How Effective Are Free Speech Campaigns?

First posted over at the English PEN site.

In her monthly column for MediaShift, Jillian York (Director of International Free Expression at the EFF, and a Global Voices board member) turned her attention to online campaigns for imprisoned bloggers. In particular, how can a campaign be effective in a country like Syria, which has recently become impervious to international pressure?

As part of the piece, Jillian asked several free speech campaigners for their views on the question, and I responded on behalf of English PEN:

When a blogger is imprisoned, it is not just his voice that is silenced. Those who share his point of view are discouraged by his example, and choose to keep quiet. A public solidarity campaign on social media can have the opposite effect, emboldening others to speak out and fill the void left by their imprisoned comrade … so while the text of a message may be “Free Hussein Ghrer,” the subtext is “We Have Not Forgotten Hussein Ghrer,” which is a powerful message to send to the authorities. Sending letters or (as English PEN does) books to these prisoners carries a similar message.

You can read more of my comments, alongside those of several bloggers who are on the frontline of activism, at the MediaShift website. You can leave comments there too.

After the Debate

While I certainly stand behind the broad message of my Oxford Union speech, it is only right to acknowledge that the subject of debate – the impact of social media on social activism – is a little more nuanced and complicated than my bolshy assertions would have you believe. It’s worth acknowledging some of the arguments in favour of the motion, and expanding on some of the issues I was only able to cruise by in my eight minutes at the despatch box.

First, I wrote down a phrase from Mark Pfeifle, where he described social media as enabling “the soft power of democracy”. I thought this was a persuasive point. My speech focused on social activism in the UK and the USA, where there is a long tradition of social activism, and therefore ‘reinventing’ such activism is a very tough proposition. By contrast, those countries plagued by dictatorship have a stunted tradition of social action, so any tool that enables any kind of activism might be seen as a ‘reinvention’.
Continue reading “After the Debate”

Twitter Censored in Pakistan

Over at the English PEN site, I have rehearsed the issue of social media censorship. Here’s an excerpt:

When such controversies flare, it is also important to remember that the social networks are corporations, intent on making money. This was made very clear to us all this week, when Facebook was listed on the NASDAQ. To justify its $100 billion valuation, the site needs new users, and it will get them from populous countries with technical infrastructure… like China, India and Pakistan. In order to secure access to these users, the company will have to co-operate (some might even say ‘collaborate’) with the governments of those countries. We should expect to see more censorship of the sort Pakistani users saw over the weekend, and also more sophisticated forms of control. People notice a nationwide social media blackout, but they are less likely to perceive a ‘throttling’ of internet access during periods of unrest or dissent. We are also likely to see an automated sieving of messages, where a site will appear to function normally, but certain keywords or phrases (for example, ‘Jasmine Revolution’, ‘Tiananmen Massacre’ or ‘Mohammed Cartoons’) will be filtered. Can we trust the large corporations to resist governments’ demands to filter? What if the sovereign wealth funds in authoritarian regimes buy up Facebook and Twitter shares?

You can read the whole thing on the PEN site. I have blogged previously about the problem of “Corporate Silos” and the need to diversify our social media use, though I am as useless as anyone at actually following through on this.

The Worrying Censorship of Expression on Social Media

A quick aide memoir for the future: Examples of people being arrested or convicted for stuff they wrote on social networks.

1. Paul Chambers:

Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!

A chap made an obviously ranty joke in a tweet, and was convicted of ‘menace’.

2.  Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan

Organised riot events on Facebook.

3. Azhar Ahmed

Charged with a ‘racially agravated public order offence’ for posting an immature anti-war rant on Facebook.

On this last story: Index on Censorship notes that there was no actual racial content in Ahmed’s message; author Tony White points out that the same sentiments, expressed more eloquently by Guardian readers, went unremarked and are run-of-the-mill; and Kenan Malik suggests that Ahmed’s arrest is part of a growing appetitie for “the criminalisation of Islamic dissent”.

Neal Stephenson Misses a Trick

Neal Stephenson, by Flickr user jeanbaptisteparis

I’ve just finished REAMDE, Neil Stephenson’s latest tome. It continues his tradition of book titles which look like words from the dictionary, but aren’t, like Cryptonomicon and Anathem. It also continues the welcome trope of being centred around geeky heroes: Lawrence Waterhouse (codebreaker) and Randy Waterhouse (programmer) in Cryptonomicon; Erasmus/Ras, the science-monk in Anathem.

All three books have elements of the thriller genre about them. In all three stories the main characters find themselves forced to trek halfway across the globe (and beyond) to save the world and their own lives. Furthermore, the protagonists use their skills to affect the outcome of their adventure. However, REAMDE compares unfavourably to the other two books, in that these technical skills are secondary to the more worldly talents of gun fighting. It therefore reads much more like a Tom Clancy process thriller, than a book that examines the implications of new ideas and technologies on how we think. Continue reading “Neal Stephenson Misses a Trick”

The Websiteless NGO

I’m managing a rebrand and website redesign for English PEN. Part of the project is the integration of third party services like Twitter and YouTube that host some of our output.

This has prompted me to wonder whether it would be feasible to run an organisation without a website. One could interact and share on Twitter; upload any AV content to sharing sites like Flickr and YouTube; editorialise on Storify and Facebook; publish all flyers and other documents to Scribd; use MailChimp as a mailing list and CRM solution; take money (donations, fees) via PayPal, and organise events on EventBrite. An online shop could be run through Amazon or eBay. Each of these services offers at least some space for a logo and summarised raison d’etre on a profile page, and many allow you to fully brand the pages you create.

What does this model lack? Well, it reduces websites to the sum of their parts. Each service does something very specific, and hones the functionality of that one feature or function. However, I think sometimes generic webspace is a virtue. It allows unexpected and complicated piece of content to be created. Also, I suppose the ‘bundling’ of several different types of content under the same top-level URL is a courtesy to the user.

Dissidents and anti-capitalists, and those concerned about online rights (which should be all of us, but in reality is very few of us) will have another criticism: this approach surrenders your content to third parties. Should you do something horrendous – like call for an end to theocracy in Iran, or remix some of Disney’s content, or be Julian Assange – then those who wish to censor you, be they government agents or corporate lawyers, can do so easily by petitioning these third party sites. In a crisis, you have a lot more control over our content if it’s all archived on your own web space.

Are there companies or NGOs that already use the websiteless approach?

Sharing Adele on the Internet

What a fantastic supercut from Zapatou:

I love stuff like this – it speaks to the idea of a shared humanity and global culture, something that only the internet reveals.

And it is enriching art like this which is likely to be compromised by the propose SOPA legislation in the USA.  Yesterday a number of sites, including Wikipedia, went ‘dark in protest at the proposed law.  SOPA is a US initiative and so its difficult to know what we in the rest of the world can do to support it.  Signing this Aavaz petition (along with a couple of million other people) might be a good start.

 

How the Depiction of Technology in #Sherlock Captures the Zeitgeist

In a paywalled Times article this time last week, Hugo Rifkind highlighted our loss of the communal Christmas TV moment. EastEnders can never achieve the dizzy ratings heights of the 1980s, Eric and Ernie are dead, and even the numbers for Her Majesty The Queen’s Christmas message are in decline. Rifkind blames the spread of new viewing technologies as the cause of this: A plethora of channels; asynchronous viewing options like Sky+, TiVo, and iPlayer; and the alternatives presented by DVDs and YouTube.

It is interesting that despite this decline, new technology can provide a facsimile of the old, communal TV viewing experience. Instead of discussing an episode over the water-cooler or at the school gates the following morning, we all have a ‘second screen’ and discuss it in real time over Twitter. This is not a particularly original observation, but I mention it because it is Twitter that tells me just how universally popular is Sherlock, the second series of which began last weekend, with Episode 2 to be aired later this evening.

Hilariously, given the above paragraph, I did not actually watch the first episode ‘live’ – instead I caught up later in the week via iPlayer. That doesn’t detract from how popular the show seems to be, at least among the connected Twitterati.

There are plenty of explanations for the success. The writing is excellent and funny. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch exudes an autistic confidence that is true to Conan Doyle’s original character. Mysteries and puzzles are always the most popular stories (c.f. the perennial dominance of detective stories over Lit Fic) and the Sherlock series adheres to the rules of a good detective story, presenting all the clues to the audience as they are presented to the sleuth himself.

However, I think it is the representation of technology, and the visual choices inspired by technology, which make the thing feel so contemporary. Holmes receives text messages and interacts with Lestrade on a mobile phone. Dr Watson has a blog, and the villainess of Series 2, Ep. 1 had her own Twitter account (both of which, as is obligatory these days, also exist in the real world and keep up the conceit). However, it is not just that the characters use technology that makes the show interesting, but how the director integrates that into the visual style. Sherlock employs the popular technique of overlaying motion graphics onto the action. It is method made easy by new digital editing tools (see the opening scene of Stranger Than Fiction with Will Ferrell for an ostentatious example of the genre, as is Fifty Nine Productions’ work in Two Boys at the ENO). In Sherlock, the subtle use of this style makes the technology seem fully integrated into the way the characters view the world. The text messages flow past and through Sherlock, he barely has to look at his handset. I think it mirrors the way most of us live, with our eyes flitting between the screen and reality so quickly that it is sometimes difficult to remember how exactly a particular piece of information came to us. It certainly represents the way a large audience segment are experiencing the show. Are they watching Sherlock, or are they watching #Sherlock? Both.

Can Publishing Be a Form of Fact-Checking?

And now for some Inside Baseball.

Last week, I managed to irritate legal blogger Jack of Kent (a.k.a. David Allen Green) by suggesting he was being stingy with his links, and then not telling him about it.  This was not entirely true on either count – He was not being as unlinky as I had thought; and I had tried to let him know.

Since David and I have worked together on the Libel Reform Campaign, I assume that he is not going to sue me for trashing his reputation in the Guardian.  However, elements of our exchange got me thinking about issues of ‘responsibility’ in blogging.

Here’s the thing:  When David asked me “why didn’t you check?” I felt strangely short-changed, despitre the fact that I certainly had not checked with him beforehand.  This is because when I typed the original post, I fully expected David to become aware of it. Incoming links and twitter recommendations usually alert people to the fact they are being discussed.  Moreover, I think some part of my subconsicious decided that to cite him was, in effect, an invitation to respond.  The invitation was not explicit, but to me it feels like an integral part of the blogging conversation.

I write this not to try and get myself off the hook for the pint I know I must pay to David, but instead to ask how responsible blogging might be different from responsible journalism. A key pillar of the existing Reynolds Defence (a public interest defence for libellous statements) is the idea of verification before publishing.  But should this hold for bloggers?  What of the idea (which I had internalised until David complained) that the early publishing of comment or allegations on a blog or twitter, is in itself part of the verification and fact-checking process?  For citizen bloggers, publishing a claim online carries the implicit (and often explicit) request – “please help me verify”.

Mainstream media critics of blogging, and the politicians, certainly disagree, and see the publication of anything unchecked as being irresponsible.  I would appreciate thoughts on this from The Man Himself – Could this form of early publication online be considered ‘responsible’, due to the very nature of the medium?

On Linking To Your Enemies

In my morning trawl through the Internet, I noticed two examples of a practice that has become mainstream: denying the object of your opprobrium a link.

First, the fascinating Brian Kellet writes this, in a fisk of a Liz Jones column about the NHS says:

I’m not going to link to the original story because I don’t want to send visitors to the rag that is the Daily Mail.

Then, in a battle of the pseudonyms, highly respected legal blogger Jack of Kent decides that he is going to have an argument with Gudio Fawkes, but without actually namechecking Guido or linking to the ridiculous Death Pentalty campaign he just launched. I’m particularly disappointed in Jack of K, as he writes, in his very next post, that one should “use links and sources wherever possible.”

Linking out, regardless of whether you agree with the person you”re linking to, should be the standard for blogging, just as it is for academia. It is the link to sources which gives the work credibility. In contrast, anonymous gossip disguised as lobby reporting is one of the reasons why there is so little trust in journalists at the moment (a topic discussed at the recent POLIS journalism conference, where I asked a panel of spin doctors and hacks whether the press should abolish anonymous sources)… and the fact that a tabloid does not have to cite its sources is one of the reasons why #Hackgate could happen.

Moreover, we know that our online bubbles are not as diverse as we like to think. Safe silos like Facebook actually filter content to prioritise those people that you already agree with, and our failure to link out just strengthens the confirmation bias. I disagree with Paul Staine’s worldview and his approach to blogging, but I do actually want to know what he is saying about the death penalty, the better to campaign against him.

So, just as we’ve stopped using the Blame The Daily Mail cliche as a substitute for actual political analysis, can we have a moratorium on the whole “I’m not linking to those people” schtick, please? I know we can Google pretty much anything we want to these days, but not everything appears on page one of the results. Worse, a failure to link looks a bit sly and scheming. Let’s leave the obfuscation and misdirection to those outlets with lower standards: The Newspapers.