A simple idea to help the pro-democracy movement in #Egypt: Publish

Tahrir Square – “The biggest think-tank in the Middle East”

In the Western world, there is much hand-wringing over just how our people and governments can help the people of Egypt get a better government.  Since we are viewed as part of the problem, any interventions (either supporting the Mubarak regime, or condemining it more forcefully) will likely make matters worse.  So for now, we hear slightly patronising platitudes about how the Egyptian people “must decide for themselves” followed by cautionary tales of radical Islam in the very next breath.

There is one way in which Western nations – or rather, the people civil society groups in those nations – could help the pro-democracy groups, and that is by publishing their message.  With communications still slow and unreliable in Egypt itself, the messages of What They Actually Want are patchy, stilted, and vulnerable to pro-Mubarak spin.

In Tahrir Square, just over one hour ago, Mostafa Hussein sends out the following message:

Tahrir square is the biggest brainstorming & think-tank in the middle east and possible the world now. #egypt #jan25

Well then: how about the people of Europe and North America, with their unrivalled and unfettered communications network, publish the preliminary findings of this new think-tank?

I do not mean “Let’s publish thoughts of Egyptian journalists and analysts” or “thoughts of Arab writers” or “eye witness accounts of what is happening”.   I mean, why not publish the debates and discussions of those in the square right now.

Now, I actually think that a book is the right medium for this.  Something that has been formally published and can exist in printed form has a certain authority and weight (literally and metaphorically) that these ideas need.  TV interviews and news reports are two-a-penny and far too transient, as are blogs, YouTube Channels and Twitter feeds.  A book on the otherhand – even a short book – can step outside the river of news and become something more tangible and influential.  It will be something other than the charter of the Muslim Brotherhood, that everyone can point to as an alternative to Mubarak and his henchmen.

With the new digital inventions at our fingertips, there are no technical barriers to doing this.  Initiatives like The Benjamin Franklin Project have shown that the free tools on the Internet are all that is required to gather and publish news and views.  And the means to pull content together are already in operation down on Tahrir Square.  Lulu.com allows you to publish a proper book, with an ISBN and a listing on Amazon, almost on a whim.

So, how about a British or American civil society group offers to spend until the end of this week managing the project, and undertakes to publish the book, in English, to an international audience.  I am thinking of a projects of the scope of The New Liberal Arts project – short essays.  I reckon think tanks like Demos, or the Fabian Society have the capacity to pull this off… or maybe a forward think news organisation like OpenDemocracy, The Guardian, or The Atlantic?


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.

The Bookseller of Kabul

Åsne Seierstad, a Norwegian author, has been successfully sued in Norway over her book Bookseller of Kabul.  It is a fictionalised account of her time staying with a family in Afghanistan, and much of the family’s private life is laid bare for the reader in unflattering detail.

On Comment is Free, journalist Conor Foley lays in to Seierstad, outlining the social faux pas she has committed:

Some may argue that freedom of artistic expression should be completely divorced from such political considerations. However, a writer who chooses to use a conflict as the background for their work cannot plead cultural immunity when real life intrudes on the result.

Indeed.  But being stung, criticised and discredited for failing to respect cultural norms should not be punished in a civil or criminal court.   Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, explains in the Independent why this development is a worry:

That’s not to say that Seierstad has not broken an unwritten code of hospitality, or that the Rais family has not faced problems as a result of the book’s publication. Although Rais himself continues to operate a successful business out of Kabul, his first wife has sought asylum in Canada and other members of the family are now living in Pakistan. But is this discrepancy in the fates of the male and female members of the family the fault of a Norwegian journalist – or Afghan society? Is it appropriate for a Norwegian court to punish the messenger? Is a court of law the place to determine how a book treats the “honour” of an entire society?

The example that such cases set is a very bad one.  What happens when an investigative journalist wants to deliberately abuse the hospitality of an Afghan businessman, in order to expose corruption?  What if an Afghani journalist wants to make similar, off-message commentary about his countrymen.  Seierstad should certainly suffer the reputational and social hit of her insensitivity, but dragging this sort of roman a clef into the court-room is a terrible precedent for free expression.

Wootton Bassett

Islam4UK want to march through Wooten Basset in a provocative protest against the British presence in Afghanistan. It is, as Dave Osler says on Liberal Conspiracy, a huge “headache” for the principled secular left who want defend free speech. Also at LibCon, Scepticisle points out that Anjem Choudry, who leads Islam4UK, is a “media troll” who is being deliberately provocative.  He wants to provoke a violent reaction, and the best course of action is to not give him one.  This means allowing the march to proceed, however offensive the message.  The small numbers it will attract will demonstrate just how fringe and ridiculous Choudry and his ideas actually are.

I’m surprised by the illiberal line taken by James Alexander at Progress:

This planned event will turn to violence and lead to a counter-response by the English Defence League. Then the BNP will begin to stir up divisions in the surrounding localities.

Even if you disagree with the actions of the brave soldiers who fight to protect British security, it is wrong to antagonise the families of the fallen. This is hateful and evil. I am writing to the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson MP, to call for Islam4UK to be also banned.

I don’t buy into the meme that a provocative march will necessarily be met with violence from outraged Britons.  Politicians and public figures should seize this as a ‘teaching moment’ and now use their influence to condemn in advance such actions, and inspire people to a more tolerant approach.  Gordon Brown has failed to do this so far.

Alexander’s Progress piece seems to have been seized upon by the sort of comments that one usually sees on tabloid comment boards.  I’ve just posted my own comment which sums up what I think:

I disagree with James Alexander … in suggesting that the Islam4UK march should be banned. That would be anti-free speech. If our troops are fighting for anything in Afghanistan, it is human rights, including the right to free expression (something sadly lacking in that country at the moment). The greatest tribute to our soldiers, living and fallen, would be to maintain our principles consistently at home and abroad: This means allowing the Islam4UK march.

The idea that the British people en mass cannot control themselves when confronted with a sorry band of Islamists is ridiculous and divisive. Locals and others who disagree with Islam4UK’s ridiculous ideas are perfectly capable of staging a bigger, peaceful counter-march, without any of the pathetic threats of violence that the other commenters here are so keen to see realised. It is this, and only this course of action that is consistent with the British spirit of tolerance and democracy. Progress members should be using their power and influence to bring this course of action about. Anything less is to sink towards the level of the fundamentalists.

Photo by Robin Hodson
A Wootten Basset memorial procession, 17th Nov 2009. Photo by Robin Hodson on Flickr.

Counterpoint: In praise of 100px Campaigns

Neda Agha-Soltan
Neda Agha-Soltan, martyr of the 2009 uprisings

Me, earlier:

And as for Twibbons?  This innovation seems to me to be a hugely reductive exercise, shrinking political debate to a space 100 pixels wide.

I can’t really let this stand without relaying an exchange I had a couple of weeks ago.

Interesting: now @doctorow has changed his avatar, only one of my followers retains a green #IranElection picture.
yrstrly, 4th Dec, 7pm:

SHAME! Go GREEN Again! http://iran.greenthumbnails.com/
@JoanneMichele, 7:03pm

Thing is @JoanneMichele @lissnup I’m not sure it matters. Would the green avatar thing raise MORE awareness on Twitter now? I doubt it.
Yrstrly, 7:45pm

when it’s a rough day & I look at my tweetdeck & its filled w/ green …it matters @lissnup
@JoanneMichele, 8:14pm

It really matters. So many ppl in Iran see Twitter, see green avatars, draw comfort & strength #Iranelection
@lissnup 8:15pm

So, let’s not underestimate the power of solidarity as a campaign weapon. If we are reluctant to actually take to the rooftops and shout, then there is some virtue in the little gestures that pep up those on the front line.

I think this was a central purpose of 64forSuu.org too. Yes, it was “all about the hashtag” but we hope the outpouring of solidarity would have provided some comfort during a particularly dark moment.

So, We Can Engineer a Mass Movement to Hack the Christmas Pop Charts, but We Can't Agree on a Global Climate Change Treaty?

The schadenfreude becomes stale quite quickly, doesn’t it? No sooner had the whoops of glee at Simon Cowell’s failure to reach the Christmas Number 1 spot for the fifth consecutive year, and the many ironies of the Rage Against the Machine campaign were clear for all to see.  First amongst these is the fact that R.A.t.M.’s angry Killing in the Name and Joe McElderry’s saccharine version of The Climb were Sony Music records:  Joe is on Simco Records (i.e. Simon Cowell) “under exclusive licence to Sony Music Entertainment UK Ltd” while Rage Against The Machine’s label is Epic, a subsidiary of Sony.

The campaign put a small dent into Simon Cowell’s sales figures.  Last year, Alexandra Burke’s Hallelujah sold 576,000 copies in the week before Christmas, while this year Joe McElderry only managed 450,000.  But this hardly suggests that Cowell’s business model is on the wane – Leon Jackson only sold 275,000 copies of his single, When You Believe in 2007.  Cowell knows that a bit of controversy is good for his bottom line.  He knows that the label ‘Christmas Number One’ is an entirely relative marketing concept anyway, and modern music history is littered with classic hits which never reached that false summit.

So although the Facebook campaigners for Rage Against the Machine were successful, I can’t help thinking that there is something confused about the campaign and its aims.  They say:

… it’s given many others hope that the singles chart really is for everybody in this country of all ages, shapes, and sizes…and maybe re-ignited many people’s passion for the humble old single as well as THAT excitement again in actually tuning in to the chart countdown on a Sunday.

In taking this line, the campaigners seem to be endorsing the Singles Chart as an appropriate indicator of good and popular music, when it is manifestly nothing of the sort.  Yes, they reclaimed the ‘excitement’ for a single week… but they did so with a seventeen year-old song which was chosen precisely for its contrast with its competitor.  That is entirely different from what the campaigners have nostalgia for – new music from good bands, battling it out.  Former chart battles were essentially a positive contest, with music fans buying their favourite record.  The 2009 campaign had an entirely negative “anyone by Cowell” message, which is unsustainable.

False Metrics

Modern internet campaigns often seem to fall into the trap of chasing targets based on false metrics. The campaign for Gary McKinnon (the computer hacker in danger of extradition to the US) seems to be a victim:

lets make #mckinnonmonday ‘trend’ – TWEET4GARY NOW !!! please tweet ALL #american friends and ask them to help #FREEGARY #garyMckinnon
– @cliffsul

The aim of #mckinnonmonday is to make Gary McKinnon trend #garymckinnon Pls RT
– @dandelion101

Shouldn’t the aim be to generate anger and interest in the Gary McKinnon story? How helpful is all the constant RT’ing if it doesn’t translate to bodies at the protest, letters in the politician’s in-tray.

And it is not just impoverished grassroots campaigners falling into this trap, either.  Here is a recent tweet from a Cabinet Minister:

Support #welovetheNHS, add a #twibbon to your avatar now! – https://twibbon.com/support/welovetheNHS

Admittedly, sending the tweet is hardly a burden on Mr Milband’s resources, but its odd and disturbing that politicians and political campaigns have started to relate to us in this way.  The idea that the NHS is something to love is presumed, and the campaign becomes about forming a huge group of people around a slogan for a fleeting moment only.  Did anyone capture the e-mail addresses of those who tweeted #welovetheNHS?  If not then it seems like a wasted moment.

And as for Twibbons?  This innovation seems to me to be a hugely reductive exercise, shrinking political debate to a space 100 pixels wide.

Now, lest you assume I am engaging in pure snark, I should point out that I am as guilty of this hashtag chasing as the next person – perhaps more so.  I helped the Burma Campaign devise their 64forSuu.org project, which was, frankly, all about the hashtag.  And only today I’ve written a press release lauding the fact that PEN‘s Libel Reform petition has just reached 10,000 signatures, a figure that will something only if it serves to light a fire under either Jack Straw or Dominic Grieve.

Its very easy to raise ‘awareness’ of any given issue, but that’s not the same thing as establishing a consensus that what you are proposing is right.  And in turn, that is not the same thing as actually motivating people to action.  It would be a great shame if “taking action” became synonymous with simply sharing links and joining endless Facebook groups, because when that “action” fails to translate into meaningful change, we will only find that another generation have been turned off politics, disillusioned.   The Obama campaign has been criticised recently for its rather top-down approach to twitter, which didn’t really engage in conversation with supporters.  But nevertheless, he actually inspired people out of their houses and into the campaign HQs.  Did some of us think that Twitter could start a revolution in Iran?  Not quite (as Jay Rosen points out).  While the #IranElection tag on Twitter has been a useful tool for the protesters and for those reporting on the crisis it is clearly the people on the ground that will really put that regime under pressure (and we hope that the passing of Ayatollah Hoseyn Ali Montazeri will provide inspiration to renew that pressure).

All of which is to say that George Monbiot’s sanctimonious article this morning had the ring of truth about it:

For the past few years good, liberal, compassionate people – the kind who read the Guardian – have shaken their heads and tutted and wondered why someone doesn’t do something. Yet the number taking action has been pathetic. Demonstrations which should have brought millions on to the streets have struggled to mobilise a few thousand. As a result the political cost of the failure at Copenhagen is zero. Where are you?

We’ve been tweeting #hashtags and adding #twibbons to our avatar, George.  Get with the programme, yeah?

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.

You're Only As Good As Your Last War

David Aaronovich’s column in The Times today warns that we might be sleepwalking towards a nuclear Iran.  Stuck in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, we don’t have the political stomach to seriously engage with the threat.

We almost lack the spare mental capacity to consider how to deal with the difficult “other”. We have intervened in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia and Sierra Leone. We have agonised over Gaza and Lebanon. We have debated Darfur and Zimbabwe. It is all so difficult, so intractable, that the easiest answer seems to be to withdraw, to let things alone, to hope that they will go away.

It is in this kind of ennui that we see the real, long-term damage of our reckless rush to war (now being exposed in a handy serialised form, thanks to the new Iraq inquiry).  A mistake of such magnitude has had horrible knock-on effects for our foreign policy elsewhere.  Not only was Iran emboldened by the 2003 conflict, but it looks like we have lost the political will (and capital) to appropriately deal with this latest nuclear threat.  Aaronovitch advocates UN sanctions against the regime (specifically the Revolutionary Guard) but this requires the support of China and Russia.  Do we have the political credibility to push them into agreement with such sanctions?  If we do not, then we know where that credibility went: spilled into the sands of Iraq.

Forced to Blog?

From Global Voices Online:

Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a leading reformist blogger and former vice president, started to update his blog in prison. He says that the interrogation continues but he has very friendly relation with interrogator and protesters in prison know that there was no significant fraud in Iran’s presidential election.

I smell a rat.

Cartoon by Vahid Nikgoo
Cartoon by Vahid Nikgoo

#MichaelJacksonRIP vs #IranElection

Evenin’ all. I wanted to make a quick point about certain global news stories, and the relative amount of news coverage given to each.

Its fashionable, yet incredibly easy to complain that the Michael Jackson death has crowded out news of other more pressing matters. Shawn Micallef sounded an early word of warning about this attitude:

There is no need to compare MJ & Iran – completely dif, just intersect on same medium, not a social/moral lesson to be learned.

Then (again via Twitter, though the link is now lost in the maelstrom) I came across this MJ/Election mash-up, and it occurred to me that coverage (be it on Twitter, blogs or the international MSM) is not a zero-sum game, and that coverage of one piece of news could promote awareness of another.

If you consider Jackson’s output, there are actually loads of other songs that could fit a revolutionary template. Songs like “Heal The World” and “You Are Not Alone” seemed (to me) quite sanctimonious and irritating when they were released. But with the passing of Michael Jackson, the self-congratulatory element to those tracks seems to dissipate. They’re now ripe for the picking as a backing track to some feel-good montages of the peaceful demonstrations in Tehran. “Earth Song”, “Black or White” and (going back a little bit further) “Man in the Mirror” also carry that We-Are-The-World vibe… as does, of course, “We Are The World”! They could all fill the role of unofficial theme-tune to a non-violent protest movement.

Too cheesy? Not one bit of it: The “Yes We Can” generation of political campaigners are unafraid of such accusations. Meanwhile, tracks like “Beat It” could accompany comedic images of Ahmedinejad and Khameni and Keyboard Cat.

I meant to post this last week, so I feel sure I am behind the curve on this one. Yet a quick search through YouTube doesn’t yield further examples. Let us know your favourites, either in the comments, or via the tips form, and maybe we’ll do a round-up or something.

+posted at Liberal Conspiracy. Comment there.