical and rational as it congratulates itself for being.) The implications of this clash of civilizations narrative are predictable and dire: commenters demand that moderate Muslims explicitly dissociate themselves from horrific criminal acts, implying that those who don’t endorse terrorism; right wing politicians suggest closing borders and deporting Muslims; Muslims face revenge attacks.

Violence from Islamic extremism is a real and frightening problem. So, for that matter, is extremist violence associated with other religions. (See Myanmar for evidence that Buddhists can be violent extremists, or review the 2002 riots in Gujarat for an introduction to Hindu extremism. Or consider Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose Christian fundamentalism is as foreign and offensive to most Christians as Al Qaeda’s theology is to most Muslims.) But the majority of the victims of Islamic terrorism are Muslims. According to a 2011 report from the US National Counter Terrorism Center “In cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years.” In other words, attacks like the one in Baga, where extremists killed their co-religionists are far more common than attacks like the ones in Paris, where extremists targeted people of other faiths.

Following the “clash of civilization” narrative leads to demonization of 1.6 billion people, 23% of the world’s population. Understanding that terror disproportionately impacts Muslims makes it clear that terrorism is a tactic, a political and military strategy, not a feature of Islam or any other religion. By mourning the dead both in Paris and Baga, we take a step towards understanding that the enemy is extremism, not Islam.

Posted in Africa, Developing world, Human Rights, ideas, Media | 25 Comments

Pronoia, beautiful inefficiency, and an artwork built for one

In the fall and winter of 2013, the writer Rick Moody experienced a set of events designed to change his life. His priest gave him a book, apparently written decades ago (though actually specially crafted just for him), to read with his daughter. It told the story of a secret room, and soon afterwards, Moody was led by friends to his own secret room, a disused hardware store in Brooklyn, where he encountered objects that evoked moments in his life and in the book. Music he encountered in the secret room reoccurred, when the artists orchestrating these events picked Moody up in New York City, flew him to Regina and drove him to an isolated prairie, where he sat in a pavilion made of hay bales and a cellist performed the composition he had previously heard. As the piece escalated, hundreds of performers followed Moody moved through New York, dancing on subway platforms and surrounding him as costumed fools in Brooklyn’s Metrotech Commons. A photo of Moody surrounded by his hundred fools suggests a moment of transcendent bliss.

Moody was the “participant” in a performance titled “When I Left the House It Was Still Dark”, created by Odyssey Works, which “makes large scale, durational, interdisciplinary performances customized for one-person audiences.” The company has been making work since 2002, but as less than two dozen people have served as the audiences for these works, it’s not surprising you may not have heard of them. Writing about the company’s work in 2012, Chris Colin wrote about the “beautiful inefficiency” of this method of working, the absurd and beautiful idea of an immense effort deployed to create an emotional response in a single person.

Odyssey Works is not alone in crafting experiences designed for a single person. Colin offers some reference points for contextualizing works like “When I Left the House It Was Still Dark”: the immersive theatre experiences of Punchdrunk, the producers of “Sleep No More“; works like “You Me Bum Bum Train” that puts a single audience member at the center of a set of scenes in the work. A set of films called “Experiment Ensam” (Experiment Alone) takes experiences normally experienced in a large group – a comedy club, a karaoke bar – and recreates them for a single person. Recently, Experiment Ensam produced a Bob Dylan concert for a single fan, a brief set with Dylan and his touring band at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. The performance was filmed with eight cameras and will be released on YouTube later this month, raising questions about whether the audience was Swedish TV personality Fredrik Wikingsson, who attended the concert, or those of us who will watch it online.

These acts of personalized theatre don’t always go well. Jorge Just produced a memorable story for This American Life about Improv Everywhere, a New York City-based troupe that creates theatrical moments in everyday life. (One of their recurrent projects is the “No Pants Subway Ride”, where subways slowly fill up with passengers who are unremarkable but for the fact that they’ve forgotten their pants.) In the “mission” TAL examines, Improv Everywhere tried to give an unknown indie rock band their best gig ever, recruiting an audience to learn their songs, sing along with the performance and shout out requests for the band’s songs. After the initial elation of playing for a large crowd wore off, the members of the band felt like they had been the butt of an elaborate joke, laughed at by the Improv performers and made fun of online. The tension between Improv Everywhere’s good intentions and the damage it caused the band makes Just’s story striking and poignant. Theatre for one is hard to do well.

Odyssey Works may surprise their participants, but it certainly isn’t ambushing them. Participants are selected through a detailed application process, which begins with an online application that asks about a person’s favorite places in her city of residence and her experiences with pieces of art. The company interviews family and friends, both to recruit them into building the experience for the participant, but also to understand what she is likely to be moved or effected by. In preparing “When I Left the House It Was Still Dark”, the producers read all of Moody’s books, interviewed thirty of his family and friends, and visited him several times before designing the work.

Abraham Burickson, co-founder of Odyssey Works, explains the logic behind this process: it’s about discovering the ideal audience for a piece of art. Artists hope their work moves the audience, but it’s a frustratingly inexact process. Armed with a deep understanding of the participant, the company deploys imagery and ideas designed to evoke a more powerful response than they would in an audience as a whole. “Art that affects you — in any medium — is very specific to you. It’s as if you have a set of subjective protein receptors in your creative-appreciation mind, and the piece is so perfectly engineered to your subjectivity that it can break you open for meaning to flood in. We wanted to see if we could achieve that by crafting an experience that would affect someone even more deeply than a randomly arrived-at occurrence might.”

This working method could be deeply creepy if it weren’t so carefully and lovingly done. Part of experiencing one of these artworks is realizing you’ve been under surveillance for months in advance and that hundreds of people have learned intimate details of your life in order to present this experience to you. In a sense, this is what web advertisers and other purveyors of personalization promise. In this case, it’s done poetically and beautifully. In that sense, it reminds me of Yuletide, in which thousands of authors write custom fan fiction stories carefully tailored for the recipient as an especially personal version of “secret Santa”. Because the Odyssey Works pieces are so immersive, Burickson explains that they tend to create a sense of “pronoia”, an irrational belief that the world is conspiring to do wonderful things on your behalf.

For reasons I cannot explain, the images crafted for Moody – particularly that of a cellist performing a composition in a prairie outside Regina, Saskatchewan – are some of the most moving I’ve recently encountered. They make me wonder about the mechanics of this method – am I responding to imagery that Moody and I happen to share? (I resonate with the prairie, but not the idea of the Cloister, the secret room Moody explores, which seems designed to connect with Moody’s Catholic background and doesn’t trigger a similar receptor in me, a fundamentalist Unitarian.) Or are Burickson and colleagues creating powerful images, inspired by Moody, but elegantly crafted to connect with a wide range of receptive audiences? By identifying an image that resonates profoundly for Moody, are they inadvertently creating deeply potent ideas that would resonate for anyone who encountered them?

Since reading about Odyssey Works, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with the idea. I don’t actually want to be a participant in one of these pieces – it’s overwhelming to think about accepting a gift of that magnitude. Instead, I want to understand what Odyssey Works created and what Moody experienced, to the point where I’m thinking about approaching magazine editors to pitch the story so I’d have the chance to interview Moody, Burickson and his collaborators.

It’s as if Burickson and his colleagues have created a work just for me, not a performance, but an impossibly fertile idea of making art that expands beyond the edges of the page and into every aspect of a viewer’s life. For all I know, the few articles I’ve read are part of an elaborate fiction designed to evoke a particular set of reactions in me as part of a carefully crafted artwork I did not consent to, but am enjoying nevertheless.

In 1994, when I was still pretending to be an artist, my art school roommates and I began designing an elaborate, multi-website fantasy, something that would later be described as an alternate reality game. (One of my roommates was filmmaker Jackie Goss, and we were extending a film she’d made about young women growing antlers.) We never progressed beyond sketches, in part because we never could figure out who we wanted to discover these sites and what we hoped they’d make of them. Twenty years later, there’s something lovely about discovering the same idea, done so well and towards such a beautiful goal.

Posted in ideas | 2 Comments

Why cameras alone won’t protect black mens’ lives

I wasn’t expecting the grand jury to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. I was disappointed and outraged, but not surprised. Unfortunately, the response of local and state government in Ferguson to the shooting and subsequent protest raised serious doubts about the fairness of those institutions. Furthermore, there’s a dispute at the center of the Michael Brown case as to what happened when Wilson confronted Brown. While I agree with Ezra Klein’s conclusion that Wilson’s story is “literally unbelievable” and find his reading of the testimony of Dorian Johnson, Michael Brown’s friend and witness to his death, more compelling, I find it possible to understand how a grand jury could take Wilson’s word over Johnson’s.

But I was surprised that Daniel Pantaleo was not indicted for the death of Eric Garner. I shouldn’t have been. Police officers are very rarely indicted for on-duty shootings (WSJ reference), and only two New York City police officers have been indicted for killing in the line of duty since the 1960s. In addition, Staten Island is whiter, more conservative and more sympathetic to the police than the rest of New York City, suggesting that an indictment was less likely there than in other parts of the city.

Still, there was the video.

There’s not much uncertainty about what happened in the moments before Eric Garner was killed. We’ve seen the argument between Garner and Pantaleo, the group of armed police officers wrestling Garner to the ground, the choke hold Pantaleo performs on Garner, the desperate pleas of “I can’t breathe.” More damning in some ways is the video shot after Garner has been brought to the ground, depicting a group of officers apparently more focused on limiting access to the crime scene than in attempting to save Garner’s life with CPR or another intervention. As Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, told reporters: “I couldn’t see how a grand jury could vote and say there was no probable cause… What were they looking at? Were they looking at the same video the rest of the world was looking at?”

In 1991, when Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police officers after a high-speed chase, a bystander’s video brought the violation of his civil rights to national attention, leading to indictment, prosecution and to rioting when King’s abusers were acquitted. The King video was shaky and blurry, but it was damning, at least in the court of public opinion.

Two decades later, most Americans carry cameras with them all the time, and surveillance cameras are a pervasive feature of the built environment. Video of King’s encounter with the police was unusual at the time. Now, situations like Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, where there is no witness, surveillance or police dash camera video, are becoming the unusual cases.

One of President Obama’s responses to the Ferguson protests has been an announcement that he will seek $75 million in Congressional funding to make 50,000 body cameras available to police forces. Given the massive federal funding that has allowed US police forces to acquire military equipment to wage the putative war on terror, this seems like a step that’s both reasonable and overdue. But given the apparent disconnect between the footage of Garner’s killing and the grand jury’s decision, it’s clear the relationship between cameras and justice is more complicated than it appears at first glance.

Requiring police to wear body cameras likely has a prophylactic effect. Officers know their actions are being watched and know that disciplinary action (short of having criminal charges filed against them) is more likely to result from abuse than when their actions were unmonitored. complaints against police officers in Rialto, CA fell 88% a year after body cameras were put into use in 2012. Other departments have seen significant decreases in complaints by mandating the use of dashboard cameras in police vehicles. Apparently, the panopticon shapes the behavior of the officers being watched in much the way Foucault predicted: the combination of the perpetual possibility of surveillance and a disciplinary culture shapes behavior. What’s not clear is whether the panopticon still works when surveilled behavior is revealed to be consequence free. (It’s likely that there will be consequences for Pantaleo, as he has been stripped of his badge and faces an internal investigation. Wilson has left the Ferguson police force. Those professional consequences are small consolation to the families of the dead men.)

If pervasive cameras help prevent bad behavior but don’t eliminate it, they have another consequence as well: they make police abuse visible to the general public. Yesterday, I heard a closed-door briefing from Sherrilyn Ifill, director of the NAACP’s legal defense and education fund. She began by explaining that we are not experiencing an unusual wave of police abuse. Instead, pervasive cameras and the ability to share stories and mobilize via social media mean that we’re seeing far more of these stories. The last two weeks have added two new names to the vast list of unarmed black men killed by law enforcement: Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy shot by a Cleveland police officer while playing in a park, and Rumain Brisbon, a 34-year old father of four, shot by a Phoenix police officer.

Ifill argues that these incidents have been distressingly common for many years, a contention supported by Pro Publica’s research suggesting that black Americans are more than 20 times more likely to be shot by police than white Americans. (Figures from the FBI suggest, though, that we may be experiencing a higher level of police shooting than in years past.) What’s unusual is that these incidents, which generally receive only local news coverage, are being seen by activists – and increasingly, by the general public – as part of a pattern of racism, implicit bias and over-reliance on violence on the part of law enforcement. The shooting of Tamir Rice would have been a tragedy for the young man’s family and community (and yes, for the officer, who will live with the guilt of killing an innocent young man for the rest of his life); now it is also a rallying point for a national movement demanding justice and change.

It’s possible that Timothy Loehmann, who shot Rice, will be indicted, though unlikely. Revelations that Loehmann had been determined to be unfit for duty by another Ohio police department combined with the Justice deparment’s censure of the Cleveland police department might put sufficient pressure on prosecutors to bring Loehmann to trial. But let’s consider what will happen if Loehmann is not indicted. Surveillance video shows that Loehmann shot Rice two seconds after his police cruiser arrived at the park pavilion where Rice was sitting. Much as the video of Garner being choked into submission and death makes Pantaleo’s narrative hard to accept, it is impossible to reconcile the footage of Rice’s shooting with Loehmann’s assertions that Rice was warned before he was shot.

Widespread availability of video footage combined with a legal culture unwilling to indict police officers has a likely outcome: further erosion of trust in law enforcement, the judicial system and other public institutions. Faced with imagery that depicts criminal negligence and a legal system that fails to prosecute these actions, the net effect of this imagery is the (further) loss of face in government institutions. Add to this another factor, documented by Micah Sifry in his new book, “The Big Disconnect”. Social media has demonstrated a great ability to organize challenges to power, as in the Arab Spring, but has been frustratingly ineffective in helping build new systems or reform existing ones. It’s easy to imagine a situation in which imagery erodes trust, mobilizes dissent and does little to channel that dissent into paths towards change.

I desperately wish that body cameras were a single, simple solution to police violence against black men. It’s hugely encouraging that use of force was reduced by 60% in Rialto, CA after cameras were introduced, but that reduction is a tribute not just to the technology but to a departmental commitment to culture change. Eliminating disproportionate violence against black men requires training officers so they don’t fire weapons within seconds of an encounter, addressing the implicit bias that allows an officer like Loehmann to overestimate the age and danger of Tamir Rice, and changing a culture of policing that leads too many officers to view their workplace as a war zone, not a community they live in. It requires reforming a prosecutorial culture that is too comfortable with law enforcement, and finding new ways for oversight over America’s tens of thousands of independent police departments. It requires gun control, so that police officers are not – justifiably – concerned that any encounter with a suspect could end in gunfire.

Sharing images of the unforgivable violence against Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others is a necessary but not sufficient step towards change. At best, the knowledge that the world is watching may help slow the hand of a police officer’s hand and keep a confrontation from turning violent. But the contradiction between these unforgettable images and these unjust institutional responses is infuriating, alienating and socially damaging.

Posted in Human Rights | 5 Comments

Three selfies, and two appreciations of fellow travellers

I took the fall semester off from teaching, which is a good thing, as I’ve been traveling far more than is healthy, mostly to give talks. I was in Sao Paulo last week talking about Brazil role as a center for democratic innovation, and hope to post either notes or a video of that talk soon. But here are two others that are already online and that I’m proud of:


“Journalism after Snowden: Normalizing Surveillance”

The estimable Emily Bell of Columbia’s Tow Center is editing a volume of essays about how the documents revealed by Edward Snowden have changed journalism as we know it. Most of the participants in the project are, like Emily, long-time newsroom veterans with smart things to say about journalism’s future. Since the last newsroom I worked in was that of the Lewisboro Ledger in 1989, I thought it would be wise if I played towards my strengths and talked about advertising, surveillance and the idea that a public sphere that monitors our every movement is corrosive to the notion of citizenship.

I leaned heavily on a paper by Kevin Haggerty and Richard Erickson, “The Surveillant Assemblage”, which in turn leans on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to offer a view of surveillance that’s pervasive to the point of inescapability – thanks to Kate Crawford for pointing me to this paper. The question I ended up asking in the talk was whether organizations like newspapers (and, pointedly, The Guardian, where Emily is a board member) had a responsibility to try to create surveillance-free civic spaces. Fun questions – I don’t have the answers, but I was happy to have the chance to explore these ideas.


“Digital Cosmopolitans”, my Google Books talk

This other talk covers material that’s familiar to folks that regularly read this blog. It was my contribution to the Talks at Google series, speaking about “Digital Cosmopolitans”, née “Rewire”, now out in paperback. I have had the hilarious misfortune to be touring the book at the same time that Amanda Palmer is touring her excellent The Art of Asking – I gave a reading at Porter Square books the evening after her book launched and spoke to an extremely small, though enthusiastic crowd. Now I discover I’m following her at Google as well. No worries – she’s awesome, and next time I will ask her if I can simply refer to her as my opening act.

Anyway, Google are great hosts, and this is one of the better version of the Rewire/Digital Cosmopolitans book talk, so if you haven’t heard me try to summarize the book in half an hour, here’s your chance.

I’ve been doing some cool radio interviews lately as well. Benjamen Walker’s awesome “Theory of Everything” Podcast is doing a series called “The Dislike Club”, which basically features people who think about the internet realizing that we’re really pissed off about the current state of things online. In the second episode, I get to talk about my confession and penance regarding my role in bringing the pop-up ad to life – it’s a good conversation.

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/178538675″ params=”color=ff5500″ width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Keep your eyes open for Gimlet Media’s new Reply All podcast – it’s a relaunched version of the excellent TL:DR, which spun out of On the Media. I’m likely on an upcoming episode, offering my same lame apologies for making the internet a worse place.


Even declaring this as a selfie, I’m not super comfortable with a post that just lists talks I’ve given lately. So two other talks to point to:

Willow Brugh has been working on question of “weaponized social”, the ways that online spaces for deliberation and debate are too often turning into spaces of personal threat. She’s working on face to face meetups to explore the idea and its consequences, and is bringing it into unexpected contexts, like a gathering of female programmers and computer enthusiasts in Kenya, hosted by the remarkable Akirachix. Check out her presentation, and a broader conversation about tech and gender in Kenya, above.

Micah Sifry has a terrific new book out, which I hope to be reviewing next week. In the meantime, my students blogged his talk today at Berkman (which I missed because I’m in Budapest.) Micah is deeply passionate about the ways the internet could be used for social and political change, and honest about the ways in which internet enthusiasts have thus far fallen short. His book, The Big Disconnect, is well worth your time. More about it next week.

Posted in Media, Personal | Leave a comment

Pixação, or why São Paulo looks like a death metal album cover

One of the first things I noticed about Sao Paulo was the graffiti. It’s everywhere, and it’s stylistically very striking – angular, highly stylized letters on walls, buildings, overpasses. It’s clear that it’s writing, not just glyphs, yet it’s difficult to parse the characters. When I try to decipher it, I feel as lost as I do trying to understand spoken Portuguese: it’s clear someone is communicating with me, and while I’m on the verge of understanding, I clearly don’t understand.

It took less than 15 seconds with Google to learn that this style of writing is called “pixação“, that it takes its name from the Portuguese verb “to paint with tar” and that it’s distinctive to southern Brazil, especially São Paulo. A few more links and I discovered that my curiosity about pixação is about five years too late if I wanted a new job as a “coolhunter”, as the phenomenon has been thoroughly explored – and leveraged – by designers and marketers around the world.

The video above, by Joao Wainer for coolhunting.com, did the best job of answering my questions about the writing style: what are people saying, and why are they choosing to say it this way. Pixação has its roots in the 1980s, a moment when Brazil overthrew a military dictatorship and emerged into an inspiringly participatory democracy and a depressingly unequal society. The original artists wrote political slogans, while current practitioners are tagging – they’re writing the names of the crews they write with as well as personal tags, which are often a non-alphabetic symbol.

What most sources make clear is that pixação doesn’t really take place at street level – it’s all about heights. The most ambitious crews scale the outside of multistory buildings so they can tag the highest floors, and there’s evidently fierce competition between crews to place tags in as visible and inaccessible places as possible.

Pixadores from James Post on Vimeo.

A documentary from Amir Escandari for Helsinki-Filmi focuses on the dangers of being a pixador, the coordination of the crews, and the politics of the art form. Simon Romero, writing for the New York Times, follows the political thread, interviewing writers who see their work as a form of class warfare, a way that marginalized classes can inscribe themselves on an economically divided city.

Other documentaries celebrate the politics as part of a romanticization of the practice and the lifestyle. “Os Pixadores” by Ben Newman looks like a sneaker ad, which is appropriate as it’s sponsored by Puma’s streetstyle brand. A band of attractive, multiracial kids do shockingly dangerous things while talking about the need to be heard. It’s not hard to imagine this message selling shoes in any economy.

Others have clearly fallen in love with pixação as typography. Gustavo Lassala has created a font – Adrenalina – that is based on his masters thesis studying pixação. He extrapolates from 800 photos taken in São Paulo to create a typeface that’s visibly related to pixação, but immediately readable, an impressive achievement. (His name for the font suggests that he, too, understands that graffiti can sell sneakers. Or perhaps a really badass guarana-based energy drink.) François Chastanet, a professor of graphic design, has written a lengthy tome on pixação, whose endpages feature dozens of different versions of each letter.

Pixação on the wall of a squat in Sé, São Paulo

What I love about pixação is that it reminds me of death metal album covers, which inevitably feature the band’s name written in a jagged, angular script that’s incomprehensible on first glance. This, it turns out, is no accident. Metal, particularly the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal”, was the music of choice for early pixação writers. (Of course, anyone who’s ever banged their head rhythmically knows that Iron Maiden continues to exist primarily so they can tour Brazil annually.) Commentators trace the letterforms of pixação to album covers by Maiden, Slayer and others. I can’t really see it, myself – Maiden used a blocky letterstyle I associate with early 1980s videogames, and while Slayer and Motörhead both are somewhat angular, Napalm Death and especially Morbid Angel look like the most obvious precursor to the lettering style, though both bands postdate the emergence of pixação… which means there’s a band that had traction in Brazil and helped popularize the death metal style of writing, which I could probably find if I were only willing to crawl down another internet rabbit hole.

For the meantime, I am consoled that this dark and beautiful form of writing has a name and that I know it, even if I can’t really pronounce it. And that I’ve learned another tiny detail about this fascinating and overwhelming country.

Posted in Just for fun | 6 Comments

Partners In Health at the MIT Media Lab – design challenges around Ebola

Today’s Media Lab Conversations involves Ophelia Dahl and Dr. Megan Murray from Partners in Health with Joi Ito and David Sengeh from the Media Lab. The topic is understanding Ebola, and we’re learning about the disease to see if there’s anything the Media Lab can do to help organizations like Partners in Health combat the spread of the disease.

Ophelia Dahl, the executive director, of Partners in Health begins by noting that when she began her work in Haiti decades ago, audiences were less welcoming and receptive to these issues. With Paul Farmer, the organization was designed to respond to situations like the one in Haiti, where there was a complete dearth of health services available.

Partners in Health is not a disaster relief organization. While it addresses the everyday disaster of poverty, which has massive health impacts, and while they are often critical first responders to natural disasters, they are structured very differently. Because they work in countries like Haiti over long periods of time, they had doctors, platforms and a supply chain already in place. “We focus on systems,” she explained, which made them particularly well suited to help with Ebola. The organization has a home in Boston and partners closely with local academic institutions to train and prepare medical researchers and professionals to understand these complex health situations.

Dahl reminds us that Ebola is named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and that we’ve seen several outbreaks over the years. None of those outbreaks killed more than a few hundred people. This outbreak, starting in Guinea and spreading into Liberia, Sierra Leone has killed at least 8,000 people, and likely many more. A hallmark of this disease is that it spreads from patients to caregivers, and as people in rural areas have moved to urban areas to seek care, it’s moved into large cities.

There’s a tendency to think of Ebola as a death sentence. The high fatality rate – almost 70% – has an underlying cause: the weak, and now collapsed, healthcare system in these countries. Our collective failure to treat patients explains the death rate. Patients who contracted Ebola in the US have all survived – this is a disease that can be survived with proper medical care. That proper treatment is not complicated. It’s about staying hydrated and managing electrolytes. Most critical is good nursing care.

Dahl recently returned from West Africa where she talked to several survivors of Ebola. The survivors were young, had been in good health before the disease, and probably survived due to luck and their strength, not because they received especially good care. Many of these survivors had been caretakers to their families, and watched family members die before they contracted the disease. Hiring these survivors is key to Partners in Health’s strategy. Not only will they have immunities and a deep understanding of the virus, but creating strong healthcare jobs for these survivors is a way to combat the stigma of the disease.

The system that is weak and has collapsed means that more people are dying from the systemic effects of Ebola on the healthcare system, not from the disease directly. There’s not a single place open for women to deliver their children when a country is facing a crisis like this. Countries face a massive set of problems in the wake of Ebola since there’s not a functioning maternal health system, an emergency medical system or really any community care at this point. The resilience of health systems in the face of emergency, like the marathon bombings in Boston, is radically different than the situation on the ground in West Africa.

Dahl shows us a treatment center in tents, and a teaching hospital – Hopital Universitaire de Mirebalais – a hospital Partners in Health helped build in only three years. Linking these treatment centers to these teaching hospitals is a key step we need to take.

She shows us the gear healthcare workers are wearing – it looks like foul-weather gear worn on a ship, and features three pairs of gloves. Imagine finding a vein in a dehydrated patient with those gloves on, sweating – finding better personal protective gear is one of the first steps that needs to be taken.

Dr. Megan Murray, of Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, and Partners in Health, explains that the disease is so new to the medical community that people are still working out the proper treatment protocols. In these countries, what’s emerging is a three-tiered system of care. Countries are building tent-based Ebola treatment units, often in major cities, where labs can test samples and perform diagnosis. These centers are expensive to set up, and they’re often far from the communities where patients live.

The second tier of support is community care centers, places where patients are isolated from their communities so they don’t inflect their caregivers. Unfortunately, these have been really bad places, places where people go to and die – they have operational and image problem if they want to serve the populations they seek to help. At an even more grassroots level, community health leaders are working on screening and contact tracking, helping identify the people who are likely to have the disease for treatment at ETUs and CCCs. In terms of innovation, Partners in Health is looking for innovation in diagnostics and treatment at the ETU and CCC level, and in epidemeology and vaccines at the community level.

The fatality rate on Ebola, between 50-70%, is more fatal than anything else we’ve seen in the public health sector. The challenge is improving those rates in the ETUs and CCCs while maintaining personal protection for the caregivers. The care isn’t that hard – it’s about providing IV fluids. But it’s hard to get caregivers to safely put in an IV line, and when people become delirious, it’s hard to get people to stop pulling out those IV lines. Centers end up trying to care using oral rehydration salts, but Ebola patients can lose 10 liters of fluid a day, and that cannot be replaced with oral rehydration.

One path towards technological innovation would be finding better ways to track fluid and electrolyte status. That generally involves frequent blood draws, which puts healthcare workers at risk. One possibility is using a transdermal microneedle sensor, which was initially designed by a US scientist to monitor dehydration in athletes. The inventor has been completely willing to deploy it in new contexts, and Dr. Murray sees this as a great example of moving useful technology into a new context.

Another problem is ensuring dignity and comfort by allowing access to relatives. This is a problem that’s especially acute in treating children. Most children under 12 who’ve contracted the disease have died. It’s very challenging to convince people to pass their sick children off to people in space suits to go off and die. As a result, people hide from the ETUs and CCCs. We need better tools, possibly digital tools, to let parents and children connect.

It’s critical for Partners in Health to ensure rapid learning by optimizing data collection and management tools, Dr. Murray explains. We need to capture all the information from these cases, but it’s incredibly hard to build data collection tools that work with three pairs of gloves on. Right now, systems rely on holding up pieces of paper to windows for transcription – voice activated systems would be a strong step forward.

Stopping the disease will ultimately require accurate and early diagnosis. “If we could diagnose in the field before it was symptomatic, we could stop the epidemic.” Dr. Murray lists some promising directions: immuno-assays using antigen capture and antibodies, tests of nucleic acid amplification, viral culturing, and novel methods, like a single particle interferometric reflectance imaging sensor. Right now, current tests require lab facilities, take 2-6 hours, and might need more blood than you can get from a fingerstick. We need something that requires a finger prick and can be processed at peripheral sites.

There are promising new drugs and vaccine candidates. Three vaccines are in testing – two are single dose, another is double dose and may provide stronger protecting. New treatment protocols include ZMAPP, a cocktail of 3 monoclonal antibodies, originally engineered in tobacco, and being produced now in yeast. One possible treatment is a drug for flu, currently stockpiled in Japan, which has gone through safety and tolerability trials, and can now go into efficacy trials. Most other candidates have not yet been tested for safety and tolerability.

One promising development are BSL4 labs – biocontainment labs – built in shipping containers and delivered on tractor trailers. Unfortunately, most of the roads in rural areas cannot accomodate those trucks, and it can take 13 hours on terrible roads to travel from peripheral sites to a city.

Until we’re at a vaccine – and especially, an aerosol vaccine which wouldn’t require needle sticks – Partners in Health is looking to build a flexible data base and IT platform that captures knowledge, to build a network of partners in industry, research and funding agencies, and to support local research infrastructure through training.

Joi introduces into the conversation the idea that popular response in the US to Ebola has been to suggest locking down our borders. Instead, we need more volunteers to come into these countries and lend a hand. Dahl tells us that more than 1000 people have volunteered to come to West Africa, despite the fact that quarantines mean this could be a 6-10 week commitment. Locking down borders is making it harder for nurses, logisticians and lab workers to volunteer.

David Sengeh suggests we need to think beyond the immediate problems of the disease and into the broader issues that countries like Sierra Leone face. He notes that Sierra Leone has a population where 70% of citizens are under 30, and where young people already have a challenge accessing a quality education. Add to this the closure of schools and Sierra Leonean youth are facing a future that’s short on opportunity. David shows us a video made by a teenager from Sierra Leone that addresses discrimination and ostracizing that often happens to Ebola survivors. Helping people make media and address these prejudices is a key strategy.

We end up in a discussion between the audience and the stage about whether the Media Lab could be a collaborator with Partners in Health on addressing issues around Ebola. Joi pointed out that the lab is trying hard to work on codesign strategies, where we don’t design technology and drop it into communities, hoping it will work, but work with communities to identify problems and design solutions. It’s possible that the Media Lab might work to support hackathons and other efforts in Liberia or Sierra Leone, or that nurses and other health workers who’ve worked in the field could work with the Lab on issues like cooling systems for personal protection equipment or non-invasive blood drawing techniques. Mask fogging, one of the most serious problems with protective equipment, is a problem Joi identifies as well-known to the SCUBA community, and he wonders whether techniques from that world could work for Ebola protection.

The challenge, Dahl reminds us, is not just innovation, but deployment. One of the major tools used to combat Ebola is chlorine bleach, which is used to sterilize surfaces and people who’ve taken off their protective equipment. Someone had the bright idea of dyeing the bleach solution pink, so that people could see where they’d bleached off and where they hadn’t reached. Solving these problems is a first step – getting them widely adopted in the field is the key to saving lives.


The crew at Civic has a great liveblog of the event – check it out!

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“Watching Me Watching You” – Hasan Elahi and Josh Begley on the imagery of surveillance

I admire much of the work Open Society Foundation does (a good thing, as I’m a board member), but I have a special soft spot in my heart for the Moving Walls program. Since 1998, OSF’s Documentary Photography program has featured exhibitions of documentary photography about human rights and social issues, choosing new artists to feature every 6-7 months through an open call process. The exhibitions provide support for documentary photographers, and inspiration and insight for the staff and visitors who see the images.

The most recent show features ten visual artists reflecting on the nature of surveillance, historically and in contemporary society. Titled “Watching You, Watching Me”, the show features archival images from the Stasi’s secret archives, curated by Simon Menner, a set of photos of weddings and other celebrations shot using a drone (prompting reflection on the ways US drones are used for targeted killings at Yemei, Afghan and Pakistani weddings), by Tomas Van Houtryve, and a deeply creepy set of photos by Andrew Hammerand, called “The New Town”, which were shot via a web-controllable CCTV installed by a property developer and left unsecured.


“Prins Maurits Army Barracks, Ede, Gelderland, 2011.” by Mishka Henner, from “Dutch Landscapes“, a set of prints of Google Maps imagery of “sensitive” Dutch landscapes with details obscured.

Accompanying the ten sets of images are a set of presentations by the artists. Last evening, Hasan Elahi and Josh Begley reflected on their installations in a conversation curated by Professor Patricia Williams from Columbia Law School.

Elahi teaches at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and points that he lives and works in surveillance country, his campus nearly a midpoint between the CIA, the NSA and the Pentagon. Elahi has had ample reason to think about American intelligence agencies. Not long after 9/11, Elahi – a frequent international traveler – was detained by US law enforcement at the Detroit airport. His name had been put on a terrorist watchlist by an anonymous citizen who “saw something and said something”, misidentifying him as an Arab (he’s not) who “fled” after 9/11. After six months of polygraph tests and interrogation, the FBI told Elahi that he was free to go.

But Elahi notes that “once you’re in the system, you can’t really be released from it.” As Elahi traveled around the world, he worried that other FBI agents might not have gotten the message that he was free to travel. So Elahi got into the habit of calling “my FBI agent” and letting him know where he was going and what he was doing, offering reassurance that he wasn’t planning on leaving the US and emigrating to Afghanistan, for instance. “Over time, this turned into a really asymmetric relationship,” Elahi remembered. “I would write longer and longer emails, sometimes thousands of words, sometimes reflecting on personal matters. The response I got was always the same: ‘Thank you. Be safe.'”

Elahi’s artistic project for the past twelve years has been one of relentless self-documentation. If the FBI was going to watch him, Elahi wanted to demonstrate that he could watch himself even better. Elahi’s website shows his current position on a map and offers a recent photograph. Over the years, Elahi has posted 70,000 photos, some organized by themes – his meals, the toilets he’s used, the beds he’s slept in. Each is timestamped and geocoded. “It’s a form of camouflage through overexposure. The signal to noise ratio is overloaded,” he explains. “I’m telling you everything, but nothing, simultaneously.”

Elahi suggests that we think of artistic movements as responses to the military conflicts a society is embroiled within. Dadaism is a way of making sense of the surreal and hyperviolent world of the first World War, while abstract expressionism can be thought of as a response to WWII. Minimalism and Pop Art, distinctly American movements, can be thought of responses to the distinctly American wars in Korea and Vietnam. “We’re currently at war,” Elahi reminds us. “We declared war on terror. How does terror give up?” The selfie, he suggests, is the art form we should associate with the war on terror, the cultural remnant of this moment of surveillance and project of our own presence.

Reflecting on Elahi’s work, Professor Williams notes how transgressive it seemed a decade ago. “Now your webpage looks like my son’s Facebook feed.” Elahi notes that our phones now create a data trail not unlike the the trail he’s worked to create for a dozen years. “Is it still art if a billion people are doing this?” Elahi asks himself. One possible response is that artists, unlike scientists and engineers, benefit from returning to the same questions that haunt them. “Engineers like to solve a problem and move on. Artists solve the same problem again and again.” The banality of the images Elahi creates may be the point: it’s too much imagery for any human, including “his” FBI agent, to process. The absurdity of the desire to collect every piece of information as exemplified by NSA surveillance may show Elahi’s work to be prophetic.

At OSF, Elahi’s images are shown as a multi-colored, wall hung tapestry, one of dozens of ways the images have been shown throughout the years. The piece is titled “Thousand Little Brothers”

Josh Begley’s contribution to the show, “Plain Sight”, plays with the same questions of surveillance and banality, though the imagery in question is radically different. Begley describes his work as “snapshots of experiments in progress”. A computer programmer and data scientist, Begley interrogates contemporary and historical data sets and draws narratives that are both visually striking and politically provocative out of them. Racebox.org is an exploration of how racial categories have changed over time by presenting the racial identification question presented on the US census from 1790 to the present. Prisonmap.com examines “carceral spaces”, the 5,393 prisons, jails and detention centers that represent America’s geography of incarceration. Using data on the location of these facilities compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, Begley wrote a script that captured images from Google Maps for each of these facilities. They are presented as tiles on a vast page, images that look like planned communities or walled cities, but which represent “the landscape of the warehousing of black and brown bodies”.

Recently, Begley created Dronestre.am, an API for information the US government has been utterly unwilling to share: information on where and when US drone strikes have occurred. Imagining an API with this information, Begley built a series of applications that use data from the API, including a mobile phone based tool that alerts you when a drone strike has occurred. Using information from the press – not from the US government – the API is live and reports on known drone strikes as they occur. He notes that more people have now been killed by US drone strikes than were killed in 9/11, but the invisibility of their deaths allows American policy to continue unchecked and largely unquestioned.

His contribution to the OSF show is a piece titled “Plain Sight: The Visual Vernacular of NYPD Surveillance”. (Much of the same material appears online at profiling.is.) It’s the story of a wing of the NYPD which remade itself in the image of the CIA, becoming an intelligence gathering agency with assumptions about what and who should be under surveillance. The secretive unit, initially called the Demographic Unit, and later renamed the Zone Assessment Unit, monitored the daily lives of people with “ancestries of interest”, people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Albania and two dozen other countries. (“American Black Muslim” was one of the ancestries of interest.)

Armed with census data, plainclothes agents – usually in teams of twos – tried to “blend in” at coffee shops, barber shops and cricket fields, chatting people up. The officers filled countless files with quotidian observations, endless mundane details about Albanian men drinking tea, Egyptian cab drivers picking up lunch, and so on.

These units became notorious for damaging law enforcement relations with Muslim communities (turns out that most people don’t like being surveilled) and for violating civil rights. Photos, maps and other documents were leaked to the Associated Press, and Begley built tools to capture and present that information in different artistic forms. In the exhibit, a photo mosaic made of surveillance photos is layered on top of thousands of one-line observations of utterly banal events. Another wall shows maps of NYC’s boroughs in terms of points of interest to different communities.

“What does this archive say in aggregate?” asks Begley. “It’s completely banal. It tells you everything and nothing.” Despite years of effort, the demographics unit never produced a single actionable lead for the NYPD. Begley notes that it did end up producing a really excellent map of ethnic restaurants, though. “What doesn’t appear in the frame is the entrapment of young men, the pattern of interrogation that resulted from this surveillance.”

His critique is not just of a particularly inept surveillance effort (finally shut down, under pressure from civil rights group), but the broader NSA strategy of collecting as much information as possible. “We’re creating a haystack of useless information.” Here Elahi’s work and Begley’s come together: the visual detritus of surveillance, whether it’s self-surveillance or surveillance by the police, is utterly banal. But, as Professor Williams observes, despite the repetitiveness of the imagery, “there’s nothing neutral about the mechanisms that creates them.”

Posted in Human Rights, newcivics | Leave a comment

Sasha Costanza Chock on Immigrant Rights and Transmedia Organizing

Today’s Comparative Media Studies colloquium features one of our own, Assistant Professor of Civic Media, Sasha Costanza-Chock. His new book, “Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets!” explores the world of transmedia organizing and the immigrant rights movement.

His talk tonight focuses on his background in media making, activism and scholarship, before zooming into the immigrants rights movement specifically, and one aspect of his work, the professionalization and accountability of social movements

Sasha’s background is in the world of independent media, including production of movies like “This is What Democracy Looks Like”, shot and edited by teams of activists working together. On moving to LA to work on his dissertation, he began working on the VozMob platform, a tool that allows people with low-end mobile phones to publish content online. The tool continues to be used by working class immigrants in Los Angeles to document their lives and work.

On coming to Center for Civic Media, Sasha worked with our developers and others to build a hosted version of Vozmob, Vojo.co, which is now used by over 100 groups to collect and disseminate information, including the Sandy Storyline project, which won a major documentary award for their documentation of Hurricane Sandy.

More recently, he’s helped launch Contratados, which is basically a Yelp for migrant workers, reviewing labor brokers, the people who recruit agricultural workers to jobs in the United States. Contratados is a transmedia project, using online tools, radio, paper flyers and others to bring information about immigration rights and practices to vulnerable populations.

Sasha explains that his work is best understood as participatory research, which sometimes looks like media making, sometimes like activism and sometimes like research. This book is based on ten years work in the immigrant rights movement as an activist and scholar.

To understand this space, Sasha uses the concepts of Media Ecology to understand the complex world of English and Spanish language media, online and offline media, as well as concepts like Transmedia Organizing, Social Media Movement Practices, and Critical Digital Media Literacies. He suggests we think about media in terms of a read/write/execute movement – we need to consume media, make it ourselves, and use it to make change in the world. Sasha argues that making media is a critical path towards engagement in activism: making media is often a first step towards a deeper involvement and engagement in activism.

Stepping back to explain the content of the immigrant rights movement, Sasha explains that the immigrants rights community has been deeply disappointed by the Obama administration’s aggressive enforcement of immigration laws – he is often termed “the deporter in chief”. Activists are incensed by a massively expanded immigration enforcement budget, now over $3 billion a year and programs like SCOMM (secure communities), which collects biometric information on anyone who is arrested (even if they are not charged or tried) and checks to see if they have legal status to remain in the US. This program was rolled out as an optional program, but local law enforcement discovered that they would not receive federal monies if they opted out. Many local law enforcement agencies dislike SCOMM, as it tends to break down trust between local law enforcement and communities.

Bills like SB1070 – the “driving while brown” bill, which allowed people to be stopped under suspicions of being undocumented – have been challenged in courts, but there’s a large number of dangerous regulations on the books.

Sasha offers the observation that there are complex economic reasons why we might be seeing a rise in militarized immigration enforcement. Private prisons and detention facilities, biometric systems are powerful political and economic actors. Of the 30-40,000 people incarcerated on any given night, roughly half are housed in private prisons, and represent a growth segment for companies like Corrections Corporation of America.

It’s not just about profitability – it’s about the expansion of the security state. Surveillance and security systems have a tendency to expand, even if they’re not effective or profitable. Once you begin building SCOMM, there’s a compelling logic to expanding it to each county, to link it to other databases. Systems like e-verify are only roughly 50% effective, but they continue to expand.

The criminalization of immigration in the US is characterized as a racial project, a reproduction and maintenance of whiteness and racial hierarchy, Sasha argues, citing a long history of research on American immigration and discrimination against the Chinese and other groups. Our version of immigration also supports heteronormativity and patriarchy, allowing immigration for reunification of families, but only traditionally structured families (no same-sex marriage included.) He reminds us that the US is an ongoing project of settler colonialism, a consolidation and control over the borders and “body” of the nationstate, which is ultimately a colonized and occupied state taken from native peoples.

What do immigrant rights groups do in this hostile context? How do they tell their stories and work to shape these systems? We need to consider the shape of an English-language mass media system that tends to be overwhelmingly negative towards immigrant mobilization and narratives. A center-left media occasionally pays attention to issues of the undocumented, but tends to paint immigration as a balance between border security and “a path towards citizenship”. Even in the center-left, there’s an acceptance of the idea of “good immigrants”, implying bad immigrants who need to be kept out.

The rise of outlets like Univision, Telemundo and La Opinion have led to a more subtle dialog on Spanish-language media. This group has become quite powerful in mobilizing, with Spanish-language DJs cooperating to call people in the streets to protest a Sensenbrenner immigration bill. Sasha urges us to consider community media as well. Even with small reach in comparison to the national outlets, these outlets serve as legitimators to activist and community organizations.

Social media plays a role as well, both in terms of organizing actions and giving participants a voice. Sasha wants to focus specifically on how social media can augment relationships with reporters, allowing activists to amplify their message more effectively than sending out press releases. All these pieces function simultaneously, and smart actors in this space learn to operate across these media through transmedia organizing.

The term is descended from Marsha Kinder and Henry Jenkins’s work on Transmedia Storytelling. Kinder looked at the way that stories expanded not just through film but through toys and marketing tie-ins, creating storyworlds that are shaped in part by their expansion into multiple medias and markets. Jenkins sees this work changing the nature of storytelling and changing the media itself, sometimes making it more open to participation and counternarrative. Sasha expands this to consider how storytelling can be accountable and open to movement actors, and how creating media can transform people into movement participants.

In the immigrant rights movement, work is cross-platform: posters, mobile applications, films. What’s important is that people’s media strategy is explicitly cross-platform. Organizers are smart enough to know that they need Spanish language media to cover actions, then push those stories to their base via social media.

This media is participatory – Sasha points to the “Undocumented and Unafraid” campaign as a strategy in which creating media and disseminating it is a key action in joining a movement. A street action was complemented by a Tumblr (for people who couldn’t participate in person) and a video produced after the fact (which Sasha shows.) The movement draws explicitly on the LGBT struggle for acceptance through coming out, and looks specifically at the idea of Undocuqueer – coming out as undocumented to LGBT peers and as LGBT to the undocumented community.

Media production is rooted in a particular community action being taken. Sasha shows us a capture from a UStream of an occupation of an Obama campaign office in Colorado – the stream allowed thousands to follow the campaign for executive action to grant relief to undocumented youth. Dreamers succeeded in forcing Obama to make significant changes to deprioritize deportation of undocumented youth, and there’s now a discussion about the possibility of a return to sit in and occuption to seek change at a moment where change through Congress looks impossible.

The movement is careful in discussing framing. They are concerned with the framing of “I was brought here through no fault of my own”, because that’s a narrative that criminalizes parental behavior. Which narrative you pick – no fault of my own or a broader narrative – helps determine what you advocate for: reform for undocumented youth, or for all undocumented people.

Finally, Sasha reminds us that this work is transformative. By learning how to make and share media, the movement is expanded and the movement’s reach and capabilities are expanded.

Sasha sees this dynamic of transmedia organizing happening in other activist movements, including the Occupy movement. It’s also not unique to contemporary movements – he references research by Rogelio Lopez, carried out at Center for Civic Media, that looked at participatory and transmedia organizing by the Farm Worker movement from 1962-72.

Sasha closes by looking at one of the issues he explores in his work, the professionalization and accountability of social movements. There’s a long scholarship around this issue, looking at ways in which social movements become 501c3 nonprofit organizations. When you make the change from social movement to nonprofit, Sasha points out, you lose the right to advocate for specific candidates. When organizations make this change, start doing the dance with funders, they become increasingly service oriented and depoliticized.

In parallel, there’s a professionalization of transmedia production. Some years ago, “transmedia production” was a hot new topic – in 2010, the Producer’s Guild of America began issuing “transmedia producer” credits associated with films. You can now hire a transmedia producer to create an ad campaign or a cross-platform strategy to market a film.

In the last two years, we’ve seen three professionally produced transmedia campaigns. “Define American” is a campaign from Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who identifies as undocumented and queer. The project launched with a video, “Define American”, and a website, which lean heavily on web-based media like Tumblr and Facebook posts, as well as YouTube videos. Vargas has now produced a full length documentary called “Documented”, which explores this movement as well as Vargas’s personal journey. Sasha points out that the film was produced by an undocuqueer individual and has several undocumented production team members. However, there’s an argument that the documentary continues to support a narrative of “the good immigrant”.

He shows us a second documentary, “The Dream Is Now”, produced by the Emerson Collaborative, a foundation started by Steve Jobs’s widow. It’s a professional production, put together by people involved with An Inconvenient Truth, and was screened within the White House. But there are problems with the project. When you arrived at The Dream Is Now website, a modal box pushes you to sign a petition to support the DREAM Act. But the movement had moved on, Sasha tells us, and was now pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, not throwing DREAMers parents under the bus. Activists demanded that The Dream Is Now push a different set of action, but it took months to convince Emerson to change to meet the needs of the movement base. It was a beautiful and powerful piece of media, Sasha notes, but there are issues about accountability to the base of the social movement.

FWD.us is the third project Sasha features. He first shows “the leaders behind the movement”, who are (predominantly white) Silicon Valley CEOs. The campaign focuses on the ways in which immigrants represent a large percentage of the American workforce. One of the main emphases of the film is the need to increase the number of high skilled visas and allow DREAMers to contribute to the US economy. The video features 400 groups fighting for immigration reform… which turn out to be Silicon Valley companies. Sasha points out that most movement actors don’t have a problem with more high-tech workers… but the first policy plank of FWD.us is “secure our borders”, which is a policy that pushes people to cross the US/Mexico border in increasingly dangerous and insecure ways. They support e-verify, a program that auditors have found has a very high rate of false positives, in part because Silicon Valley will get the contracts to build these systems. While this is a deeply professional campaign, it’s unaccountable to the base of the movement and is erasing the broader movement history, replacing citizen organizations with tech firms.

There’s a nice narrative – organizations that have larger budgets are less accountable to the base of the movements. But it’s messy – Jose Antonio Vargas teamed up with FWD.us to promote his documentary. And undocumented youth wrote a letter to Vargas critiquing him for supporting a good immigrant/bad immigrant narrative, making it clear that he did not represent all the undocumented.

Sasha ends with questions: do greater resources always mean less community accountability? Is there always a tension between artistic freedom and strong storytelling and community accountability? Sasha believes we can have accountability mechanisms that don’t require the community to sign off on each stage of film production, but do have a powerful relation to community issues. Ultimately, Sasha is interested in building a culture of activism centered on the idea of “Nothing About Us Without Us”, framed by disability rights activist James Charlton.

Sasha invites Sofia Campos, one of the leaders of United We Dream, to the stage to react to his presentation. She points out that the movement has a culture of reflection, but hasn’t been able to publish a book like the one Sasha has. These meta-conversations about the movement can be repetitive and draining, and it’s helpful to have a careful consideration of the history of the movement to refer to. She agrees with Sasha’s contention that the media is a critical piece of the movement – before the Internet, she didn’t know that there were other undocumented people outside of California. In 2010, the internet allowed the movement to come to a higher level of organization and collaboration with unprecedented speed. Knowing that people were working across the country on the issues was a powerful feeling for movement actors.

Critically, the movement has been able to build its own narrative, and it’s been critical to move in the directions they’ve needed of going. She notes that the movement still needs mechanisms for accountability, which makes it helpful to have scholars like Sasha thinking about how the movement and those who want to help push it forward get engaged.

Desi asks why media making is such an important onramp to movement participation. Sasha makes clear that he doesn’t think media making is the most important aspect of movement building, just an important and understudied onramp. In sitting down and deciding how to tell your story, you are likely to contact others and share your experiences, as well as reflecting on the structures you’re struggling against. That struggle tends to lead to a social movement identity. Sofia that producing media is a way of combatting the isolation associated with the experience of being undocumented, and seeing support from others throughout the US going through the struggle you are experiencing.

A questioner makes clear that he’s frustrated by this as a “one sided” presentation advocating “illegal immigration”. He asks whether those who oppose illegal immigration can use the same tools to challenge unrestricted immigration. Sasha notes that the right has used every media at their disposal to make arguments, and argues that those counterarguments are as emotional and manipulative as arguments from the immigrants rights movement. He argues that it’s not an even playing field between powerful corporate actors who control broadcast TV and are likely to shape opinion against immigrant, and that the enthusiasm for social media may reflect a hope of countering those narratives.

Ian Condry asks whether there are new ideas about framing the immigration debate. Is the frame of “lawbreaking and amnesty”, which is gaining some traction, more successful than a narrative of the benefits of immigration, which seems well supported by American history. The idea of DREAMers clearly got through, he suggests, and wonders if there’s a way to embrace its power without the consequence of throwing parents under the bus. Sofia notes that issues of movement politics as well as deep legacies of racism and colonialism come into these questions of framing. The DREAMer framing was powerful because it was a narrative that came from the immigrant community, but sometimes failed to respect the radical, rooted message that the entire system of immigration needs reform. Within that framework, there’s then a question of what’s feasible, and how to negotiate for what people need now in terms of relief. Sasha notes that there’s an instrumentalist approach to media in which you A/B test your way through messages, but that this approach to framing runs the risk of coming into conflict with the community you are messaging around. The path forward has to give the affected community the ability to control the messaging, which may lead to less effective messaging in the short term, but will allow for a messaging driven by ethics and values in the long term.

Jim Paradis notes that he’s impressed with the range of objectives the movement is taking on, from inclusion in higher ed, to broader reform around immigration. He wonders how the movement is putting together a strategy to choose between competing objectives. Sasha notes that it’s a matter of constant debate within the movement: what are we working for short and long term? Political operatives tend to advise we pick a small, specific thing and message around it. But there’s a recognition that there’s a broad cultural shift around the idea of who’s a rights-holding human being. To transform ideas about immigration, we may need to win the larger battle to shift a vision of who’s human.

Jing Wang asks whether there are cross-racial alliances in the immigrant rights movement and what the dynamics of those alliances are. She wonders if the framework Sasha is advocating is equally good for movements led by Asian immigrants. Sasha notes that there is organizing and coalition work across different communities. Sofia notes that there are cultural challenges in this organizing, not just with activists but in connecting their parents, but that these movements are moving forward. Also, the movement is now trying to expand beyond immigration and into the broader space of challenging the for-profit prison movement.

A questioner who works on immigrant rights notes that he rarely attends academic presentations because of concerns about community accountability. He thanks Sasha for his consideration on that issue and asks how the activist community can best work with engaged scholars. Sasha notes that it’s easy for people with privilege, including scholars, to extract stories from communities and make profits with them. He points to work he does at MIT, teaching a Collaborative Design Studio course that brings MIT students together with community organizations to work together productively. This includes laying out explicit expectations about responsibility, participation and ownership in these processes. We need a broader transformation in institutional processes, Sasha argues, to ensure that research serves the needs of a community.

Rogelio Lopez closes with a question about the ways in which movements can spread across the world, where the Ferguson “Hands Up” protest appears on the streets of Hong Kong. What does this mean for movements when these frames spread across nations? Sasha notes that this is an exciting moment, when symbols and tactics circulate at greater speed than any other moment in human history. We see local instantiations of these techniques, and they bubble up at different moments in time – Occupy stalled in the US but came to the fore again in Hong Kong. Power is continually threatened by the potential of horizontal, people’s power. Sofia notes that the spread of ideas on the internet really benefits from the face to face organizing we’ve seen in the immigrant rights movement, which can keep it rooted in communities.

Posted in CFCM, Human Rights, ideas, Media, Media Lab, newcivics | Leave a comment

Helen Nissenbaum on Ad Nauseum, resistance through obfuscation, and weapons of the weak

Philosopher Helen Nissenbaum is one of the leading thinkers about the ethical issues we face in digital spaces. Her work on privacy as “contextual integrity” is one of the most tools for understanding why some online actions taken by companies and individuals feel deeply transgressive while others seem normal – we expect online systems to respect norms of privacy appropriate for the context we are interacting in, and we are often surprised and dismayed when those norms are violated. At least as fascinating, for me at least, Nissenbaum doesn’t just write books and articles – she writes code, in collaboration with a team of longtime collaborators, which brings her strategies for intervention into the world, where others can adopt them, test them out, critique or improve them.

Professor Nissenbaum spoke at MIT last Thursday about a new line of inquiry, the idea of obfuscation as a form of resistance to “data tyranny”. She is working on a book with Finn Brunton on the topic and, to my delight, more software that puts forward obfuscation as a strategy for resistance to surveillance.

Her talk begins by considering PETs – privacy enhancing technologies – building on definitions put forth by Aleecia McDonald. In reacting to “unjust and uncomfortable data collection”, we wish to resist but we do not have the capacity within the systems themselves. We can create privacy enhancing tools as a mode of self-help, and tools that leverage obfuscation fit within the larger frame of PETs, self-help and resistance.

She defines “data tyranny” drawing on work by Michael Walzer, whose work focuses on approaches to ethics in practice: “You are tyrannized to the extent that you can be controlled by the arbitrary decision of others.” Obfuscation, Nissenbaum tells us, fights against this tyranny.

Using her framework of privacy as contextual integrity, from Privacy in Context (2010), she explains that privacy is not complete control of our personal information, nor is it perfect secrecy. Instead, it is “appropriate information flow that is consistent with ideal informational norms.” This contextual understanding is key, she explains, “I don’t believe that a right to privacy is a right to control information about oneself, or that any spread of information is wrong.” What’s wrong is when this flow of information is inconsistent with our expectations given the context. Sharing information about what books we’re searching for with the librarian we asked for help doesn’t mean we’ve consented to share that information with a marketer looking to target advertisements to us – we expect one sort of sharing in that context and are right to feel misused when those norms are bent or broken.

Different privacy enhancing technologies use different strategies. One project Nissenbaum has collaborated on uses cryptography to facilitate resistance. Cryptagram (think Instagram plus crypto) allows you to publish password-protected photos on online social media. The photos appear as a black and white bitmap, unless you have the password (and the Cryptagram Chrome plugin installed). By encrypting the photos (with AES, and rendering the output as a JPEG), you gain finer control over Facebook’s ever-changing privacy settings, and you prevent whoever is hosting your media from attempting to identify faces in photos, or building a more detailed profile of you using information gleaned from the images.

Other PETs use data obfuscation as their core tool of resistance. Nissenbaum defines obfuscation as “The production, inclusion, addition or communication of misleading, ambiguous, or false data in an effort to evade, distract or confuse data gatherers or diminish the reliability (and value) of data aggregations.” In other words, obfuscation doesn’t make data unreadable, it hides it in a crowd.


Good luck finding Waldo now.

TrackMeNot is a project Nissenbaum began in 2006 in collaboration with Daniel Howe and Vincent Toubiana. It was a reaction to a Department of Justice subpoena that sought search query data from Google as a way of documenting online child pornography, as well as the deanonymization of an AOL data set, suggesting that individuals could be personally identified on the basis of their search queries. “The notion that all searches were being stored and held felt shocking at the time,” Nissenbaum explained. “Perhaps we all take it for granted now.”

Her friends in computer science departments told her “there’s nothing you can do about it”, as Google is unlikely to change their policies about logging search requests. So she and her colleagues developed TrackMeNot, which sends a large number of fake search queries to a search engine, along with the valid query, then automatically sorts through the results the engine sends back, presenting only the valid query. The tool works within Firefox, and she reports that roughly 40,000 users use it regularly. You can watch what queries the tool is sending out, or choose your own RSS feed to generate queries from. (From the presentation, it looks like, by default, the tool is subscribing to a newspaper, chopping articles into n-grams and sending random n-grams to Google or other engines as “cover traffic”.)

The tool has prompted many reactions, including objects that TrackMeNot doesn’t work or is unethical. Security experts have suggested to her that search engines may be able to sort out the chaff from the wheat, filtering aside her fake queries. The questions about the ethics of obfuscation are at least as interesting to Nissenbaum as a philosopher.

Obfuscation, she tells us, is everywhere. It’s simply the strategy of hiding in plain sight. She quotes G.K. Chesterton, from The Innocence of Father Brown: “Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest? He grows a forest to hide it in.”

With Finn Branton, she has been investigating historical and natural examples of leaf hiding and forest growing strategies. Some are easy to understand: if you don’t want your purchases tracked by your local supermarket, you can swap loyalty cards with a friend, obfuscating both your profiles. Others are more technically complicated. During the second World War, bomber pilots began releasing black paper backed with aluminum foil before releasing their payloads. The reflective paper obscured their signal on radar, showing dozens or hundreds of targets instead of the single plane, making it possible for bombers to evade interception.

Programmers and hardware engineers routinely obfuscate code to make it difficult to replicate their work. (As someone who has managed programmers for two decades, I think unintentional obfuscation is at least as common as intentional…) But some of the best examples of obfuscation are less technical in nature. Consider the Craigslist robber, who robbed a bank in Monroe, Washington in 2008, and got away by fading into a crowd. He’d put an ad on Craigslist, asking road maintenance workers to show up for a job interview by asking them to dress in a blue shirt, yellow vests, safety goggles, a respirator mask. A dozen showed up, and the robber – also wearing the outfit – was able to get away.

Nature obfuscates as well. The orb spider, who needs her web out in the open to catch prey, needs to avoid becoming prey herself. She builds a target of dirt, grass and other material in the web, exactly the size of the spider, hoping to lure wasps to attack the diversion instead of her.

Does obfuscation work? Is it ethical? Should it be banned? Examples like the orb spider suggest that it’s a natural strategy for self-preservation. But examples like Uber’s technique of calling Gett and Lyft drivers for rides, standing them up and then calling to recruit them, which Nissenbaum cites as another example of obfuscation, raise uncomfortable questions.

“What does it mean to ask ‘Does it work?'” asks Nissenbaum. “Works for what? There is no universally externalizable criterion we can ask for whether obfuscation works.” Obfuscation could work to buy time, or to provide plausible deniability. It could provide cover, foil profiling, elude surveillance, express a protest or subvert a system. Obfuscation that works for one or more criteria may fail for others.

The EFF, she tells us, has been a sometimes fierce critic of TrackMeNot, perhaps due to their ongoing support for Tor, which Nissenbaum makes clear she admires and supports. She concedes that TrackMeNot is not a tool for hiding your identity as Tor is, and notes that they’ve not yet decided to block third-party cookies with TrackMeNot, a key step to providing identity protection. But TrackMeNot is working under a different threat model – it seeks to obfuscate your search profile, not disguise your identity.

She and Brunton are working on a taxonomy of obfuscation, based on what a technique seeks to accomplish. Radar chaff and the Craigslist robber are examples of obfuscation to buy time, while loyalty card swapping, Tor relays and TrackMeNot seek to provide plausible deniability. Other projects obfuscate to provide cover, to elude surveillance or as a form of protest, as in the apocryphal story of the King of Denmark wearing a yellow Star of David and ordering his subjects to do so as well to obscure the identity of Jewish Danes.

For Nissenbaum, obfuscation is a “weapon of the weak” against data tyranny. She takes the term “weapon of the weak” from anarchist political scholar James C. Scott, who used the term to explain how peasants in Malaysia resist authority when they have insufficient resources to start a rebellion. Obfuscatory measures may be a “weak weapon of the weak”, vulnerable to attack. But these methods need to be considered in circumstantial ways, specific to the problem we are trying to solve.

“You’re an individual interacting with a search engine”, Nissenbaum tells us, “and you feel it’s wrong that your intellectual pursuit, your search engine use, should be profiled by search engines any more than we should be tracked in libraries.” The search engines keep telling you “we’re going to improve the experience for you”. How do we resist? “You can plead with the search engine, or plead with the government. But the one window we have into the search engine is our queries.” We can influence search engines this way “because we are not able to impose our will through other ways.”

This tactic of obfuscation as the weapon of the weak is one she’s bringing into a new space with a new project, Ad Nauseum, developed with Daniel Howe and Mushon Zer-Aviv. The purpose of Ad Nauseum is pretty straightforward: it clicks on all the ads you encounter. It’s built on top of Adblock Plus, but in addition to blocking ads, it registered a click on each one, and also collects the ads for you, so you can see them as a mosaic and better understand what the internet thinks of you.

Again, Nissenbaum asks us to consider strategies of obfuscation as having many strategies towards many ends. These strategies differ in terms of the source of obfuscation, the amount and type of noise in the system, whether targets are selective or general, whether the approach is stealthy or bald-faced, who benefits from the obfuscation and the resources of who you are trying to hide from. Ad Nauseum is bald-faced, general, personal in source (though it benefits from cooperation with others) and is taking on an adversary that is less powerful than the NSA, but perhaps not much less powerful.

Aside from questions of whether this will work, Nissenbaum asks if this is ethical. Objections include that it’s deceptive, that it wastes resources, damages the system, and enables free riding on the backs of your peers. In an ethical analysis, she reminds us, ends matter, and here the ends are just: eluding profiling and surveillance, preserving ideal information norms. This is different from robbing a bank, destroying a rival, or escaping a predator.

But means matter too. Ethicists ask if means are proportionate. If there is harm that comes from obfuscation, can another method work as well? In this case, that other method can be hard to see. Opting out hasn’t worked, as the Do Not Track effort collapsed. Transparency is a false solution, as companies already flood us with data about how they’re using our data, leading us to accept policies we don’t and can’t read. Should we shape corporate best practice? That’s simply asking the fox to guard the henhouse. And changing laws could take years if it ever succeeds.

In exploring waste, free ride, pollution, damage or subversion, Nissenbaum tells us, you must ask “What are you wasting? Who’s free riding? What are you polluting? Whose costs, whose risks, whose benefits should we consider.” Is polluting the stream of information sent to advertisers somehow worse that polluting my ability to read online without being polluted by surveillance?

Big data shifts risks around, Nissenbaum tells us. As an advertiser, I want to spend my ad money wisely. Tracking users shifts my risk in buying ads. The cost is backend collection of data, which places people at risk: think of recent revelations from Home Depot about stolen credit card information. Databases that are collected for the public good, for reasons like preventing terrorism, may expose individuals to even greater risk. We need a conversation about whether there are greater goods to protect than just keeping ourselves free of terrorism.

We can understand weapons of the weak, Nissenbaum tells us, by understanding threat models. We need to study the science, engineering and statistical capabilities of these businesses. In the process we discover “enabling execution vectors”, ways we can attack these systems through hackable standards, open protocols, and open access to systems. And we need to ensure that our ability to use these weapons of the weak is not quashed by enforceable terms of service that simply prevent their use. Without having access to the inner machination of systems, Nissenbaum argues, these weapons may be all we have.


An exceedingly lively conversation followed this talk. I was the moderator of that conversation, and so I have no good record of what transpired, but I’ll use this space – where I usually discuss Q&A – to share some of my own questions for Professor Nissenbaum.

One question begins by asking “What’s the theory of change for the project?” If the goal us to collapse the ad industry as we know it, I am skeptical of the project’s success at scale. Clicking ads is an extremely unusual behavior for human websurfers – clickthrough on banner ads is a tiny fraction of one percent for most users. Clicking on lots of ads is, however, frequent behavior for a clickfraud bot, a tool that’s part of a strategy in which a person hosts ads on their site, then unleashes a program to click on those ads, giving micropayments to person for each ad clicked. Essentially, it defrauds advertisers to reward a content provider. Clickfraud bots are really common, and most ad networks are pretty good at not paying for fraudulent clicks. This leads me to conclude that much of what Ad Nauseum does will be filtered out by ad networks and not counted as clicks.

This is a good outcome, Nissenbaum argues – you’ve disguised your human behavior as bot behavior and encouraged ad networks to remove you from their system. But it’s worth thinking about the costs. If I am a content provider, attracting human users who look like bots has two costs. One, I get no revenue from them as ad providers filter out their clicks. Two, I may well lose advertisers as they decide to move from my bot-riddled site and to sites that have a higher proportion of “human” readers. She’s shifted the cost from the reader to the content host rather than crashing the system. (Offering this scenario to Nissenbaum, using myself as an example of a content provider, and positing a Global Voices that was supported by advertising, I spun a case of our poor nonprofit going under thanks to her tool. In response, she quipped “Serves you right for working with those tracking-centric companies.” I’m looking forward to a more nuanced answer if she agrees with the premise of my critique.)

If the theory of change for the project is sparking a discussion about the ethics of advertising systems – a topic I am passionate about – rather than crashing the ad economy as we know it, I’m far more sympathetic. To me, Ad Nauseum does a great job of provoking conversations about the bargain of attention – and surveillance – for free content and services. I just don’t see it as an especially effective weapon for bringing those systems to their knees.

My other question centers on the idea that this technique is a “weapon of the weak”. To put it bluntly, a tenured professor at a prestigious university is nowhere near as disenfranchised as the peasants Scott is writing about. This isn’t a criticism that Nissenbaum is disrespecting the oppression of those worse off than she is, or a complaint about making a false comparison between two very different types of oppression. Instead, it’s a question about the current state of the political process in the United States. When a learned, powerful and enfranchised person feels like she’s powerless to change the regulation of technology, something is deeply messed up. Why does the regulation of technology turn the otherwise powerful into the weak? (Or is this perception of weakness the symbol of a broader alienation from politics and other forms of civic engagement?)

I’ve been advocating a theory of civic efficacy that considers at least four possible levers of change: seeking change through laws, through markets, through shaping social norms or through code. Using this framework, we could consider passing laws to ensure that the FTC protects user privacy on online systems. Or we could try to start companies that promise not to use user data (DuckDuckGo, Pinboard) and try to ensure they outcompete their competitors. We could try to shape corporate norms, seeking acknowledgement that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail”.

If Nissenbaum’s solution were likely to crash advertising as we know it, it might be superior to any of these other theories of change. If it is, instead, a creative protest that obscures an individual’s data and makes a statement at the cost of damaging online publishers, it raises the question of whether these means are justifiable or others bear closer consideration.

I tend to share Nissenbaum’s sense that advocating for regulation in this space is likely to be futile. I have more hopes for the market-based and norms-based theories – I support Rebecca MacKinnon’s Ranking Digital Rights project because it seeks to make visible companies that protect digital rights and allows users to reward their good behavior.

But I raise the issue of weapons of the weak because I suspect Nissenbaum is right – I have a hard time imagining a successful campaign to defend online privacy against advertisers. If she’s right that many of us hate and resent the surveillance that accompanies an ad-supported internet, what’s so wrong in our political system that we feel powerless to change these policies through conventional channels?

Posted in CFCM, ideas, Media | 7 Comments

Coco Fusco’s introduction to the Cuban blogosphere

Multimedia artist, writer, activist and teacher Coco Fusco is a visiting associate professor at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies this year, and she introduced herself to the Center for Civic Media community with a stunning talk this past Thursday, unpacking the history and the possible futures of the Cuban blogosphere. Fusco is a frequent traveler to Cuba and has interviewed many of the key figures in the space and offered an overview that’s complex, subtle and by far the most informative picture of the space I’ve heard thus far.

(Video of Fusco’s talk is available here.)

Fusco frames the Cuban blogosphere, in part, from her own background in performance art. Since 2008, when restrictions on cellphone use were lifted in Cuba, opponents to the Castro system have been engaged in activism that Fusco sees as having “a very media-savvy, performative character.” Citizen journalists and activists are sending text, videos and photos that document confrontation with state authorities, which has turned dissent into a kind of performance art.

If dissent is a performance, part of the audience is the United States. Not only is there a massive expatriate Cuban population in the US, there is a media system based and funded in the US, hungry for reports from independent Cuban bloggers. USAID has had a direct role in building this blogosphere, Fusco tells us. Her slides begin with the image of a Wifi logo painted onto a wall in the colors of the Cuban flag. These images are painted by activists, then painted over, in an ongoing battle. “If you didn’t know better, you might assume that ordinary Cubans were demanding free wifi. In fact, it’s part of a campaign by a USAID-supported group.”

The support from the US, the ways Cuba is trying to influence online speech, lead to a blogosphere in which participants are performing for multiple audiences. That said, the space has emerged as a critical digital public sphere for Cuban political dialog. Conventional public debate in Cuba is extremely limited, Fusco tells us. It’s officially organized, hosted solely in Havana, isn’t documented via video and has carefully controlled attendance. There’s no significant space for debate in Cuban daily newspapers or television, so the debates that happen in blogs, often hosted in Spain or Miami, is a critical digital public sphere.

The figures involved with this new public sphere are complicated. Elicér Ávila, blogger at Diário de Cuba, is supported by money from the US National Endowment for Democracy, send through Spain, Fusco tells us. On the one hand. he’s famous for confronting a government official in one of these staged official meetings, and his blog is a key part of the Cuban online scene. On the other hand, he “came out” in 2011 as a spy (in an interview with Cuban super-blogger Yoani Sanchez), part of Operación Verdad, a government project that encouraged the online harassment of independent bloggers in online media. He’s subsequently been “reborn” as a dissident, demanding a new, competitive political party to challenge the state. Figuring out who’s on what side, who is supported by whom and whose politics are genuine or performative is part of understanding this complex space.

Fusco offers a brief timeline of the internet in Cuba, starting with the arrival of internet service in 1996. This service was expensive and out of reach of most ordinary Cubans, so internet usage didn’t really come into play until the middle of the next decade. The “black spring” of 2003, where 75 journalists and human rights activists were imprisoned for their offline media activities heled step the stage for Cuba’s internet transformation. In 2006 when Fidel stepped down and Raúl took over power, many expected the political environment to open up somewhat. But it took “the Pavon case”, the online debate about the rehabilitation of a former government censor and extremist, to demonstrate the utility of online spaces as a place for political discussion. These dialogs took place via email, the medium most accessible to the few Cubans who were online at that time.

Shortly afterwards, Yoani Sanchez’s Generation Y blog opened this new space to a younger generation. Shortly after, in 2008, bloggers began meeting in public, weekly, to discuss both political issues and the challenges o being online in Cuba. At the same time, restrictions were lifted on cellphone ownership, opening a new channel to online participation for the majority of Cubans who did not have access to an internet connected computer. By 2009, Sanchez and her husband had founded Blogger Academy, which trains bloggers in how to use key social media tools. The Taza de Café blog, started by Lizabel Monica, launched with technical advice about accessing internet services using Cuba’s slow internet. And in a validation of blogger influence, the Cuban government responded by launching a set of government-sponsored blogs to counter the independent ones. These blogs now outnumber independent blogs by 2:1, but have a much lower reach and readership.

Like many closed societies, Cuba has a complicated love/hate relationship with the internet. Access to the net in increasing – there are now about 1.5 million cellphones in Cuba for a population of 10-11 million, so mobile access has outpaced access to land lines, with teledensity at about 10%. Fusco estimates that roughly 25% of Cubans have internet access, but notes that there’s no way to measure that decisively, as Cubans use wifi from hotels, rent internet access from foreign workers and use any number of creative methods to get online.

The Cuban government tends to see the internet as a threat to national security, and especially as a tool for the US State department to engage in pro-democracy propaganda. Thus the Cuban internet is controlled via site censorship, through the criminalization of some kinds of communication and through limitations to online access. Officially, email in Cuba is through an in-country system, where you need to be a union member or university student to have access. The mobile phone company, Cubacel, is a monopoly, controlled by ETECSA, the national telephone company. Access is slow, and costs are extremely high. Access through a hotel costs $6 an hour, and $4.50 an hour at internet cafes. In a country where the average salary is $20/month, there’s not a ton of usage through those channels. More common is access through the mobile phones, where charges are $1 per SMS message and $0.45 a minute for a domestic phone call. Fortunately, diasporans and other supporters of Cuban bloggers are able to send phones into the country and top up mobile phone accounts remotely. (Most Cuban bloggers have a “donate” button on their blog, which solicits funds for cellphone airtime.) The $2 billion in remittances into Cuba annually are what makes citizen media on the Cuban internet possible.

Even when Cubans can afford to get online, they face substantial technical challenges. Email is really the online reliable service in Cuba, so posting to blogs, Facebook and Twitter happens primarily through email – the best bloggers have setups that trigger tweets and Facebook updates as soon as they publish new content. Cubans have grown used to a culture of surveillance, in which journalism is pre-approved, where sites critical of the government are censored, and where surveillance of phone calls and email is routine. Still, even in such a controlled environment, some information spreads relatively freely.

Fusco explains that most Cubans don’t want clandestine political media so much as they want games, music and movies. They get these through the “paquete”, the colloquial term for a package of digital media delivered on USB flash drives. These drives are assembled by diasporans and often include political news from TV Martí, as well as entertainment media. The keys sell for roughly 2 CUC, or $2 (the Cuban convertible peso, which trades for roughly $1 per CUC – it’s a parallel currency to the Cuban peso, for use in foreign transactions, by tourists and others.) Since games often circulate on these keys, it’s become a popular business to run gaming parlors for $1 an hour. While wholly political paquetes do circulate, the ones that mix political and entertainment content seem to have the best success. (I see parallels to work friends have done circulating CDs with political content in Zimbabwe, to be played on buses and in taxis. A mix that’s 2/3rd to 3/4s music, with 1/3-1/4 political content seems to work, while all politics tends not to get well circulated.)

The paquete is not the only way Cubans are hacking digital media, Fusco tells us. Used phones and smartphones need to be modified for use in Cuba. Anyone licensed to do phone repairs will employ someone – often a small team – to alter these imported phones. There’s also a business in modifying Nintendos and Playstations for domestic use. All software used in Cuba tends to be pirated, and some software – particularly mobile phone applications that depend on network access – need to be modified to work mostly offline. There’s a thriving online market for these products – revolico.com – which Fusco describes as “the illegal Cuban craigslist”.

Those Cubans who are able to get online are often engaged in independent blogging and citizen journalism. Generación Y, founded by Sanchez, is now translated by volunteers into 14 languages (leading to accusations that she obviously must be a US spy, as volunteers obviously couldn’t be counted on to translate a website into dozens of languages…) Sanchez also maintains Voces Cubanas, a group blog representing the broader Cuban dissident blogophere. Havana Times is edited in Nicaragua, but features writing from people on the Island and is regularly translated into English. In addition to technical advice from La Taza De Café, Cuban bloggers can seek legal advice from Cuban Legal Advisor, run by Laritza Diversent, who tracks changing media and propaganda laws closely and offers advice for dissidents on jail and detentions.

That this community survives is something of a miracle, as blogging began as the process of sending SMS messages to friends and asking them to post to websites. Called “blind blogging”, this was replaced by using sites like Blogger, Twitter and YouTube via email. Yoani Sanchez showed Cubans how to use MMS to send data-rich short messages, which Fusco argues led to a major change in US journalistic coverage of Cuba. Still, these journalists and activists face a daunting set of challenges, starting with the difficulties of building a local base, given the cost of accessing the Internet. There are draconian legal restrictions if you are found of publishing with US government involvement, and the online space is deeply dependent on US pro-democracy funding. Fusco explains the debates that occur in Cuba – is blogging a “mercenary activity” funded by an imperialist government, or is this autonomous action by Cuban bloggers, who need money to support this work.

In addition, bloggers are isolated geographically and politically, and rarely have the opportunity to collaborate with others facing similar situations. State security has proven itself effective in fomenting discord between opposition groups. And these groups and bloggers tend to have narrowly focused agendas that can make it hard for them to reach international audiences even when they are technically able.

Fusco offers a bit more hope to Cubans using digital media to shape culture through literature, music and film. Projects like the Voces literary magazine are providing an alternative space for artists who don’t have official recognition from artists and writers union. (This official recognition matters – it is difficult to travel without this official status.) Artists have taken to keeping online video diaries to document their work and their process, hoping this will serve as a “shield” if they are detained or arrested and a rallying point for their supporters. Even given tight restrictions on content, some controversial material, especially films, are making the rounds of global film festivals, including films like Monte Rouge (about a security official visiting the house of an intellectual) and Los Aldeanos (link en español) (a documentary about Cuba’s hip hop underground). Cuban music is making an impact as well – Porno Para Ricardo, fronted by enfant terrible Gorki Aguila, survives and has visibility globally despite four (likely politically motivated) drug arrests of Aguila.


El Comandante, by Porno Para Ricardo

Fusco’s talk ends with discussion of the uncomfortable and complex relationship between Cuban media and audiences abroad. Blog dailies are published in Havana, Miami and Madrid. These sites, which feature writing from Cubans on the island, serve as what should be the opposition press, and are widely quoted by wire services and other international news agencies. They also serve as fodder for TV and Radio Martí, the American-produced channels that seek to reach Cubans on the island and in the diaspora. Martí received a large increase in funding in the wake of the 1996 Helms-Burton acts tightening US trade embargo against Cuba (a reaction to Cuba shooting down “Brothers to the Rescue” planes that sought to rescue Cuban refugees on rafts), and now the US government provides massive funding to pro-democracy media in Cuba.

This funding has supported people like Alan Gross, a contractor for USAID, who made five trips to Cuba bringing in phones and, perhaps, equipment designed to disguise satellite phone calls. Gross was arrested in 2011 and his family worries he will die in Cuban prison during his 15 year sentence. While Gross’s case has drawn international attention, Fusco notes that Cuban bloggers who accept US support – sometimes unknowingly – risk similar sentences.

She is hopeful that the $2 billion in remittance money send to Cuba might have more of an impact than the $70 million allocated to USAID, much of which is spent in the US. Projects like ZunZuneo, secretly created by USAID contractors to be the “Cuban Twitter” are far less interesting that projects like Yagruma, which supported creative projects in Cuba through a Kickstarter model before being stopped by the Treasury department in 2013, or Roots of Hope, organized by Cuban Harvard students, which coordinates tech donations to Cuban citizens.

Two interesting points came up in discussion with the Center for Civic Media team. Dalia Othman, an expert on social media in Palestine, noted that the Arabic blogopshere has moved almost entirely onto newer social media platforms. This shift hasn’t happened in Cuba, Fusco believes, because time moves differently on the Cuban internet. “It takes four hours to get to work, so why would you blog everyday? There’s no sense for the tactical use of brevity.” And because Cuba’s internet access is so slow, the always on world of social media doesn’t make much sense to Cuban users.

I asked Fusco what she would advise Secretary of State Kerry to do regarding independent media in Cuba. Her main point was that Cubans are far smarter about what works in Cuba than US contractors. Acknowledging that it’s dangerous for the US to fund Cubans directly, she’d like to see more diverse and less polarized funding for media in Cuba. At the same time, it’s important to question some of the Florida-based expatriate organizations, which have historically been sponsoring violent opposition and are now sponsoring technology. Critically, she thinks Cubans need to get beyond the idea that US support for independent media is a “mercenary” activity – independent journalism should not be seen as mercenary, or as a US demand. Instead, it’s a demand for a functional society.

Posted in Blogs and bloggers, CFCM, Human Rights, Media | 4 Comments