ICTs in general

From hate and harm to aid and advocacy: Angelo Fernando’s ‘Chat Republic’

Cross-posted from Groundviews.

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Angelo Fernando, in addition to being a long-standing columnist in the Lanka Monthly Digest (LMD) is also the author of a new book, Chat Republic: How Social Media Drives Us To Be Human 1.0 in a Web 2.0 World.

We begin our conversation on matters digital and online by looking at how Angelo’s father in particular networked socially in the world of brick and mortar, and how this shaped the author’s take on online social networking and new media. After going into how Angelo started to get interested in new media, and web based communications and communities, we talk about his take on media literacy, and its importance today.

We then explore, based on a particular section in Chat Republic, the author’s own journey in using social media, from the time just after the Asian tsunami when his blog became a virtual clearinghouse of information, to the more recent advances and platforms he covers in the book. Flagging what at the time of the recording were unprecedented social uprisings in Turkey, we go on to talk about the current state of the debate on professional and amateur journalists, and whether this really even matters anymore.

Given what is a genuinely disturbing rise in online hate speech (in Sri Lanka, but more generally around the world), Angelo then goes into how he perceives the ‘Chat Republic’ can and should address this issue, and why media literacy in important in this regard.

We then talk about the culture of what can be called over-sharing, and how a tsunami of multimedia and geo-referenced content from mobile and web based apps, platforms and services stand, in large part, to be irrevocably lost and also owned by corporations to often reuse as they see fit. Confessing that he actually writes letters on paper, Angelo then talks about how he approaches the art of writing.

Towards the end, we talk about PRISM, and the mind-boggling revelations by Edward Snowdon (who at the time of recording the programme was in Hong Kong) which all point to a very disturbing state of affairs regarding privacy on the web and Internet in general, and social media platforms in particular. Angelo shares his thoughts on what has recently come to light over the nature and extent of surveillance in countries like the US and UK.

Our conversation ends by Angelo sharing some thoughts about where he wants to take Chat Republicand whether it will be made available in Tamil and Sinhala.

ICT for Peacebuilding, ICTs in general

Pitfalls of privacy online

The Ceylon Today newspaper quotes me in what is becoming a familiar story – identity theft and the unauthorised use of photos posted to various online social media fora for nefarious activities. Women and Media Collective‘s Sepali Kottegoda underscores the problem, yet the challenge remains on how to build and teach this (new) media literacy to parents, young adults and children.

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Editor of Groundviews, Sanjana Haththotuwa (sic) commented on the issue, bringing into focus the shortcomings of online privacy. “You can at best get Facebook to shut the page down, but in seconds, another can take its place. And if Facebook then bans the user account that created the pages, another can be created. Using the new account, another new page can be created. If Facebook shuts down all such pages on Facebook itself, a group similar to it can be created, in seconds, on another social media platform. The real problem here is the lack of awareness about privacy online, and in online social media forums in particular.”

“Instances such as these are very much a part of what is known as internet violence against women,” Head of Women and Media Collective, Sepali Kottegoda said. “The focus on school children in Sri Lanka is extremely worrying. We have to look into the aspects of internet security and if the country decides to ban such sites, we need to have a set of clear guidelines that can be used in the human rights framework for women. These incidents go beyond presentation and unauthorized use of content. It is a serious violation against women and girls, and it can be considered a form of sexual abuse if intended in such a way. The lack of knowledge on online privacy needs to be addressed. It’s the kind of technical training both kids and adults need.”

ICT for Peacebuilding, ICTs in general

Panel Discussion: Women’s Engagement with New Media

The proverbial glass ceiling has long been in the way of women’s upward movement within the public sphere, including in media institutions. How have women overcome the limitations of access and opportunity of the conventional media structures by increasingly and innovatively engaging with online media platforms and spaces?

The Sri Lankan chapter of South Asian Women in Media Network (SAWM Sri Lanka) organised a panel discussion on women’s engagement with new media, which I was invited to moderate. In addition to Sachini Perera from Women and Media Collective speaking about women’s participation in new media in general, four distinguished women delivered presentations of around 15 minutes each,

  1. DushiYanthini Kanagasabapathipillai (Journalist, Photographer) http://passionparade.blogspot.com/
  2. Tehani Ariyaratna (CEPA, Blogger) http://www.cepa.lk/
  3. Rushda Mohinudeen (Reach Out) http://reachoutlk.wordpress.com/ 
  4. Sanjeewika Manohari (Boondi, Blogger) http://www.boondi.lk, http://lihinisara.blogspot.com/

The presentations were uniformly excellent, and I understand will be published online anon by WMC and/or SAWM. I requested the panellists to consider the following points when preparing their submissions,

  1. Why are you engaging with new media? What inspired you, or forced you to do so, and why have you continued to publish and engage?
  2. How has your engagement with new media changed from the time you first started? What topics do you focus on and why?
  3. How do you perceive your role when using and engaging through social media?
  4. Has self-expression as a woman/female journalist/female activist, in your perception, increased qualitatively because of your use of new media? What kinds of expression do you engage in today, that you couldn’t do without new media?
  5. Has new media taught you to communicate key messages in different ways (i.e. long FB post, short Tweet, photo caption and photo, audio clip, and short video – around same issue)? How difficult was this learning process?
  6. Just yesterday, Ceylon Today, ironically a newspaper that has two of the most senior women journalists in Sri Lanka at its helm, published an article that was outrageously sexist, documented by myself and others on this email, including Women and Media Collective, via Twitter. Does new media strengthen gendered critiques of old media practises, attitudes and content? If so, how? Conversely, what examples of sexism and misogyny have you experienced or seen in new media platforms?
You may also wish to consider,
  1. The security dimensions, as a female voice/activist on new media. Do you occasionally or always publish content anonymously, pseudonymously, and if so, why?
  2. What tools and techniques have you found helpful to minimise risk, and engage with difficult issues?
  3. How have you dealt with hate speech against self, institution, family and friends? What are some coping mechanisms in this regard?
  4. How do you assess risk online? What are your markers of safety? When and how do you determine, based on online interactions and content, there is fear of physical harm to self, family, friends or colleagues?

Some notes I took down as moderator, to stimulate discussion and also responding to the presentations by the panellists, follow.

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  • As women move from the margins to the centre, and their use of new media grows qualitatively as well as quantitatively, there will be new challenges around privacy, safety and security as well as redefinitions of identity, participation and engagement. This discussions will be both shaped by, and mediated through, new media – the media itself will shape the content, and the content will go on to shape how new media will be used and perceived.
  • The need to move away from blogs and blogging, and to more nuanced discussions of how new media ecosystems can support advocacy and activism.
  • While the frustration with more rights based, gendered and high quality content creation persists, it is also the case that the more people who create content for and publish on the likes of YouTube, Flickr and various blogs also, over time, make it that much harder for the government to censor or block these platforms. While WMC can and must strengthen more serious advocacy by and for women, it should also encourage more content creation of any kind – the more people are online and using new media, the more the impact of censorship is felt across multiple levels and segments of society.
  • Activists need to augment their technical knowledge to keep up with privacy concerns and increasing sophistication of surveillance. The online and virtual today has a direct and immediate impact on the physical and institutional. This connection isn’t made in the minds of many activists, who remain more concerned about physical safety and security and less interested in online security and secure communications.
  • There are attendant challenges of growing audiences online, on multiple fronts. At its simplest, its about growing a fan and following base on Facebook and Twitter, which can cost money, and requires strategic thinking and an understanding of online social network and audience dynamics. There is also the challenge of reaching beyond the converted. Following and engaging with difference – which can often be rudely and insultingly couched – is another challenge. The language of hate, hurt and harm overwhelms the negotiation of difference online, esp. when anonymity is a handy cloak. The nature of this venom is particularly virulent against women and women activists – who need to develop coping mechanisms using technology as well as human/institutional networks.
  • Understanding one’s network influencers can be done through Wolfram Alpha’s Facebook tool – http://www.wolframalpha.com/facebook/
  • The central challenge of activists in the digital age remain one of the imagination. Activists and institutions consider new media as promotional extensions of their old, street level activism (i.e. by posting videos and photos online of demonstrations around Lipton Circus). While this is in and of itself useful and on occasion, extremely powerful, few if any in Sri Lanka are thinking of the wholly new ways of using social and new media for activism and the captivation of new supporters and audiences. A number of compelling examples in this regard were provided by panellists, and one hopes there is a more robust documentation of what worked when, with whom and why, as a template for others to emulate.
  • The challenge of hyper-connectivity and over-sharing. The first fractures our attention – our brains are today, quite literally, wired differently, because we engage with media and information in a fundamentally different way to how our parents did. A Microsoft researcher called this a few years ago ‘continuous partial attention’ – being ensnared by multiple information nodes (e.g. checking FB on mobile whilst listening to a panel presentation, and quickly tweeting something a soundbite, and at the same time snapping a shot of the speaker and posting on Instagram). Over-sharing (esp. through apps like Foursquare) means that we now share where we have coffee, and with whom. While both can lead to interesting studies of human movement and behaviour, in a repressive regime, they also provide a lot of information that could be useful in censoring and harming activists. The other problem of course is how activists can address a generation and audiences whose attention span is so limited.
  • Photography today is not just limited to D-SLR cameras. Every single phone now has a camera, and most smartphones today have cameras many times better than even low end digital cameras. The power and potential of these cameras to bear witness need to be encouraged and explored, esp. on women’s issues.
  • More awareness about Creative Commons licensing of content needed – http://creativecommons.org.
  • The enduring challenge of attribution can in part be addressed by CC licensing, but also requires mainstream media to engage with new media collectives, perhaps convened by the likes of WMC in the case of women who are active on new media, and how they can properly attribute content and use these new voices in their own reporting. Producers of content need to also make their content open, for e.g. http://groundviews.org/2013/01/24/complete-twitter-archive-19000-tweets-from-2008-to-2012/ (the Twitter archive download feature is being progressively introduced to all Twitter accounts)
  • Engage with Charitha Herath’s / Media Ministry’s new media ethics framework, due to made public in the next week or so. For a government that usually kills, maims, forces into silence or exile, censors and defiles us, even though there is great scepticism about the framework’s raison d’etre, it’s still useful to engage with him and the Media Ministry about it, esp. from a gendered perspective.
  • The challenges of anonymity on a platform like Facebook needs to be fully understood – as it stands, creating a false id on the platform is contravenes usage guidelines and risks account deletion. With the introduction of FB’s new Social Graph feature in the coming months, content on the platform will be far more open to other users, which again raises concerns about how much activists on it know about privacy controls.
  • Know what you want to say and do before embracing tools and platforms. A panellist noted the introduction of Vine by Twitter (6 second looping videos) but rather than be guided by the latest and most hyped tech, it is fundamentally important to ascertain which audience one wants to speak to and engage with, on what issues, and how. Being guided by tech is a recipe for disaster. Being guided by the thrust of a core message helps one select what tools to use, when, and with whom.
  • Know thy network – who are the connectors, who are the influencers. Wolfram Alpha’s FB tool noted above can help a lot in this regard.
  • Institutionally, leverage multiple networks for the greatest dissemination of content – if there is a very popular person in office who has a social media network many times greater than the institution itself, but doesn’t use it for activism, and there is a more advocacy oriented person who updates social media platform more regularly with say rights based content, it is useful to see how the two networks can complement each other.
  • The use of SMS wasn’t discussed, but there are a number of examples from FrontlineSMS alone, incl. in Sri Lanka amongst women – WMC has details – where it has been used. More study and emulation needed.
ICTs in general

From paper to pixels: News today

Yet something of the old media world is deeply missed. The serendipitous discovery of news and information, for example. We all now live in so-called ‘filter bubbles’, consuming information either curated by us, or for us. Some of this curation is human, which offers agency and choice to the few who wish to really engage with difference and divergent opinion. Some of this curation is technical, based on invisibly cultivated metrics of our online behaviour and web browsing habits. This is potentially more dangerous, because there’s no off switch – we believe we are freely exposed to information, but in fact, the search results, suggestions, featured feeds, syndicated content and web highlights are all crafted carefully to match, inter alia, our socio-economic, political, religious bias and geo-location. Where it was previously the role of the journalist to craft the salient points of a story and the sole prerogative of the Editor to curate the day’s news and its presentation, sophisticated algorithms snaking their way through the low monotone of server farms are the new, pervasive determinant in what we read.

That’s an excerpt from my regular column published today that looks at how in my own life, the consumption of news has changed dramatically from when I was a child.

Read the full article here. I go on to note that,

Consuming and generating media almost purely in digital form has some advantages. You can’t burn down a website. You can’t kill a pseudonym, or abduct an idea that goes viral online. Our children are already part of one billion people on Facebook alone – nearly the population of India on a single online social network with a news economy beyond any one government to regulate or censor. Christopher Hitchens famously noted that he became a journalist because he did not want to rely on newspapers for information. Digital media platforms make this increasingly possible for lesser mortals.

But for those who grew up with it, the newspaper is missed, and always picked up.

ICT for Peacebuilding, ICTs in general

Sri Lanka inside-out: Cyberspace and the mediated geographies of political engagement

Save for the treatment of Tamilnet in Mark Whitaker’s book on Sivaram, I know of no other Sri Lankan website other than Groundviews that has inspired rigorous academic study. From as early as 2007, content on Groundviews has been studied and quoted in academic journals, books and media reports. Today I was forwarded Sri Lanka inside-out: Cyberspace and the mediated geographies of political engagement, the most recent serious consideration of  the site’s content. I know of two other post-grad students – at Fletcher and Columbia – who are basing their thesis in large part on Groundviews’ content and raison d’être. It is a fascinating paper.

This research note begins by pointing to the forms of geographical and political enclosure that have resulted from the current Sri Lankan government’s effective regulation of parts of the national media, as well as its mediation of knowledge produced about Sri Lanka more generally. It argues that a rather draconian and unbreachable geography of inside and outside is instantiated by the political regime’s insularizing regulation of the country’s media(tion). The research note then points to new virtual spaces in the Sri Lankan context that are reconfiguring this sticky geography of inside and outside. In particular, it argues that Sri Lanka’s burgeoning blogosphere and online citizen journalism provide new, participatory spaces for dissent, debate and the free flow of information that have much potential to assist in the production of a more robust and critical civil society. The emergence of these spaces points to the importance of geography and spatiality in manufacturing an effective critical politics in contemporary Sri Lanka.

Other recent serious reviews of the site’s content include:

Mention in books include,

Recent mention in global media reports include,

I was told last week by a senior journalist that Groundviews was first looked upon as a platform to publish stories newspapers would or could not. It then had turned into a source itself, and a location for good leads and story ideas. Now, I was told, it shows mainstream media what journalism should be.

ICTs in general

Relaunch of Vikalpa: Engaging opinion and analysis in Sinhala from Sri Lanka

Vikalpa (www.vikalpa.org) relaunched its website yesterday, with a renewed focus on compelling and original opinion and analysis in Sinhala from Sri Lanka.

First launched in 2007, the old website had become unwieldy, inelegant and hard to navigate. The new website introduces a number of new sections, and makes it easier to follow content updates on Twitter, Facebook, access Vikalpa’s Flickr and YouTube channels and listen to its in-house podcast productions.

An enduring challenge beyond the scope of the site, yet central to its reach and accessibility is Sinhala font installation. This of course will gradually and invariably disappear over time, with new versions of Windows for example featuring Sinhala language support out of the box. At present however, journalists and readers outside of Colombo have repeatedly asked Vikalpa for directions on how Sinhala and Tamil fonts can be installed on their PCs. One of the best resources currently in this regard are the Sinhala Bloggers Union guides.

Vikalpa’s channel on YouTube has repeatedly entered the global top 100 list. With more than 500 videos watched well over 400,000 times, short-form video content seems to be, perhaps also in the face of the technical challenges of rendering Sinhala on the web, more popular. For example, this one filmed recently in Colombo clearly showing Police protecting the thugs who attacked a peaceful protest in support of Sarath Fonseka was viewed over 9,000 times in a week.

I’m working with the Vikalpa team to develop their digital media production and web journalism skills.

ICT for Peacebuilding, ICTs in general

Intercepting mobile communications: A cogent case for truth-seeking and slow news?

Even if most of us are powerless to completely evade it completely, the pitfalls of mobile phone intercepts are well documented and known. However, two articles recently published on the web can be read as somewhat justifying the use of material thus collected for truth seeking after an act of terrorism. Whether such use justifies ab initio the clandestine harvesting of voice and data from consumers is a debatable point, particularly in regimes significantly less democratic than the US and India.

England’s Guardian newspaper reports on its blog an experiment by Wikileaks to place on public record more than 500,000 intercepted pager messages, many from US officials, at the time of the World Trade Centre attacks in New York on 9th September 2001.

The experiment by whistleblowing website Wikileaks includes pager messages sent on the day by officials in the Pentagon, the New York police and witnesses to the collapse of the twin towers. Wikileaks said the messages would show a “completely objective record of the defining moment of our time”.

Emphasis mine. In a similar vein, the Lede of the New York Times reports almost a year after the horrific terrorist attacks in Mumbai that,

… Channel 4 News in Britain had obtained and broadcast excerpts from those intercepted phone calls, between the attackers and people apparently directing them. This audio was also used in a documentary produced by Channel 4 and HBO, which was broadcast last summer in Britain is airing in the United States this week.

The Channel 4 video is chilling, demonstrating clearly how mobile phone communications were central to the terrorist attacks.

Distracted by wide screen monitors?

Implications for advocacy against mobile phone and communications monitoring
We know that the terrorists in Mumbai used Blackberry’s to communicate with home base and monitor news reports. Does this knowledge justify the Indian government’s threat to hack into Blackberry communications a few months before the attacks last year?

Both examples above point to extremely sophisticated, wide ranging signals and communications intelligence regimes in both countries, able to access the communications of specific mobile devices and numbers post facto. As noted in the Lede,

Wikileaks would not reveal the source for the leak, but hinted: “It is clear that the information comes from an organisation which has been intercepting and archiving US national telecommunciations since prior to 9/11.

This strongly suggests that both data and voice of a wide range of numbers (maybe even of all consumers?) are being recorded either by the telcos themselves and / or by government intelligence agencies.

Given the increasing sophisticated and ubiquity of signals and communications intelligence, it is reasonable to expect that every terrorist act today gives cause for more encroachment into private communications. For example, this is clear even in the United Kingdom, when in 2008 it was brought to light that it was the intention of the British Government to create a database to record every phone call, e-mail and time spent on the internet by all citizens.

A common argument will be that these measures are necessary to protect the public in a context where terrorism relies on the same public infrastructure and communications channels to plans its attacks as ordinary citizens.

Will then a mark of democracy in the future be the open knowledge and contestation of these signals and communication intelligence regimes in the media by civil society, such as we find in the UK and US? If not, how can we discern between the ostensibly pro bono publico monitoring of communications in more robust democracies and the more sinister, parochial monitoring of communications in regimes like Iran, Saudi Arabia and China?

A case for slow-news?
Finally, I go back to the justification of Wikileaks to publish the records of pager messages sent after the World Trade Centre attacks. What it refers to as an objective record is actually a plethora of hugely subjective, partial and inaccurate messages. Any real time analysis of these messages could not have in any meaningful way contributed to situational awareness or policy decisions. As the Guardian notes, the messages “…show how panic and rumour began to spread on the day, and are likely to fuel conspiracy theories about the attacks.”

Dan Gillmor, using the more recent example of the shootings in America’s Fort Hood, writes about the need for a ‘slow news’ movement. As he notes,

I rely in large part on gut instincts when I make big decisions, but my gut only gives me good advice when I’ve immersed myself in the facts about things that are important. This applies, more than ever, to news, where we need to be skeptical of just about everything we read, listen to and watch, though not equally skeptical. A corollary to that is increasingly clear: to wait a bit, for evidence that is persuasive, before deciding what’s true and what’s not.

It comes down to this: The faster the news accelerates, the slower I’m inclined to believe anything I hear — and the harder I look for the coverage that pulls together the most facts with the most clarity about what’s known and what’s speculation. Call it slow news. Call it critical thinking. Call it anything you want. Give some thought to adopting it for at least some of your media consumption, and creation.

Dan’s full blog post, which refers to the work of Ethan Zuckerman as well, is linked to national security, in that policy decisions to counter terrorism taken on the basis of communications intelligence may be based on information that’s inaccurate, partial and in some cases, deliberately misleading. This is especially the case in a context where with a shocked and enraged citizenry, a government is forced to act upon, and rate more highly, intelligence it knows is suspect. There is also the flip side, where in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack known to have been coordinated using public telecoms infrastructure and channels, an unscrupulous government can more easily justify and embed communications monitoring for its own ends.

As Dan notes, the answer could lie in media literacy. But media literacy is pegged to the freedom of expression, sufficient literacy, education and access to alternative media. Fabrice Florin’s NewsTrust.net offers one compelling model of news reporting that fosters critical appreciation of online content. There are others. Coupled with an education in critical thinking, they can be a solid defense against mobs and riots instigated by disinformation, misinformation and misguided government policies that exacerbate conflict and act as a force-multiplier to terrorism.