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Keep track of Berkman-related news and conversations by subscribing to this page using your RSS feed reader. This aggregation of blogs relating to the Berkman Center does not necessarily represent the views of the Berkman Center or Harvard University but is provided as a convenient starting point for those who wish to explore the people and projects in Berkman's orbit. As this is a global exercise, times are in UTC.

The list of blogs being aggregated here can be found at the bottom of this page.

February 20, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Twitter Walks a Fine Line in Russia

Twitter bird mixed with Russian flag. Images mixed by Isaac Webb.

On February 9, Twitter user “The OSINT” posted a screenshot of an unusual email he received from Twitter explaining that some of his tweets would not be available in Russia due to a request to block them from Roskomnadzor, the agency that oversees Russian media and is responsible for censoring material that is deemed illegal.

In the email, Twitter explained that requirements set by the Office of the Prosecutor General in 2015, adjusting and broadening a 2006 law on the regulation of information, justified Roskomnadzor's request. The Prosecutor General's 2015 requirement, which amended the so-called “Lugovoy Law,” provides for the restriction of information resources containing “appeals to mass riots, extremist activities or participation in mass actions.” The requirement has been used to censor a number of information outlets, including Twitter, the hosting service Github, and a variety of Ukrainian publications.

Roskomnadzor has used similar legal arguments to order Russian Internet providers to restrict access to blogs run by influential opposition figures, including Alexei Navalny and Gary Kasparov.

The OSINT—an anonymous contributor to the citizen journalism platform Bellingcat—is an unsurprising target for Roskomnadzor, given the ire Bellingcat has drawn from the Kremlin and Russian media for its reports on corruption in Russia, Moscow's war in eastern Ukraine, and the downing of flight MH-17. It is likely that The OSINT's frequent criticism of Russian policy and state-controlled media made the user a target for content restriction.

But The OSINT isn't the only user to have his tweets blocked in Russia. The Russian government submits thousands of requests each year to Twitter for content removal, presumably using Twitter's Content Removal Requests procedures for government agencies. This process requires government agencies to demonstrate how content on the network stands in violation of local law. If the company approves the request, the content in question will be censored or “geo-blocked” within the country.

According to Twitter's most recent transparency report, from January to June of 2016, Russian authorities made 1,599 content removal requests and reported 1,698 accounts for violations. Twitter restricted 10 accounts and geo-blocked 182 tweets within Russian territory during that time period, putting Russia among the top six countries to have their block requests approved by Twitter.

This trend is not entirely new: 2015 saw a massive uptick in the number of Russian requests to withhold content. Still, Russian censorship pales in comparison to the undisputed leader of the pack, Turkey, where Twitter geo-blocked more than 1,500 tweets and 222 accounts in the first half of 2016 alone.

Both countries have a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with the US, which can compel companies like Twitter to honor foreign government requests if they are submitted through the appropriate channels and accompanied by a court order. But only Turkey appears to have used this process in 2016, which may explain its sky-high numbers.

Source: Twitter

Earlier this year, several popular Russia-related parody accounts were temporarily removed from Twitter. Twitter initially claimed that this was due to violations of the rules governing parody accounts, but later restored the accounts after, one suspects, determining that their parodic intent was sufficiently clear. Though their temporary ban resulted in an outcry from certain corners of the Twitter community, the decision to withhold these accounts was made as a result of suspected violations of Twitter's terms of service. Twitter's action against these accounts was likely the result of flagging by other users, rather than direct state requests.

But it is easy to wonder whether Twitter has made any concessions to Russian government requests as part of an effort to continue operating in Russian territory. In the spring of 2015, Roskomnadzor delivered explicit threats to Facebook, Google and Twitter, instructing them to comply with the agency’s removal requests targeting “extremist content,” or risk being fined or banned altogether. What's more, Russia has attempted to force foreign Internet companies to store Russian users’ data on Russian soil—a requirement that Twitter and other companies have thus far been able to sidestep. In November 2016, however, the professional social networking website LinkedIn was effectively blocked in Russia for violating this law. Observers interpreted this as a move intended to pressure foreign companies to begin storing data on servers inside Russia.

As a consequence, platforms like Twitter appear to be walking a fine line, finding a middle ground that allows them to uphold, at least nominally, their claim to support the freedom of expression while avoiding expulsion from Russia. This approach suggests that the prefers to conduct selective censorship, rather than risking total expulsion from states like Turkey and Russia.

Since Iran’s Green Movement in 2009, Twitter and other social media platforms have been widely viewed as key facilitators of the free flow of information in the face of oppressive governments. Countries like Russia and Turkey, however, have responded to technological innovation with legal innovation, such as the server localization law, leaving companies like Twitter that have built much of their brand on the idea of free expression in a challenging position.

by Advox at February 20, 2017 11:17 PM

Free Expression is Under Fire as Venezuela Takes CNN Spanish Off Air

“Let's get rid of CNN's signal and your basic food basket will appear.” Detail from the series “Se acabaron los problemas” (The problems are over) by Eduardo Sanabria (EDO). Used with permission.

The government of Venezuela and the channel CNN in Spanish had their final clash on February 15 when authorities issued an official order to remove the channel from cable and satellite TV stations.

CNN contends that the order came in response to their story “Passports in the shadows“, in which they alleged that Venezuelan consular staff illegally sold visas and passports to Syrian and Iraqi citizens.

The National Communications Commission (Comisión Nacional de Comunicaciones, or CONATEL in Spanish) took the measure as part of a process of sanctions against the channel. CONATEL's statement did not identify the passport story as part of their rationale, but accused CNN of “distorting the truth” and inciting “external attacks”:

Tal procedimiento obedece al contenido que viene difundiendo [CNN en español] de forma sistemática y reiterada […] contenidos que [pueden constituir] agresiones directas que atentan contra la paz y la estabilidad democrática de nuestro pueblo venezolano […]
Puesto que sin argumento probatorio y de manera inadecuada difaman y distorsionan la verdad, dirigiendo las mismas a probables incitaciones de agresiones externas en contra de la soberanía de la Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela

This decision is the result of content that [CNN in Spanish] has been systematically and repeatedly disseminating […] content that [could constitute] direct attacks that threaten the peace and democratic stability of our Venezuelan people […]

This is due to the fact that without convincing arguments they inappropriately defame and distort the truth, leading to probable incitement of external attacks against the sovereignty of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela

Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez accused the channel of being at the service of US military operations and conducting a military media campaign against Venezuela.

Social media was quick to react to the measure, especially after CNN in Spanish announced that it would broadcast for free via YouTube. This was seen by some readers as a mockery of the attempt at censorship:

Even those who didn't watch CNN will watch it now, and for free. Thank you CNN in Spanish for your dedication to Venezuela.

Those who support the Venezuelan government's measure express their concern about the effects of stories like “Passports in the shadows” and accuse its authors of supporting plans for foreign intervention in Venezuela, as in this open message posted on Facebook by Luigino Bracci Roa:

Compas, yo sé que lo de CNN puede parecer un exabrupto. Pero, ¿a ustedes les pareció poca cosa el programa “Pasaportes a la sombra” que transmitió Fernando del Rincón la semana pasada? Estaban acusando a Venezuela de VENDER PASAPORTES de forma masiva a “terroristas” de Hezbollah, para hacer un ATENTADO A ESTADOS UNIDOS […]¿A USTEDES LES PARECE ESO POCA COSA? ¿No recordamos lo que le pasó a Irak y Libia? Al margen de si Trump pueda iniciar o no un ataque contra Venezuela, igual es necesario reaccionar contra ese tipo de matrices de opinión.

Friends, I know that the CNN measure might seem like an overreaction. But did you think the programme “Passports in the shadows” broadcast by Fernando del Rincón last week was no big deal? They were accusing Venezuela of SELLING PASSPORTS en masse to Hezbollah “terrorists”, to carry out an ATTACK ON THE UNITED STATES […] DOES THAT NOT SEEM LIKE A BIG DEAL TO YOU? Don't we remember what happened in Iraq and Libya? Quite apart from the question of whether or not Trump might initiate an attack against Venezuela, it's still necessary to react against these kinds of smears.

Another blow to freedom of expression

The other side of social media sees this measure as one more way to censor the media and make information invisible:

EDO cartoon for @ElNacionalWeb: Find the 4 differences. They kicked out CNN.

Nevertheless, the strategy might not make much difference, as CONATEL has also announced plans to limit CNN's signal on the Internet. In addition, the quality of Venezuela's Internet connection is an important factor in limiting access, not only for CNN in Spanish, but also for information shared online.

Venezuelans have one of the slowest and most precarious internet connections on the continent. Thus, beyond the measure taken against CNN, access to information online in Venezuela represents for many a form of collaboration with disinformation.

Limitations of access to information: Beyond censorship

The problem becomes even more complex when we consider Venezuela's complicated foreign currency exchange controls. Telecommunications companies in the country say that the lack of access to dollars affects the quality of service and the companies’ livelihoods. In April 2016, telecom companies complained that foreign currency that was supposed to be available for them to pay their connection service providers had not been approved for 18 months.

Similarly, the companies claim that the maintenance of their equipment is also affected by the limitations on purchases and imports. These complaints resonated at the time, but the debate around them has faded. Months later the conversations about the telephone companies were linked to certain changes in the fees charged to private customers, which CONATEL later ordered them to cancel.

CNN's departure from Venezuelan screens further reduces the number of channels providing information that is independent of the Venezuelan government. The vast majority of Venezuelan media outlets have been nationalised, bought by entities linked to the governing party or have reduced their informational content in order to survive the official pressures of Chavismo. Indeed, this is not the first time CNN and the government of Venezuela have clashed — but it may be the last.

On other occasions CNN in Spanish has been accused of disseminating information intended to destabilize and show a biased view of the facts. CNN may have its flaws, but in a media space that is overwhelmed with pro-government tendencies, a news organization with a bias in the opposition direction is not such a bad thing. The blocking of CNN only further reduces the plurality of views in Venezuela's increasingly narrow realm of public opinion.

by Luis Carlos Diaz at February 20, 2017 10:22 PM

Whale-Themed ‘Suicide Groups’ Present Opportunity for Internet Crackdown in Central Asia

Blue whale cartoon. Public domain.

In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, a game played online that supposedly leads teenagers down a path to suicide has offered authorities a useful pretext to crack down on the internet.

The game, which the governments of both countries refer to as “Blue Whale” (translation from Russian) is played in groups on the Russian Facebook equivalent Vkontakte.

Supposedly, anonymous administrators of closed groups on the network use the service (as well as Whatsapp and Skype) to instruct players of the game to carry out specific tasks that include self-harm. After fifty days — in some documented cases — they are told to commit suicide.

The hashtags for the game include #SeaOfWhales, #BlueWhales, #WhalesSwimUpwards and #WakeMeUpAt420. Whales appear to be used in branding for the game because, like dolphins, they have been known to die in circumstances that resemble suicide.

Nevertheless, for all the panic that surrounds the groups, only one student across both countries was thought to have potentially committed suicide as a direct result of them, and Kazakh police later ruled out the link.

From Russia with fear

The game's sudden appearance in both countries raises questions. At the end of January, a number of outlets in Kyrgyzstan (with Russian government-owned taking the lead) published articles on the game's “arrival” in the country. One of Kazakhstan's government-backed television stations broadcast a report on the game a day after the Sputnik report, with other Kazakh media outlets not picking up the thread until about a week later.

In Kyrgyzstan, media reports on January 30, January 31 and February 1 mostly presented the game as a spreading virus infecting the country's schools. Some reports said the game had emerged towards the end of last year or at the turn of 2017, but there are few explanations as to why there was zero media coverage of it prior to January 30.

Many parents have accused the government and the media of blowing up the threat. In Kazakhstan, the head of a parents’ association complained on February 8 that the social menace posed by the game had been made much greater by the ever-growing hype surrounding it.

In Russia itself, the game is “no longer trending” by most accounts. The young man that Russian authorities view as its brainchild, Filip Budeikin, is facing jail for driving at least 15 teenagers to suicide.

In a frank and chilling interview with the media outlet last year, Budeikin maintained the real figure was 17 and said his victims “died happy. I gave them that which they did not have in their real life: warmth, understanding, connection.”

While a controversial report on the so-called death groups or suicide groups Budeikin and others created attributed 130 deaths in Russia to their existence, that figure has been widely disputed.

Central Asian authorities react

In neighbouring Kazakhstan, “Blue Whale” hasn't led to a single proven death, though there have been several reports of self-harm. Nevertheless, on February 14, a court in the country's largest city Almaty approved the request of the district prosecutor, who submitted an order that would ban the circulation of such games:

Решением суда удовлетворено заявление прокурора Наурызбайского района Алматы о прекращении деятельности на территории Республики Казахстан распространения продукции иностранных средств массовой информации, склоняющих детей к суициду.

The court grants the request of the Almaty Nauryzbayskovi district prosecutor's office regarding the termination of activities and distribution through foreign media [using the term “foreign media” to refer to VKontakte] of products inclining children to suicide on the territory of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

The court order only refers to the so-called “whale groups” or “death groups” at present, rather than VKontakte as a whole. In that case, the groups would probably need to be closed by VKontakte moderators at the government's request.

The Kazakh government is clearly uncomfortable with its inability to decisively regulate content on VKontakte. On February 13, the country's interior minister called for tighter legislation regarding social networks:

Здесь выход должен быть такой: мы должны в законодательном порядке обязать владельцев держать все данные на казахстанских пользователей в Казахстане или же обязать их работать в Казахстане через казахстанских провайдеров. Вот тогда будет [контроль].

This is how it should be: we should pass laws to obligate the owners [of social media] to keep all data on Kazakhstani users inside Kazakhstan, or obligate them to work in Kazakhstan via Kazakh [Internet Service] providers. Then there will be [control].

Kyrgyzstan's response has been more haphazard. Shortly after news emerged of an underage suicide on February 1 that police later said was not connected to the game, police asked the owner of a travel agency to paint over a piece of street art he had commissioned — that also had no connection to the game — which featured a Beluga whale.

Whale-themed street art in Bishkek that was painted over after panic surrounding the so-called ‘Blue Whale’ game erupted. Image from, creative commons.

They then raided schools, and, according to schoolchildren, checked students’ mobile phones for connections to the group.

Most recently, the state committee on communications said that it would block social media users using hashtags associated with the game. To do, this, the committee acknowledged on February 14, it will need Russia's help, given that VKontakte's servers are located there.

Мы будем инициировать запрос коллегам из Роскомнадзора в России, так как перечень хэштегов в основном используется в социальной сети “ВКонтакте”, чтобы они удалили со своего сервера этих пользователей, эту информацию

We will send requests to our Roskomnadzor [Russian communications regulator] colleagues in Russia, as these hashtags are mainly used on the social network “VKontakte”, so that they might remove [these users] from their servers.

Russia's state communications regulator, Roskomnadzor already censors media reporting on suicides and has played an active role in shutting down the VKontakte “death groups” in Russia.

Wars on social media: a Eurasia thing

These initiatives might be characterised as mere over-reactions if the governments of Central Asia did not have prior, long-running vendettas against social media.

Kazakhstan is keen to clamp down on social media after it proved a useful tool for mobilising people in massive protests against the government last year.

Under outgoing President Atambayev, Kyrgyzstan has actively targeted users of Facebook critical of the head of state, calling several in for questioning.

Both countries seem unwilling to block social media outright (except on rare occasions), which might incur international criticism and rob them of a useful thermometer to gauge the public's political mood.

What emerges instead is a piecemeal approach, in which certain subtexts provide incremental justifications for authorities in the two republics to place social media under greater scrutiny and include it in more legislation.

Then, there is the regional setting.

In February last year, an obscure group called the Organisation of Eurasian Cyber-Security sent emails to media outlets in various ex-Soviet countries containing an appeal to leaders of the countries to secure their “cyber-borders” and block, if necessary, websites such as YouTube and Facebook that could threaten political stability.

One Kyrgyz media outlet made a faithful — but fruitless — attempt to find out who or what the OECS was. The outlet noted the organisation's website had listed addresses in Moscow and the Kazakh city of Almaty that did not check out when tested, and that the website had been designed to look like that of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a multilateral military body led by Russia.

Most outlets in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Armenia made no fact-checking efforts and simply reprinted the sensational appeal.

The website linked to the OECS has since disappeared. Similar to the recent, bubble-like emergence of the “blue whale” groups in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, no one can say for sure who was behind it.

by Akhal-Tech Collective at February 20, 2017 08:27 PM

danah boyd
Heads Up: Upcoming Parental Leave

There’s a joke out there that when you’re having your first child, you tell everyone personally and update your family and friends about every detail throughout the pregnancy. With Baby #2, there’s an abbreviated notice that goes out about the new addition, all focused on how Baby #1 is excited to have a new sibling. And with Baby #3, you forget to tell people.

I’m a living instantiation of that. If all goes well, I will have my third child in early March and I’ve apparently forgotten to tell anyone since folks are increasingly shocked when I indicate that I can’t help out with XYZ because of an upcoming parental leave. Oops. Sorry!

As noted when I gave a heads up with Baby #1 and Baby #2, I plan on taking parental leave in stride. I don’t know what I’m in for. Each child is different and each recovery is different. What I know for certain is that I don’t want to screw over collaborators or my other baby – Data & Society. As a result, I will be not taking on new commitments and I will be actively working to prioritize my collaborators and team over the next six months.

In the weeks following birth, my response rates may get sporadic and I will probably not respond to non-mission-critical email. I also won’t be scheduling meetings. Although I won’t go completely offline in March (mostly for my own sanity), but I am fairly certain that I will take an email sabbatical in July when my family takes some serious time off** to be with one another and travel.

A change in family configuration is fundamentally walking into the abyss. For as much as our culture around maternity leave focuses on planning, so much is unknown. After my first was born, I got a lot of work done in the first few weeks afterwards because he was sleeping all the time and then things got crazy just as I was supposedly going back to work. That was less true with #2, but with #2 I was going seriously stir crazy being home in the cold winter and so all I wanted was to go to lectures with him to get out of bed and soak up random ideas. Who knows what’s coming down the pike. I’m fortunate enough to have the flexibility to roll with it and I intend to do precisely that.

What’s tricky about being a parent in this ecosystem is that you’re kinda damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Women are pushed to go back to work immediately to prove that they’re serious about their work – or to take serious time off to prove that they’re serious about their kids. Male executives are increasingly publicly talking about taking time off, while they work from home.  The stark reality is that I love what I do. And I love my children. Life is always about balancing different commitments and passions within the constraints of reality (time, money, etc.).  And there’s nothing like a new child to make that balancing act visible.

So if you need something from me, let me know ASAP!  And please understand and respect that I will be navigating a lot of unknown and doing my best to achieve a state of balance in the upcoming months of uncertainty.


** July 2017 vacation. After a baby is born, the entire focus of a family is on adjustment. For the birthing parent, it’s also on recovery because babies kinda wreck your body no matter how they come out. Finding rhythms for sleep and food become key for survival. Folks talk about this time as precious because it can enable bonding. That hasn’t been my experience and so I’ve relished the opportunity with each new addition to schedule some full-family bonding time a few months after birth where we can do what our family likes best – travel and explore as a family. If all goes well in March, we hope to take a long vacation in mid-July where I intend to be completely offline and focused on family. More on that once we meet the new addition.

by zephoria at February 20, 2017 01:45 PM

February 19, 2017

Ethan Zuckerman
Seeing Haiti: a photo essay

Imagine a nation with a noble and proud history, but a rough last century. It was occupied by a massive, powerful neighbor to the north, who undermined its political system and land ownership to benefit its national commercial interests. Soon after those occupiers desisted, looted the treasury, slaughtered the opposition and chased away almost everyone with a university degree. Then the advent of AIDS destroyed a burgeoning tourism industry. After the younger madman was forced into exile, a few years of democratic reform were halted when the northern occupier intervened to exile a leftist leader and handed control of the country over to an occupying UN force. That force did little to stabilize the country, and managed to make things significantly worse, bringing a cholera epidemic to the nation. To round out the picture, throw in a massive earthquake that decimated the capital and top it off with a category four hurricane.

That’s Haiti. You wouldn’t wish that string of bad luck on Donald Trump. (Pick your own worst enemy if that doesn’t work for you.)

Now let’s imagine an impoverished neighborhood wracked by gang violence, where gunfire is a common, if not daily event. In the middle of the neighborhood, surrounded on all sides by high-density housing, is a quiet park. It includes a brightly painted truck filled with newspapers and books, a mobile library that can bring reading to communities where few books are found. An elegant waterfall runs down the steps of a garden path past plots of medicinal herbs and community gardens, resplendent in colorfully painted tires. At the base of the garden is an architecturally ambitious library, carefully constructed of geometric bamboo pods, every seat packed with uniformed schoolchildren devouring books in Kreyol, French and English.

That’s Haiti, too. Specifically, that’s Parc de Martissant, the project of FOKAL (The Fondation Connaissance et Liberté), a Haitian foundation that’s part of the Open Society Foundations. Its founder Michèle Pierre Louise (Prime Minister during President Preval’s term) and executive director Lorraine Mangones have offered an unconventional solution to Haiti’s many ills. While they work on combatting cholera, rebuilding the legal system, strengthening agriculture and protecting human rights, they do something most of our foundations don’t do. They build and restore beautiful public spaces, creating sources of neighborhood and national pride. While many international organizations are focused on helping Haitians access the bare minimum of healthcare and education, FOKAL dares to imagine what Haiti could be. And then they go ahead and build it.

Don’t get too comfortable. Because just above the library is a concrete path lined with shards of tile from a factory destroyed in the earthquake. Dark outlines represent the bodies of the fallen. The path leads to a broad, spreading tree. Below neon pink flowers, it bears fruit – heavy, mirrored skulls turning slowly in the breeze. The skulls are cast from the faces of the people in the neighborhood and made of concrete and rebar, the materials that killed tens of thousands of city residents when buildings collapsed in the earthquake of January 2010.

And that’s Haiti as well. Because there’s darkness in the beauty, and beauty in the darkness.

A week in Haiti, spent almost entirely in Port au Prince (and too much of it in the back seat of a bulletproof SUV), is not long enough to get meaningful impression of a nation. What I have are glimpses and fragments, some hopeful, some haunting.

I’m honored to serve on the Global Board of Open Society Foundations, and with our Vice President, Haitian-American Patrick Gaspard (former US ambassador to South Africa) and three fellow board members, I spent a week in Haiti touring FOKAL projects in Port au Prince and in Les Cayes, an agricultural community hit hard by Hurricane Matthew. On my last day in the city, I toured the downtown with a brilliant FOKAL architect, Farah Hyppolite, who has dedicated herself to restoring Port au Prince’s “gingerbread houses”, elegant hybrids of European and tropical architecture built for the city’s wealthy merchants at the beginning of Haiti’s dismal century.

Farah tells me that she had wanted to build the future of Haiti, ambitious structures that reflected the nation’s aspirations. But the earthquake destroyed her landmarks: the small gingerbread house she grew up in, the school she attended, the landmark buildings downtown that oriented her on the Rue Grand. “What will I show my children of where I grew up? Without my city, where is my past?”

For almost two decades, all I knew of Haiti was its art, in a watered-down and derivative form, paintings hawked on the streets of Santo Domingo and hanging in endless airport gift shops throughout the Caribbean. Too bright for New England, the paintings I found beautiful in the tropical sun looked gaudy on my white walls.

That explosion of color is everywhere in Haiti, from the paint on the side of goat-skinned drums, to the fruits in the market and most of all, the tap taps, elaborately painted pickup trucks that make up the capitol’s mass transit system. The ironwork, the cut, painted plywood, the explosive paint job and loud slogans compete to be heard over a visual environment that buzzes and pops at deafening volume.

I wasn’t expecting the color in vodou. In the Bureau D’Ethnologie, Erol Josué, a celebrated dancer and musician who serves as the museum’s curator, shows us bright, elegant dresses donned for rituals, embodying the colors and characteristics of the different spirits. Over lunch, I learn that during a ceremony, men may be taken over by female spirits, and vice versa, a fact that’s helped make vodou a welcoming place for the gay and lesbian community at a moment when charismatic churches are condemning and ostracizing queer Hatians.

I find the darkness I’d anticipated in a different sort of museum downtown. Lodged between a tire shop and an iron fabricator on Rue Dessalines is “Atis Rezistans”, the workshop and gallery of Andre Eugene, an internationally celebrated sculptor. Through a rusted arch and down an alleyway is a warren of courtyards and buildings, packed to the gills with wooden idols, ordained with nails, the guts of discarded computers, auto parts and tin cans. One wall is covered with the dark shapes of animals, serpents and spirits, cut from tires by the students in the neighborhood who Eugene teaches.

Vodou is a syncretic faith, build by slaves who combined elements of worship from Fon, Yoruba and other traditions in west Africa with Catholic rituals learned from the colonizers in the Caribbean: Ogun, orisha of war and metal in Nigera, meets St. George, patron saint of soldiers, and they become a loa. Eugene’s work syncretizes the detritus of post-Aristede Haiti with these ancient spirits into a new pantheon.

Eugene leads me through a curtain of bottle caps into his office, and I nearly trip over a human skull. I ask the artist where he obtained these dark materials. “Oh, skulls were easy after the earthquake. You could find them everywhere.” I ask him why his art is so morbid, expecting reflections on Haiti’s recent slew of tragedies. “It’s good to be different,” he tells me. “I like the dark.”

Indeed, Eugene’s art was dark before the earthquake and the hurricane. One of my companions grew up in the neighborhood and tells me that he always thought Eugene was crazy, a strange man who roamed the streets picking through garbage. Now that strange man shows art around the world and sells pieces for thousands of dollars. Eugene leads me to the unfinished second floor of his gallery and shows me the neighborhoods. He points out the workshops of fellow artists in the neighborhood, but my eye is drawn to the rooftops where scrap metal weighs down roofing sheets, rusting metal that holds the neighborhood together.

The shock of some of Eugene’s pieces wears off as I spent time with them. The gaping skulls with marble eyes begin to remind me of Eddie, Iron Maiden’s macabre, smiling, icon. Other pieces give me a deep sense of dread the longer I spend with them, in particular, those that feature baby dolls, disfigured, in bondage and crucified.

The Centre d’Art, a leafy and green space up the hill from Rue Dessalines, feels like it’s miles away from Atiz Rezistanse, but Haiti’s recent past is present here as well. On the site of a former gingerbread house, collapsed in the 2010 earthquake, are a set of shipping containers and pavillions, now the site for Haiti’s most important art collection. One 40′ box contains the archives of the Centre’s 70 year history. Another is filled with metal sculpture, a third with shelves of paintings and drawings, ornamental boxes and painted screens.

In a shady corner of the garden, a long wall serves as a blackboard, covered with elegant illustrations of the human form, the remnants of a workshop by Lionel St. Eloi, a sculptor and painter whose work includes richly colored canvasses and life-sized figures assembled from scrap metal. I fall in love with his owls, and St. Eloi has to be coaxed down from a nearby rooftop, where he’s wielding a power saw and working on carnival preparations, to sell me the piece.

I’m home from Haiti now, St. Eloi’s owl sits on my kitchen table, as lovely and wise in my snowbound New England home as in its tropical home. This afternoon, I plan to put it on the mantle over my fireplace where it can watch over myself and my guests, and perhaps scare the mice that enjoy the heat from the chimney.

A mask from Eugene’s studio came home with me as well. It’s by one of Eugene’s students, and while it’s as twisted and gruesome as the master’s work, it reminds me of something more comfortable, the unfamiliarity of the shapes of west African masks when I first came to Ghana two decades ago. I’m not sure what corner of the house I want it peering at me from, but I want it near me, to become part of my space over the years, the way things that are dark or broken can become comfortable and familiar.

Haiti is beautiful. Haiti is broken. Haiti is hopeful. Haiti is darkness. Haiti is color. You don’t always get to choose.

Love and respect to my friends at FOKAL, and to everyone who is working to share Haiti’s beauty and hope with the world, and more importantly, with all Haitian people.

All text and images are creative commons licensed, attribution only – please feel free to share, remix and reuse them, but please credit me. Profound thanks to Michèle, Lorraine, Farah, Dmitri and all the staff at FOKAL and OSF who made this visit possible.

by Ethan at February 19, 2017 06:41 PM

February 18, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Hackers Target Iranian Activists’ Mac Devices With Revamped Malware

Suspected state-sponsored Iranian hackers targeting civil human rights users have a new virus targeting Apple computers.Image from Flickr, used under Creative Commons.

This report was first published on the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran website

Until recently, Iranian civil and human rights-focused users of the Windows and Android operating systems were the people most vulnerable to hacking attacks that most likely came from the Iranian government. But these types have attacks now have begun to affect Apple users, using malware (software that damages or disables computer systems) that targets users’ Apple devices, according to a new report by Iran Internet researcher Collin Anderson and security researcher Claudio Guarnieri.

Anderson, who co-runs the Iran Threats website, told the Campaign that the hackers are targeting the computers of civil rights activists with a revamped version of the MacDownloader malware, which was previously used to target industrial infrastructures. MacDownloader was designed to steal victims’ computer passwords by luring them to a fake prompt box that invites account holders to provide or reset their passwords.

A statement issued by Iran Threats on February 6, 2017 detailed the process:

A macOS malware agent, named MacDownloader, was observed in the wild as targeting the defense industrial base, and reported elsewhere to have been used against a human rights advocate. MacDownloader strangely attempts to pose as both an installer for Adobe Flash, as well as the Bitdefender Adware Removal Tool, in order to extract system information and copies of OS X keychain databases. Based on observations on infrastructure, and the state of the code, we believe these incidents represent the first attempts to deploy the agent, and features such as persistence do not appear to work. Instead, MacDownloader is a simple exfiltration agent, with broader ambitions.

After hackers gain the OSX Keychain information, they can potentially copy passwords for other tools such as email, websites, software and hardware and access virtually all the information stored by users on their computers and online.

“My fear is that many people switched to Mac (Apple) because they were concerned about malware and security issues (thinking Mac would better protect them), but doing this alone does not solve the issue,” Anderson, who is based in Washington, DC, told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “So this is why this report is serious: it’s informing Mac users that they still have to be vigilant.”

Internet and social media apps are heavily restricted and censored in Iran, with hardliners in the government viewing any form of Internet freedom as a threat to the sanctity of the Islamic Republic. Research has shown that Iranian hackers, often directed by hardliners within the country’s government, periodically launch hacking campaigns against civil and human rights activists and organizations to disrupt or intimidate them into ceasing their peaceful activism.

What can users do to protect themselves against the malicious malware?

Anderson tells us:

There’s no simple remedy, and the best protection is to be skeptical about the software that one downloads, and to be cautious about the emails they receive. As we show in the report, antivirus software typically relies on having detected a piece of malware before flagging it as malicious….Since the Iranian attacks are targeting a small population (rights activists), the detection rate by those products is low. Antivirus is not sufficient in protecting against targeted attacks.

by International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran at February 18, 2017 04:05 PM

February 17, 2017

Development Seed
DC's Bold Family Leave Policy
DJ Thomas at the controls

We are delighted that a bold family leave policy has moved forward in DC. The policy makes it easier for Development Seed to do right by our team and all the great folks we work with in DC, from our suppliers and vendors, to the people who treat us to heavy pours at happy hour.

As a small business, sharing our responsibility to our employees with other DC businesses lets us offer more aggressive leave policies to our team. A flat tax allows us to do that. There is still work to be done. Congress has 30 days to challenge the law, and there are implementation details to work out. In the meantime, we are proud of DC for taking this big step.

by Development Seed at February 17, 2017 12:00 AM

February 16, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Netizen Report: In Kenya and Mexico, Citizens Suspect State Manipulation on Twitter

Flock of birds. Photo by Christoffer A Rasmussen, via Wikimedia. Licensed to public domain.

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

A social media tug-of-war has emerged in the face of a nationwide strike by Kenyan doctors protesting the government's failure to honor their collective bargaining agreement. The strike has brought the public healthcare system to a halt and has stoked public mistrust of the Uhuru government, particularly following allegations of millions of dollars having gone missing from the Ministry of Health.

While doctors have garnered substantial public support in their demands, there has also been a spate of social media messages maligning doctors. Local bloggers have identified a strong correlation between Twitter accounts propagating hashtags such as #GreedyDoctors, #MyBadDoctorExperience, and #DaktariRudiKazi (Doctors, go back to work) with those promoting other pro-government messages. Social media experts believe the messages are not being circulated by regular citizens, but rather by government-paid “social media influencers.” Some have suggested links between these accounts and widespread reports of a group of 36 social media influencers purportedly hired by the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit to change online narratives critical of the Kenyan government.

In recent days, #GreedyDoctors and similar hashtags have been overwhelmed by Twitter users promoting the implementation of the collective bargaining agreement, adding to their tweets the hashtag #implementCBA.

Kenya is not alone in this phenomenon. Alongside countries with long-standing practices of promoting state interests via social media commenters, such as China and Venezuela, Mexico appears to have joined these ranks with various recent pro-government campaigns online.

Most recently, after January’s gas price hikes triggered public protests on major roadways and online, a select set of Twitter accounts began promoting illegal activities such as looting and theft, in what appeared to be an effort to influence conversations and delegitimize the protests. Most commonly, they inserted hashtag #SaqueaUnWalmart (“loot a Walmart”) into conversations bearing the #gasolinazo hashtag, which was widely used by protesters. These accounts also propagated images of people rioting, which turned out to be false (the photos actually depicted street riots in Egypt in 2011.)

By visualizing data from over 15k tweets associated with the protests, data scientists at the Jesuit University of Guadalajara observed that the #SaqueaUnWalmart hashtag interrupted the flow of conversations, seeking to associate #Gasolinazo with malicious intentions. Some of the accounts involved in these campaigns have been identified as bots or trolls who had already been linked to harassment and threats against journalists and social activists.

These observations, along with recent allegations of spyware used against researchers and public servants promoting a tax on soda (reported by the New York Times and analyzed by Citizen Lab) suggest an increasingly threatening environment for citizens seeking to advocate and express their views on matters of public interest in Mexico.

Venezuela blocks more news websites, including CNN

The Spanish language version of the US-based news channel CNN, and its corresponding website, were blocked in Venezuela on February 15, after reporting on passport fraud allegations.

CNN is not alone — Mexico-based TV Azteca was also taken off the air on February 16. Since February 7, the Venezuelan news and public opinion website Maduradas has been inaccessible on a majority of ISPs (including government-controlled CANTV) in seven provinces in Venezuela since February 7. The site is known for its summaries of online responses to issues of public interest. In a public statement, Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro called CNN an “instrument of war.”

Phishing attacks in Qatar target migrant rights advocates

Researchers at Amnesty International uncovered a wave of sophisticated phishing attacks aimed at spying on the activity of journalists, trade unions and labor activists advocating on the rights of migrant workers in Qatar, a large proportion of whom come from Nepal. The campaign was likely orchestrated by a state-affiliated actor, although there is no evidence at the moment to conclusively identify who was behind the attacks. The attacks invited targets to open links to what appear to be files in Google Drive and Google Hangouts, but actually lead to spyware.

Thai draft law would hand media control to government

Media organizations in Thailand are warning that draft legislation could lead to complete government control over the press. The curiously named “Protection of Media Rights and Freedom, Ethics and Professional Standards” would require journalists to obtain licenses in order to do their work. It also would create a National Professional Media Council that would be staffed primarily with representatives from government ministries. According to Chakkrit Permpool, the former chair of the National Press Council of Thailand, “This kind of thing exists only under dictatorship governments. This is against the new constitution….that ensures media freedom and people’s freedom of expression.” More than 30 media groups have signed a statement rejecting the bill.

Facebook plans to fight fake news in France

Facebook announced plans to combat the spread of fake news in the lead up to French elections in April and May by launching a new partnership with eight media organizations that will fact-check and filter news articles flagged by Facebook users. But some worry that Facebook’s reliance on already-stretched newsroom resources will not be sustainable.

Tech activists plan a ‘Distributed Denial of Women’

On 23 February tech companies and organisations will face a Distributed Denial of Women, a general strike to show how important women and gender non-binary people are to the tech industry. In support of this action, the Association for Progressive Communications’ Take Back the Tech campaign is collecting stories about discrimination and gender in the technology industry and community. Learn more here.

New Research

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by Netizen Report Team at February 16, 2017 08:31 PM

February 15, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Kenyan Government Allegedly Pays Social Media Influencers to Promote “GreedyDoctors” Hashtag

Mothers queuing for treatment, Sindo District Hospital, Nyanza, Kenya. Photo by UK Department for International Development via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Since October 2015, there have been reports on Kenyan social media about the so-called “36 Bloggers” — a group of 36 social media influencers purportedly hired by the federal government to defend its interests online.

Often referred to as “The Itumbi Boys” or “Itumbots”, the group curates online discussions, spreads propaganda and otherwise works to change narratives that are deemed to be critical of the current Kenyan government, through the creation of counter hashtags or by hijacking any existing hashtags that put the administration in a bad light.

It is believed that the bloggers were hired by State House Director of Digital Communications Dennis Itumbi and are working under the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit based at State House.

The issue of the 36 bloggers has gained prominence online, following a nationwide strike by Kenyan doctors. In December 2016, 5,000 Kenyans doctors from all state hospitals went on strike to protest the government's failure to implement and honor the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) it had entered into with the doctors’ union in 2013. Ongoing since December 5, the public support for the strike has been bolstered by allegations of millions of dollars having gone missing from the Ministry of Health. It has also brought the public healthcare system to a halt.

The effects of the strike escalated on February 13, 2017 when an appeals court judge ordered that seven officials from the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentist Union (KMPDU) be jailed for contempt of court in failing to call off the the ongoing strike.

The #GreedyDoctors Hashtag

From the very beginning of the strike, the 36 bloggers created four hashtags: #DaktariRudiKazi, (loosely translated as “Doctors, go back to work”), #GreedyDoctors#MyBadDoctorExperience, and #DaktariMmetuchosha (loosely translated as “Doctors, we are tired of you).

The hashtags have been countered not just by union members, but also by Kenyan social media users who refuse to buy into the rhetoric that the doctors are a greedy, incompetent lot, allowing innocent Kenyans to die. This caused the efforts of the allegedly paid influencers to backfire.

The Secretary General of The Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KMPDU), the body that governs all Kenyan doctors, alleged that the 36 bloggers are getting paid more money than what the government has allocated for medical research in the country:

The Twitter account of the doctors’ union also questioned the rationale behind the hashtag #GreedyDoctors, by posting a summary of the content of the CBA:

Referring to one of the other hashtags, #DaktariRudiKazi, Dr. Mo shared a post by an ordinary Kenyan who was defending the doctors against malicious propaganda:

Omar Bond tweeted:

Poriot Teko pointed out that the hashtags created by the group have flopped:

Although there are a number of mission hospitals affiliated to different religious denominations, their capacity has been strained over the last two months due to the influx of patients, many of whom can’t afford private health care.

Strike takes a toll on public health

Not all Kenyans are seeing this crisis from the viewpoint of the doctors. Many of those affected directly have an ailing close relative and are expressing their disappointment and disapproval for both parties in the crisis. AbdulKarim Taraja, whose family member has been suffering in hospital since the beginning of the strike, felt that doctors need to go back to work:

John Muiru also felt that the doctors should return to work as negotiations continue:

Meanwhile, patient deaths in hospitals continue to rise. There has not been an official number provided by the Ministry of Health of the patient death toll due the ongoing strike. There is, however, an estimate of 300 deaths from a Kenyan media house, KTN:

Some of these cases are making their way to Kenya’s social media space. Writing about the deaths, Soko Analyst said:

Teddy Eugene narrated:

Some like Kiprono do not support the strike at all due to how doctors treat patients under their care:

The worst affected by the doctor’s strike are the nation’s poor who can’t afford private healthcare, many of whom go to the nation’s biggest referral hospital, Kenyatta Hospital.

As the battle to improve public healthcare in Kenya continues, the battle of the hashtags will definitely continue on social media.

by Njeri Wangari at February 15, 2017 09:38 PM

Battle of the Hashtags: Mapping the Online Conversation Surrounding Mexico's Gas Prices

A tractor against the “gasolinazo.” Photo by Thelmadatter via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

With the increase of gasoline prices in Mexico, social unrest has spread and people are making themselves heard everywhere they can: on the street, in coffee shops and all across social media.

The latest hike in fuel prices – known as the gasolinazo – went up by about 20% virtually overnight on January 1. This spurred daily protests in the streets and online.

During these protests, Twitter has served as both a megaphone and a platform from which people can show their anger and discontent. However, friction and conflict have increased on the site, as well as the propagation of false stories.

“Youth armed with pipes and knives running through the streets of Tultepec, #EdoMex” Deleted tweet from Grupo Formula, accompanied by a photo from Egypt, in which Arabic writing can be seen in the background.

One of the most important phenomena that has been observed in this fight is the circulation of rumors and hashtags that promote illegal activities such as looting and theft. These strategies two objectives: to influence the conversations and to delegitimize the protests. Alarmist messages have even been shown alongside photos from other contexts and situations, such as the deleted tweet displayed here, published by Radio Fórmula with a photo that fact-checkers later confirmed depicts a street scene in Egypt.

Some of the accounts involved in these disinformation campaigns have been identified as bots (automated accounts) or trolls who had already been linked to harassment and threats against journalists and social activists.

The strategy of these accounts is to reshape the natural online conversation via trending topics, interfering with the discussion. This kind of strategy has been used at different times to systematically curb or modify conversations that are not favorable to certain groups in power.

#SaqueaUnWalmart (Loot a Walmart)

During the protests on January 4, 2017, two hashtags were used, #Gasolinazo and #SaqueaUnWalmart (Loot a Walmart), which grew to be trending topics in Mexico. The following image shows the relationship between different hashtags found in the tweets published on that date. The links between hashtags represent the times when two or more hashtags were used in the same tweet, and the size of each node shows the number of times each hashtag was used. This analysis was generated using more than 15,000 downloaded tweets, posted and re-tweeted by more than 10,000 different accounts.

Here we see the importance of #Gasolinazo and its relationships with the rest of the hashtags used that day. The appearance of #SaqueaUnWalmart can be read as a cluster in the system, an unnatural insertion that links up with #Gasolinazo in order to gain momentum and invade the natural conversation.

The diagram also allows us to identify other hashtags associated with #SaqueaUnWalmart, which gives clues as to the strategy used to enter into the conversation. Specifically, the hashtag #Hail100cia (a play on words meaning “hail ciencia” or “hail science”) stands out. This hashtag is associated with the group of Twitter user accounts that coordinated the appearance of #SaqueaUnWalmart and has continued pushing forward new hashtags such as #GolpeDeEstadoMX (State of Mexico Coup D'état).

In order to identify the real influence of the hashtag within the conversation, the accounts that were active with both tags were analyzed and graphed. This allows us to see who is posting messages and who their audience is. The following graphic shows these relationships. The size of the nodes depends on the number of times a user is mentioned within the conversations with the hashtags #Gasolinazo and #SaqueaUnWalmart — the more mentions, the larger the node.

The active communities range from traditional media who reported on the hike in gas prices, to particular organizations — in this case the group that instigated the #SaqueaUnWalmart hashtag.

At first glance it is difficult to see the relationship between said accounts within the many active accounts who adopted #Gasolinazo, but as the following image shows, the #SaqueaUnWalmart group managed to link themselves up with #Gasolinazo to position their hashtag as a trending topic.

The community highlighted in red in the above diagram identifies the group of active accounts that used the hashtag #Hail100cia. This is the same group of users (trolls and bots) that interrupted the natural conversation surrounding #Gasolinazo to insert the #SaqueaUnWalmart message. This group represents only 4.19% of the total active accounts (5,302 in total used the tags #Gasolinazo and #SaqueaUnWalmart). However, despite their small numbers, their attack through the use of replies and mentions managed to boost #SaqueaUnWalmart so much it impinged upon the natural conversation.

The battlefield

Manipulating trends within a global conversation not only draws attention, but also “pops” or “deflates” the conversation as well as any pressure the real activists exert on the government and/or certain figures. These types of strategies, while not illegal, represent a new challenge in the use of digital spaces for public discourse.

Other questions arise after identifying these patterns, strategies and accounts. First, what is the motivation for influencing the conversation in a certain way? Second, what people or groups benefit from this kind of behavior? Third, what are their long-term plans? And lastly, what mechanisms can be developed to curb or mitigate the artificial modification of trends?

It is imperative these days to ask the right questions and keep working along this vein. Federal elections in Mexico are only a year away, and the circus of social media could easily become a battlefield between artificial discourse and society, journalists, activists and analysts. And what's more, it could make building a critical, transparent and robust public space difficult.

by Signa Lab at February 15, 2017 09:11 PM

Tactics for Making the Most of Photos on Your Website

Photos are a critical component to the success of your website. They help convey your website’s message and can “really tie the room together” by linking visual elements to your content. But there’s a lot more that goes into it than just browsing photos and finding one you like.

Here are some of the tactics that organizations, regardless of size, can use to make sure their photo use is the most effective:

Select The Right Photo

When it comes to selecting a good photo candidate, you’ll want to keep in mind the layout of your website. Most of the visual elements on a website are going to have a horizontal orientation so you’ll want photos that compliment that.

For example, if you’re looking at adding an image with people to a page hero, you’ll want to avoid using a headshot. Those types of photos are typically using a portrait orientation. Instead, look for a photo with a more horizontal bias. Often times these can be a photo of two people talking, or an “action shot” that allows you to include some of the background.

Pay Special Attention to the Size

Choosing images for your new website can be a difficult task. Not only do you need to find the right photo for the page, you’ll need to make sure that it will display in an attractive manner and that it’s high enough resolution.

Almost half of all website visitors are using screens with resolutions of 1920x1080 or higher and this number is increasing each year so ideally your photo will be at least that large, before editing. It’s also worth mentioning Apple’s Retina displays that are standard on most of their devices now. These high density displays feature four times the number of pixels as non-Retina displays. So for example, a 500x250 (125,000 pixels) banner would need to be at a resolution of 1000x500 (500,000) to have the same clarity on a Retina display.

Double Check on Mobile

Speaking of Retina displays, be sure to review the photo’s use on mobile and tablet layouts. Here at Echo we take a “graceful degradation” approach to design that progressively removes certain non-critical elements from the desktop experience as the screen size shrinks. Ensure that if a photo contains information, that the information displays at all times and on all devices.

Use a Text Overlay the Right Way

When we design an element, like a photo or illustration, that uses text we intentionally build in contrast so that the important copy doesn’t get lost. But it’s impossible to design for every photo or scenario, and in the event your site overlays text on an image (like a caption style) you’ll need to consider a few more things when deciding the copy or photo (or both) you’re using:

  • Avoid photos with lots of text.
  • Find photos with high contrast relative to the text. So if the text is white, select photos with darker background and vice versa.
  • Applying a soft blur, such as Photoshop’s “Gaussian Blur,” can help increase contrast by removing some of the photo’s details.

Finally, Get Some Photo-editing Software

Photo-editing software is really one of the most versatile tools you can have in your toolbox. Default programs, like Microsoft Paint, have come a long way in recent years but if you’re dealing with photos regularly then you’ll still need to find something more powerful. There are many options, but there are two leading image and photo editing applications that stand out under heavy use: Adobe Photoshop and GIMP.

Photoshop is probably the most popular and most powerful photo-editing software on the market. Adobe has gone from a one-time fee to an monthly subscription model, called Creative Cloud, beginning at $10/mo. That subscription gets you the latest version of Photoshop CC as well as Lightroom CC, which is used primarily used in editing photographs. Its widespread adoption means that there’s a wealth of tutorials to assist with the somewhat steep learning curve.

If you’re looking for a free or opensource alternative to Photoshop, then you should check out GIMP. It features many of the same features and functionality. However, it does have a steeper learning curve compared to Photoshop. The community should also be able to provide plenty of training resources.

by Maxwell Bennett at February 15, 2017 07:42 PM

danah boyd
When Good Intentions Backfire

… And Why We Need a Hacker Mindset

I am surrounded by people who are driven by good intentions. Educators who want to inform students, who passionately believe that people can be empowered through knowledge. Activists who have committed their lives to addressing inequities, who believe that they have a moral responsibility to shine a spotlight on injustice. Journalists who believe their mission is to inform the public, who believe that objectivity is the cornerstone of their profession. I am in awe of their passion and commitment, their dedication and persistence.

Yet, I’m existentially struggling as I watch them fight for what is right. I havelearned that people who view themselves through the lens of good intentions cannot imagine that they could be a pawn in someone else’s game. They cannot imagine that the values and frames that they’ve dedicated their lives towards — free speech, media literacy, truth — could be manipulated or repurposed by others in ways that undermine their good intentions.

I find it frustrating to bear witness to good intentions getting manipulated,but it’s even harder to watch how those who are wedded to good intentions are often unwilling to acknowledge this, let alone start imagining how to develop the appropriate antibodies. Too many folks that I love dearly just want to double down on the approaches they’ve taken and the commitments they’ve made. On one hand, I get it — folks’ life-work and identities are caught up in these issues.

But this is where I think we’re going to get ourselves into loads of trouble.

The world is full of people with all sorts of intentions. Their practices and values, ideologies and belief systems collide in all sorts of complex way. Sometimes, the fight is about combating horrible intentions, but often it is not. In college, my roommate used to pound a mantra into my head whenever I would get spun up about something: Do not attribute to maliciousness what you can attribute to stupidity. I return to this statement a lot when I think about how to build resilience and challenge injustices, especially when things look so corrupt and horribly intended — or when people who should be allies see each other as combatants. But as I think about how we should resist manipulation and fight prejudice, I also think that it’s imperative to move away from simply relying on “good intentions.”

I don’t want to undermine those with good intentions, but I also don’t want good intentions to be a tool that can be used against people. So I want to think about how good intentions get embedded in various practices and the implications of how we view the different actors involved.

The Good Intentions of Media Literacy

When I penned my essay “Did Media Literacy Backfire?”, I wanted to ask those who were committed to media literacy to think about how their good intentions — situated in a broader cultural context — might not play out as they would like. Folks who critiqued my essay on media literacy pushed back in all sorts of ways, both online and off. Many made me think, but some also reminded me that my way of writing was off-putting. I was accused of using the question “Did media literacy backfire?” to stoke clicks.Some snarkily challenged my suggestion that media literacy was even meaningfully in existence, asked me to be specific about which instantiations I meant (because I used the phrase “standard implementations”), and otherwise pushed for the need to double down on “good” or “high quality” media literacy. The reality is that I’m a huge proponent of their good intentions — and have long shared them, but I wrote this piece because I’m worried that good intentions can backfire.

While I was researching youth culture, I never set out to understand what curricula teachers used in the classroom. I wasn’t there to assess the quality of the teachers or the efficacy of their formal educational approaches. I simply wanted to understand what students heard and how they incorporated the lessons they received into their lives. Although the teens that I met had a lot of choice words to offer about their teachers, I’ve always assumed that most teachers entered the profession with the best of intentions, even if their students couldn’t see that. But I spent my days listening to students’ frustrations and misperceptions of the messages teachers offered.

I’ve never met an educator who thinks that the process of educating is easy or formulaic. (Heck, this is why most educators roll their eyes when they hear talk of computerized systems that can educate better than teachers.) So why do we assume that well-intended classroom lessons — or even well-designed curricula — might not play out as we imagine? This isn’t simply about the efficacy of the lesson or the skill of the teacher, but the cultural context in which these conversations occur.

In many communities in which I’ve done research, the authority of teachers is often questioned. Nowhere is this more painfully visible than when well-intended highly educated (often white) teachers come to teach in poorer communities of color. Yet, how often are pedagogical interventions designed by researchers really taking into account the doubt that students and their parents have of these teachers? And how do we as educators and scholars grapple with how we might have made mistakes?

I’m not asking “Did Media Literacy Backfire?” to be a pain in the toosh, but to genuinely highlight how the ripple effects of good intentions may not play out as imagined on the ground for all sorts of reasons.

The Good Intentions of Engineers

From the outside, companies like Facebook and Google seem pretty evil to many people. They’re situated in a capitalist logic that many advocates and progressives despise. They’re opaque and they don’t engage the public in their decision-making processes, even when those decisions have huge implications for what people read and think. They’re extremely powerful and they’ve made a lot of people rich in an environment where financial inequality and instability is front and center. Primarily located in one small part of the country, they also seem like a monolithic beast.

As a result, it’s not surprising to me that many people assume that engineers and product designers have evil (or at least financially motivated) intentions. There’s an irony here because my experience is the opposite.Most product teams have painfully good intentions, shaped by utopic visions of how the ideal person would interact with the ideal system. Nothing is more painful than sitting through a product design session with design personae that have been plucked from a collection of clichés.

I’ve seen a lot of terribly naive product plans, with user experience mockups that lack any sense of how or why people might interact with a system in unexpected ways. I spent years tracking how people did unintended things with social media, such as the rise of “Fakesters,” or of teenagers who gamed Facebook’s system by inserting brand names into their posts, realizing that this would make their posts rise higher in the social network’s news feed. It has always boggled my mind how difficult it is for engineers and product designers to imagine how their systems would get gamed. I actually genuinely loved product work because I couldn’t help but think about how to break a system through unexpected social practices.

Most products and features that get released start with good intentions, but they too get munged by the system, framed by marketing plans, and manipulated by users. And then there’s the dance of chaos as companies seek to clean up PR messes (which often involves non-technical actors telling insane fictions about the product), patch bugs to prevent abuse, and throw bandaids on parts of the code that didn’t play out as intended. There’s a reason that no one can tell you exactly how Google’s search engine or Facebook’s news feed works. Sure, the PR folks will tell you that it’s proprietary code. But the ugly truth is that the code has been patched to smithereens to address countless types of manipulation and gamification(e.g., SEO to bots). It’s quaint to read the original “page rank” paper that Brin and Page wrote when they envisioned how a search engine could ideally work. That’s so not how the system works today.

The good intentions of engineers and product people, especially those embedded in large companies, are often doubted as sheen for a capitalist agenda. Yet, like many other well-intended actors, I often find that makers feel misunderstood and maligned, assumed to have evil thoughts. And I often think that when non-tech people start by assuming that they’re evil, we lose a significant opportunity to address problems.

The Good Intentions of Journalists

I’ve been harsh on journalists lately, mostly because I find it so infuriating that a profession that is dedicated to being a check to power could be so ill-equipped to be self-reflexive about its own practices.

Yet, I know that I’m being unfair. Their codes of conduct and idealistic visions of their profession help journalists and editors and publishers stay strong in an environment where they are accustomed to being attacked. It just kills me that the cultural of journalism makes those who have an important role to play unable to see how they can be manipulated at scale.

Sure, plenty of top-notch journalists are used to negotiating deception and avoidance. You gotta love a profession that persistently bangs its head against a wall of “no comment.” But journalism has grown up as an individual sport; a competition for leads and attention that can get fugly in the best of configurations. Time is rarely on a journalist’s side, just as nuance is rarely valued by editors. Trying to find “balance” in this ecosystem has always been a pipe dream, but objectivity is a shared hallucination that keeps well-intended journalists going.

Powerful actors have always tried to manipulate the news media, especially State actors. This is why the fourth estate is seen as so important in the American context. Yet, the game has changed, in part because of the distributed power of the masses. Social media marketers quickly figured out that manufacturing outrage and spectacle would give them a pathway to attention, attracting news media like bees to honey. Most folks rolled their eyes, watching as monied people played the same games as State actors. But what about the long tail? How do we grapple with the long tail? How should journalists respond to those who are hacking the attention economy?

I am genuinely struggling to figure out how journalists, editors, and news media should respond in an environment in which they are getting gamed.What I do know from 12-steps is that the first step is to admit that you have a problem. And we aren’t there yet. And sadly, that means that good intentions are getting gamed.

Developing the Hacker Mindset

I’m in awe of how many of the folks I vehemently disagree with are willing to align themselves with others they vehemently disagree with when they have a shared interest in the next step. Some conservative and hate groups are willing to be odd bedfellows because they’re willing to share tactics, even if they don’t share end goals. Many progressives can’t even imagine coming together with folks who have a slightly different vision, let alone a different end goal, to even imagine various tactics. Why is that?

My goal in writing these essays is not because I know the solutions to some of the most complex problems that we face — I don’t — but because I think that we need to start thinking about these puzzles sideways, upside down, and from non-Euclidean spaces. In short, I keep thinking that we need more well-intended folks to start thinking like hackers.

Think just as much about how you build an ideal system as how it might be corrupted, destroyed, manipulated, or gamed. Think about unintended consequences, not simply to stop a bad idea but to build resilience into the model.

As a developer, I always loved the notion of “extensibility” because it was an ideal of building a system that could take unimagined future development into consideration. Part of why I love the notion is that it’s bloody impossible to implement. Sure, I (poorly) comment my code and build object-oriented structures that would allow for some level of technical flexibility. But, at the end of the day, I’d always end up kicking myself for not imagining a particular use case in my original design and, as a result, doing a lot more band-aiding than I’d like to admit. The masters of software engineering extensibility are inspiring because they don’t just hold onto the task at hand, but have a vision for all sorts of different future directions that may never come into fruition. That thinking is so key to building anything, whether it be software or a campaign or a policy. And yet, it’s not a muscle that we train people to develop.

If we want to address some of the major challenges in civil society, we need the types of people who think 10 steps ahead in chess, imagine innovative ways of breaking things, and think with extensibility at their core. More importantly, we all need to develop that sensibility in ourselves. This is the hacker mindset.

This post was originally posted on Points. It builds off of a series of essays on topics affecting the public sphere written by folks at Data & Society. As expected, my earlier posts ruffled some feathers, and I’ve been trying to think about how to respond in a productive manner. This is my attempt.

Flickr Image: CC BY 2.0-licensed image by DaveBleasdale.

by zephoria at February 15, 2017 05:51 PM

February 14, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Palestinian Authority Bans Novel for ‘Threatening Morality and Public Decency’

Cover of ‘Crime in Ramallah’ by Abbad Yahya. Source: Akhbar El Balad

On Monday February 6, 2017, the Palestinian Authority's (PA) attorney general, Ahmad Barrak, banned a novel written by Palestinian novelist Abbad Yahya for “violating public morals and decency“.

The crime novel, “A Crime in Ramallah” (2016), was banned following an investigation by the office of the Palestinian Public Prosecution. In a statement from the attorney general's office, the ban was issued on the grounds that the novel contains text and terms that violate “public modesty, morals and decency” which would harm citizens, particularly minors and children. The statement adds that the novel breaches international treaties and a number of Palestinian laws, including the Press and Publications Law, the Penal Code, and the Palestinian Child Law.

Yahya confirmed in a Facebook status update that all copies of his novel have been pulled from bookstores, libraries and other selling points in the West Bank, and that he, the publisher, and the distributor have all been summoned for investigation over whether or not they have obtained the required permissions and licenses.

What is important here, dear friends, I am expressing my utmost concern, astonishment and shock at this decision and all its consequences of investigation and confiscation. I'm surprised and worried about the status of freedom of creativity and expression, publishing, and writing, and I am really shocked by what happened and the way it happened!

I believe, and this for all friends working in the cultural field, we are facing an unprecedented challenge, and a clear position is needed from everyone. I am sure we have, in Palestine, surpassed such case. No one will accept threatening what was achieved of literature and culture in Palestine, through harassment and confiscation.
I hope it will not become worse. Quite frankly, I am very concerned.

While the attorney general affirms that this decision doesn't violate freedom of speech, this is the first incident of its kind where a book is being investigated or banned in Palestine.

The Palestinian cultural magazine, Fus7a, reported that the ban follows an earlier controversy in the Palestinian city of Nablus, north of the West Bank, where a discussion event of the novel — which was scheduled to take place at the municipality's library — was cancelled by the city's mayor, Sameeh Tbeileh.

Palestinian activists and writers have expressed their anger on social media over the banning of the novel. While some were sharing Portable Document Format (PDF) links for the novel, others were sarcastically thanking the PA for giving the book free publicity.

Famous Palestinian writer and poet Mourid Barghouti said:

Status of Mourid Barghouti. Source: Facebook

The Palestinian Authority, which has banned the books of Edward Said years ago, is banning today a novel called ‘A Crime in Ramallah’ and the Attorney General is summoning its author, publisher and distributor for investigation. Sign on the statement below. I am not defending the book as I haven't got it yet. But I am condemning confiscating books and guarding people's minds.

Abir Kopty, a Palestinian activist from Nazareth, tweeted:

Damn, didn't we say that we have now a nasty Arab regime. We became jealous of Egypt and now we are banning a novel. Here #the_trial_of_imagination_Palestine_branch

Palestinian journalist and activist Hisham Naffa tweeted:

No legal entity has the right to check the morality of this or that text. It is not responsible for morals or mandated to oversee [them]. The order against the novel must be cancelled #A_Crime_in_Ramallah

Hazem AbuHelal, a human rights activists based in Ramallah, also tweeted:

So the #Oslo gang has public morals after all #A_Crime_in_Ramallah

Another Palestinian poet tweeted:

Banning the novel #A_Crime_in_Ramallah by #Abbad-Yahya and confiscating copies is a real crime in Ramallah and a dangerous precedent in the Palestinian cultural scene

In solidarity with Yahya, poet and Palestinian Minister of Culture Ehab Bessaiso said that he will read the novel — a clear rejection of legally prosecuting creative and literary texts:

I will start today reading the novel A Crime in Ramallah by writer Abbad Yahya. The ban order has made me more determined to read the work looking for the rationale behind the ban, despite my refusal to force the law into the creative process. This needs a long discussion before getting into its intertwined details.

While some defended the novel, other Palestinians have supported the ban, citing its sexually explicit content. Photos of some marked pages in which a boy describes, in first person, his initial experiences of masturbation, were shared on Facebook in protest against the book.

by Marwa Fatfata at February 14, 2017 11:43 PM

February 13, 2017

February 11, 2017

February 10, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Travel Blogger Faces Eight Years in Azerbaijan Prison Over Nagorno-Karabakh Visits and Posts

Nagorno-Karabakh map. Creative commons.

A relatively well-known Russian-Israeli travel blogger who is also a Ukrainian passport holder has been extradited from Belarus to Azerbaijan for visiting a territory that fell under the de facto control of Azerbaijan's neighbour, Armenia, following a war between the two countries that began while they were both part of the Soviet Union. He faces eight years in jail.

If it isn't already clear, it should be said now that this is a story that gets very complicated, very quickly.

In drafting this report Global Voices owes a debt to another, better-known Russian blogger: Ilya Varlamov, who put together a fantastic ‘What Do We Know?’ type-piece when Aleksandr Lapshin, a travel blogger who claims to have visited 122 different countries, was still in detention in Belarus in January.

Given the complexities of the case, it makes sense to proceed in the same vein as Varlamov did, by answering the immediate questions raised by the case.

What does Azerbaijan say Alexander Lapshin has done?

According to the Azeri state prosecutor, Lapshin faces up to eight years under charges of “making public calls against the state” and “illegally crossing the state borders of Azerbaijan”. Moreover, the Russian agency Sputnik cites the prosecutor:

Он пропагандировал незаконный режим, действующий на оккупированной территории Азербайджана, на своей странице, где представлял Нагорный Карабах как независимое государство. 6 апреля и 29 июня 2016 года Лапшин публиковал на своей странице обращение, в котором призывал поддержать “независимость” незаконного режима на захваченной Арменией территории Азербайджана, территориальная целостность которого признана на международном уровне.

[Lapshin] propagated the illegal regime acting on occupied Azerbaijani territory on his [Facebook] page, where he presented Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state. On April 6, and June 29, 2016, Lapshin published on his page an appeal wherein he called for support for the “independence’ of the illegal regime acting on the territory seized by Armenia, whose [ownership by Azerbaijan] is internationally acknowledged.

Has he really done those things?

Regarding the first charge, “making public calls” against the Azerbaijani state, which is a charge that opponents of authoritarian governments in countries across the world face, Varlamov notes that this is difficult to verify. A trusted friend has been updating Lapshin's regular blog since his detention in Belarus began, but the entries neither deny nor confirm that these posts were written.

It is likely that Lapshin subsequently deleted the Facebook posts referred to by the Azerbaijan prosecutor, but it is perhaps worth noting that Lapshin does not list Nagorno-Karabakh among the “countries” he has visited on his blog, as a serious advocate of the territory's independence might.

It is, at any rate, very bizarre that Lapshin has been extradited to face charges for making a “call” against a state where he was not born and has not held citizenship and most likely was not located when he made that “call”.

Thus it seems more likely that the official legal justification for extradition was the second charge, “illegally crossing the state borders of Azerbaijan”, which he is technically guilty of.

As Azerbaijan still claims jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh (and indeed, the UN is on its side on this point) the Azerbaijani government demands that anyone wishing to visit the country applies for permission first.

Lapshin appears not to have done this prior to trips there in 2011 and 2012, and subsequently got added to a blacklist preventing him from entering Azerbaijan proper. However, he flaunted this ban by entering on his Ukrainian passport in which he is called Oleksandr rather than Aleksandr, thus avoiding detection by Azerbaijani border guards. He then boasted of this feat in a post since taken down, which led Russian blogger Ilya Varlamov to conclude that the moral of Lapshin's detention was “don't be a moron”. Varlamov later reversed this judgement when readers of his blog argued that it was overly harsh.

For those unfamiliar with the complexities of Caucasus travel, Lapshin himself wrote in a post just before the 2011 trip to Karabakh that is still online:

Прилетаю в Ереван, но сразу же выдвигаюсь в Азербайджан через Грузию. Такой расклад не случаен, ибо, как известно, азербайджанские пограничники крайне ревностно относятся к теме армян и Карабаха. Очень многие туристы задержитвались азербайджанским ГБ при въезде в страну и досконально обыскивались и допрашивались, едва лишь у них находили армянские печати в паспортах. При этом для отказа во въезде в страну (и даже задержании на сутки-двое) вполне достаточно что бы у них возникло подозрение, что вы посетили Карабах, который они считают своей, но незаконно оккупированной территорией. Из этого мораль – зачем рисковать и прятать карту памяти из фотоаппарата, где будут явные свидетельства посещения Карабаха? Ведь при желании – найдут в два счета и будут неприятности. Таким образом, проще переиграть все наоборот и начать с Азербайджана, потом Грузия, и завершить вновь в Армении.

I will fly into Yerevan, but will immediately move onto Azerbaijan via Georgia. […] As you know, Azerbaijani border guards are extremely sensitive to the topic of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Many tourists have been detained by Azerbaijani security services when entering the country and thoroughly frisked and interrogated, purely because they found an Armenian stamp in their passports. They may refuse you entry to the country (and even detain you for a day or two) if they have any reason to suspect that you visited Nagorno-Karabakh, which they consider an illegally occupied territory [of Azerbaijan]. So, why risk [crossing] and hiding the memory card of the camera, which would clearly show evidence of visits to Nagorno-Karabakh? It is much easier for me to start with Azerbaijan, then move onto Georgia, and finish again in Armenia [in order to visit Nagorno-Karabakh].

Why did Belarus decide to extradite?

Lapshin was detained on December 13 by Belarusian authorities on the basis of an Interpol warrant requested by Azerbaijan. He was held for almost two months before being extradited to Azerbaijan on February 7.

Interpol often honours the requests of authoritarian governments to place their political enemies on its list, often only removing them from the list when third party countries hold them before releasing them. So, no surprises that Lapshin was put on the list and subsequently detained by Belarus.

Belarus’ decision to hold for such a length of time — Lapshin's friend has claimed mistreatment during the detention but not torture — before extraditing is far more curious, and international affairs may have played a role.

Officially, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka has said the decision to extradite was carried out “in accordance with the law”. But it seems unlikely that this was a result of due process. Belarus has held individuals placed on the Interpol list by friendly countries before — sometimes for long periods of time — and later released them.

The key in this instance might be the objection of Russia to both the detention and extradition of its citizen Lapshin. Belarus and Russia's up-and-down relationship was in a trough at the time of Lapshin's detention, and has only gotten worse since.

Russia's foreign ministry said on February 8 that it was “deeply disappointed” with the decision to extradite, which went against “the spirit of friendly ties between allies — Russia and Belarus”. But anyone that watched snippets of Lukashenka's recent press conference lasting over seven hours and packed with anti-Kremlin vitriol would hardly describe those ties as friendly at present.

Israel also opposed the extradition, while Ukraine, which needs all the international support it can get in the face of aggression from Moscow (especially from other ex-Soviet states like Belarus and Azerbaijan) has chosen not to say anything.

Eight years? Really?

Probably not. Worth noting is an interview given by pro-government Azerbaijani national security expert Kyamil Salimov to the local arm of Russian government-owned media outlet Sputnik on February 8. In it he said:

Поэтому я здесь вижу только то, что лидеры Азербайджана и Беларуси продемонстрировали политическую уверенность в урегулировании процесса. Не думаю, что в отношении Лапшина назначат чрезмерно жесткое наказание. Скорее всего, президент Азербайджана проявит гуманизм в отношении него.

I see only that the leaders of Azerbaijan and Belarus displayed political confidence in regulating this question. I don't think that in the case of Lapshin there will be some kind of strict punishment. Probably, the president of Azerbaijan will show him mercy.

Judging by the on-message nature of Salimov's other interviews, it is likely his thinking and the Azerbaijan government's own thinking are probably in harmony. A heavy sentence would dramatically raise the international profile of a case that has so far only skimmed the surface of the international media's attention, and draw sharp criticism from the West. More pressingly, Azerbaijan has good reasons to keep long-time ally Israel on side, as well as Russia, which has armed both parties in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Unquestionably though, it will be a nervy wait for Lapshin, a travel blogger whose naive dabbling in politics has already seen him held in confinement by two of the world's worst rights abusers.

Nagorno-Karabakh, again.

Lapshin's arrest is proof — if any was needed — that Azerbaijan is in no hurry to soften its stance on Nagorno-Karabakh, which was part of its territory in Soviet times, despite ethnic Armenians there outnumbering ethnic Azeris by about 4 to 1 prior to the bloc's break up.

Last year saw some of the worst fighting over the territory since the conflict formally ended in 1994 and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (or one of his staffers) has in the past taken to Twitter to threaten an all-out invasion.

Armenia, in turn, has few incentives to hand the beautiful but landlocked would-be-state back to Azerbaijan given a lack of significant pressure to do so, notably from Russia, which is widely seen as an arbiter in the conflict.

The risk of war between the two countries remains real, and this passage from the Accidental Geographer blog on their standoff as depressingly relevant as ever:

by Akhal-Tech Collective at February 10, 2017 06:54 PM

Is Tunisia Rolling Back Freedom of Information?

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed speaking to the media during the 2016 World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly which took place in Tunisia. Photo by the ITU, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

The Tunisian government is facing accusations of rolling back access to information and media freedom, through its regulation of information and communication units in ministries, state agencies and other government institutions.

Last month, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed issued circular n°4 of 15 January 2017 asking civil servants not to speak to the press and not to reveal official information unless they get the authorization of their hierarchy:

Out of respect to the duties of civil servants in their relation with media outlets, as outlined in the code of conduct and ethics of the public servant, they [civil servants] are refrained from making statements or interventions, or disclosing official information or documents in the press or by any other means, related to their functions or to the public structures they work for without the preliminary and explicit authorization of their hierarchy

The circular further bans civil servants from making statements that “breach professional secrecy and the preservation of the state's high interests”, preventing “the disclosure of official information and documents that should or can be made available to the public”, and making “misleading or false statements” in relation to their work and the institution they serve.

The circular is, in fact, in line with existing regulations that organize the relation of public servants to the media. Government decree n°4030 of 4 October 2014 on the code of conduct and ethics of the public servants, in section 2 of its third chapter, already bans public servants from making statements to the media and disclosing public information without the authorization of their hierarchical superiors or the directors of the public institutions they work at.

The circular's publication was not only slammed by civil society organizations in the country, but also revived criticism of the public servants’ code of conduct, more specifically those provisions that regulate the operation of communication and information units at public institutions, agencies and ministries.

On 9 February, fifteen local and international organizations, including the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, the Tunisian League for Human Rights, the International Federation for Human Rights and the free-speech NGO Article 19, released a statement calling on the government to “review decree 4030 and immediately withdraw circular n°4″. The organizations condemned what they describe as “increased restrictions on journalists, civil society organizations and citizens [seeking] to access information from public institutions”.

As part of its democratic reforms, Tunisia has made progress when it comes to access to information. In 2016, the constitutional right to access information was reinforced by the parliament's adoption of a freedom of information law (Law n°22 of 24 March 2016 on access to information). The law guarantees access to information held by government bodies including ministries, the presidency, publicly funded NGOs, the parliament, local municipalities, the central bank and constitutional bodies. The law prescribes fines against those who obstruct access to information, and establishes an access to information commission tasked with deciding on appeals for access to information requests.

However, the law's implementation remains limited and the commission on access to information has not been established yet. It is no surprise that the government's issuing of circular 4 was slammed by journalists and civil society organizations, who are already unhappy with the slow translation of these legal reforms into action.

by Afef Abrougui at February 10, 2017 04:51 PM

Netizen Report: Internet Shutdowns Return to Iraq, Persist in Cameroon

Baghdad commercial street, 2013. Photo by Chatham House via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

Citizens in both Cameroon and Iraq are growing ever-more accustomed to Internet shutdowns. Cameroon instituted restrictions on Internet access on January 17, after months of protests concerning the economic and cultural marginalization of English speakers in the predominantly French-speaking West African country. Protests have led to mass arrests and what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called “excessive force” used by Cameroonian law enforcement against protesters. Meanwhile, the Internet has been inaccessible in these regions for over three weeks. The shutdown is having detrimental effects on businesses, technology companies and day-to-day life. According to digital rights advocacy groups Internet Sans Frontières and Access Now, the first 15 days of the shutdown cost Cameroon the equivalent of USD $723,000.

Iraq’s outages were more sporadic, with four one-hour outages observed between February 1-6. The outages coincided with 6th grade placement exams, and mark the third year in a row in which authorities used Internet shutdowns to prevent students from cheating on their tests. This year’s one-hour shutdowns were shorter in duration than last year’s, which occurred ten times over the month of May and lasted three hours each time.

The UN Human Rights Council passed a non-binding resolution in June 2016 condemning such measures, saying that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression.”

Canadian woman barred from entering US over Muslim prayer videos

Although Trump’s executive order on immigration technically applies only to non-US residents from seven countries in the Middle East and North Africa, travelers from other countries are reporting that they are being questioned about their faith and asked to hand over their mobile phones to border patrol agents. On February 4, a Moroccan-born Canadian citizen, who is Muslim and wears a hijab, was turned away at the US-Canada border after agents searched her mobile phone and found videos of people saying daily prayers in Arabic. “You're not allowed to go to the United States because we found videos on your phone that are against us,” the woman was told.

The new US Secretary for Homeland Security John Kelly says that border patrol agents may begin asking travelers from the seven countries affected by the order to hand over their email and social media credentials as part of security procedures. In an interview on National Public Radio, Kelly said this could be expanded to travelers from other countries as well.

Practicing law in Algeria? Time to get off Facebook.

Lawyers in Tlemcen, Algeria can now face suspension and “correctional” measures if they use social media, according to a statement released by the head of the Tlemcen Bar Association. The decision follows criticism by the president of the Algiers Bar Association, Abdelmadjid Sellini, of lawyers’ “abusive” use of Facebook in the city. Sellini also said he intended to take “necessary” measures against lawyers who he believes could harm the profession by their use of social media.

Chinese netizens detailed for insulting police

Chinese police are arresting netizens who insult law enforcement officials on social media. At least six people have already been detained, according to Radio Free Asia, and at least one them has been accused of violating China’s Public Security Administrative Punishments Law for posts on Weibo criticizing a police officer who was killed in the line of duty. The law, which took effect in 2006, creates a category of offenses can be punished with administrative penalties and issued by police without judicial review.

Ukrainians face five years’ jail time for ‘separatist’ speech on social media

Two Ukrainian men were sentenced to five years in prison for “supporting separatism” in posts written on VKontakte. The men were arrested in April 2015 and found guilty this week of organizing groups that supported separatist activity in February 2014, shortly after the EuroMaidan Revolution. They follow at least two other cases in which social media users were prosecuted for online speech supporting separatism.

UAE takes Jordanian journalist to court over Facebook posts

Detained Jordanian Journalist Tayseer al-Najjar appeared before the UAE’s State Security Court on accusations of insulting the Emirati State on Facebook. Al-Najjar allegedly published posts on Facebook criticizing the Emirati position in the 2014 Israeli War in Gaza, but he did this while living in Jordan. Global Voices’ Afef Abrougui writes, “What is troubling about Najjar’s case is not only that he is being prosecuted for merely expressing his opinions, which is not uncommon in the UAE, but also for statements he made before he moved to the country.” He was detained in December 2015, held incommunicado for nearly two months, and remained in pre-trial detention for over a year.

Indian techies push online privacy campaign

The free and open source software communities in India built a campaign to increase public understanding of online privacy issues, including the launch of January Privacy Month and a hashtag #PrivacyAware campaign to engage with participants. The effort is particularly critical given the dearth of online content in dominant languages of India such as Hindi, Bengali and Tamil, which leave Indians particularly vulnerable to online security threats.

Mobile app helps citizens test for censorship

The Open Observatory of Network Interference has built a mobile app for iOS and Android that allows any user to monitor blocked websites and network performance and publishes data collected by users for its open data archive.

New Research

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by Netizen Report Team at February 10, 2017 12:34 AM

February 09, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Thai Media Groups Say Proposed Law Could Bring Total Government Control of the Press

This photo was circulated by Thai journalists on social media about the repressive provisions in the draft media bill. Photo from the Facebook page of SEAPA

In a rare display of unity, various media organizations in Thailand have joined ranks in opposing a government bill that threatens to further undermine press freedom in the country.

The proposed “Protection of Media Rights and Freedom, Ethics and Professional Standards” bill is drafted by the National Reform Steering Assembly. But after analyzing the content of the bill, media groups and activists have warned that it could lead to total government control of the press in the country.

The bill requires journalists to get accreditation as licensed professional media workers. A National Professional Media Council will also be established to regulate the media and receive complaints against the media. The proposed council consists of 13 members including four permanent secretaries from the finance, culture and digital economy ministries plus a representative from the office of the prime minister.

Supporters of the bill said it will promote responsible journalism, but critics denounced it for in their view institutionalizing government censorship.

The Thai army grabbed power in 2014. It vowed to restore civilian rule after it drafted a constitution which guaranteed military influence in the bureaucracy. Despite the lifting of martial law, Thai media is closely monitored by the army.

Around 30 media groups signed a statement rejecting the bill:

This goes against the intent of Constitution (passed in the referendum last August) which promotes media self-regulation without state interference. The bill in its present form will directly impact the media duty to scrutinize state power and the public right to know.

Chakkrit Permpool, former chairman of the National Press Council of Thailand, is worried that the bill could entrench dictatorship in society:

This kind of thing exists only under dictatorship governments. This is against the new constitution backed by the referendum that ensures media freedom and people's freedom of expression.

The Bangkok Post published an editorial questioning the presence of government officials in a press panel:

Government presence on a press panel and licensing of journalists are never part of a free press. The media and the public it serves are capable of continuing to reform the press, which has never stopped.

New media, changing public perception and an ever-evolving society ensure that press reform will continue, and government control can in no way make it better.

Thai journalists are urging the government to reconsider the bill. They also invited the public to support the campaign on social media by posting the photo of a chained dove (see photo at the top of the post) which symbolizes the muzzling of the press.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance also issued a statement in solidarity to the protest organized by Thai journalists:

The so-called media reform bill may effect a total control of the Thai press – not only of the media outlets but also of journalists in the country. It is also a major step backward of more than 20 years of the media reform process that the Thai journalist community fought for to democratize media space from state monopoly, and toward diversity and access to information.

by Mong Palatino at February 09, 2017 11:44 PM

February 08, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
In Iran, From Prison to Banishment for Posting Jokes on Facebook

Image of “Symbolic Prison Cell” in Iran from Babak Farroki. Image taken from Flickr under CC By 2.0.

A version of this article was originally published on the site of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

After serving a five-year prison sentence in Iran for posting jokes about religion on Facebook, Soheil Babadi has been forced into internal exile. The 39-year-old computer engineer, who previously lived in Tehran, must now spend the next two years in Beshagard, a remote community of 35,000 people in the southern coastal province of Hormozgan. Beshagard is located on the southern tip of the country, about a 20 hour drive from Babadi's hometown in the north.

“Court documents said Soheil’s sentence should have ended in July 2015, but despite all our efforts he wasn’t freed,” said the source. “Finally, Soheil himself filed a complaint against the judge and then they let him go (into exile).”

In an open letter dated September 7, 2013, Babadi said he was tortured while being interrogated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

“In May 2011 I posted ten short pieces of satire on a Facebook page called the ‘Campaign to Remind Shiites about Imam Naghi’ without using any insulting words,” said the letter. “A year later I was arrested by the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization without a warrant and held in Ward 2-A, the IRGC’s exclusive detention center, and beaten and interrogated for 24 hours.”

“Then someone named Ghena’atkar (from Branch 3 of the Security Court) formally read the charges against me, including ‘insulting the Prophet Mohammad,’ ‘insulting the sacred,’ ‘assembly and collusion,’ ‘insulting the supreme leader,’ ‘propaganda against the state,’ ‘membership in a group planning to overthrow the state’ ‘and acting against national security’—all for writing ten jokes on Facebook,” he added.

He continued: “I was interrogated while blindfolded in the corner of a room,” he continued. “The agent wanted me to confess to the charges against me, and when I refused, he severely beat me. I was constantly under psychological pressure as the agents probed into my personal life and tried to accuse me of sexual relations with friends and relatives, even with my sister-in-law, and even of homosexual relations with one of my friends, Mostafa. But they didn’t succeed and kept me in solitary confinement for 225 days.”

Soheil Babadi meets his family after leaving prison in Tehran. He is now starting exile in. Photo from the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and used with permission.

Babadi was taken from Rajaee Shahr Prison in Karaj on January 28, 2016 to a police detention center and held for three days before being transported to Beshagard to begin the remainder of his sentence.

Babadi was arrested in 2012 after the Facebook posts, which satirized political and religious issues while focusing on Ali al-Naghi—the tenth Imam according to Shia Islam. The page, which has nearly 33,000 fans, gained popularity after the song “Naghi” by musical artist Shahin Najafi went viral in early May 2012 and at least two senior theologians issued fatwas calling for Najafi’s death for insulting Naghi.

Babadi was first charged with “insulting the sacred” and “insulting President [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad],” and sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison, 74 lashes and two years in exile in the city of Beshagard near the southern port city of Bandar Abbas.

In a second trial in September 2015 Judge Mohammad Moghisseh of Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court sentenced Babadi to an additional seven years in prison for “assembly and collusion against national security” and “insulting the supreme leader.” Branch 26 of the Appeals Court has yet to issue a verdict on the appeal against Babadi’s sentence.

See the Campaign's previous article on Babadi's case here

by International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran at February 08, 2017 07:48 PM

February 07, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Ukrainian Social Media Users Get Five Years in Prison For ‘Supporting Separatism’

Images mixed by Tetyana Lokot.

A court in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine sentenced two men to five years in prison for “supporting separatism” on the social media website VKontakte on February 6. The Donetsk regional prosecutor's office said in a press release that the two men were convicted by a Sloviansk city court under Part 2 of Article 110 of Ukraine's penal code, “Infringement of the territorial integrity and inviolability of Ukraine,” which carries with it a penalty of three to five years in prison.

The men, both residents of Sloviansk, were arrested by Ukraine's Security Services in April 2015, effectively stopping their online activity. Public data does not indicate whether they were detained or released pending trial.

This week, they were both found guilty of organizing groups that supported separatist activity on VKontakte in February 2014—after the EuroMaidan Revolution that toppled former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych but before Russian-backed separatists began to seize large portions of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, including Sloviansk.

The prosecutor's office said the men endeavored to change Ukraine's borders and had provided “informational support” to the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, the two Russian-backed separatist statelets in eastern Ukraine, in furtherance of this goal. The information they distributed over social media was “of an anti-Ukrainian character,” the prosecutor's office said.

The prosecutor's office also said the two men, who did not admit to being guilty in court proceedings, subscribed to the “Russian world” ideology, which seeks to create a “greater Russia” beyond the country's current borders.

They are not the only Ukrainians to face prosecution for online speech that “supports separatism.” In November 2016, a Lviv court convicted a man under penal code Articles 109 and 110 and sentenced him to three years in prison after he allegedly called for seizing power in Kyiv and altering the country’s borders, also on VKontakte. In a separate case in February 2016, a man was found guilty of “activity aimed at changing the constitutional order and the seizure of power, using media,” in violation of Article 109 of Ukraine's penal code. He pled guilty and was made to pay a fine.

by Isaac Webb at February 07, 2017 05:13 PM

Joi Ito
Conversation with Andre and Karthik

Andre and Karthik were both took the Principles in Awareness class that Tenzin Priyadarshi and I taught twice over the last few years. They both independently became interested in connecting the idea of non-duality and artificial intelligence. We'd been Slacking and chatting and thinking about the topic so I invited Andre over for lunch the other day and Skyped Karthik in from India and did a Facebook Live about the topic.

The audio is available on iTunes and SoundCloud.

The next step is to write up a short post about the idea. :-)

by Joi at February 07, 2017 04:32 PM

Global Voices Advocacy
‘Why Are We Still Doing This?': Iraq Shuts Down Internet to Prevent Exam Cheating—Again

Internet outages in Iraq as documented by Dyn between 1 and 6 February 2016

For a third year in a row, Iraqi authorities have resorted to shutting down the Internet to prevent students from cheating on exams. Network monitoring group Dyn Research has documented four outages between 1 and 6 February. These disruptions begin around 8:30 local time and last for an hour.

The one-hour outages, intended to prevent students from cheating on 6th grade placement exams, are expected to last for a week, according to local media quoting the Iraqi ministry of telecommunication. Internet outages and disruptions to prevent exam cheating have now become common in Iraq.

Last year, the Iraqi government shut down the national fiber optic backbone ten times in May, in outages that lasted three hours each morning. In August and again in October, the government resorted to the same tactic to ban students from cheating during make-up exams. Similar blackouts were documented in the summer of 2015.

In Iraq's public education system, the stakes are high during national exams, which often play a decisive role in the future of Iraqi youth.

Doug Madory, Director of Internet Analysis at Dyn writes:

Within public education in Iraq, if students don’t score high enough on their 6th grade placement exams, then their public education is over and an already difficult future may have just been made more so.  This makes the exams extremely important to the future of Iraqi students, so much so that parents will sometimes go to great lengths to get a leg up on the competition so that their kid’s education will continue.

This may help explain why the Iraqi government is willing to go as far as to shut down networks to prevent exam cheating. But it doesn't justify such tactics, especially as access to the Internet is increasingly recognized as a basic right. Last June, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a non-binding resolution condemning “measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online,” while affirming “that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression.”

The resolution came as global internet outages continued in 2016, with Access Now documenting 56 shutdowns.

Across the Arab region, in addition to Iraq, disruptions were also recorded in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Last summer, the Algerian government disabled mobile Internet to prevent cheating and the leaking of Baccalaureate exams. The move prevented more than 15 million users from accessing mobile Internet, but did not stop the leaking of exams on social media, forcing the Ministry of Education to organize retakes for the leaked exams. On the other hand, in the Bahraini protest village of Duraz, ISPs were “deliberately disrupting” fixed-line and mobile data services, harming businesses in the process and costing the country more than 1.2 billions US dollars of its GDP in the span of eight days, according to a Brookings study.

The Algeria and Bahrain cases show how Internet shutdowns are not only futile, but also harmful. “They harm everyone” and “they don’t help victims or restore order,” as Access Now notes. But it appears the Iraqi government and other governments responsible for internet outages and disruptions have yet to recognize this reality.

by Afef Abrougui at February 07, 2017 04:05 PM

February 06, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
As Burundi's Political Crisis Simmers, Critics Are Silenced

Burundians living in Nairobi, Kenya and friends of Burundi says no to third term for president Pierre Nkurunziza. — by Vincent Munga for Demotix.

Since mid-2015, when Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza declared his intention to run for a third term in office, the government has faced criticism of broad crackdowns against insurgents, but also protests and opponents. Despite international tensions and serious economic decline, though, it has seemingly asserted its control inside the country, restricting critics and civil society monitoring the situation.

International and national rights groups, journalists, UN officials, and diplomats have accused security agents and Imbonerakure (ruling party youth-wing) activists in Burundi of committing crimes, including sexual violence and forced disappearances, with “lawless” impunity. Many opponents have fled, especially Bujumbura’s “rebellious” districts, leaving exiled opposition divided, and the total refugee population recently passed 328,000.

A November 2016 report by the International Federation for Human Rights and Ligue ITEKA, described political repression changing over 2016 from public crackdowns to violence “behind closed doors”, such as secret detentions. Officials reject these criticisms, charging that they are biased and based on rumours.

Tensions are high under President Nkurunziza

Ex-guerrilla, pro-President Nkurunziza hardliners — skeptical of the post-war peace agreement and power-sharing — have gradually taken control of party and state, in a process that accelerated after a failed coup in May 2015. 

President Nkurunziza recently hinted at constitutional changes that would allow him to remain even for a fourth term in office, independent newspaper Iwacu reported. Jean Minani, spokesperson for opposition coalition CNARED (National Council for upholding the Arusha Accord for Peace and Reconciliation and the Constitution) said – worryingly evoking a potential escalation of confrontation:

Devant  un homme déterminé à enterrer l’Accord d’Arusha et la Constitution pour s’éterniser au pouvoir, il me semble qu’il n’y ait aucun autre choix que celui d’user de tous les moyens pour contrecarrer son plan.

Faced with a man determined to bury the Arusha Accord [post-war peace agreement] and the constitution, to remain in power forever, it seems to me that there is no other choice than to use all means to foil his plan.

Muted media

Many reporters and activists have fled the country, and some are even missing, like journalist Jean Bigirimana, who was last seen in July. RSF’s petition to investigate fully his disappearance was delivered to Burundi’s Paris embassy in October, with little response.

Those journalists who remain in Burundi must now register with the National Communications Council in order to do their work. State officials have also arrested WhatsApp users on defamation charges, in what critics say is part of a crackdown on freedom of expression.

Several independent radio stations have remained closed since the failed coup. Radio Isanganiro returned to the airwaves earlier in 2016, but under certain conditions, and a call-in show was suspended for broadcasting a Kirundi song that celebrated journalists’ rights. SOS Médias Burundi also reported in December that a minister intervened to block coverage, first aired in Kirundi, by Radio Isanganiro of legal changes to armed forces, apparently for security reasons.

The Burundian Musicians’ Association, approved by National Communications Council, recently announced that it intended to censor broadcasted songs that “undermine peace.” The culture minister then objected to this, however.

Controlled criticism

“Politicized” civil society organizations — especially the “Halte au troisieme mandat” movement — face tough obstacles as well. Five organizations were de-registered on Oct. 19, including the well-known Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Incarcerated Persons (APRODH) for “perturbing security” and “tarnishing” Burundi’s image. On Oct. 24, the Burundian Journalists’ Union and several rights organizations, including Ligue ITEKA, were also suspended.

Government investigations of some civil society groups have ended, but SOS Médias Burundi reported one director’s pessimism about being able to work freely.

The National Assembly also recently adopted a law that strictly monitors international NGO activities and limits their ability to receive funding. Added to the government cutting cooperation with the International Criminal Court and UNHCR, this indicates it is distancing domestic and international bodies monitoring the situation.

Attempts to control dominant narratives have also surfaced in schools. Last summer, teenage students were arrested for scribbling on the president’s image in textbooks. This was criticized for disproportionately turning a school discipline matter into a criminal one. SOS Médias Burundi reported over 200 students sent home from one school and that, by 16 June, the “scribbling phenomenon” had affected at least 580 students across 4 schools. Regional governor Emmanuel Niyungeko argued strong punishments were justified because the students had made a “grave error”, as Nkurunziza is “second to god.”

Officials also announced a census of state employees’ ethnicity to enforce post-war ethnic quotas intended to ensure both Hutus and Tutsis are well-represented. However, as they were not designed to extend to all public sector employees, some were concerned for underlying anti-Tutsi bias.

Burundi's government appears to have largely established authoritarian control over the crisis, but the recent assassination attempt on Communications Minister Willy Nyamitwe and killing of Environment Minister Emmanuel Niyonkuru shows that security and peace are still elusive.

As the political-security crisis grinds on, food shortages and economic hardship worsen. Goodwill gestures, though, by ‘radical’ opposition and government, like reopening independent media, could yet help to soften confrontation and move towards productive compromise.

by Advox at February 06, 2017 03:42 PM

February 05, 2017

Development Seed
Fed Mapping Happy Hour

This upcoming Monday we’ll be hosting a Fed Mapping Happy Hour, our way of saying thank you to the hard working geographers and data folk in our Federal Government.

Come anytime between 6:00 to 8:00pm for the free drinks and snacks, stay a while for a quick round of lightning talks from our team and our open source friends in town.

RSVP here so we have enough brews on hand.

by Development Seed at February 05, 2017 12:00 AM

February 04, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
China Starts Arresting Internet Users for Insulting the Police

Qu Yuquan. Photo: Harbin police Weibo.

This post was written by Catherine Lai and originally appeared on Hong Kong Free Press on Feb. 2. The version below is published under a partnership agreement.

In recent weeks, police in China have been arresting Internet users who share messages that insult law enforcement officials. According the Radio Free Asia, at least six people have already been detained. Two of these individuals were reportedly arrested on Jan. 28, for mocking a police officer killed the night before in the line of duty.

Qu Yuquan, a 38-year-old police officer in Harbin, was attacked while responding to a bar brawl on Jan. 27, according the local police station's Weibo social media account. After being taken to the hospital, he later succumbed to his injuries.

After the news went out on Weibo, a user named lukehcen0 posted a message that officials say “insulted the police officer who sacrificed his life and incited violence against the police,” according to the Legal Evening News, a newspaper published by the Communist Party.

“His actions violated the country’s Public Security Administrative Punishments Law,” the report said. The Weibo user was taken in for questioning, in a coordinated effort between police in Beijing and Guangzhou, under the direction of the Ministry of Public Security.

Another man with the Weibo handle “Changchun Social Sister” also posted comments insulting Qu. Police arrested him on Jan. 30, and he's already confessed to the act, according to reports.

Lukehcen0's offensive comment was a response to an unofficial announcement of Qus’ death on the Harbin police department's Weibo page, which read as follows:


I double-checked. […] a police officer from the [Harbin] station was beaten to death by five men and a women while on duty. He wasn't even 40 years old. He was a police instructor, a father, and a son. I don't understand why they hate cops so much. I can't reveal too much now, please wait for the official press release by the Harbin Public Security Bureau. As a police officer myself, I really want to cry. Farewell, my fellow officer.

Lukehcen0 shared the text above, adding this comment:


Anybody who beats or kills police are all heroes👍

Weibo user “Changchun Social Sister” added her two comments respectively after two posts, one written by a state-affiliated journalist, one written by Qu's fellow officers, Webio user “Kangde-Crazy”:

每次放假回來都對我特別好的叔叔,女兒才三歲… 大年三十晚上發生這種事,剛才在醫院看到他父母哭到幾次昏厥,老太太抱著我一次次的哭孩子,我心裏真的難受的特別厉害!希望各位理解警察這個高危行業,不要給自己和社會添麻煩!同時保護好自身安全,人好健康比什麼都重要!

[His] daughter is just three years old… how can such tragedy happen during a family holiday? [He has in mind the Lunar New Year] I just saw his parents crying in the — they almost fainted. The oldest cried while holding me. I felt so bad. I hope the public understands that working in the police is a very risky occupation. And please don't cause problems for yourself or for society. Please be careful. Wellbeing is what's most important.

Changchun Social Sister commented:


Great, his daughter has no one to protect her. It’s New Year's, haven’t you gotten your retribution? [note: Chinese believe that when bad thing happened during happy event means the heaven is punishing the person for his/her wrong deed.]

In another post, Zhang Ye, a state-affiliated journalist, criticized public intellectuals for not mourning for Qu:


Before New Year's, a police officer was beaten to death while on duty, responding to an emergency call. Most people condemned the act, but public intellectuals were silent. Some bad mouthed and even made fun of the incident. Did they ever consider that the police needed to respond, even the call came from a bar? If you were bullied, wouldn't you also call 110 [China's emergency hotline]? If society has no order, how can there be safety?

Changchun Social Sister responded:


Enough bullshit. There is no use calling the police these days. Stop making excuses for the police. Don't whitewash yourself — the incident was a crossfire between dark forces. Are you whitewashing for higher wages?

The disrespect for the fallen police officer outraged many Chinese social media users, and police in Guangzhou and Nanning launched immediate investigations into the outbursts, after various individuals alerted the authorities, according to reports in China's mainland media.

The two Weibo accounts responsible for the offensive comments are no longer accessible.

A Weibo user named Wu Bin told Radio Free Asia, an international broadcasting agency funded by the U.S. government, that he thought the controls in China on online speech are becoming stricter.

There is no feeling of safety when speaking on the internet, a police car could come to your door and take you away at any moment… I don’t think he [lukehcen0] was inciting violence against police, he was expressing his own viewpoint, he felt that the police are not good – everyone has the right to express their own viewpoint.

Public anger over police brutality in China flared last April, following the death of a young environmentalist in police custody.

by Hong Kong Free Press at February 04, 2017 02:17 AM

February 03, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
After Waiting More Than a Year, Jordanian Journalist Appears Before UAE Court

In June 2016, the ‘Their Freedom is Their Right’ campaign called for the release of Tayseer al-Najjar, in prison in the UAE since December 2015.

Awaiting trial for more than a year, detained Jordanian journalist Tayseer al-Najjar finally appeared before the State Security Court in Abu Dhabi, UAE on February 1. His trial has been adjourned to 15 February, at the request of his lawyer.

Al-Najjar stands accused of insulting the Emirati state, over Facebook posts he published in 2014, while living in Jordan. In those posts, Najjar reportedly criticized the Emirati position on the 2014 Israeli war in Gaza.

Under article 29 of the 2012 UAE Cybercrime Law, publishing statements, information, news or rumors “with intent to make sarcasm or damage the reputation, prestige or stature” of the state, its institutions and leaders is a crime punishable by temporary imprisonment and a fine. What is troubling about Najjar's case is not only that he is being prosecuted for merely expressing his opinions, which is not uncommon in the UAE, but also for statements he made before he moved to the country to work as a culture reporter for a local newspaper.

A writer, journalist and a member of the Jordanian Press Association (JPA), al-Najjar used to work for the culture section of the daily newspaper al-Dostour in Jordan. In April 2015, he moved to Abu Dhabi where he started working as a culture reporter for al-Dar newspaper, affiliated with the government-owned center Aljewa for Culture and Media.

UAE authorities detained Najjar in December 2015, after banning him from boarding a flight to Jordan at the Abu Dhabi International Airport to visit his family. He was held incommunicado for nearly two months, and remained in pre-trial detention for over a year.

Enforced disappearances of human rights activists and those who simply express themselves online are a common practice in the UAE. Those detained for their views are often subjected to lengthy and unfair trials. In another similar case, academic Nasser Bin Ghaith, who has been in jail since August 2015 for tweets critical of Egypt, was held incommunicado for nine months. His trial was postponed several times.

Tayseer Najjar's pre-trial detention may have come to end but his trial has only just begun, and no one knows when a sentence in his case will be issued, let alone when he will be reunited with his family and loved ones.


by Afef Abrougui at February 03, 2017 07:10 PM

India's Open Tech Communities Work to Increase Public Knowledge of Online Privacy

Mozilla L10N Hackathon in Pune, India. Photo by Subhashish Panigrahi via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Subhashish Panigrahi is the Asia Community Catalyzer for Mozilla Corporation, a volunteer Mozillian, and a Global Voices author and translator.

Issues relating to internet security and privacy affect netizens all over the world, but they are often especially acute in developing nations like India. It is estimated that 50 million people in India will begin using each year between now and 2020. And while the majority of online interactions happen in English, literacy in English still hovers somewhere between 10-30% in India, and there is a concerning dearth of content online in other dominant languages of India such as Hindi, Bengali and Tamil. These and other challenges leave Indians particularly vulnerable to the online security threats.

Over the past year, free and open source communities in India have built a campaign to increase public understanding of online privacy issues both with online and public outreach events.

This effort began in January 2016 with “January Privacy Month,” an extended celebration of Data Privacy Day, in which they organized an online campaign along with several city-level events intended people about security risks that they might be facing on the Internet, and how to protect themselves from vulnerabilities. Data Privacy Day has gained momentum in India and scores of other countries over the last few years, and plays a great role in educating both individuals and organizations about privacy laws.

Last year, the campaign shared one privacy tip per day for 31 days throughout the month. Mozilla campaign organizer Ankit Gadgil described Mozilla's 2017 efforts:

This year…we have made this campaign more open and global. Mozilla communities from Brazil, Italy and Czech Republic are actively participating….We are educating participants of offline events about marketing Firefox and other Mozilla products so that the users can have hands-on experience of using these tools that help protect their privacy. The third thing is, we are encouraging everyone that participate an offline event to blog about their learning. For instance, there was a Maker Fest in in the Indian state of Gujarat recently where they used Mozilla products to teach about privacy.

The campaign aso ran a hashtag #PrivacyAware post-campaign to engage with the participants. The campaign also sought to make users aware of browser-based security solutions, particularly those that are fully accessible to people with disabilities.

Stay safe while browsing! A few tools we recommend:

  • Adblock Plus is one of the most popular extensions that is used to block ads, disable visitor tracking and stop sites from spreading malware. The extension is available for most popular browsers, including Chrome and Opera.
  • Privacy Badger is another popular add-on for security, also developed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The extension is available for most popular browsers, including Chrome and Opera.

by Subhashish Panigrahi at February 03, 2017 06:33 PM

Links for 2017-02-02 []

February 03, 2017 08:00 AM

February 02, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Netizen Report: Egyptian NGOs Face Rampant Phishing Attacks, Researchers Say

Cartoon by Doaa Eladl via Flickr, Web We Want ( CC BY-SA 2.0)

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

Researchers at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab exposed a series of at least 92 phishing attempts targeting the digital communications and data of human rights defenders, lawyers, and activists associated with seven prominent non-governmental organizations in Egypt. The attacks were carried out not through highly sophisticated technical means, but rather using social engineering, where attackers effectively masqueraded either as colleagues and confidants of the NGO workers, or as technology companies seeking account verification.

Among those targeted were EIPR, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, and Nazra for Feminist Studies, all groups that have partnered with Global Voices in the past. EIPR has published their own report on the findings, in Arabic, on their website.

In one example, just hours after women’s rights lawyer Azza Soliman was arrested at her home, her colleagues received a message purporting to share with them a Dropbox file containing her arrest warrant. The message in fact led to a malicious software program that sought to infiltrate their devices.

In other cases, NGO workers received account authentication messages from official-sounding email addresses such as dropbox.noreplay [at] and fedex_tracking [at], which in fact were malicious. The report contains a full list of harmful domain names and email addresses found in the study, nearly all of which mimic the names of legitimate services such as Gmail and Dropbox.

These attacks come as no surprise to Egyptian civil society advocates and their allies. They appear to target defendants in the so-called “foreign funding” Case 173, which the Egyptian government filed against several NGO workers in 2011, alleging that they had used foreign grant money to “harm national stability, among other accusations. Despite multiple changes in Egypt’s ruling government, the case has worn on. Since spring 2016, courts have imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on multiple defendants in the case, along with other NGO leaders, strictly limiting their abilities to work or even seek refuge outside of the country.

Mauritanian courts consider death sentence for blogger who criticized caste system

On January 31, Mauritania’s Supreme Court heard the case of blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, who was sentenced to death for publishing an opinion article critical of the use of religion to justify the country’s caste system. Ould Mkhaitir was first arrested in 2014 and was convicted of apostasy by a lower court for using examples from the life of the prophet Muhammad in the piece. The Supreme Court referred his case back to the appeal court for procedural irregularities, a move that does not bode well for Ould Mkahitir, as the appeal court previously confirmed his apostasy conviction and upheld his death sentence.

Criticism of the caste system, which originally included a “slave” caste, remains an incendiary topic in the North African country. In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery, but slavery and related practices of forced labor have nevertheless continued in some parts of the country.

US border agents demand social media data from travelers, journalists

A wave of travelers from the Middle East, including two journalists, have reported that border agents demanded their mobile phones and social media usernames over the past five days. This comes on the heels of Donald Trump’s executive order — which multiple legal experts and scholars say is unconstitutional — temporarily banning citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US.

This practice is not new, nor is it unique to the Trump administration — in June 2016, US Customs and Border Patrol proposed plans to begin asking foreign visitors from visa waiver countries to disclose their social media identities. Since mid-2016, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has documented nine cases of Muslim Americans being asked questions about about their social media accounts, along with questions about their faith and lifestyle, when returning to the US from travel abroad.

As part of an effort to defend the privacy rights of travelers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is soliciting first-hand accounts from individuals who have been asked for social media information and/or had their electronic devices searched at US borders. See here for further details.

Bitcoin may not solve Venezuela’s currency nightmare

Police in Venezuela arrested four bitcoin miners for allegedly affecting the stability of the nation’s electricity supply. The group ran 300 computers in order to mine bitcoins and sell them online, an effort that essentially converts the value of electricity into currency. Bitcoin mining has become an increasingly popular – if dangerous – venture in Venezuela, which has experienced extreme economic instability, with national currency inflation at rates of 50% and higher since 2014.

Myanmar journalists push back against defamation law

Journalists in Myanmar are opposing the use of the 2013 Telecommunications Law by authorities, who have used it to file defamation charges against their critics. Forty-eight defamation cases have been heard since the law was passed, with 29 arrests in the last year alone. The law penalizes the use of a “telecommunication network to extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence, or intimidate” with three years in prison and a fine. Prominent Myanmar human rights Lawyer Robert San Aung has spoken out against the law, arguing that it is “not appropriate that a citizen who criticizes someone more powerful should face legal action of this kind.”

Anti-gay and looking for a vacation spot? There’s an app for that (in Russia)

A new Russian website called MyLinker claims to provide AirBnB-style options for homophobes, thus evading policies issued by AirBnB that are intended to prevent discrimination. Among other problems with the site is a set of highly questionable methods for measuring the number of LGBT people in a city (on the basis of searches for certain types of pornography) and incredibly offensive rhetoric. A petition is calling on Russian authorities to ban the site for its discriminatory practices.

New Research

Subscribe to the Netizen Report by email


Afef Abrougui, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Marianne Diaz and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

by Netizen Report Team at February 02, 2017 08:36 PM

January 31, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Algerian Blogger Merzoug Touati Could Face 25 Years in Jail for Interviewing an Israeli Official on YouTube

Police clashing with protesters during 2011 riots. Photo credit: Magharebia shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Algerian authorities have charged blogger Merzoug Touati with “exchanging intelligence with a foreign power”, over a publicly posted video interview he conducted with a spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Police arrested Touati on 18 January and confiscated his computer and camera, according to the Algerian League for Human Rights (LADDH). The group's lawyers are representing Touati in court.

LADDH lawyer Ikken Sofiane told Algerian news site El-Watan that Touati was charged under article 71 of the Penal Code which prescribes a punishment of up to 20 years in jail for anyone convicted of “exchanging with agents of a foreign power intelligence which could harm the military or diplomatic status of Algeria or its vital economic interests.”

Merzoug Touati could face an additional 1-5 years in prison for “incitement to armed protests against the State.” His trial date has not been set yet.

Merzoug Touati. Photo shared on the Facebook page of his blog Alhogra

On 9 January, Touati posted on YouTube and on his blog Alhogra a video interview with Hassan Kaabia, the Israeli foreign ministry's spokesperson for Arabic-speaking media. The interview focused on the public response to the 2017 Finance Law, which includes an increase in value-added, income and property taxes, and a decrease in fuel subsidies. When the law went into effect on 1 January, strikes and riots erupted in the northern province of Bejaia and other parts of the country.

An Algerian government minister accused foreign powers of meddling in the country's affairs and orchestrating the protests. In the interview, Touati asked Kaabia about accusations made by an Algerian government. Kaabia denied any Israeli involvement.

Kaabia also told Touati that before 2000 there was “communication” between the Algerian and Israeli governments, but could not confirm if Algeria hosted a diplomatic office representing Israel in the past. Algeria and other Arab league governments, with the exceptions of Egypt and Jordan, do not officially recognize or have diplomatic relations with Israel due to the latter's occupation of Palestinian territories. However, some governments currently and in the past have maintained communication channels with or hosted offices representing Israel. Such relations are often kept secret by Arab governments due to the popular support to the Palestinian cause in the region.

On his blog Alhogra, Touati has consistently covered anti-austerity strikes and job protests, and rights violations committed by Algerian authorities. On 22 November, he posted an interview with Tilelli Bouhafs, whose father Slimane Bouhasf, is currently serving a three-year jail term on charges of insulting Islam in his online posts.

With the arrest of Touati, Algeria continues its crackdown on government critics and those peacefully exercising their right to free speech online. In December of 2016, this campaign cost the life of blogger Mohammad Tamalt who entered a coma after staging a two-month hunger strike in protest of his detainment for publishing on Facebook a poem critical of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

by Afef Abrougui at January 31, 2017 09:51 AM

Ethan Zuckerman
Stop saying “fake news”. It’s not helping.

One bit of good news for those thoroughly freaked out by the Trump presidency: there’s anger, passion and drive on the left that’s unprecedented in recent memory. Two weekends ago, my girlfriend, a veteran of Occupy Houston, warned me that it was difficult to mobilize people in that car-centric city and thought we might find a few hundred marchers for the post-inauguration march. The crowd we joined was 22,000 strong, and as we assembled in front of Houston city hall, the chief of police told us that we were the largest protest in the city’s history. And the Houston protest was a small one compared to massive protests in Boston, New York, Seattle, Denver, Chicago, LA and DC.

This weekend featured a wave of demonstrations at airports around the US against the racist and unconstitutional Muslim ban. The ACLU, leaders in fighting the ban, raised more than $24 million over the weekend, demonstrating that activists are willing to put money where their hearts are. And an army of lawyers is occupying airport food courts, offering legal representation to anyone prevented from entering the US. The outpouring of progressive efforts has been so massive that journalists are beginning to refer to it as “the surge”.

Here’s the bad news: thus far, we’re not very good at channeling that energy. There’s so much to react to, from fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the election to concern about concrete steps Trump is taking in office that it’s hard to know what to proactively work on. And there’s a danger in reactive activism: your opponent gets to choose and frame the issues for you. For all its weaknesses, the Trump administration is masterful at framing issues to its advantage, as the left is just now beginning to understand how powerful a tool this can be.

Immediately after the US election, “fake news” emerged as a major story, a partial explanation for Trump’s surprise electoral victory. Within a week, I’d been invited to four different conferences, brainstorms or hackathons to combat fake news, done a dozen media interviews and briefed the heads of two major progressive foundations on the issue. Fake news was a problem for American democracy and progressive leaders were on it!

Unfortunately, so was the Trump administration. On January 11th, Trump offered his first press conference since the election, and refused a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta, criticizing the network and declaring “You are fake news.” This week, the President expanded the fake news camp to include the nation’s “paper of record”.

Media Cloud, the tool we developed at the MIT Media Lab and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center to track the spread of ideas in news media, shows that “fake news” was associated primarily with Facebook in the months of November and December. Coverage of fake news focused on Buzzfeed’s excellent reporting on for-profit news sites in Macedonia that created “news” out of whole cloth in hopes of attracting US right-wing eyeballs and ad dollars by designing news stories likely to be spread on Facebook. In January, the fake news narrative has shifted to CNN as a result of the President’s adoption of the term, wielded against CNN in revenge for their decision to cover (though not reproduce) the Steele dossier.

Mentions of “fake news”, November and December 2016

Mentions of “fake news”, January 2017

The President’s embrace of the term “fake news” should be reason enough for the left to stop organizing conferences and projects on the topic. It’s a vague and ambiguous term that spans everything from false balance (actual news that doesn’t deserve our attention), propaganda (weaponized speech designed to support one party over another) and disinformatzya (information designed to sow doubt and increase mistrust in institutions) – I wrote at length about the complexities of the term for Deutsche Welle last week.

But that’s not the real problem. The problem is that the very concept of fake news helps the Trump administration.

Many pundits complained that Trump campaigned without a platform, just a set of audience-tested applause lines. While that may be true, the campaign was not without a strategy. Trump and his advisors realized that the dominant political mood of the moment is one of mistrust. The primary locus of this mistrust is the government in Washington – in 1964, 77% of Americans trusted the government in Washington to do the right thing all or most of the time. By 2011, that number was down to 19%. But this collapse in trust affects all large, bureaucratic systems, from universities and hospitals to the military and churches. And people really mistrust media: in 1979, 51% of people trusted newspapers all or most of the time. By 2013, only 24% of people trusted newspapers, and 21% trusted television news.

It’s deeply uncomfortable when the President refers to the media, a constitutionally-protected institution critical to monitoring a representative democracy, as the “opposition party”.

But it shouldn’t be that surprising – in many ways, Trump ran against the media as much as he ran against Hillary Clinton. The chant of “CNN Sucks!” was a common feature of his rallies, one he encouraged by railing against the unfairness of the coverage he was receiving.

Elected as a revolutionary, Trump is governing as an insurrectionist, moving to sideline or disable much of the federal government. For those of us uncertain as to whether Trump was a conventional Republican with inflammatory rhetoric or a genuine rebel, his cabinet choices made things very clear. The nominees he has proposed are a wrecking crew, in many cases explicitly dedicated to the destruction of the agencies they oversee. This is strategy, specifically Steve Bannon’s strategy. As Ronald Radosh reported last summer, Bannon identifies as a Leninist, dedicated to the destruction of establishment institutions through Tea Party populism.

Some of the mainstream Republicans who supported Trump because it was a way to defeat Clinton are feeling very uncomfortable about how the President is governing. But many in Trump’s base are pleased to see that he genuinely wants to overturn and abolish institutions they feel have not served them well. (Uncomfortably, they have a point. Rising inequality means that the economic recovery under Obama hasn’t reached many households. Not that voting in a plutocracy is an especially good way to combat this.)

The best way to defeat insurrectionism is with strong institutions. We’ve got to celebrate the ones that are working well and reform the ones that are broken. We may even need to tear some down and replace them with something better. And we have to humanize all of them, identifying and celebrating the people who are working hard to make these institutions function, and to fix them when they decay. It’s easy to hate an institution – it’s harder to hate the people within it. That’s the power of Twitter accounts like @RogueNASA and @AltUSNatParkService. They remind us that real people work within government institutions, that they’re proud of what they do, and that we need to get beyond our understandable mistrust of agencies, bureaucracies and hierarchies, and celebrate the things they do well.

That’s the problem with a focus on fake news. By adopting the frame, we remind people of the difficulty of reporting in a digital age, the real problems of verifying information and the times our journalistic institutions have failed. We should fix our failures, we should get better at stopping misinformation before it starts to spread, but we can’t do this in a way that supports a Trump attack on the very notion of independent media institutions.

There’s another thing, too. Fake news is not the problem. My colleagues at Harvard are releasing a study of news during the 2016 election next month. They looked at how influential thousands of different news outlets had been during the cycle. They found dozens of news outlets that have been flagged by academics as purveyors of fake news, publishers that create stories from whole cloth for profit. While those sites exist, they were not very influential in the 2016 election – the most influential don’t even rank in the top 100 sites in the analysis. Far more people have been influenced by talk about fake news than by fake news itself.

Why? Because progressives love the idea of fake news. Most progressives – myself included – find it hard to understand how fellow Americans can view the world so differently. By blaming the results of the election on fake news, we have an easy explanation for an incomprehensible situation. If we could just eliminate misinformation, everyone would agree with us!

As Michael Schudson points out in his brilliant The Good Citizen, central to the progressive movement was the idea of the informed citizen. Crusading newspapers reported on malfeasance, and citizens were expected to spend hours informing themselves on candidates and propositions. The net result? The voting rate dropped by 50%. Unfortunately, political decisions are seldom rational, fact-based ones as much as we’d like them to be.

The uncomfortable truth is that support for Trump’s insurrectionist agenda is real, and that there’s a ferocious appetite for news that confirms our existing biases – on both sides of the aisle. Yes, we should find a way to battle deceptive misinformation. But we need to work harder on building media that pushes us to see different perspectives and helps us understand the complex political reality we live in. The answer is not to fight fake news – it’s to build wide news, media that helps us understand people we disagree with and people we seldom hear from.

by Ethan at January 31, 2017 01:32 AM

January 30, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Myanmar Activists Say Junta-Era Defamation Law Must Go

Members of the Committee for Amending the Telecommunications Law hold a rally to call for the removal of the controversial section 66(d) of the law. Photo from the Facebook page of The Irrawaddy, a content partner of Global Voices.

Myanmar’s military-backed government lost the 2015 elections, but the measures it implemented to silence dissent are still the law of the land.

This includes the “Telecommunications Law,” which was passed in 2013 to promote foreign investments in the Information Technology sector and protect technology providers and users. But despite this clear objective of the law, many officials interpreted section 66(d) as a useful legal basis to file defamation charges against their critics.

Since its passage, 48 defamation cases have been filed in the courts invoking section 66(d) of the law. Last year, even with the former opposition party National League for Democracy taking control over the government, 29 people were still arrested for breaking this law.

Section 66(d) states that whoever uses a “telecommunication network to extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence, or intimidate” can be “punished with imprisonment for a term extending to a maximum of three years, and shall be liable to fine or both.”

For many activists and journalists, the wording of this provision is vague and it can be narrowly interpreted to accuse anyone of defaming another person.

Since last year, Section 66(d) has gained notoriety for being a legal tool used by senior military officials against their critics in the mainstream and social media.

Despite the defeat of the party it backed in the elections, the military continues to wield strong influence in the bureaucracy. The Constitution it passed in 2008 guaranteed military representation in the parliament and the Cabinet.

Worried about the increasing number of Section 66(d) cases, some activists, scholars, and journalists formed the Committee for Amending the Telecommunications Law (CATL) to persuade the parliament about the urgent need to reform the law.

They asserted that section 66(d) is unnecessary because defamation is already covered by existing provisions in the Penal Code.

The CATL argued that, under Section 66(d), a person accused of defaming someone can be detained without being given the right to bail. A third party can also file a case on behalf of another person, which explains why some cases involving the military were initiated not directly by army officials but by civilians.

Bo Kyi of the Assistance Association for Political Protection believes that defamation can be addressed with less severe punishment:

Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law should be removed—it is better for the country’s future if we try to solve problems by discussing them patiently while fostering the culture of democracy and compromise from all sides.

Human rights lawyer U. Robert San Aung agreed that the law needs to be overhauled:

It is not appropriate that a citizen who criticises someone more powerful should face legal action of this kind.

Activist Ko Maung Saung Kha observed that Section 66(d) is selectively used by authorities while religious hate speech and online abuse against women are becoming prevalent:

We have to raise a question why this law doesn’t take effect against those who spread religious hate speech online. There are sexual abuses against women online but this law can’t prevent them. The law only takes actions against those who insulted state leaders … The law is being used with impunity.

The activist is referring to the rising anti-Muslim sentiment on social media spearheaded by radical Buddhists. Myanmar has a Buddhist-majority population. Some radical Buddhists are accusing Muslims of plotting to displace Burmese residents from their communities.

Aside from public officials, ordinary citizens have also invoked section 66(d) against their critics and online trolls on social media. Writer Moe Thet War explained how the law has affected the behavior of many Internet users in Myanmar:

Ever since the creation of Section 66(d), citizens have become hesitant to publicly share anything on Facebook, even if they're actually pointing out someone else's wrongdoing.

Moe Thet War used the cartoon below to illustrate how a thief can accuse a Facebook user of committing a crime if the latter uploads an “insulting” photo on the popular social media platform.

The CATL organized a rally in mid-January to press for the removal of Section 66(d). In response, the parliament said it is willing to review the law and address the negative impact of Section 66(d).

by Mong Palatino at January 30, 2017 02:53 PM

Journalists of Closed Hungarian Newspaper Népszabadság Score ‘Symbolic Posthumous Victory’ in Court
Népszabadság staff

The staff of Népszabadság. Used with permission from “Népszabi” editorial team Facebook page.

A Hungarian court has ruled that the sudden closure of leading opposition daily Népszabadság last October was illegal, because its owners should have consulted with the employee committee in a bid to keep publishing and avoid laying off all its staff.

The owners, the Austrian-owned group Mediaworks, closed down the newspaper on October 9, 2016, without any warning, citing low sales as the reason. That morning, they denied their surprised employees entry to the premises.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) hailed the court's decision as a “symbolic posthumous victory for Népszabadság journalists”. According to Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of the RSF’s European Union-Balkans desk:

“This is a moral victory for the staff of Nepszabadsag, even if the ruling unfortunately has no criminal or financial consequences for the newspaper’s owner. The judge’s ruling made it clear that, if the procedures had been respected, the newspaper would not have had to close and fire its 90 employees.”

The announcement about the court's decision did not include any publicly available information as to whether the journalists would receive any kind of compensation for the wrongdoing.

Hungarian journalist Anita Kőműves. Photo used with permission.

Anita Kőműves was a journalist at Népszabadság’s foreign affairs section for 11 years, and for five years — until the closure of the paper — she covered U.S. politics. She was also part of the paper’s investigative team: one of her stories revealed how much Hungary spent on lobbying in Washington.

She told Global Voices that journalists from other media outlets — from left to right (except for far right) — showed solidarity with Népszabadság employees. Kőműves said the massive solidarity rose from the fact that the government has been working on completely changing Hungary’s media landscape since their first term started in 2010. The government, among other things, changed the Hungarian media law, dismissed more than a 1,000 employees from the public broadcasting company, and popular news site's editor-in-chief was sacked after a story was published about a state secretary's travel expenses.

We never considered the court ruling to change anything, it’s rather a moral victory which states that we should have had a legal representative with us and there should have been direct communication about what was going on. We knew this wasn’t going to change anything because the story had already ended the morning of October 9, 2016.

Many Hungarians keep asking former Népszabadság journalists about their future. Anita Kőműves recently started working for Vasárnapi Hírek news magazine, but many of her colleagues are still looking for jobs:

As soon as the paper was closed we started to think about starting up a new outlet, either print or online. But we knew that we would need a lot of money to run a newsroom of 80 people. However, we started talking to potential investors both in Hungary and internationally but very recently, around the beginning of January, we had to realize that [we] would not be able to raise the money to start up even a much smaller operation.

Népszabadság, which means Liberty of the People, was a major, left-leaning Hungarian newspaper founded during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It was privatized during the 1990s and changed owners several times, until Mediaworks acquired it in 2015.

The newspaper's closure sparked massive demonstrations in Budapest. Two and a half weeks later, Mediaworks’ owner sold Népszabadság to Opimus Press, a media group owned by an associate of Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban.

Reuters reported that this take over is part of a strategy implemented by Orban allies to secure domination within the country's media landscape by securing “a friendly media network.” The new owner had not held a media portfolio before.

Months after the shocking news, the newspaper’s digital archive has been switched back on. Now, at least, the publication's last articles are accessible to the public, along with the 2008 article that the author of this post wrote about the Global Voices Summit in Budapest.

by Marietta Le at January 30, 2017 02:27 PM

Development Seed
Open Source Machine Learning

Tomorrow, I will be at SatSummit talking about Development Seed’s machine learning work and what we’ve learned over 18 months of building open source tools for imagery analysis. We are building open source machine learning tools and open algorithms that can be shared and improved by academics and implementers without expensive software or license fees.

Machine learning has tremendous potential to improve the work of development organizations. We use machine learning to create smart algorithms to analyze satellite imagery to determine land use or to identify features like roads and buildings. Automating imagery analysis allows us to more quickly map unmapped areas or to monitor vast crop or forest areas and alert us to anomalies.

But what does it require to take advantage of machine learning in your work? Here are a few things we’ve learned about using machine learning to identify features like roads and buildings.

For road detection use one meter resolution imagery or better. Multispectral imagery can improve results.

We’ve done land use classification and vegetation analysis on all manner of data, from 30 meter to less than one-meter resolution. For many of these applications, higher resolution imagery doesn’t significantly improve results, and can even add noise in some cases. For road and building detection, we’ve had greatest success with imagery that is one-meter resolution or better.

Bringing in infrared bands can better distinguish plants from built up areas. It’s helpful for identifying roads in certain contexts, particularly in suburban neighborhoods with lots of trees.

NIR and True Color Imagery, Machine Learning Output left column: input images (infrared, true color), © DigitalGlobe; middle: OpenStreetMap data; right: our model prediction

You need at least 100 square kilometers of high quality training data for feature extraction

Machine learning requires a lot of good training data to produce accurate results. Groups often ask, “How much training data is enough?” We ran some experiments to determine that.

For the road detection work that we demonstrated at State of the Map we used 559 square kilometers of training data. We experimented with using gradually less data (372km2, 186km2, 93km2, 47km2) to determine at what point the accuracy deteriorated. For less dense mapping across a consistent area, sometimes ~100km2 of high quality training data produced accurate results on roads. (That’s about the size of Sacramento. Or a little less than Washington DC’s NW and NE quadrants combined)

Seattle Streets, Machine Learning Output left-to-right: input image, © Mapbox Satellite; OpenStreetMap data; columns 3-6: our model predictions with varying amounts of input data

For denser areas, or when trying to create a model which can make predictions over a larger variety of areas, more input data helps.

Seattle Streets, Machine Learning Output left-to-right: input image, © Mapbox Satellite; OpenStreetMap data; columns 3-6: our model predictions with varying amounts of input data

For buildings, we started with the same 559km2 baseline for training data and saw promising results but it was tough to get clearly defined edges. We tried to limit our inputs to places where we felt very confident about the training data. Because this limitation reduced the input data to under 100km2, we didn’t see good improvement. Jump in the repo if you have some ideas for how to improve!

Dar es Salaam Buildings, Machine Learning Output left-to-right: input image, © Mapbox Satellite; OpenStreetMap data; our updated model with less input data; our first attempt

Training a model can take a few days. But once its trained you can apply it in real time.

We’ve had most success running about 100 thousand iterations of our model. With one AWS g2.2xlarge instance that takes around 4 days. This is mostly something that can run in the background, but occasionally you’ll need to kick the server.

Once the machine learning process has produced a algorithm, you can apply it to additional imagery in real time. We have set up apps that conduct analysis of imagery in real time as you browse.

Manilla Roads, Machine Learning Live Prediction Live prediction of roads in Manilla, Philippines

While the results aren’t always perfect, they are pretty good. They can be used to give an immediate idea of where to spot features or to run a quick calculation on approximately how many buildings or kilometers of road fall into an administrative region or disaster area.

Open works well for development work

We’ve benefited greatly from using open tools for our work and by sharing our imagery processing pipeline with others. We love collaborating with people with interesting problems to solve or ingenious solutions we haven’t considered. You can check out the code on Github or find me at SatSummit to chat.

by Development Seed at January 30, 2017 12:00 AM

All of NASA's Earth Science Data on the Cloud

No one processes and provides more earth observation data than NASA. NASA provides access to more than 17.5 petabytes of earth observation data across more than 11,000 unique data products from its satellite and aerial missions. In FY 2016, NASA delivered more than 1.51 billion earth science data products to more than 3 million data users around the world. Managing this data is a huge task. We are working with NASA’s Earth Science Data System (ESDS) Program to build Cumulus, a cloud-based prototype to ingest, process, catalog, archive, and distribute NASA’s Earth Data streams.

Cumulus is one of a suite of tools that NASA is developing to better leverage cloud computing for data storage, processing, and access. We are working closely with NASA’s ESDS team as well as several of the Distributed Active Archive Centers (DAACs) that ensure Earth Data missions are available and accessible to users. We are working with these teams to prototype and refine a system that can be used to process, archive, and publish data as varied as lightning strike datasets and MODIS scenes.

Cumulus will be open source. We are working with NASA to transfer ownership of Cumulus to NASA and to provide the code and documentation through their platforms. We will keep you posted when the code is available. We hope that Cumulus will be useful to other organizations building imagery publishing pipelines.

by Development Seed at January 30, 2017 12:00 AM

January 29, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Originally Sentenced to Death, a Blogger Goes Before Mauritania's Supreme Court

Photo by Hani Amir via Flickr (CC BY 3.0)

On 31 January, Mauritania's supreme court is scheduled to issue a decision in the case of blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, who was sentenced to death in 2014 over an opinion article published on the website of the newspaper Aqlame.

In the article entitled “Religion, Religiosity and Craftsmen”, which has since been taken down by Aqlame but is still available online, Ould Mkhaitir criticized the use of religion to justify Mauritania's discriminatory caste system, while citing examples from the lifetime of prophet Muhammad.

Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir

Mauritanian authorities arrested Ould Mkhaitir on 2 January 2014, two days after his article was published, and in December 2014 the Nouadhibou primary court sentenced him to death for “apostasy” under article 306 of the Mauritanian Penal Code, for speaking “lightly” of the prophet. In April 2016, a court of appeal confirmed his sentence and referred his case to the Supreme Court, which has the power to reduce his death penalty to a jail sentence and a fine, if it rules that the defendant has “repented”.

Article 306 states that “any Muslim guilty of the crime of apostasy, either by word or by action of apparent or obvious nature, will be invited to repent within three days. If the accused does not repent within this time, he is to be sentenced to death, and all of his property shall be confiscated by the government.” The same article provides that if the convicted person “repents” before his/her execution, the Mauritanian Supreme Court can commute the death sentence to a jail sentence of between three months and two years, and a fine of UM5,000–60,000 (approximately USD $14 – $170).

Following his arrest, Ould Mkhaitir published a statement from prison in which he mentioned that he had no intention of insulting the prophet, and accused his critics of “stirring religious emotions” to target him. Ould Mkhaitir has repented, but it will be up to the Supreme Court to determine whether or not his repentance was sufficient.

UPDATE [February 1, 2016]: Mauritania’s Supreme Court has failed to commute Ould Mkahitir's death sentence. The court referred his case back to the appeal court for procedural irregularities. The appeal court had previously confirmed the primary death sentence and convicted him of “apostasy”. In the first instance ruling, Ould Mkahitir was convicted of “hypocrisy”, indicating that his repentance for apostasy was ruled to be insincere.

‘Slavery's last stronghold’

Criticism of the caste system remains a taboo in Mauritania, a country that has been described as “slavery's last stronghold.” Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery in 1981, and only criminalized the practice in 2007. Despite this, the United Nations estimates the number of people living in slavery in Mauritania to be somewhere between 340k and 680k, which accounts for 10-20% of the entire population. The number of prosecutions under the anti-slavery act is “very low” according to a 2014 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, while those campaigning against practices of slavery face criminal trials.

In 2014, several activists including Biram Dah Abeid who ran for Mauritania's 2014 presidential election on an anti-slavery and anti-discrimination platform, were arrested and put on trial  for campaigning against slavery. In 2012, Dah Abeid, like Ould Mkhaitir in 2014, was sentenced to death on “apostasy” charges for an anti-slavery protest in which he burned religious texts by an 8th century Islamic scholar justifying the practice, and gave a speech denouncing those using religion to justify slavery and discrimination:

There is a group of bad people who are guarding Islam and using it however they want, and that group is dividing society, putting some people on top and some people down—not because of what they are doing or who they are but because of the color of their skin

Dah Abeid was later acquitted. But in 2015, he was sentenced to two years in jail for his anti-slavery activism.

In several countries across the Arab region including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Yemen, “apostasy” is a crime subject to the death penalty. Apostasy and blasphemy accusations are often used “as a pretext for settling political scores or pursuing personal grudges”, as journalist Brian Whitaker, author of the book Arabs Without God, wrote on Ould Mkahitir's case back in 2014.

by Afef Abrougui at January 29, 2017 01:04 PM

January 27, 2017

danah boyd
The Information War Has Begun

Yesterday, Steve Bannon clearly articulated what many people have felt and known for quite some time when he told journalists, “You’re the opposition party. Not the Democratic Party… The media’s the opposition party.” This builds on earlier remarks by Trump, who said, “I have a running war with the media.”

Journalists have covered this with their “objective” voice as though it was another news story in the crazy first week of WTF moments. Many of those who value the media have looked at this with wide eyes, struggling to assess which of the many news stories they should be more horrified by. Far too few are getting the point:

The news media have become a pawn in a big chess game of an information war. 

News agencies, long trained to focus on reporting information and maintaining a conceptual model of standards, are ill-equipped to understand that they may have a role in this war, that their actions and decisions are shaping the way the war plays out.

When Kellyanne Conway argued that they were operating with “alternative facts,” the media mocked her. They tried to dismiss her comment that the media has a 14% approval rating by fact-correcting this to point out that this was only a Gallup poll concerning the media’s approval rating among Republicans. But they missed her greater point: there’s no cost to the administration to be helpful to the media because the people the Trump Administration cares about don’t trust the media anyhow.

CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0-licensed photo by Mark Deckers.

How many years did it take for the US military to learn that waging war with tribal networks couldn’t be fought with traditional military strategies? How long will it take for the news media to wake up and recognize that they’re being played? And how long after that will it take for editors and publishers to start evolving their strategies?

As I wrote in “Hacking the Attention Economy,” manipulating the media for profit, ideology, and lulz has evolved over time. The strategies that hackers, hoaxers, and haters have taken have become more sophisticated. The campaigns have gotten more intense. And now many of the actors most set on undermining institutionalized information intermediaries are in the most powerful office in the land. They are waging war on the media and the media doesn’t know what to do other than to report on it.

We’ve built an information ecosystem where information can fly through social networks (both technical and personal). Folks keep looking to the architects of technical networks to solve the problem. I’m confident that these companies can do a lot to curb some of the groups who have capitalized on what’s happening to seek financial gain. But the battles over ideology and attention are going to be far trickier. What’s at stake isn’t “fake news.” What’s at stake is the increasing capacity of those committed to a form of isolationist and hate-driven tribalism that has been around for a very long time. They have evolved with the information landscape, becoming sophisticated in leveraging whatever tools are available to achieve power, status, and attention. And those seeking a progressive and inclusive agenda, those seeking to combat tribalism to form a more perfect union —  they haven’t kept up.

The information war has begun. Normative approaches to challenging the system will not work. What will it take for news media to wake up? What will it take for progressives to start developing skills to fight back?

by zephoria at January 27, 2017 04:54 PM

Development Seed
A imagery pipeline for disaster response

We are working with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) to get the best satellite and drone imagery immediately into the hands of disaster responders. Partnering with HOT, we are building an imagery coordination pipeline. In the event of a disaster, this workflow will track the most pressing needs on the ground, and connect with satellite companies to task their satellites and drone operators to prioritize flights where they are most useful. We also built upload tools to OpenAerialMap so that drone operators can quickly distribute their images.

Coordinating Imagery Needs

We’re working together with HOT to better plan and coordinate imagery needs in times of response. Through HOT’s Imagery Coordination Working Group, we’re testing ideas and workflows to make it easier for disaster responders to flip through available pre- and post-disaster imagery and, when nothing meets their need, coordinate imagery acquisition with the wider community and imagery providers. The tool will be open in order to make it easier for local drone operators and GIS units to participate in defining needs and sharing data. Below is a sneak peak of comparing imagery within the tool.

HOT will share more at SatSummit on the ongoing conversations to improve coordination among imagery providers.

Humanitarian responders, satellite companies, and drone operators can search for imagery to meet their needs

Drone Data

Local drone operators can share their imagery through a simple user interface. OpenAerialMap’s upload tool is integrated directly with Dropbox and Google Drive. Often the drone operators nearest to a disaster area aren’t experts in processing imagery for sharing on the web. The upload tool makes it quick and easy to share some of the first surveys of a disaster.

This is a very important part of the OAM ecosystem as it enables more people and organizations to submit imagery to the ever-growing catalog of OAM. It allows any surveyor to quickly share fresh imagery with the world under the CC-BY 4.0 making it available to whomever needs to use it. It’s now easier than ever to share new images and help with disaster preparedness.

by Development Seed at January 27, 2017 12:00 AM

January 26, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
In Moldova, Civil Society Stands Up to ‘Big Brother’ Law
Civil society organizations from Moldova and Romania organized a public debate in October to warn about the dangers of the "Big Brother" Law. Photo by LRCM, used with permission.

Civil society organizations from Moldova and Romania organized a public debate in October to warn about the dangers of the “Big Brother” Law. Photo by LRCM, used with permission.

Moldovan legislators are debating changes to a proposed “Big Brother” Law that civil society groups and human rights standard bearers say would enable surveillance and censorship.

Formally known as Draft Law no. 161 on Amendments and Supplements to Certain Legislative Acts, the law would broaden the obligations of telecommunications service providers to collect and retain metadata from citizens’ communication activities, increase other types of digital surveillance, and enable authorities to block websites “containing information that urges hatred or ethnic, racial or religious discrimination, to hostility or violence.”

European Digital Rights, the leading pan-European organization for protection of digital freedoms, commented on the draft law, arguing that the legislative process on the bill should not continue “without a comprehensive analysis of the necessity and proportionality of this excessive interference with the fundamental rights” and ensuring that the law is consistent with international human rights doctrine.

Human rights lawyer Pavel Grecu warned via Twitter:

Grecu explained that Moldovan judicial system is unable to protect citizens against abusive surveillance, citing official data that judges approve 98% of prosecutors requests for intercepts of electronic communications.

Nadejda Hriptievschi, the program director of the Legal Resources Centre from Moldova (LRCM) stated that they are concerned about the draft law because it contains several provisions that propose introduction of “absolutely unjustified” mass surveillance measures provisions. She also noted that provisions regarding removal of objectionable content could theoretically lead to blocking Facebook, Youtube or Twitter in the Republic of Moldova or “sites inconvenient to the government / establishment.”

Nadejda Hriptievschi, photo by LRCM, used with permission.

Nadejda Hriptievschi, photo by LRCM, used with permission.

The law entered the Moldovan Parliament in April 2016. Its adoption was postponed after several civil society groups called for further revisions of the draft law intended to bring it in line with international standards. This would include a review by the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law, who provide constitutional assistance in Central and Eastern Europe.

In October of 2016 the concerned civil society organizations organized a public round table with MPs and advocating pushing back against blanket surveillance.

In November the LRCM published recommendations concerning the “Big Brother” Law, prepared in cooperation with Bogdan Manolea, the Executive Director of Association for Technology and Internet (ApTI) from neighboring EU member Romania. The group recommended rejecting the proposed articles that would lead to mass surveillance measures, undertaking a detailed examination of legislation that limits the fundamental rights, and waiving the obligations to “stop“ access to web pages.

On December 10 the Commission issued a joint opinion on the draft law identifying number of issues the authorities need to address in order for it to meet the applicable European standards.

Since Moldova is a member of the Council of Europe, the parliament should either amend the draft law in line with the recommendations by the Venice Commission and civil society organizations, or send it back to the government to come back with a new proposal.

by Filip Stojanovski at January 26, 2017 10:37 PM

Netizen Report: Trump Administration Kicks Off With Media Gags, Anti-Protest Measures

An anti-Trump rally in New York City, November 2016. Photo by Mathias Wasik via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

Less than a week into Donald Trump’s presidency, state legislators have introduced a smattering of anti-protest bills, four federal agencies have been placed under a media gag, and Trump staff have lambasted media over their coverage of the inauguration and anti-Trump protests last week.

The media gag on federal agencies — and the response on Twitter

On January 24, an anonymous source from within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told reporters that, along with other federal agencies, EPA staff had been ordered to decline all press requests and to stop posting on their blogs and social media feeds until further notice. The EPA was also instructed to remove climate change-related content from its website.

The Department of Interior received a similar order coinciding with a flurry of activity on Twitter accounts associated with the National Park Service, which falls under the Department’s jurisdiction. Following the Trump administration’s social media ban, the official Twitter account for Badlands National Park in South Dakota posted a series of tweets citing scientifically-proven climate change data, which were deleted shortly thereafter. Since January 24, an account called @AltNatParkSer that claims to have been launched by park service employees but has since been handed over to a group of journalists and climate scientists, has swiftly accumulated over one million followers. The account is mostly tweeting climate change data, interspersed with critiques of the new president.

‘The most dishonest human beings on earth’

Trump directly attacked the media in his first publicly broadcast speech, in which he addressed CIA employees and other intelligence officials on national security issues, including allegations of Russian hacking of party servers and voting machines. In the speech, he described the media as being “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”

This kind of antagonism may leave reporters feeling uncertain about how to cover Trump, especially for those who fear that the White House may cut communication with media outlets altogether.

National Public Radio will not call Trump’s false statements ‘lies’

National Public Radio, a liberal-leaning broadcast service that depends on public funding, has pledged not to use the word “lie” to describe untrue statements uttered by the president, reasoning that a lie is defined as “a false statement made with intent to deceive,” and that they cannot prove (in most cases) that Trump’s false statements are intended to deceive the public. Reporter Mary Louise Kelly was criticized by listeners after she refrained from using the word in a recent broadcast.

States introduce anti-protest bills

Meanwhile, as both Trump staff and conservative media organizations cast doubt on the reported size of protest crowds that gathered in over 600 cities across the country, state legislators have ushered in new bills that would infringe rights to protest by raising fines for blocking roads in Minnesota and North Dakota. The bill introduced in North Dakota would absolve motorists who hit or kill protesters standing or lying down in roadways, if they do so accidentally.

‘America, you look like an Arab country right now’

A response to the week’s developments (and a useful segue for our Netizen Report) came from Lebanese political commentator Karl Sharro who says that the US “looks like an Arab country right now.” In a satirical piece for Politico, he wrote:

From blaming the press for engaging in secret conspiracies to undermine him to threatening their access to his White House palace to refusing to take questions from certain reporters, President Trump reminds us of several of our own leaders. In fact, an Arab leader complaining about CNN coverage is pretty much a staple of our political life…The not-so-veiled threats by the president and Mr. Spicer to the media are very much in the spirit of Arab governance.

The Internet shutdown in English-speaking Cameroon

Citizens in the predominantly Anglophone regions of Northwest and Southwest Cameroon have been without Internet access for over a week, after months of protests concerning the marginalization of English speakers in the predominantly French-speaking West African country. Protests have led to mass arrests and what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called “excessive force” used by Cameroonian law enforcement against protesters. The Internet shutdowns follow the arrests of two prominent Anglophone advocates and civil society organizations’ calls for a “ghost town” action, in which citizens stayed home from work and school and otherwise refrained from public activities.

Mexico’s Twitter troll takeover

Systematic trolling on Twitter has become a top concern among journalists and human rights defenders in Mexico. Amnesty International released a dispatch this week from Mexico City, where a leading expert on the issue described how a “repentant troll operator” approached him and confessed that she was paid the equivalent of USD $2500 per hour to run a Twitter accounts that generated a counter protest in the face of citizen demanding justice for the 43 students who disappeared in Ayotzinapa in 2014.

China puts kibosh on VPNs

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced it will require all virtual private network service providers to obtain government approval if they wish to continue operating. This will render illegal most of China’s VPNs, which many in the country use to circumvent the Great Firewall. The Ministry’s move is part of a 14-month “clean-up” of Internet access services, according to CNN, that will run through March 31, 2018.

Want to help fund Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny? Yandex can’t help you.

Russian online wallet service Yandex.Money will stop allowing transfers of money to individuals for “political purposes.” Critics see the move as an attempt to stop opposition politician Alexei Navalny from using the service to crowdfund his 2018 presidential campaign. Once the policy goes into effect, the only remaining way Russians will be able to donate to the campaign will be through PayPal.

Will Iran block mobile messaging on election day?

Hardliners in Iran are pressuring President Hassan Rouhani to block access to the messaging app Telegram ahead of May 2017 presidential elections. Rouhani has not yet responded to the request, but resisted similar pressure approaching the February 2016 parliamentary elections. Officials have cracked down heavily on Telegram channels and users recently, arresting 32 people in Hormozgan province for allegedly using the channels to “spread lies, disturb public order, create fear and promote immoral and anti-cultural material.”

Kuwaiti court acquits activist Sara al-Drees

On 19 January, a Kuwaiti court acquitted activist and Twitter user Sara al-Drees of insulting the country’s ruler. Al-Drees was tried for comments she made on Twitter about a pardon she received for a previous jail sentence she was serving, and for insulting the Emir.

Imprisoned UAE scholars face criminal punishments for speech

UAE academic and economist Nasser Bin Ghaith is suffering serious medical problems in jail, where he has been denied medical treatment while in solitary confinement, and was refused access to winter clothes. He has been held since August 2015, for tweeting critically about Egyptian authorities’ 2013 violent crackdown on protesters gathering at Rabaa Square. His trial has been postponed to February 22.

Algerian journalist gets suspended sentence over corruption coverage

Algerian journalist Hassan Bouras was given a six-month suspended sentence on accusations of “contempt of court, offense and defamation” for investigating corruption allegations in the town of El Bayadh. He was released from jail after his sentencing, and plans to appeal the decision.

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by Netizen Report Team at January 26, 2017 08:34 PM

Russian Police Lose an Easy Way to Trap ‘Internet Extremists’
Image by Kevin Rothrock

Image by Kevin Rothrock

For years, Russian police have turned to Vkontakte, the country’s most popular social network, for an easy supply of potential criminal suspects. Hunting down thieves and murderers is difficult, dangerous business, and so it should come as no surprise that state investigators have consistently prosecuted “Internet extremists,” instead.

In addition to its enormous user base, Vkontakte appeals to Russian police because the network consistently complies with law-enforcement agencies’ requests for information about the identity and location of individual users — data that is vital to bringing charges against people for sharing supposedly illegal content online.

Learn how Russian police exploit social media to pad solved-crime statistics in RuNet Echo’s translation of a special report by MediaZona

On Tuesday, Jan. 24, by revising one of its default privacy settings, Vkontakte significantly reduced the number of shared photographs publicly visible on individual account pages, according to the news website TJournal. The change applies to “saved” images, which is a feature offered on Vkontakte that allows users to bookmark photographs shared by other users. Until Tuesday, anything someone “saved” was added to an album that anyone could see — exposing many users in ways they never realized.

Vkontakte’s new policy hides these photo albums from everyone except the users who create them. Individuals can still share their “saved” albums publicly, if they revert their privacy settings manually.

If you think this change sounds trivial, you might consult Evgeny Kort, the 20-year-old Muscovite convicted of extremism last November and sentenced to a year in prison. Luckily for Kort, an appellate court later reduced his punishment to a fine of 200,000 rubles (about $3,400), but it’s still a steep penalty, considering that Kort’s crime was that he “saved” a cartoon depicting Russian nationalist Maxim “the Hatcher” Martsinkevich attacking famed and long-deceased poet Alexander Pushkin.

Kort says he never intended to disseminate the image, but it was displayed publicly in his “saved” photo album on Vkontakte, which Russia’s judicial system considered proof that he sought to propagate illegal hate speech.

Vkontakte’s new privacy settings could have repercussions in Belarus, as well, where the network also has millions of users. Earlier this month, a woman in Belarus was convicted of distributing pornography because she “saved” a photograph showing two people having sex. The woman, Diana Selvanova, says she “saved” the image absentmindedly, while using a mobile device, without even realizing that it depicted a man’s penis.

For her criminal deed, Selvanova got a two-year suspended sentence, but that’s not even the worst of it: she also lost her job and local child protective services have warned her family and threatened to take away her six-year-old son.

Had Vkontakte revised the privacy settings on its “saved” photo albums a year ago, it’s unlikely that police would have ever discovered, let alone prosecuted, individuals like Evgeny Kort and Diana Selvanova.

by Kevin Rothrock at January 26, 2017 03:16 PM

Development Seed
SatSummit: Solving Global Issues Through Data

Next week, Development Seed and Mapbox will host SatSummit in Washington, D.C. Satellite industry and global development experts from around the globe will come nerd-out on solving social and environmental challenges through practical applications of satellite data. The big focus this year is turning data into action, with deep dives into machine learning, maintaining climate data streams, famine and malaria mapping, and imagery for humanitarian response.

Look for us throughout the day:

  • Ian will moderate a discussion with “The Geographers” from The World Bank and USAID. They’ll tackle tough questions relating to how organizations incorporate remote sesning data into daily decision-making.

  • Drew will share our progress with developing a suite of machine learning tools built entirely in “open”. He’ll show what Skynet is capable of and our pipeline to use OpenStreetMap as a deep source of training data for deep learning.

  • Behind the camera Dylan will capture big moments, while Anna and Derek live tweet the event sharing key insights that are discussed. Our friendly face at registration Miles will greet people as they arrive, while Olaf and Alireza roam around to chat up new and old friends.

  • I’ll be there as well making sure things run smoothly.

Our good friends will be there from groups like DigitalGlobe, The World Bank, AWS, Planet, and USAID Global Development Lab. We are also excited to meet new folks and hear new approaches to tackling hard problems. SatSummit is a real opportunity to form unexpected partnerships and think outside the box, and we’re looking forward to what comes out of it.

The event is unfortunately booked up. If you haven’t signed up and want to attend, add your name to the waitling list here. We’re in the process of confirming attendees, and tickets may become available. For those unable to join in person, follow along @sat_summit on Twitter.

by Development Seed at January 26, 2017 12:00 AM

January 25, 2017

Links for 2017-01-24 []

January 25, 2017 08:00 AM

January 23, 2017

Joi Ito
Conversation with Choreographer Karole Armitage

I first met Karole Armitage at a dinner Tod Machover's home. (Tod is a faculty member at the Media Lab.) Karole was a perfect candidate for the Director's Fellows program and she agreed to join us.

Karole describes herself as a former "punk ballerina" and through dance and movement is able to connect so many interesting ideas and worlds. She's already started to actively collaborate with a number of people at the Lab. In this conversation we discuss some of those collaborations as well as some new ideas.

Audio is available on SoundCloud and iTunes.

by Joi at January 23, 2017 11:39 AM

Edge Question 2017 : What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely know? A: Neurodiversity

John Brockman's EDGE asks a tough question every year. For 2017 the question was "What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely know?" My answer was:


Humans have diversity in neurological conditions. While some, such as autism are considered disabilities, many argue that they are the result of normal variations in the human genome. The neurodiversity movement is an international civil rights movement that argues that autism shouldn't be "cured" and that it is an authentic form of human diversity that should be protected.

In the early 1900s eugenics and the sterilization of people considered genetically inferior were scientifically sanctioned ideas, with outspoken advocates like Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, Winston Churchill and US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. The horror of the Holocaust, inspired by the eugenics movement, demonstrated the danger and devastation these programs can exact when put into practice.

Temple Grandin, an outspoken spokesperson for autism and neurodiversity argues that Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Mozart and Nikola Tesla would have been diagnosed on the "autistic spectrum" if they had been alive today. She also believes that autism has long contributed to human development and that "without autism traits we might still be living in caves." Today, non-neurotypical children often suffer through a remedial programs in the traditional educational system only to be discovered to be geniuses later. Many of these kids end up at MIT and other research institutes.

With the discovery of CRISPR the possibility of editing the human genome at scale has suddenly become feasible. The initial applications that are being developed involve the "fixing" of genetic mutations that cause debilitating diseases, but they are also taking us down a path with the potential to eliminate not only autism but much of the diversity that makes human society flourish. Our understanding of the human genome is rudimentary enough that it will be some time before we are able to enact complex changes that involve things like intelligence or personality, but it's a slippery slope. I saw a business plan a few years ago that argued that autism was just "errors" in the genome that could be identified and "corrected" in the manner of "de-noising" a grainy photograph or audio recording.

Clearly some children born with autism are in states that require intervention and have debilitating issues. However, our attempts to "cure" autism, either through remediation or eventually through genetic engineering, could result in the eradication of a neurological diversity that drives scholarship, innovation, arts and many of the essential elements of a healthy society.

We know that diversity is essential for healthy ecosystems. We see how agricultural monocultures have created fragile and unsustainable systems.

My concern is that even if we figure out and understand that neurological diversity is essential for our society, I worry that we will develop the tools for designing away any risky traits that deviate from the norm, and that given a choice, people will tend to opt for a neuro-typical child.

As we march down the path of genetic engineering to eliminate disabilities and disease, it's important to be aware that this path, while more scientifically sophisticated, has been followed before with unintended and possibly irreversible consequences and side-effects.

See the answers from everyone else on Edge.

by Joi at January 23, 2017 11:28 AM

January 18, 2017

Ethan Zuckerman
It’s Journalism’s Job to Save Civics

In early December, I spoke at the inaugural conference on Constructive Journalism hosted at Windesheim University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. The conference is the brainchild of my friend Cathrine Gyldensted, who has been developing the powerful idea that journalism can’t just inform us about the problems of the world, but must help us take action and transform the world for the better. The venerable Christian Science Monitor is refocusing its work around constructive journalism, and ideas like solutions journalism, put forward by David Bornstein at the New York Times are gaining recognition and traction.

My speech followed one by Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian, who talked about his decision to engage his newspaper in the “Keep It In the Ground” campaign, partnering with to advocate divestment from fossil fuel companies. My talk intersected inasmuch as I’m also deeply interested in how different organizations can make social change, and what news organization might choose to do at this surprising and scary moment in time.

Keynote EthanZuckerman, #CJC16, December 2nd 2016 from Constructieve Journalistiek on Vimeo.

This is a near-verbatim transcript of my talk, made using (which I highly recommend.) I’ve touched it up a bit so I sound slightly less stupid. If you want to see me give the talk, or ogle my exciting slides, the video of the talk is available here. (This was fascinating to edit, by the way. I like to think that I write the way I talk – I don’t. I suspect very few of us do…)

Even before I got here and discovered that the theme for this conference is “What nu?” I had titled my talk “What Now?” It’s a sincere question – I really don’t know what we do now. This is a very strange moment in time. Many people have been surprised by what’s happened in 2016, starting with Brexit, but unfolding outside the Anglophone world as well.

I’ve been spending a lot of time these days in Colombia. We just watched a country have a referendum on whether to end a 52-year civil war that completely transformed and destroyed a beautiful nation. People voted “no”, which doesn’t make much sense on its surface until you realize that my country just elected as president a man who has absolutely no interest in governing, no interest in politics, no interest in really anything other than ego and his own power.

What I want to suggest is that this is a moment that is shocking, but it’s not actually surprising for anyone who’s been paying attention. What’s actually going on is the continuation of a number of trends that have been happening for at least a decade now or perhaps significantly longer. The person that I found most useful in trying to navigate this moment in time is, weirdly enough, a television commentator. His name is Chris Hayes, who is on MSNBC in the U.S. He wrote a very good book a couple of years ago called “Twilight of the Elites”.

In the first chapter of this book, he says, “Look, let’s forget about this whole notion of left and right. It’s not actually very helpful at this moment in understanding the world. What’s much more helpful is thinking about institutionalists and insurrectionists.” Institutionalists are people who say, “Look, these big structures of society that we’ve built, whether they’re governments, corporations, or universities, they mostly work. They mostly get the job done. We need new, smart people involved with them. We need to make them stronger. We need to make them more modern, but the basic structures work.”

I would say the institutionalists have been winning for a very long time. Perhaps since World War II, the institutionalists have been firmly in control. Now there’s a new camp of people who are insurrectionists. The insurrectionists basically say, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Have you looked around lately? Do you really think these structures are working? Do you really think government is doing what we want it to do as people? Do you really think unfettered capitalism the way that we have it in the world right now is working especially well? You must be nuts. It is time to knock these things down.”

That’s the tension. More than the tension between left and right is the tension between people who want to make improvements and tweaks to existing systems, and people who largely believe it’s time to pull those systems down, and try something else. I want to make the argument that over the last couple of decades, the institutionalists have gotten quite weak, and the insurrectionists have gotten quite strong.

This is a graph of responses to a question that the Gallup Polling Organization asks American roughly every six months. The question is very simple: “Do you trust the government in Washington to do the right thing all or most of the time?” This graph peaks in 1964 at 77%. If we go back to ’64, the enormous majority of Americans felt like the government is doing the right thing all or most of the time. The most recent version of this poll was at 19%. Now, I would point out that’s a moment of very high popularity in the Obama presidency. It’s actually been down to 9% or 10% over the course of his time in office.

I was born in 1973, and the only time that the majority of Americans have said that they had great confidence in the government in Washington during my entire 43-year lifetime was shortly before we invaded Iraq… which just shows what the American people know. The point is we have had massive decay in confidence in our government. We’ve also had massive decay in confidence in all sorts of other institutions. Asking similar questions about the police, organized religion, the medical systems, public schools, banks, organized labor, and of course newspapers and television news, we’ve seen collapses in confidence, particularly over the last 20 years.

This is not just not happening in the United States. The Netherlands, as it turns out, shows up as a fairly trusting country in Edelman’s Eurobarometer Trust Index. They’ve gone out and asked very similar questions about confidence in government, in NGOs, and all sorts of different sectors. The Netherlands is at the very high end of trusting countries. Trust seems to be increasing in the Netherlands, but it’s worth noting that the Netherlands and Scandinavia are quite rare within democracies. Within most mature democracies, trust is low and it’s going down.

Oddly enough, Northern Europe is in the same bin as autocracies. China, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, those for the most part are the only countries that seem to have very high trust in government. But even in the Netherlands, faith in democracy seems to be waning. Here’s a set of graphs from a forthcoming paper by Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa. This graph shows people’s answers to the question, “Is it essential to live in a democracy?”

These graphs are pulled apart by birth decade. Of people in the Netherlands born in the 1930’s, more than 50% said it was utterly essential to live in a democracy. You get down to people born in the 1980’s, it’s much closer to about 35%. You haven’t had the staggering fall that we’ve had in the United States, where we’ve gone from 75% down to the students that I teach, where fewer than 25% tell you that it is essential to live in a democracy.

Something has happened. Our confidence in these institutions has been badly shaken. You could make the argument that it’s been badly shaken, because frankly, these institutions are not doing a very good job right now. In my country at least, our democracy is highly dysfunctional. For the most part, we are not managing to come together and compromise. For the most part, we have oppositions between two parties who will absolutely not see eye to eye, and they end up spending an enormous amount of time and energy blocking each other and not getting very much done.

If you’ve been watching this for the last 20 or 25 years, it’s very easy to understand why people would become frustrated and alienated with this situation. If that’s bad news, I have worse news for us, because we are in the media field and people really don’t like us.

This actually became a common thing at Trump rallies. I’d like to remind you one more time: the person who we somehow have elected as the president of the United States, a common feature of his public appearances are his supporters standing up and chanting specifically about a fairly neutral to conservative media network, and their utter distaste for it. There is incredibly low confidence in our institution, that institution of journalism, very low confidence that we are doing our jobs without fear or favor, without agenda, that somehow what we are saying can be trusted. Instead what ends up happening is in an environment where it’s very, very easy for people to publish almost anything, we start seeing news that looks like this:

I wouldn’t expect you to be following the intricacies of U.S. politics, but about five days before the presidential election, the well known and highly celebrated Denver Guardian published the story stating that an FBI agent who had been investigating Hillary Clinton had committed suicide and burned his house under the incredible pressure that he had come under from Hillary’s sinister forces. This turned into people putting forward memes about Hillary Clinton being responsible for the deaths of dozens of people in her long and sordid career.

As it turns out, this story is entirely fake. There is no Denver Guardian. There has never been a Denver Guardian. The Denver Guardian is a website that someone put up because this was a way to get attention, and frankly a way to make money. Many of the most popular websites in the United States leading up to the election are run out of Macedonia. They are not run out of Macedonia as a giant Macedonian conspiracy to take over the U.S. government. They’re run out of Macedonia because it is a great way to make money.

It turns out that one of the best ways to make money as a Macedonian teenager right now is to aggregate links to pro-Trump, anti-Clinton content. It doesn’t matter whether they are true or false, so long as you put them together in a believable form. Run some Facebook ads on them and watch the money roll in. There are more than a hundred of these websites that are turning out to be a very robust media environment that people are paying an enormous amount of attention to.

My colleague Yochai Benkler over at Harvard is going to release some research in the next couple of weeks. He graphed links within the media environment in the United States leading up to the 2016 election. There are two major clusters to his map. We’re used to thinking of there being a left-wing cluster and a right-wing cluster. In one of these clusters in 2016, there are those noted left-wing sources like the Nation, the Guardian, The New York Times, also those noted left-wing sources like the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, the Independent. Actually, all mainstream media ends up in one cluster.

In the other cluster is Breitbart and all of this stuff being run out of Macedonia, all this stuff that’s basically been made up for internet consumption. We’ve ended up in a moment where there’s very low trust in media, and frankly, there’s a lot of media that we would need to be very worried about trusting. Now, if you feel like this young woman here feels, you’re probably not alone. This is what happens with mistrust. Mistrust is designed to breed helplessness.

If you’re looking for some of the political systems that have tried the hardest to create mistrust, you can look to the media environment in Russia, which is trying very hard to build up a culture of conspiracy theory which makes it very difficult to figure out how to organize and mobilize. In the wake of high mistrust, the natural instinct is to look towards charismatic individuals, anyone who can stand up and say, “I will find you a way through this,” because when you have very low trust in institutions, it’s very hard to mobilize people to participate within those institutions.

If, as in my country, you have a 9% approval rating for Congress, trying to get excited about electing new Congresspeople is not a very easy thing to do. Those Congresspeople will tell you that if they get elected, there’s almost nothing they’re going to be able to do since so little legislation gets passed. In high mistrust societies, you see falling participation rates. You see falling voting rates. You see falling number of people running for political office, because they don’t feel like they can make change that way.

Weirdly enough, you may also lose the ability for protest to have change, because when you protest, you are almost always trying to influence someone who is in power. When you go on a march, when you go to the Capitol, you are marching in the hopes that your leaders will listen to your demands, will listen to your concerns, will take you seriously. Once you lose trust in those institutions, you may even lose some of the most popular avenues for dissent.

I want to suggest that we can understand these strange moments: this decision of our friends in the UK that the EU is not something they were particularly excited about anymore, the decision of my fellow citizens that we wanted a radical change in who is leading our country. You can understand this in terms of efficacy. If people don’t feel like they can be effective, if they don’t feel like they can make change through existing institutions, they will look for ways that they feel like their actions matter. If you look at Brexit, people who were very angry, very frustrated and concerned about directions in which their country was going managed to have an effect.

Will it be the effect that they were looking for? Probably not. It’s probably not going to magically save the UK healthcare system. It’s probably not going to change some of the demographic transformations that the UK is going through. Is the US magically going to become great again because we elected Trump? Almost certainly not. It’s almost certainly going to become more racist. It’s almost certainly going to become very difficult to compete in the global economy, but people felt so alienated, so pissed off at these institutions that being able to make this change felt powerful.

This idea of helping people feel power, helping people feel that they can make an effect on the world, this is the essence of what we try to talk about when we talk about this field of Constructive Journalism.

I’ve been showing this slide for almost 10 years now, before Cathrine was even really building up this idea of Constructive Journalism, but this has been my fear about how media works most of the time. We are very good at documenting things that people should care about. We get them riled up. We get them informed. We get them interested. We get them invested, and then we don’t tell them what to do, because frankly, most people are not as brave as Alan Rusbridger is. Most people are not willing to say, “We’re going to go a step further, and not just tell you what’s going on in the world, but we’re going to tell you ways that you could be effective as a citizen in doing something about it.” The best journalism thinkers out there have been urging us to do this for a while.

If you read one essay coming out of this conference, let me urge you to read this wonderful essay by Michael Schudson, “Six or Seven Things the News can Do for Democracy”. Schudsonbasically says, “Look, some of these are very familiar to us. We know we’re supposed to inform each other. We know we have to do these deep investigations and analysis. We know deep in our hearts, we forget it every time we look at a comment thread, but we know deep in our hearts that we have to provide public fora for people to discuss difficult issues.”

Many of us know that media at its best is about social empathy. It’s about helping us understand what people are thinking and feeling, but these last two get really radical. Most of us are not used to thinking of journalism as a tool for mobilization, but sometimes when an issue is as big as climate change, then we actually have to step up and say, “You know, there isn’t a meaningful debate about this. What there is is a failure of efficacy, and we have to help people figure out how to be effective in the action that they’re taking.” We have to help readers figure out how they would divest, how they would avoid these companies that stand to profit on an unsustainable way of moving into the future.

Then perhaps the most radical thing that Michael says is that we have to help people understand the value of participatory democracy. This is the place where I want to suggest that Michael doesn’t have it entirely right. That’s because I think we no longer know what we’re talking about when we talk about civics.

When we talk about public participation, we encourage people to participate in the ways we know are “right”. We urge people to inform themselves on issues. We urge people to go out and vote. Sometimes, we urge people to think about issues and potentially go out and protest. Remember, I’m making the argument that at a moment of very low trust in institutions, these things may be valid things to say to the institutionalists, but they do not help you with the insurrectionists.

As for the people who have already concluded these structures just don’t work, when you urge them to participate this way, they lose what little faith they had in you. They end up saying, “You’re part of the system that clearly isn’t helping and clearly isn’t going anywhere. You’re urging us to waste our time, waste our energy on these efforts that we know aren’t going to do anything.”

Here is how I want to suggest the world works these days. This guy is Larry Lessig. When he is not running for the U.S. presidency, he is a pretty good legal scholar. He wrote a book in 2000 called “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace”. For people like me who study online media, this became something of an almost prophetic text for us. A lot of us read this and said, “Finally, someone actually understands that technology can control our behavior as much as laws do.”

Larry made this case that while we’re used to thinking about passing laws that determine what we can and can’t do, any number of technologies – which he refers to as “code”- can constrain us or enable us to do certain things.

You have all sorts of codes in the Netherlands that enable certain behaviors. You seem to have a fetish for bicycles. They’re rather well supported in your infrastructure. You have lanes for them all over the place. You have parking lots for them all at the train stations. You have a set of social norms that seem to prevent people from stealing them, but it’s a combination of norms and code that make these behaviors possible. Laws help create this environment, but a lot of Holland’s bike-friendliness has to do with the actual technical architectures.

Lessig makes this case that we actually use four different levers to make behaviors happen. We pass laws to make certain things legal and illegal. We use markets to make things expensive or cheap. In my country, gasoline is a whole lot cheaper than it is over here, which is probably why you guys end up riding bicycles.

We have social norms, where in the U.S., we get pissed off with people in bicycles because they’re taking my damn lane, and we take a swipe at them and so on and so forth. That’s not a particularly good thing if you’re a bicyclist. Social norms have a lot to do with how we govern behavior. Then we havetechnological architectures, codes that enable certain behaviors.

Here’s something I call “the inverted Lessig”. All of these ways that we control society turn out to be paths to social change. If we want to make the world a different place, we can pass laws, yes, but that’s really hard these days. At least in the U.S., trying to make change through laws has become highly professionalized and it’s become incredibly difficult. For many people, their chance to be effective, their chance to make social change happens through these three other levers.

Here is what it looks like: Most people note that the people in the US are not actually interested in the rest of world. We are in fact deeply interested in the rest of the world. We’re just interested in the secrets that you’re sending to one another, and because of our deep interest, we’ve been reading your mail, listening to your phone calls, and generally paying quite a bit of attention to the rest of the world, because it’s possible that you’re all terrorists. You may not even know it.

Our National Security Agency provides the helpful service of reading an enormous number of your communications to keep you safe. I as an American are not particularly thrilled about this. I’m rather deeply embarrassed by it. I’m pretty unthrilled that my allegedly progressive president Barack Obama has done very little to change this situation, and there’s not a lot that I’m going to be able to do in a Trump administration to try to provide privacy to all the digital communications that flow through the United States.

However, there are some awfully good hackers out there who are building things like Tor. They’re building things like Signal, which I use every day, a very good encrypted voice and SMS platform. There’s lots of people looking at technological structures that may be able to protect privacy even if we can’t make those protections through law. This is a way to try to make change when you can’t make it in one fashion. If you can’t somehow put surveillance back in the box under U.S. law, is there a way that hackers and coders can come out and make change through other different means?

It turns out there absolutely is. Then the question becomes, “How did people adopt it? How did people pick it up?” Allen [Rusbridger, of the Guardian] has been looking for change through markets. How do we get a group like Gates, like the Wellcome Trust to essentially say, “These large companies cannot to burn the fossil fuels that they’re pulling out of the ground?” There’s other ways to make massive change through markets. Consider a company like Tesla, which is trying to make electric vehicles, not only practical but dead sexy, and trying to figure out how to make solar power, something that everyone is using with power walls in their houses.

This is a way to make change even if governments aren’t willing at this point to pass laws, aren’t willing to sign on to international treaties, aren’t willing to set carbon goals that would help keep us at two centigrade degrees of global warming. A lot of my work centers on this idea that some of the most powerful change that we make is through social norms.

One of the things that’s happening in the United States is that unfortunately, our police shoot a lot of people. In particular, they shoot a disproportionate number of Black people. This is not a matter of law. It has been illegal to shoot people for a whole long time in the United States. It’s been illegal to shoot Black people for at least 100 years or so. We don’t need particularly new laws around this. What we do need is a set of social norms. What ends up happening is that people in the United States have a strong tendency to see people of color, particularly young men, as a threat, and this gets reinforced by the media.

When Michael Brown – a young man in Ferguson, Missouri – got killed by police, the media ended up using a particular mug shot for him. They took this image over to your left off of his Facebook page. Now, what does Mike Brown look like in this image? Just shout something out. What do you see about Mike Brown? How does he look?

Audience member: “A thug.”

Yes, he looks like a thug. He looks tough. Why does he look like a thug? What in that photo is making him look so tough? He shot from below, which makes him look taller. It makes him look bigger. This is a Facebook photo. This is an 18-year-old kid. Of course, he wants to look tough. I want to look tough. He’s put this photo up there to make himself look as badass as possible, and this is the photo the media has grabbed to discuss Michael Brown.

This is another picture of Michael Brown taken around the same time. What does Michael Brown look like in this photo? He’s sweet. He’s a baby. He’s got these baby cheeks. He’s a cute kid. He’s a nice kid. That’s a very different image of who this young man is. Activists looked at this disparity and said, “Let’s go into our Facebook feeds. Let’s find the photo that makes us look at our worst, and the photo that makes us look at our best.”

You look at this young man here, and in one of those photos, he looks like a guy you don’t want to mess with. In the other photo, this looks like a man who you very much want to celebrate about what’s best about America. Over the course of three days, this turned into a national campaign of people taking this on, writing essays about it, writing about why they want to participate in it. Within three days, this was on the front page of the New York Times, and more importantly, it’s very hard to find that first photo of Mike Brown anymore. You simply don’t see it.

Media got the point. They got the point that the way that we portray these victims of police violence has a lot to do with our norms about whether we see Black men and boys as dangerous or not. What’s our role in all of this? As practicing journalists, what should we be doing about this? The first thing I want to say is that if you buy my theory that these are the ways that we make change now, very different people have power than we’re used to thinking about.

Yes, politicians are powerful. They’re really important as far as making change through law, and they have a lot of power in terms of force of norms, but they’re probably not the most powerful actors in terms of norms. Celebrities are much more powerful, but not necessarily just the Angelina Jolie-type celebrities. Celebrities in terms of people who have lots of followers, whether it’s on YouTube or whether it’s on Facebook, people who are able to mobilize large networks of people to work together on an issue or to help people change their thinking have great sway over norms.

Who’s powerful in markets? People who already have money. It’s easier to be Elon Musk when you have millions of dollar to go and start a company. But also powerful are people who are able to raise money through different means, people through crowdfunding, people who are able to get different amounts of money together.

It’s possible to make a great deal of change through code. Platforms like Facebook end up being very powerful at this moment in time, but code is wonderfully asymmetrical, and you have individual hackers who have found ways to put strong encryption into software, proof an individual can make change.

We as journalists need to understand how power is working, who is powerful, and try to figure out how we tell and celebrate those stories. We also need to try to figure out how we get critical and careful about how power works in this news space. The project I’ve been working on for the last decade or so tries to figure out this question of how much influence media really has.

Alan [Rusbridger] told a brilliant story that involves running a campaign, getting it seen by millions of people, and at the end of it, the guy that he was targeting did the thing that he wanted him to do. That’s the best type of story that we can tell about the impact of media, but most stories aren’t that simple. Most stories don’t go from, “I wanted A, I ran a campaign, and I accomplished A.” Most are much more complicated.

Here is one of those complicated stories, and I’ve been trying to figure them out with a tool that we build in my lab called Media Cloud. Media Cloud looks at about half a million media sources, grabs every story that comes out of them, and then allows us to search them and analyze them.

What we wanted to search and analyze is how does English language media talk about people of color in the United States who were unarmed and killed by police. Like I said, there’s a lot of these people. We ended up looking at everyone from 2013 to 2016 to figure out what sort of media coverage they got after they were killed by police. We put a marker in this graph of Mike Brown’s death, because shortly after Mike Brown’s death, we’ve seen the emergence of the social movement called Black Lives Matter.

One of the big foci of Black Lives Matter has been paying attention to police violence against people of color. Before Black Lives Matter, if you are an unarmed person of color shot by the police, the most likely thing that happens is nothing. No one reports it. There are zero media stories. That’s that thick bit at the bottom of the curve. There is a small number of people who get a small number of stories. They basically get a small amount of regional coverage. There’s almost no one who makes it up to the top and becomes the object of national debate.

After Mike Brown, that curve’s very different. There are a lot fewer people who are invisible. Basically, if you get shot by the police as an unarmed person of color, there is going to be a story about it, whether or not it makes it up to the national level, that invisibility starts going away. In fact, that invisibility goes away in such a big way, or to quote my new political leader, “So bigly, so hugely,” that you have 10 times as much coverage shortly after Mike Brown’s death for the average person of color killed by police than you did before.

We see an even bigger effect on Facebook, when we looked at how these stories got shared on Facebook. These stories get shared. They get propagated. They get talked about. Unlike with the media, where frankly we’ve gone back down to ignoring unarmed people of color, on Facebook, we’re still at about four times as much attention as we were before Mike Brown. Audiences are telling journalists, “We still want to see these stories. We still care about this.”

What’s come out of it? Well, we’ve actually seen in most police departments in the United States a willingness to adopt body cameras. We’re up to the point where 95% of police departments are actively working on a program to put body cameras on all of their police. Now, is this as easy saying we had a movement around Mike Brown’s death, and then we paid attention, and then journalism changed, and we got body cameras? No. It’s really complicated. It’s really messy, but if you are working on a movement like Black Lives Matter, and your goal is to change the social norm, this is some pretty good evidence that those sorts of campaigns can work, and that they can work by modifying media and changing what we pay attention to.

I want to ask us to think about these things. Think about can we communicate how power works now, not just in terms of politics and law, but in terms of markets, in terms of technologies, in terms of social norms? Celebrate the successes of people who are doing this work well. Then finally, as Alan made the case, figure out how we link these stories to meaningful action.

So many of us have written stories where we’ve ended up saying, “Now that you know about this, please take action. Write to your senator or congressman. Sign this petition.” Stop doing that. For the insurrectionists, that doesn’t work. That’s a signal that you’re not serious.

Think about the other changes people are trying to make. Think about things that people are trying to do in markets with code, with norms. Think about how we link people to those actions as well as to legal actions.

One final thing: we have this tendency in journalism right now to feel very sorry for ourselves. This is a field that we are all enormously proud to be part of. This is a field that is harder and harder to make a living in, and I see more and more news organizations essentially saying, “You’re going to miss us. We’re going away. I just want to warn you.”

I’m not saying this isn’t true. I think this probably is true, but I also think it’s a lousy way to market ourselves. I think it’s happening in part because people are looking at what we’re doing, and saying, “You’re not helping me. If you were helping me, if you were helping me get over that moment of hopelessness, if you were helping me figure out how to be effective and how to make a change, I would find a way to be there for you.” I want to end with this idea. I don’t think it’s the public’s job to save journalism, but I do think it’s journalism’s job to help save civics.

I think we have to figure out how these changes are taking place, and whether we reach out to the institutionalists and say, “It’s time to make those institutions stronger and better than they ever were before,” or whether, and this is what I’m urging you, we reach out to those insurrectionists, and say, “We hear you. We know why you feel powerless. We want to help you become powerful.” If we can figure out how to save civics, how to get more people who are alienated deeply engaged with this, that’s the first step towards saving journalism. If we help the citizens who rely on us become more powerful and more effective, they’re going to step in, and then try to find a way to be there for us. Thank you.

by Ethan at January 18, 2017 11:51 PM

January 17, 2017

Ethan Zuckerman
Protected: Getting beyond “fake news”

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by Ethan at January 17, 2017 10:17 PM

January 10, 2017

danah boyd
Why America is Self-Segregating

The United States has always been a diverse but segregated country. This has shaped American politics profoundly. Yet, throughout history, Americans have had to grapple with divergent views and opinions, political ideologies, and experiences in order to function as a country. Many of the institutions that underpin American democracy force people in the United States to encounter difference. This does not inherently produce tolerance or result in healthy resolution. Hell, the history of the United States is fraught with countless examples of people enslaving and oppressing other people on the basis of difference. This isn’t about our past; this is about our present. And today’s battles over laws and culture are nothing new.

Ironically, in a world in which we have countless tools to connect, we are also watching fragmentation, polarization, and de-diversification happen en masse. The American public is self-segregating, and this is tearing at the social fabric of the country.

Many in the tech world imagined that the Internet would connect people in unprecedented ways, allow for divisions to be bridged and wounds to heal.It was the kumbaya dream. Today, those same dreamers find it quite unsettling to watch as the tools that were designed to bring people together are used by people to magnify divisions and undermine social solidarity. These tools were built in a bubble, and that bubble has burst.

Nowhere is this more acute than with Facebook. Naive as hell, Mark Zuckerberg dreamed he could build the tools that would connect people at unprecedented scale, both domestically and internationally. I actually feel bad for him as he clings to that hope while facing increasing attacks from people around the world about the role that Facebook is playing in magnifying social divisions. Although critics love to paint him as only motivated by money, he genuinely wants to make the world a better place and sees Facebook as a tool to connect people, not empower them to self-segregate.

The problem is not simply the “filter bubble,” Eli Pariser’s notion that personalization-driven algorithmic systems help silo people into segregated content streams. Facebook’s claim that content personalization plays a small role in shaping what people see compared to their own choices is accurate.And they have every right to be annoyed. I couldn’t imagine TimeWarner being blamed for who watches Duck Dynasty vs. Modern Family. And yet, what Facebook does do is mirror and magnify a trend that’s been unfolding in the United States for the last twenty years, a trend of self-segregation that is enabled by technology in all sorts of complicated ways.

The United States can only function as a healthy democracy if we find a healthy way to diversify our social connections, if we find a way to weave together a strong social fabric that bridges ties across difference.

Yet, we are moving in the opposite direction with serious consequences. To understand this, let’s talk about two contemporary trend lines and then think about the implications going forward.

Privatizing the Military

The voluntary US military is, in many ways, a social engineering project. The public understands the military as a service organization, dedicated to protecting the country’s interests. Yet, when recruits sign up, they are promised training and job opportunities. Individual motivations vary tremendously, but many are enticed by the opportunity to travel the world, participate in a cause with a purpose, and get the heck out of dodge. Everyone expects basic training to be physically hard, but few recognize that some of the most grueling aspects of signing up have to do with the diversification project that is central to the formation of the American military.

When a soldier is in combat, she must trust her fellow soldiers with her life. And she must be willing to do what it takes to protect the rest of her unit. In order to make that possible, the military must wage war on prejudice. This is not an easy task. Plenty of generals fought hard to fight racial desegregation and to limit the role of women in combat. Yet, the US military was desegregated in 1948, six years before Brown v. Board forced desegregation of schools. And the Supreme Court ruled that LGB individuals could openly serve in the military before they could legally marry.

CC BY 2.0-licensed photo by The U.S. Army.

Morale is often raised as the main reason that soldiers should not be forced to entrust their lives to people who are different than them. Yet, time and again, this justification collapses under broader interests to grow the military. As a result, commanders are forced to find ways to build up morale across difference, to actively and intentionally seek to break down barriers to teamwork, and to find a way to gel a group of people whose demographics, values, politics, and ideologies are as varied as the country’s.

In the process, they build one of the most crucial social infrastructures of the country. They build the diverse social fabric that underpins democracy.

Tons of money was poured into defense after 9/11, but the number of people serving in the US military today is far lower than it was throughout the 1980s. Why? Starting in the 1990s and accelerating after 9/11, the US privatized huge chunks of the military. This means that private contractors and their employees play critical roles in everything from providing food services to equipment maintenance to military housing. The impact of this on the role of the military in society is significant. For example, this undermine recruits’ ability to get training to develop critical skills that will be essential for them in civilian life. Instead, while serving on active duty, they spend a much higher amount of time on the front lines and in high-risk battle, increasing the likelihood that they will be physically or psychologically harmed. The impact on skills development and job opportunities is tremendous, but so is the impact on the diversification of the social fabric.

Private vendors are not engaged in the same social engineering project as the military and, as a result, tend to hire and fire people based on their ability to work effectively as a team. Like many companies, they have little incentive to invest in helping diverse teams learn to work together as effectively as possible. Building diverse teams — especially ones in which members depend on each other for their survival — is extremely hard, time-consuming, and emotionally exhausting. As a result, private companies focus on “culture fit,” emphasize teams that get along, and look for people who already have the necessary skills, all of which helps reinforce existing segregation patterns.

The end result is that, in the last 20 years, we’ve watched one of our major structures for diversification collapse without anyone taking notice. And because of how it’s happened, it’s also connected to job opportunities and economic opportunity for many working- and middle-class individuals, seeding resentment and hatred.

A Self-Segregated College Life

If you ask a college admissions officer at an elite institution to describe how they build a class of incoming freshman, you will quickly realize that the American college system is a diversification project. Unlike colleges in most parts of the world, the vast majority of freshman at top tier universities in the United States live on campus with roommates who are assigned to them. Colleges approach housing assignments as an opportunity to pair diverse strangers with one another to build social ties. This makes sense given how many friendships emerge out of freshman dorms. By pairing middle class kids with students from wealthier families, elite institutions help diversify the elites of the future.

This diversification project produces a tremendous amount of conflict. Although plenty of people adore their college roommates and relish the opportunity to get to know people from different walks of life as part of their college experience, there is an amazing amount of angst about dorm assignments and the troubles that brew once folks try to live together in close quarters. At many universities, residential life is often in the business of student therapy as students complain about their roommates and dormmates. Yet, just like in the military, learning how to negotiate conflict and diversity in close quarters can be tremendously effective in sewing the social fabric.

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0-licensed photo by Ilya Khurosvili.

In the springs of 2006, I was doing fieldwork with teenagers at a time when they had just received acceptances to college. I giggled at how many of them immediately wrote to the college in which they intended to enroll, begging for a campus email address so that they could join that school’s Facebook (before Facebook was broadly available). In the previous year, I had watched the previous class look up roommate assignments on MySpace so I was prepared for the fact that they’d use Facebook to do the same. What I wasn’t prepared for was how quickly they would all get on Facebook, map the incoming freshman class, and use this information to ask for a roommate switch. Before they even arrived on campus in August/September of 2006, they had self-segregated as much as possible.

A few years later, I watched another trend hit: cell phones. While these were touted as tools that allowed students to stay connected to parents (which prompted many faculty to complain about “helicopter parents” arriving on campus), they really ended up serving as a crutch to address homesickness, as incoming students focused on maintaining ties to high school friends rather than building new relationships.

Students go to elite universities to “get an education.” Few realize that the true quality product that elite colleges in the US have historically offered is social network diversification. Even when it comes to job acquisition, sociologists have long known that diverse social networks (“weak ties”) are what increase job prospects. By self-segregating on campus, students undermine their own potential while also helping fragment the diversity of the broader social fabric.

Diversity is Hard

Diversity is often touted as highly desirable. Indeed, in professional contexts, we know that more diverse teams often outperform homogeneous teams. Diversity also increases cognitive development, both intellectually and socially. And yet, actually encountering and working through diverse viewpoints, experiences, and perspectives is hard work. It’s uncomfortable. It’s emotionally exhausting. It can be downright frustrating.

Thus, given the opportunity, people typically revert to situations where they can be in homogeneous environments. They look for “safe spaces” and “culture fit.” And systems that are “personalized” are highly desirable. Most people aren’t looking to self-segregate, but they do it anyway. And, increasingly, the technologies and tools around us allow us to self-segregate with ease. Is your uncle annoying you with his political rants? Mute him. Tired of getting ads for irrelevant products? Reveal your preferences. Want your search engine to remember the things that matter to you? Let it capture data. Want to watch a TV show that appeals to your senses? Here are some recommendations.

Any company whose business model is based on advertising revenue and attention is incentivized to engage you by giving you what you want. And what you want in theory is different than what you want in practice.

Consider, for example, what Netflix encountered when it started its streaming offer. Users didn’t watch the movies that they had placed into their queue. Those movies were the movies they thought they wanted, movies that reflected their ideal self — 12 Years a Slave, for example. What they watched when they could stream whatever they were in the mood for at that moment was the equivalent of junk food — reruns of Friends, for example. (This completely undid Netflix’s recommendation infrastructure, which had been trained on people’s idealistic self-images.)

The divisions are not just happening through commercialism though. School choice has led people to self-segregate from childhood on up. The structures of American work life mean that fewer people work alongside others from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Our contemporary culture of retail and service labor means that there’s a huge cultural gap between workers and customers with little opportunity to truly get to know one another. Even many religious institutions are increasingly fragmented such that people have fewer interactions across diverse lines. (Just think about how there are now “family services” and “traditional services” which age-segregate.) In so many parts of public, civic, and professional life, we are self-segregating and the opportunities for doing so are increasing every day.

By and large, the American public wants to have strong connections across divisions. They see the value politically and socially. But they’re not going to work for it. And given the option, they’re going to renew their license remotely, try to get out of jury duty, and use available data to seek out housing and schools that are filled with people like them. This is the conundrum we now face.

Many pundits remarked that, during the 2016 election season, very few Americans were regularly exposed to people whose political ideology conflicted with their own. This is true. But it cannot be fixed by Facebook or news media. Exposing people to content that challenges their perspective doesn’t actually make them more empathetic to those values and perspectives. To the contrary, it polarizes them. What makes people willing to hear difference is knowing and trusting people whose worldview differs from their own. Exposure to content cannot make up for self-segregation.

If we want to develop a healthy democracy, we need a diverse and highly connected social fabric. This requires creating contexts in which the American public voluntarily struggles with the challenges of diversity to build bonds that will last a lifetime. We have been systematically undoing this, and the public has used new technological advances to make their lives easier by self-segregating. This has increased polarization, and we’re going to pay a heavy price for this going forward. Rather than focusing on what media enterprises can and should do, we need to focus instead on building new infrastructures for connection where people have a purpose for coming together across divisions. We need that social infrastructure just as much as we need bridges and roads.

This piece was originally published as part of a series on media, accountability, and the public sphere. See also:

by zephoria at January 10, 2017 01:15 PM

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    2016 killed the notion of technology being an intrinsically positive force for good. Now it’s up to us to keep the industry in check.

January 10, 2017 08:00 AM

January 09, 2017

danah boyd
Did Media Literacy Backfire?

Anxious about the widespread consumption and spread of propaganda and fake news during this year’s election cycle, many progressives are calling for an increased commitment to media literacy programs. Others are clamoring for solutions that focus on expert fact-checking and labeling. Both of these approaches are likely to fail — not because they are bad ideas, but because they fail to take into consideration the cultural context of information consumption that we’ve created over the last thirty years. The problem on our hands is a lot bigger than most folks appreciate.

CC BY 2.0-licensed photo by CEA+ | Artist: Nam June Paik, “Electronic Superhighway. Continental US, Alaska & Hawaii” (1995).

What Are Your Sources?

I remember a casual conversation that I had with a teen girl in the midwest while I was doing research. I knew her school approached sex ed through an abstinence-only education approach, but I don’t remember how the topic of pregnancy came up. What I do remember is her telling me that she and her friends talked a lot about pregnancy and “diseases” she could get through sex. As I probed further, she matter-of-factly explained a variety of “facts” she had heard that were completely inaccurate. You couldn’t get pregnant until you were 16. AIDS spreads through kissing. Etc. I asked her if she’d talked to her doctor about any of this, and she looked me as though I had horns. She explained that she and her friends had done the research themselves, by which she meant that they’d identified websites online that “proved” their beliefs.

For years, that casual conversation has stuck with me as one of the reasons that we needed better Internet-based media literacy. As I detailed in my book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, too many students I met were being told that Wikipedia was untrustworthy and were, instead, being encouraged to do research. As a result, the message that many had taken home was to turn to Google and use whatever came up first. They heard that Google was trustworthy and Wikipedia was not.

Understanding what sources to trust is a basic tenet of media literacy education. When educators encourage students to focus on sourcing quality information, they encourage them to critically ask who is publishing the content. Is the venue a respected outlet? What biases might the author have? The underlying assumption in all of this is that there’s universal agreement that major news outlets like the New York Times, scientific journal publications, and experts with advanced degrees are all highly trustworthy.

Think about how this might play out in communities where the “liberal media” is viewed with disdain as an untrustworthy source of information…or in those where science is seen as contradicting the knowledge of religious people…or where degrees are viewed as a weapon of the elite to justify oppression of working people. Needless to say, not everyone agrees on what makes a trusted source.

Students are also encouraged to reflect on economic and political incentives that might bias reporting. Follow the money, they are told. Now watch what happens when they are given a list of names of major power players in the East Coast news media whose names are all clearly Jewish. Welcome to an opening for anti-Semitic ideology.

Empowered Individuals…with Guns

We’ve been telling young people that they are the smartest snowflakes in the world. From the self-esteem movement in the 1980s to the normative logic of contemporary parenting, young people are told that they are lovable and capable and that they should trust their gut to make wise decisions. This sets them up for another great American ideal: personal responsibility.

In the United States, we believe that worthy people lift themselves up by their bootstraps. This is our idea of freedom. What it means in practice is that every individual is supposed to understand finance so well that they can effectively manage their own retirement funds. And every individual is expected to understand their health risks well enough to make their own decisions about insurance. To take away the power of individuals to control their own destiny is viewed as anti-American by so much of this country. You are your own master.

Children are indoctrinated into this cultural logic early, even as their parents restrict their mobility and limit their access to social situations. But when it comes to information, they are taught that they are the sole proprietors of knowledge. All they have to do is “do the research” for themselves and they will know better than anyone what is real.

Combine this with a deep distrust of media sources. If the media is reporting on something, and you don’t trust the media, then it is your responsibility to question their authority, to doubt the information you are being given. If they expend tremendous effort bringing on “experts” to argue that something is false, there must be something there to investigate.

Now think about what this means for #Pizzagate. Across this country, major news outlets went to great effort to challenge conspiracy reports that linked John Podesta and Hillary Clinton to a child trafficking ring supposedly run out of a pizza shop in Washington, DC. Most people never heard the conspiracy stories, but their ears perked up when the mainstream press went nuts trying to debunk these stories. For many people who distrust “liberal” media and were already primed not to trust Clinton, the abundant reporting suggested that there was something to investigate.

Most people who showed up to the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria to see for their own eyes went undetected. But then a guy with a gun decided he “wanted to do some good” and “rescue the children.” He was the first to admit that “the intel wasn’t 100%,” but what he was doing was something that we’ve taught people to do — question the information they’re receiving and find out the truth for themselves.

Experience Over Expertise

Many marginalized groups are justifiably angry about the ways in which their stories have been dismissed by mainstream media for decades. This is most acutely felt in communities of color. And this isn’t just about the past. It took five days for major news outlets to cover Ferguson. It took months and a lot of celebrities for journalists to start discussing the Dakota Pipeline. But feeling marginalized from news media isn’t just about people of color. For many Americans who have watched their local newspaper disappear, major urban news reporting appears disconnected from reality. The issues and topics that they feel affect their lives are often ignored.

For decades, civil rights leaders have been arguing for the importance of respecting experience over expertise, highlighting the need to hear the voices of people of color who are so often ignored by experts. This message has taken hold more broadly, particularly among lower and middle class whites who feel as though they are ignored by the establishment. Whites also want their experiences to be recognized, and they too have been pushing for the need to understand and respect the experiences of “the common man.” They see “liberal” “urban” “coastal” news outlets as antithetical to their interests because they quote from experts, use cleaned-up pundits to debate issues, and turn everyday people (e.g., “red sweater guy”) into spectacles for mass enjoyment.

Consider what’s happening in medicine. Many people used to have a family doctor whom they knew for decades and trusted as individuals even more than as experts. Today, many people see doctors as arrogant and condescending, overly expensive and inattentive to their needs. Doctors lack the time to spend more than a few minutes with patients, and many people doubt that the treatment they’re getting is in their best interest. People feel duped into paying obscene costs for procedures that they don’t understand. Many economists can’t understand why so many people would be against the Affordable Care Act because they don’t recognize that this “socialized” medicine is perceived as experts over experience by people who don’t trust politicians who tell them what’s in their best interest any more than they trust doctors. And public trust in doctors is declining sharply.

Why should we be surprised that most people are getting medical information from their personal social network and the Internet? It’s a lot cheaper than seeing a doctor, and both friends and strangers on the Internet are willing to listen, empathize, and compare notes. Why trust experts when you have at your fingertips a crowd of knowledgeable people who may have had the same experience as you and can help you out?

Consider this dynamic in light of discussions around autism and vaccinations. First, an expert-produced journal article was published linking autism to vaccinations. This resonated with many parents’ experience. Then, other experts debunked the first report, challenged the motivations of the researcher, and engaged in a mainstream media campaign to “prove” that there was no link. What unfolded felt like a war on experience, and a network of parents coordinated to counter this new batch of experts who were widely seen as ignorant, moneyed, and condescending. The more that the media focused on waving away these networks of parents through scientific language, the more the public felt sympathetic to the arguments being made by anti-vaxxers.

Keep in mind that anti-vaxxers aren’t arguing that vaccinations definitively cause autism. They are arguing that we don’t know. They are arguing that experts are forcing children to be vaccinated against their will, which sounds like oppression. What they want is choice — the choice to not vaccinate. And they want information about the risks of vaccination, which they feel are not being given to them. In essence, they are doing what we taught them to do: questioning information sources and raising doubts about the incentives of those who are pushing a single message. Doubt has become tool.

Grappling with “Fake News”

Since the election, everyone has been obsessed with fake news, as experts blame “stupid” people for not understanding what is “real.” The solutionism around this has been condescending at best. More experts are needed to label fake content. More media literacy is needed to teach people how not to be duped. And if we just push Facebook to curb the spread of fake news, all will be solved.

I can’t help but laugh at the irony of folks screaming up and down about fake news and pointing to the story about how the Pope backs Trump. The reason so many progressives know this story is because it was spread wildly among liberal circles who were citing it as appalling and fake. From what I can gather, it seems as though liberals were far more likely to spread this story than conservatives. What more could you want if you ran a fake news site whose goal was to make money by getting people to spread misinformation? Getting doubters to click on clickbait is far more profitable than getting believers because they’re far more likely to spread the content in an effort to dispel the content. Win!

CC BY 2.0-licensed photo by Denis Dervisevic.

People believe in information that confirms their priors. In fact, if you present them with data that contradicts their beliefs, they will double down on their beliefs rather than integrate the new knowledge into their understanding. This is why first impressions matter. It’s also why asking Facebook to show content that contradicts people’s views will not only increase their hatred of Facebook but increase polarization among the network. And it’s precisely why so many liberals spread “fake news” stories in ways that reinforce their belief that Trump supporters are stupid and backwards.

Labeling the Pope story as fake wouldn’t have stopped people from believing that story if they were conditioned to believe it. Let’s not forget that the public may find Facebook valuable, but it doesn’t necessarily trust the company. So their “expertise” doesn’t mean squat to most people. Of course, it would be an interesting experiment to run; I do wonder how many liberals wouldn’t have forwarded it along if it had been clearly identified as fake. Would they have not felt the need to warn everyone in their network that conservatives were insane? Would they have not helped fuel a money-making fake news machine? Maybe.

But I think labeling would reinforce polarization — but it would feel like something was done. Nonbelievers would use the label to reinforce their view that the information is fake (and minimize the spread, which is probably a good thing), while believers would simply ignore the label. But does that really get us to where we want to go?

Addressing so-called fake news is going to require a lot more than labeling.It’s going to require a cultural change about how we make sense of information, whom we trust, and how we understand our own role in grappling with information. Quick and easy solutions may make the controversy go away, but they won’t address the underlying problems.

What Is Truth?

As a huge proponent for media literacy for over a decade, I’m struggling with the ways in which I missed the mark. The reality is that my assumptions and beliefs do not align with most Americans. Because of my privilege as a scholar, I get to see how expert knowledge and information is produced and have a deep respect for the strengths and limitations of scientific inquiry. Surrounded by journalists and people working to distribute information, I get to see how incentives shape information production and dissemination and the fault lines of that process. I believe that information intermediaries are important, that honed expertise matters, and that no one can ever be fully informed. As a result, I have long believed that we have to outsource certain matters and to trust others to do right by us as individuals and society as a whole. This is what it means to live in a democracy, but, more importantly, it’s what it means to live in a society.

In the United States, we’re moving towards tribalism, and we’re undoing the social fabric of our country through polarization, distrust, and self-segregation. And whether we like it or not, our culture of doubt and critique, experience over expertise, and personal responsibility is pushing us further down this path.

Media literacy asks people to raise questions and be wary of information that they’re receiving. People are. Unfortunately, that’s exactly why we’re talking past one another.

The path forward is hazy. We need to enable people to hear different perspectives and make sense of a very complicated — and in many ways, overwhelming — information landscape. We cannot fall back on standard educational approaches because the societal context has shifted. We also cannot simply assume that information intermediaries can fix the problem for us, whether they be traditional news media or social media. We need to get creative and build the social infrastructure necessary for people to meaningfully and substantively engage across existing structural lines. This won’t be easy or quick, but if we want to address issues like propaganda, hate speech, fake news, and biased content, we need to focus on the underlying issues at play. No simple band-aid will work.

Special thanks to Amanda Lenhart, Claire Fontaine, Mary Madden, and Monica Bulger for their feedback!

This post was first published as part of a series on media, accountability, and the public sphere. See also:

by zephoria at January 09, 2017 01:13 PM

January 07, 2017

Ethan Zuckerman
The Four Freedoms, in 2017

I spoke this afternoon at a rally in Pittsfield, Massachusetts my (almost) hometown (I live one town north, in Lanesboro.) The rally honored the four freedoms, articulated in his 1941 state of the union address by FDR: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Along with a range of Massachusetts politicians – Senator Ed Market, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer – I was part of a group of community leaders invited to reflect on the four freedoms and our particular moment in time.

James Roosevelt, grandson of FDR, speaking at Four Freedoms rally in Pittsfield, MA, January 7, 2017

We had a remarkable turnout for the event. The Reverend who hosted us told me the church held 1400, and it was filled to capacity, with people sitting in the aisles, and 300 in an overflow seating room. The population of Berkshire county is only 129,000, so the folks who came out to march and listen to speeches total more than 1% of our total citizenry.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt invoked the four freedoms in his 1941 state of the union address, the world was at war, and the president wanted Americans to support the government in spreading these freedoms around the world. We’re in a very different world now, where decades of international cooperation and unification are giving way to isolationism, nationalism and the demonizing of migrants and marginalized groups. These scary trends aren’t limited to the US – we see them everywhere from Britain to Hungary, France to Russia, Poland to South Africa.

Roosevelt saw the US government as the guarantor of these freedoms around the world, first through war with Japan and Germany, then through the Marshall Plan and through decades of American hard and soft power. That’s another way in which we’re in a different world. In the 1960s, when you asked Americans if they had trust in the federal government to do the right thing, more than 75% said that they did. These days, that number is under 20%. The four freedoms matter more than ever, but even despite the hard work of our representatives here on the stage, many of us don’t believe the government can bring them about. Instead, it’s up to us, individually and collectively.

When Norman Rockwell painted Freedom of Speech, he depicted an Arlington, VT man standing up to dissent at a local town meeting. That’s about as public as most speech could be in the 1940s. But now, every one of us has the power to speak, potentially to a global audience, using nothing more than the phones in our pocket. If you don’t like how the media covers this march, film a video, write a blog post, make your own media.

Our challenge now is not just to speak, but also to listen. When everyone is speaking, it’s too easy to listen just to the people we want to hear. We’ve got to listen deeply and widely, to people in other countries and to people in our own who we don’t agree with.

We’ve got to listen, because people are scared: children whose parents brought them to the US who discover they are not citizens when they apply to college, our Muslim brothers and sisters who are unfairly blamed for acts of terror, human rights defenders who are threatened and challenged around the world. The way we achieve freedom from fear is through solidarity, through listening hard to what people have to say, then using our speech to support them, defend them and stand with them.

This is a scary moment, a time where it looks like the progress we’ve made around the world might reverse, where we go from a world that’s gotten much bigger to one that shrinks. The good news is that we get to decide how big a world we want to live in. We get to decide how to speak, how to listen and how to stand together against fear.

by Ethan at January 07, 2017 11:36 PM

January 06, 2017

danah boyd
Hacking the Attention Economy

For most non-technical folks, “hacking” evokes the notion of using sophisticated technical skills to break through the security of a corporate or government system for illicit purposes. Of course, most folks who were engaged in cracking security systems weren’t necessarily in it for espionage and cruelty. In the 1990s, I grew up among teenage hackers who wanted to break into the computer systems of major institutions that were part of the security establishment, just to show that they could. The goal here was to feel a sense of power in a world where they felt pretty powerless. The rush was in being able to do something and feel smarter than the so-called powerful. It was fun and games. At least until they started getting arrested.

Hacking has always been about leveraging skills to push the boundaries of systems. Keep in mind that one early definition of a hacker (from the Jargon File) was “A person who enjoys learning the details of programming systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.” In another early definition (RFC:1392), a hacker is defined as “A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.” Both of these definitions highlight something important: violating the security of a technical system isn’t necessarily the primary objective.

Indeed, over the last 15 years, I’ve watched as countless hacker-minded folks have started leveraging a mix of technical and social engineering skills to reconfigure networks of power. Some are in it for the fun. Some see dollar signs. Some have a much more ideological agenda. But above all, what’s fascinating is how many people have learned to play the game. And in some worlds, those skills are coming home to roost in unexpected ways, especially as groups are seeking to mess with information intermediaries in an effort to hack the attention economy.

CC BY-NC 2.0-licensed photo by artgraff.

It all began with memes… (and porn…)

In 2003, a 15-year-old named Chris Poole started an image board site based on a Japanese trend called 4chan. His goal was not political. Rather, like many of his male teenage peers, he simply wanted a place to share pornography and anime. But as his site’s popularity grew, he ran into a different problem — he couldn’t manage the traffic while storing all of the content. So he decided to delete older content as newer content came in. Users were frustrated that their favorite images disappeared so they reposted them, often with slight modifications. This gave birth to a phenomenon now understood as “meme culture.” Lolcats are an example. These are images of cats captioned with a specific font and a consistent grammar for entertainment.

Those who produced meme-like images quickly realized that they could spread like wildfire thanks to new types of social media (as well as older tools like blogging). People began producing memes just for fun. But for a group of hacker-minded teenagers who were born a decade after I was, a new practice emerged. Rather than trying to hack the security infrastructure, they wanted to attack the emergent attention economy. They wanted to show that they could manipulate the media narrative, just to show that they could. This was happening at a moment when social media sites were skyrocketing, YouTube and blogs were challenging mainstream media, and pundits were pushing the idea that anyone could control the narrative by being their own media channel. Hell, “You” was TIME Magazine’s person of the year in 2006.

Taking a humorist approach, campaigns emerged within 4chan to “hack” mainstream media. For example, many inside 4chan felt that widespread anxieties about pedophilia were exaggerated and sensationalized. They decided to target Oprah Winfrey, who, they felt, was amplifying this fear-mongering. Trolling her online message board, they got her to talk on live TV about how “over 9,000 penises” were raping children. Humored by this success, they then created a broader campaign around a fake character known as Pedobear. In a different campaign, 4chan “b-tards” focused on gaming the TIME 100 list of “the world’s most influential people” by arranging it such that the first letter of each name on the list spelled out “Marblecake also the game,” which is a known in-joke in this community. Many other campaigns emerged to troll major media and other cultural leaders. And frankly, it was hard not to laugh when everyone started scratching their heads about why Rick Astley’s 1987 song “Never Gonna Give You Up” suddenly became a phenomenon again.

By engaging in these campaigns, participants learned how to shape information within a networked ecosystem. They learned how to design information for it to spread across social media.

They also learned how to game social media, manipulate its algorithms, and mess with the incentive structure of both old and new media enterprises. They weren’t alone. I watched teenagers throw brand names and Buzzfeed links into their Facebook posts to increase the likelihood that their friends would see their posts in their News Feed. Consultants starting working for companies to produce catchy content that would get traction and clicks. Justin Bieber fans ran campaign after campaign to keep Bieber-related topics in Twitter Trending Topics. And the activist group Invisible Children leveraged knowledge of how social media worked to architect the #Kony2012 campaign. All of this was seen as legitimate “social media marketing,” making it hard to detect where the boundaries were between those who were hacking for fun and those who were hacking for profit or other “serious” ends.

Running campaigns to shape what the public could see was nothing new, but social media created new pathways for people and organizations to get information out to wide audiences. Marketers discussed it as the future of marketing. Activists talked about it as the next frontier for activism. Political consultants talked about it as the future of political campaigns. And a new form of propaganda emerged.

The political side to the lulz

In her phenomenal account of Anonymous — “Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy” — Gabriella Coleman describes the interplay between different networks of people playing similar hacker-esque games for different motivations. She describes the goofy nature of those “Anons” who created a campaign to expose Scientology, which many believed to be a farcical religion with too much power and political sway. But she also highlights how the issues became more political and serious as WikiLeaks emerged, law enforcement started going after hackers, and the Arab Spring began.

CC BY-SA 3.0-licensed photo by Essam Sharaf via Wikimedia Commons.

Anonymous was birthed out of 4chan, but because of the emergent ideological agendas of many Anons, the norms and tactics started shifting. Some folks were in it for fun and games, but the “lulz” started getting darker and those seeking vigilante justice started using techniques like “doxing”to expose people who were seen as deserving of punishment. Targets changed over time, showcasing the divergent political agendas in play.

Perhaps the most notable turn involved “#GamerGate” when issues of sexism in the gaming industry emerged into a campaign of harassment targeted at a group of women. Doxing began being used to enable “swatting” — in which false reports called in by perpetrators would result in SWAT teams sent to targets’ homes. The strategies and tactics that had been used to enable decentralized but coordinated campaigns were now being used by those seeking to use the tools of media and attention to do serious reputational, psychological, economic, and social harm to targets. Although 4chan had long been an “anything goes” environment (with notable exceptions), #GamerGate became taboo there for stepping over the lines.

As #GamerGate unfolded, men’s rights activists began using the situation to push forward a long-standing political agenda to counter feminist ideology, pushing for #GamerGate to be framed as a serious debate as opposed to being seen as a campaign of hate and harassment. In some ways, the resultant media campaign was quite successful: major conferences and journalistic enterprises felt the need to “hear both sides” as though there was a debate unfolding. Watching this, I couldn’t help but think of the work of Frank Luntz, a remarkably effective conservative political consultant known for reframing issues using politicized language.

As doxing and swatting have become more commonplace, another type of harassment also started to emerge en masse: gaslighting. This term refers to a 1944 Ingrid Bergman film called “Gas Light” (which was based on a 1938 play). The film depicts psychological abuse in a domestic violence context, where the victim starts to doubt reality because of the various actions of the abuser. It is a form of psychological warfare that can work tremendously well in an information ecosystem, especially one where it’s possible to put up information in a distributed way to make it very unclear what is legitimate, what is fake, and what is propaganda. More importantly, as many autocratic regimes have learned, this tactic is fantastic for seeding the public’s doubt in institutions and information intermediaries.

The democratization of manipulation

In the early days of blogging, many of my fellow bloggers imagined that our practice could disrupt mainstream media. For many progressive activists, social media could be a tool that could circumvent institutionalized censorship and enable a plethora of diverse voices to speak out and have their say. Civic minded scholars were excited by “smart mobs” who leveraged new communications platforms to coordinate in a decentralized way to speak truth to power. Arab Spring. Occupy Wall Street. Black Lives Matter. These energized progressives as “proof” that social technologies could make a new form of civil life possible.

I spent 15 years watching teenagers play games with powerful media outlets and attempt to achieve control over their own ecosystem. They messed with algorithms, coordinated information campaigns, and resisted attempts to curtail their speech. Like Chinese activists, they learned to hide their traces when it was to their advantage to do so. They encoded their ideas such that access to content didn’t mean access to meaning.

Of course, it wasn’t just progressive activists and teenagers who were learning how to mess with the media ecosystem that has emerged since social media unfolded. We’ve also seen the political establishment, law enforcement, marketers, and hate groups build capacity at manipulating the media landscape. Very little of what’s happening is truly illegal, but there’s no widespread agreement about which of these practices are socially and morally acceptable or not.

The techniques that are unfolding are hard to manage and combat. Some of them look like harassment, prompting people to self-censor out of fear. Others look like “fake news”, highlighting the messiness surrounding bias, misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda. There is hate speech that is explicit, but there’s also suggestive content that prompts people to frame the world in particular ways. Dog whistle politics have emerged in a new form of encoded content, where you have to be in the know to understand what’s happening. Companies who built tools to help people communicate are finding it hard to combat the ways their tools are being used by networks looking to skirt the edges of the law and content policies. Institutions and legal instruments designed to stop abuse are finding themselves ill-equipped to function in light of networked dynamics.

The Internet has long been used for gaslighting, and trolls have long targeted adversaries. What has shifted recently is the scale of the operation, the coordination of the attacks, and the strategic agenda of some of the players.

For many who are learning these techniques, it’s no longer simply about fun, nor is it even about the lulz. It has now become about acquiring power.

A new form of information manipulation is unfolding in front of our eyes. It is political. It is global. And it is populist in nature. The news media is being played like a fiddle, while decentralized networks of people are leveraging the ever-evolving networked tools around them to hack the attention economy.

I only wish I knew what happens next.

This post was first published as part of a series on media, accountability, and the public sphere. See also:


This post was also translated to Portuguese

by zephoria at January 06, 2017 09:12 AM

January 05, 2017

Development Seed
Development Seed, Annual Report

Development Seed builds products that draw insight from complex data, helping people make better decisions. We work with non-profits and civic for-profits addressing the worlds biggest challenges. We use open technology, modern cloud infrastructure and thoughtful design practices to quickly build and scale our meaningful data driven tools.

In 2016, we built bigger and better products; we reached our biggest audience; and we worked with the largest sets of open data we’ve ever touched. We pioneered new approaches to machine learning and monitoring earth from space. We traveled the world working with governments to track agriculture, electricity and road projects.

Ali in Egypt
Derek in front of Taj Mahal

Development Seed operates as a non-profit. Our work with transparency and development partners supports our open source work, e.g. sat-utils, prose, dirty reprojections, and skynet.

Blowing the roof off

Washington Post election webpage

Our project with The Washington Post, building live election maps was our most visible project in 2016. Tens of millions of people have interacted with our maps, along with more than 100 other syndicates in The Washington Post network. On election night, The Washington Post broke records for the number of people on the website. The maps not only withstood the load, but were consistently a minute or more faster than competitor sites. Our maps allowed users to track up-to-the-moment election results, through an easy-to-use interface that worked on all devices, and also gave The Washington Post team the flexibility to highlight the most important coverage as results came in.

NASA logo

We are working with NASA (Yes, that NASA :swoon:) to build Cumulus, a cloud-based tool for processing science data from satellites, planes, and ground sensors. NASA currently maintains over 6,100 data streams from sensors in space and on the ground. Cumulus is still in the prototype phase, and we are working closely with NASA and USGS data operators to streamline and centralize processing of data streams from near realtime hurricane data to climate data.

Open Aerial Map

We’re helping the development community use satellite data to track and understand our Planet. Our Skynet tools bring modern machine learning methods to automatically extract features from satellite imagery–such as roads or damaged buildings. We built a powerful earth monitoring platform for Astro Digital, that automatically processes new satellite imagery from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) and delivers it straight to your app or inbox. We also expanded OpenAerialMap, enabling drone operators to more easily contribute data, helping them quickly collect drone imagery after a natural disaster.

Oil Climate Index

We built practical tools to address climate change. We partnered with OpenAQ’s effort to end air inequality, by collecting and organizing the world’s air quality data. The OpenAQ network, collects critical data to inform research and policy decisions. As of this morning, 34.5 million measurements, from 4,706 locations, in 43 countries have been collected. We also worked with the Carnegie Endowment to build the Oil Climate Index, a tool to monitor the climate impact of different oils around the world. OCI allows investors, policymakers, industry, and the public, to see how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, without changing consumption levels, by making better decisions about the types of oils we use.

And much more. Read about some of our other projects.

Growing the Family

I’m so incredibly proud to be part of this team and happy to announce that this truly impressive group grew by three team members this year.

DS on our brewery bike tour Devseed brewery bike tour

I’m also incredibly grateful to the wonderful partners, collaborators, and rabble rousers that we work with. I can’t wait to show off what we are cooking up for 2017.

See you at SatSummit!

by Development Seed at January 05, 2017 12:00 AM

January 04, 2017

Joi Ito
Conversation with Virginia Heffernan


I first met Virginia in 2015 when she and I were on a panel with Fareed Zarkaria at the Connecticut Forum. Late last year, she and Panio from Heleo reached out to see if I'd join Virginia in a conversation over Skype. Heleo "curates compelling, candid conversations between writers and thinkers about their work, research, and interests." You can see their great summary of the conversation on their website.

After the conversation, I asked if I could repackage the audio as a Podcast which you can find on iTunes and SoundCloud.

Virginia and I had recently gotten each other's books and a wide ranging but super-fun conversation ensued. It definitely left me excited to talk to Virginia again and expanded the perspective - thinking about the Internet in the context of art and design - that she covers in her book. We talk about the media, the Internet (yes, I still capitalize "Internet"), design, art, culture and many other things.

Also, as I explore various modes of publishing conversations online, I find it fascinating running into others exploring this space too.

If you've finished reading Whiplash, definitely pick up MAGIC AND LOSS: The Internet as Art if you haven't already. It's great.

by Joi at January 04, 2017 02:37 AM

Feeds In This Planet