A Litany of the Ways In Which Facebook Corrupts the Spirit of Free Speech

Following my short appearance in a BBC news report yesterday, I had hoped to publish a companion blog post here, making all the free speechy points that were edited out of my contribution. Instead, I strayed off piste and ended up with this litany of complaints about Facebook. A useful aide memoir for the future, with a couple of useful insights, maybe.

When it comes to free speech, even the most hardened advocates tend to draw the line at incitement to violence. “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins” wrote Zechariah Chafee. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and when people publish text or video that is likely to provoke violence, it is legitimate to censor that content.

Inciting violence and hate is what Britain First group appear to have been doing, so the Facebook decision to ban their page feels righteous. Good riddance? Nothing to see here? Move along?

Not quite. This development is still problematic and draws our attention to the unexpected role that social media plays in our politics. We have been discussing these problems for years without, in my opinion, coming any closer to solving them. Continue reading “A Litany of the Ways In Which Facebook Corrupts the Spirit of Free Speech”

The Mammoth Book of the Mummy available in January

The Mammoth Book of the Mummy

Zoinks! Look what appeared on the mat this morning: my contributor copies of The Mammoth Book of the Mummy.

19 Tales of the Immortal Dead by Kage Baker, Gail Carriger, Karen Joy Fowler, Joe R. Landsdale, Kim Newman and many more. …

Including Robert Sharp.  My novella The Good Shabti is in the anthology and I’m very proud.

The Good Shabti was, you will recall, launched in January 2015 and was, you will also recall, nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. Continue reading “The Mammoth Book of the Mummy available in January”

Tweets from Tahrir

I am surprised I missed this as the time: Tweets from Tahrir. Its a compilation of tweets from Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring uprisings, edited by Nadia Idle and Alex Nunns.  During the protests I suggested that the protestors in ‘the world’s biggest think-tank’ publish their hopes for the future of Egypt and that new technologies could help them do it very quickly.  Idle and Nunns appear to have got this precise project published within a month.

This book obviously owes something to James Bridle’s TweetBook.  It is also a companion to books like We Are Iran and Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution, two collections drawn from blogs and activists, and supported by English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme.

By Spreading Out We're Harder To Stop

I am sure readers will be aware of the long-running global discussion about the role social media can play in revolutions.  Clearly, Facebook and Twitter can catalyse opposition to authoritarian regimes, and spread news of protests and government oppression between citizens, and to the world at large.

In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak’s heavy handed response to online opposition may actually have quickened his fall.  He and his cronies felt they had no option but to ‘switch off’ the Internet, depriving the entire country of proper connectivity.  This was an obvious ploy which only signalled the regime’s desperation.  The protesters in Tahrir Square were emboldened.

In the future, however, oppressive governments may become more subtle and savvy in their approach to censorship.  In Episodes #81 and #82 of the Rebooting the News podcast, Dave Winer and Jay Rosen discuss this problem at length.   Winer explained out that Twitter and Facebook could be nixed by regimes.  An Internet ‘kill switch’ is bad for governments, because it signals to the people that the protests are working.  Instead, oppressive governments will try to develop tools which simply filter out content which undermines their agenda, yet maintains the appearance of normalcy.  The Chinese regime does this very well, and managed to selectively filter out references to Egypt for Internet users inside China.  Having witnessed the sobering examples of Mubarak and Ben Ali, other dictators will begin to commission tools to achieve this. Corporations (which, we must remind ourselves, include Twitter and Facebook) will be happy to do this, in exchange for access to the emerging markets these countries represent.

Winer expands on this idea on his blog, Scripting.com:

They can do the same with Facebook that they do with Assange. There’s all kinds of crazy stuff you can do at a firewall to make one site appear to be having technical problems. Real technical problems (but fake ones nonetheless). There are consultants calling on generals all over the world, right now, selling them wonderful Internet dashboards that selectively and randomly make sites appear to have problems of their own, not caused by the government. Permanent link to this item in the archive.

Anticipating this, we have to create communication networks on the Internet that require that the whole Internet be cut off in order for them to be cut off. The reason is simple. The people who are being manipulated will know they’re being manipulated. In a centralized social space, there could easily be doubt. I know this is a complicated idea, but the intellects are at work, I promise you. They are smart, we have to be smart too. Permanent link to this item in the archive.

It’s important that people learn to manage their own infrastructure. It’s going to happen, we can do it. We can make servers much easier to set up and maintain, and do more stuff that’s meaningful to people like the people in Egypt fighting for freedom. By spreading out we’re harder to stop. Permanent link to this item in the archive.

This strikes me as being one of the most important ideas for freedom of expression right now, and a crucial lesson from the Egyptian uprising.

More thoughts on the Tahrir Square ‘think-tank’

One protester made a helpful explainer for President Mubarak. It says "Mubarak leaves. Yes: Parliament dissolves. No: Protests, disobedience. strikes." Photo: Al-Jazeera English on Flickr, creative commons.
One protester made a helpful explainer for President Mubarak. It says “Mubarak leaves. Yes: Parliament dissolves. No: Protests, disobedience. strikes.” Photo: Al-Jazeera English on Flickr, creative commons.

My earlier idea about publishing the thoughts of the protesters in Tahrir Square seemed to cause confusion. Sunny said:

@robertsharp59 so, er, we’re publishing blogposts by people within the square…after the event is over?

Well, that was not quite the intention.  The blogposts I have read from people ‘on the ground’ in Cairo and elsewhere seem to focus on the movements of the security forces and pro-Mubarak counter-protests, or other ‘in-the-moment’ stories.  The use of the word ‘think tank’ to describe the discussions taking place within the square caught my eye, because it implies discussions of policy and new political structures: More forward looking, and less reactive.

It may be that such discussions and ideas have already found their way online, but I’ve not seen many, and in any case they are scattered around the web.  Such ideas that are coming out are filtered, either through journalists or by experts who are not part of the protests.  These reports and analyses are valuable, of course, but I think primary accounts would have a certain value at this precise political moment.  As The Bee said

@robertsharp59 @sunny_hundal Would be really good to get the view from the inside & not “retold” by someone else

(More thoughts in response to my idea on The Bee’s website, which awesomely is in English and German.)

On Facebook, Sophie Mayer was enthusiastic, and reminds me of the We Are Iran project.

I see something on the model of We Are Iran crossed with a conference proceedings… Would be an amazing record of a moment and an opportunity to organise ideas and information. Oh for a mimeograph!


A couple of PEN members may be putting this together with their contacts in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Libya!  Get in touch via the comments if you would like to help.

Update 2

Someone did it.

#Egypt, The Most Important Data Nexus on the Planet

Amid all the uncertainty and violence happening in Egypt, I was struck by a story from Alexandria.  Youths have been organising to protect Bibliotheca Alexanadrina, ‘The New Library of Alexandria’.

The young people organized themselves into groups that directed traffic, protected neighborhoods and guarded public buildings of value such as the Egyptian Museum and the Library of Alexandria.  They are collaborating with the army.  This makeshift arrangement is in place until full public order returns.

The library is safe thanks to Egypt’s youth, whether they be the staff of the Library or the representatives of the demonstrators, who are joining us in guarding the building from potential vandals and looters.

A major early move by the Egyptian government was to ‘flick the switch’ and choke Internet communications.  In the short term this has clearly given Mubarak and his cohort the upper-hand, by keeping the pro-democracy groups divided and chaotic.  However, the short-term gain might weaken them in the future.  As the the freelancer journalist Ashraf Khalil just tweeted from Cairo:

Told Nile TV that the main economic damage to #egypt is from Net shutdown (estimated $90 mill) and images of violence scaring away tourists

The stories of the Library and the net shut-down recall an old Wired article by Neal Stephenson, where he traces the paths of fibre-optic cables around the world (I actually mentioned it last December when discussing Wikileaks). Stephenson’s travels take him to Egypt, where a major new communications cable is being landed in Alexandria, at a most historic location:

If you turn your back on the equipment through which the world’s bits are swirling, open one of the windows, wind up, and throw a stone pretty hard, you can just about bonk that used book peddler on the head. Because this place, soon to be the most important data nexus on the planet, happens to be constructed virtually on top of the ruins of the Great Library of Alexandria.

Just one more reason why we are all bound up in Egypt’s fate.  Let’s hope that the people who marshalled to protect their museums, are the ones to prevail.

10 Tactics

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.

Facetious Gaza Post

Gaza Wall
In reporting the recent Gaza border break the BBC reffered to the security “wall”. Now, call me pedantic, but that looks more like a big fence to me, just like the other “security fence” currently under construction around the West Bank.

Oh, but wait! The fence in the West Bank is actually a wall. Now I’m confused. Why can’t we get nomenclature correct on this one?

That’s the problem with dehumanising people these days, you just run into a wall of political correctness. Or is that a fence?