A billion for a billion: WFP tackles hunger through the web

You know its bound to fail, but embracing the web and social networking in the manner WFP has needs to be recognised, celebrated and supported as best one can.

As reported in UN Dispatch, the World Food Program launched a new campaign, a billion for a billion. The idea is to link the 1 billion internet users around the world with the 1 billion who are chronically hungry.

WFP offers a plethora of ways through which you can raise awareness of the campaign and through it, the challenge of meeting the needs of those who are hungry around the world. WFP uses an array of social networking tools, and more traditional multimedia techniques in its campaign. At first, it almost looks like an overkill, but there’s something here for everyone interested in financially supporting WFP’s endeavour, or creating awareness on it through Facebook and Twitter.

Heck, there’s even an international short form film competition in collaboration with YouTube.

Though very rarely found in massive projects such as this, some form of independent after action review would be useful in ascertaining what technologies and methods worked the best, and what failed. In both cases, learning why can be immensely helpful in the design and implementation of similar initiatives in the future.

Two new sites for dissent

Came across two new sites for dissent and critical perspectives in Sri Lanka have cropped up recently.

fd

Forgotten Diaries was started in June ’08 and only has a handful of posts. However, the content in these posts is very thought provoking, though judging by the paucity of comments, it is unlikely that this blog is well known.

jd

Just Dissent is brand new. Begun in March 2009 it already has content in English and Sinhala which is largely linking to wire reports on the web. The latest post at the time of writing, I am a Traitor, challenges apathy and encourages pro-active participation to strengthen democracy.

The idiom in Just Dissent is more immediate and visceral, whereas the prose in Forgotten Diaries, which features content from In Mutiny, is more measured. Both however offer new sites for debate and discussion for those connected to the web and interested in civic identity, nationalism, democracy and conflict transformation.

That’s two more valuable spaces in a context where independent media and the freedom of expression are almost non-existant.

Sri Lanka’s first mainstream media article on Facebook activism

Facebook - Courtest Sunday Times
Image from Sunday Times

Smriti Daniel’s article last Sunday in the Sunday Times is to my knowledge the first article that appears in the print media in Sri Lanka dealing with growing web based activism via the social networking platform Facebook. It’s a well written and researched piece that deals with a phenomenon I most recently touched upon in my post on Pissu Poona (Pissu is Crazy in Sinhala, and Poona is cat in Tamil).

There may be sociological limits for activism in and through Facebook, and it is debatable whether Facebook actually engenders meaningful relationships anchored to a common purpose, ideal, process or event over the long term – especially under repressive regimes.  An example of FB supporting a real world event can be found here, set up by the Peoples Movement for Democracy. However, in Sri Lanka, Facebook engineered real world action on the lines of Egypt leading to real world swarms is non-existent today and won’t I believe emerge for a while in SL – though dissent and critical communications within and between local and diaspora groups may blossom.

In this light, the article usefully ends on a particularly sobering note,

At times, it must seem a little like setting up shop in the market and shouting as loudly as you can, cheek by jowl with the other vendors…and it can get frustrating. “On the internet it’s very easy to start things, it’s much harder to sustain them,” says Indi frankly. Both he and Sanjaya agree that while it has the potential to be a powerful democratic tool, Facebook simply needs many more Sri Lankans online and engaged before it can be used as such.

Read Smriti’s article in full here.

Pissu Poona: The new face of activism on the web in Sri Lanka?

pissu-poona

Facebook’s appeal as a platform for political activism in the Middle East is well known. Far fewer people access it in Sri Lanka, even amongst the handful in the country who are connected to the web and Internet. And yet, I received an invitation yesterday from Pissu Poona, an anonymous identity I befriended whose only reason on the social networking platform is to push articles and content of interest to fellow friends.

I had major concerns about befriending Pissu Poona. Though I can guess, I don’t know who Pissu Poona really is and given that my Facebook profile, which any friend has access to, is full of personal stuff, I didn’t at first want to befriend this identity, and only did so after being cajoled by a (real life / true / human) friend.

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Addressing hatred on the web

Economist

Image courtesy The Economist

An article in the Economist explores an issue central to my work – the rise of hate speech on the web and the means through which it’s production, dissemination and influence can be constrained. In The brave new world of e-hatred, the Economist notes that,

What is much more disturbing is the way in which skilled young surfers—the very people whom the internet might have liberated from the shackles of state-sponsored ideologies—are using the wonders of electronics to stoke hatred between countries, races or religions…

A decade ago, a zealot seeking to prove some absurd proposition—such as the denial of the Nazi Holocaust, or the Ukrainian famine—might spend days of research in the library looking for obscure works of propaganda. Today, digital versions of these books, even those out of press for decades, are accessible in dedicated online libraries. In short, it has never been easier to propagate hatred and lies. People with better intentions might think harder about how they too can make use of the net.

I keep going back to David Pogue’s comments in 2007. Speaking of the timbre of debate online, the NY Times renown tech columnist said:

The real shame, though, is that the kneejerk “everyone else is an idiot” tenor is poisoning the potential the Internet once had. People used to dream of a global village, where maybe we can work out our differences, where direct communication might make us realize that we have a lot in common after all, no matter where we live or what our beliefs.

But instead of finding common ground, we’re finding new ways to spit on the other guy, to push them away. The Internet is making it easier to attack, not to embrace.Maybe as the Internet becomes as predominant as air, somebody will realize that online behavior isn’t just an afterthought. Maybe, along with HTML and how to gauge a Web site’s credibility, schools and colleges will one day realize that there’s something else to teach about the Internet: Civility 101.

I’ve also tracked Sri Lankan bloggers talk about the issue of trolls and hate speech in the SL blogosphere and have documented the downfall of Moju, one of Sri Lanka’s first group blogs aimed at young social and political activists after it was consumed by spite.

In April 2007, a couple of us who were in Liverpool for the Online Dispute Resolution Forum came up with a Statement for Respectful Communication that personally inspired the submission and discussion guidelines at Groundviews, an award winning citizen journalism site I created and edit.

The Economist article makes a vital point however. It notes that,

The small size of these online communities does not mean they are unimportant. The power of a nationalist message can be amplified with blogs, online maps and text messaging; and as a campaign migrates from medium to medium, fresh layers of falsehood can be created. During the crisis that engulfed Kenya earlier this year, for example, it was often blog posts and mobile-phone messages that gave the signal for fresh attacks. Participants in recent anti-American marches in South Korea were mobilised by online petitions, forums and blogs, some of which promoted a crazy theory about Koreans having a genetic vulnerability to mad-cow disease.

I’ve seen plenty of Facebook groups, blogs, community websites and even news services that promote lies, half-truths and vicious propaganda as the one and only Truth. There is no engagement encouraged or possible in these fora with the unlike-minded and it follows that same jingoistic dualism that defines the Bush administration’s approach to so much of its policies on terrorism – one is either with them or against them. No alternatives. No concessions. No debate. No multiple truths. No reconciliation.

One example of this mindset is to be found in a comment on an article concerning a landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights which noted that a Tamil denied asylum in Britain could not be sent back to Sri Lanka because he would be at risk of torture.

The comment notes that,

Some Sri Lankan Tamils seeking asylum in the West on account of what they call “torture” in Sri Lanka (and we from Sri Lanka know the self-inficted torture that Tamils practice) are falsely producing scars as evidence of having been inflicted by the military and/or police.

One has only to go to Kataragama and see the Kavadi dancers with the sharp metal objects pierced through their skins, mouths, and tongues; others similarly pierced dragging heavy loads using these pierced elements as harnesses to prove their devotion, and fire-walkers, etc. etc.).

The sheer chutzpah of this statement is incredible, but is indicative of a milder version of the vicious, partisan, exclusive nationalist rhetoric that colours both pro-LTTE Tamil national as well as pro-Sinhala Buddist / pro-Rajapaksa Sinhala nationalism on the web.

This vicious narrative echoes much of what is outlined in a recent article published in the New York Times that is fascinating for its exploration of the (secret) lives of trolls, including the one purported behind the notorious Kathy Sierra incident. Looking at why online hate is promoted by trolls, Malwebolence notes,

One promising answer comes from the computer scientist Jon Postel, now known as “god of the Internet” for the influence he exercised over the emerging network. In 1981, he formulated what’s known as Postel’s Law: “Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others.” Originally intended to foster “interoperability,” the ability of multiple computer systems to understand one another, Postel’s Law is now recognized as having wider applications. To build a robust global network with no central authority, engineers were encouraged to write code that could “speak” as clearly as possible yet “listen” to the widest possible range of other speakers, including those who do not conform perfectly to the rules of the road. The human equivalent of this robustness is a combination of eloquence and tolerance — the spirit of good conversation. Trolls embody the opposite principle. They are liberal in what they do and conservative in what they construe as acceptable behavior from others. You, the troll says, are not worthy of my understanding; I, therefore, will do everything I can to confound you.

Emphasis mine.

My own interest is in the creation of (virtual) spaces that allow the unlike-minded to engage as constructively and progressively as possible in the shared belief that it is only through civil, respectful conversations that peace can be imagined, nurtured, given birth to and sustained.

One measure I took when creating Groundviews for example was a well defined framework for submissions and discussions on the site. What I noticed very early on was that few actually cared to read this and fewer comprehended what was put down. I then put up a blurb on top of the comments section that noted quite expressly that comments were moderated according to a set of guidelines. Both measures were able to keep the trolls at bay on the site, though the site and I got plenty of vicious flak on the blogs and websites run by individuals who felt slighted that their diatribes weren’t published.

Today, the number of comments I actually reject is close to zero, proving that a set of guidelines that allow for the negotiation of difference and the contestation of varying viewpoints in a civil manner can and does ultimately facilitate a qualitatively rich discussion online.