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.
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.
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 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.
It’s hard to explain just how much Myanmar has changed. It’s at least as hard to know whether to believe in all the changes Myanmar has made.
Thankfully, there are few truly despotic societies in the world, but Myanmar was one of them from 1962 until quite recently, ruled by a military junta with a horrific record on human rights. The nation’s media was heavily state controlled, with a policy of pre-publication censorship that turned domestic media into an organ for state propaganda. It was difficult or impossible for international media to report critically on the country, and events in the nation were often wholly invisible to the rest of the world. When Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, killing over 200,000 people in the Irrawaddy delta, the military government released no information on the crisis for days afterwards and is reported to have obstructed UN relief efforts out of fears relief workers would act as spies. If there were an Olympics for closed societies, Myanmar would have been a steady contender for the silver, behind perennial champion North Korea, but duking it out with Eritrea, Turkmenistan and heavyweight Iran.
That’s all changing, and rapidly. In late 2010, the government released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and in 2012, she and her party, the National League for Democracy stood for election and won the vast majority of vacant seats – Daw Suu now represents the constituency of Kawhmu in the lower house of parliament. Pre-press censorship has been eliminated, and strict internet controls were lifted in 2011. Long-banned dissident organizations now operate within the country, lead to a surreal situation where formerly banned publications now fight state-controlled publications for ad revenue. According to Reporters without Borders’s Press Freedom Index, the Myanmar press is a dismal 145th… but that’s up from 171 of 175 in 2009… and its current score is better than Singapore, Malaysia, China and Vietnam.
This helps explain why the East West Center decided to hold its biannual conference on media in Yangon this March, and why I jumped at the chance to speak at the event. I’d looked for excuses to travel to Myanmar before the 2007 Saffron revolution, hoping to investigate internet censorship and look for ways around the country’s firewall. (After the revolution and the crackdown that followed, I decided it was too dangerous to come to the country, not for me, but for anyone I ended up working with there.) The changes to Myanmar seemed miraculous, and I wanted to see for myself what the country was really like.
I was lucky to be able to come to Yangon for a few days before the conference to get a read on the press and telecommunications situation. I was doubly blessed that colleagues from Open Society Foundation, which has had a Burma-focused project for two decades, were around and helped introduce me to lots of interesting folks. I met tech entrepreneurs, newspaper editors, foreign correspondents and others navigating the local media environment, all of whom are trying to figure out just how open contemporary Myanmar is and what the future has in store.
The opening of the East West conference included a reminder of just how closed Myanmar’s media environment had been. One speaker showed a page from a 2010 edition of government newspaper New Light of Myanmar, which included an ad urging citizens, “Do not allow ourselves to be swayed by killer broadcasts designed to cause troubles”. (The “killer broadcasts” in question were from VOA, BBC, RFA and other media organizations attending the conference.) Another speaker introduced a source he’d interviewed decades before… inadvertently leading him to spend over sixteen years in prison.
East West Center is clearly aware that Myanmar’s press today is far from free, but has chosen to celebrate the remarkable progress made. Open Society Foundation (where I serve as a member of the global board) is doing much the same – we continue to support independent news organizations like The Irrawaddy and have supported their decisions to operate within the country, despite restrictions and threats to their freedom to publish.
Here’s some of what I learned from meeting with Myanmar journalists, activists and entrepreneurs:
- The media scene is crowded, probably too crowded. Prior to the 2012 censorship reforms, it wasn’t possible to publish a daily newspaper in Myanmar, as all stories needed to be pre-approved by the Ministry of Information. But a large ecosystem of weekly and monthly journals has been growing for years, and now there are more than 200 periodicals published. And now there are 14 licensed daily newspapers in Burmese and about half a dozen in English.
The rush to start daily newspapers has been economically disastrous for many of those involved. There’s simply not enough ad revenue to go around, and more than one publisher has already gone out of business. Referring to the press situation in her remarks on Sunday, Aung San Suu Kyi joked that her party wasn’t wealthy enough to start a newspaper, implying both that all papers are losing money and that papers are as much political tool as source of news.
- The internet is growing in Myanmar, but for now, it’s Facebook. About 1 million of the country’s 60 million people are online. That number is likely to change sharply as two new mobile phone operators, Telenor and Ooredoo, come into the market later this year and offer data services. People who are online are on Facebook – as an Australian entrepreneur put it, “The internet here is America Online – everyone’s on through Facebook, and they rarely leave that walled compound.” Indeed, I saw ads featuring corporate URLs and those URLs were rarely .mm sites, but more often Facebook pages. The publishers I talked to rarely had accurate traffic statistics for their websites – the unit of measurement is Facebook likes.
This situation is potentially disastrous for online media. They’ve got to put their content on Facebook to find an audience, but they get no benefit from the ads it generates, and it’s hard to lure audiences onto their sites to generate pageviews. The situation is likely to get worse when the mobile phone operators join the market – it’s quite possible that Facebook will negotiate for their site to be accessible without data charges, as they’ve done in other developing markets, which will badly tilt the playing field against independent website operators. This isn’t Facebook’s fault – they’re competing for dominance in a new market, as we’d expect them to. But it’s going to be a real challenge to build a web ecosystem that can support independent media, and Myanmar needs help with webhosting, design, online ad sales, etc. to get there.
- Despite exciting changes, there are serious threats to press freedom aside from economic challenges. Given the chance to question the deputy Minister of Information U Ye Htut at the conference, two foreign correspondents complained that they were receiving very brief visas to report within the country, and wondered whether their reporting had led to briefer visas. While the deputy minister assured us that the government was simply putting into place a more consistent visa policy, I conducted my own informal survey with journalists I spoke to that contradicts this. Journalists who were writing about Myanmar’s repressed Rohingya minority reported receiving two week visas, while the friendly television journalist who spent half our interview demanding I confirm that Myanmar was more open than other nations in the region received a 70 day business visa instead.
- Visas aren’t the problem for domestic journalists – prison is. Four reporters and the CEO of Unity Journal were arrested when the paper reported on an alleged chemical weapons factory in the center of the country and are still being held, despite international pressure. The reporters and publisher now face a trial for revealing state secrets. (The government denies that the facility is a chemical weapons factory… which leaves open the question of what state secret was revealed.)
- Media professionals report that they fear legal repercussions of their reports, including defamation lawsuits. Bertil Lintner, legendary historian and correspondent on Burma, noted that the country seemed to be moving from a model of explicit censorship to “the Singapore model”, where censorship happens through a system of economic and legal pressures.
- People are understandably terrified about hate speech. Virtually every conversation I had about the internet in Myanmar centered on hate speech. The fear, specifically, is of speech that will incite ethnic tensions, especially tensions between Buddhists and Muslims, including the Rohingya. This is understandable – the history of post-colonial Myanmar has been one of constant conflict between the army and ethnic minority groups. According to friends in the country, Burmese Facebook is filled with images designed to provoke these tensions, sometimes featuring the images of people raped or killed and text blaming the violence on minority groups.
As a result, virtually everyone I spoke to believed that either the government or Facebook needed to control online speech, including people who’d served substantial prison sentences for their online writings.
- People really don’t want to talk about the Rohingya. Most local media won’t use the term “Rohingya”. Instead, they refer to “Bangladeshis”, which implies that the people in question are illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh with no rights of citizenship. One of the more careful local outlets uses the term “Muslims of Bangladeshi descent, some of whom are Myanmar citizens”, which seems absurdly convoluted, until you understand that terming someone “Rohingya” is equivalent to taking sides in a very unpopular political debate over whether these 3 million people are citizens. That there have been Rohingya in Myanmar for centuries, that the country once had Rohingya members of parliament doesn’t do much to sway most people in the country, who seem largely untroubled by a decision not to allow Rohingya to identify their ethnicity on an upcoming census. When I raised this issue with local journalists, I got a great deal of pushback, including speculation that “Rohingya” was a term popularized by international media and not native to the country.
All these conversations left me with an interesting challenge as a keynote speaker. I wanted to acknowledge the complexities of Myanmar’s media environment, while also acknowledging how far the country had come. Below, I offer my notes for the speech – what I ended up delivering was somewhat different, as I ended up shortening to fit into the time allotted. The organizers gave me a title I wouldn’t have chosen – “Civic Media’s Challenges and Opportunities”. It’s fairly far from what I would normally talk about, but I wanted to open conversations about how Myanmar might approach the opportunities offered by participatory media and how the country might protect the openings it has made for online speech.
Students from the University of Missouri covered my talk here.
It’s an honor and a privilege to be with you today. This is an incredibly exciting moment for Myanmar. Your country has experienced so many exciting developments in a very short period of time. This conference on the Challenges of a Free Press is a timely one given changes made in August 2012 to allow reporters to publish stories without ministry review. That development followed very encouraging changes to internet policy in September 2011, which made previously inaccessible international news sites and social media platforms available to the people of Myanmar. We have seen a wave of young people in Myanmar joining Facebook, leading to stronger connections between people in Myanmar and Burmese people in the diaspora.
We know that the future of the internet is tightly connected to phones and mobile devices, and Myanmar is moving to make mobile phones affordable and accessible to all people through sharply reducing the price of SIM cards and now through issuing licenses to Oreedoo and Telenor, which are promising inexpensive mobile service in the country’s major cities this year.
We can see the incredible interest in being on the internet every time there is a conference on the internet in Yangon or Mandalay, like BarCamp Yangon, which has been widely attended every time it has been held. This is an exciting moment and I’m honored by the opportunity to visit Myanmar as these changes are taking place.
Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about the Myanmar press on Sunday and characterized the press in Myanmar as somewhat open. That’s correct. It’s laudable that Myanmar has taken steps to open the internet and end pre-publication censorship, but concerning that other forms of censorship are taking place. As has been raised today, restrictions on visas for journalists are concerning, as are the arrests of reporters at the Unity Journal. And in speaking to people about the rise of the internet, I hear a great deal of enthusiasm to put some controls on the internet back in place to cope with a troubling trend of extreme speech.
It’s understandable that Myanmar is wrestling with these challenges about openness. Myanmar is experiencing changes associated with the internet in a matter of months rather than a matter of years. My country has had twenty years to get used to the internet and the changes it brings about. Over those two decades, my country and others have had heated debates about the benefits and costs of the internet. Given how easy it is to copy and share music, books and movies with the internet, what are the rights and protections for artists, authors and filmmakers, and for readers and viewers? Is the internet dangerous because it puts us in contact with strangers from all over the world or is a powerfully positive force for peace and understanding, for exactly the same reason? Will the internet create new businesses like Google or Amazon that lead to opportunity and wealth, or will it destroy old businesses like stores and newspapers?
I’m interested in all these debates – and very interested to see how they play out in Myanmar – but I am most interested in the question of how the internet may change what it means to be a citizen. There have been great hopes for the internet and democracy, the idea that governments can listen to people’s wants and needs more directly, that citizens might vote directly on legislation or help draft new laws, that we might have robust debates in a digital pubic sphere where it’s possible for everyone to express their opinions. There are also great fears: that the internet gives us distraction instead of dialog, that we are more likely to use this new technology to entertain ourselves than to engage in debate and discourse. It’s possible that the internet may make it easy to surround yourself only with opinions you agree with and to ignore other important voices, or may provide a platform for hate speech. Some worry that the internet may make it easier for people to take to the streets and protest against a government – others argue that this is a good thing, not a bad thing – and yet others argue that it’s a mistake to either blame or credit the internet for protests we’ve seen in Ukraine, Egypt, Tunisia, or in Europe and the United States.
The center I direct at MIT studies these questions through the lens of “civic media”. Civic media is digital media used for public purposes, like participating in political conversations or social movements. It uses many of the same tools as social media, like Facebook or Twitter, but the aims are different. Social media is mostly about staying in touch with your friends. Civic media is about trying to improve your community or work for social change, and while it often starts by talking about ideas with friends, it’s also about influencing governments or large groups of people.
Civic media is participatory media – even newspapers and television stations are discovering that they cannot simply deliver information to their audiences. The audience expects to be able to talk back, to share news stories they want to see covered, to offer their interpretation and opinions. Media that doesn’t enable participation is likely to be criticized or ignored – when CNN in Turkey did not cover protests happening in Gezi Square, millions of ordinary Turks, not just protesters, turned to Twitter to talk about events in the square and to mock CNN and other stations for failing to cover the story. News organizations are learning how to use social media well and are turning into civic media outlets – newspapers like The Guardian in the UK and television channels like Al Jazeera work hard to invite public participation and blur the lines between old media and new.
Because civic media uses the tools of social media, it is both personalized and personal. I get some of my news each day from a newspaper, but much of my news from the thousand people I follow on Twitter. You’ll hear tomorrow from Jillian York, an internet freedom activist and an expert on the internet in the Middle East and North Africa – I follow her on Twitter so that I get her recommendations on what I should read to understand social movements in Tunisia. This means I get news personalized to my interests – I am interested in Tunisia and what Jillian thinks about Tunisia – and personal, in the sense that I pay more attention to news my friends think is important.
This has an important consequence – my picture of the world is going to be different than yours, because we are each seeing a personalized picture of the world. This has some complicated implications for democracy. If I am only reading about Tunisia, and you are only reading about Ukraine, how do we have a conversation about important issues? It is possible we may be facing a future where it is difficult to have conversations about important public issues because we don’t have the same knowledge. We are slowly learning how to navigate this new world, to seek out opinions and perspectives we may not agree with so that we have a broader view of the world, but it’s difficult, both in terms of time and temperament. There is so much information available online, and so much that we agree with politically that it can be very hard work to pay attention to ideas we disagree with.
I study civic media because media is one of the most powerful forces in an open society. Even when media doesn’t tell us what to think, it tells us what to think about, what issues are most important for us to discuss and debate as a society. It monitors powerful institutions – governments and businesses – and can draw attention to corruption and wrongdoing. And civic media can help us come together and do remarkable things. We’ve seen hundreds of thousands of volunteers work together to build a free encyclopedia, Wikipedia, that’s vastly more comprehensive than any previous book and accessible to people even in very poor nations. Tools like Kickstarter are making it possible to “crowdfund” projects, raising money to that people in a city like Detroit can convert a vacant lot into a public garden, or colleagues of mine in Kenya can build a new device that provides internet connectivity when you’re hundreds of kilometers from a city.
I hope that the internet is opening a space for debate and participation that is more open, more fair and more inclusive than offline spaces. I hope that people who have been excluded from civic conversations in the past due to their gender, race, background or economic status will be able to participate in this new space and that their contributions will be embraced. I hope that civic media will be a space where groups that sometimes do not talk in person, like the Rohingya and the Baman, can interact. But I am deeply conscious of the challenges we face in the space of civic media, challenges of verifying information online, of coping with extreme speech and with finding common ground for civic conversations between people who have very different points of view.
Here are some lessons that have been learned about civic media, both in my lab and by researchers around the world, which I share in hopes that they may inform debates and conversations in Myanmar over the next few exciting years:
- Everyone can speak online, but it’s very hard to be heard.
Social media invites us to speak all the time – when we post an update to Facebook or Twitter, we are speaking to our circles of friends, and potentially to anyone else online. And while we’re likely to be heard by people who already are interested in hearing what we have to say, there’s no guarantee we will be heard by a broader audience. Because everyone can speak, media is an ongoing competition for attention: if we want our concerns to be heard, we are competing against everyone else, including professional news organizations, celebrities, politicians, other citizens.
This leads to a phenomenon people call “the long tail” – a small number of people have very large audiences, while most of us have small audiences most of the time. What’s so surprising and unpredictable is that this circumstance can change very quickly – a comment you made to friends could be amplified and spread to a huge audience if it was particularly insightful, funny or controversial. That experience can be very disconcerting, as if you were having a conversation with friends and you suddenly found yourself on this stage, with a microphone, speaking to a large audience. Surprising, but also very powerful, which is why people work to understand how social media works and how they might get their ideas heard by a wide audience.
- The internet is powerful for mobilization, but most mobilizations fail.
We’ve all heard how protesters in Tunisia used Facebook to document their frustrations with the Ben Ali government and let international media know about their protests, how Turks used Twitter to call people into Gezi Park. We know about these uses of media for mobilization because they were successful. We don’t hear about the thousands of efforts that fail. The US government has invited people to petition the government, circulating questions or demands online that the government is required to respond to if sufficient numbers of people sign the petition. (The number was 25,000 and has risen – it now takes 100,000 to be guaranteed a response.) Early last year, the number of petitions submitted was over 150,000. Only 162 had received a response. That’s because the average petition received 65 signatures. Over 100,000 people tried to start a political conversation, and well over 99% failed. Just because people use the internet doesn’t mean they will find an audience for their ideas.
- Mobilization works when an idea is popular and when people use the right techniques
I have been deeply interested in the campaigns for a 5000 kyat SIM card for Myanmar – we have seen evidence of this campaign all over Facebook and it’s been well documented in US and European media as evidence of the deep interest people in Myanmar have to connect with one another and with the wider world. I think the campaign was so successful because it expressed a concern that many people in Myanmar had, that it invited other people to participate in the campaign and personalize it for their audiences, and because it used humor more than anger to make its point.
We are writing a case study on the campaign at MIT and reviewing some of the cartoons involved: I remember a cartoon of an elderly man on his deathbed. The nurse asked if he was waiting for his family to visit before he died, and the man explained that he was waiting for a 5000 kyat SIM card. It’s likely that many people posted that cartoon to Facebook and forwarded it to friends both because they agreed with the cause and because they found it funny. Because civic media is all about reaching an audience, campaigns that figure out how to make themselves replicable are the ones that are the most powerful.
- It’s hard to get heard online, but being censored almost guarantees an audience.
Trying to silence speech online tends to make it louder. This is something we call “the Streisand Effect”. It’s named after the singer Barbara Streisand, because she made a very foolish error in trying to remove content from the internet. A photographer posted images of every house on the coastline of the state of California to document the condition of beaches and the dangers of erosion. One of those houses belonged to Streisand and she sued the photographer to have the photo of her house removed. Very few people had looked at the photo of Streisand’s house, but once people heard about the lawsuit, everyone wanted to see the pictures. There’s nothing as appealing as a secret.
In the Soviet Union, when the press was heavily controlled, there was an incredible market for underground publications – samizdat. And old joke holds that a mother tried to get her son to do his schoolwork by having an underground printer print his textbooks as samizdat. Social media makes the internet incredibly hard to censor, because the tools of social media are optimized for sharing media – censor it in one place and people will share it in other places. Nations like China have put hundreds of millions of dollars into trying to censor social media and, ultimately, they have failed. When major news events like the train crash in Wenzhou take place, people use social media to spread the information and even with tens of thousands of online monitors, information that was embarrassing to the government was released. This is very disconcerting and uncomfortable for governments, but it is simply the reality of how these new systems work.
It’s true that censorship and democracy are incompatible, as some in the Myanmar government have wisely observed. But civic media and censorship are also incompatible, and the spread of social media tools are starting to make it difficult for governments to censor, even if they wanted to.
- Censorship is the wrong way to deal with hate speech
I know that people in this audience are legitimately concerned with extreme and hateful speech online. This is a problem in many nations – China is facing problems with hate speech against a Uighir minority after a recent terror attack. My country faced terrible problems of hate speech against our Muslim population after the 9/11 attacks, and I know Myanmar is facing problems with hate speech aimed at the Rohingya population. I want to share a story from Kenya that illustrates the problem and offers a possible solution.
Kenya had a badly disputed election on 2007 and experienced a wave of political violence in its wake. I was involved with forming an internet company called Ushahidi that tried to document that violence – my colleagues built a tool that let people send a message from a mobile phone and have it appear on a map so we could understand what parts of the country were violent and which were peaceful, and where people needed aid and assistance. This idea of building a map through the participation of thousands of people has become popular and is now called “crowdmapping”. We used crowdmapping to document Kenya’s elections in 2013, hoping that this election cycle would be peaceful, but resolving to document any evidence we found of intimidation, hate or violence.
Part of this was a project called “Umati”, which is the Swahili word for “crowd”. Umati volunteers monitored Kenyan social media – blogs, Twitter and Facebook – and reported cases of hate speech leading up to and following the election. These instances were posted for the public on a highly visible map – in other words, rather than silencing the speech, the project sought to shame those engaged in hate speech. It worked. Those operating the project quickly discovered a pattern called “cutting” – when someone posted hateful speech, their friends would react negatively and cut off contact with them. This was especially common on Twitter, where everyone can read what you write. Hate speech persisted much longer on Facebook, because speech was often only visible to a small number of people and there wasn’t as much shaming. Exposure and shaming worked, and we also learned something very surprising – there was no strong correlation between hate speech and acts of violence in the 2013 Kenyan elections. Hate speech is ugly and offensive, and some speech may be dangerous. But speech is less powerful than we often believe, and pressure from our friends and family through making speech visible is more powerful than we generally think.
- You can’t legislate truthful speech.
It’s reasonable to worry that misinformation can and will spread online. A year ago, a few kilometers from my lab, two terrorists set of bombs at the finish line of the Boston marathon, injuring and killing dozens of people. Later, 100 meters from my office, the two attackers shot an MIT police officer, Sean Collier. I was in Dakar, Senegal at the time and I was following events online to understand whether my friends, family and students were safe. There were floods of information online, and most of that information was wrong. It wasn’t just amateurs who got the story wrong – one of New York City’s largest newspapers, the Post, falsely accused two men of the murder on the front page of their paper.
Participatory media isn’t the cause of misinformation online – speed is. When news happens, everyone wants to know, and wants to know now. News organizations compete to be the first to report a story. The result is that people report speculation and theory as well as truth. This isn’t because they have malicious intentions – it’s because people have conversations about what’s going on in the world, and these days, these conversations are hard to distinguish from news. It’s a very fine line between writing “I saw the attackers on the MIT campus” and “I heard that the attackers were on the MIT campus”, and both can and will be said online.
The solution is not to force everyone to slow down – it’s to learn how to read differently. When the internet was introduced, there was a tendency to believe that if someone was online, it must be true, because someone had reviewed and verified it. We all understand now that there’s no guarantee that something is true just because it is online. We are slowly learning to be skeptical about reports from people who are anonymous, to take reports more seriously if someone has been writing online for a long time, to understand that reports made immediately after an event are likely to be wrong and to be revised later. It takes a long time to learn how to read differently, but this is a valuable skill not just for the internet, but for all writing – I teach my students to ask who is writing a story, how they’ve obtained their information and what agenda they are supporting, and those are critical questions to ask of all media, whether it is produced by professional reporters or by amateur bloggers.
I realize that the picture I am painting of Civic Media is a complicated one – it’s a space that is both promising and challenging at the same time. I want to leave you with two ideas, one which I find promising, and one which I find challenging, in the hopes that you might help me become wiser about these questions.
The first idea is that the internet is helping citizens become monitors. In Kenya, citizens now monitor elections, reporting irregularities at poling stations or stolen ballots by using their mobile phones. In Brazil, I am working with citizens in Sao Paulo who are monitoring the mayor’s office, reporting whether he is keeping the promises he made when he was elected, documenting where streets aren’t paved or streetlights haven’t been installed. The rise of citizens as monitors is going to change the balance of power between citizens and their leaders, and I predict it’s going to be a change for the better. But I also predict it’s going to be very unsettling and disconcerting for many years to come. Whistleblowing is an extreme example of monitorial citizenship – what Edward Snowden did in revealing that the US National Security Agency was spying on Americans and non-Americans and lying to our lawmakers about it, is a very important form of monitoring, and I believe Snowden should be celebrated, not prosecuted. But I think monitoring will be just as important when millions of citizens are monitoring everyday government actions in cooperation with governments, not only in opposition. The big lesson we’re learning in Sao Paulo is that citizens often don’t know the good things their governments are doing until they monitor the government.
The second idea is that we need to work hard to ensure that our conversations online aren’t always local ones. It’s damaging for a democracy if we only listen to people we agree with – we need to hear a diverse range of opinions to have a healthy debate about the future of our communities, locally and at a national level. But some of the most important conversations we need to have today on subjects like climate change have to take place at a global level. It’s deeply exciting to me that Myanmar is entering into this global conversation online, but we will need to work hard to make sure the world listens to Myanmar and to help Myanmar listen to the rest of the world. People who can act as bridges between Myanmar and the rest of the world, particularly people who’ve worked and studied abroad, will be key figures in ensuring that Myanmar uses the internet to engage globally, not just locally. And people around the world want to help start this conversation – please take a look at a project called Global Voices that I’ve been lucky to be involved with for ten years. 1600 people, mostly volunteers, work to share stories from all over the world in more than 30 languages. We have some excellent reporting from Myanmar – that’s how I know about all the exciting changes happening on the local internet – but we could use more help.
Thanks so much for listening to me and I look forward to a conversation about these ideas, today and in the days to come.
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.
Jenna Burrell, assistant professor at the School of Information at UC Berkeley, is speaking today at the Berkman Center on her research on internet usage in Ghana, the subject of her (excellent) book Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana. Burrell is an ethnographer and sociologist, and her examination of Ghanaian internet cafes is one of the best portraits of contemporary internet use in the developing world.
Jenna doing fieldwork in Ghana
Her talk today covers some of the work she began in 2004 and published last year, but expands in some new directions, including questions about network security and preserving access in the margins of the Global Internet. Burrell’s understanding of Ghana has been built up through six years of fieldwork, both on how non-elite Ghanaians use the internet, and on how Ghana’s internet has literally been built, from recycled and repurposed computer equipment. She notes that ethnographers are famous for their microfocus. When she published her book, a Facebook friend joked, “How odd, I just finished my book on youth in the internet cafes of suburban Ghana!” Burrell is now interested in some of the broader questions we might examine raised by specific cases like the dynamics of Ghana’s cybercafes.
Burrell notes that early conversations about the internet often featured the idea that in online spaces, we transcend our physical limits and are able to talk to people anywhere in the world. Our race and gender might become irrelevant or invisible. She suggests that just at the point where real cross-cultural connection was starting to unfold online, discourse about a borderless internet became unfashionable. We might benefit from returning to some of these ideas of borderlessness and encounter in places where these encounters are really taking place.
Ghana’s internet cafes are an excellent space to explore how this connect works in practice, as much of what takes place in these cafes is centered on international connect. Ghana’s “non-elite” net youth culture – i.e., the young people accessing the internet via cybercafes, not the digerati who are accessing the net through computers in their homes – centers around the idea of the “pen pal”, an analog concept adapted for a digital age. Many Ghanaian students have interacted with pen pals via paper letters, and their encounters in online space often focused on finding a digital pen pal. Most participating in this culture were English-literate, had at least a high school education and had probably stopped going to school when they ran out of funds. They sought out pen pals for a variety of reasons: as friends, as potential romantic partners, as patrons or sponsors, business partners, or as philanthropists who might fund their future education or emigration.
Much of Burrell’s work has focused on talking to cybercafe users about their stories and motivations. Understanding the gaps between their understandings of the people they are talking with on Yahoo chat or other tools helps illuminate the challenge of cultural encounter. One group of cybercafe youth were collectors. They had applied for British Airways Executive Club membership – the airline’s frequent flyer program – and called themselves “The Executive Club”, reveling in the membership cards the airline had sent. They collected religious CDs and bibles from the people they encountered online. Another Ghanaian participant in Christian chat rooms on Yahoo! complained that his conversation partners didn’t understand his needs and motivations – he was looking for contacts and potential business partners and figured that Christians would be trustworthy people to work with, but was frustrated that they only wanted to talk about the bible. A third person she observed explained, “I take pen pals just for the exchange of items and actually I don’t take my size. I take sugar mommies and sugar daddies…” In other words, he was looking specifically for conversations that led to people giving gifts.
This sounds like a path from conversation into internet scamming, but Burrell warns us not to jump to conclusions. Gift-giving is very common in Ghanaian culture, and while gifts are small, they are important and usually reciprocal. Some of her Ghanaian informants couldn’t understand why asking for a gift chased their conversation partners away. Fauzia, who had been chatting with a man on Yahoo! asked him to send her a mobile phone. Not only did he stop taking to her, he performed a complicated “dance of avoidance”, logging off when he saw her log on. Another informant, Kwaku, was talking with a Polish woman about seeking a travel visa and couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t let him stay in her home in Poland. Again, the cultural discontinuity is important – if you traveled to see a friend in their village, you would expect that they would share their home with you and provide a place for you to sleep.
Burrell suggests that there are basic misunderstandings between Ghanaian and North American/European culture around gender and communication norms, the moral economy of gifting and notions of obligation and hospitality. In addition, these cultural discontinuities are complicated by material asymmetries, simplistic perceptions of western wealth and African poverty, and the fact that Ghanaians are often paying for net connectivity by the minute, leading to rushed and high pressure encounters.
When cross-cultural encounters go badly, people seek to block further contact. Networks like Facebook make it very easy to block an individual from contacting you. But Burrell sees the internet moving from simple blocking and banning to “encoded exclusion”, the automatic exclusion of entire countries from being able to access certain servers and services. Dating websites, in particular, have taken to blocking and banning Ghanaians and Nigerians entirely, because they use the websites in ways that the site’s creators hadn’t expected or intended.
Working from Ghana for almost a decade, Burrell has found that it’s often difficult to engage in basic online tasks from that country because sites and services exclude based on geolocation. Based on her experiences and that of her informants, she posits two types of exclusion: failure to include, and purposeful exclusion.
Ecommerce is a space where failure to include is pretty common. Ecommerce is a credit-card based world. Many African economies, including Ghana’s, are largely cash based. Even for Ghanaians who have the money to buy online services, there’s often no easy way to make an online payment. This becomes a rationalization for credit card fraud. Ghanaians who want to participate on match.com, which has a modest member fee, rationalize using a stolen credit card as a way of gaining access to a space that’s otherwise closed. There’s also an unfair stigma attached to cash-based transactions, she posits. Some media coverage of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian underwear bomber, focused on the fact that he’d purchased his air ticket in Ghana, paying cash. US authorities suggested that paying cash was evidence of bad intent and some suggested waiting periods and extra scrutiny for cash payments – Burrell suggests that that’s simply how Ghana’s economy works at present, and that using cash payments as a signal for possible terrorist behavior is a form of failure to include.
Purposeful exclusion also comes into play in ecommerce. Burrell discovered that trying to purchase a product on Amazon from Ghana triggered a set of “forced detours” that made purchasing impossible. Once Amazon detected her login from Ghana, the site immediately reset her password and began sending her phishing warnings. Paypal uses similar techniques – when she tried to sign up for a sewing class in Oakland (to make something out of the beautiful batik she was buying in Ghana), PayPal told her that they didn’t serve customers in Ghana or Nigeria, and started a set of security checks that led to phone verification to her US phone, which didn’t work in Ghana. These extended loops of checks are a huge frustration to the Ghanaians who have the means and tools to participate in these economies. As Ghanaian-born blogger Koranteng noted in an excellent blog post, “If we take ecommerce as one component of modern global citizenship then we are illegal aliens of sorts, and our participation is marginal at best.”
Other blocks are more explicit. Plentyoffish.com, a popular, no-fee dating site, briefly ran a warning that stated that they block traffic from Africa, Romania, Turkey, India, Russia “like every other major site”. The warning was removed, but the site is still inaccessible from Ghana.
Search for “IP block Ghana” or “IP block Nigeria” and you’ll find posts on webmaster fora asking for advice on how to exclude whole nations from the internet. She offers three examples:
From Webmaster World: “I am so fed up with these darn African fraudsters, is it possible to block african traffic by IP”
From a Unix security discussion group: “Maybe we could just disconnect those countries from the Internet until they get their scam artists under control”
From a Linux admin tips site: “I admin an [ecommerce] website and a lot of bogus traffic comes from countries that do not offer much in commercial value.”
Legitimate frustration over fraud leads to overbroad attempts to crack down on this fraud. Burrell’s research involved working with a British woman who lost $100,000 to scams in Ghana – the woman came to Ghana to seek justice and Burrell attended court hearings with her. She suggests that while there’s likely corruption within the Ghana police service, the judges and lawyers she met were genuinely worried about scamming and looking for ways to crack down on the activity. But the perception remains that Ghana isn’t doing enough to protect the rest of the world from its least ethical internet users. This, in turn, has consequences for Ghana’s many legitimate users.
She leaves the group with a series of questions:
- How do we consider inclusiveness as one of the principals to strive for in network security best practices?
- How do we investigate and make visible the consequences of network security practices at the margins of the internet?
- When is country-level IP address blocking appropriate?
These questions lead to a lively discussion around the Berkman table. Oliver Goodenough wonders whether the practices Burrell is describing parallel redlining, the illegal practice of denying certain services or overcharging for them in neighborhoods with high concentrations of citizens of color. But another participant wonders whether we’re being unfair and suggests that using concepts like “censorship” to discuss online exclusion is unfairly characterizing what might simply be wise business practice. “Should a company be compelled to do business in a country where there’s no legal infrastructure to adequately protect it?” Jerome Hergueux argues that global trade follows trust, and that the desire to exclude these countries may be seen as a vote that there’s no trust in how they do business. Burrell notes that there are patterns of media coverage that contribute to why we don’t trust Ghanaians, and that those perceptions might not be accurate.
I’m deeply interested in the topics Burrell brings up in this talk. I’ve experienced the purposeful exclusion Burrell talks about, both in trying to do business from west Africa, and in my travels back and forth – I routinely bring goods to Ghana and Nigeria that friends in those countries have ordered and sent to my office, because they can’t get them delivered to their homes. It’s very strange when people you’ve met only over Twitter send you iPads so you can bring them to Nigeria… but it is, as Hergeuex points out, an interesting commentary on who we trust and who we don’t.
I worry about another form of exclusion that’s mostly theoretical at this point, but possible: what if spaces that are acting as digital public spheres become closed to developing world users? That’s an idea put forward in a New York Times article by Brad Stone and Miguel Helft. Examining Facebook’s efforts to build sites “optimized” for the developing world, they wonder whether companies, desperate to become profitable, will stop serving, or badly underserve, users in countries where there’s little online advertising, like Nigeria and Ghana.
Talking with Burrell after her talk, I wondered whether there’s a hierarchy of needs at work: should we worry more about Facebook banning Nigerian users (no evidence that they will, to be clear) more than Amazon or OkCupid? Are we willing to argue for a global right to online speech, but no global right to online dating? Burrell argued that accessing OkCupid might be more significant in terms of life transformation for a Ghanaian user than accessing Facebook and suggested that any sort of tiering of access was challenging to think through.
It’s interesting to consider: the Internet Freedom agenda advocated by the US State Department focuses on countries that would block access to the internet to prevent certain types of political speech. But what if the real threat to global internet freedom starts with US companies that don’t see a profit in letting Ghanaian or Nigerian users onto their sites? Anyone want to bet on whether a Kerry State Department will be willing to tell US companies to stop excluding African users?