Digitally-Empowered Activists: Getting the Tools to the People Who Need Them
Hosted by the Internet & Democracy Project
On February 7th and 8th, the Berkman Center hosted a three day conference entitled “Digitally-Empowered Activists: Getting the Tools to the People Who Need Them” in Istanbul, Turkey. The presentations highlighted efforts by people to use tools, such as video, SMS, and blogging, and focused on ways of communicating these methodologies to activists who can benefit from them.
Video Mashups and Activism
The first speaker was Sami ben Gharbia, a veteran activist in Tunisia and leader of Global Voices Advocacy. Gharbia showed several examples of video mashups he and others have created to comment on Tunisian issues: some of the videos he showed regarded internet censorship (a play on the “404,” a Peugeot motor car and a video decrying the use of SmartFilter); one showed a comment on the the 2005 World Summit on Internet and Society and the democratic gap; and another pointed to presidential spending excesses (use of the presidential plane, and a tour of the presidential palaces). Other videos pointed to specific criticisms of Tunisian President Ben Ali, such as his military background and the extent of his time in power.
Aside from video mashup, Gharbia has also created a Tunisian Prison Map, depicting the locations of prisons using Google Earth and including popup widowns for each prison showing video from an interview with a current prisoner, Human Rights Watch, or Medecins Sans Frontiers, or similar commentary.
Social Mobile: FrontlineSMS
The second speaker was Ken Banks, creator of FrontlineSMS, a tool geared toward nonprofit groups seeking SMS communication. It was designed to reintegrate a group of South Africans, displaced to make way for Kruger National Park, into the dialog about conservancy. The tool is useful because other media are often unable to reach the populations targeted, and the creation of a portable messaging hub to send and receive messages to mobile phones makes it difficult for the service to be blocked by governments. The service has been used for elections monitoring in Nigeria and the Philippines among others, communication between the media and rural areas in Zimbabwe, circumventing the state of emergency in Pakistan late last year, communicating coffee prices to farmers as part of the post-tsunami rebuilding effort in Aceh, and others.
Facebook as a Tool for Activists?
Imran Jamal then spoke as a representative of the Burma Global Action Network and its use of Facebook as a tool for advocacy. The Facebook Group “Support the Monks’ Protest in Burma” is one of the largest groups with 403,393 members as of February 12, 2008. It was started by Jamal and others to document information about the Saffron Revolution and coordinate various global events. Jamal noted that Facebook was good at reaching lots of users and serving to align and inform the various advocacy groups, but he notes that the Facebook format is not customizable by the groups themselves and does not naturally lend itself to advocacy. For example, comments are difficult to search and retrieve information from, and it is difficult to grow and maintain an activist base, particularly since Facebook groups larger than 10,000 are not permitted to send messages to all their members.
The Role of Blogs in the Kenyan Elections
The next presentation highlighted the role of blogs and twitter in last December’s Kenyan presidential elections, especially with respect to monitoring the violence and strife in the aftermath. Several blogs, such as KenyanPundit.com and Ushahidi.com, are nearly exclusively covering the elections protests. Many of the blogging sites are organized into the Kenyan blog webring kenyaunlimited.com. One blog site, Mashada.com, became ethnically divisive enough to be unmoderatable and the forums were closed. In its place, the organizers set up ihavenotribe.com, where Kenyans and others are successfully submitting their thoughts.
Another site that was discussed was MamaMikes.com, which allows people to log on and deposit money to have it delivered to people in Kenya in the form of various different commodities, such as gasoline, beer, mobile phone credit (note that through the m-pesa system money can be transferred from one mobile phone to another).
Favorite Digital Activism Tools
The group also discussed their favorite digital activism tools, such as gmail and other google apps, audio (especially for rural communities), collaborative tools such as wikis and google docs, photoblogging, digg and other story dissemination sites. Other concerns raised were security and anonymity measures, tools for fundraising, tools for translation, and attention paid to low bandwidth web use.
Getting KnowHow Into the Field
Stephanie Hankey, a co-founder of the Tactical Technology Collective, explained the tools her organization has created in order to disseminate knowledge about digital advocacy to groups who need it. She described several software packages for download and on CD for distribution that give people toolkits to set up the technical aspects of an NGO, and she mentioned two forthcoing toolkits for citizen journalism and mobile adovcacy.
Ethan Zuckerman also blogged about mashups, SMS, and the Facebook presentations at the event.
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