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.
ICT for Peacebuilding

Politicians and Twitter in Sri Lanka and the elsewhere

Image courtesy the Economist, Sweet to Tweet

The Presidential and parliamentary elections held this year in Sri Lanka saw a number of candidates, in the run up to election, open accounts on Twitter. Leading politicians like Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sarath Fonseka, Champika Ranawaka, Sajith Premadasa and Milinda Moragoda, amongst others were extremely active on Twitter.

Save for Sarath Fonseka’s and Sajith Premedasa’s accounts, they are all now defunct.

Milinda Moragoda’s account, in the short time it was active, demonstrated more engagement with his followers than all the other accounts combined. This is captured in a tweet of his, noting that though he was new to Twitter, Moragoda believed “it should be used constructively”. Debates with @Nishan73, @Naleendra123 and @NalakaG for example shows Moragoda’s use of the platform to engage voters on key issues, even if the end result was to agree to disagree.

Tellingly, for Moragoda and others, Twitter was ultimately more a vehicle for propaganda than a means of sustained and meaningful engagement with voters post-elections. Premadasa’s and Fonseka’s Twitter accounts serve more as a one way broadcast of activities and updates, and no engagement at all with critical debate or dissent.

One counterpoint is the Twitter feed of Groundviews, which I curate along with one other, that regularly engages followers who ask for clarifications, contest our viewpoints, feed us with information and post their own opinions.

Screenshot of exchange between @groundviews and @prakashism via Echofon.

On the other hand, Sweet to tweet, published in the Economist recently, notes,

As well as boosting the profile of individual politicians, Twitter may be better designed for campaigning and opposition than for governing. “We’ll change Washington” is easy to fit into 140 characters. Explaining the messy and inevitable compromises of power is a lot harder.

And the article goes on to suggest,

The days when tweets involved a sweaty-thumbed real-life politician giving candid thoughts on the day’s events may be passing. Risk-averse politicians are likely to make their tweets bland, and bland tweeters may be less likely to be followed. Once politicians understand that everything is public, they are much less likely to offer the unadorned truth, at least to ordinary voters.

The article in the Economist is interesting reading, for it analyses differences in the behaviour of politicians on Twitter in the run up to and after elections, as well as in opposition and in government. We can see these general observations play out in Sri Lanka as well. With Twitter now supported on Dialog via SMS (and perhaps other mobile phone networks) one can expect to see a growing number of those seeking public office use the medium in the run up to election to reach to, though not necessarily engage with, their prospective vote base.

Whether the use of social networking and media will, in any way, help transform the culture of politics in Sri Lanka from a corrupt, nepotistic and clientelistic model to a more deliberative, participatory and responsive framework will be a question I will continue to engage with, as will I am sure, many others.

ICTs in general

Technology, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton

The fall of the House of Clinton, an article in the Economist, has an interesting take on the decisive role the Internet and web played in the campaigns of the two Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

The Clinton machine was too stuck in the 1990s to grasp how the internet was revolutionising political fund-raising. Mrs Clinton built the best fund-raising machine of the 20th century—persuading Democratic fat cats to make the maximum contributions allowable and accumulating a vast treasure trove of money. But Mr Obama trumped her by building the best fund-raising machine of the 21st century.

Mr Obama simultaneously lowered the barrier to entry to Obamaworld and raised expectations of what it meant to be a supporter. Mr Obama’s supporters not only showered him with small donations. They also volunteered their time and enthusiasm. His website was thus a vast social networking site (one of his chief organisers was a founder of Facebook)—a mechanism not just for translating enthusiasm into cash but also for building a community of fired-up supporters. Mr Obama’s small donations proved to be a renewable resource, as supporters could give several times, up to a maximum of $2,300. Mrs Clinton ran out of cash.

ICTs in general, Interesting content on ICT4Peace

Lawrence Lessig on ending corruption using ICT

ICT against corruption is an issue I’ve written on earlier, and it came as a surprise today that no less than Lawrence Lessig has set his mind on using ICT to combat corruption. “How will the Internet change the corruption of politics?” is one of the many questions Lessig answers and describes how the Internet and web, as a tools of participatory democracy, can make government more accountable and transparent.

Lessig’s vision is limited to the US, but there is no reason why the mechanisms and technologies he speaks about can be adopted and applied in other countries.