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An open thank you letter to Global Voices, on International Volunteer Day

Today is International Volunteer Day, a celebration of the millions of people around the world who give their time, energy and wisdom to projects and causes they care about. Volunteers feed the hungry, care for the sick, comfort the grieving. We live in a world where companies and governments are responsible for producing most of the products and services we need and use. Volunteers prove that there’s another way to build things – we can write encyclopedias or operating systems, we can report the news, or host a revolution.

Choosing to build a volunteer community was the key decision that made Global Voices possible. Rebecca and I realized that some of the most interesting information we were getting from the developing world wasn’t coming from professional reporters, but from volunteers, using their blogs to share their perspectives on local and national events with the wider world. Our first action as a community - the manifesto that continues to inform and govern our decisions today – was co-written by volunteers at our first meeting, and rapidly translated into twenty five languages by volunteers.

While there’s a small team of editors and coordinators for whom Global Voices is a job (as well as a passion – we don’t pay well enough for anyone to do this for the money!), the lifeblood of our project is our volunteer community. 532 active volunteers are responsible for Global Voices today, part of the 1,904 volunteers who’ve worked on writing, editing, translating, designing over the seven year life of our endeavour. Volunteers have written more than 58,000 articles on Global Voices, and translated even more. We rely on an even broader community of volunteers – the tens of thousands of bloggers, twitterers and videographers who we feature on our site, the vast majority of whom create not for fiscal gain, but out of passion and dedication – to make our work possible. And we’re governed by volunteers: our board of directors serve without pay, giving their time because they care about our work and the sustainability of our community.

As co-founders of Global Voices, Rebecca and I are profoundly grateful to everyone who gives their time and energy to make the world more just, fair, knowledgeable and connected. But we wanted to call attention to two volunteers who’ve taken incredible risks to work with us. Late last week, Razan Ghazzawi was arrested by Syrian authorities when she travelled to Amman, Jordan to attend a workshop on press freedom. Razan is an active blogger and twitter user, and has written for Global Voices and Global Voices Advocacy. She’s one of several brave Syrians who is willing to work under her own name, despite the dangers of arrest, and we hope for her speedy release from detention.

We also recognize Ali Abdulemam, a Bahraini blogger, activist and Global Voices volunteer. Ali remains in hiding today, because he’s been sentenced to fifteen years in prison by Bahrain’s courts, who accused him of plotting a coup. In fact, Ali was sentenced because he’s been a passionate advocate for online speech in Bahrain, and has been arrested and tortured for his work on Bahrain Online and Global Voices.

We are profoundly grateful for everyone who volunteers their time and energy to make Global Voices a reality. We pledge to work with you to make possible a world where no one ever need risk arrest to participate in a remarkable community like ours.

-Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon, Global Voices co-founders and volunteers

Understanding #amina

On Monday, June 6th, a post appeared on the blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus” announcing that Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, the “girl” in question, had been kidnapped, possibly by Syrian authorities. Bloggers, including my friend and colleague Jillian York, reported on Amina’s disappearance, and some of her readers and supporters began advocating for her release on Twitter, using the hashtag #FreeAmina. A Facebook group supporting her release gathered more than 14,000 followers.

“A Gay Girl in Damascus” was a fairly new blog, launched with a series of long autobiographical posts in February. The blog gained popularity in late April, with a dramatic post, “My Father, the hero” that detailed a visit from Syrian security forces who wanted to arrest the blogger for Salafist sympathies, and her father’s defiant response. Two weeks later, a writer in The Guardian described her as “an unlikely hero of revolt in a conservative country”. The article raised her profile and brought her to the attention of CNN and other news networks. It also offered an explanation for how Amina had avoided arrest thus far, suggesting she had relatives in the Syrian government and in the Muslim brotherhood.

Not everyone reacted to news of Amina’s detention by lobbying for her release. Some began questioning whether Amina actually existed. Liz Henry, a journalist and blogger who’s spent a great deal of time thinking about fictional blogging (she led an excellent session at SXSWi in 2007 on the topic), posted about her doubts on June 7th, the day after Amina’s detention was announced. Her uncertainty was crystalized by the discovery that Sandra Bagaria, who had been giving media interviews as a close friend and possible girlfriend of Amina’s, had never met Amina in person. Liz wrote:

I would hate to have my existence doubted and am finding it painful to continue doubting Amina’s. If she is real, I am very sorry and will apologize and continue to work for her release and support.

But it now turns out that Bagaria has never met Amina in person. They had an online relationship. As I see it, this could indicate various possibilities:

– Amina is as she appears to be, a talented writer living in Syria; perhaps with a different name and with the names of her family members obscured.

– Amina is someone else entirely in Syria.

– Amina is someone else; anything goes. Amina could be Odin Soli [a blog fiction writer who’d previously created a character “Plain Layne“] for all I know. In fact, wouldn’t it fit all too neatly?

– Amina is Sandra Bagaria.

Andy Carvin of NPR, who’s been tirelessly curating tweets about the Arab Spring since January, cast a wide net online searching for anyone who’d met Amina and person and came up empty. On June 8th, a woman in Croatia announced that the photos appearing on the web of Amina were actually pictures of her, taken from her Facebook account. While these doubts began to pile up, the depth and complexity of Amina’s online presence made it hard to doubt her existence entirely. On June 9th, Carvin tweeted, “I just don’t see anyone creating a sleeper-cell online persona years ago, waiting for unrest to start just to blog it. Some truth somewhere.”

Ali Abunimah and Benjamin Doherty from Electronic Intifada and Liz Henry began sharing data and unraveling Amina’s identity, with help from Carvin and Jillian York. Henry’s post “Chasing Amina” and a long post on Electronic Intifiada connect the Amina persona to Thomas J. MacMaster, a 40-year old American student, and his wife Britta Froelicher. On June 12th, MacMaster posted an “apology” to Amina’s blog, acknowledging his authorship and making it clear that Amina was a fiction he created.

I hadn’t paid very close attention to the story this week – I’ve been away from my office all week, in meetings and at a conference. I’d been aware there was uncertainty about the abduction story, and was keeping an eye on Global Voices’s coverage of the story, wondering whether we would need to modify or retract our earlier story. (Jillian updated her original story and ran a story on doubts about Amina’s identity on June 9th.) But MacMaster’s “apology” caught my attention:

I never expected this level of attention. While the narrative voıce may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground. I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.

I only hope that people pay as much attention to the people of the Middle East and their struggles in this year of revolutions. The events there are being shaped by the people living them on a daily basis. I have only tried to illuminate them for a western audience.

This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.

However, I have been deeply touched by the reactions of readers.

That’s not an apology. That’s a pathetic, self-serving attempt by MacMaster to justify his actions.

MacMaster is on vacation in Istanbul and thus far, appears to have given only one interview on this matter. It’s likely we’ll get more information about his motives in future conversations. But his statement here is quite informative. He believes that writing as Amina allowed him to call attention to the dangers faced by activists and by GLBT people in Syria in a way that would reach western audiences. He’s critical of what he perceives to be shallow coverage of the Middle East and believed that creating a compelling heroine would provide a key “hook” for a story.

What’s peculiar about this is that there’s been an enormous amount of western media attention paid to the Arab Spring. While most news outlets were late to the Tunisia story, the Egyptian revolution was covered in depth, and key figures like Wael Ghonim have received widespread media attention in the US. While there’s been significantly greater coverage of events in Libya (an armed conflict where NATO forces are involved, something that invariably correlates to media attention) than to other revolutions, there’s been solid, steady coverage of events in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. We could all use more coverage of the Arab Spring and less of Anthony Weiner, but this seems like an odd moment to complain about undercoverage.

To the extent that there is undercoverage of Syria, it’s worth remembering that the country has closed its borders to foreign journalists. As I observed in analyzing media coverage of the 2009 Iran green movement protests, when countries close themselves to international media, there’s a tendency to report stories relying heavily on social media. Syria was the right place for a hoax in no small part because journalists were hungry for any information coming out, particularly information that could help readers and viewers connect to the story. Earlier today, Syrian/American anchor of CNN International Hala Gorani tweeted: “The most infuriating aspect of Tom MacMaster’s ‘hoax’ is claim media’s interest in #Amina reveals superficial coverage of Mideast. Please. Media were interested bc MacMaster’s lie put a human face on a story we cannot cover in person. That is why there was interest.”

Gorani was searching for a human face because it’s far more compelling to tell the story of a revolution in terms of individual struggles than in the language of mass movements. As humans, we’re wired to connect with personal stories. The story that helped spark the Tunisian revolution was the story of an individual fruit-seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, whose frustrations with his personal situation and his country’s shortcomings led to his self-immolation and death. We understand the Egyptian revolution through Wael Ghonim, and the tragedies of the Green Revolution through Neda Agha Soltan. These stories can obfuscate as well as illuminate – in the retelling, Bouazizi gained a college education and a computer science degree because those inaccurate details helped the story better represent the tensions and frustrations within Tunisia. Understanding a revolution through individual stories is always imperfect – the details of an individual life can’t completely represent the whole – but they allow us to connect to stories in a deep, elemental way.

Participatory media offers the possibility that an individual can tell her story to a global audience. There’s a gap between potential and reality. Speak in a language that’s not widely understood and your potential audience shrinks dramatically. And while we celebrate the possibility of social media enabling many to many communication, it’s probably better understood as enabling one to some, as most of us command fairly small audiences of friends and family.

To reach a broader audience, participatory media needs a helping hand. That’s what Nawaat, an activist media site run by Tunisian dissidents, did for the protesters in Sidi Bouzid. They translated and subtitled Facebook videos from Tunisian Arabic (a dialect that borrows heavily from other Mediterranean languages and isn’t understood outside the country) into French and Arabic, organized them into easy to follow timelines, and made it possible for Al Jazeera to use their footage… which made the revolution visible not just to people throughout the Arab world, but to fellow Tunisians, who otherwise wouldn’t have known what was going on given the country’s effective censorship of domestic media.

Global Voices has been trying to amplify participatory media since our inception in 2004. By aggregating, contextualizing and translating citizen media, we try to make Hala Gorani’s job easier, offering accounts from people who are telling their own stories in their own words. Even in a country like Syria, where blogging can be a dangerous activity, real, non-fictional people write about their perspectives and experiences – we’ve published two dozen substantial stories drawing from accounts of people in Syria and Syrians in exile since the Arab Spring began, and linked to hundreds of individual accounts.

MacMaster’s “apology” refers to “the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism”. Perhaps we’ll learn more about the target of his critique when he discusses his motives at more length. Part of the post-colonial critique Edward Said offered in “Orientalism” was a recognition of the danger of understanding the Middle East through the frames, accounts and preconceptions of Westerners, who consciously or unconsciously tend to define the Orient as “other”. As a response, we might choose to read western accounts of the Middle East with a critical eye, or to seek out more accounts from people of the Middle East to understand the region. But it’s hard to imagine a more orientalist project than a married, male American writer masquerading as a Syrian lesbian to tell a story about oppression and democratic protest.

By speaking in this assumed voice, MacMaster tells us, “I do not believe that I have harmed anyone.” Some gay Syrians disagree. Writing on, Daniel Nasser explains, “You took away my voice, Mr. MacMaster, and the voices of many people who I know.” Further, by calling attention to gays and lesbians in Syria, he complicated the lives of people on the ground, worried that this could become an excuse for their arrest and disappearance. “This attention you brought forced me back to the closet on all the social media websites I use; cause my family to go into a frenzy trying to force me back into the closet and my friends to ask me for phone numbers of loved ones and family members so they can call them in case I disappeared myself.”

On the same site, Sami Hamwi rejects MacMaster’s apology saying, “What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT activism. Add to that, that it might have caused doubts about the authenticity of our blogs, stories, and us.”

I don’t think there’s much uncertainty about this last point. MacMaster’s project is going to complicate the work of anyone who tries to bring marginal voices into the dialog through citizen media. The question I’ve been most often asked since founding Global Voices is a question about authenticity: “How can we know that any of these people blogging and tweeting are real people?”

It’s a tough question to answer. At Global Voices, we’re reporting on the conversations taking place, not the facts on the ground – this distances us from the challenge of verifying individual facts, but doesn’t free us. As it’s become more common for pro-regime supporters in Syria or Bahrain to write in pro-regime fora, part of offering context is helping readers navigate a web of identities – people who we believe to be speaking in their own voices and people we worry are misrepresenting themselves. One of the best tools we have is iterated reputation: it’s cheap and easy for someone to appear on a message board, claim to be someone they’re not, offer a couple of posts and leave. It’s harder to construct an identity for months or years and establish credibility with that voice. Yet that’s what MacMaster did, and we, like everyone else, will be taking a close look at how we’re representing the identity of the people we’re featuring on the site.

The challenge is even harder for someone like Andy Carvin, who’s working with breaking news reports. In this case, verifying facts is the key issue, not just understanding the dynamics of the conversation. Much of Carvin’s work involves chasing down the identity of sources and getting confirmation from multiple voices. This is complicated by the fact that, when a revolution or a natural disaster comes to a place, people who’ve never spoken before enter the conversation. Iterated reputation may be impossible to establish when someone offers details on a plane crash or an earthquake as that person never previously spoke to an audience beyond a small circle of friends. This became a huge problem in the Ossetian war, where new blogs sprang up like mushrooms after rain, offering detailed “eyewitness” accounts that strongly favored either a Russian or Georgian interpretation. Crisis Media platform Ushahidi has been working on the problem of algorithmically verifying these sorts of reports, looking for cross-confirmation and trying to identify more and less believable reports, as part of a project called Swift River.

Needless to say, none of this is easy, whether individuals or algorithms are doing the work. Part of the success of MacMaster’s deceptions is that he had so many details right. Jillian York, whose partner is Syrian and who knows the country well, wrote, “[Amina’s/MacMaster’s] knowledge of Syria stood up to my tests. Her personality in private conversation was consistent with her personality on the public blog. Friends claimed to know her (one even suggested she knew her ‘in real life’ – looking back, the suggestion was rather vague, the boastfulness of someone who wants to get close to a story).” And, as York points out, the nature of MacMaster’s deception made it impossible to verify. Journalists can’t get into Syria, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that an out lesbian might be visible, but disguising her name.

Both citizen and broadcast media got Amina’s story wrong. The Guardian, in particular, has much to answer for: the May 6th story by “Katherine Marsh” lionizing Amina doesn’t mention the reporter never met Amina in person. Given the use of a pseudonym to protect the reporter and a Damascus byline, it’s hard to read the story as anything but a verification of Amina’s identity, implying the reporter met with her subject. As of this morning, the Guardian has run a long story on MacMaster’s identity, but hasn’t amended, corrected or retracted the May 6th story. Today’s story includes an explanation of the initial interview, which I think should have accompanied the original piece: “Katherine Marsh, the pseudonym of a journalist who until recently was reporting for the Guardian from Syria, interviewed Amina by email in May after being put in touch with her by a trusted Syrian contact who also believed the blogger to be real. Marsh said that many steps had been taken to try to verify Amina’s identity, including repeated requests to meet, at some personal risk to the journalist, and talk on Skype.”

Credit for discovering MacMaster’s deception goes both to citizen and broadcast media. The Washington Post had been pursuing MacMaster at the same time Electronic Intifiada and Liz Henry did, and their attempts to interview him generated some of the pressure that may have led him to end his hoax. Carvin works for NPR, focused on social media, and the hard work he and colleagues did in reporting the story speaks to the sort of old/new media cooperation that’s going to be critical to reporting in a participatory media environment. But the sheer effort necessary to debunk the story is going to serve as a caution to all news outlets that seek to use citizen voices to tell stories in the future.

That’s a serious problem. If you’re a whistleblower exposing corporate or government wrongdoing, or an activist in a developing nation, you may need to use a persistent pseudonym to protect your identity. More than one of Global Voices’s authors, over the years, has written using pseudonyms. In general, we’ve been able to meet these people in person and verify their identities and reasons to remain pseudonymous. In a few cases, we’ve featured the writing of people we were not initially able verify, like Sleepless in Sudan, who wrote as an aid worker in Darfur. (I helped her set up mechanisms to post to her blog without revealing her identity or aid organization affiliation to the Sudanese government, and Nick Kristof eventually verified her identity when he visited her in Sudan.)

MacMaster has just made it harder for people who need to write under assumed identities to do so and have their perspectives taken seriously. Zeynep Tufekci, writing about Amina, suggests that the story gives support to Facebook’s (inconsistent) insistence on a real-name identity. She suggests we consider the situation as “a reverse tragedy of the commons” – what’s good for the group (real identity) is bad for a small set of individuals (activists who need to protect their identity.)

In his interview with BBC Scotland today, MacMaster explains that “I really felt a number of years ago, in discussions on Middle East issues in the US, often when I presented real facts and opinions, the immediate reaction to someone with my name was: ‘Why are you anti-American? Why are you anti-Jewish?’ So I invented a name to talk under that would keep the focus on the actual issue.” He explains that he wanted people to listen to the perspectives Amina was offering “without paying attention to ‘the man behind the curtain’.” Thanks to his actions – whether they were stupid, naïve or malicious – people are going to be looking closely for the man behind the curtain in citizen media for a long time to come.

More links as they come in:

More from The Guardian on the difficulty of verifying blog sources, and their response to being alerted to the Amina deception.

The correction on this Guardian piece gives a sense for just how shaken that paper is by the situation – they’d run a picture of MacMaster on an earlier edition of the story, and have now replaced it with a graphic from Amina’s blog because they couldn’t verify that the photo actually was of MacMaster…

Elizabeth Flock and Melissa Bell interview MacMaster for the Washington Post’s blogpost. He’s more contrite in this interview than in his BBC Scotland interview. The Post interviewed his wife as well, who was evidently unaware of the deception until this weekend – they’re posting that piece shortly.

MacMaster’s first interview appears to have been with Turkish paper Al Hurriyet (in Turkish)

Skype video interview with MacMaster on Guardian:

Response to MacMaster on KABOBfest by Ali Abbas and Assia Boundaoui, who are “New York based writers and freelance-journalists that submitted a blood test and birth certificate to affirm that the above thoughts are their own analysis based on a lifetime of Arab and or queer and or American and or woman identification.”

Who freed Eynulla Fatullayev? And what does his release mean for Twitter activism?

Azerbaijan is far from an easy place to be an independent journalist – the nation ranks 152nd in Reporters Without Borders 2010 survey on press freedom. Even given a hostile press environment, Eynulla Fatullayev has had a particularly rough experience as editor of Russian language weekly Realny Azerbaijan and Azeri language daily Gündəlik Azərbaycan, two of the nation’s most critical and outspoken newspapers. In 2004, he was beaten on the streets of Baku in an apparent response to his criticism of the government. He faced a number of defamation suits filed by government officials, and in 2006, he was forced to suspend publication of his papers when his father was kidnapped. His abductors threatened to the man and the rest of Fatullayev’s family unless he stopped criticizing Azerbaijan’s interior minister.

Fatullayev moved to publishing online, but continued to face scrutiny of the Azeri government and supporters. In 2007, he was accused of slandering the Army in an interview about the Khojaly massacre, a tragic episode in the Nagorno-Karabakh War. He was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison, and an additional 2 1/2 years when prison officials allegedly found a small amount of heroin in his cell. Numerous press freedom organizations have condemned his arrest, and in 2009, Committee to Project Journalists awarded him the International Press Freedom Award to recognize his efforts to open the press environment in Azerbaijan.

Eynulla Fatullayev at home after his release from Azeri prison

On Tuesday, Amnesty UK – which has been advocating on Fatullayev’s behalf since his arrest – launched a campaign to demand the editor’s release from prison. Represented by Jon Snow of Channel 4 and John Mulholland of The Observer, the campaign urged Twitter users to take a picture of themselves holding signs asking “@presidentaz” to release Fatullayev from prison.

By one metric, the campaign wasn’t much of a success – despite the presence of such high profile British journalists, only 800 or so people sent messages or retweets to the Azeri president. (We did our part to promote the campaign, with an article on Global Voices by Onnik Krikorian, our remarkable Caucuses editor.) Most participants didn’t take photos – they retweeted messages sent by Amnesty, Snow or Mulholland.

But those messages clearly attracted attention within Azerbaijan. A few Azeri nationalists, including some affiliated with the İRƏLİ Public Youth Union, responded angrily to the tweets. Some responded by photoshopping images of British journalist Ian Hislop holding a sign demanding Fatullayev’s release, edited to criticize Amnesty’s campaign. One modified sign read “Azerbaijan is not USSR! No double standards!” This tweet from @Vetenim illustrates some of the hostility towards Amnesty: “@amnesty This campaign was enough for Azeri Twitter users to see the real face of @AmnestyUK behind the mask. #Amnesty #Eynulla #Azerbaijan”

Krikorian reports that the İRƏLİ Public Youth Union, and particularly Secretary General Rauf Mardiyev have been posting heavily to Twitter tags used by progressive activists in Azerbaijan, potentially to silence or hide dissident voices in the country over the past few months. We’re seeing this phenomenon in different corners of the Twittersphere. Oiwan Lam reports that the #aiww (Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, now in custody) tag is heavily used by pro-government spammers, with two particularly prolific spammers responsible for 45% of all recent messages on the tag. Anas Qtiesh investigated a set of Twitter accounts that been flooding the #Syria tag with old sports scores, links to Syrian television programs, and random photos on Flickr tagged #Syria, making the tag dramatically less useful for activists. Qtiesh linked the abuse of Twitter to the Bahraini company Eghna Developement and Support, which advertises their work on behalf of Syria on their site. Eghna has denied that they are abusing Twitter in any way, but the tweets associated with these accounts no longer appear in searches for the #Syria tag, suggesting that Twitter may disagree. (Neal Ungerleider has a good overview of the Syria story on Fast Company.)

While these examples are a good illustration of the ways in which social media is becoming a contested space during political conflicts, this use of each other’s hashtags is nothing new to American political activists – activists on the left and right routinely use each other’s preferred tags to insert their views into the other side’s dialogs. What’s been interesting is the volume of these actions – traffic on tags like #Syria or #aiww is lots lower than on popular US political tags, which makes heavy use of the tags to provoke the other side far more visible than in US examples. The utility of hashtags as an easy way to share information with those who share your political perspectives is counterbalanced by the fact that these tags are open channels, and may be as useful to those opposed to your views.

So the Twitter action focused on the Azeri government generated less than a thousand tweets and some of those messages were from government supporters seeking to subvert the campaign. Remarkably, two days after Amnesty launched the campaign, Fatullayev was released from prison under a presidential pardon.

Azerbaijan’s winning entry in Eurovision 2011. Warning: video includes the sort of song that wins Eurovision contests.

Amnesty, understandably, is celebrating their campaign’s role in Fatullayev’s release, and the journalist has thanked Amnesty for their advocacy throughout his detention. As Azeri social media users digest the news of his release, there’s speculation that another factor may be at work as well: Azerbaijan’s recent victory in the Eurovision song contest. Azeri singers Eldar Gasimov and Nigar Camal won the prize, which is both coveted and ridiculed within Europe, but always widely watched. The victory drew attention to a corner of Eurasia many Europeans pay little attention to, and it’s possible that the Azeri government didn’t want to spoil their moment in the sun with Amnesty’s critical campaign.

So is Amnesty responsible for Fatullayev’s release? Is Twitter? Eurovision? And if social media can claim partial responsibility for the release of a prisoner of conscience, will we see this campaign technique used again? Will it be as successful the next time around?

Mary Joyce of the Meta Activism project has warned that a key factor in successful online activism appear to be novelty – it’s hard to articulate “best practices” because one of the best practices is to be the first to try a particular technique. If we take the lesson from Fatullayev’s release that Twitter campaigns, focused on individual public figures who use Twitter, leveraging offline media attention are a useful strategy, it seems likely that campaign organizations will adopt the technique and use it to the point where future implementations aren’t worth an article or a blog post.

Or perhaps directly addressing people in positions of power via Twitter has a directness and immediacy that other forms of media lack. See this recent confrontation between journalist Ian Birell and Rwandan President Paul Kagame via Twitter over Kagame’s statement that the international media has no moral right to criticize the repressive political climate in Rwanda given their silence about the 1994 genocide. As this report on the exchange points out, it’s hard to imagine this exchange taking place in an era before microblogging. Perhaps the sort of unvarnished dialog that Kagame, his supporters and Birell engage in here motivated Azeri president Ilham Aliyev to reconsider the arrest of journalists in his country. My guess – I don’t think it’s that simple, and I think we’re going to have to try a lot more online activism before we know what works, what doesn’t and how new capabilities lead to new dialogs.

Civic Disobedience and the Arab Spring

I spent the past two days in Cambridge, primarily around MIT, and almost exclusively talking about the “Arab Spring” and what we’ve learned about social media and protest in authoritarian states. Early Wednesday morning, the MIT Museum hosted a “soapbox” session, which put Dr. Marlyn Tadros and me in dialog with Egyptian protesters and bloggers, including Mahmoud “Sandmonkey” Salem, who I was thrilled to meet virtually. Events via video are tricky, and there were some issues with sound quality for the folks watching in Cambridge, but the resulting video of the event is excellent.

The highlight of the two days in Cambridge was an event I hosted at the MIT Media Lab yesterday afternoon, a conversation called “Civic Disobedience“, which featured three of my favorite people, who also happen to be three folks extremely knowledgeable about social media and the Arab Spring.

Zeynep Tufekci is an assistant professor of sociology at UMaryland Baltimore County, where she studies social networks on and offline. Her blog, Technosociology, has become required reading with very insightful essays on Wikileaks, the Arab Spring and other recent intersections between online and offline social networks.

Clay Shirky has been doing some of the most interesting writing and thinking about the internet and human relationships, since 1996. He teaches at NYU in both the journalism department and in the Interactive Telecommunications Program, writes extensively online and has published two key books about the internet, participation, groups and social change.

Sami ben Gharbia is the director of Global Voices Advocacy, the free speech arm of Global Voices Online. He’s the co-founder of, one of the central actors in the Tunisian dissident media space. He was exiled from Tunisia 13 years ago and returned home for the first time a few weeks ago, in the wake of Tunisia’s successful revolution. He is also one of the smartest critical thinkers about the limitations of our current understandings of internet and social change – his essay, The Internet Freedom Fallacy and Arab Digital activism, should be required reading for anyone expressing an opinion about “internet freedom”.

With these three folks on stage, I had virtually nothing to do as moderator. So I took notes, which I’ll share here, to tide you over until the session video is posted.

Sami opened the conversation by giving his view of how social media had helped enable protests in Tunisia. He offers three-part model that treats social media as part of a more complex ecosystem, involving Facebook as a publishing platform, multiple curation platforms (Nawaat, Global Voices, Twitter, Posterous) and broadcast platforms (AlJazeera and France24).

Facebook became central to the Tunisian media ecosystem because all other sites that allowed video sharing – YouTube, Daily Motion, Vimeo and others – were blocked by the Tunisian government, along with hundreds of blogs and dozens of key twitter accounts. This censorship, Sami argues, drove Tunisian users towards Facebook, and made it hard for the government to block it. The government tried in 2008, but the outcry was so huge, they reversed course. The main reason – usage of Facebook more than doubled during the 10 days of blockage as Tunisians found ways around the national firewall and onto the service.

Censorship, in general, because a unifying force in the Tunisian online sphere. Reacting to censorship taught Tunisians how to disseminate information through alternative paths and helped them use social media for advocacy in a time of crisis. For all the disagreements Tunisians have with one another, they can agree on censorship as a common enemy. This is why, when Ben Ali offered a final set of concessions to his people on January 13th in a desperate bid to hold onto power, one concession was the elimination of online censorship.

Facebook was an important platform for Tunisians for publishing, mobilizing and organizing, Sami tells us. But it’s a very limited platform. It’s closed, both technically and socially, which can make it extremely difficult for journalists to find people to interview about stories. And Tunisia can be linguistically closed, even to other Arabs – the Tunisian dialect is a mix of French, Berber, Italian and Arabic that can be very hard to penetrate. While Facebook was used to share videos, it also made it very hard to figure out the origins of those videos – when were they originally published and by whom? For Facebook to be useful for a wider audience than Tunisians, you needed Tunisian users to identify key pages and profiles and bring them out of Facebook’s closed system and into the open web.

That’s what curators did. Sites like Nawaat were critical in identifying content posted on Facebook, tagging, timestamping and categorizing it and making it accessible to other media organizations. Both Nawaat and Global Voices translated key pieces of content, and Nawaat used a Posterous blog to identify over 400 videos, many of which were used by Al Jazeera.

Once content made it onto Al Jazeera, it began filtering back into Tunisia, letting Tunisians who weren’t looking for content online understand what was unfolding. Jazeera has a huge audience in Tunisia, though it’s never been allowed to report there. (I’d been telling people that Jazeera had been forced to stop operating in Tunisia by Ben Ali – Sami tells me Ben Ali never let them in at all…) Jazeera, Sami argues, became an extension of the internet, publishing user-generated content and using it to educate Tunisian citizens about what was going on in their own country, and eventually the whole region. Tunisians knew how important Jazeera was once police officers began heading into cafes and begging owners to switch their TVs to another channel.

This three part model created an information cascade that Sami believes directly led to the revolution. He cites some key events that gave the media disproportionate power. One was the Tunileaks/Wikileaks cables. Tunileaks received cables about Tunisia sent from a dissident within Wikileaks who was upset that the group was cooperating only with mainstream media and not citizen media. Tunileaks released these cables well before Wikileaks released their archive of cables. (I asked Sami, “You’re involved with Tunileaks, right?” His response: “I am Tunileaks.” :-) Sami and friends used Google Appspot to publish the cables, knowing that the service rested on a set of IP addresses used by several other key Google services. This meant that, in blocking the cables, the Tunisian government was forced to block other key services, raising attention to the cables and encouraging more people to use firewall circumvention tools to access them.

Sami also cites the Anonymous attacks on Tunisia as another key turning point. They weren’t especially effective, but the story was so sexy, American media had to start paying attention.

Expanding on Sami’s analysis of the ecosystem, Zeynep offers the idea of analyzing social media and revolutions in terms of “meso-level causal mechanisms”. (After offering that phrase, Zeynep gives a disclaimer that she’s early in her analysis and just “thinking out loud”. That her thinking out loud includes phrases like “meso-level causal mechanisms” gives you a sense for why she’s so worth reading.) There’s a temptation, she says, to view social media as like other media, just faster. But that fails to see some of the key nuances.

There are network effects that come from social media. The shape of connectivity networks changes – people are more directly connected to one another, rather than being clustered into separate groups, linked by bridge figures. Tunisia, in particular, has an online social network “with one giant component, one big, heavily linked space, probably related to the anti-censorship campaigns Sami spoke about.” This network is big, tightly connected and fast, and information passes through it much more quickly than it passes through offline social networks.

There are field effects as well. When media reaches a broad audience, either through social media or through broadcast, it’s possible to affect the mood of the country all at once. And we see network to field effects: information cascades. The experience of Tunileaks was, in part, the revealing of hidden preferences. Tunisians knew they weren’t fond of Ben Ali, but discovering that no one liked him, including the US, had an important effect. When Egyptians looked at Tunisia and said, “We can do this, too!”, that’s also a network to field effect.

The meso-level mechanisms include increased participation. We don’t always like what we get when we see increased participation. Increases simply accelerate and strengthen dynamics that are already in place. In a polarized situation, increased participation often means increased polarization, which is what we may be seeing in Bahrain. That makes it hard for participation to lead towards coordinated action. In Egypt, near the end, “Mubarak’s dog didn’t like him. Much as we wish it was, that’s not the case in Iran or Bahrain…”

Another meso-level effect is faster information diffusion. This can mean the ways audiences are segmented change as well. Information that might have been accessible only to a literate class is not accessible to non-literate people as well. In much of the Middle East, there’s a big divide between the literate and non-literate public spheres – when those distinctions collapse, there’s the possibility of coordination between those two groups. On the other hand, the Habermasean pubic sphere (which may never have been as calm and reasoned as Habermas wished it was) can get downright emotional. The emergence of Mohamed Bouazizi as a rallying point helps show the emotional nature of the narrative in Tunisia.

One way to understand how big these changes are is to watch the shift in “coup etiquette”. In her native Turkey, Zeynep tell us, you can tell a coup based on what song is playing on the radio. “If you hear this one specific patriotic song, you know it’s time to go buy bread.” That’s because coup planners traditionally seized the radio and television stations first. In Egypt, there was a debate amongst Tahrir protesters about seizing a television station – in the end, they decided not to bother. The emergence of social media makes broadcast less relevant, though probably not irrelevant.

Authoritarian states are very experienced at trying to silence dissent, Zeynep reminds us. They are very good at playing whack a protest, and most of the time, they’re successful, using a “quarantine” model to separate protesters from the rest of the state. She cites a protest in Tunisia in 2008 in the mining town of Gafsa, which the Tunisian government successfully defeated, by surrounding and isolating the protesters. In Sidi Bouzid in 2010, enabled in part by social media, a very similar crackdown failed to stop the spread of the protest “virus”.

Sami added a key note to Zeynep’s model, pointing out that the Sidi Bouzid protesters appealed to the rest of the nation for support with their demands. The protesters in Gafsa focused their grievances on a local mining company, which made it very hard for the rest of the nation to join in supporting them. “They quarantined themselves, in a way.”

Given Clay’s extensive writings about social media and protest, I asked him to evaluate what he got right and wrong, in light of events in Egypt and Tunisia. Warning us that four months isn’t long enough to understand what’s actually gone on with these protests, Clay explains that he feels recent events have confirmed his thoughts about the importance of synchronizing groups. “Governments aren’t afraid of informed individuals – they’re afraid of synchronized groups.” In particular, they’re afraid of groups that have shared awareness.

With authoritarian states, there are three possible states. In the first, everyone knows the government is corrupt. In the second, everyone knows that everyone knows the government is corrupt. In the final stages, the ones where governments collapse, everybody knows that everybody knows that everybody knows. Clay argues that autocratic regimes can survive the first and second phases for years – that third stage, where shared awareness leads to synchronization, is more dangerous for autocrats.

What he got wrong, he says, was overemphasizing the use of tools for coordination for protest. “I concentrated too much on using tools to get people out into the streets. It turns out that bringing people out into the streets only works if it’s the end of a long process. It’s not a replacement for that process.” This, he believes, is why Egyptian protests were successful – they leveraged long-standing networks like Kefayah. But without those networks, going into the streets can be very dangerous. He cites an example worthy of Evgeny Morozov – when Sudan feared a revolution, “they used Facebook to call a revolution againt itself, then arrested everyone who came out, as they were the people most likely to make trouble.”

Referring to Zeynep’s mechanisms for action, Clay says he believes that social media “synchronizes opinion, coordinates action, and documents results.” The medium is less relevant than these processes – it’s not about mobiles versus Facebook versus Jazeera. If you want to know how seriously to take these effects, Clay suggests you look at the fact that both insurgents and autocrats believe these tools matter, and take risks to act on these beliefs. He offers the example of Libyan officials searching people fleeing across the Tunisian border for digital cameras and USB sticks. “Even Qaddafi doesn’t like letting documentation of murder reach the rest of the world.”

Clay shifts the conversation to the issue of “internet freedom”. Noting how influential Sami’s essay was on his thinking, Clay suggests that the US overestimates the value of access to information and underestimates the value of access to each other. If we wanted to promote internet freedom, we need to think more about synchronization and less about information in considering these tools.

I asked Sami if he’d softened his stance on US involvement with internet freedom from his earlier writings. He points out that US support for the Iranian protests helped Ahmedinejad make the argument that protests were instigated by outside agitators, when they were actually a legitimate domestic movement. “In Tunisia, we fought very hard to keep our movement independent from foreign interference, including avoiding those who were collaborating with the government.” That said, Sami acknowledges that there’s a big difference between public statements by the US State Department and actions behind the scenes, which is often very productive and positive. What Sami would like to see the US doing publicly is controlling the sale of censorware, not advocating for freedom while allowing some of the key filtering technologies to be sold to repressive governments. He notes that individuals are also capable of taking effective steps in solidarity with dissidents – hosting video archives and mirroring key content to help make it visible in Tunisia, smuggling communications hardware into Egypt and Yemen, even calling attention to protests through actions like those of Anonymous.

Zeynep suggests that we not dismiss the Iranian green revolution as a failure. Much as the failed Dean campaign helped elect Obama, the Iranian protests helped us understand how to use social media for revolutionary change. While she supports efforts to get the US to be more consistent on internet policy, she suggests the larger problem is getting US foreign policy to shift from supporting dictators. “I’m betting most, if not all, will be gone by the end of the decade.”

Clay suggests that watching other country’s revolutions matters enormously, in terms of bearing witness, moral support, and in the case of US citizens, influencing the policy of a superpower. He’s happy to admit an normative bias for democracy and free speech and to support a foreign policy that respects this. But this demands we push for consistency.

“I urge my students not to try to pay attention to the whole world, but to start by picking a country to care about. Mine is Bahrain, and I believe we need to make visible the tension between our politices and our current support for Bahrainm which is becoming an apartheid state run by Saudi Arabia.”

Clay doesn’t believe the US should stay out of fields like internet freedom. “We can’t. We need bilateral relationships with everyone.” But we need to recognize that we’ve lost the ability to speak in three separate voices – one directly to other states, one to the public and one to the cognoscenti. Twitter and Wikileaks have collapsed these channels, and as a result, the US may need to speak a lot less, at least in public.

As the discussion moved into question and answer, it became significantly more free-flowing, and I had to moderate rather than taking notes. I will mention a couple of exchanges that stuck in my memory:

– A questioner asked whether we’ll see social media playing an important role in governance as well as in revolution, suggesting that the social media revolutions that elected Deval Patrick and Barack Obama have been disappointing in terms of participatory governance. Sami made the point that Tunisians need to rebuild a vast range of institutions – an independent media, NGOs, transparency organizations, political parties, and that all were being rebuilt using new media and social media tools.

– A good deal of our discussion involved analogies to previous revolutions. Sami made a key point – the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were not trying to overturn existing systems of government – both states have been constitutional democracies. The revolution wasn’t to change the form of government, but to get it to be respected.

– Professor Ian Condry suggested that, if these revolutions took ten years to unfold, we need to think through what ten-year changes might be underway now. Clay pointed to Paul Ford’s essay “Why Wasn’t I Consulted” and suggests that the assumption of participation may be a key ten-year change.

– Nitin Sawhney pointed the audience to three examples that appear to contradict the relationship between communications technology and democratic revolution. The Islamic Revolution used a new technology – cassette tapes – to lead to non-democratic change. The Palestinian first and second intifadas were organized with virtually no technology and were effective forms of resistance. And in Bahrain, being heavily wired hasn’t led to a successful revolution. In each case, American foreign policy seems to have mattered more than communication technology. The panel responded by acknowledging that none think that communications was the key or sole factor in the changes in Tunisia and Egypt – however, Clay argued that states try to keep an equilibrium state between the utility of new tools and the inability of citizens to syncronize protest, and that new technologies may destabilize that equilibrium and offer an opportunity for change.

We should have video for this session soon – I will post it once it becomes available. Sincere thanks to my three friends for their wonderful talks and to the audience for a great conversation.

US National Science Foundation blocks Global Voices Advocacy website

A few days ago, the folks at Global Voices got email from a friend of ours who was working at the National Science Foundation. He was trying to read an article that Jacob Applebaum had posted to Global Voices Advocacy, reacting to a recent report by Freedom House evaluating various tools useful for circumventing internet censorship. When he attempted to follow the link to our site, the web filtering software used by the National Science Foundation blocked the webpage, returning him the message, “Important Notice – National Science Foundation has blocked access to this site. (policy_denied)”. The message went on to offer an email address where a user could report an erroneous blockage and request a review.

So Ivan Sigal, our executive director, wrote a note to the email address asking why our site was blocked to researchers at the National Science Foundation. We got the response back today, six days later. The response tells us that the blockage is not in error. Blue Coat, who manage web filtering for the NSF, explained that while our site is primarily classified as “political/activism”, there’s still a problem: “The website has verbiage indicating how to avoid proxy filtering, which clearly violates our security policy and therefore will remain blocked.”

That’s certainly true – one of the main functions of Global Voices Advocacy is to provide information to people in repressive nations so they can seek and publish information freely online. And it’s certainly possible that you could learn enough from Global Voices Advocacy that you could download circumvention software (not at the NSF, one presumes, but remotely), load it onto a USB key and circumvent Blue Coat’s software. One popular package you might try is Tor, funded in part by the US government, which recognizes its utility in promoting “internet freedom” for political dissidents.

In other words, the National Science Foundation is spending taxpayer money to (ineffectively) prevent scientists from learning about a debate about “internet freedom” tools the US State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors are spending taxpayer money to support and promote, again using taxpayer money.

Is there a Federal irony department where I can lodge a complaint?

I see Blue Coat’s logic, I suppose – it’s hard to maintain a filtering system if users are able to obtain tools that can circumvent those filters. (Again, I feel pretty confident that people smart enough to work at the National Science Foundation can find ways to defeat filters using software they downloaded at home.) But blocking sites for discussing filtering systems (we’re not offering downloadable software at Global Voices Advocacy) raises an interesting dilemma – can anyone at the NSF study internet filtering and circumvention if their internal IT systems have a policy on blocking access to such information? (It also raises the question of why Blue Coat doesn’t just block the page they find troubling, rather than blocking all sorts of content on our site about imprisoned activists and censorship in other nations…)

My friend Sami ben Gharbia – coincidently, the director of Global Voices Advocacy – wrote a ferocious (and very compelling) critique of the US government’s Internet Freedom agenda, suggesting that the policy has an inconsistent focus, overfocusing on countries the US sees as a threat and underfocusing on “friendly” dictatorships. He worried that this apparent inconsistency would lead to skepticism that the US really wants a free and open internet everywhere.

That skepticism is evidently warranted. I’m pretty surprised to learn that the scientists at NSF are working in a filtered internet environment, and that the filtering is so aggressive that discussion of internet filtering and circumvention can’t be discussed. One wonders whether the State Department might consider offering some trainings for the National Science Foundation so that employees there can learn side by side with Chinese dissidents how to overcome filtering and learn about State Department sponsored research on internet filtering. Maybe we can sneak into the building with Tor on USB keys and clandestinely smuggle them to oppressed US scientists.

If you work on a US government computer, I’d love to know whether you can reach Global Voices Advocacy. If you can’t, I’d really appreciate it if you’d let me know in the comments, with an error message, if possible. I promise not to publish email or IP addresses, but if you’re really worried about protecting your privacy, I do recommend using Tor. :-)

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