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Paying Attention to Garissa

On Thursday morning, heavily armed attackers, believed to be members of al-Shabaab, invaded Garissa University and killed 147 students. Mohamed Kuno, a high-ranking al-Shabaab official, has been named by the Kenyan government as the mastermind of the attack. Two days later, we are hearing terrifying details, including a student who hid in a wardrobe for more than 50 hours, afraid that the police who came to rescue here were militants trying to lure her out. Her decision was a wise one – the militants told students they would live if they came out of their dormitories… then lined them up and shot them.

Al-Shabaab militants have attacked Kenyans dozens of times, most notably at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi on September 21, 2013, which resulted in at least 67 deaths. With each attack, questions arise about how small groups of militants are able to create such carnage. Early reports suggest that the University, located 90 miles from the border with Somalia on a busy road often used for military operations, was protected by only two security guards, who were quickly slain by the militants. Kenya’s 400-mile long border with Somalia is largely unguarded, due to lack of funds and lack of security personnel. (Many have observed that “lack of funds” is a matter of priorities – Kenyan MPs are some of the best paid in the world, receiving $15,000 per month in salary and allowances, while Nairobi’s anti-terror unit has a monthly budget of $735 per month.)

Kenya’s active and vocal twittersphere is filled with condolences, remembrances and accusations, blaming the attacks on endemic police corruption, on military incompetence, on Somalis within Kenya. The deaths in Garissa are inspiring international reactions, including a moving tribute from France and Francophone African nations, where the #JeSuisKenyan hashtag is trending.

Matuba Mahlatjie, news editor of eNCANews, a 24-hour news channel based in South Africa and focused on news from the continent, offered one of the most striking tweets in response to the Garissa massacre.

His tweet is a reference to the large, well-publicized demonstrations of solidarity in Paris that drew participation from world leaders. Thus far, the most encouraging public demonstration may be a much smaller one: a solidarity march of Somali-Kenyan leaders in Eastleigh, a Nairobi neighborhood known for its large Somali population.

Mahlatjie cautions that Africans should raise their own voices about Garissa, rather than expecting non-African media to cover the story.

With due respect to Mahlatjie’s concerns, I was curious to see how American media was reporting on the tragedy in Garissa in comparison to Charlie Hebdo and other recent terror attacks. The graphs that follow below are generated by Media Cloud and list the number of sentences per day in a set of 25 large American publications that mention terms associated with a specific attack – “Obama” is included as a comparative search term, as he usually appears in this set of sources 500-800 times per day.

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It’s likely that attention to the Garissa story will peak today or tomorrow, at which point we may see a higher level of attention. But as of yesterday, Garissa was mentioned in 214 media sentences in these 25 prominent news sources.

charlie hebdo

That’s a much lower level of attention than Charlie Hebdo received in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the newspaper in Paris, with sentence mentions peaking at 1,436 – briefly, “Charlie Hebdo” was a more common phrase in these media outlets than “Obama”. It’s also a lower level of attention than the Westgate attacks received, peaking at 406 mentions two days after the attack.

westgate

I wrote angrily about the lack of attention paid to the attacks in Baga, in the Borno State of Nigeria, by Boko Haram, which happened at roughly the same time as the Charlie Hebdo attacks and received much less attention.

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boko haram

The attacks in Baga may represent a perfect storm of media indifference and inability. Reports were not definitive, the area where the attacks took place was inaccessible, and attention was distracted by the tragedy in Paris. The events in Garissa are receiving significantly more attention than those in Baga, though it’s worth remembering that Garissa is easily accessible from Nairobi, a city many news organizations use as their African hub.

I will check back in a couple of days with more graphs to see if interest in the Garissa story grows. As I noted in a post about the massacre in Baga, it’s important to honor every death, and to try and understand every tragedy like the one in Garissa. As my friend Ory Okolloh reminds us:


Helping Launch the NetGain Challenge

This morning, I’m at the Ford Foundation in New York City as part of the launch event for NetGain. NetGain is a new effort launched by the Mozilla, Ford, Open Society, Macarthur and Knight Foundations, to bring the philanthropic community together to tackle the greatest obstacles to digital rights, online equality and the use of the internet to promote social justice.

The event is livestreamed here – in a moment, you can head Tim Berners-Lee and Susan Crawford in conversation about the future of the web.

For the past six months, I’ve been working with Jenny Toomey and Darren Walker at Ford, John Palfrey at Phillips Andover, and friends at these different foundations to launch the NetGain challenges. We’re asking people around the world to propose difficult problems about the open internet that they think governments and companies have not been able to solve. We’re collecting these challenges at NetGainChallenge.org, and asking participating foundations to take the lead on one or more challenges, coordinating a new set of investments in tackling that problem.

I had the privilege of introducing a session at this morning’s event about these challenges. It was an Ignite talk, which means I probably didn’t manage to say all the words I have listed below. But this is what I was trying to say:


45 years ago, the first message was sent over the internet, between a computer at UCLA and one at Stanford University.

25 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee turned the internet from a tool for academics into something most of us use every day, by making it easy to publish and read online – he created the World Wide Web.

What’s followed on Sir Tim’s invention is a transformation of the ways we work, play, shop, argue, protest, give, learn and love.

Given the amazing transformations we’ve seen, it’s easy to forget that the internet is a long, ongoing experiment. The internet as we know it is the result of trying new things, seeing how they break, and working to fix them.

The first message sent on the internet was “login”, as Charley Kline and Len Kleinrock at UCLA were trying to log into a machine at Stanford. They only managed to transmit the letters “lo”, then the system crashed. An hour later, they had it up again and managed to transmit the whole message.

On the internet, we have a long tradition of trying things out, screwing up, fixing what’s broken and moving forward.

Twenty five years into the life of the World Wide Web, there are amazing successes to celebrate: a free encyclopedia in hundreds of world languages, powerful tools for sharing breaking news and connecting with old friends, platforms that help us organize, agitate and push for social justice.

But alongside our accomplishments, there’s still lots that’s broken.

In building an internet where most content and services are free, we’ve also adopted a business model that puts us under perpetual surveillance by advertisers. Worse, our communications are aggregated, analyzed and surveilled by governments around the world.
The amazing tools we’ve built for learning and for sharing ideas are far easier and cheaper to access in the developed world than in the developing world – we’re still far from the dream of a worldwide web.

We’ve built new public spaces online to discuss the issues of the day, but those discussions are too rarely civil and productive. Speaking online often generates torrents abuse, especially when women speak online.

Despite Sir Tim’s vision of a decentralized web, there’s a huge concentration of control with a few companies that control the key platforms for online speech. And as we use the web to share, opine and learn, quickly losing our legacy, erasing this vast new library as fast as we write it.

These problems may well be unsolveable. But it’s possible that we’ve been waiting for the wrong people to solve them.

In 1889, Andrew Carnegie gave money to build a public library in Braddock, Pennsylvania, the first of 1,689 libraries he funded in the US. These were not just spaces that allowed people to feed their minds, but in many towns, the only spaces open to men, women, children and people of all races.

Newspapers and the publishing houses made knowledge available to those who could afford it, but Carnegie made it available to everyone.

As television became a fixture in the nation’s homes in the 1950s, the Ford Foundation worked with other philanthropists to build a public television system in the US, ensuring that this powerful new medium was used to educate and enlighten as well as to entertain

The foundations here aren’t going to be able to put internet into every home the way Carnegie brought libraries to every town. But there are problems philanthropy can tackle in unique ways that provide solutions that go beyond what corporations or governments can do on their own.
That’s what led us to the idea of the grand challenge. We’re drawing inspiration here from Google’s moonshots and from the XPrize Foundation. More importantly, we’re taking guidance from the people we work with everyday, on the front lines of social innovation, to identify the challenges we need to overcome to for the internet to be a true tool for justice and social inclusion

The speakers you’re about to hear aren’t here with solutions: they’re going share with us the thorny problems they’re working to solve. We’re asking each foundation that’s a member of Netgain to take the lead on one of these and other challenges, convening the smartest people in the field, our partners, our grantees, our beneficiaries to understand what we can do together to tackle these deep and persistent problems.

These aren’t the only challenges we need to tackle. We need to hear from you about what problems we can take on and what brilliant guides – like nine speakers we’re about to hear from – can help us navigate our way through these challenges.

We’re taking this high-risk strategy of aiming at the toughest problems because even if we fall short of our goals, we think we’ll make enormous progress by working together. Every six months, we plan to bring our community together, convene around a grand challenge and start a process of collaboration and experimentation. We may only get to “lo” before we crash, restart and rebuild. But every time we do, we’ll be moving towards a web that’s more open, more just, more able to transform our world for the better.


Please join us at NetGainChallenge.org and help us identify the challenges we should be taking on.


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 http://www.latimes.com/world/africa/la-fg-wn-boko-haram-baga-20150109-story.html#page=1>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.)

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 8.09.55 PM

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.


Water monitoring in China, and the changing role of citizenship

This January, a few hundred employees of Alibaba, the massive online retailer and digital payments company, participated in an interesting experiment. Like many Chinese, they traveled home to celebrate the Lunar New Year. While at home, they used inexpensive water testing kits to sample water in their villages and uploaded their findings via smartphone to an environmental mapping website, Danger Maps. Employees measured water quality in 420 locations across 28 provinces, testing open bodies of water as well as sources of drinking water.

The experiment was a trial run for a much more ambitious rollout, announced this week. Jack Ma, Alibaba’s billionaire founder, announced that water testing kits would be sold through Taobao for between 65-80 yuan ($10-13) and invited the public to join his employees in becoming water quality monitors. Yang Fangyi, one of the managers of the Alibaba Foundation, explained that by mapping areas of poor water quality, the Foundation can work with local environmental authorities and NGOs to work on cleanup plans.

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Test results posted to water.epmap.org

Environmental degradation is one of the most serious problems facing China. A report from the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning suggests that China lost 3.5% of the nation’s GDP in environmental damages in 2010. Air pollution contributed to 1.2 million deaths in 2010, and journalists have compared Beijing’s air quality (unfavorably) to that in airport smoking lounges and industrial London on the most polluted days of the mid-20th century. Maintaining and improving air and water quality while continuing to rapidly industrialize are huge challenges for the country. Environmental issues are also an area where the Chinese government has been comparatively open about discussing problems and seeking international cooperation; Premier Li Keqiang addressed environmental problems in his address to the National People’s Congress last month, and US organizations that work with China report that it’s far easier to cooperate on environmental issues than on more sensitive issues like human rights or worker safety.

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The kit, and its contents

The little blue kit, manufactured by Greenovation Hub, may test China’s openness around environmental advocacy. Inside are tests for ph, Phosphates, Ammonia, Chemical Oxygen Demand (used to indirectly measure organic contaminants in water), and for five heavy metals, including cadmium and zinc. It’s more home chemistry lab than slick, sophisticated sensors – you’ll be dipping litmus paper into a stream and measuring the color that results, then entering the data into your phone if you participate in the project.

It’s unclear how many of Alibaba’s 500 million customers will purchase water quality kits and start uploading data to Danger Maps. Even if only a few participate, the implications could be very interesting. Land use issues are a major civic flashpoint in China. If farmers are able to document damage to the local watershed from a new factory, for instance, it might change the dialog, bringing nascent environmental watchdog organizations and government departments into the debate over land use.

Groups like Public Lab in the US and Safecast in Japan have been using crowdsourcing models to document environmental issues, monitoring water quality and radiation levels. Their work raises questions of whether we want citizens to be cooperative sensors, or citizen scientists. The latter is a high bar to cross – we need citizens not only to collect data but to formulate and test hypotheses. What we gain in exposing participants to the scientific process, we may lose in terms of data quality and believability. Safecast has traded accessibility for accuracy – their bGeigie geiger counter is pretty expensive in kit form, but is a lab-quality instrument, which allows Safecast to use the data collected to engage the Japanese government in dialog about post-Fukushima reconstruction. On the other hand, using a Safecast counter, it’s easy to feel like your job is simply that of a data collector, not someone figuring out the complex puzzle of when towns and villages will be safe to inhabit. (Safecast describes itself as a global sensor network, acknowledging that it’s strength is data collection, not the broader issue of citizen science.)

There’s a balance between accessible sensors, high-quality data and the ability for users to formulate and test hypotheses that crowdsensing projects need to wrestle with going forward – based on some of the results thus far, it seems like the Greenovation kit favors access over accuracy. (I suspect there’s not really that much standing water in China at ph10, despite reports on the map.) But it’s possible that communities affected by industrial pollution might purchase multiple sensors, organize testing plans and oversampling to improve accuracy. They might also look for sources of industrial runoff and test hypotheses about how industrial development is affecting their community. Consider a project from CMU called CATTFish. It’s a water monitor that sits in your toilet tank and measures temperature and conductivity to sense possible changes in groundwater quality. It’s designed for communities concerned about pollution from hydrofracking – with high quality, regularly updated data from multiple homes, a community could have an early warning system for detecting potential ill-effects from oil extraction. (h/t to Heather Craig, who introduced me to the project.)

I think there’s another subtle change we should watch for as well. Environmental crowdsensing is a form of monitorial citizenship, an idea we’ve been discussing a lot lately at Center for Civic Media. John Keane uses the term to describe the non-governmental and civic organizations that act as watchdogs, keeping governments honest and, sometimes, in check. Inspired in part by David Ronfeldt’s work on tribes, institutions, markets and networks, we’ve been looking at ways networked individuals can have similar monitorial power. The work we’re starting with Promise Tracker begins with asking citizens to monitor issues in their communities using mobile phones and will likely expand to asking citizens to use sensors to monitor water and air quality.

In our experiments with Promise Tracker in São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, using mobile phones to document community problems and governmental and community responses to them, we quickly learned that many people don’t just want to collect data – they want to use data to tell stories and to advocate for change. Will citizens become sensors or scientists? Participants or activists? This may also have a lot to do with whether Greenovation Hub wants to build a business model or a movement, and whether a powerful, visible figure like Jack Ma is willing to have Alibaba become the nexus of an emerging environmental movement. That might be more potent and less dangerous than having individual groups organize to address water quality issues on a small scale and face potential backlash from local authorities.

I’m interested in monitorial citizenship because I see monitoring powerful institutions – commercial, governmental and otherwise – as something one can do every day as a citizen. Elections come around every few years and get all the attention, but it’s possible that the real power of citizenship comes from the monitoring that takes place between the elections. In a Chinese context, where power doesn’t come through electoral mechanisms, monitorial citizenship may have even more power – it may be a more genuine, authentic, believable path to political power than others available to most Chinese citizens.


Susan Benesch on dangerous speech and counterspeech

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.


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