Five days with Global Voices leaves me feeling pretty good about the state of the world, and the shape of the internet. But the ‘net is not always a friendly place. Our post-lunch session on the closing day of our conference is “Do We Feed the Trolls?”, hosted by the estimable Jillian York, of Global Voices and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Noemi Lardizabal-Dado, a celebrated Filipina momblogger. In 2006, she started blogging as a mother who had lost a child. In 2009, she founded blogwatch.ph, a leading Filipino citizen media site. She’s now an empty nester after years as a fulltime homemaker. Her motivation for writing online is making a difference in her children’s lives, but by making the world a better place.
She tells us, “I don’t feed the trolls – the trolls feed me.” Years ago, she interviewed a Filipina who accused her UK boyfriend for fraud – she continues to be harrassed online by him. She called out a showbiz celebrity on child abuse and remains engaged with his supporters online. Now, in writing about the cutting of pine trees in front of a big shopping mall, she’s facing a new wave of trolling.
The trolls Noemi encounters include people motivated by their own opinions and interests, but also by bots that respond to keywords, trolls hired to do “black operations”, and the bored individual seeking attention. She shows a slide with the names she’s called: slacktivist, brandbasher, mom-blocker.
How do you ignore a troll? Do your own SEO to ensure that you’re more visible than what the trolls are saying – put your name out in the medium where they are attacking you. Use your allies as troll-slayers – let them fight your battles. When people get really awful, she blocks or bans them. She prefers not to engage in arguments, but ultimately, she believes the best goal is to show troll stupidity.
Showing a slide titled “Keep Calm and Call the Cyber Police”, she tells us about a story when she began getting death threats for accusing a politician of child abuse. The Philippines have a law against death threats, so she felt empowered to bring law enforcement into the equation.
“Trolls feed me,” she says. Often they give me ideas for stories to cover. And they give me more twitter followers (Check her out at @momblogger.) If you’re being trolled, perhaps this is an added benefit. She suggests that you should also listen to the trolls – you don’t want to be caught in your own filter bubble, your own private internet. Sometimes trolling is intelligent commentary wrapped in bombast.
Arzu Geybullayeva notes that her trolls have a different agenda. They accuse her of being a secret agent, of being a traitor, or they simply sexually harass her.
She does, in fact, speak several languages, and she notes that it’s odd to think that there are people in the world who actually believe she is an agent for Armenia, Azerbaijan’s historical enemy. She is highly critical of Azerbaijan, which leads people to see her as a secret Armenian. Since she also writes for an Armenian newspaper in Turkey, that’s further fuel for their beliefs. Others see her as an agent for secret Western powers.
In truth, Arzu focuses on building peace and understanding in the Caucuses. But this work has now made her a major figure for troll attacks online. She wishes she felt as warmly about her trolls as Noemi does, but the attacks have often been quite personal and scary.
Lina Attalah, who writes for a number of Egyptian publications, notes that trolling is often similar across different cultures – she, too, finds herself often accused of being a secret agent. In Egypt, she notes that politics has been reduced to a simple binary: the military or the Muslim Brotherhood. If you choose a third, independent path, you become a magnet for trolling.
Her newspaper covered the massacre of a Muslim Brotherhood campsite by the police. They were one of very few papers to cover the atrocity. She is very clear that she and her paper are not pro-Brotherhood, but they felt this grave abuse of rights was critical. Once they documented the massacre, the trolls came out in force.
“There is very little logic when it comes to trollers’ responses.” The same people called them Hamas supporters and Israeli spies. Trolling isn’t just an online phenomenon, she says – it is fed by the political context in which it grows.
“I don’t like responding because I don’t have energy for it,” Attalah says. Furthermore, you don’t ever want to defend your nuanced position in the face of this simplistic binary. Not being responsive to trolls is critical to maintaining their independence as a media outlet.
Kevin Rothrock, co-editor of Global Voices’ RuNet Echo, is introduced as one of our most frequent troll targets. Rothrock notes that as a man, he’s not subject to the weird sexual aggression women experience online. As someone reporting on Russia from the US, he’s not directly at risk as he would be on the ground. “I can talk about trolling as a business or an art, because I’m very far outside it.” He notes that some people at Global Voices are writing out of expertise or interest, not knowledge on the ground – when they get trolled, it’s a different, more distant, experience.
When reporting on Russia, Kevin says, I get it on both sides. RuNet Echo is funded by Open Society Foundation, Kevin is based in Washington, DC, and these facts lead trolls to believe he’s a State Department propagandist. But his reporting also tears apart many of the cherished myths of the Russian opposition. When you draw attention to this tensions, the Russian left often criticizes him as a traitor to their work.
“Do I feed the trolls? I interview them!” RuNet Echo has interviewed pro-Kremlin trolls. He worries that this may be making them stronger, but they’re a key piece of the Russian online ecosystem. When you’re writing from afar, though, trolling can be intellectually stimulating and interesting – Kevin says he gets his best troll responses when he’s waiting in line in the supermarket. It’s a form of mental exercise.
York notes that Kevin’s very first statement was about gender. Jill notes that while she usually works at a distance, she often does feel threatened by people locally who respond to her online. She asks the panel whether this sense of threat is more about gender or locality.
Arzu believes that trolling is a response to outspokenness. Threatening you with rape and sexual violence is a way of using the intimidating power of a patriarchal society. Women in Azerbaijan often do feel intimidated by male power and violence. Issues like reconcilliation, which she works on, seem to particularly trigger the trolls. But her commitment to the work keeps her going in the face of these threats.
“Being a women gives trolls more ideas”, explains Attalah. Her male colleagues get similarly attacked, but the attacks on them are not sexual and are less personal. Arzu notes that the attacks that are most disturbing don’t target her, but her mother.
Noting that Global Voices contributors are frequently targeted by government trolls, she asks the panel whether they feel targeted by governments. For Noemi, the similarity of language used by some of her trolls suggests a coordinated, anti-left campaign that is likely to have government support. Rothrock notes that the Russian government certainly sponsors and pays pro-Kremlin trolls – there’s well established research on troll factories and troll farms. These are likely owners of small PR firms who ideologically support Putin. These people interest Rothrock, because he appreciates the authenticity of their views, even if he worries that their attacks are damaging the online space for civil society. Attalah notes that researchers are investigating “electronic armies” of trollers as a different group from individual users.
York notes that when she wrote a story about Azerbaijan she got a wave of responses telling her how wonderful and beautiful the country was. Arzu notes that Azerbaijan is a country that’s happy to construct a Potemkin reality, including hosting its own version of an international Olympics. It’s not a surprise that the government would mobilize an army to respond to online criticism.
Trolling implies little, unempowered individuals complaining, but York worries most about trolling that “punches down”, with powerful individuals threatening weaker actors. Arzu notes that trolling really began to scare her when a noted television presenter, who knows her father personally, began denouncing her on air.
York holds a straw poll, asking the audience whether or not we should feed the trolls. A significant group supports feeding the trolls, a minority believes we never should, and many are undecided. Attalah, Arzu and Noemi note that they’ve got too much to do as writers and activists to feed the trolls.
As for Rothrock: “Feed them ’til they choke on it.”
Jeremy Clarke wonders if anyone has ever converted a troll, changing their view? Rothrock notes that by engaging with trolls, he’s sometimes able to get involved with more civil, productive discussions. Some of these trolls are quite smart, and he appreciates what he’s learned from them. York notes that the opposite has happened to her – she’s had an acquaintance turn into a troll.
A questioner notes that she writes online about sexuality, and routinely is attacked with sexual language directed at her and at her mother. She simply retweets these attacks and lets her reporters respond. One troll was so persistent, he attacked everything she wrote. As an experiment, she simply tweeted a visit to Starbucks – he attacked that as well. Finally, so frustrated, she asked the troll if he had the balls to meet her in person. She set a date and a time, and showed up at a café her friends own – the troll never showed up, and also stopped attacking her.
Gershom Ndhlovu, a Global Voices volunteer from Zambia, tells us that the new Zambian government bought 600 computers and gave them out to party cadres, and paid for data plans for those supporters. If you wrote anything about the government on Facebook, these guys would attack you in response. Troll armies are real and can be powerful.
Kevin Rennie from Australia notes that trolls try to dominate hashtag conversations. He wonders how this can be combatted. Rothrock notes that it’s easy to flood a hashtag. Instead, you need to rely on more closed conversations, which rely on individual thought leaders. He does note that it’s dangerous to assume that anyone who’s angry or disruptive online is part of an organized movement. It’s dangerous to dismiss genuine constituencies that disagree with your point of view. In Russia, Putin has enormous support. When people destroy a hashtag, it’s not always a bot army – it may be legitimate dissent.
Thant Sin from Myanmar notes that the internet in his country is utterly filled with religious and racist hate speech. Posts can be followed with hundreds of comments with hate speech. The experience is one of an ongoing battle on the comments on Facebook. He explains that we believe that these commenters are being encouraged by the government, but that this is unproven. His personal response is to ignore these angry threads.
A questioner addresses his question to “the male CIA agent”, and asks how he would respond to trolls speaking to him in the real world. Rothrock notes that he’d be a very different person online if he were engaged from Russia rather than from the US. He suspects he would be far more careful and would watch what he says, which would mean he’d have a very different online experience.
Filip Stojanovski references a case in Macedonia where a government news portal is run by anonymous people. It’s a trolling infrastructure supported by two hundred thousand Euros in government advertising. One popular tactic is identifying people in photos of protests, which Amira Al-Hussaini notes is popular in Bahrain. He wonders if it would be ethical for us to develop an index of trolls, at least of government trolls? Rothrock notes that he and his RuNet Echo co-editor are in a database as “pathological Rusaphobes”. York notes that some trolls have been immortalized in the Encyclopedia Dramatica. Noemi notes that she doesn’t want to give any more visibility to these trolls and wouldn’t want to immortalize them this way – they would probably enjoy them. Arzu maintains her own personal folder.
Janice from Bulaplap.com, a progressive media outlet in the Philippines, notes that her outlet is “red tagged”, accused of being associated with terrorist groups in the Philippines. “Bulaplap” is a term meaning “unearth”, but also has sexual connotations. The Arroyo government created a mirror site of Bulaplap that contained pornographic images, suggesting that the media site was really about pornography. She wonders whether those of us who control our own blogs should censor trolling comments.
Attalah tells us that the commenting policy on her newspaper has been not to censor anything. At this point, though, they are reconsidering in the case of hate speech and threats of sexual violence. Arzu closes with the observation: “Trolls are trolls. Don’t let them stop the work we’re doing.”
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.
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.
Susan Benesch is one of the leading thinkers on countering hate speech online. She’s a fellow at the Berkman Center this year, and I’m terribly sorry to be missing her talk at Berkman this afternoon. (Instead, I’m watching from home so I can be primary caretaker for my son for a couple of weeks while Rachel gets to travel.) She teaches international human rights at American University and is the founder of the Dangerous Speech Project, which tries to understand the spread of speech that incites people to violence.
Susan’s talk is available online and I’ve tried to blog it remotely while cursing my inability to teleport across the state. The talk is wonderfully titled “Troll Wrastling for Beginners: Data-Driven Methods to Decrease Hatred Online”. Unlike most conventional online wisdom, Benesch believes you should engage with the trolls, in part because it may be the most successful path to countering dangerous speech. The approaches states have taken to dangerous speech – punishment and censorship – don’t work very well, and some evidence suggests that they work even worse online than offline. She suggests the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was ultimately killed by a drone strike – despite being punished (via summary execution from a US drone), his online speeches continue to be influential and may have influenced the Boston Marathon bombers. Censoring that speech doesn’t work well in an online environment as it’s likely to move onto other platforms.
So what about “don’t feed the trolls”? Benesch points out that there are several implicit assumption in that advice. We assume that if we ignore a troll, they will stop (which, in turn, tends to assume behavior that’s only on a signal platform.) There’s an assumption that online hate is created by trolls; in the few experiments that look at racist and sexist speech, at least half is produced by non-trolls. We tend to assume that all trolls have the same motivations and that they will respond to the same controls. And finally, we assume that the trolls are the problem – we need to consider effects on the audience.
(Benesch doesn’t define trolls until pressed by the audience and points out that it’s a term she uses with tongue in cheek, most of the time – she acknowledges that different trolls have different motivations. Her goal is to move away from considering trolls as the problem and towards understanding dangerous speech as a broader phenomenon.)
One of the benefits of online speech environments, Benesch posits, is that we can examine the effect of speech on people. In offline environments, it’s very hard to measure what reactions dangerous speech leads to – in online environments, it may be possible to track both responses and effects.
Benesch’s suggestion is that we should approach dangerous speech through counterspeech, in effect, talking back to the trolls and to others. In explaining her logic, she notes that the internet doesn’t create hate speech – in some cases, it may disinhibit us from speaking. But more often, the internet creates an environment where we are aware of speech we otherwise wouldn’t hear. Most of us wouldn’t have been aware of what speech is shared at a KKK meeting, and many of us wouldn’t have heard the sexist jokes that were told in locker rooms. Now speech is crossing between formerly closed communities.
This is a new feature of human life, Benesch suggests, and while it causes a great deal of pain, it’s also an opportunity. We can “toss speech back across those boundaries to see what effect it has.” For the most part, we don’t know what will happen when we expose speech this way, and it’s possible the effects could be very positive. She asks us to consider norm formation in teenagers – most 16 year olds, she argues, have historically developed opinions from a small, homogenous community around them. That’s no longer the case, and it positive opportunity for teens to develop a broader and more nuanced worldview.
Believing in counterspeech means having faith that it’s possible to shift norms in speech communities. Benesch asks “What is the likelihood an American politician will use the N-word in public?” While there’s a constitutionally protected right to use such an offensive term, the probability of a speaker using the term is near zero. Yet, she argues, 60 years ago there were places in the US where you likely could not have been elected without using that word. “People’s behavior shifts dramatically in response to community norms,” she suggests, and as many of 80% of people are likely to follow the norms of speech consistent with a space and a situation, even trolls.
One of Benesch’s case studies for counterspeech comes from Kenya, where dangerous speech was a key component to violence in the wake of 2007’s disputed election. With over a thousand killed and hundreds of thousands displaced, the 2007-8 unrest was one of the ugliest chapters in the nation’s history, and as Kenya prepared for elections in 2013, many Kenyans were worried about inflammatory and dangerous speech online.
Benesch worked with Kenya data scientists at the iHub and the team at Ushahidi to build Umati (from the Swahili word for crowd), which collected reports of online hate speech. What they found was a wave of inflammatory speech from Facebook, and astonishingly little dangerous speech on Twitter. This disparity is not well explained by platform usage – Twitter is extremely popular in Kenya. Instead, it’s explained by counterspeech.
When inflammatory speech was posted on Twitter, prominent Kenyan twitter users (often members of the #KOT, Kenyans on Twitter, community) responded by criticizing the poster, often invoking the need to keep discourse in the country civil and productive. This counterspeech was surprisingly successful – Benesch tells the story of a Twitter user who posted that he would be okay with the disappearance of another ethnic group, and was immediately called out by other Twitter users. Within a few minutes, he had tweeted, “Sorry, guys, what I said wasn’t right and I take it back”.
This isn’t the behavior of a troll, Benesch argues. If the user in question were simply looking for attention, he wouldn’t have backed down when his inflammatory tweets met with spontaneous counterspeech. This online counterspeech is especially important when online speech is magnified by broadcast media, as it is in both Kenya and the US – it’s possible for television and newspapers to magnify not just the hateful speech but the attempts to counteract it.
By studying successful examples of counterspeech, Benesch is trying to develop a taxonomy of counterspeech and determine when and where different forms are most useful. She takes inspiration from examples like that of a young man in the US tweeting angrily about Nina Davuluri being named Miss America. The young man inaccurately and disparagingly referred to Davuluri as “an Arab”, and was immediately countered on Twitter by people who called out his racism. Within a few hours, he’d tweeted something resembling an apology to Davuluri herself.
Benesch wonders, “Can we put together the ideas of counterspeech and the idea of influencing 16 year olds?” It’s not realistic to believe we’re going to change the behavior of hardcore haters, she tells us, but we only need to influence a critical mass of people within a community, not the outliers.
Twitter and Facebook aren’t the only environments for inflammatory speech online – anyone who’s participated in online gaming knows that there’s toxic and hostile speech in online environments. Riot Games was concerned about the speech surrounding their popular game League of Legends and cooperated with academic researchers to understand speech in their game universe. The study found that fully half of the inflammatory messages were coming from users we wouldn’t normally consider to be trolls – they came from people who generally behaved like other game players, but were having a bad day and lashed out in ways that were inflammatory. They also discovered that very small changes in the platform – changes in language used to prompt players, apparently minor changes like font and text color – could improve behavior substantially.
Facebook’s “compassion research” project works on similar ideas, trying to get people to use Facebook in more pro-social ways. When you try to flag content on Facebook as offensive, Facebook first prompts you to engage with the person who offended you, suggesting language to communicate to the other user: “Could you take this down? It hurts my feelings.” As with Riot Games, they’ve found that small prompts can lead to dramatic behavior changes.
Benesch has been using these insights to consider problems of inflammatory speech in Myanmar (a topic I learned a little about in my visit to the country earlier this month.) In Myanmar, Facebook is the dominant internet platform, not just the dominant social media platform – if you search for information in Myanmar, you’re probably searching Facebook. In this environment, a rising tide of highly inflammatory speech inciting Buddhists against Muslims, particularly against the Rohingya people, is especially concerning. Not only does Facebook in Myanmar lead to echo chambers where no one may be willing to challenge inflammatory speech with counterspeech, but some of the mechanisms that work elsewhere may not work in Myanmar.
In a country that’s suffered under a military dictatorship for half a century, the idea of “reporting” people for their speech can be very frightening. Similarly, being encouraged to engage with someone who posted something offensive when you have reason to fear this person, or his friends, might threaten your life, isn’t a workable intervention. Any lessons from Facebook’s compassion research needs to be understood in specific human contexts. Benesch asks how you should respond to offensive speech as a Facebook user in Myanmar: you can like the post, but you can’t unlike it. If you respond in the comments thread, you’re participating in a space where the page owner can eliminate or bury your comment. This points to the challenge of using a private space as a quasi-public space.
We need more research on questions like this, Benesch offers. We need to understand different responses to dangerous speech, from “don’t feed the trolls” to counterspeech, to see what’s effective. We need to understand whether counterspeech that seeks to parody or use humor is more effective than direct confrontation. And we need to understand discourse norms in different communities as what works in one place is unlikely to work in another. Louis Brandeis advised that the remedy for bad speech is more speech. As researchers, we can go further and investigate which speech is a helpful counter to bad speech.
I’ll admit that the topic of Benesch’s research made me uneasy when we first met. I’m enough of a first amendment absolutist that I tend to regard talk of “dangerous speech” as an excuse for government control of speech. I had a great meeting with Benesch just before I went to Myanmar, and was much better prepared for the questions I fielded there than if I hadn’t benefitted from her wisdom. She’s done extensive work understanding what sorts of speech seems to drive people to harm one another, and she’s deeply dedicated to the idea that this speech can be countered more effectively than it could be censored or banned.
The conversation after her talk gave me a sense for just how challenging this work is – it’s tricky to define inflammatory speech, dangerous speech, trolling, etc. What might be a reasonable intervention to counter speech designed to incite people to violence might not be the right intervention to make a game community more inviting. On the other hand, counterspeech may be more important in ensuring that online spaces are open and inviting to women and to people of different races and faiths than they are right now, even if inflammatory speech never descends to the level of provoking violence.
For people interested in learning more about this topic, I’d recommend the links on the Berkman talk page as well as this essay from Cherian George, who was at the same meeting I attended in Myanmar and offered his thoughts on how the country might address its inflammatory speech online. I’m looking forward to learning more from Susan’s work and developing a more nuanced understanding of this complicated topic.
Engin Onder and Zeynep Tufekci visited the Berkman Center today to talk about the rise of citizen reporting in Turkey. Tufekci is a leading scholar of online media and protest, and Onder is one of the founders of 140journos, an exciting citizen media group that’s been central to documenting Turkey’s protests in Gezi Park and across the nation.
Zeynep Tufekci offers an overview of the press situation in Turkey to provide context for Engin’s work with 140journos. There’s no golden age of press freedom in Turkey to look back to, she warns. After the military coup in 1980, the 1980s were a decade marked by military censorship. In the 1990s, Turkish media suffered from censorship around Kurdish issues, but there were media outlets that took journalism seriously within existing constraints.
In the 2000s, the concentration of power by AKP after their second election led to large conglomerates moving into the media business and buying up the press. Energy companies ended up buying leading newspapers, firing columnists and steering the paper’s editorial direction towards the government… and, coincidently, would win the next major government energy contract. Zeynep describes the situation as “ridiculous”, noting that a multiday clash in the heart of the nation’s biggest city was broadcast by CNN International, while CNN Turk broadcast a document on penguins. Talking to a Turkish journalist about the situation, the journalist explained a layered system of censorship: “First, I censor myself. Then my editor censors me, taking my already soft story and make it softer. And if that’s not still soft enough, the government may call a newspaper or TV station and demand coverage change.” Should an outlet not comply, they face massive tax bills, which mysteriously disappear when the media becomes more compliant.
While the press is heavily constrained, Zeynep tells us, the internet is largely open. Websites have been blocked, but it was very easy to get around censorship using proxies. The blocking of YouTube, she tells us, wasn’t a serious obstacle to viewing content, as even the prime minister admitted he used proxies to access it. Instead, it was a tax strategy, trying to get Google to come to Turkey and pay taxes. That’s changing, however, and the new censorship regime promised is significantly more serious, including deep packet inspection.
Zeynep tells us of the Roboski Massacre, a bombing in the village of Uludere, in Kurdish areas where informal smuggling is part of the local economy. The village was bombed by military jets, killing 34 people. It was unclear whether this was a mistake by the military, or a conscious attack on the Kurdish population.
Every newsroom in the country knew about the story and all waited to hear whether they could publish about it. A Turkish journalist, Serdar Akinan, decided to fly to the area and took a minibus to the village, encountering the massive funeral procession. He took an instagram photo and shared it on Twitter… which broke the media blackout and led everyone to start publishing news of the bombing. Akinan lost his job for this reporting and now works for an independent news organization.
The story of 140journos starts there, Zeynep tells us. Engin Onder introduces himself as a non-journalist from Istanbul, a former passive news consumer before media and news broke down. “We felt so sad about this issue, and thought we can do some stuff.” Onder runs a group of creative professionals called Institute of Public Minds, a group that operates creatively in physical and digital public spaces.
In early 2012, in the wake of the Roboski Massacre, Onder and his colleagues felt compelled to start building their own media systems to address the weaknesses of the professional media. Roboski wasn’t the only trigger – a set of pro-secularism protests in 2007 and a union protest in Ankara in 2009 also received no media coverage.
Akinan’s coverage of the Roboski massacre was the inspiration for Engin and his friends Cem and Safa. All three were heavy Twitter users, and they realized that Twitter and online services might be sufficient infrastructure to report the news, as it was all Akinan needed to break this critical story. They brainstormed names, and settled on 140journos, honoring Twitter’s character limit and using slang to poke fun at the professional status of journalist.
Cem had been kicked out of his house because his politics so sharply diverged from his father’s. His father read and watched only media from one conglomerate, while Cem began reading underground and alternative newspapers – for Cem, 140journos is about “hacking his father”, creating media that could sway his parents. Safa is a conservative and religious guy, who helps counterbalance the team. Engin tells us that he had only attended one rally before starting the project.
Before the Gezi protests, 140journos reported on key court cases using nothing more than a 3G mobile phone. At some point in a key trial, the judge demanded that journalists with press cards leave – the 140journos remained and continued tweeting from their phones. That led to discovery of the network by mainstream journalists (who probably resented 140journos for being able to remain in the courtroom.)
140journos made a point of visiting a wide range of public protests, including conservative protests against fornication. They believed it was important to ensure different groups understood each other and saw the diversity of protest movements.
Media coverage of 140journos had been pretty condescending, focusing on the youth of the participants, not on the quality of their reporting. Zeynep, on the other hand, took their work seriously, declaring “This is not ‘citizen journalism’ – this is ‘journalistic citizenship’.”
Once the Gezi Park protests broke out, 140journos found themselves at the heart of a massive movement in Istanbul. Part of the mantra of the Gezi movement was, “the media is dead – be the media”. This helps explain why, during a moment the police were spraying tear gas on Taksim Park, a protester was holding up an iPad and taking photos. Gezi brought a culture of documentation to Turkish protest movements.
The tools of the trade, Ergin tells us, include Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Vine, Instagram, as well as tools that help mine social media platforms. Tineye, Topsy, Google Image Search helped they find traffic cameras, which were also helpful. Google Maps allowed the team to identify where documentations took place, as did Yandex Panorama (similar to Google Streetview, but with coverage of Turkey.) When they heard the sames of people involved with the protests, they sought them out via Facebook, then scheduled in person or phone interviews. Internally, the team coordinated using WhatsAp.
During the protests, 140journos were tweeting hundreds of times a day. They noted different media usage patterns in different parts of the world. Istanbulis use a wide range of media types. Ankarans favor livestreaming. In Izmir, there was less content produced, more a complaint about what the media wasn’t covering.
When the culture of protest documentation became common, the role for 140journos changed into a practice of curating and verifying, not frontline reporting. They decided they couldn’t participate in the protests, and never physically appeared in the park so they could cover the protests with a level of detachment and neutrality. They may have sympathized with the protesters, but their role was as journalists, not activists.
To explain the working method, Ergin gives us an example from Rize, a conservative town that’s the home of the Prime Minister. A crowd, allegedly armed with knives, gathered in front of the office of a secularist group. Seeking to verify what was going on, they searched online, found a blurry photo of the protesters outside the office and started reading signs on the street. They began calling shops on the street and interviewing witnesses of the standoff. Ironically, one of the businesses nearby was a TV station which, unsurprisingly, was not reporting on the situation. Eventually, they also found a nearby traffic camera, and used a combination of the interviews and the street camera to confirm the story and report on it.
After the Gezi Park protests, Engin argues that the content of citizen journalism has been legitimized, the quality of citizen journalism content has been refined and the value of credibility has been strengthened throughout their network. There’s now a network of citizen journalists aside from 140journos, and 140journos often uses these networks to vet their work. 140journos builds their reporting on lists of citizens they’ve verified live in different Turkish cities – when an event takes place, they lean on those local sources.
In a remarkable twist, Veli Encü, a survivor of the Roboski Massacre, has become a correspondent. When warplanes fly over Uludere, he immediately reports to the network so that people can watch and ensure another massacre doesn’t take place. Cem’s father, who used to isolate himself in conservative media, has now become an activist and a much broader reader. And 140journos is now producing a radio show driven by citizen media, broadcasting once a week, and projecting their work onto the sides of public buildings to attract attention and open dialog with a broad range of participants.
We move into a Q&A, which I opened by asking whether the rise of citizen journalism has shamed Turkish journalists into changing their behavior. Engin is uncertain. He notes that the CEO of CNN Turk underestimates citizen journalism, likely seeing it as providing misinformation and poisoning public discourse. But media workers are starting to work as pirates, with 10 or more professional journalists contributing anonymously with stories they otherwise couldn’t get published. Zeynep suggests that there has been a significant change post-Gezi, with more actual news carried live. 140journos was a catalyst, she argues, but so were marches where people stood outside TV stations, waved money and begged reporters to do their jobs. There’s another cultural shift, both note. Citizens are willing to put themselves at personal risk to capture images from the frontline of protests.
A Berkman fellow asks whether there are any Turkish tools being used to produce this media. For better or worse, Engin explains, the tools used are those of social media, and almost all are hosted in the US, but available for no cost online. Furthermore, the journalism the team is doing is wholly non-commercial – they support themselves through other jobs and engage in their reporting as part of their civic engagement.
In the next few weeks, 140journos is planning to release two new tools. One will use elements of gamification to help increase the practice of verifying and factchecking reporting. The other will provide background detail on locations throughout Turkey on a data-enhanced map, which can be used as a way to provide context and background information on stories the network releases.
Another question asks whether there are any plans to monetize content. Engin is insistent that the priority is building better content, not working on sustainability. Another questioner asks whether coming internet censorship will make it difficult for 140journos to share content. Engin explains that the group has so many friends in the Pirate Party that they won’t have trouble finding VPNs, or helping their readers find VPNs. At the same time, he notes that it’s unclear how these admittedly draconian laws will actually be implemented. Engin notes that his group is non Anonymous (or anonymous) – they strongly believe they are doing nothing illegal, merely reporting the news.
Another question asks whether the Turkish government will begin mining online data to identify protesters. Zeynep explains that this isn’t necessary – every phone in Turkey is registered to an individual’s national ID, and the government has the identity of everyone who has appeared at protests. While there have been occasional arrests of people who tweeted to incite violence, there have not been widespread roundups of people involved with these demonstrations. Engin notes that the government probably cannot shut down the internet in Turkey without collapsing the government entirely.
Zeynep closes the conversation by noting her amazement when she discovered that 140journos was four college students, working in their free time. She draws an analogy to the groups that coordinated logistics during the Tahrir protests, who used social media to build a logistics team, inspired by a local cupcake shop that used Twitter in that fashion. Zeynep suggests that we’re seeing a technological shift that makes certain kinds of mobilization significantly easier than it ever had been before.
Some years back, I gave a talk at O’Reilly’s ETech conference that urged the audience to spend less time thinking up clever ways dissidents could blog secretly from inside repressive regimes and more time thinking about the importance of ordinary participatory media tools, like blogs, Facebook and YouTube, for activism. I argued that the tools we use for sharing cute pictures of cats are often more effective for activism than those custom-designed to be used by activists.
Others have been kind enough to share the talk, referring to “the Cute Cat theory”. An Xiao Mina, in particular, has extended the idea to explain the importance of viral, humorous political content on the Chinese internet.
I’ve meant to write up a proper academic article on the ideas I expressed at ETech for years now, and finally got the chance as part of a project organized by Danielle Allen and Jennifer Light at the Institute for Advanced Studies. They invited a terrific crew of scholars to collaborate on a book titled “Youth, New Media and Political Participation”, now in review for publication by MIT Press. The volume is excellent – several of my students at MIT have used Tommie Shelby’s “Impure Dissent: Hip Hop & the Political Ethics of Marginalized Black Urban Youth“, which will appear in the volume, as a key source in their work on online dissent and protest.
I’m posting a pre-press version of my chapter both so there’s an open access version available online and because a few friends have asked me to expand on comments I made on social media and the “Arab Spring” at the University of British Columbia and in Foreign Policy. (I also thought it would be a nice tie-in to the Gawkerization of Foreign Policy, with their posting today of 14 Hairless Cats that look like Vladimir Putin.)
Abstract: Participatory media technologies like weblogs and Facebook provide a new space for political discourse, which leads some governments to seek controls over online speech. Activists who use the Internet for dissenting speech may reach larger audiences by publishing on widely-used consumer platforms than on their own standalone webservers, because they may provoke government countermeasures that call attention to their cause. While commercial participatory media platforms are often resilient in the face of government censorship, the constraints of participatory media are shaping online political discourse, suggesting that limits to activist speech may come from corporate terms of service as much as from government censorship.
Look for the Allen and Light book on MIT Press next Spring – it’s an awesome volume and one I’m proud to be part of.