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…My Heart’s in Accra
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Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003
Updated: 1 hour 49 min ago

The death of Tidbit and why it matters

May 28, 2015 - 11:57am

The New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs announced today that they had settled their complaint with the developers of “Tidbit”, a prototype piece of software developed by four MIT undergraduates as part of a hackathon. It’s about time. New Jersey made a boneheaded decisions to subpoena these students, and got what they deserved after wasting tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money: nothing.

Oh, the release from the state makes it sound like they’ve made a major step forward in consumer protection. But it’s worth unpacking what the Tidbit developers did, what they didn’t do, why New Jersey pursued the case, and why this matters, even though the case has now been settled.

What was Tidbit?

Tidbit was a prototype system and a thought experiment, designed to challenge the dominant model of supporting content providers online: targeted advertising. Instead of trying to capture your attention with an ad, with resulting revenue supporting the content provider, Tidbit captured spare cycles of your CPU and used them to mine bitcoins. While reading a story, your CPU would become part of the global pool of computers running SHA256 double round hash verification processes to verify and maintain the global transaction ledger, the blockchain, that makes bitcoin a non-duplicative currency. Close the window and you’d stop mining.

Would it have worked? Maybe not – mining bitcoins in the browser isn’t a very efficient process. (If you want to try it, read this article from Quartz, which includes a browser-based ap that allows you to mine. In the unlikely event that you mined a bitcoin, I suspect Quartz would own it through much the process Jeremy Rubin and his colleagues were proposing.) But it’s a very cool challenge to existing, problematic models that monetize your attention. In his blog post explaining the aftermath of the NJ subpoena, Jeremy explains that there were VCs interested in the idea and willing to fund further developments. Or perhaps Tidbit would have turned into a payment system using dedicated hardware, he speculates. We can’t know because the New Jersey subpoena led the students to stop all work on the project.

What Tidbit wasn’t was a system that hijacked people’s computers and forced them to mine bitcoins. The code Jeremy and colleagues released was a proof of concept which was not capable of actually mining bitcoins. New Jersey alleges that the Tidbit code was found running on three websites registered in New Jersey – Jeremy and his counsel note that the Tidbit code could not actually mine bitcoins, and was available online briefly. It’s possible to imagine scenarios where Tidbit’s code was downloaded and modified to hijack people’s computers, but it’s hard to see how that modified code could be blamed on Jeremy and his team.

So why did New Jersey take action against a student project?

New Jersey’s acting attorney general, insisting that his intention was not to stifle innovation, offered this reason for issuing the subpoena: “No website should tap into a person’s computer processing power without clearly notifying the person and giving them the chance to opt out – for example, by staying away from that website.”

It’s not hard to imagine scenarios in which unethical website operators run Tidbit-like scripts to hijack unsuspecting browsers into giving up CPU cycles. You don’t have to imagine – it happened. New Jersey prosecuted E-Sports Entertainment, which used malicious code to hijack 14,00 computers and use them to mine bitcoins. The company settled with the state for $1 million dollars. It’s possible that New Jersey thought Tidbit was heading down the same path and saw a chance to carry out a similar prosecution.

But there’s no evidence that the Tidbit team intended to hijack anyone’s system. In fact, the acting director of New Jersey’s consumer affairs director states clearly, in his press release about the settlement, “We do not believe Tidbit was created for the purpose of invading privacy.” (Indeed, New Jersey’s concerns seem to be about user autonomy.) Still, New Jersey subpoenaed the Tidbit team, and suggested that Rubin and others might face charges under the state’s Computer Related Offenses Act and Consumer Fraud Act, evidently because they believed “This potentially invasive software raised significant questions about user privacy and the ability to gain access to and potentially damage privately owned computers without the owners’ knowledge and consent.” Further, the press release states, “A New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs investigation has found that, despite initial assertions by Tidbit’s developer, the software was used to gain access to computers owned by persons in New Jersey, without the computer owners’ knowledge or consent.” Rubin, in his post about the settlement, insists that a five minute inspection of his code by a competent investigator, would have determined that his code could not have been used in this way.

What happened once the subpoena was issued?

Faced with the possibility of serious fraud charges, Rubin and his team stopped working on the project and sought support from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where Hanni Fakhoury led Tidbit’s defense. Fakhoury’s argument centered on the idea that the New Jersey AG was engaged in jurisdictional overreach, seeking information on a Massachusetts-based project based on the assertion that the tool had been downloaded and (mis)used in New Jersey. MIT faculty, graduate students and administration wrote to the New Jersey Attorney General raising concerns about the ways the New Jersey subpoena could harm innovation on university campuses around the country.

Judge Gary Furnari of the Essex County Superior Court declined the EFF’s motion to quash the subpoena, but expressed strong reservations and “serious concerns” that the state’s actions might discourage the development of new technologies. Judge Furnari expressed his opinion that
it appeared “the Tidbit program and other similar creative endeavors serve a useful and legitimate purpose” and had no inherent malicious intent.

Perhaps the judge’s caution led New Jersey to settle with Rubin and his colleagues. Despite the triumphal language of the New Jersey AG’s press release, Rubin and his team admitted no wrongdoing, paid no fine, and released a minimum of information (a total of two domain names). Basically, the settlement binds the students to obey the law, at the risk of a significant financial penalty… the situation they, and all other citizens, faced before New Jersey issued this subpoena.

Why does this matter?

First, it matters because Rubin and his colleagues went through a terrible experience. Once the team faced possible legal action, investors backed away from the project and the students were no longer willing to work on the project, fearing further complications. In addition to working through MIT’s notoriously demanding undergraduate curriculum, the students spent their “free time” working with the EFF and other lawyers, worried that their work on Tidbit would lead to fines and fraud charges. Their reward for thinking outside the box was a year-long trip through a Kafka-esque bureaucratic morass.

Second, it matters because New Jersey’s actions have likely chilled development along the lines Tidbit was exploring. Whether or not browser-based bitcoin mining was a viable replacement for advertising-supported content, New Jersey sent a signal that they might lash out at any technology that attempted to enlist a user’s machine in mining, even if the user consented to the exchange. Acting Attorney General Hoffman’s insistence that New Jersey is not trying to hobble innovation cannot be taken seriously, as the direct result of the state’s overreach was the death of the Tidbit project and the clear sign to other innovators that this line of thought was a dangerous one to follow.

Third, the Tidbit case matters because it revealed a situation most universities are ill-prepared to handle: the moment when an innovative project puts students into serious legal trouble. Much of our federal and state legislation around computer crime is so badly written and vague that any number of student projects could conceivably lead to criminal charges. My students routinely scrape websites to collect analyzable data sets – as we learned at tragic cost in the case of Aaron Swartz, an overzealous prosecutor can argue that this sort of data collection is theft on a massive scale.

What should universities do?

What should a university do if a project like Tidbit were created as a class project? (Tidbit was created at a non-MIT hackathon by MIT students.) What are the responsibilities of faculty and administrators if students get into legal trouble in the course of their educational work? Rubin sought the EFF’s support with guidance from the MIT general counsel, as the counsel represents the Institute, not students or faculty at the university. Colleagues and I were concerned that MIT had no direct way to support students in situations like Jeremy’s and brought our concerns to President Reif. He responded quickly and the Institute is working towards creating a new set of legal resources for students around the freedom to innovate. (I’ve been involved with the process, and can report that there’s been a great deal of progress, which I hope will be announced soon.)

Other universities need to start building strategies to defend their students… and soon. The combination of badly written computer crime laws and the spread of entrepreneurial culture to campuses suggests that more students will put forward ideas that lead towards legal challenges. Whether these are ideas designed to be explored solely within the classroom, or in the entrepreneurial/VC/startup space, I think it’s important for academic advisors to think about how we can protect and advise students on the legal challenges that may arise. As someone who teaches and advises students, I don’t want to encourage students to climb high without a legal safety net.

Furthermore, universities need to take the lead in protecting the freedom to innovate and combatting overbroad laws like the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and New Jersey’s Computer Related Offenses Act. As we encourage students to invent and create, we have a responsibility to ensure that they are operating in a legal environment that encourages creativity rather than shutting down promising lines of research before their impact is clear. We’re convening a discussion at MIT on this topic on October 10th and 11th, 2015. If you want to take part, please let me know via email or via the comment section of the blog.

For further reading on the Tidbit case, please see:

Categories: Blog

Re:publica Keynote: The System is Broken – That’s the Good News

May 5, 2015 - 7:23am

I’m at the wonderful Re:publica conference for a single day, racing home to teach tomorrow… and thus far I’ve given a keynote and done over 12 interviews, so I haven’t gotten the whole feel of the conference yet. Still, it’s one of the most wonderful and high energy venues I’ve ever spoken at, and I’m having a great time.

My talk this morning focused on civics in the age of mistrust. The organizers (wisely?) put a different title on it, but the audience clearly got the core idea: we’re at a moment in time where mistrust in institutions is at a very high level, and any approaches to revitalizing public life or fixing civics needs to start from understanding mistrust and harnessing it productive.

At some point soon, I hope to annotate my speakers notes, likely on FOLD. But here are the rough ones now, for those who missed the talk, or for those who are interested and want to know what I meant to say.

I want to begin my talk by showing you a christmas gift I received in 2012 from my friend, journalist Quinn Norton.

I received the postcard a few weeks after she published an essay that was both brilliant and troubling. It was titled “Don’t Vote” and it was, in part, an apology to her great-grandmother, who had marched in the streets to demand women’s right to vote, the right Quinn was now urging us to stop exercising. She writes “I have decided that I am on strike as a voter, until voting means something.”

Quinn is opting out of voting not out of ignorance, but out of knowledge and frustration: with gerrymandering, with legalized corruption, and with her growing sense of impotence at changing these problems through the ballot box. She closes the essay by urging us to “let your body be your ballot” – to make change in how you act in the world, what you stand for, for how the organizations you work with or companies you work for treat people.

Her postcard is a much simpler statement: it’s an elegant essay reduced to a cartoon. The picture is of a brick with a logo that’s unmistakeable to any American voter – it’s the sticker you receive when you vote. It’s like the ash they smear on your forehead on ash wednesday – visible, public evidence that you’ve done your civic duty. The postcard is a cartoon, not a concrete suggestion: it’s not an encouragement to riot so much as it is a reminder that participating in a system that’s badly broken is an endorsement of it

Quinn wrote her essay after spending much of a year reporting on Occupy, while embedded within the movement, visiting 14 of the camps, and wrote a moving eulogy for Occupy in Wired. In her reporting, she is clear that she was in, but not part of, Occupy, covering it as press and treating it with the seriousness that it deserved, as clear evidence of people dissatisfied with how systems are working and looking for ways to change them, or replace them with something different.

I pinned Quinn’s brick above my desk so that I would look at it every day.
represented a tension between two sorts of civic engagement that I have been losing faith in: electoral, representative democracy and public protest.

I’m certainly not the only one losing faith in democracy’s ability to make change. We are seeing falling voting rates in the United States, with 2014 registering the lowest turnout in history for a US congressional election.

And the US is not alone. 2014 also saw the lowest turnout for an EU parliamentary election, and while EP elections always have lower turnout than national elections in Europe, both have been trending down in Europe since 1979, much as they have been in the US.

Lots of reasons have been offered for why participation in voting is decreasing. Many of these explanations blame the ignorance or laziness of voters: if only we weren’t so distracted by our phones and the internet, if only we weren’t so lazy, we’d take part in our critical civic duty. But this argument misses the critical fact that while participation in elections is shrinking, we’re experiencing a golden age of protest. And say what you will about people who take to the streets to protest their government, they may be many things, but they’re not lazy.

Protests are an essential part of democracy. They can be deeply effective as a way of demanding immediate change from those who are in power. Last week, my country watched people come out into the streets in Baltimore, NYC, Boston to protest death of Freddie Gray, a young man fatally injured after he was arrested by local police. After a week of protests, six police officers are now facing murder and manslaughter charges. Certainly doesn’t always work, but it can be powerful in forcing institutions to do the right thing

Protest gets more complicated when you’re not protesting a single incident and demanding a response, but protesting against a larger system that’s broken.

2011 was a pivotal year for protest with the arab spring protests, a wave of popular protests legitimately seeking to change oppressive governments. They’ve had a mixed outcome, as governments have gotten better at fending them off. The current tally gives us one clear success (Tunisia), three civil wars (Syria, Libya, Yemen), violent repression (Bahrain, Sudan), and the deeply complicated case of Egypt, where a successful revolution led to election of Islamist government, popular protests led to a military coup.

We’ve learned that protests are good at counterpower, at ousting a surprised and unaware government, but that protests have a much harder time building governments than toppling them. Even though it’s philosophically more easy to be excited about protests leading to revolution in monarchies than in democracies, by the middle of 2011, democratic movements in Europe, North and South America had picked up the spirit of the Arab Spring and turned it into an anti-politics movement – protesting against repressive and disempowering systems, not against singular injustices.

In Spain, the Indignados movement brought people into the streets, starting on May 15, 2011. Activists protested unemployment brought on by austerity policies, lack of opportunities for young people, and a general sense that Spain was being run on behalf of a wealthy elite at the expense of ordinary citizens. While the movements in the streets ended within a year, some supporters of the movement have build the political party Podemos, which is the second largest in Spain by number of members, but finished 4th in recent elections with only 8% of the vote.

The Occupy movement, began in NYC on September 17, 2011 with Occupy Wall Street. The movement focused on inequality, financial corruption, housing and college debt burdens, and had some measurable successes on local scales, fighting eviction and buying back outstanding debt. It has brought discussions of inequality into the political dialog in the US, and has helped establish a template for protest globally, with movements like Occupy Central in Hong Kong adopting tactics and rhetoric… but even its most ardent supporters will concede that the movement has not led to major changes to the US political or economic system.

These protest movements throughout Europe, North and South America have demonstrated huge energy and enormous popular support. But it’s hard to point to tangible, systemic changes that parallel the scale of mobilizations that have taken place. This may point to a paradox of these broad, anti-political protests in democracies. Unless you’re going to overthrow a democratically elected government, the likely outcome of a protest is that you’re going to get invited into government to try to fix things. And as activists throughout history have figured out, fixing the problems of inequality, corruption and lack of opportunity is a lot harder than motivating people to protest against them.

I want to offer two other reasons to be skeptical of systemic change through protests.

Zeynep Tufekci is a brilliant scholar of social change and of protest. She conducted fieldwork focused on the Gezi Park protests, which brought at least 3.5 million Turks into the streets of 90 Turkish cities from May to August of 2013. Zeynep reports that the rallies featured an incredibly diverse group of protesters – from ultranationalists to gay and lesbian rights activists – and that they fell apart very quickly. While they were dramatic, they were also incredibly ineffective. The one shared objective of the movement – ousting Erdoğan – failed utterly, as Erdoğan was elected president in 2014 without need for a run-off.

Why? Zeynep argues that it’s much, much easier to bring people out to protest than in years before – you can organize on Facebook, report on Twitter, livestream on UStream and now on Periscope. Combine all these channels for mobilization with a message behind the protests that was maximally inclusive – quoting a poem by Rumi, the movement’s motto was “Sen de gel” – You come, too! But in years past, took months of organizing behind the scenes to bring 50,000 people in the streets. Bringing 50,000 meant that you’d held meetings with different groups and made deals and compromises to find a common agenda. Now you can bring out 50,000 people by announcing what you’re against and inviting people to join you. But when the authorities crack down, or when it comes to turn from mobilization to making demands and setting an agenda, movements split and dissipate much more easily – and political leaders know this, and are less threatened by a million in the streets today than they were by 50k a decade ago. What we may be building in the wake of the Arab Spring and the Occupy protests, Zeynep warns, is a form of protest that can mobilize but can’t set an agenda or build a movement.

If that sounds like bad news, here’s some worse news from another scholar, Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, in Sofia, Bulgaria.
He worries that even if protests like the Indignados or Occupy succeed in ousting a government, much of what protesters are asking for is not possible. “Voters can change governments, yet it is nearly impossible for them to change economic policies.” When Indignados grows into Podemos, Krastev predicts that it’s going to be very hard for them to truly reverse policies on austerity – global financial markets are unlikely to let them do so, punish them by making it impossibly expensive to borrow

Krastev offers the example of how Italy finally got rid of Silvio Berlusconi – wasn’t through popular protest, but through the bond market – the bond market priced italian debt at 6.5%, and Berlusconi resigned, leaving Mario Monti to put austerity measures in place. You may have been glad to see Berlusconi go, but don’t mistake this as a popular revolt that kicked him out – it was a revolt by global lenders, and basically set the tone for what the market would allow an Italian leader to do. As Krastev puts it, “Politics has been reduced to the art of adjusting to the imperatives of the market” – we’ve got an interesting test of whether this theory is right with Syriza, a left-wing party rooted in anti-austerity protests now in power, and facing possible default and exit from the Eurozone this month. What Krastev is saying is really chilling – we can oust bad people through protest and elect the right people and put them in power, we can protest to pressure our leaders to do the right things, and they may not be powerful enough to give us the changes we really want.

If you’re feeling depressed at this point in the talk, that’s a good thing – it means you’re listening. But it also means that you may be looking for a new way forward, a third path between elections and protest. And for a lot of people – particularly for people like those in this room – we’ve hoped the way forward is through technology, through the mobile phone and the internet and the ways they might make engaging with society more fair, more participatory, make governments more responsive and closer to the will of the people.

I’m part of the first generation to use and build the world wide web – I dropped out of graduate school in 1994 to help found one of the world’s first social media companies. Like a lot of people who were working on the internet in the mid-1990s, I wasn’t there for the money, because frankly, no one was making money online at that point. I was there because people believed that the internet was going to change the world.

We believed that the internet was going to oust powerful companies that dominated markets with monopolies and make it impossible for other monopolies to take their place, because it was so easy to create new businesses online that no one would ever control the whole market for something as essential as search or online messaging.

We believed that the internet routes around censorship and that publishing online would allow people to speak freely, that censoring the internet was like nailing gelatin to the wall, as President Clinton once said, and that when countries like China encountered the internet, their governments would fall as people learned how they were controlled and manipulated.

We believed that the internet would let people interact with each other in new and honest ways, because no one knew who we were online. In a space where no one knew whether you were male or female, black or white, European or African, we would overcome the prejudices of the offline world and have conversations that were fully inclusive of all perspectives.

We believed that governments didn’t care what happened online, that they weren’t paying attention to it, and that if they were, the internet was far too vast to monitor all of it, and that even if they did, the companies we were using to communicate would protect our privacy, and that we could use unbreakable encryption to protect anything that truly needed to be secret.

In other words, we believed a lot of dumb stuff

It turns out that the internet doesn’t magically make the world a better place. We’re starting to wake up to that now – when the inventor of the World Wide Web launches a campaign to build “the web we want”, a web that’s very different from the one we’ve all built over the last twenty five years, it’s a pretty clear sign that this remarkable technology alone doesn’t transform the world in the ways we might hope

Of all the missed opportunities and wrong turns, the most disappointing may be the way the internet has failed to transform politics and government.

Some hoped that the internet would transform elections, making it easier for exciting new and unknown candidates to build a political base and take power. It works, sometimes – I had lunch yesterday with my favorite German politician, Malte Spitz of the Green Party, and it’s hard to imagine him getting elected without the internet. But it turns out that existing political parties have gotten very good at using the internet to raise money and disseminate propaganda, and to target advertising to persuade us how to vote for candidates who aren’t using the internet to solicit ideas and input.

We hoped that by demanding transparency, we would expose waste and corruption and make government more responsive and efficient. But it turns out that it’s a long path from releasing data sets to exposing systemic flaws in governance, and that it’s a task that requires not just coders, but journalists, artists, storytellers and activists. Even when we’re confronted with a trove of secrets, leaked diplomatic and intelligence documents, it takes enormous work to turn leaks into revelations and into actions. Transparency is a neccesary but not sufficient requirement for change.

We hoped that we as citizens might take on the work of actually crafting and shaping legislation, stepping back from the compromise that is representative democracy to participating directly in writing the laws that govern our societies. And while we’ve had precious few successes, it’s worth celebrating those victories we have, like the Marco Civil Do Internet in Brazil, written not only by professionals, but by a thousands citizens. Ronaldo Lemos and his colleagues at the Institute of Technology and Society in Rio are releasing a new platform, Plataforma Brasiliana, which will make it easier to collectively author legislation, but questions remain: yes, surpremely geeky Brasilians were willing to take time to author laws about the internet, but will anyone show up to write better tax policy?

Micah Sifry, co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum, is one of the smartest people thinking about the internet and politics, and he’s recently published a brave and terrific book, The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet). It’s brave because Micah thoroughly acknowledges that we haven’t gotten what we wanted from twenty years of bringing the internet to politics – indeed, in the US, our politics on a federal level are far worse than they were two decades ago. Fixing this is going to require us to build some tools that are very, very difficult to build. We need to solve the hardest problem in politics – how do you let people deliberate at scale, so that people can work together to build movements, to advocate for issues, to work together with elected officials to bring new solutions into the world. And he’s hopeful that people may be starting to build these tools, looking to people like Pia Mancini, the leader of Argentina’s Net Party, which is building Democracy OS, a set of tools that let citizens vote on policy proposals and work with legislators in the Net Party to promote new legislation.

I think Micah’s right that we need new tools. But I think the problem is even deeper than he imagines. When you ask Americans whether they trust their government to do the right thing most of the time, 24% answer yes. That’s down from 77% in 1964. For my entire lifetime, there’s been only one moment when a majority of the American people trusted the government to do the right thing… and that’s the moment George W. Bush was leading us into a disastrous war in Iraq.

But it’s not just confidence in government that’s dropping in the US – it’s trust in institutions of all kinds. From the 1960s to now, Americans tell you that they have less trust in newspapers, in churches, in non-profit organizations, in corporations, in banks, in the medical establishment. The only institutions where trust is increasing in my country are in the military and the police (though trust in the police is changing very quickly right now.)

I don’t have data at the same granularity for European nations as I do for the US, and I don’t want to make the mistake of treating European nations as a group, but I want to note that one survey sees several European nations has having a bigger problem with institutional mistrust than the US. Edelman’s Trust Barometer is built annually by asking 1000 citizens in each of 33 nations questions about whether they trust the government, NGOs, business and the media. They found that trust is at an all time low, and that Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Ireland all have a lower level of trust in institutions than we are experiencing in the US.

I don’t know what’s causing this increase in mistrust in the US and Europe – I don’t think it’s a single thing, but a combination of factors. Inequality is on the rise, globally, as Thomas Piketty has been telling us, and it’s easy for trust to decline when we feel like very few people are getting rich and we’re getting poorer – whether we blame government, corporations or banks, we lose trust in those institutions. Transparency, for all its benefits, means that we know more about the failings of institutions, about corruption or just sheer incompetence – it’s hard to learn about the causes of the 2008 financial crisis and come out with trust intact in the global financial system and those responsible for regulating it. The professionalization of politics has something to do with mistrust – once we start seeing politicians as a different class of people rather than as people like us, representing our interests, we don’t trust them to have our best interests at heart. I think mistrust can come from a sense of powerlessness – if governments and corporations and the media can’t rally together and make real progress on a critical issue like global warming, are they really as powerful as we think they are?

I fear that mistrust has something to do with globalization, and increasing diversity in our societies. Mistrust began to rise in the US during the reforms of the civil rights era that began ensuring equal rights for African-American citizens… and it’s possible that people started trusting governments and universities less when they were providing services not just to people like them, but to people of other ethnic or national backgrounds. This might be a way to think about euroskepticism and rising nationalism, as some people mistrust institutions that are redistributing wealth across the continent to people they identify as “other”

Political scientist and economists are generally pretty scared of mistrust. There’s a low level of mistrust that you need to have a liberal democracy function: the legislative, executive and judicial branches all look at each other with a low-level of mistrust so that they’re able to act as checks and balances to each other. But high levels of mistrust end up being corrosive. If people don’t trust banks, they don’t deposit money and eventually the bank can’t make loans. If people don’t trust governments, they don’t pay taxes and the government can do less and less. Institutional mistrust is corrosive in large doses – it leads to societies where we interact and trade only with people we trust deeply, like family or tribe.

Many of my friends around the world who are trying to revitalize interest in civics are working to increase the trust in institutions. Whether they’re encouraging people to monitor elections, releasing government data sets or helping cities find and fill potholes, they’re working to lower the cost of civic participation and give people a better chance to have a positive experience with the institutions they’re affected by. I think this work is important and admirable, but I also think it’s not nearly enough to tackle the problems we face today.

The radical idea I want to put forward is that we can’t reverse the rise of mistrust. Instead, we’ve got to figure out how to channel it productively. We have to start treating mistrust, our deep skepticism of the institutions in our lives and in our communities into a civic asset.

I’m seeing at least three different ways people are learning to harness mistrust. In our research at Center for Civic Media, we’re seeing a great deal of civic activism that’s unfolding outside of government institutions. People who have a high degree of frustration and mistrust, but who are finding ways to make change outside of winning elections and passing laws.

In his book Code, Lawrence Lessig observed that there are at least four ways we regulate behavior in our societies. We pass and enforce laws to prohibit certain behaviors; we use markets to make some behaviors expensive and others cheap; we use code and other architectures to make some behaviors technically possible or impossible; and we use norms to make some behaviors socially desirable and others taboo. When we lose faith in some kinds of institutions, say in governments’ abilities to pass and enforce good laws, we see people channeling their desire for change towards code, towards markets and towards norms.

I’d like to see European governments take action to prevent the massive violations of privacy we’ve seen committed by the NSA, but I have very little faith that the American government will make significant changes to prevent the sorts of violations revealed by Edward Snowden. And since I don’t have very much faith in my government to make these changes, it’s exciting to see projects putting their faith in code to make surveillance far more difficult by making use of strong encryption routine. Mailpile, Mailvelope, Tor, Whisper Systems, The Guardian Project – these are all people channeling their frustration and mistrust into making change through code.

I’d like an international binding carbon tax, but it’s hard to have faith that the UN and other international institutions will find balance between countries like China and India, that want to give billions of citizens a better lifestyle, fossil fuel producing nations, and nations like mine where a remarkable percentage of people aren’t convinced that human beings have a role in causing climate change. But even if I’m skeptical of governments and international institutions, I can look to the market, to companies like Tesla, trying to build beautiful and exciting electric cars, and to entrepreneurs around the world working to make solar power not only the most sensible way to produce power, but the cheapest.

Many of the hardest problems we face worldwide are problems of human rights, of protecting the rights of minorities from the actions of majorities. It’s critically important that we legislate to protect the rights of all people, but it’s not enough when we lose trust in the institutions designated to protect those rights, as is happening with Americans and our police forces today. Protecting the rights of minorities, whether it’s African Americans in my country, or the Roma in Europe, requires us to change norms, to address our basic beliefs. Around the world, we’re seeing people working to change norms by making media and building movements – the #blacklivesmatter movement has created a narrative that is forcing American law enforcement to face that they’ve got a real and persistent problem with racial bias and may be the first step towards making real change.

So one way to harness mistrust is to try new theories of change, to look for ways we can make change through markets, code and norms. Another way to harness this mistrust is to become engaged, careful critics of the institutions we mistrust.

Luigi Reggi was working for the Italian government, building a massive open data system so that people could see where EU funds were being spent in his community. He built a gorgeous open data portal, but found that not only did most people ignore the data he worked to present, but they also had a general sense that Italy wasn’t getting its money’s worth from these EU projects. So, working outside the government, he started something new. Monithon is a project that invites people to monitor an EU funded community project, to ask hard questions about whether the project ever got completed, whether it’s working well or at all, whether the project meets a community’s needs. Their biggest partner is Libera, a group that works to identify and resist the role of the mafia in Italy, and they’re mobilizing not just seasoned activists to monitor the effectiveness of EU projects around Italy, but high school students, who are now taking on evaluating these projects in their community as a hands-on lesson in citizenship.

I call this idea “monitorial citizenship”, and my students and I have been working on ways we can make it work at scale, inviting thousands of people to take on the task of monitoring their government not just as a one-time thing, but as essential and important a task of citizenship as voting. We’ve launched a project in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where the mayor, Fernando Haddad, started his term by publishing 100 concrete promises – I’ll put this many streetlamps in this neighborhood, build this many new low-income housing units. He held elections for over 1000 citizen monitors whose job it is to see that the mayor lives up to these goals. And we’ve built a tool that lets citizens meet and decide what infrastructures they want to monitor in their communities – schools, playgrounds, sidewalks – and quickly build a survey that anyone with a smartphone can take. The data they collect – the photos, GPS locations, questions they answer – get posted to a shared map which can be shared with the government or with the press, or used by the community to self-organize and take on these challenges directly. We launched it three weeks ago in Sao Paulo and it’s popular enough that we’ve expanded projects into nine Brazilian cities, working with neighborhood and community groups.

Here’s the interesting thing about monitorial citizenship – sometimes you find that your mistrust of institutions is deserved, and you’ve got data to back up your suspicions. And sometimes you discover that the people who represent you are doing a better job than you’d imagined. It’s a model that can turn mistrust into advocacy for change or can lessen mistrust, and it works as well if you’re auditing the promises a company, a university or a government makes.

Some of the most exciting mistrust-fueled work I’m seeing looks at the idea that we could eliminate institutions altogether, building systems designed from the ground up to be decentralized. One of the first times I was in Berlin, more than ten years ago, I watched the folks from Freifunk build a mesh network that spanned the entire city, a network with no single point of failure and no single internet service provider in charge of it. This same impulse, to build systems that have no center, is what’s animating the interest in Bitcoin, a currency that doesn’t force us to trust central banks or currency policies, whose faith is in algorithms and distributed computation, not in the institutions that failed so badly in 2007.

These three approaches – building new institutions, becoming engaged critics of the institutions we’ve got, and looking for ways to build a post-institutional world – all have their flaws. We need the new decentralized systems we build to work as well as the institutions we are replacing, and when Mt. Gox disappears with our money, we’re reminded what a hard task this is. Monitorial citizenship can lead to more responsible institutions, but not to structural change. When we build new companies, codebases and movements, we’ve got to be sure these new institutions we’re creating stay closer to our values than those we mistrust now, and that they’re worthy of the trust of generations to come.

What these approaches have in common is this: instead of letting mistrust of the institutions we have leave us sidelined and ineffective, these approaches make us powerful. Because this is the middle path between the ballot box and the brick – it’s taking the dangerous and corrosive mistrust we now face and using it to build the institutions we deserve. This is the challenge of our generation, to build a better world than the one we inherited, one that’s fairer, more just, one that’s worthy of our trust.

Thank you.

Categories: Blog

Introducing FOLD, a new tool (and a new model?) for storytelling

April 22, 2015 - 5:00am

This morning, Center for Civic Media at MIT is releasing a new publishing platform, FOLD. Alexis Hope (a Masters student in my lab) and Kevin Hu began working on FOLD when they were students in my class News and Participatory Media. The class asks students to take on a reporting task each week, using existing tools or building new ones to solve a particular challenge. FOLD was Alexis and Kevin’s solution to a challenge I put forward around writing “explainers”, articles designed to provide content for stories that give incremental updates to a larger story (and to develop an appetite for those stories based on deeper understanding of their significance.)

Alexis and Kevin took seriously an idea I put forward in the class – the idea of explainers with an accordion structure, capable of shrinking or expanding to meet a reader’s need for background information. Alexis and Kevin built a story that could compress into a list of half a dozen sentences, inflate to a six-paragraph essay, or expand further into a rich multimedia essay with maps, images and videos appearing alongside the text. The class loved the idea, and Alexis decided to take on developing the platform as her Masters thesis. Kevin continued collaborating with her while pursuing a different project for his thesis, and Joe Goldbeck joined the team as a lead developer.

FOLD Authoring preview from Alexis Hope on Vimeo.

What’s emerged after a year’s work is fascinating and full-featured tool that allows for a novel method of storytelling. Stories on FOLD have a trunk and leaves. The trunk is text, with a novel form of hyperlinks – instead of linking out, they link to cards that appear to the right of the trunk and show images, videos, maps, data visualizations. They can also contain other text or links to the web. This has the effect of encouraging massive linking within stories – rather than a link potentially leading someone away from your webpage, it builds a stronger and richer story on the site.

While I’ve had the pleasure of advising Alexis on her thesis, FOLD is emphatically not my project – had you asked me a year ago, I would have told you that the last thing the world needs is a new content management system. But it’s been fascinating to try writing on FOLD and discovering the ways in which it’s a tool I’ve wanted and needed for years. I often write posts with hyperlinks every other sentence and trust my readers to check those links to understand the whole story… while realizing, of course, that very few do. FOLD brings those references to the front, capturing some of your attention in your peripheral visionas you read the core, trunk text. It’s incredibly easy to add media to a story in FOLD, and I find that when I write on the platform, I’m far more likely to include rich imagery and video, which makes my stories visualizable and understandable in a very different way than blog posts.

Alexis, Kevin and Joe are launching FOLD without a clear business model. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think we know what FOLD is good for yet, and I think that’s exciting. It’s possible that FOLD becomes an alternative to platforms like Medium, a place that encourages people to write beautifully on a beautiful platform. Perhaps it becomes something like WordPress, which hosts content for millions of people as well as maintaining an incredibly robust platform for independent publishers. (Not only are we releasing FOLD as a platform, but as an open source codebase.) Maybe it’s a tool for a radically new form of writing, perhaps stronger for literary than journalistic writing. Maybe some of the ideas of the platform are adopted into other systems and the influence of Alexis, Kevin and Joe’s thinking spreads that way. We don’t know, and that’s exciting.

For me, personally, I’ve loved the experience of seeing something cool and potentially influential coming out of our lab that wasn’t my idea and which I’ve helped guide, but emphatically haven’t built. This feels like a shift in how I’m trying to work in the world, and one I’m starting to get comfortable with.

Like many people of my generation, I’ve changed jobs several times in the past twenty years. Rather than switching firms, I’ve also shifted careers, moving from a dotcom startup to founding an international volunteering agency, to academic research (and co-founding another NGO) and finally, at age 39, to teaching at the graduate level at MIT.

When you change careers, some skills transfer, and some don’t. The shift from research to teaching was far sharper than I’d expected. There’s an unkind saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” I’d offer a rewrite: “Teaching well forces you to stop doing things, and focus on helping others do things.” I build less, and write less, than before I came to MIT. But I coach more, listen more, and I’m starting to love the experience of watching projects I help advise coming to life.


Glyph from Savannah Niles’s story about Cuba

One of the most beautiful stories I’ve seen produced with FOLD is “What You Need to Know About the Cuban Thaw”, written by Savannah Niles (also for my News and Participatory Media class.) The story is illustrated with animated, looping GIFs, produced with a tool Savannah has been building for her thesis called Glyph. I’m one of the readers on Savannah’s thesis, and while I’ve thought these images were very beautiful, I didn’t understand what they were for until I saw them in this story. They add a sense of motion and life to stories without interrupting the reading experience as videos end up doing. This experience of supporting work I don’t understand and then discovering why it’s important – with Glyph, with FOLD, with dozens of projects around the Media Lab and in my broader work on Civic Media – is one of the most exciting experiences of my career.

I hope you’ll give FOLD a try and help us figure out what it’s for. Let us know what works, what doesn’t, what you want and where you think the project should go.

Categories: Blog

The Civic Statuary Project

April 14, 2015 - 10:28am

The University of Cape Town removed a controversial statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes last week, after a month of student protests. Rhodes, who build the De Beers diamond empire, was an unrepentant imperialist whose wealth came from purchasing mineral rights from indigenous leaders and turning their territories into British protectorates. Under his rule in Cape Colony, many Africans lost the right to vote, a step which some scholars see as leading to enforced racial segregation in South Africa. While Rhodes made major donations to charitable causes – including the land the University of Cape Town sits on – his legacy is a challenging and difficult one for many South Africans.

A month ago, student activist Chumani Maxwele emptied a bucket of excrement on the Rhodes statue on the UCT campus. Subsequent protests against the statue including wrapping it in black plastic, smearing it with paint and covering it with graffiti. When the statue was pulled down, protesters beat it with belts and chains as it was hauled away.

Protests against the Rhodes statue received widespread support online, spawning the hashtag #RhodesMustFall, and inspiring other attacks on statues throughout South Africa. Statues of Queen Victoria and George V have been splashed with paint in Point Elizabeth and Durban. Statues of Afrikaner leaders and Boer War generals have been targeted as well. The attack that’s received the most international attention was a defacement of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Johannesburg, part of a protest that argued that the revered activist had worked with the British colonial government in South Africa to promote segregation.

Statues are one of the oldest forms of figurative art, dating back at least to 40,000 BCE with the Lion man of the Hohlenstein Stadel. In ancient Egypt, Pharaohs were memorialized with Sphinxes, massive limestone statues that dominated the landscape – we might think of these as the first civic sculptures, public art designed to honor religious and political leaders. Fifteen hundred years later, Greek sculptors- who had previously portrayed mythological figures – began honoring political leaders in bronze and marble.

Statues erected for civic reasons are also torn down for civic reasons. Seven days after the Declaration of Independence was signed, General Washington’s troops tore down a statue of King George III that had been erected in 1770 in Bowling Green, a small greenspace at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. The decision to tear the statue down was practical as well as symbolic – the two tons of lead in the statue were turned into 42,000 musket balls for the use of revolutionary soliders. Statues of leaders who’ve been ousted are often torn down, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes with the help of conquering armies.


Statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, Baghdad, torn down by the US marines.

It’s not only political leaders whose statues fall. In the wake of revelations about widespread sexual abuse by Penn Statue football coaches, a statue of Joe Paterno was removed by the university. The decision to remove the Paterno statue has been controversial, and a crowdfunding campaign has raised funds for a new Paterno statue in downtown State College, Pennsylvania, two miles from the university campus.

While statues are one of the oldest forms of civic artwork and technology (their only rival for age is the cave painting), they still gain attention when people erect them today… especially when they are erected without permission. On April 6th, a small group of artists placed ">a bronze-colored bust of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden atop a pedestal in Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn. By mid-afternoon, the bust had been covered with tarpaulins, and later that day, it was removed entirely. The bust took over six months to construct, and cost tens of thousands of dollars to design and deploy.

Frustrated by the brief lifespan of the Snowden statue, The Illuminator Art Collective – a group of artists not related to the original sculptors – projected a hologram-like image of Snowden on a cloud of smoke behind the pillar. The Snowden projection is part of a tradition of artistic intervention that has used projection to create provocative art in public spaces. Polish-American artist Krzysztof Wodiczko has used projections to bring statues “to life”, turning static war memorials into active spaces for the discussion of war and peace.

(Projection is a powerful tactic for civic activism – see Hologramas Por La Libertad, which is using projections of street protests against the side of the Spanish parliament to make a point about new laws that strongly restrict public protest. But this is a story about statues, not projections, so we’ll honor the effort and move on.)

A few days before the Snowden statue and projection, we found ourselves discussing civic statues in our lab, Center for Civic Media. The issue came up not because we were having a deep discussion about the nature of statuary, but because we moved a worktable revealing an open area that might students and I thought might be perfect for a statue. We began talking about the idea of a statue that could be rapidly deployed, which could change to honor different people at different times, and which would inspire discussion about why someone was being honored as a civic hero.

We built a prototype civic statue using an old projector and a sheet of optical rear projection acrylite. (The Media Lab is the sort of place where sheets of acrylite are just kicking around and folks like Dan Novy are generous enough to lend them out.) For our demo, I decided we would honor Professor Attahiru Jega, chairman of Nigeria’s election commission, which had just conducted a presidential election widely regarded as free and fair in which the incumbent president was defeated. Nigerians on all sides of the political spectrum honored Jega’s role in administering a fair election, and “Jega” began to emerge as slang for being chill, calm and avoiding conflict: “20 people showed up for dinner at his house unexpectedly, but he was totally Jega about it and sent out for chicken.”

At @civicMIT, we decided we wanted a statue of Prof. #Jega as a civic hero. Prototyping our new civic statue tech: pic.twitter.com/LUPRgxoieZ

— Ethan Zuckerman (@EthanZ) April 3, 2015

This week is the Media Lab member week, where sponsors come to visit our labs and see our projects. We decided to rapidly prototype the statue so we could show it off, with some simple design constraints:

– It should be quickly deployable, easy to set up and move
– It should be relatively inexpensive (our target is a standalone programmable statue that costs under $500)
– It shouldn’t require a specialized photo shoot – it should use available imagery
– It should prompt discussion within the group hosting the statue about who should be honored and how

As we thought about who to honor, I came across this tweet from my friend Liz Henry:

Dear whoever filmed the shooting of #walterscott that was brave and awesome of you.

— Liz Henry (@lizhenry) April 7, 2015

As it turns out, that brave and awesome man was Feidin Santana, a 23-year old Dominican immigrant who heard Walter Scott being tazed and captured footage of his shooting by police officer Michael Slager. As with Prof. Jega, we found an image online, masked it and added text to form a plaque. Savannah Niles, who is working on a project to build smoothly looping animated GIFs that she calls Glyphs, went a step further and built a statue of Santana that moves, subtly.

savannah from Ethan Zuckerman on Vimeo.

Niles explains what a Glyph is, showing the statue of Feidin Santana

Our prototype raises as many questions as it answers. Some are practical: Should this be a single unit, perhaps using a mirror to bounce the projection onto the screen? Will this work only in dim, interior spaces? Others focus on the community aspects: How do we decide who to honor? We held a brief email exchange about who we might feature, and quickly realized that there’s a real problem when people disagree about who should be honored. We’re working on a system that will allow people to propose candidates and select people to be honored by acclaim, rather than by fiat, which is how we selected Prof. Jega, Feidin Santana and feminist scholar and activist Anita Sarkeesian as our first three honorees.

As we work on this project in the long term, I’m interested in taking on a richer and deeper set of questions: What are statues for in a digital age? Is the rapid deployment and impermanence of these statues a feature or a bug? Can new types of statues help challenge long-standing gender and racial disparities in who we honor?

The civic statuary project is an experiment, and we may or may not continue it beyond showcasing it at this members’ meeting. But this question of how societies honor their civic heroes is a rich one, and I hope this experiment – and this blog post – opens conversations about who and how we memorialize.

Categories: Blog

Paying Attention to Garissa

April 4, 2015 - 5:14pm

On Thursday morning, heavily armed attackers, believed to be members of al-Shabaab, invaded Garissa University and killed 147 students. Mohamed Kuno, a high-ranking al-Shabaab official, has been named by the Kenyan government as the mastermind of the attack. Two days later, we are hearing terrifying details, including a student who hid in a wardrobe for more than 50 hours, afraid that the police who came to rescue here were militants trying to lure her out. Her decision was a wise one – the militants told students they would live if they came out of their dormitories… then lined them up and shot them.

Al-Shabaab militants have attacked Kenyans dozens of times, most notably at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi on September 21, 2013, which resulted in at least 67 deaths. With each attack, questions arise about how small groups of militants are able to create such carnage. Early reports suggest that the University, located 90 miles from the border with Somalia on a busy road often used for military operations, was protected by only two security guards, who were quickly slain by the militants. Kenya’s 400-mile long border with Somalia is largely unguarded, due to lack of funds and lack of security personnel. (Many have observed that “lack of funds” is a matter of priorities – Kenyan MPs are some of the best paid in the world, receiving $15,000 per month in salary and allowances, while Nairobi’s anti-terror unit has a monthly budget of $735 per month.)

Kenya’s active and vocal twittersphere is filled with condolences, remembrances and accusations, blaming the attacks on endemic police corruption, on military incompetence, on Somalis within Kenya. The deaths in Garissa are inspiring international reactions, including a moving tribute from France and Francophone African nations, where the #JeSuisKenyan hashtag is trending.

Matuba Mahlatjie, news editor of eNCANews, a 24-hour news channel based in South Africa and focused on news from the continent, offered one of the most striking tweets in response to the Garissa massacre.

This is the headline I would've loved to run today: 40 African heads of state join march against Al-Shabaab in Nairobi after Garissa attack

— Matuba Mahlatjie (@matubapressure) April 4, 2015

His tweet is a reference to the large, well-publicized demonstrations of solidarity in Paris that drew participation from world leaders. Thus far, the most encouraging public demonstration may be a much smaller one: a solidarity march of Somali-Kenyan leaders in Eastleigh, a Nairobi neighborhood known for its large Somali population.

Not world leaders but local leaders of #Eastleigh in Solidarity with victimsvof #GarissaAttack. #JeSuisKenyan pic.twitter.com/jkqDgVYnuF

— Ahmed Mohamed™ (@asmali77) April 4, 2015

Mahlatjie cautions that Africans should raise their own voices about Garissa, rather than expecting non-African media to cover the story.

Africans wait for non-Africans to cover our own stories and complain! We are the only people who can tell our own story.Why seek validation?

— Matuba Mahlatjie (@matubapressure) April 4, 2015

Don't compare Charlie Hebdo with Garissa attack. Use that energy to claim back dignity of Black lives! Mobilise! Organise!

— Matuba Mahlatjie (@matubapressure) April 4, 2015

With due respect to Mahlatjie’s concerns, I was curious to see how American media was reporting on the tragedy in Garissa in comparison to Charlie Hebdo and other recent terror attacks. The graphs that follow below are generated by Media Cloud and list the number of sentences per day in a set of 25 large American publications that mention terms associated with a specific attack – “Obama” is included as a comparative search term, as he usually appears in this set of sources 500-800 times per day.

It’s likely that attention to the Garissa story will peak today or tomorrow, at which point we may see a higher level of attention. But as of yesterday, Garissa was mentioned in 214 media sentences in these 25 prominent news sources.

That’s a much lower level of attention than Charlie Hebdo received in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the newspaper in Paris, with sentence mentions peaking at 1,436 – briefly, “Charlie Hebdo” was a more common phrase in these media outlets than “Obama”. It’s also a lower level of attention than the Westgate attacks received, peaking at 406 mentions two days after the attack.

I wrote angrily about the lack of attention paid to the attacks in Baga, in the Borno State of Nigeria, by Boko Haram, which happened at roughly the same time as the Charlie Hebdo attacks and received much less attention.

The attacks in Baga may represent a perfect storm of media indifference and inability. Reports were not definitive, the area where the attacks took place was inaccessible, and attention was distracted by the tragedy in Paris. The events in Garissa are receiving significantly more attention than those in Baga, though it’s worth remembering that Garissa is easily accessible from Nairobi, a city many news organizations use as their African hub.

I will check back in a couple of days with more graphs to see if interest in the Garissa story grows. As I noted in a post about the massacre in Baga, it’s important to honor every death, and to try and understand every tragedy like the one in Garissa. As my friend Ory Okolloh reminds us:

#147notjustanumber

— Ory Okolloh Mwangi (@kenyanpundit) April 4, 2015

Categories: Blog

“It’s scary when we can do this out of love and there’s nothing you can threaten us with”

March 6, 2015 - 7:45am

What’s a “holy shit visualization”?

It’s a way of looking at data that makes turns a statistic you might have flipped past in a book or skimmed by on a web page into something that you can’t forget. It’s a visceral reminder of the power of images and the power of looking at dry numbers in human terms.

For Mike Evans, the map below was a holy shit visualization. Properties in yellow are in tax distress. Those in orange are under tax foreclosure. Those in red have been foreclosed.

In 2014, 50% of properties in the city of Detroit were in danger of foreclosure, being foreclosed, or owned by the city. That’s a frightening statistic. But seeing what it looks like on the map makes the scale of the problem more visceral.

Evans knew this was a powerful visualization when he took the map to the county treasurer, who had his own “holy shit” moment seeing the data. Mike asks, “What does it mean when the county treasurer doesn’t know this? What does this mean for a homeowner who’s far more removed from this information?”


Mike Evans, image from Crain’s Detroit Business

Evans is senior developer with Loveland Technologies, a for-profit technology consultancy in Detroit, MI that focuses on mapping land ownership in cities, especially in Detroit. He visited Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab yesterday to talk about the community mapping work he and his team have taken on in Detroit and around the US. Loveland is a project started by Jerry Paffendorf, who had the clever idea of selling distressed properties in Detroit one square inch at a time. Detroit auctions thousands of properties at a time, and properties that don’t sell for outstanding taxes begin auctioning for $500 apiece. Paffendorf bought some of these properties and started selling them off via Kickstarter for a dollar per square inch (one of the first Kickstarters ever started), and Loveland Technologies got its start building a map that let people see their property ownership, much as the Million Dollar Homepage allowed advertisers to see their online presence purchased a pixel at a time.


Merry Inchmas from Inchy, Loveland’s first mascot.

(There was a serious side to the idea. Paffendorf felt like most people don’t get the chance to be property owners, and speculated that owning even a tiny piece of Detroit would get people thinking more seriously about the problems and challenges the city faces.)

The map, designed to visualize a fanciful public art project, began growing more complex features. But it took on a life of its own when Evans layered data from the county’s massive foreclosure action onto the map. Suddenly, the Loveland map became a resource for Detroit homeowners to tell whether their neighbors were in trouble, whether their neighborhood was in danger of attracting blighted properties, whether they might lose their homes.

“We put this out and suddenly people are calling us up, complaining that we’re illegally foreclosing on their property, demanding that we take them off the list,” Evans remembers. “We’d explain that we weren’t the authorities – we were just visualizing data. And people, not unreasonably, would say ‘You wouldn’t be doing this if you weren’t the city.'”

“It’s a powerful experience,” he explains. “You look up your childhood home and you either breathe a sigh of relief or you call your mom. You click on your neighbors and your friends, and when you get bad news, you start thinking about how you might help them.” The tool quickly became popular with churches, who would look up houses of congregants, and then raise money to rescue members who were in distress. Often churches and friends wouldn’t raise enough money to pay off people’s debt, but payments as small as $300 could often forestall foreclosure for as much as three years.

The name Evans and colleagues gave the tool – Why Don’t We Own This – has at least two meanings. Why are Detroiters being removed from their homes when no one else wants to buy these properties? And how can Detroit take ownership and responsibility for the problems facing the community?

As the map gained prominence, “We became ‘the guy who can get you things'” Evans explains. City council members began asking for reports on their districts so they knew what areas were most affected. With high-level requests for data coming in, Evans and colleagues had more leverage to ask for data. While they’d scraped the initial set of auctions data despite city objections, people within city government started volunteering data sets to the project, and the tool became more feature-rich.

In portraying the city’s foreclosure crisis, Evans offers sympathies for both homeowners and for the city. Many of these forecloses houses were left in wills by grandparents to grandchildren, he explains. The people who inherited properties didn’t know about the water bills and property taxes they would need to pay, and quickly found themselves falling behind. At the same time, it’s hard to put too much blame on the city, which is coping with municipal bankruptcy, accusations from the UN that Detroit’s water shutoffs violate human rights, and a fire department so broke that it uses a fax machines and Faygo cans filled with change as a fire alarms.


Detroit fire alarm. Really. Photo from Detroit Free Press.

Every mayor who’s taken leadership of the city agrees that a critical step towards improving the city is confronting the problem of urban blight. (Evans refers to these as “OMGWTFBBQ” properties.) Abandoned houses attract illegal dumping. They lower the property values of other houses on the street. Kids are afraid to walk to school past the buildings, not knowing who or what is in them. There’s widespread perception that every mayor has failed to address blight… but Evans points out that the city has torn down more than 25,000 buildings between 1995 and 2014. “Cities don’t get the love even when they do what they said they would do,” Evans offers. “But actually, it’s government’s job to make sure we know what they’re doing regarding blight.”

Addressing blight is a major motivation for offering open data in Detroit. Detroit has an open data portal, but it’s not exactly a marvel of usability – to really use the data, in many cases, you need to export the data to a GIS program like ESRI. Evans offers a real-world example of the importance of accessibility: a homeowner who wants to attack blight in her neighborhood by mowing the lawns of unoccupied houses on her street needs a simple way to know whether properties are occupied or not. “Accessibility is the real open data. Just having it open isn’t important if people can’t utilize it.”

The idea of accessible, usable data that Detroiters could leverage to protect their neighborhoods helped inform the project Loveland Technologies is most famous for: Motor City Mapping. Based on the success of their map of foreclosed properties, the Loveland team was invited to a meeting involving Dan Gilbert (local billionaire, founder of Quicken Loans), the White House, the Kresge and Skillman Foundations, and local projects like U-Snap-Bac, which provides funding to restore distressed properties. The team started with the idea of removing every blighted building from the city, and quickly realized that they would need a comprehensive map of Detroit’s blighted properties. The Loveland Technology team made the argument that they should instead map every property in the city, take photos and try to determine whether those properties are occupied or not.

What resulted from the discussions was Motor City Mapping, a wildly ambitious project that mapped 400,000 properties in about a month using 150 volunteers armed with Android tablets. As Evans explains it, he wanted nine months to take on the project and ended up being negotiated down to a month-long development cycle. As he was unboxing and syncing 150 new Android tablets, the data collection software he’d built was two days old and still riddled with bugs. (Evans had wanted to roll out on iOS, but the process of releasing software, waiting for Apple’s approval and reinstalling was too slow and pushed him onto Android, at a time when the tablets he wanted were just coming on the market and were hard to obtain.)

For the next month, 150 surveyors walked the streets of Detroit photographing each property, reporting its condition, identifying blight and determining whether a house was occupied. Evans and a colleague stayed in the office, fixing bugs and adding features. “It was the best kind of scope creep. We’d realize we needed Google Street View data as a double-check for locations. We’d want to add in assessor data. The tool got more complicated and more useful every day.”

Having real-time data matters when you’re trying to transform a city. In particular, it’s critically important to have data about whether properties are occupied or abandoned. Detroit’s police force is so stressed that they generally don’t evict homeowners when their properties have been foreclosed on. As a result, buying a foreclosed property at auction in Detroit is a deeply uncomfortable gamble. The property you bought for $500 might be abandoned and ready for you to fix it up… or it may be occupied by a family unhappy about you showing up on their doorstop. Most investors don’t want to purchase the occupied buildings, which is why having Motor City Mapping’s data on occupied properties is so crucial. As the project has continued from its startup phase, the team prioritizes re-surveying tax distressed properties they believe are occupied, trying to minimize situations where people are purchasing occupied buildings.

Realtime, or near realtime, mapping of a city has other positive implications. When the city wants to provide services like cutting grass, they can use the maps to scout areas ahead of time, and can mark maps once they’ve provided services.

Evans shows off the ability to generate custom maps based on queries. What properties in your neighborhood are in poor condition or recommended for demolition? The map above shows how to generate that information with a few button clicks.

It’s important, also, that maps are annotateable. The image above shows an apartment building that was in good condition when Motor City Mapping checked it out. But below, a resident has reported that the building was damaged by a suspicious fire and should now be considered a blighted structure.

Real-time mapping was challenging and expensive to accomplish. Most of the 150 workers who surveyed the city didn’t have cars, Evans explains, so Quicken Loans employees volunteered to act as their drivers. Since volunteers would be in a car all day with workers, Motor City Mapping then ran background checks on their workers, and ended up losing 30%, who had records for violent offenses or felonies. Maintaining a team of mappers long term may not be something Detroit can afford – instead, mapping may come in part from citizens who download the app and use it to maintain maps of their communities.

Loveland Tech, in the mean time, is taking on government contracts and expanding their system to include dozens of other cities. They sell the tools that allow other cities to overlay data sets on their street maps. Unfortunately, the tool is only one part of building a system like the one in Detroit. Buffalo, NY, a city that features many of the problems Detroit faces, offers a beautiful map but without information on condition or occupancy. To make the maps really useful, cities need to work with Loveland to release key data sets, a process that can trigger resistance from government agencies, some of which see selling this data as a way to address their budget shortcomings. Evans remembers that it took two months into the Motor City Mapping project before the Wayne County Assessor would give the team their data set – until they came under massive public pressure, the Assessor wanted to sell the data instead.

If the impact of Loveland’s maps makes city officials say “holy shit”, it’s worth asking how Evans and his team have been so successful in taking on these controversial, provocative and deeply useful projects. Evans credits much of the success to being in the right place at the right time, to being invited to meetings like the one that launched Motor City Mapping.

I think Evans, Paffendorf and others have a secret weapon in these battles: the power of whimsy. Before joining Loveland Technologies, Evans was the founder of PishPosh.TV, a video production company that wanted to build “a discovery channel that doesn’t suck”, showcasing maker culture and teaching people about low-cost computer hardware like Arduinos and Raspberry Pis. (It’s taken on a newsier, muckraking tone recently with Slash Detroit.) Evans heard that Paffendorf was building a free, urban minigolf course with art professor Steve Coy and decided to make a video of the project. Soon after, Evans moved his video production company in with Paffendorf’s “Imagination Station“, and became a co-conspirator on multiple projects.

Not all these projects are easy to explain. Paffendorf gained a certain amount of notoriety in Detroit by raising $67,000 to build a statue of Robocop, to be erected in downtown. Slopping reporting and online rumor-spreading led to outrage over the idea that a bankrupt city would use public funds for a fanciful sculpture – as Evans patiently explains when I bring up Robocop, all money came from donors (many from outside of Detroit), and the statue will be build from molds made by the original designers of the costume at Universal, and forged at Venus Bronzeworks, a venerable Detroit institution. But the sheer silliness of the idea has a life of its own and has led to previous Detroit mayors coming out publicly to oppose the statue project.

I think this gift for whimsy helped Evans and Paffendorf avoid some of the initial resistance they might have faced when launching projects like Why Don’t We Own This. After all, it’s hard to worry about a couple of kids upending Detroit’s foreclosure policy when they’re the guys best known for urban minigolf and fanciful Kickstarter projects.

Evans has a simpler explanation than the one I offer. When you’re broke and taking on projects out of passion, not out of profit, it’s hard for people to stand in your way. When he began scraping auction data from county websites, it was easy to ignore any potential legal consequences. “What are you going to do? Sue us? We’ve got nothing. You want to bankrupt us? Okay, here – you can have our dog.” (Fortunately, the county chose to work with them, rather than threatening legal action.) When the laughter at Center for Civic Media dies down, Evans explains, “It’s scary to those in power when people are able to do projects like this out of love, and there’s nothing you can really threaten them with.”

Categories: Blog

Helping Launch the NetGain Challenge

February 11, 2015 - 10:28am

This morning, I’m at the Ford Foundation in New York City as part of the launch event for NetGain. NetGain is a new effort launched by the Mozilla, Ford, Open Society, Macarthur and Knight Foundations, to bring the philanthropic community together to tackle the greatest obstacles to digital rights, online equality and the use of the internet to promote social justice.

The event is livestreamed here – in a moment, you can head Tim Berners-Lee and Susan Crawford in conversation about the future of the web.

For the past six months, I’ve been working with Jenny Toomey and Darren Walker at Ford, John Palfrey at Phillips Andover, and friends at these different foundations to launch the NetGain challenges. We’re asking people around the world to propose difficult problems about the open internet that they think governments and companies have not been able to solve. We’re collecting these challenges at NetGainChallenge.org, and asking participating foundations to take the lead on one or more challenges, coordinating a new set of investments in tackling that problem.

I had the privilege of introducing a session at this morning’s event about these challenges. It was an Ignite talk, which means I probably didn’t manage to say all the words I have listed below. But this is what I was trying to say:

45 years ago, the first message was sent over the internet, between a computer at UCLA and one at Stanford University.

25 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee turned the internet from a tool for academics into something most of us use every day, by making it easy to publish and read online – he created the World Wide Web.

What’s followed on Sir Tim’s invention is a transformation of the ways we work, play, shop, argue, protest, give, learn and love.

Given the amazing transformations we’ve seen, it’s easy to forget that the internet is a long, ongoing experiment. The internet as we know it is the result of trying new things, seeing how they break, and working to fix them.

The first message sent on the internet was “login”, as Charley Kline and Len Kleinrock at UCLA were trying to log into a machine at Stanford. They only managed to transmit the letters “lo”, then the system crashed. An hour later, they had it up again and managed to transmit the whole message.

On the internet, we have a long tradition of trying things out, screwing up, fixing what’s broken and moving forward.

Twenty five years into the life of the World Wide Web, there are amazing successes to celebrate: a free encyclopedia in hundreds of world languages, powerful tools for sharing breaking news and connecting with old friends, platforms that help us organize, agitate and push for social justice.

But alongside our accomplishments, there’s still lots that’s broken.

In building an internet where most content and services are free, we’ve also adopted a business model that puts us under perpetual surveillance by advertisers. Worse, our communications are aggregated, analyzed and surveilled by governments around the world.
The amazing tools we’ve built for learning and for sharing ideas are far easier and cheaper to access in the developed world than in the developing world – we’re still far from the dream of a worldwide web.

We’ve built new public spaces online to discuss the issues of the day, but those discussions are too rarely civil and productive. Speaking online often generates torrents abuse, especially when women speak online.

Despite Sir Tim’s vision of a decentralized web, there’s a huge concentration of control with a few companies that control the key platforms for online speech. And as we use the web to share, opine and learn, quickly losing our legacy, erasing this vast new library as fast as we write it.

These problems may well be unsolveable. But it’s possible that we’ve been waiting for the wrong people to solve them.

In 1889, Andrew Carnegie gave money to build a public library in Braddock, Pennsylvania, the first of 1,689 libraries he funded in the US. These were not just spaces that allowed people to feed their minds, but in many towns, the only spaces open to men, women, children and people of all races.

Newspapers and the publishing houses made knowledge available to those who could afford it, but Carnegie made it available to everyone.

As television became a fixture in the nation’s homes in the 1950s, the Ford Foundation worked with other philanthropists to build a public television system in the US, ensuring that this powerful new medium was used to educate and enlighten as well as to entertain

The foundations here aren’t going to be able to put internet into every home the way Carnegie brought libraries to every town. But there are problems philanthropy can tackle in unique ways that provide solutions that go beyond what corporations or governments can do on their own.
That’s what led us to the idea of the grand challenge. We’re drawing inspiration here from Google’s moonshots and from the XPrize Foundation. More importantly, we’re taking guidance from the people we work with everyday, on the front lines of social innovation, to identify the challenges we need to overcome to for the internet to be a true tool for justice and social inclusion

The speakers you’re about to hear aren’t here with solutions: they’re going share with us the thorny problems they’re working to solve. We’re asking each foundation that’s a member of Netgain to take the lead on one of these and other challenges, convening the smartest people in the field, our partners, our grantees, our beneficiaries to understand what we can do together to tackle these deep and persistent problems.

These aren’t the only challenges we need to tackle. We need to hear from you about what problems we can take on and what brilliant guides – like nine speakers we’re about to hear from – can help us navigate our way through these challenges.

We’re taking this high-risk strategy of aiming at the toughest problems because even if we fall short of our goals, we think we’ll make enormous progress by working together. Every six months, we plan to bring our community together, convene around a grand challenge and start a process of collaboration and experimentation. We may only get to “lo” before we crash, restart and rebuild. But every time we do, we’ll be moving towards a web that’s more open, more just, more able to transform our world for the better.

Please join us at NetGainChallenge.org and help us identify the challenges we should be taking on.

Categories: Blog

Global Voices at 10: Food for Thought

January 27, 2015 - 4:15pm

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.


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.

Categories: Blog

Global Voices Summit: Do We Feed the Trolls?

January 24, 2015 - 11:00pm

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.


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.”

Categories: Blog

Global Voices Summit: Online Crisis Reporting

January 24, 2015 - 8:03pm

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.

Categories: Blog

Howard French on the media’s coverage of Boko Haram massacres

January 24, 2015 - 5:33pm

Foreign correspondent, journalism professor and author Howard French recently weighed in on the debate about media coverage of Charlie Hebdo and the massacres in Baga with a memorable stream of tweets. French has a deep understanding of Africa in the news, as a former professor in Côte d’Ivoire and the author of two must-read books about Africa, A Continent for the Taking and China’s Second Continent, about Chinese expansion in Africa.

French was reacting in part to a New York Times Public Editor note from Margaret Sullivan on the New York Times’s coverage of the two stories. He
references a Glenda Gordon article that notes the real problem: it’s not that we failed to value the deaths of those killed by Boko Haram, but that we did not value their lives.

Here’s French’s “Twitter Essay”:

1) NYT on Baga massacre "coverage seemed both light and late," by @Sulliview http://t.co/ZIftXStOor My 2 cents: http://t.co/ctRWaUAJIc

— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015

2) NYT on Baga massacre. Editors asks: ‘Is this a big deal? R we going to deploy someone?’ Good ?s, followed by defensive, sophist answers.

— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015

3) NYT on Baga massacre. Nigeria is not "remote," even if Baga is. Largest country in Africa, close to US, source of large portion of US pop

— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015

4) NYT on Baga massacre. Ebola coverage cited here. It was also late, w costly real world consequences.

— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015

5) On Baga. Individual reporters have worked v hard, done great stuff. Time to move beyond "they're really tired," or we'll get to it.

— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015

6) On Baga. It's time for honest discussion in US media abt how African continent is covered, including staffing resources and "news value."

— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015

US press re Rwandan genocide. "Yeah, we're not really sure this is a big deal, you know, ancient tribal enmities and all. We'll get to it.

— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015

US press re: Congo wars, 5 million death toll: Yeah, big country. It's a mess. So far away. And has anyone really counted all the bullets?

— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015

US press, Ivory Coast meltdown: That's a French country isn't it?

— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015

US media on ebola early on: Hey it's Africa. Sick people? What's new about that?

— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015

US media on ebola later: Hey, Africans might contaminate us! Look, a case. (Full court press ensues… to Dallas)

— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015

US media on Baga: Hey, we just did Ebola. Isn't there someone else to call?

— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015

US media on Baga late. You know accuracy is sacrosanct to us, so until we have an exact and definitive death toll…

— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015

US media on Paris: Hey, these are our people. I mean people. I mean. Oh never mind. You know what I mean.

— Howard French (@hofrench) January 24, 2015

After all the criticism, genuinely big props to the Times for airing something like this in 1st place: by @Sulliview http://t.co/ZIftXStOor

— Howard French (@hofrench) January 25, 2015

Categories: Blog

Global Voices Summit: Social Media in the Philippines

January 23, 2015 - 8:46pm

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.


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. Reuben Lycera, 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 Lycera 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.

Categories: Blog

Global Voices Summit: “Our Voices, Ourselves”

January 23, 2015 - 7:29pm

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.

Categories: Blog

Global Voices Summit: Protecting the Open Internet

January 23, 2015 - 7:12pm

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.

Categories: Blog

Honor every death: Paying attention to terror in Baga, Nigeria as well as Paris

January 9, 2015 - 7:26pm

This has been an ugly week.

On Wednesday, two Islamic extremists assassinated 12 people in the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The next day, a police officer was killed by a pair of gunmen in another corner of Paris in an apparently related incident. Today, French authorities faced hostage crises at a kosher supermarket in the city, and at a printing plant outside the city. By the end of the week, the death toll was up to twenty – 17 victims and 3 perpetrators – in an tragic week people are starting to call France’s 9/11.

The violence in Paris demands – and has received – widespread media attention. But it has overshadowed some of the other events of an ugly, dispiriting week.

On Tuesday morning, a homemade explosive blew up outside the Colorado Springs office of the NAACP, one of the US’s leading civil rights organizations. The bombing – which the FBI has declared deliberateevoked memories of the darkest days of the civil rights struggle, where activists were the victims of bomb attacks. The NAACP bombing received little mainstream media attention, leading to a twitter campaign demanding coverage of the attack, and sparking discussion about a media tendency to dismiss white terrorists as disturbed, lone-wolf individuals, while seeing other terrorists as representing their race or religion.

Muslim shooter = entire religion guilty Black shooter = entire race guilty White shooter = mentally troubled lone wolf

— Sally Kohn (@sallykohn) December 21, 2014


Sally Kohn’s tweet from December 21, 2014 is as appropriate now as it was then.

It’s understandable that the tragedy in Paris overshadowed coverage of the NAACP bombing. But it’s harder to explain the scant media attention to another horrific act of terrorism: Boko Haram’s attack on the town of Baga.

Baga is on the border between Nigeria and Chad and has been a key battleground between Boko Haram and Nigerian forces over the few years. In April 2013, the Nigerian army, pursuing Boko Haram killed almost two hundred civilians and burned a substantial portion of the town, leading villagers to flee into the bush. On Saturday, January 3, 2015, Boko Haram seized a military base in Baga, and began launching attacks on townspeople. At least 7,000 refugees have fled into Chad and Niger.

It will likely be weeks until there’s a confirmed death toll from Baga, but Amnesty International’s Nigeria expert believes there may be as many as two thousand dead. The town has apparently been razed to the ground, as http://www.latimes.com/world/africa/la-fg-wn-boko-haram-baga-20150109-story.html#page=1>Boko Haram forces looted, then burned, houses. Since 2011, Boko Haram has killed 16,000 Nigerians, 11,000 in the past year.

If you haven’t heard about the Baga massacre, that’s not surprising. Most major media outlets have barely covered the story. In the graph above, the orange line is the phrase “Charlie Hebdo”, and the blue is “Baga”. On January 4th, the day after the Nigerian army base fell, the top 25 US mainstream media ran twenty sentences that mentioned Baga. Yesterday, the same news outlets ran 1,100 sentences mentioning Charlie Hebdo. (Today’s count will likely be higher, but Media Cloud is still collecting today’s data, and there’s still four hours in the day.)

My Nigerian friends have commented that the Baga story is not getting much play in Nigerian media either, and the statistics bear that claim out. Orange represents “Charlie Hebdo”, blue represents “Baga” as above, but now we’re looking at a collection of Nigerian newspapers, radio, television and social media. Baga peaks two days after the military base fell, and coverage of the Paris massacre has been stronger the past three days than coverage of the larger domestic tragedy.

President Jonathan of #Nigeria has publicly condemned the attack in Paris, but nothing about the massacre of 2000 in his own country. #Baga

— Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) January 9, 2015

Some commentators note that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has expressed his sympathies to the French government, but not to the people of Borno State killed by Boko Haram. Facing re-election in five weeks, Jonathan is understandably wary of discussing Boko Haram, as it reminds voters that the conflict has erupted under his management and that his government has been unable to subdue the terror group. Jonathan has claimed that a multinational force was combatting Boko Haram, but military sources claim that Nigerois, Chadian and Cameroonian troops have deserted the cause.

Events in Paris have been horrific. But Boko Haram killed up to 2,000 people on Wednesday in Baga, Nigeria: http://t.co/NUvYvt7O91

— Ethan Zuckerman (@EthanZ) January 9, 2015

I was struck by how little attention the Baga massacre was receiving and tweeted about it earlier today. People have offered helpful speculation on why this is the case. Some theories my correspondents have suggested:

– The victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre were journalists, and journalists take special care to cover journalist deaths. (I wish this were true. But the alarmingly common killing of journalists in the Philippines suggests that some journalist deaths are more newsworthy than others.)

– Baga is hard to get to, while Paris is a global media city. Easier access equals more coverage. (Certainly true, and certainly important, but given the death toll in Baga, you might expect at least one global news crew to try to reach the scene. AP’s dateline is from Yola, almost 600km away. Reuters is reporting from Bauchi, a similar distance away.)

– Racism. We care more about the white people killed in France than about black people killed in Nigeria. Or, phrased differently, “a hierarchy of death“, in which some deaths always merit more attention than others.

I think this last theory is on the right track, but I think it’s more complex than just racism (though I believe race plays a significant factor.) When I teach “agenda setting” and “news values” (the ways in which some events become news and some don’t), I turn to a 50 year old paper by Johan Galtung and Mari Ruge, “The Structure of Foreign News”. Galtung and Ruge propose a set of twelve principals that they use to explain how events are seen as newsworthy. Four of their rules help me understand the disparities in coverage between the attacks in Paris and in Baga.

Meaningfulness: The central metaphor of Galtung and Ruge’s paper is a shortwave radio – of all the signals we tune into on the radio dial, we are most likely to tune into those that have meaning for us, say a human voice speaking in a language we understand. Meaningfulness includes cultural proximity: we are more likely to pay attention to events that affect people who live lives similar to our own. It’s hard for most of us to imagine living in a fishing village on the shores of Lake Chad and being forced to flee a rebel army. It’s easier to imagine masked gunmen entering our workplace (especially for Americans, where workplace shootings have become tragically common.) Once we’ve placed ourselves in the shoes of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, the police protecting them, or the grocery shoppers, the story becomes personally relevant.

Consonance: While news is usually a surprise – a natural disaster, an unanticipated death – Galtung and Ruge argue that we like our surprises to be consonant with narratives we already know and understand. The attack on a major city by violent extremists is a tragically familiar one over the past decade, a story that feels like a continuation of attacks on New York, London, Madrid and Boston.

Unambiguity: We like stories that are easy to understand and interpret – nuanced and complex events are harder to cover than unambiguous ones. A brutal attack by a group opposed to western education and most traces of modernity seems unambiguous, until one reads about the abuses the Nigerian army has committed in combatting Boko Haram. There have been two massacres in Baga in the past two years – the 2013 Baga massacre occurred when Nigerian soldiers burned the village, seeking revenge for military officers killed by Boko Haram, killing almost 200 civilians. Were residents of Baga providing support and shelter for Boko Haram in 2013? Why did those same residents become targets for Boko Haram in 2015? These sorts of questions make the massacre in Baga a hard story to understand and a harder one to tell.

Stories about people: Stories need heroes and villains. Coverage of the Paris attacks has focused on Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier and his willingness to “die standing than live on my knees”, and the long histories of the radicalization of Cherif and Said Kouachi. In Baga, we know neither the names or the stories of the victims or the attackers as it’s not clear who is currently leading Boko Haram.

The one campaign that has successfully called international attention to Boko Haram’s abuses is the Chibok Girls campaign, which demanded international attention for 200 girls abducted from a school in Chibok, in southern Borno state. The parents of the abducted girls have made countless media appearances, reminding Nigerian and global audiences of their absence.

If Galtung and Ruge’s principles hold, we shouldn’t expect attention to the Baga massacre to increase in the next few days. It’s too distant, physically and culturally, too complex and devoid of the personal narratives journalists use to draw audiences to complex stories. But it’s critically important that we understand what happened in Baga, not just to understand the challenges Nigeria faces from Boko Haram, but to understand who religious extremism affects.

Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.

— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) January 10, 2015


Retweeted for illustrative purposes. Fuck Rupert Murdoch.

The brutal attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s staff reinforce a “clash of civilizations” narrative, in which Western secular values (freedom of expression, humor, critique) are inexorably threatened by fundamentalist religious values. (Teju Cole provocatively notes that the secular West has rarely been as skeptical and rational as it congratulates itself for being.) The implications of this clash of civilizations narrative are predictable and dire: commenters demand that moderate Muslims explicitly dissociate themselves from horrific criminal acts, implying that those who don’t endorse terrorism; right wing politicians suggest closing borders and deporting Muslims; Muslims face revenge attacks.

Violence from Islamic extremism is a real and frightening problem. So, for that matter, is extremist violence associated with other religions. (See Myanmar for evidence that Buddhists can be violent extremists, or review the 2002 riots in Gujarat for an introduction to Hindu extremism. Or consider Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose Christian fundamentalism is as foreign and offensive to most Christians as Al Qaeda’s theology is to most Muslims.) But the majority of the victims of Islamic terrorism are Muslims. According to a 2011 report from the US National Counter Terrorism Center “In cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years.” In other words, attacks like the one in Baga, where extremists killed their co-religionists are far more common than attacks like the ones in Paris, where extremists targeted people of other faiths.

Following the “clash of civilization” narrative leads to demonization of 1.6 billion people, 23% of the world’s population. Understanding that terror disproportionately impacts Muslims makes it clear that terrorism is a tactic, a political and military strategy, not a feature of Islam or any other religion. By mourning the dead both in Paris and Baga, we take a step towards understanding that the enemy is extremism, not Islam.

Categories: Blog

The poetic inefficiencies of an artwork built for one

December 8, 2014 - 5:23pm

In the fall and winter of 2013, the writer Rick Moody experienced a set of events designed to change his life. His priest gave him a book, apparently written decades ago (though actually specially crafted just for him), to read with his daughter. It told the story of a secret room, and soon afterwards, Moody was led by friends to his own secret room, a disused hardware store in Brooklyn, where he encountered objects that evoked moments in his life and in the book. Music he encountered in the secret room reoccurred, when the artists orchestrating these events picked Moody up in New York City, flew him to Regina and drove him to an isolated prairie, where he sat in a pavilion made of hay bales and a cellist performed the composition he had previously heard. As the piece escalated, hundreds of performers followed Moody moved through New York, dancing on subway platforms and surrounding him as costumed fools in Brooklyn’s Metrotech Commons. A photo of Moody surrounded by his hundred fools suggests a moment of transcendent bliss.

Moody was the “participant” in a performance titled “When I Left the House It Was Still Dark”, created by Odyssey Works, which “makes large scale, durational, interdisciplinary performances customized for one-person audiences.” The company has been making work since 2002, but as less than two dozen people have served as the audiences for these works, it’s not surprising you may not have heard of them. Writing about the company’s work in 2012, Chris Colin wrote about the “beautiful inefficiency” of this method of working, the absurd and beautiful idea of an immense effort deployed to create an emotional response in a single person.

Odyssey Works is not alone in crafting experiences designed for a single person. Colin offers some reference points for contextualizing works like “When I Left the House It Was Still Dark”: the immersive theatre experiences of Punchdrunk, the producers of “Sleep No More“; works like “You Me Bum Bum Train” that puts a single audience member at the center of a set of scenes in the work. A set of films called “Experiment Ensam” (Experiment Alone) takes experiences normally experienced in a large group – a comedy club, a karaoke bar – and recreates them for a single person. Recently, Experiment Ensam produced a Bob Dylan concert for a single fan, a brief set with Dylan and his touring band at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. The performance was filmed with eight cameras and will be released on YouTube later this month, raising questions about whether the audience was Swedish TV personality Fredrik Wikingsson, who attended the concert, or those of us who will watch it online.

These acts of personalized theatre don’t always go well. Jorge Just produced a memorable story for This American Life about Improv Everywhere, a New York City-based troupe that creates theatrical moments in everyday life. (One of their recurrent projects is the “No Pants Subway Ride”, where subways slowly fill up with passengers who are unremarkable but for the fact that they’ve forgotten their pants.) In the “mission” TAL examines, Improv Everywhere tried to give an unknown indie rock band their best gig ever, recruiting an audience to learn their songs, sing along with the performance and shout out requests for the band’s songs. After the initial elation of playing for a large crowd wore off, the members of the band felt like they had been the butt of an elaborate joke, laughed at by the Improv performers and made fun of online. The tension between Improv Everywhere’s good intentions and the damage it caused the band makes Just’s story striking and poignant. Theatre for one is hard to do well.

Odyssey Works may surprise their participants, but it certainly isn’t ambushing them. Participants are selected through a detailed application process, which begins with an online application that asks about a person’s favorite places in her city of residence and her experiences with pieces of art. The company interviews family and friends, both to recruit them into building the experience for the participant, but also to understand what she is likely to be moved or effected by. In preparing “When I Left the House It Was Still Dark”, the producers read all of Moody’s books, interviewed thirty of his family and friends, and visited him several times before designing the work.

Abraham Burickson, co-founder of Odyssey Works, explains the logic behind this process: it’s about discovering the ideal audience for a piece of art. Artists hope their work moves the audience, but it’s a frustratingly inexact process. Armed with a deep understanding of the participant, the company deploys imagery and ideas designed to evoke a more powerful response than they would in an audience as a whole. “Art that affects you — in any medium — is very specific to you. It’s as if you have a set of subjective protein receptors in your creative-appreciation mind, and the piece is so perfectly engineered to your subjectivity that it can break you open for meaning to flood in. We wanted to see if we could achieve that by crafting an experience that would affect someone even more deeply than a randomly arrived-at occurrence might.”

This working method could be deeply creepy if it weren’t so carefully and lovingly done. Part of experiencing one of these artworks is realizing you’ve been under surveillance for months in advance and that hundreds of people have learned intimate details of your life in order to present this experience to you. In a sense, this is what web advertisers and other purveyors of personalization promise. In this case, it’s done poetically and beautifully. In that sense, it reminds me of Yuletide, in which thousands of authors write custom fan fiction stories carefully tailored for the recipient as an especially personal version of “secret Santa”.

For reasons I cannot explain, the images crafted for Moody – particularly that of a cellist performing a composition in a prairie outside Regina, Saskatchewan – are some of the most moving I’ve recently encountered. They make me wonder about the mechanics of this method – am I responding to imagery that Moody and I happen to share? (I resonate with the prairie, but not the idea of the Cloister, the secret room Moody explores, which seems designed to connect with Moody’s Catholic background and doesn’t trigger a similar receptor in me, a fundamentalist Unitarian.) Or are Burickson and colleagues creating powerful images, inspired by Moody, but elegantly crafted to connect with a wide range of receptive audiences? By identifying an image that resonates profoundly for Moody, are they inadvertently creating deeply potent ideas that would resonate for anyone who encountered them?

Since reading about Odyssey Works, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with the idea. I don’t actually want to be a participant in one of these pieces – it’s overwhelming to think about accepting a gift of that magnitude. Instead, I want to understand what Odyssey Works created and what Moody experienced, to the point where I’m thinking about approaching magazine editors to pitch the story so I’d have the chance to interview Moody, Burickson and his collaborators.

It’s as if Burickson and his colleagues have created a work just for me, not a performance, but an impossibly fertile idea of making art that expands beyond the edges of the page and into every aspect of a viewer’s life. For all I know, the few articles I’ve read are part of an elaborate fiction designed to evoke a particular set of reactions in me as part of a carefully crafted artwork I did not consent to, but am enjoying nevertheless.

In 1994, when I was still pretending to be an artist, my art school roommates and I began designing an elaborate, multi-website fantasy, something that would later be described as an alternate reality game. (One of my roommates was filmmaker Jackie Goss, and we were extending a film she’d made about young women growing antlers.) We never progressed beyond sketches, in part because we never could figure out who we wanted to discover these sites and what we hoped they’d make of them. Twenty years later, there’s something lovely about discovering the same idea, done so well and towards such a beautiful goal.

Categories: Blog

Why cameras alone won’t protect black mens’ lives

December 5, 2014 - 10:59am

I wasn’t expecting the grand jury to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. I was disappointed and outraged, but not surprised. Unfortunately, the response of local and state government in Ferguson to the shooting and subsequent protest raised serious doubts about the fairness of those institutions. Furthermore, there’s a dispute at the center of the Michael Brown case as to what happened when Wilson confronted Brown. While I agree with Ezra Klein’s conclusion that Wilson’s story is “literally unbelievable” and find his reading of the testimony of Dorian Johnson, Michael Brown’s friend and witness to his death, more compelling, I find it possible to understand how a grand jury could take Wilson’s word over Johnson’s.

But I was surprised that Daniel Pantaleo was not indicted for the death of Eric Garner. I shouldn’t have been. Police officers are very rarely indicted for on-duty shootings (WSJ reference), and only two New York City police officers have been indicted for killing in the line of duty since the 1960s. In addition, Staten Island is whiter, more conservative and more sympathetic to the police than the rest of New York City, suggesting that an indictment was less likely there than in other parts of the city.

Still, there was the video.

There’s not much uncertainty about what happened in the moments before Eric Garner was killed. We’ve seen the argument between Garner and Pantaleo, the group of armed police officers wrestling Garner to the ground, the choke hold Pantaleo performs on Garner, the desperate pleas of “I can’t breathe.” More damning in some ways is the video shot after Garner has been brought to the ground, depicting a group of officers apparently more focused on limiting access to the crime scene than in attempting to save Garner’s life with CPR or another intervention. As Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, told reporters: “I couldn’t see how a grand jury could vote and say there was no probable cause… What were they looking at? Were they looking at the same video the rest of the world was looking at?”

In 1991, when Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police officers after a high-speed chase, a bystander’s video brought the violation of his civil rights to national attention, leading to indictment, prosecution and to rioting when King’s abusers were acquitted. The King video was shaky and blurry, but it was damning, at least in the court of public opinion.

Two decades later, most Americans carry cameras with them all the time, and surveillance cameras are a pervasive feature of the built environment. Video of King’s encounter with the police was unusual at the time. Now, situations like Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, where there is no witness, surveillance or police dash camera video, are becoming the unusual cases.

One of President Obama’s responses to the Ferguson protests has been an announcement that he will seek $75 million in Congressional funding to make 50,000 body cameras available to police forces. Given the massive federal funding that has allowed US police forces to acquire military equipment to wage the putative war on terror, this seems like a step that’s both reasonable and overdue. But given the apparent disconnect between the footage of Garner’s killing and the grand jury’s decision, it’s clear the relationship between cameras and justice is more complicated than it appears at first glance.

Requiring police to wear body cameras likely has a prophylactic effect. Officers know their actions are being watched and know that disciplinary action (short of having criminal charges filed against them) is more likely to result from abuse than when their actions were unmonitored. complaints against police officers in Rialto, CA fell 88% a year after body cameras were put into use in 2012. Other departments have seen significant decreases in complaints by mandating the use of dashboard cameras in police vehicles. Apparently, the panopticon shapes the behavior of the officers being watched in much the way Foucault predicted: the combination of the perpetual possibility of surveillance and a disciplinary culture shapes behavior. What’s not clear is whether the panopticon still works when surveilled behavior is revealed to be consequence free. (It’s likely that there will be consequences for Pantaleo, as he has been stripped of his badge and faces an internal investigation. Wilson has left the Ferguson police force. Those professional consequences are small consolation to the families of the dead men.)

If pervasive cameras help prevent bad behavior but don’t eliminate it, they have another consequence as well: they make police abuse visible to the general public. Yesterday, I heard a closed-door briefing from Sherrilyn Ifill, director of the NAACP’s legal defense and education fund. She began by explaining that we are not experiencing an unusual wave of police abuse. Instead, pervasive cameras and the ability to share stories and mobilize via social media mean that we’re seeing far more of these stories. The last two weeks have added two new names to the vast list of unarmed black men killed by law enforcement: Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy shot by a Cleveland police officer while playing in a park, and Rumain Brisbon, a 34-year old father of four, shot by a Phoenix police officer.

Ifill argues that these incidents have been distressingly common for many years, a contention supported by Pro Publica’s research suggesting that black Americans are more than 20 times more likely to be shot by police than white Americans. (Figures from the FBI suggest, though, that we may be experiencing a higher level of police shooting than in years past.) What’s unusual is that these incidents, which generally receive only local news coverage, are being seen by activists – and increasingly, by the general public – as part of a pattern of racism, implicit bias and over-reliance on violence on the part of law enforcement. The shooting of Tamir Rice would have been a tragedy for the young man’s family and community (and yes, for the officer, who will live with the guilt of killing an innocent young man for the rest of his life); now it is also a rallying point for a national movement demanding justice and change.

It’s possible that Timothy Loehmann, who shot Rice, will be indicted, though unlikely. Revelations that Loehmann had been determined to be unfit for duty by another Ohio police department combined with the Justice deparment’s censure of the Cleveland police department might put sufficient pressure on prosecutors to bring Loehmann to trial. But let’s consider what will happen if Loehmann is not indicted. Surveillance video shows that Loehmann shot Rice two seconds after his police cruiser arrived at the park pavilion where Rice was sitting. Much as the video of Garner being choked into submission and death makes Pantaleo’s narrative hard to accept, it is impossible to reconcile the footage of Rice’s shooting with Loehmann’s assertions that Rice was warned before he was shot.

Widespread availability of video footage combined with a legal culture unwilling to indict police officers has a likely outcome: further erosion of trust in law enforcement, the judicial system and other public institutions. Faced with imagery that depicts criminal negligence and a legal system that fails to prosecute these actions, the net effect of this imagery is the (further) loss of face in government institutions. Add to this another factor, documented by Micah Sifry in his new book, “The Big Disconnect”. Social media has demonstrated a great ability to organize challenges to power, as in the Arab Spring, but has been frustratingly ineffective in helping build new systems or reform existing ones. It’s easy to imagine a situation in which imagery erodes trust, mobilizes dissent and does little to channel that dissent into paths towards change.

I desperately wish that body cameras were a single, simple solution to police violence against black men. It’s hugely encouraging that use of force was reduced by 60% in Rialto, CA after cameras were introduced, but that reduction is a tribute not just to the technology but to a departmental commitment to culture change. Eliminating disproportionate violence against black men requires training officers so they don’t fire weapons within seconds of an encounter, addressing the implicit bias that allows an officer like Loehmann to overestimate the age and danger of Tamir Rice, and changing a culture of policing that leads too many officers to view their workplace as a war zone, not a community they live in. It requires reforming a prosecutorial culture that is too comfortable with law enforcement, and finding new ways for oversight over America’s tens of thousands of independent police departments. It requires gun control, so that police officers are not – justifiably – concerned that any encounter with a suspect could end in gunfire.

Sharing images of the unforgivable violence against Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others is a necessary but not sufficient step towards change. At best, the knowledge that the world is watching may help slow the hand of a police officer’s hand and keep a confrontation from turning violent. But the contradiction between these unforgettable images and these unjust institutional responses is infuriating, alienating and socially damaging.

Categories: Blog

Three selfies, and two appreciations of fellow travellers

December 2, 2014 - 1:31pm

I took the fall semester off from teaching, which is a good thing, as I’ve been traveling far more than is healthy, mostly to give talks. I was in Sao Paulo last week talking about Brazil role as a center for democratic innovation, and hope to post either notes or a video of that talk soon. But here are two others that are already online and that I’m proud of:


“Journalism after Snowden: Normalizing Surveillance”

The estimable Emily Bell of Columbia’s Tow Center is editing a volume of essays about how the documents revealed by Edward Snowden have changed journalism as we know it. Most of the participants in the project are, like Emily, long-time newsroom veterans with smart things to say about journalism’s future. Since the last newsroom I worked in was that of the Lewisboro Ledger in 1989, I thought it would be wise if I played towards my strengths and talked about advertising, surveillance and the idea that a public sphere that monitors our every movement is corrosive to the notion of citizenship.

I leaned heavily on a paper by Kevin Haggerty and Richard Erickson, “The Surveillant Assemblage”, which in turn leans on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to offer a view of surveillance that’s pervasive to the point of inescapability – thanks to Kate Crawford for pointing me to this paper. The question I ended up asking in the talk was whether organizations like newspapers (and, pointedly, The Guardian, where Emily is a board member) had a responsibility to try to create surveillance-free civic spaces. Fun questions – I don’t have the answers, but I was happy to have the chance to explore these ideas.


“Digital Cosmopolitans”, my Google Books talk

This other talk covers material that’s familiar to folks that regularly read this blog. It was my contribution to the Talks at Google series, speaking about “Digital Cosmopolitans”, née “Rewire”, now out in paperback. I have had the hilarious misfortune to be touring the book at the same time that Amanda Palmer is touring her excellent The Art of Asking – I gave a reading at Porter Square books the evening after her book launched and spoke to an extremely small, though enthusiastic crowd. Now I discover I’m following her at Google as well. No worries – she’s awesome, and next time I will ask her if I can simply refer to her as my opening act.

Anyway, Google are great hosts, and this is one of the better version of the Rewire/Digital Cosmopolitans book talk, so if you haven’t heard me try to summarize the book in half an hour, here’s your chance.

I’ve been doing some cool radio interviews lately as well. Benjamen Walker’s awesome “Theory of Everything” Podcast is doing a series called “The Dislike Club”, which basically features people who think about the internet realizing that we’re really pissed off about the current state of things online. In the second episode, I get to talk about my confession and penance regarding my role in bringing the pop-up ad to life – it’s a good conversation.

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/178538675″ params=”color=ff5500″ width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Keep your eyes open for Gimlet Media’s new Reply All podcast – it’s a relaunched version of the excellent TL:DR, which spun out of On the Media. I’m likely on an upcoming episode, offering my same lame apologies for making the internet a worse place.

Even declaring this as a selfie, I’m not super comfortable with a post that just lists talks I’ve given lately. So two other talks to point to:

Willow Brugh has been working on question of “weaponized social”, the ways that online spaces for deliberation and debate are too often turning into spaces of personal threat. She’s working on face to face meetups to explore the idea and its consequences, and is bringing it into unexpected contexts, like a gathering of female programmers and computer enthusiasts in Kenya, hosted by the remarkable Akirachix. Check out her presentation, and a broader conversation about tech and gender in Kenya, above.

Micah Sifry has a terrific new book out, which I hope to be reviewing next week. In the meantime, my students blogged his talk today at Berkman (which I missed because I’m in Budapest.) Micah is deeply passionate about the ways the internet could be used for social and political change, and honest about the ways in which internet enthusiasts have thus far fallen short. His book, The Big Disconnect, is well worth your time. More about it next week.

Categories: Blog

Pixação, or why São Paulo looks like a death metal album cover

November 24, 2014 - 3:48pm

One of the first things I noticed about Sao Paulo was the graffiti. It’s everywhere, and it’s stylistically very striking – angular, highly stylized letters on walls, buildings, overpasses. It’s clear that it’s writing, not just glyphs, yet it’s difficult to parse the characters. When I try to decipher it, I feel as lost as I do trying to understand spoken Portuguese: it’s clear someone is communicating with me, and while I’m on the verge of understanding, I clearly don’t understand.

It took less than 15 seconds with Google to learn that this style of writing is called “pixação“, that it takes its name from the Portuguese verb “to paint with tar” and that it’s distinctive to southern Brazil, especially São Paulo. A few more links and I discovered that my curiosity about pixação is about five years too late if I wanted a new job as a “coolhunter”, as the phenomenon has been thoroughly explored – and leveraged – by designers and marketers around the world.

The video above, by Joao Wainer for coolhunting.com, did the best job of answering my questions about the writing style: what are people saying, and why are they choosing to say it this way. Pixação has its roots in the 1980s, a moment when Brazil overthrew a military dictatorship and emerged into an inspiringly participatory democracy and a depressingly unequal society. The original artists wrote political slogans, while current practitioners are tagging – they’re writing the names of the crews they write with as well as personal tags, which are often a non-alphabetic symbol.

What most sources make clear is that pixação doesn’t really take place at street level – it’s all about heights. The most ambitious crews scale the outside of multistory buildings so they can tag the highest floors, and there’s evidently fierce competition between crews to place tags in as visible and inaccessible places as possible.

Pixadores from James Post on Vimeo.

A documentary from Amir Escandari for Helsinki-Filmi focuses on the dangers of being a pixador, the coordination of the crews, and the politics of the art form. Simon Romero, writing for the New York Times, follows the political thread, interviewing writers who see their work as a form of class warfare, a way that marginalized classes can inscribe themselves on an economically divided city.

Other documentaries celebrate the politics as part of a romanticization of the practice and the lifestyle. “Os Pixadores” by Ben Newman looks like a sneaker ad, which is appropriate as it’s sponsored by Puma’s streetstyle brand. A band of attractive, multiracial kids do shockingly dangerous things while talking about the need to be heard. It’s not hard to imagine this message selling shoes in any economy.

Others have clearly fallen in love with pixação as typography. Gustavo Lassala has created a font – Adrenalina – that is based on his masters thesis studying pixação. He extrapolates from 800 photos taken in São Paulo to create a typeface that’s visibly related to pixação, but immediately readable, an impressive achievement. (His name for the font suggests that he, too, understands that graffiti can sell sneakers. Or perhaps a really badass guarana-based energy drink.) François Chastanet, a professor of graphic design, has written a lengthy tome on pixação, whose endpages feature dozens of different versions of each letter.

What I love about pixação is that it reminds me of death metal album covers, which inevitably feature the band’s name written in a jagged, angular script that’s incomprehensible on first glance. This, it turns out, is no accident. Metal, particularly the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal”, was the music of choice for early pixação writers. (Of course, anyone who’s ever banged their head rhythmically knows that Iron Maiden continues to exist primarily so they can tour Brazil annually.) Commentators trace the letterforms of pixação to album covers by Maiden, Slayer and others. I can’t really see it, myself – Maiden used a blocky letterstyle I associate with early 1980s videogames, and while Slayer and Motörhead both are somewhat angular, Napalm Death and especially Morbid Angel look like the most obvious precursor to the lettering style, though both bands postdate the emergence of pixação… which means there’s a band that had traction in Brazil and helped popularize the death metal style of writing, which I could probably find if I were only willing to crawl down another internet rabbit hole.

For the meantime, I am consoled that this dark and beautiful form of writing has a name and that I know it, even if I can’t really pronounce it. And that I’ve learned another tiny detail about this fascinating and overwhelming country.

Categories: Blog

Partners In Health at the MIT Media Lab – design challenges around Ebola

November 20, 2014 - 4:04pm

Today’s Media Lab Conversations involves Ophelia Dahl and Dr. Megan Murray from Partners in Health with Joi Ito and David Sengeh from the Media Lab. The topic is understanding Ebola, and we’re learning about the disease to see if there’s anything the Media Lab can do to help organizations like Partners in Health combat the spread of the disease.

Ophelia Dahl, the executive director, of Partners in Health begins by noting that when she began her work in Haiti decades ago, audiences were less welcoming and receptive to these issues. With Paul Farmer, the organization was designed to respond to situations like the one in Haiti, where there was a complete dearth of health services available.

Partners in Health is not a disaster relief organization. While it addresses the everyday disaster of poverty, which has massive health impacts, and while they are often critical first responders to natural disasters, they are structured very differently. Because they work in countries like Haiti over long periods of time, they had doctors, platforms and a supply chain already in place. “We focus on systems,” she explained, which made them particularly well suited to help with Ebola. The organization has a home in Boston and partners closely with local academic institutions to train and prepare medical researchers and professionals to understand these complex health situations.

Dahl reminds us that Ebola is named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and that we’ve seen several outbreaks over the years. None of those outbreaks killed more than a few hundred people. This outbreak, starting in Guinea and spreading into Liberia, Sierra Leone has killed at least 8,000 people, and likely many more. A hallmark of this disease is that it spreads from patients to caregivers, and as people in rural areas have moved to urban areas to seek care, it’s moved into large cities.

There’s a tendency to think of Ebola as a death sentence. The high fatality rate – almost 70% – has an underlying cause: the weak, and now collapsed, healthcare system in these countries. Our collective failure to treat patients explains the death rate. Patients who contracted Ebola in the US have all survived – this is a disease that can be survived with proper medical care. That proper treatment is not complicated. It’s about staying hydrated and managing electrolytes. Most critical is good nursing care.

Dahl recently returned from West Africa where she talked to several survivors of Ebola. The survivors were young, had been in good health before the disease, and probably survived due to luck and their strength, not because they received especially good care. Many of these survivors had been caretakers to their families, and watched family members die before they contracted the disease. Hiring these survivors is key to Partners in Health’s strategy. Not only will they have immunities and a deep understanding of the virus, but creating strong healthcare jobs for these survivors is a way to combat the stigma of the disease.

The system that is weak and has collapsed means that more people are dying from the systemic effects of Ebola on the healthcare system, not from the disease directly. There’s not a single place open for women to deliver their children when a country is facing a crisis like this. Countries face a massive set of problems in the wake of Ebola since there’s not a functioning maternal health system, an emergency medical system or really any community care at this point. The resilience of health systems in the face of emergency, like the marathon bombings in Boston, is radically different than the situation on the ground in West Africa.

Dahl shows us a treatment center in tents, and a teaching hospital – Hopital Universitaire de Mirebalais – a hospital Partners in Health helped build in only three years. Linking these treatment centers to these teaching hospitals is a key step we need to take.

She shows us the gear healthcare workers are wearing – it looks like foul-weather gear worn on a ship, and features three pairs of gloves. Imagine finding a vein in a dehydrated patient with those gloves on, sweating – finding better personal protective gear is one of the first steps that needs to be taken.

Dr. Megan Murray, of Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, and Partners in Health, explains that the disease is so new to the medical community that people are still working out the proper treatment protocols. In these countries, what’s emerging is a three-tiered system of care. Countries are building tent-based Ebola treatment units, often in major cities, where labs can test samples and perform diagnosis. These centers are expensive to set up, and they’re often far from the communities where patients live.

The second tier of support is community care centers, places where patients are isolated from their communities so they don’t inflect their caregivers. Unfortunately, these have been really bad places, places where people go to and die – they have operational and image problem if they want to serve the populations they seek to help. At an even more grassroots level, community health leaders are working on screening and contact tracking, helping identify the people who are likely to have the disease for treatment at ETUs and CCCs. In terms of innovation, Partners in Health is looking for innovation in diagnostics and treatment at the ETU and CCC level, and in epidemeology and vaccines at the community level.

The fatality rate on Ebola, between 50-70%, is more fatal than anything else we’ve seen in the public health sector. The challenge is improving those rates in the ETUs and CCCs while maintaining personal protection for the caregivers. The care isn’t that hard – it’s about providing IV fluids. But it’s hard to get caregivers to safely put in an IV line, and when people become delirious, it’s hard to get people to stop pulling out those IV lines. Centers end up trying to care using oral rehydration salts, but Ebola patients can lose 10 liters of fluid a day, and that cannot be replaced with oral rehydration.

One path towards technological innovation would be finding better ways to track fluid and electrolyte status. That generally involves frequent blood draws, which puts healthcare workers at risk. One possibility is using a transdermal microneedle sensor, which was initially designed by a US scientist to monitor dehydration in athletes. The inventor has been completely willing to deploy it in new contexts, and Dr. Murray sees this as a great example of moving useful technology into a new context.

Another problem is ensuring dignity and comfort by allowing access to relatives. This is a problem that’s especially acute in treating children. Most children under 12 who’ve contracted the disease have died. It’s very challenging to convince people to pass their sick children off to people in space suits to go off and die. As a result, people hide from the ETUs and CCCs. We need better tools, possibly digital tools, to let parents and children connect.

It’s critical for Partners in Health to ensure rapid learning by optimizing data collection and management tools, Dr. Murray explains. We need to capture all the information from these cases, but it’s incredibly hard to build data collection tools that work with three pairs of gloves on. Right now, systems rely on holding up pieces of paper to windows for transcription – voice activated systems would be a strong step forward.

Stopping the disease will ultimately require accurate and early diagnosis. “If we could diagnose in the field before it was symptomatic, we could stop the epidemic.” Dr. Murray lists some promising directions: immuno-assays using antigen capture and antibodies, tests of nucleic acid amplification, viral culturing, and novel methods, like a single particle interferometric reflectance imaging sensor. Right now, current tests require lab facilities, take 2-6 hours, and might need more blood than you can get from a fingerstick. We need something that requires a finger prick and can be processed at peripheral sites.

There are promising new drugs and vaccine candidates. Three vaccines are in testing – two are single dose, another is double dose and may provide stronger protecting. New treatment protocols include ZMAPP, a cocktail of 3 monoclonal antibodies, originally engineered in tobacco, and being produced now in yeast. One possible treatment is a drug for flu, currently stockpiled in Japan, which has gone through safety and tolerability trials, and can now go into efficacy trials. Most other candidates have not yet been tested for safety and tolerability.

One promising development are BSL4 labs – biocontainment labs – built in shipping containers and delivered on tractor trailers. Unfortunately, most of the roads in rural areas cannot accomodate those trucks, and it can take 13 hours on terrible roads to travel from peripheral sites to a city.

Until we’re at a vaccine – and especially, an aerosol vaccine which wouldn’t require needle sticks – Partners in Health is looking to build a flexible data base and IT platform that captures knowledge, to build a network of partners in industry, research and funding agencies, and to support local research infrastructure through training.

Joi introduces into the conversation the idea that popular response in the US to Ebola has been to suggest locking down our borders. Instead, we need more volunteers to come into these countries and lend a hand. Dahl tells us that more than 1000 people have volunteered to come to West Africa, despite the fact that quarantines mean this could be a 6-10 week commitment. Locking down borders is making it harder for nurses, logisticians and lab workers to volunteer.

David Sengeh suggests we need to think beyond the immediate problems of the disease and into the broader issues that countries like Sierra Leone face. He notes that Sierra Leone has a population where 70% of citizens are under 30, and where young people already have a challenge accessing a quality education. Add to this the closure of schools and Sierra Leonean youth are facing a future that’s short on opportunity. David shows us a video made by a teenager from Sierra Leone that addresses discrimination and ostracizing that often happens to Ebola survivors. Helping people make media and address these prejudices is a key strategy.

We end up in a discussion between the audience and the stage about whether the Media Lab could be a collaborator with Partners in Health on addressing issues around Ebola. Joi pointed out that the lab is trying hard to work on codesign strategies, where we don’t design technology and drop it into communities, hoping it will work, but work with communities to identify problems and design solutions. It’s possible that the Media Lab might work to support hackathons and other efforts in Liberia or Sierra Leone, or that nurses and other health workers who’ve worked in the field could work with the Lab on issues like cooling systems for personal protection equipment or non-invasive blood drawing techniques. Mask fogging, one of the most serious problems with protective equipment, is a problem Joi identifies as well-known to the SCUBA community, and he wonders whether techniques from that world could work for Ebola protection.

The challenge, Dahl reminds us, is not just innovation, but deployment. One of the major tools used to combat Ebola is chlorine bleach, which is used to sterilize surfaces and people who’ve taken off their protective equipment. Someone had the bright idea of dyeing the bleach solution pink, so that people could see where they’d bleached off and where they hadn’t reached. Solving these problems is a first step – getting them widely adopted in the field is the key to saving lives.

The crew at Civic has a great liveblog of the event – check it out!

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