10 Tactics

What happens when “noxious” civil society groups use digital campaigning tactics for “nefarious” purposes?

Alaa Abd El-Fatah, Technologist, Egypt. Animation by Toby Newsome
Alaa Abd El-Fatah, Technologist, Egypt. Animation by Toby Newsome

Last Friday night I spent an interesting evening with the folks from the Tactical Technology Collective, who show communities and campaigning groups how to use new technologies to their advantage. I’ve long been a fan, because I think that their NGO in Box project (in its several iterations) is a simple idea that’s probably extra effective because of good design.

We were at the Frontline Club in Paddington for the screening of their documentary, 10 Tactics, which gave real world tips for digital advocacy. The tactics include presenting a visual message, using humour and animation to reach difficult groups, and amplifying personal stories to make a more effective message. We saw what free and open source tools were available to do this.

Much of the film focused on working in developing countries, where IT technologies are still emerging and people don’t have information at their fingertips. Many of the tactics have information delivery as an end in itself, for example, telling Zimbabweans where to vote or rural farmers in India where to find information on their land rights. This direct communication with what charities might call their “beneficiaries” is very different from many UK charity campaigns, which tend to be about raising awareness of a problem amongst people who are not suffering from it (in the case of PEN, say, we spend a fair amount of time campaigning to let our members in the UK know about the censorship and persecution of writers overseas). I would describe this type of campaigning as presenting a second order message (not “do this” but “do this for other people”) or even a third order message (“the government should do this for other people”) – I’m sure hardened charity campaigners have a more sophisticated taxonomy for these different types of message. One criticism I heard about 10 Tactics is that it did not offer enough advice for this second and third order campaigning. Perhaps we need another film which explains how to call people in the UK to action. Or maybe that’s a red herring, and the need for direct first order campaigning in the southern hemisphere should be the priority.

The after-film discussion was led by Darius Cuplinskas of the Open Society Foundation, who raised a concern that many people who are otherwise excited by New Media seem to have: what happens when “noxious” civil society groups use these tactics for “nefarious” purposes? Worse, how do we guard against the possibility that oppressive governments will use new technologies to spread disinformation?

Sameer Padania of WITNESS was bullish on this point. First, he said, activists learn from other campaigns around the world. Protesters in the Saffron Revolution in Burma in 2007 posted videos and images of their marches online, allowing the authorities to identify and punish them. But when it was the turn of dissidents in Tibet and Iran to protest, they had learnt the lesson of Burma, and covered their faces! They are also learning about ways to communicate when authorities shut down parts of the communicaions network. So people become much more savvy about the power of technology.

And with this savviness (says Sameer) comes a better visual literacy and media literacy. People have a greater understanding of how images and video can mislead. They are more likely to recognise propaganda and photoshopping in the first instance, and also more likely to question the veracity of sources, and to fact-check. We saw this in the #IranElection protests, where an important task of the Twitter community there was to fact-check itself, double-sourcing reports and debunking rumour. Very quickly, certain users gained more authority and trust than others.

My own addition to this thought is an idealistic one, which is that truth carries it’s own authority. Fakers and fraudsters can be exposed, but if you’re telling the truth then you can’t be caught out. Perhaps that’s the best tactic of all.

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