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.”

Behind the scenes: How to upgrade a citizen journalism website

Updated 22nd December 2010 with list of plugins used on the site.

Groundviews launched its new version today. It was a radical departure from the look and feel of the old and first version to the new avatar.


Old / original version

Groundviews New
Current version

Counting articles and comments, Groundviews has, at last count, well over 5.5. million of words of content published since 2006. This does not include the photos, audio and video featured on the site. The sheer size was its own worst enemy – once an article went off from the homepage in the previous version, readers had a hard time rediscovering it. Site search was ineffective, inaccurate and slow to boot. While the site had a distinct look and feel loyal readers had come to love, it was evident that a lot of the content useful for researchers and historians, as well as serious readers, was simply too hard to access.

The new site officially launched today with key improvements. What was done to enhance the features, readability and discoverability of content is not something any other media site in Sri Lanka comes even close to achieving today.

How did we do it? Key to the new site were the following three considerations.

  1. Content discoverability and enhanced search features
  2. Mobile phone and mobile browser friendly content, with particular emphasis on Apple’s iOS based devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch)
  3. Integration with Facebook and Twitter

We didn’t move away from WordPress, which from the get go has served Groundviews well. That said, there was no plugin on WordPress capable of serving the search functionality we required. We turned to Google’s Custom Search Engine instead. For $100 per annum, the CSE we created is the most comprehensive search currently available for a site, bringing to bear Google’s power (including boolean logic operations and specific filetype searches) to enhance content discovery on the site. To complement this new search engine, we created a new Archive page on the site, making it easier to visually navigate to content published in the past.

Groundviews, through the WordPress Mobile Edition plugin, already automatically rendered content on mobile devices to suit each device and browser. This plugin was retained in the new version. The option to go to the full site is present and works best with iOS, Android and Symbian devices.

A strict a standards based design and the switch to HTML5, non-Flash based video was done with Apple’s iOS devices in mind, which don’t run Adobe Flash. All the videos, and the scrolling features on the homepage, are non-Flash based, and work perfectly on any iOS device.

The earlier site had patchy connections to Facebook and Twitter. The new site streamlines these connections. At the end of each article, tight Twitter and Facebook integration make it possible to highlight the story quickly and easily. In addition to this, we continued the use of Apture, first introduced to the site over a year ago. Featured on sites like the Economist as well, Apture comes into its own when one scrolls down any page. The resulting header makes it easy to search for content, as well as post anything to Twitter or Facebook. An added bonus is that double-clicking on any word, or set of words, opens an Apture window that searches Groundviews for that key word or phrase, as well as the wider web. It is an elegant solution that helps retain readers on the site.

Several new technologies are incorporated on the new version of the site. Google’s Feedburner now powers email subscriptions to site content. Full feed RSS is provided by default. The idea that readers have to come to the site itself to read and engage with content is laughable, and yet one that animates the majority of news websites in Sri Lanka. In addition to email subscriptions and full feed RSS, another new technology is the site’s tight integration with Instapaper. As Instapaper’s website notes,

“Instapaper facilitates easy reading of long text content.We discover web content throughout the day, and sometimes, we don’t have time to read long articles right when we find them. Instapaper allows you to easily save them for later, when you do have time, so you don’t just forget about them or skim through them…. The times we find information aren’t always ideal for consuming it. Instapaper helps you bridge that gap.”

It’s also important that Instapaper has iPhone / iPad apps, making it very easy to save and read site content on these devices, with seamless content synchronisation.

As noted in the email sent out announcing the launch,

“The site update has preserved links from the previous avatar and Google indexing. What this means is that references to site content made for example in academic journals are still valid, and that existing indexing of site content on Google is unaffected by the upgrade.”

The point about preserving Google indexing is important because over 2009 and 2010, the website of the Daily Mirror, one of Sri Lanka’s leading mainstream media newspapers (published by arguably one of the most profitable and tech savvy media houses, the Wijeya Group) underwent around over 3 major revisions. One revision completely rendered the Google indexing of the site’s articles worthless by changing the internal site links. Further, even today, this leading online news site offers a pathetic search engine seemingly designed to hide content rather than expose it. As I noted in Daily Mirror’s online woes reveal an industry issue,

It is one thing to know about web and new media, quite another to strategically leverage it to strengthen brand identity, content consumption and forge new models of participatory, independent and indeed, investigative journalism. Though newspapers in Sri Lanka have embraced the likes of Twitter, Facebook and web media, there is no real understanding of any of the platforms, the manner in which content needs to be tailored for each of them, the varying consumption and delivery patterns or through them, how consumers can be made to engage with the news in more engaging ways.

Underlying technology aside, the new design uses a new typography and layout, leveraging white space, line spacing and content placement to enhance readability.

Other key plugins for WordPress used on the site are:

  1. Akismet, for handling automated comment spam
  2. WP Captcha Free, complements Akismet, and guards against comment spam from contact and comment boxes
  3. Audio player, for MP3 playback
  4. Similar posts, for reader retention and content discoverability
  5. WP-Print, for easy formatting of a post for printing
  6. WP-Post Views, for displaying how many times an article has been read
  7. WP-CommentNavi, for page navigation on the site

The design, content migration and technical features were implemented by Cezar Neaga. It is almost impossible to find WordPress expertise in Sri Lanka to the level of complexity Groundviews demands. Cezar’s keen eye and technical proficiency helped a great deal to realise our core requirements for the new version.

At the end though, what drives a site is its content. All of the design elements and technical features are anchored to the international award winning content featured since 2006 on Groundviews. The new site makes this content more easily accessible and more visually appealing. It is also the basis for new, compelling ventures in citizen journalism lined up for 2011 and beyond.

Watch this space.

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.

Social media: An introduction to practical uses during elections

I delivered a lecture at the Sri Lanka College of Journalism today on the use of social media in election reporting. The presentation I based my interactive lecture on is below. Aspect of the up-coming Presidential Elections are unprecedented in any number of ways. A point about it is that both leading candidates use social media to a degree that no other election in Sri Lanka has witnessed in the past. My submission was that literacy in social and new media is thus a perquisite in covering these elections, both to critically appreciate content produced by and placed online by candidates, as well as to gather information on election violence and other outrageous malpractices.

I also used the lecture to suggest that the participants, leading mid-career journalists from print as well as electronic media in Sri Lanka, could use these tools to create media of their own, responding to issues they thought were under-reported, or were hostage to the bias of an editor, publisher or owner.

Journalism of the future? Problems and challenges.

Late last year, Ashoka received a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to create a program aimed at identifying, supporting, and connecting social entrepreneurs in knowledge and news. The idea was to use Ashoka’s existing global network to find innovators using journalistic strategies to create transformative social change—and to create a sort of incubator whose leading-edge ideas would, in turn, inform the future of the news field.

Keith Hammond, the team leader of  the Ashoka Foundation’s new Social Entrepreneurs in Journalism programme, has an interesting interview (on Conversation Agent) where he speaks on the future of journalism. I completely agree with Keith when he notes that,

The fields of news and knowledge are foundational to vital democratic society. People who enjoy access to free, fair, and high-quality news media per se become more effective citizens: they understand more about how their community works, and they’re more likely to participate in making the decisions that shape their lives.

As an Ashoka Fellow, I feel particularly privileged to be part of a group of thought-leaders shaping the way the news and media agenda grapples with significant social, economic, political and identity based conflict and violence. Yet there’s always more to the solution that adding ICTs to the mix. In Sri Lanka, the fact that there is little or no civic consciousness is the real challenge to new media and citizen journalism. It is a country of voters, and the difference is not just semantic. There is a real dearth of critical thinking, media literacy and a sense of public outrage at the breakdown in governance, human rights and corruption. New media can create that outrage, or hold to scrutiny issues mainstream media cannot or will not. But this requires citizens to write in with their ideas and thoughts – which proves exceedingly difficult in a society that does not work in this manner.

There are other challenges.

  • Donors, most of them, have no clue as to how to best support new media. Many of them don’t understand the term, the concept or the technology. The worst of them end up supporting initiatives that aren’t anchored to ground realities. The best of them are often misguided and believe that the introduction of ICTs can magically and in the short term change socio-political, cultural and other identity based relations scarred by protracted conflict.
  • There are few Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) tools capable of measuring the impact of social / new media. The tools that exist are designed to measure the effective of mainstream media. New media’s impact is harder to capture, esp. when you recognise the range of technologies involved, the difference in the way the media is consumed, produced and disseminated, the difference in the content – the medium as well as the message – and the difference in audience demographics.
  • Acknowledge the fact that initial thought experiments may be in an of themselves failures, but are key in generating debate, discussion and interest in new / social media. Donors tend to write off entire initiatives and projects because they don’t show the results promised or desired in the short term. On the other hand, the disruptive nature of the projects may be more manifest over the medium to long term, which requires long term strategic interventions. As note in “Mass audiences” and citizen journalism “I would be elated to realise political change on account of the content featured on say Groundviews, but I would not be dissapointed if this does not happen any time soon. The content on the site and the larger content on the SL blogosphere, including all of that which I don’t agree with, are deeply valuable in a country precisely for the reason that they offer a greater spectrum of opinion than what I find in traditional media today – which is silent by fear or coercion.”
  • New media producers often disregard the wider cultural, economic and political repercussions of the content they create. The challenge of hyper-local media is that it is both local and it isn’t. A local news story published on the web may pique national interest if the issue is connected to (or seen to be connected to) a larger debate. This is especially the case in violent conflict. This has serious implications for local content producers, both positive and negative, that need to assessed and managed. This includes identity protection.
  • Thought leaders often attract parasites who come in the form of individuals and organisations, both local and international. Managing these parasites, who often have access to power, funding and other vital connections, is very difficult and can lead to more conflict.
  • As I note in Authoritarian regimes and governments vs. bloggersBlogs and blogging, from production to dissemination and influence need to take into account, inter alia, class, caste and (party) political power centres and structures. Importantly, issues like language politics, ethnicity and other identity markers and their interplay with web based media production and generation as well as aspects such as gender (which does not even get a single mention in the EJC article) cannot be ignored when talking about the reach and influence of blogs and blogging as a means of communication.

Please read the conclusion in an earlier post of mine titled “Mass audiences” and citizen journalism where I question some of the assumptions of the impact of new media in violent contexts.

I think the future of journalism is very exciting. I don’t think that the adding of technology, voices and perspectives necessary makes it better by default. As ever, the commitment of a few thought leaders will be needed to inspire, inform and shape the news and information cycles to anchor and frame them to more meaningful issues and processes.

The Ashoka Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will hopefully play a lead role in supporting such individuals and organisations and I look forward to exchanging ideas in this regard with Keith.