… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

January 27, 2015

Global Voices at 10: Food for Thought

Filed under: Global Voices,Human Rights,Media — Ethan @ 8:15 pm

I spent last week in Cebu, the second largest city in The Philippines, with three hundred journalists, activists and media scholars from more than sixty countries. The occasion was the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit, a biennial conference on the state of citizen media, blogging, journalism and activism. This summit coincided with the tenth anniversary of Global Voices, the citizen media website and community Rebecca MacKinnon and I helped to found in late 2004.

We’ve held the conference six times, and it’s always been an excuse to gather core members of the Global Voices community for planning, training and building solidarity. More than 800 staff and volunteers run Global Voices, and since we have no home office, headquarters or physical presence, the conference provides a physicality and presence that’s sorely lacking in most of our interactions. Since the Summit began as an excuse for holding our internal meeting, it’s always a wonderful party and family reunion, but it’s not always been the most thoughtfully programmed event. (I’m allowed to say that because I helped program some of those conferences.)

This year’s incarnation (which I had absolutely nothing to do with planning!) reset expectations about what the Citizen Media Summit could be. It was two packed days of panels, workshops and discussions, tackling some of the most interesting a challenging problems facing online writing and activism: threats to the open internet, social media and protests movements, trolling and online abuse, intermediary censorship. I found myself blogging and tweeting frenetically, trying to capture the conversations I was hearing in panels and the halls, soaking up as much news, information and perspective as I could from friends from around the world.

DCIM100MEDIA
We’ve got drones now! Watch out, world!

Global Voices editors and authors will be processing notes from the sessions into articles over the next few days, but I decided to use my flights from tropical Cebu into a northeastern blizzard to reflect on some of the key insights I got from the Global Voices community, the amazing Filipino netizens who hosted us and our guests from around the world.

Social media is moving into closed, private channels
Global Voices started as a project that rounded up blog posts from around the world, when possible organizing them into themed stories illustrating an aspect of the social media conversation in a country or region. Over time, we began offering citizen media perspectives on breaking news through the eyes of publicly readable citizen media: blogs, tweets, videos and public Facebook posts.

I’m starting to wonder whether we’re going to be able to keep operating this way in the future. Increasingly, citizen media is private, or semi-public, which raises really interesting questions about how we use it in our journalism. For example, in China, many political discussions shifted from Weibo (which is primarily public) when the company began verifying the identities of users. Many of those discussions moved to WeChat, where groups with hundreds or thousands of members feel like listservs or bulletin boards.

Is it ethical and fair to source stories from these semi-public spaces? There’s probably no general answer – it’s likely to be something that needs to be answered on a case-by-base basis. If the answer is that something can only be published if everyone on the list agrees, it’s going to make it very difficult to continue doing this work, and we’re likely to lose some of the ability to report on important conversations that haven’t reached broadcast media. If we don’t handle these questions carefully, we’re going to alienate the people we’re hoping to work with an amplify.

Whether conversations in these spaces are treated as public or private speech will be deeply important for journalism as more conversations move from explicitly public social media spaces into these complex semi-public spaces.

Platforms matter: Many of our conversations with activists suggested that the organizational work of activism has shifted from public-facing tools like Twitter and Facebook into mostly private tools like WhatsApp. When revolutionaries start planning social movement on WhatsApp, the architecture and policies of the platform become matters of intense importance. WhatsApp’s designers likely didn’t anticipate their app being used to coordinate revolutions, and once the tool is used that way in repressive environments, it raises questions of whether the platform is sufficiently careful in protecting its users. One answer is for activists to move to more secure platforms, like TextSecure. I’ve long argued, though, that most activism happens on the most accessible platforms, so it’s not easy to talk activists off from WhatsApp. That makes efforts like Moxie Marlinspike’s successful campaign to get WhatsApp to use end to end encryption incredibly important.

Platforms also matter because they control what speech is possible. Rebecca MacKinnon’s “Consent of the Networked” has been the key text for people to understand the problems of intermediary censorship, and in a session she ran on her new project, Ranking Digital Rights, Jillian York of the EFF explained that she sees community moderation policies as functionally controlling what sort of speech is possible on Facebook. Jill now worries more about corporate controls on speech than government controls, citing instances where Facebook has taken down pro-Palestinian speech that had been incorrectly flagged as supporting terrorism, while allowing far more inflammatory pro-Israel speech. The simple fact that Facebook took down the “We Are Khaled Said” Facebook group – which it later celebrated for helping organize the Tahrir Square protests – shows that the platform often gets speech issues wrong, with potentially serious consequences.

For some members of the Global Voices community, the failure to remove hate speech from these platforms is as disturbing as the potential of these platforms to be censored. Thant Sin from Myanmar described the ferocious climate of Burmese-language Facebook threads, where violent threats against religious groups, particularly the Muslim Rohingya, are alarmingly common. When he worked with other Myanmarese Facebook users to detect and report these threads, they were unsuccessful, for the basic reason that Facebook’s moderators could not read Burmese.

When I tweeted this, Elissa Shevinsky – CEO of Glimpse, a messaging app startup – asked why Facebook doesn’t simply hire Burmese speakers to address this issue. The answer is simple and unfortunate: the abuse team at any social media company is viewed as a cost center, and is inevitably under-resourced. Facebook and other companies rely on “flagging” by community members to identify content that should be further investigated or removed. (Kate Crawford and Tarleton Gillespie wrote a wonderful paper titled “What is a Flag For?” which explores the limitations of flags as a way of controlling and commenting on online speech – it’s a must-read for people interested in this topic.) When flagged content is in an unfamiliar language, Facebook has two bad alternatives: they can leave it (potentially ignoring hate speech) or block it (potentially censoring political speech.) Perhaps Facebook shouldn’t expand into markets where they cannot adequately monitor their content… but it’s hard to demand that a company develop robust mechanisms for abuse in a language before they have users in that language.

Jillian and colleagues at OnlineCensorship.org are now documenting the content Facebook and others block as a way of mapping the space of allowable speech online. I’m fascinated by this idea, and wonder whether the method Crawford and Gillespie use in their paper – flagging content to see how platforms respond – might work for Jillian. (Perhaps putting more offensive speech into the world to see how platforms respond isn’t a net positive for the world – there may be enough anger and hate online that simply documenting it well is enough.)

Images, not words I’m a wordy guy, as anyone who’s fought through one of my blogposts knows. But one of my big takeaways from this conference was the power and prominence of images as a form of political speech. Georgia Popplewell organized a massive session titled “The Revolution Will Be Illustrated”, where 13 Global Voices community members introduced us to work by cartoonists, illustrators and designers from their countries.

Many of the artists featured were traditional cartoonists, like Crisis Valero of Spain or Mexican-American cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz. But a few were graphic designers like Filipino activist Pixel Offensive, or Global Voices’s own Kevin Rothrock. Pixel Offensive produces simple, eye-catching graphics using images of Filipino politicians recontextualized, captioned and otherwise remixed. PXO’s work has a distinct color signature – yellow and black – which are the colors of the Aquino government. It’s a visual hijacking of the Presidential brand. PXO’s work isn’t as artistically skillful as that of an artist like Alcaraz, but that may well be part of the message: visual activism should be open to everyone who has something to say.

Kevin Rothrock clearly got that message. Co-editor of RuNet Echo, Global Voices’s opinionated and often controversial section focused on the Russian internet, Rothrock enjoys making trouble online, taunting the trolls who respond to his coverage. His posts for Global Voices are usually accompanied with satirical collages, where Vladimir Putin is remixed into every conceivable internet meme. Not every collage works for me, but some are hilarious, and it’s easy to imagine them spreading virally online.

What I most appreciated about Rothrock’s talk was that he encouraged the bloggers and writers in the audience to adopt his simple collage techniques for their own work, offering tricks of the trade. (Logos work well, as they’re designed to work in lots of different contexts, and Vladimir Putin shirtless, on horseback, makes any scene better.) Much as activists have learned to speak in short, tweetable statements to get their message to spread online, it may be time for activists and journalists to learn how to craft fast-spreading visual memes in the hopes of reaching broader audiences.

Representation, if not revolution In the wake of the Occupy movement, Indignados, Gezi and other recent popular protests, it’s reasonable to ask whether protest movements are more powerful for expressing dissent than they are in making fundamental changes to systems of power. Listening to panelists speak about protests in Mexico, Syria, Ukraine and Hong Kong, I thought of Zeynep Tufekçi’s idea that digital tools have made it easier to bring people out into the streets, but may have made the groups assembled with those tools weaker and more brittle. (Because it’s so easy to bring 50,000 people to a protest, Tufekçi argues, organizers have to do a lot less work ahead of time and end up having less influence and social capital with those protesters than they did in earlier years. When the protest ends and it’s time to try and influence governance, those movements have a hard time moving into power.)

One of the major messages from the conference was the idea that protest movements are increasingly focused on their own media representation. Tetyana Bohdanova, a Global Voices author from Ukraine, explained that Euromaidan protesters watched media reactions to their movement with increasing dismay, as credulous journalists adopted simplistic narratives. We tend to think of protesters as developing simple, sharp, propagandistic messages to motivate their followers. Instead, Bohdanova suggests that Euromaidan protesters were often in the odd position of fighting for subtlety and nuance, explaining the concept of “a revolution of dignity” to the press, who wanted to see the protest as a simple battle between Russia and the EU.

My colleague Sasha Costanza-Chock argues that making media is a fundamental part of making protest movements, and stories from the Citizen Media Summit seem to support that contention. From Ukraine to Gaza, activists are tweeting in English to try and influence portrayals of their movements. Understanding social media as a channel for mobilization – the most common narrative about technology and protest – gives us only a partial picture. For activists and protesters, media is at least as important once people are in the streets, to report what’s happened, to document abuses and to represent the movement to the world.

Crisis response is a driver for social media use.
The Philippines is hit by an average of twenty typhoons a year, including massive storms like Typhoon Haiyan, which killed 6300 people. Isolde Amante and other Filipino colleagues explained that citizen media has become a primary source of information in these crises, that newspapers are far more likely to hear about these events via social media than via radio or other broadcast channels.

There have been lots of stories celebrating the power of social media to assist with crisis response – how Ushahidi was used to assist recovery efforts in Port au Prince after the Haitian earthquake, for instance. But these accounts usually describe social media contributions as an epiphenomenon. Conversations in the Philippines suggest that we might expect social media to take a lead role in breaking the news of disasters and, possibly, in coordinating responses.

Social Media is about taking sides.
That phrase comes from Phil Howard’s forthcoming book “Pax Technica”, and it struck me as helpful in processing the conversations we had at Global Voices. We’ve always considered Global Voices to be a journalistic project – we’ve asked our authors to cover conversations taking place in their national online spheres in a way that’s balanced and fair, even if we reject classical notions of journalistic objectivity. But it’s also clear that many of the folks involved with Global Voices are passionate advocates for various causes: for freedom of speech online, for their nation to be represented differently in international media, for political causes.

Increasingly, I feel like Global Voices is a platform for “advocacy journalism” in the best sense of the term: much of it advocates for change in the world and features the people fighting to make those changes. And Phil’s description of social media as being about taking sides seems right to me. Those sides aren’t explicitly political – people using social media for hurricane relief are taking sides against a natural disaster and for the benefit of the victims. But the line between asking for friends and followers to pay attention to you and trying to harness that attention for change is a blurry one, and much of what works in social media presumes a position of advocacy.


For me, Global Voices summits are always a joyful time, a chance to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. This one was also wonderful food for thought, and I can’t wait to continue these conversations with the community over the next two years until we see each other in person again.

January 25, 2015

Global Voices Summit: Do We Feed the Trolls?

Filed under: Blogs and bloggers,Global Voices — Ethan @ 3:00 am

Five days with Global Voices leaves me feeling pretty good about the state of the world, and the shape of the internet. But the ‘net is not always a friendly place. Our post-lunch session on the closing day of our conference is “Do We Feed the Trolls?”, hosted by the estimable Jillian York, of Global Voices and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Noemi Lardizabal-Dado, a celebrated Filipina momblogger. In 2006, she started blogging as a mother who had lost a child. In 2009, she founded blogwatch.ph, a leading Filipino citizen media site. She’s now an empty nester after years as a fulltime homemaker. Her motivation for writing online is making a difference in her children’s lives, but by making the world a better place.

She tells us, “I don’t feed the trolls – the trolls feed me.” Years ago, she interviewed a Filipina who accused her UK boyfriend for fraud – she continues to be harrassed online by him. She called out a showbiz celebrity on child abuse and remains engaged with his supporters online. Now, in writing about the cutting of pine trees in front of a big shopping mall, she’s facing a new wave of trolling.

The trolls Noemi encounters include people motivated by their own opinions and interests, but also by bots that respond to keywords, trolls hired to do “black operations”, and the bored individual seeking attention. She shows a slide with the names she’s called: slacktivist, brandbasher, mom-blocker.

trolls
Kevin Rothrock offers advice on the fine art of troll-feeding

How do you ignore a troll? Do your own SEO to ensure that you’re more visible than what the trolls are saying – put your name out in the medium where they are attacking you. Use your allies as troll-slayers – let them fight your battles. When people get really awful, she blocks or bans them. She prefers not to engage in arguments, but ultimately, she believes the best goal is to show troll stupidity.

Showing a slide titled “Keep Calm and Call the Cyber Police”, she tells us about a story when she began getting death threats for accusing a politician of child abuse. The Philippines have a law against death threats, so she felt empowered to bring law enforcement into the equation.

“Trolls feed me,” she says. Often they give me ideas for stories to cover. And they give me more twitter followers (Check her out at @momblogger.) If you’re being trolled, perhaps this is an added benefit. She suggests that you should also listen to the trolls – you don’t want to be caught in your own filter bubble, your own private internet. Sometimes trolling is intelligent commentary wrapped in bombast.

Arzu Geybullayeva notes that her trolls have a different agenda. They accuse her of being a secret agent, of being a traitor, or they simply sexually harass her.

She does, in fact, speak several languages, and she notes that it’s odd to think that there are people in the world who actually believe she is an agent for Armenia, Azerbaijan’s historical enemy. She is highly critical of Azerbaijan, which leads people to see her as a secret Armenian. Since she also writes for an Armenian newspaper in Turkey, that’s further fuel for their beliefs. Others see her as an agent for secret Western powers.

In truth, Arzu focuses on building peace and understanding in the Caucuses. But this work has now made her a major figure for troll attacks online. She wishes she felt as warmly about her trolls as Noemi does, but the attacks have often been quite personal and scary.

Lina Attalah, who writes for a number of Egyptian publications, notes that trolling is often similar across different cultures – she, too, finds herself often accused of being a secret agent. In Egypt, she notes that politics has been reduced to a simple binary: the military or the Muslim Brotherhood. If you choose a third, independent path, you become a magnet for trolling.

Her newspaper covered the massacre of a Muslim Brotherhood campsite by the police. They were one of very few papers to cover the atrocity. She is very clear that she and her paper are not pro-Brotherhood, but they felt this grave abuse of rights was critical. Once they documented the massacre, the trolls came out in force.

“There is very little logic when it comes to trollers’ responses.” The same people called them Hamas supporters and Israeli spies. Trolling isn’t just an online phenomenon, she says – it is fed by the political context in which it grows.

“I don’t like responding because I don’t have energy for it,” Attalah says. Furthermore, you don’t ever want to defend your nuanced position in the face of this simplistic binary. Not being responsive to trolls is critical to maintaining their independence as a media outlet.

Kevin Rothrock, co-editor of Global Voices’ RuNet Echo, is introduced as one of our most frequent troll targets. Rothrock notes that as a man, he’s not subject to the weird sexual aggression women experience online. As someone reporting on Russia from the US, he’s not directly at risk as he would be on the ground. “I can talk about trolling as a business or an art, because I’m very far outside it.” He notes that some people at Global Voices are writing out of expertise or interest, not knowledge on the ground – when they get trolled, it’s a different, more distant, experience.

When reporting on Russia, Kevin says, I get it on both sides. RuNet Echo is funded by Open Society Foundation, Kevin is based in Washington, DC, and these facts lead trolls to believe he’s a State Department propagandist. But his reporting also tears apart many of the cherished myths of the Russian opposition. When you draw attention to this tensions, the Russian left often criticizes him as a traitor to their work.

“Do I feed the trolls? I interview them!” RuNet Echo has interviewed pro-Kremlin trolls. He worries that this may be making them stronger, but they’re a key piece of the Russian online ecosystem. When you’re writing from afar, though, trolling can be intellectually stimulating and interesting – Kevin says he gets his best troll responses when he’s waiting in line in the supermarket. It’s a form of mental exercise.

York notes that Kevin’s very first statement was about gender. Jill notes that while she usually works at a distance, she often does feel threatened by people locally who respond to her online. She asks the panel whether this sense of threat is more about gender or locality.

Arzu believes that trolling is a response to outspokenness. Threatening you with rape and sexual violence is a way of using the intimidating power of a patriarchal society. Women in Azerbaijan often do feel intimidated by male power and violence. Issues like reconcilliation, which she works on, seem to particularly trigger the trolls. But her commitment to the work keeps her going in the face of these threats.

“Being a women gives trolls more ideas”, explains Attalah. Her male colleagues get similarly attacked, but the attacks on them are not sexual and are less personal. Arzu notes that the attacks that are most disturbing don’t target her, but her mother.

Noting that Global Voices contributors are frequently targeted by government trolls, she asks the panel whether they feel targeted by governments. For Noemi, the similarity of language used by some of her trolls suggests a coordinated, anti-left campaign that is likely to have government support. Rothrock notes that the Russian government certainly sponsors and pays pro-Kremlin trolls – there’s well established research on troll factories and troll farms. These are likely owners of small PR firms who ideologically support Putin. These people interest Rothrock, because he appreciates the authenticity of their views, even if he worries that their attacks are damaging the online space for civil society. Attalah notes that researchers are investigating “electronic armies” of trollers as a different group from individual users.

York notes that when she wrote a story about Azerbaijan she got a wave of responses telling her how wonderful and beautiful the country was. Arzu notes that Azerbaijan is a country that’s happy to construct a Potemkin reality, including hosting its own version of an international Olympics. It’s not a surprise that the government would mobilize an army to respond to online criticism.

Trolling implies little, unempowered individuals complaining, but York worries most about trolling that “punches down”, with powerful individuals threatening weaker actors. Arzu notes that trolling really began to scare her when a noted television presenter, who knows her father personally, began denouncing her on air.

York holds a straw poll, asking the audience whether or not we should feed the trolls. A significant group supports feeding the trolls, a minority believes we never should, and many are undecided. Attalah, Arzu and Noemi note that they’ve got too much to do as writers and activists to feed the trolls.

As for Rothrock: “Feed them ’til they choke on it.”

Jeremy Clarke wonders if anyone has ever converted a troll, changing their view? Rothrock notes that by engaging with trolls, he’s sometimes able to get involved with more civil, productive discussions. Some of these trolls are quite smart, and he appreciates what he’s learned from them. York notes that the opposite has happened to her – she’s had an acquaintance turn into a troll.

A questioner notes that she writes online about sexuality, and routinely is attacked with sexual language directed at her and at her mother. She simply retweets these attacks and lets her reporters respond. One troll was so persistent, he attacked everything she wrote. As an experiment, she simply tweeted a visit to Starbucks – he attacked that as well. Finally, so frustrated, she asked the troll if he had the balls to meet her in person. She set a date and a time, and showed up at a café her friends own – the troll never showed up, and also stopped attacking her.

Gershom Ndhlovu, a Global Voices volunteer from Zambia, tells us that the new Zambian government bought 600 computers and gave them out to party cadres, and paid for data plans for those supporters. If you wrote anything about the government on Facebook, these guys would attack you in response. Troll armies are real and can be powerful.

Kevin Rennie from Australia notes that trolls try to dominate hashtag conversations. He wonders how this can be combatted. Rothrock notes that it’s easy to flood a hashtag. Instead, you need to rely on more closed conversations, which rely on individual thought leaders. He does note that it’s dangerous to assume that anyone who’s angry or disruptive online is part of an organized movement. It’s dangerous to dismiss genuine constituencies that disagree with your point of view. In Russia, Putin has enormous support. When people destroy a hashtag, it’s not always a bot army – it may be legitimate dissent.

Thant Sin from Myanmar notes that the internet in his country is utterly filled with religious and racist hate speech. Posts can be followed with hundreds of comments with hate speech. The experience is one of an ongoing battle on the comments on Facebook. He explains that we believe that these commenters are being encouraged by the government, but that this is unproven. His personal response is to ignore these angry threads.

A questioner addresses his question to “the male CIA agent”, and asks how he would respond to trolls speaking to him in the real world. Rothrock notes that he’d be a very different person online if he were engaged from Russia rather than from the US. He suspects he would be far more careful and would watch what he says, which would mean he’d have a very different online experience.

Filip Stojanovski references a case in Macedonia where a government news portal is run by anonymous people. It’s a trolling infrastructure supported by two hundred thousand Euros in government advertising. One popular tactic is identifying people in photos of protests, which Amira Al-Hussaini notes is popular in Bahrain. He wonders if it would be ethical for us to develop an index of trolls, at least of government trolls? Rothrock notes that he and his RuNet Echo co-editor are in a database as “pathological Rusaphobes”. York notes that some trolls have been immortalized in the Encyclopedia Dramatica. Noemi notes that she doesn’t want to give any more visibility to these trolls and wouldn’t want to immortalize them this way – they would probably enjoy them. Arzu maintains her own personal folder.

Janice from Bulaplap.com, a progressive media outlet in the Philippines, notes that her outlet is “red tagged”, accused of being associated with terrorist groups in the Philippines. “Bulaplap” is a term meaning “unearth”, but also has sexual connotations. The Arroyo government created a mirror site of Bulaplap that contained pornographic images, suggesting that the media site was really about pornography. She wonders whether those of us who control our own blogs should censor trolling comments.

Attalah tells us that the commenting policy on her newspaper has been not to censor anything. At this point, though, they are reconsidering in the case of hate speech and threats of sexual violence. Arzu closes with the observation: “Trolls are trolls. Don’t let them stop the work we’re doing.”

Global Voices Summit: Online Crisis Reporting

Filed under: Global Voices,Human Rights,Media — Ethan @ 12:03 am

Many of the panels at the Global Voices summit offer a global perspective on difficult reporting challenges. “When the Stakes Are High and the Story Ever Changing: Online Crisis Reporting” Moderator Lauren Finch explains that these look like simple stories to handle: they erupt, a professional or citizen reporter offers their take, and we repeat as necessary. But that’s becoming harder and harder.

Governments routinely go into propaganda overdrive, and we need to unpack what’s real, what’s imagined and aspirational. A flood of citizen generated media means we can illustrate a crisis more thoroughly, but it also means we have an ongoing challenge to verify. People in a crisis are often going through trauma, which demands compassion and caution in coverage. And all these factors take place under an intense time crunch. Our panel features professional and citizen journalists who’ve taken on crisis reporting around the globe.

Mohamed Nanabhay, former head of online at Al Jazeera English and Global Voices board member, remembers the Egyptian revolution as an event that taught him lessons about crisis reporting. On January 25, 2011, Al Jazeera was ready to roll out a massive story: The Palestine Papers, a massive document leak that offered an inside look into the Israel/Palestine negotiations. Al Jazeera had spent months on the story, producing documentaries, online features and the whole organization was ready to break the story.

In this case, Jazeera had lousy timing. Their stringer in Cairo let them know that protests were taking place in Tahrir Square, but the newsroom dismissed the reports: there’s always a protest in Egypt. Al Jazeera is not exactly short on Egypt experts, but they were initially blind to the significance of the protest. For Mohamed, he began to understand what Jazeera needed to do by monitoring Twitter. People on Twitter were taking the revolution very seriously, connecting it to the revolution in Tunisia, and wondering why Jazeera wasn’t reporting it, speculating a Doha-based conspiracy to support Mubarak.

Al Jazeera had one small story about the protest and was working to direct web viewers to the Palestine Papers story, but that little story was getting massive attention. So the newsroom, led by Twitter and by activists demanding coverage, directed by their traffic statistics, decided to deploy multiple journalists and take on the story in a serious way.

Isolde Amante is a print reporter based in Cebu. In the 23 years she’s worked, last year featured a stretch of 23 days that were more challenging than any others she’d ever experienced. On October 15, 2013, a magnitude 7.2 quake struck in Bohol, killing over 200 people. On November 5, 2013, a tornado destroyed 70 houses. And on November 8, 2013, Typhoon Haiyan impacted near Cebu. It was the worst storm ever to hit the Philippines and killed 6300.

Given the other big stories, Amante says that her paper had fewer than 5 reporters available to cover the story. They disabled their beat system and simply covered whatever they could as fast and as properly as they could.

Haiyan is not the only typhoon to have struck Cebu – locals remember Typhoon Mike from 1990. But in comparison with past crises, social media transformed how journalists covered this typhoon. When the tornado broke a few days earlier, her newsroom heard about it not via radio, but via Twitter. Someone tweeted a report and a photo directly to the newspaper.

Social media has also made it possible to cover ongoing efforts to rebuild from the typhoon. When CNN and the BBC stopped reporting on the crisis, the Cebu papers continued, featuring stories on survivors and rebuilding, often using data delivered to them online.

News organizations are also able to be more proactive in the days of digital media. Weather information in the Philippines tends to be limited to storms within the nation’s borders. Cebu newspapers now rely on Japanese weather info and on the twitter streams of meteorologists who warn of typhoons reaching the island.

The demand for information has also become more urgent as the audience for news is changing. There are 10 million Filipinos based abroad who wanted to know what was going on in the wake of the typhoon. As a result, the most popular feature on the Cebu Sun Star’s website was a list of the missing. News organizations now see themselves serving both local and global audiences simultaneously.

Finally, social media has helped mobilize community support. Amante notes that 56% of post-typhoon aid came from the local private sector, while only 8% came from local governments. The newspapers did their part, printing lists of rural communities that had not received aid, repeating until those communities got their fair share.

She notes that the Philippines seems to be getting better at crisis response. Typhoon Hagupit was a stronger storm than Haiyan, but there were fewer casualties. “Maybe we’re making progress.”

Joey Ayoub writes about Palestine and about Lebanon. He notes he’s wearing a Palestinian keffiyah given to him from a friend from Haifa, halfway between Beruit, where he lives, and Gaza, which he often covers.

In the last Gaza conflict, over the course of 50 days, over 2000 Palestinians were killed. 78% were civilians. Joey notes that 77 families were wiped out entirely. Gaza is a very small territory, extremely poor and 45% of the population is less than 14 years old. A six year old Gazan, he explains, has experienced three major wars, or using the term he prefers, massacres.

Despite the fact that Gaza is closed, it’s easy to cover via social media. “Gazans tweet in English because they know that the only thing that can stop this hell is the West.” He features some of the tweets from Gaza that helped illustrate the most recent war, pointing to Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor who lives and works in Gaza. 13 of 16 Gazan hospitals were destroyed in the war, which meant that children needed to be taken to Egypt for emergency surgeries. Joey shows a picture of a child’s passport photo. The child is wearing a oxygen mask as the passport was an emergency one and the photo was taken of the child in the hospital.

Social media also allows for counternarratives. Ben Cohen, an online activist, posted a tweet that went viral, a photo of himself with Gazan children. It had the ironic title: “Selfie with greatest threat to Israel”. When the Times of Israel republished an oped from an American newspaper titled “When Genocide is Permissible”, online activists demanded its takedown, and documented its presence on this major Israeli news site before it was removed.

Chloe Lai is a long-time Hong Kong journalist, who after 15 years with commercial papers is now running a small website, an online magazine promoting sustainable development. She also writes for InMediaHK, which she describes as working a similar model to Global Voices, using citizen voices to document current events.

She suggests that Occupy Central in Hong Kong should challenge the narrative of Hong Kong media as open and free. Apple Daily, the sole pro-democracy newspaper, has been firebombed twice, once at their offices, once at the publisher’s home. The paper’s printing plant was surrounded by pro-China protesters to prevent the paper from distributing their papers. Online attacks rendered the paper’s website inaccessible, so for a short period of time, Apple Daily was only able to distribute news via Facebook and other social media.

Direct attempts to intimidate journalists are complemented by incidents of self-censorship. Lai shows us a video of a protester being carried off by police officers into a dark corner, then kicked and beaten by six police officers. It was shot at 3am during a night of the protests, and aired at 6am on Hong Kong’s most popular TV station with a voiceover explaining the context for the video. The head of the newsroom called the office at 6:35am and demanded that the newsroom edit it to remove the voice over.

The video, with voiceover, went viral, and reporters wrote an open letter to the newsroom chief protesting the decision. All the people who wrote the letter were brough to a meeting where the newsroom chief justified his decision, explaining “You are not the worm in the police officer’s body – how can you be sure what happened?” He ordered the newsroom to stop talking about a “dark corner” where the incident took place and demanded that they allow the audience to form their own opinions.

A reporter recorded the meeting, shared it and it, too went viral. Even when mainstream press are self censoring, social media channels are making it harder for stories to be silenced.

January 24, 2015

Global Voices Summit: Social Media in the Philippines

Filed under: Global Voices — Ethan @ 12:46 am

We’ve been asked several times why Global Voices is holding a summit in Cebu, the second-largest city in the Philippines. That’s a pretty easy answer: Nini Cabaero of the Sun Sentinel, a former student of mine at MIT, made a great case for the friendliness of the Cebuano people and argued that we would get a richer picture of the Philippines if we met outside the highly globalized and cosmopolitan capital. (She’s right – it’s been a fantastic introduction to the diversity of the Philippines, a nation of 7000 islands, and of many different languages and cultures.)

But why the Philippines? Global Voices holds our meetings in countries that do not censor the Internet, and in Southeast Asia, internet censorship is quite widespread. But the Philippines is also attractive as it is a hotbed for social media. Leading Filipino media expert Tonyo Cruz tells us that of the 100 million Filipino people, 44 million have access to the internet at home, via business, school, or smartphones. 40m are users of social media, a remarkable percentage. Evidence suggests that Filipinos are the most voracious users of the internet, spending an average of six hours a day online. Fleire Castro, a blogger and relief work activist, suggests that this may be because the internet is so slow – it’s possible that those six hours are spent loading a single viral video.

filipinosocial
Filipino social media experts at Global Voices Summit

Tonyo Cruz notes that there are thriving blogging communities in Cebu, Mindanao, Luzon, throughout the Visayas, as well as in Manila. Bloggers are now widely recognized as members of the media. Some bloggers have graduated into business as social media managers. While some of this media is personal and silly – the Philippines is now known as the selfie capital of the world – bloggers are also becoming journalists, wittingly or unwittingly. A project called Blogwatch encouraged citizens to use online media to document and protect their votes in 2010. Bloggers rented a cable television station and held a show on election day, offering blow by blow reports.

Social media is also a tool for social change outside the electoral system. Hashtag campaigns like #rescueph, #reliefph have raised money for typhoon relief. A crowdsourced “magna carta” for internet freedom has been central to a movement for online rights. And recently, a million person march organized online took on the pork barrel system in Congress, Cruz tells us.

These campaigns unfold largely on Facebook, the most popular network in the Philippines, but also on Skype, Google+, Twitter and Viber. Blogs remain powerful, though, especially as a way of speaking out against media misrepresentations. Ruben Licera, a longtime blogger and social media expert, tells us the story of a campaign by a Cebuano blogger to combat an ad campaign featuring and misrepresenting indigenous Cebuano hero Lapu-Lapu to sell diapers. His blog, amplified by Licera and others, gathered thousands to the cause and through viral spread, forced EQ Diaper to pull the ad. Another blog campaign debunked a story about a Filipino politician being banned from entering an airbase because the UN demanded that Filipinos not touch UN aid goods. This image and the accompanying story spread widely online, until a blogger researched the imagine and revealed that it was actually of a Filipino politician being warmly greeted by a US commodore. This campaign points to the dangers and power of social media, especially when accounts spread without being checked.

There’s great civic promise for social media in the Philippines. Fleire Castro, who is active in relief efforts, tells us about #oneforiligan, a campaign to support the victims of the Sendong typhoon in Iligan. It urged people to donate at least one dollar to fund relief efforts. Since the campaign was basically a hashtag and instructions to donate to the Iligan Bloggers Society, it was easy for dozens of microorganizations to join in the movement. Ultimately, it raised 1 million pesos (roughly $25,000) in small donations, plus donated goods, which the blogger group delivered for typhoon aid.

Tonyo Cruz points out that there could be greater social impact from digital media if not for the digital divide. During the most recent set of typhoons, Filipinos were expecting to hear damage reports from far flung areas, but no reports came. This has to do with infrastructure issues – these areas are very poor, and connectivity is limited, if not non-existent. “The digital divide blunts the effectiveness of data for social good.”

On the positive side, Cruz believes that bloggers are challenging a problem with Filipino media: credulity. There’s no local culture of factchecking, he explains. “When the president gives a state of the union address, the reporting focuses more on what people wear, what they ate, than on checking the President’s claims.” Social media is making it possible to check these assertions.

The panelists agree on two steps the blogger community should take in the Philippines – they should start holding local blogger conferences, inspired by Global Voices, and they might agree to a general code of conduct: “Bloggers should be honest, fair, accountable and minimize harm.” As bloggers ask to be taken seriously as journalists, it may be appropriate for them to be held to these basic ethical standards.

January 23, 2015

Global Voices Summit: “Our Voices, Ourselves”

Filed under: Global Voices — Ethan @ 11:29 pm

One of the more remarkable efforts Global Voices is engaged with is Rising Voices, a mentoring and microgranting project that calls attention to stories from marginalized people and groups around the world. One of the projects were are currently supporting is “Our Voices, Ourselves”, a project focused on girls’ rights in Kyrgyzstan. It’s represented by Dariya Kasmamytova and Aishoola Aisaeva in Cebu, both under 21 years old. They are leading a campaign that is helping young women talk about the barriers and persecution they experience in their daily lives.

Dariya tells us the story of a 15 year old girl, abandoned by her stepfather and left at a government shelter. She was bullied and abused, then kidnapped, forced into child marriage, and locked in the home of her husband, where she was treated like a slave and like an object, not like a human being. She identifies two problems: the government is not correctly protecting vulnerable children, and there are cultural barriers to full protection of Kyrgyz girls. There’s a culture of “uyat” – shame. Your body is a shame and you cannot talk about it. The culture encourages boys to be violent and protect themselves, and to keep girls at a lower social status than boys.

The women are opening a club for girls in Kyrgyzstan, to give a space of support and understanding, free of the threat of violence. They have been provoking debate and promoting the work using an online video campaign titled What Girls are Silent About”. Over images of Kyrgyz girls sitting in silence, young women talk about girls being forced into marriage, told they cannot study math or science, told that their place is in the home. Another striking video shows a Kyrgyz girl singing in the style of Manas, a traditional Kyrgyz epic, which is traditionally only sung by men. The message: we have voices too and are ready to act. We are part of our society, we are part of the power of the people.

You can follow the project on Twitter at @girlactivist_kg or read the stories at
devochkiaktivistki.kloop.kg. This is an amazing project, and exactly what I’ve always hoped Global Voices can do to support important projects around the world.

Global Voices Summit: Protecting the Open Internet

Filed under: Global Voices — Ethan @ 11:12 pm

Every two years, Global Voices comes together for a community meeting. Over a hundred of our authors, translators, editors and management have been meeting this week in Cebu, the second largest city in the Philippines. For two days of our meeting, we’re opening our discussions to the Filipino public, hosting a public gathering at the provincial capitol of Cebu. The discussions are streamed online, and more than two hundred of our members as well as local and international activists and media figures are here with us.

The main theme for our conference is the obligation of those of us who participate in citizen media to protect and defend the open internet. With this in mind, the event begins with a solemn ritual. Eight Global Voices contributors read the names of bloggers and writers who are imprisoned by their governments or extremist forces for their online writing. They read dozens of names, from Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Cuba, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Israel, Kuwait, Macedonia, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, the USA and Vietnam. The names include members of our community like Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fatah, and the Zone9 bloggers collective from Ethiopia, where four Global Voices bloggers are imprisoned. Barret Brown, recently sentenced to a lengthy prison term for linking to an online document represents the US on this shameful list. The Global Voices statement demands that governments fulfill their duties to the universal declaration of human rights, noting “We cannot remain silent and you should not either.”

The first panel, hosted by Chinese University of Hong Kong professor Lokman Tsui, is titled “Protecting the Open Internet is Everyone’s Business”. As someone with his historical roots in the Netherlands and in Hong Kong, Lokman identifies his home country as “the internet” and notes that protecting the open internet is literally protecting our home. He introduces Nani Jansen, legal director of Media Legal Defense Initiative in London, which is managing more than 100 cases around the world including many threats to freedom of expression. She is therefore in a terrific position to offer an overview of threats to freedom of expression around the world. Internet specific legislation like Act 66A in India, which makes it a punishable crime to “cause annoyance or inconvenience to another with online posts or email”, is a great example of a chilling law. With people facing three year sentences for these vague crimes, the law is often used to surpress political speech. In the Philippines, a recent cybercrime law has extended criminal libel laws onto the internet, now offering up to six years for online defamation. Azerbaijan was promising to decriminalize defamation in 2006, but now extends those laws to the internet, offering up to three years in prison.

Governments also continue to block internet content without court order, Ms. Jansen explains. The Zambian Watchdog, one of the country’s few critical media sites, was blocked within Zambia since 2013. The site was accessible externally, but the block locally was a key restriction on speech, and when Reporters without Borders mirrored the site and had their mirror blocked as well. In Pakistan, YouTube was blocked for almost two years. Jansen explains that there’s no basis in law for these blocks – any ministry can simply contact the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority and demand a site be blocked. Intermediary liability, holding a site responsible for the actions of a commenter or poster, is another form of online control. The extension of traditional media laws to online content can have a chilling effect as well. In Russia, the new blogger’s law turns online publications into traditional publications, which adds onerous new administrative requirements to online speech, causing some blogs to shut down. In Italy, it’s difficult to force removal of content via libel laws, so copyright laws are often abused to bully sites into compliance. Protecting online speech involves being vigilant on all these fronts simultaneously.

Chiranuch Premchaiporn from Prachatai, a leading activist and citizen media site, talks about resistance online and offline to media blackouts after the May 22 coup. International news stations were blocked on television, and viewers who wanted to see BBC or CNN saw a screen with the logos of the coup government. Subway stations were preemptively closed in the fear that they would be locations for protests. In response, Thai activists and citizens found ways to protest creatively, online and offline. The three finger salute from the Hunger Games has become a popular sign of protest, and the coup government has responded by detaining those who display the signal for up to a week for “attitude adjustment”.

The three finger salute has also moved online, and into stickers and graffiti, as this symbol: .|||. Another popular sticker is 2+2=4. It’s a reference to a viral video of a teacher who was trying to teach students that 2+2=5. It’s become a symbol of disobedience and resistance. Thai citizens have been remarkable in using digital media as a space for protest. When a group of high school girls were forced to walk a long distance on their knees on cement as a form of collective punishment for being late to school, the girls documented the wounds to their knees by publishing the photos online. The accompanying hashtag campaign went viral and proved extremely embarrassing for the school.

Premchaiporn makes the point that people who live in countries with no offline freedom feel more freedom online. But she warns that the authorities will eventually come for you online as well. It’s a cat and mouse game – hundreds of Facebook users have been arrested for lege mageste in military courts. We need friends who live in freer areas to ask their government to stand firm and resist censorship, and ask the companies we use for online services to protect their users.

Al Alegre from the Foundation for Media Alternatives reminds us that Cebu has several special significances for Filipino activists. It is the home of Lapu Lapu, a brave Cebuano who resisted colonization in the 1600s. It’s also the place where the Philippines were first connected to the internet in 1994. Alegre offers a quick tour of global threats to privacy: mobile phone surveillance; using backdoors of coercion, cooperation and corruption to gain information from telephone companies; backdoors in critical tools like Skype; key internet companies giving user information to governments. The Snowden revelations are only the latest bad news in a long, ugly story. And even the good guys have their dark sides, argues Alegre. Google has been good about revealing information they’ve been forced to give to governments, but has violated privacy with their Street View cameras. He encourages us to read the UN report from Frank LaRue, crediting it as “probably the most comprehensive report on how privacy and surveillance has impacted human rights.”

Alegre warns that we are likely to see more requests for surveillance in the wake of Charlie Hebdo. It’s not just direct surveillance of communications, but surveillance of transaction records – when we shop, make a phone call, or move around the world. He reminds us that “if the product is free, we are the product”. Why should we worry about digital surveillance? Isn’t privacy a shield for corruption?

He argues that we need to build a link between online privacy and other rights. We need to consider complementary rights in the human right regime and need to protect rights equally, indivisibly. He closes with a horrific Filipino story about the importance of surveillance. On November 23, 2009, 63 people, including 31 media practitioners, were killed in an act of political violence called the Ampatuan massacre. The people were surveilled and ambushed on a ridge as a mayoral candidate attempted to register his election papers. No one has been convicted. He asks us to #endimpunity, and to demand that human rights include a right to be free of surveillance.

December 5, 2011

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

Filed under: Global Voices,Human Rights — Ethan @ 11:55 am

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

June 13, 2011

Understanding #amina

Filed under: Blogs and bloggers,Global Voices,Human Rights,Media — Ethan @ 9:21 am

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 GayMiddleEast.com, 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: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2011/jun/13/syrian-lesbian-blogger-hoaxer-video

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.”

May 27, 2011

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.

May 6, 2011

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 Nawaat.org, 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.

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