Ok2rt: Privacy Innovation on Twitter

Privacy is political.  Next month the Pulitzer Prize committee will decide whether to honor reporting by The Washington Post and The Guardian that detailed surveillance of our private lives based on government documents made public by Edward Snowden.

Yet privacy is also personal.  Yesterday Twitter user @steenfox asked her followers whether they had been sexually assaulted and, if so, what they were wearing.  Then she said something unusual.  She asked if it was okay to retweet the responses.

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Twitter public. As Gawker wrote yesterday:

The things you write on Twitter are public. They are published on the world wide web. They can be read almost instantly by anyone with an internet connection on the planet Earth. This is not a bug in Twitter; it is a feature. Twitter is a thing that allows you to publish things, quickly, to the public.

And yet, that’s only part of the story.  Everything on Twitter is public, but not everything is amplified.  By asking her followers if it was okay to RT, @steenfox was asking if it was okay to amplify, okay to make a public utterance more public.

Where public is the default, public becomes a continuum.  That’s why the FacebookCleavage subreddit is creepy.  That’s why there is an entire body of scholarly literature on context collapse.  Creating new practices and new vocabulary for privacy – ok2rt, for instance – is a step in the right direction.  It is a way of re-asserting privacy preferences over technology designed to ignore them.

Fighting on after Digital Success

“We’re famous as a country with beautiful laws that are not implementable.”

That’s a quote from Yvette Abrahams, the Commissioner for Gender Equality in South Africa, talking about the problem of correct rape in her country.

“South Africa was the first country in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in its constitution, and the first African country to legalize same-sex marriage” reported IRIN news agency, yet “the country also leads the world in the prevalence of violent crime, and violence against women in particular.”

In 2011, a much-publicized Change.org e-petition demanded that the South African Ministry of Justice to label as a hate crime the brutal practice of raping lesbians to convert them to heterosexuality.  The petition gained over 170,000 signatures.

“Extensive media coverage of our Change.org petition’s success has really piled pressure on the minister, whose chief of staff told our allies at Change.org” noted the activism group behind the e-petition, Luleki Sizwe.  The e-petition also automatically generated individualized emails to the minister’s senior staffers, “flood[ing] the ministry’s email system.”

After many attempts to gain government attention, the Ministry finally called the activists for a meeting within weeks of the e-petition’s launch.  “This was a first for us, and never in our wildest dreams did we imagine that we would get this kind of a response,” wrote the activists. “We are thrilled, excited and very, very humbled by the support.” The founder of Luleki Sizwe, Ndumie Funda, was appointed to an official Hate Crimes Task Team.

And then the fight continued.  Now, three years after the famous e-petition, the legal change originally envisaged by the e-petition is in sight.

Last month the Ministry of Justice announced a new Policy Framework on Combating Hate Crimes, Hate Speech and Unfair Discrimination, which could later become law.   According to Justice and Constitutional Development Deputy Minister John Jeffery, the new law would create a separate criminal category for hate crimes, as the e-petition originally requested.  

According to Inter Press, the policy is “in direct response to the increase of hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in South Africa.”  Yet, even if a hate crime law is passed, will it become one of the unimplementable “beautiful laws”?  The fight will continue on.

What does this tell us about the use of digital media for activism?

Because of its speed, low cost, and global reach, digital media can rapidly bring international media attention and public pressure to issues that activists at the national level have failed to gain traction on.  Through raising the profile of an issue, it can give local activists’ increased access to decision-makers, providing them with new channels for influencing these officials once the media attention and public pressure have passed.

We need more nuanced ways of measuring the effect of digital media use in activism. In the absence of goal achievement, did digital media use benefit the causes’s constituency by increasing activists’ ability to pursue their goal in the future?  In this case it did, putting Funda in a position of increased influence and putting the government in the position of having publicly committed to address the issue.

More than hits, clicks, and shares, the criterion of benefit is a nuanced and durable measure of activism success.

Flawless: Beyoncé’s Self-Presentation of Race

lorealIn 2008 Beyoncé shot a print ad for L’Oreal cosmetics (left).  The ad caused controversy when the blog Young Black, & Fabulous pointed out that L’Oreal tinted her skin differently in Essence (left) and Elle (right). The Telegraph also noted that both images were lighter than Beyoncé’s skin had appeared when she was photographed doing public appearances at the time.  “The picture,” wrote Laura Clout, “provoked outrage on both sides of the Atlantic after commentators suggested [L’Oreal] had digitally lightened Knowles’s complexion.”  The firm denied they had altered her “features of skin-tone” and Beyoncé declined to comment. Yet, three years later, it became clear that Beyoncé did have something to say about how her skin tone is presented.  In particular, she seemed to want to indicate that it is something she feels comfortable altering for artistic purposes.

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 1.46.30 PMThis time participating in a photo shoot for L’Officiel Paris with a much more explicit colorism theme, she appeared in images using a variety of skin tones (below), all depicting her as an “African Queen.”  In some images (left), she appeared in a makeup combination that was fairly described as “blackface.”  While the tinting of her L’Oreal ad could very well have happened without her knowledge, she was clearly aware of the skin tone choices being taken in the L’Officiel shoot.

In her most recent self-titled album, Beyoncé is using the new medium of the “visual album” to continue to play with the self-presentation of her race and skin color.  And, unlike the L’Oreal or even the L’Officiel images, she is clearly the author of her image.  “I don’t trust these recode labels,” she tells us in “Ghost.” “Soul not for sale.”

Beyoncé’s awareness and desire to manipulate the representation of her skin color (and race more generally) is most evident in “Ghost,” “Haunted,” “Grown Woman,” and “Pretty Hurts.”

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Ghost is the song where Beyoncé deals most directly with race.  Pushing further than “blackface,” where her face was covered in dark brown make-up, she presents herself in “blackbody,” covering her body and hair with thick back paint (left).

This song deals with race in more abstract ways as well.  In the video a female figure, who may or may not be Beyoncé, writhes within first a white and then a black tube of elastic fabric, totally enshrouded and faceless.  The figure struggles against both the black and white shrouds, perhaps indicating that confinement in any racial category is a trap.

Yet Beyoncé is a savvy business woman.  She knows that her audience doesn’t necessarily care about her symbolic artistic representations of race.  “Probably won’t no money off this – oh well,” she says at the end of the video. Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 12.06.37 PM

“Pretty Hurts” is the video deals most explicitly with ideals of female beauty, in which skin color is also implicated.  In the video she shows herself being spray-tanned – made darker – and in every image of that sequence she makes it clear that she finds the process annoying.  In one image (left) the woman applying the tanner accidentally sprays her in the face and she grimaces.

In the song references media commandments for “blonder hair,” an explicitly racialized ideal of beauty. Yet, in that video and most of the videos on the album, Beyonce’s hair is indeed dyed blonde.  She is submitting to white ideals of beauty because of her chosen profession, but wants to make clear that she find them oppressive.

Adopting this white ideal is portrayed most clearly in “Haunted” (post feature image, far left), where her hair is blonde and her skin is a rosy pink color.  Contrast this with her self-presentation in “Grown Woman,” where her hair, while straightened, is dark, and her shin is shown in a  deeper shade of brown (post feature image, center).  “I’m a grown woman I can do whatever I want,” she sings in the song.  Her visual self-presentation is part of her expression of agency.

“Underneath the pretty face is something complicated,” she sings in “No Angel.”  Respect that.  Bow down, bitches.

NOTE: Updated images and typos changed.

The Depths, not The Shallows

In 2011 Nicolas Carr published The Shallows, a book about how the Internet is rerouting our neural pathways, and not for the better.   By fragmenting information, the net makes us “ever more adept at scanning and skimming,” but reduces “our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.”

Now Clive Thompson, another tech journalist, has published a book that makes the opposite argument.  Rather than siphoning off vital function, the Internet can help us think better.  Thompson’s book is reviewed in today’s New York Times Book Review by Walter Isaacson, author of the best-selling biography Steve Jobs.

Isaacson begins by citing the well-known tale of Gary Kasparov’s 1997 defeat at chess by the computer Deep Blue.  While many people know of this defeat of man by machine, few know what happened thereafter:

The year after his defeat by Deep Blue, Kasparov set out to see what would happen if he paired a machine and a human chess player in a collaboration…. The result: human-machine teams, even when they didn’t include the best grandmasters or most powerful computers, consistently beat teams composed solely of human grandmasters or superfast machines.

Thompson also quotes and then critiques Socrates famous critique of writing.  “This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories,” Plato quoted Socrates as saying. “They will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” Yet, quoting Thompson, Isaacson notes:

Socrates failed to foresee “the types of complex thought that would be possible once you no longer needed to mentally store everything you’d encountered,” and he surmises that the same will turn out to be true of our ability to digitally store and easily access huge amounts of information and memories outside of our own brains.

Isaacson alights upon the most common contemporary example of Socrates prophecy.  As children many of us could memorize phone numbers.  Now few of us do.  Perhaps it has even become more difficult for us, since we are unaccustomed to memorizing rote information, which is easily accessible online.  Writes Isaacson:

My own mind is cluttered with phone numbers I memorized as a kid, but nowadays I outsource that task to my smartphone. I’m eager to make this and similar tasks even easier, and improve my mind (or at least free it up for more daydreaming), by getting my hands on Google Glass.

I find the argument that “creative minds are being strengthened rather than atrophied by the ability to interact easily with the Web” compelling.   Human brain can do more than store and process information.  One could even argue that computers do this better.  Humans can also create, critique, and daydream.  This is the thinking we should be doing.

image: Flickr/JD Hancock

To Shame a Predator: A Reddit Lesson in Activist Media Choice

Sean Larson is a jerk. Well, he wouldn’t call himself that. He’d call himself a pick-up artist. For weeks he systematically harassed female students at Ohio State University.  Finally ,one frequent harassee had enough. So she went to Reddit.

Reddit might not be the most obvious choice of an activist platform.  Though President Obama participated on an ask me anything (AMA) forum on the site in 2012 and it is owned by old media behemoth  Condé Nast, it is also a bit of a free-for-all, with subreddits (forums) dedicated to a wide range of topics, from atheism to rape fantasies.  There is also an Ohio State subreddit.

Three weeks ago, a woman posted the following message on the OSU subreddit:

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Using this semi-anonymous pseudonymous platform the poster was able to come forward while protecting her own identity.  Other women did the same.  400 comments later, the perpetrator was identified as “Sean Larson” (a pseudonym used by a man allegedly named [redacted]).

Sean runs a site called The Underground Player, where he spews creepy idiocy and misogynistic tips on securing sexual favors from women.  He also posts videos of women, apparently without their consent.  (I won’t link to the site, but you can Google it.)

Sean showed up on the Reddit thread, spouting misogyny, but no one took his side.  Male students also stepped forward to mock and troll him, in a heartening show of feminist solidarity by college bros.

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Though Sean claimed not to be fazed (#PlayersAreUnstoppable), he did admit that he had been functionally ejected from campus on the OSU Facebook page (more on BroBible).

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The lesson here is that the right technology is the one the works.  The OSU subreddit was heavily trafficked by students, so the original poster knew she could get attention on her issue.  Also, because of the username system, she could share her story of abuse without revealing her own identity, a critical features she would not have had on a platform like Facebook.

There is no single best technology for activism.  There are different technologies that are appropriate for different contexts.  Who do you need to engage in order to achieve your goal?  What media do they use?  What additional concerns (like anonymity) might influence your  media choice? These are the kinds of questions to ask when selection the best media platform for your activist cause.

Image: Flickr/ European Parliament, altered

The Shutdown: Protest and Powerlessness


“Individuals and groups may wish to bargain, but they may lack the resources to do so.”

The traditional narrative of the government shutdown is that the Tea Party Republicans, fronted by Ted Cruz (left), are schoolyard bullies, forcing Obama and Congressional Democrats to reneg on a bill that is already law.  This could make Cruz a feisty hero or a villain, depending on your politics, but he and his allies definitely appear to be wielding power.

Yet the scholarship of protest indicates that the shutdown is actually a function of Republican powerlessness, rather than Republican power.  In a 1961 article, “The Strategy of Protest: Problems of Negro Civic Action” (pdf, pardon the dated title), political scientist James Q. Wilson argues that protest is a form of bargaining.

Bargaining is defined by Wilson as “any situation in which two or more parties seek conflicting  ends through the exchange of compensations.”  Bargaining is difficult for excluded groups because “the excluded group has nothing the others desire.”   Wilson elaborates:

[C]ertain individuals and groups may wish to bargain, but they may lack the resources to do so-i.e., they may lack any stock of inducements (positive or negative) which they can use to influence other parties to act in accordance with at least some of their intentions.

Republicans had run out of the legal procedural means to stop the Affordable Care Act.  They tried to gut it during Congressional debate and prevent it from passing into law.  They brought it to the Supreme Court in an effort to have it struck down on Constitutional grounds.

All these measures failed.  They were forced to undertake an extra-institutional strategy of protest, which Wilson defines as “bargaining with the exclusive use of negative inducements (threats) that rely… on sanctions which require mass action,”  in this case, mass action by Congressional Republicans, even those outside the Tea Party caucus.

As Wilson writes, “[t]he party against which the protest is directed values something which the excluded group can place in jeopardy,” in this case, the operation of the Federal government.   Since Congressional Republicans lacked positive inducements or legitimate power to stop the Affordable Care Act, they artificially engineered a negative inducement, the government shutdown, the removal of which could be used as a bargaining chip in dealing with Democrats.

If you buy the application of Wilsons’ theory to the shutdown, you are buying into the interpretation that Republicans are operating from a position of powerlessness and exclusion.  The irony that the actions of Congressional Republicans can be described using a theory of excluded groups developed to describe African-Americans in the 1950’s is the most exquisite form of irony.  Perhaps society is changing more quckly than we realize.

image: Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com, via Salon

Silk Road and the History (and Future) of Darknets

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Silk Road’s homepage

Adrian Chen over at Gawker has a great post about the FBI bust of the heretofore anonymously-hosted online drug market Silk Road and the history and future of the Darknet on which it lived.

A Darknet is a peer-to-peer computer network, part of a larger category of alternative online networks collectively called the “deep Web.” These networks serve as alternative and (more) anonymous version of the World Wide Web you are currently using.

The Darknet on which Silk Road lived  is maintained by the Tor Project.  However, the downfall of Silk Road indicates that Darknets using different protocols, like I2P, may become the new home to activists and journalists in repressive countries, child pornography enthusiasts, criminals and others who are best able to operate beyond the reach of the law’s long arm.

Adrien’s whole post deserves a read, but here are some choice bits.  On the Tor Darknet’s history and how Silk Road became its “killer app”:

Before Silk Road, the Dark Net was small and scrappy, much like the regular Web in the early 90s. At the beginning, only a few hardcore criminals and privacy-obsessed geeks knew about it. Sites were hard to find and poorly maintained. That all changed when Silk Road launched in February, 2011. Where previous Dark Net users relied on obscurity as much as technology to keep them safe, Silk Road brazenly announced itself to the world. Dread Pirate Roberts [Ross Ulbricht] advertised the new “Amazon for drugs” on forums, and gave me an interview where he boasted of the site’s robust community.

What the arrest of Dread Pirate Roberts, and the end of Silk Road, means for the future online anonymity:

University of California, Berkeley computer security researcher Nicholas Weaver speculates that the takedown was the result of a rather sophisticated FBI hack attack that neutralized Tor, rather than Ulbricht’s “bone-headed” mistakes. His guess, based only on a close reading of the affidavit, is that the FBI’s hackers were able break into Silk Road’s server directly, tricking it into transmit its locations in the clear, thus circumventing Tor’s protections and de-anonymizing it. This version of Silk Road’s demise suggests no amount of precaution can keep a high-profile target safe.

On the unstable intersection of political reality and technological possibility inherent in online anonymity:

The lesson of the Silk Road takedown isn’t that Ulbricht was sloppy about security. It’s that the idea of a world famous, anonymous illegal market is fatally contradictory. Ullbricht made some technical mistakes, but his biggest one was conceptual: buying his own hype that high-tech tricks would let him implement a radical free market fundamentalism that could never work politically… The Dark Net was always an idea as much as a technology, and that idea is compromised, even if the technology proves to be bulletproof.

As ShaunKennedy, a commenter on the post noted, “Regardless of what you’re accessing on the internet or how you’re doing it, you are still a human being with a computer who physically exists in the real world. People who forget or ignore that, despite it being proven true countless times” will suffer the consequences.

Image source: http://andrewmcmillen.com/

Support the Sounds of Social Change

The awesome activist collective Mideast Youth has a great app called Mideast Tunes. According to MY founder Esra’a El Shafei:

It’s the largest platform for underground musicians in the Middle East, with over 1,000 bands signed up. It’s also completely free… and comes with iOS/Android apps. Many of these musicians use music as a tool to promote social justice and have risked their lives to be heard.

To date, the project has been completely self-funded and to help with expansion and to cover core costs,MY has put together a crowdfunding campaign.  They hope to raise $15,000 in the next month. If you can contribute, please do.  I have already:

Donate link: http://www.zoomaal.com/projects/mideastunes/695

FYI: The crowdfunding site they are using, Zoomaal, is an Arab version of Kickstarter with a social mission.

Facebook’s Offensive Body-Hating Ads

Facebook seems to be really scraping the bottom of the barrel with the ads it puts in user feeds.

Based on a small study with an N of 1 (me), they are based on a mindless and offensive algorithm that assumes that because I am a lady I must also hate my body – and there’s money to be made off of that!

It’s not only anti-feminist, it’s simply tacky.  I expect these kinds of ads on shady link-bait sites, but not on Facebook.

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Intro to the Digital Activism Research Project (Video)

Here’s a great video by Jason Rundell, a student in UW’s Master of Communication in Digital Media program, introducing the Digital Activism Research Project, which I co-founder with Phil Howard last summer.  The film features the two of us talking about new directions (and old questions) in digital activism.

Digital Activism Research Project from Jason Rundell on Vimeo.

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