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.

ICTs in general

Media Innovation at the World Editors Forum 2013

Innovation and paywalls were the buzzwords at the  20th World Editors Forum (WEF) and the 65th World Newspaper Congress, held recently in Bangkok, Thailand. There was hardly any panel which didn’t address the ostensible merits of establishing a paywall, or how innovation – proposed and perceived mostly as mobile app development, responsive web design or changes in the newsroom culture to embrace new media and mobile first strategies – had changed the fortunes of media companies.

In my own submission at WEF, I flagged the innovations pioneered under Groundviews in using web based platforms and services to highlight stories otherwise marginal, or untold. Whereas WEF was agog with the potential profit making potential of paywalls, innovations through Groundviews focussed on content that would not otherwise be known to a wider audience, or recorded for posterity. Groundviews doesn’t have a multi-million dollar budget, any newsroom staff or a graphics department and yet launched an iPhone app to access site content, Twitter feeds and report from the field as far back as 2011. Optimised for the then freshly introduced Retina display on the iPhone 4, the app was the first of its kind in South Asia for a citizen journalism initiative.

While the innovations paraded at WEF by some of the world’s largest and best known media companies and news organisations where mostly rants about how one needed to embrace the mobile web or else face rapid obsolescence, Groundviews offered a different, and I hope, more compelling story – a meta-story if you will, about how it captures, archives and visualises content often no other media institution in Sri Lanka can or will feature. I spoke about the use of Google Earth in the visualisation of the bloody end of the war in Sri Lanka, as well as in the fate of mass graves in the North and East of the country. I flagged how the site archives tweets around significant events and processes in Sri Lanka. Data visualisation and open data journalism are alien concepts in Sri Lanka, and yet this is precisely what – without calling it such – Groundviews is providing examples of, and moreover, how to do it for free or little cost.

But beyond the technology, I spoke about how Sri Lanka is NOT a story in the global media today, after the end of the war and more precisely, how the feel good tourism coverage on the country glossed over real violence. Flagging, inter alia, the serious and growing violations of human rights, the systemic breakdown of democratic governance, the rapid rise of Islamophobia, the near total mockery of the Rule of Law and the continuing and the violent marginalisation of the Tamil community, my presentation was in effect how a platform as simple as WordPress could bear witness to that which no one else was recording, interrogating, archiving or investigating.

The most valuable innovation for me is not what you do with a multi-million dollar budget. It is what you do, and how you do it, using little or no resources – human or financial. It is how you showcase the best journalism under duress, and a violent content. It is how you report when you know what you focus on will invariably result in serious pushback – physically, virtually or both. It is strategically planning for this pushback. It is leveraging the power and potential of freely accessible web platforms and apps, which may have never been designed with journalism in mind, to capture stories that need to be told. It is the self-education that is necessary to keep subjects and contributors safe, and yet, get their stories produced and published. It is how a simple archive of tweets can be, over the years, the richest source of critiques over promises unkept or broken. It is to embrace arts, theatre, music, photography, dance, painting and data visualisation as forms of journalism and then see how digital media can augment physical production and performance.

All this and more, over seven years, Groundviews has pioneered. WEF was a rare honour to participate in and contribute to as well. Yet for me, it was substantively largely passé. Innovation in media blossoms not just with millions of readers subsidising its real cost, or for and in the developed world, but when there is no help, safety net, international media gaze, human resources or financial resources. It’s this innovation that also needs to be flagged, and models to support and sustain, created.

ICTs in general

A ‘gay girl in Damascus’ is actually a callous white American man

Image courtesy The Telegraph

I first wrote about the purported abduction of Amina Abdallah Arraf The ‘abduction’ of a gay activist in Syria: A cautionary tale for media. In what can only be called a bizarre twist, the author of A Gay Girl in Damascus turns out to be a Tom MacMaster, an American 40-year-old graduate student. The New York’s Times blog The Lede has the details, but it turns out that the entire blog is a fictional account, based on a stolen identity. The most recent post on A Gay Girl in Damascus, now called ‘A Hoax’, is an apology by MacMaster, which notes that,

“I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.”

MacMaster’s suggestion that he has not harmed anyone is incredible. There is no mention of Jelena Lecic, whose identity MacMaster stole. There is no reflection about what this elaborate hoax means for real activists, and real issues in Syria, since it puts into question everything that was written on the blog, whether or not it mirrored reality. There is seemingly no cognition that this is good fodder for brutish Syrian authorities to conveniently suggest that other content online is actually false. It calls to question Facebook as a tools for activism, if spoofing an identity is so easy. It calls to question http://lezgetreal.com, which had posted an article suggesting  Amina was actually “a 35 year-old lesbian living in Edinburgh, Scotland”. This post and in fact, the content on this entire site has since been taken down, and The Lede hints that this site is also run by MacMaster. A PDF of a Google Cache copy of this page can be read here.

In The ‘abduction’ of a gay activist in Syria: A cautionary tale for media I reiterated the need for media to improve their digital media literacy in order to be more resilient to fraudulent characters on the web. What’s sad is that so many of the news outlets that published stories on Amina, even when increasingly sceptical of the story, continued to use Jelena Lecic’s photo in their coverage, or didn’t take it down from their websites. The media, in this case, served to strengthen MacMaster’s callous attitude as much as they now seek to expose him as a fraud.

An Israeli blogger named Elizabeth Tsurkov, who had interacted at length with ‘Amina’ online, noted to The Lede in an e-mail,

“I reacted more strongly than most people to the news of Amina’s kidnapping because I felt that I knew the person who was kidnapped, but many other people who had simply read the blog were terrified. I’m not sure there is a way to protect oneself from such sociopaths, but I know that I will try to distance myself emotionally from people that I am not very familiar with online.”

Elizabeth speaks for so many of us. As for MacMaster, the media should now treat him the way they treated Amina’s abduction. Include as many photos of him as they can find in the news stories on this issue, so that the long memory of Google also captures for posterity and exposes him for what he is – a sociopath, a fraud.

As for Facebook itself, the platform from which Jessica says her identity was stolen by MacMaster, I wonder whether its controversial face recognition technology can play a more positive role? If the company chooses to do so, it can warn other users of photos that appear on its social network which may be a false identity, done simply by flagging photos that are tagged as one identity appearing in other instances / profiles / albums / walls as another, or alongside claims to be someone else.

What other ideas do you have to sniff out and avoid similar online debacles?

ICTs in general

3 day training course on new media

I recently conducted a 3 day course on new media for students, coming from academia as well as mainstream journalism, at the Sri Lanka College of Journalism. In 2010, I did a similar course for the SLCJ Faculty and senior administration staff to build internal capacity to engage with new media.

Though this outline gives a framework for the technologies and issues that I cover, in actual fact, after my initial presentation, the delivery and content respond to what I ascertain are actual needs and challenges faced by those in the classroom. I teach largely in Sinhala and make the class environment as interactive as possible, which is not something many are used to, since lectures in Sri Lanka are often thought of as sterile environments to take down notes and stay silent. Each student has access to a computer and SLCJ encourages them to bring their laptops if they have one.

Far more than web technologies, I teach them new media strategies to deal with censorship, online safety and security basics, minimising risk, content management and disseminating strategies using cloud services and a range of other platforms and tools, including VOIP, web based file transfer and field based multimedia production tools for mobiles. So it’s a large spectrum we cover, and because it is based on class discussion and pegged to real world challenges, including censorship and violence, three days goes by in a flash.

I also bring to bear experience from setting up and curating Groundviews and sites like Websites At Risk, which help the class understand though real world challenges I have faced how best to use new media to bear witness to whatever issues they are passionate about, ranging from sports to human rights violations.

ICTs in general

Groundviews for iPad: Lessons for online media

One of the advantages of using a robust and recognised content management system for an online media initiative, such as WordPress, Joomla or Drupal, is that unlike a custom tailored solution, it is able to leverage the innovation of third party developers. Onswipe is a key example of this. Developed for and now available on every single wordpress.com blog, and also available as a plugin for any self-hosted WordPress site, it renders the site content on Apple’s iPad look very nice. Visually akin to the stunning Flipboard, Onswipe is not an app and relies of HTML5 to render site content on the iPad.

Groundviews has from 2006 run on WordPress. A few days ago, we enabled Onswipe on it, making it the first media website in Sri Lanka to tailor its content to iPads, a few days after we launched a native iPhone 4 app for the site. As noted in a blog post,

GV iPad app

After our launch of Sri Lanka’s as well as South Asia’s first citizen journalism app for Apple’s iPhone 4, we are now pleased to launch a version of the site tailored for Apple’s iPad. Leveraging Onswipe for WordPress, the site content now viewed on an iPad 1 or iPad 2 is beautifully rendered and provides easy access to share content through Twitter, Facebook as well as via email.

Click here for more screenshots of Groundviews running on the iPad.

Onswipe on the original iPad has some ways to go before it becomes as polished as Flipboard. It’s still not very configurable, and compared to the smooth transitions and animations of a native app, the HTML5 processing takes its toll on page load and response times on the original iPad, though this may be better on the iPad 2 with its dual core processor and far better graphics. That said, the content is much more readable and even comments are presented in a very accessible manner.

There are bugs. HTML5 video embeds (from Vimeo) don’t work. Site navigation is very rudimentary. The plugin does not give any option to tweak the navigation options / menu items it automatically sets up. Some pages scroll and load with a lot of screen flicker. Scrolling takes time. Airprint functionality is not available. There is no search functionality, and that which is built into a self-hosted site does not always work.

Onswipe promises many improvements in the future,

“The full Onswipe platform will come with a vast number of themes, support a ton of touch devices, and other sources such as twitter, flickr, and youtube. There’s also some secret sauce we’re working on for social interactions across all Onswipe powered sites.”

The reason Groundviews embraces plugins like Onswipe is that I believe journalism’s content delivery has to match the consumption patterns of consumers. It also showcases what can be done using standards based web technologies to promote compelling content through engaging design – form follows function, and allows for more persistent engagement with and sharing of what is published. The news industry in Sri Lanka is outrageously ignorant of best practices on the web. Without exception, all major mainstream and well as many citizen journalism websites in the country demonstrate so many flaws in design that it reflects an approach to online news as an adjunct to what is published in newsprint. Instead of a bad facsimile of what is in print, Onswipe demonstrates what is possible, for zero cost, when web media is developed on a standards based technical architecture, and with news consumption trends in mind in and out of Sri Lanka.

Not that anyone in Sri Lanka’s media industry is listening, or comprehending.

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.

ICT for Peacebuilding

It’s ok for government to infiltrate online privacy of Sri Lankan citizens?

A wide-ranging interview published in the Daily Mirror with Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, also the brother of the President, addresses the issue of internet and web surveillance. The relevant excerpt follows:

As an IT expert, do you think that it is ethical for a government to infiltrate into the online privacy of Sri Lankan citizens by gathering information, with regard to their political affiliations?

Actually, if we could do that it would be good, however as a third world country we don’t have that facility. But in all other developed countries they monitor emails, telephone conversations, SMS and people in the streets. So they have a lot of monitoring systems and also all their systems are integrated. Unfortunately, ours is not. All security agencies in these countries could, by simply giving a number; they can obtain all the details of a person. But we don’t have that facility and in fact we have to develop such a system.

Our ID card system is not effective, so we have to introduce a better system. We faced a situation in the past 4 years, we saw the weakness of the ID card system, where every suicide carder and terrorist had a bogus ID. Further our passport system is not fool-proof.

We don’t have a close CCTV surveillance system in Colombo; whereas in all the other big cities they are monitored.

We cant monitor SMS’s or email, we need to have such a system but we don’t and we are not doing it.

While it is not true that all developed countries monitor internet, web and mobile communications, many in fact do. As I noted in When even democracies go awry with online dissent, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Thailand, Indonesia and even the United States are guilty of online filtering, blocking and surveillance. As I wrote then, it is extremely important that we condemn these proposed and enacted measures as vehemently as we decry actions and policies to censor online content by regimes like China, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

And yet, the clear and present danger of the kind of pervasive surveillance championed by the Defence Secretary in post-war Sri Lanka is best expressed by Tapan Bose, a well known Indian journalist, film producer and political activist.

Today, in Sri Lanka nobody feels safe. There is an elected president. The election to the parliament has just been held. Yet this is the country where the main opposition candidate in the presidential election was summarily taken away by the military police and is now being forced to face military court martial on trumped-up charges. In Sri Lanka, whether one is a businessman or a politician or a judge or a media person no one escape the scrutiny of the intelligence wings of the state. The most powerful organ of the state is the intelligence apparatus of the government. This is return to the “Arthashastra”, ancient Indian treaties on governance written by Chanakya. The advice of Chanakya to the “Prince” was that the success of the regime depended on the system’s ability to get the subjects to spy on each other and constantly report to the state. (Review of Sri Lanka: The Emergence Of The Power Of The Intelligence Apparatus, published in Sri Lanka Guardian)

One also recalls columnist Kumar David’s dire prediction earlier this year – which I flagged in Sri Lankan President halts web censorship, which raises more vital questions.

The problem is this, the government will get draconian measures ready but will not reveal them till after the elections – why give the opposition another handle to beat it with – then will come the LIDA communication straight-jacket and legislation to smother dissent.

Prima facie, what Gotabaya Rajapaksa points to is certainly desirable from the perspective of intelligence operations to thwart terrorism. But the real fear, given the government’s noted tendency to clamp down on dissent and political opposition is that a sophisticated surveillance system will lead to persecution, execution and censorship – in sum, a system in the control of a few in government to contain and control media and content.

We have such efforts before. Citizens.lk, now largely forgotten, has gone through two versions without any significant improvement. The first version was downright farcical. The second version was no less bizarre and dysfunctional. I have never bothered to enter my details into this site and once told the Cinnamon Gardens Police, who politely insisted I enter my details to this system, to come back with the legal basis that required me to do so. They have not stepped into office since. So clearly, we already have intrusive websites created and promoted by government with no legal basis that at their most benign, serve no purpose other than to replicate information already in multiple locations in the administration.

In sum, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is in favour of a Police state. There is nothing more important for him than command and control of citizenry, a mindset that fuels an architecture of monitoring private communications and public media inimical to democracy given the lack of legal redress and quite often, the extra-judicial nature of government reprisals. Sadly too, there is no progressive vision here for the use of ICTs to strengthen government. Initiatives like the US State Department’s Opinion Space, or one of my own through Groundviews to foster progressive ideas on democracy, are not even on the radar of this government or its supine puppet, the ICT Agency.

Kumar David may well be correct. Given the bent of the Defence Secretary, post-war Sri Lanka is set to head into an Internet dark age.