Meta-Activism Project at the National Communication Association Convention

Today Meta-Activism Project Executive Director Mary Joyce was invited to be a respondent on the panel “Voices of the 2011 Revolutions: The Impact of Communication Technology in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa” at the annual conference of the National Communication Association in New Orleans.

The papers presented included a look at information flows during the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, a literature review on citizen journalism, an analysis of how the 2005 WSIS meeting in Tunis laid the groundwork for the Jasmine Revolution, a look at how political cartoons were used in the Egyptian Revolution, and a description of how the Tunisian media environment was transformed between the Gafsa protests in 2008 and the Jasmine revolution in 2010.

In her response Mary noted that all the papers were attempting to describe the effect of the newly networked transmedia information environment on political power. Panelists had described interaction between a number of different media makers and transmission of content across a range of platforms. Citizen activists in different countries are working together: Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff had direct contact with the Egyptian activists whose revolution he was depicting. Mainstream and citizen journalists are collaborating: they worked together to unravel the death of Ian Tomlinson during the London riots. Information flows between broadcast and social media are ever more frequently: Al Jazeera plucked their video footage of the Jasmine Revolution from Facebook.

Beyond individual anecdotes, to what extent can we describe the function and implications of this networked media environment? To what extent do we understand its effect on power? Certainly the networked media environment is an “emergent phenomena,” but how can we as scholars look at these changes in the aggregate in order to understand their aggregate effect on power?


Meta-Activism Project will be at SXSW!

We are pleased to announce that members of the Meta-Activism Project have been selected to act as panelists at South by Southwest Interactive, not only the “geek spring break” but also a major meeting of techies with both a profit-making and do-gooding bent. According to Fortune magazine:

What SXSW has always been about is people. It is the single best place in the creative innovation world to build relationships and get to know people. I have friends from all over the world that I’ve met over the last five years that I can’t wait to see in Austin every year.

MAP Founder and Executive Director Mary Joyce and Strategy Group member Patrick Meier will both be appearing on the panel Internet Power: After Cyber-Optimism and Pessimism at the AT&T Conference Hotel, and other great digital activists and innovative thinkers like Jillian York (How to Run a Social Site and Not Get Users Killed), Mark Belinsky (How Not to Die: Using Tech in a Dictatorship ), and Jeff Jarvis (Honey, We Shrunk the Economy) will also be in attendance. We’ll post more information about the date and time of our panel as we receive it and we hope to see you there.

Social Media and Extremism

Last summer Norway suffered a terror attack that struck at the heart of multiculturalism. Today I gave a keynote address at the annual conference of the Contact Committee for Immigrants and the Authorities (KIM) and decided to use that opportunity to discuss ways in which social media can be used to fight back against extremism and intolerance (slides below).  Social media can be used to create both narrow tribes living in echo chambers and inclusive communities that embrace difference.  It’s up to citizens to define the character of social media by challenging and exposing hateful ideologies.

Social Media and Conflict

L to R: Sheldon Himelfarb, Andy Carvin, Sultan Al Qassemi, Mary Joyce

Panelists L to R: Sheldon Himelfarb, Andy Carvin, Sultan Al Qassemi, Mary Joyce

Last Friday I was at the United States Institute of Peace on a panel with Andy Carvin and Sultan Al Qassemi to talk about social media and conflict. Of course, I used it as an opportunity to promote the Global Digital Activism Data Set, showing our current visualization slides (see below).

View more presentations from Mary Joyce

People Power Without Parties

This past week I went to Mexico City to give a keynote address at Ciudadano 3.0 (Citizen 3.0), a summit on online political marketing organized by the Mexican Internet Association.  I went a little off topic, talking about the growing trend in mass movements around the world (see below).  The summit was in anticipation of Mexico’s presidential elections in 2012 so, despite my more global topic, most of the questions were about the Obama campaign’s use of digital and how to apply it to Mexico.

View more presentations from Mary Joyce

Chinese Censorship and the Philosophy of Language

Chinese censors are probably not familiar with the “AAA framework,” but they should be. AAA, which stands for “Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas”, is a theory of linguistic meaning that states that “‘meaning is a relationship between two sorts of things: signs and the… things they mean.” The Great Firewall of China is very good at tracking and blocking signs (words), but is getting worse and worse as tracking and blocking meaning. This is because Chinese dissidents and politically-motivated pranksters are getting better and better as creating new signs – new words and images – for critiquing the government that bypass machine-based censoring programs.

In her talk on networked authoritarianism for the conference on Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regimes last month, scholar of the Chinese Internet Rebecca MacKinnon reported that, when she tried to post a comment on imprisoned Nobel prize recipient Liu Xiaobo on three local Chinese sites, including Baidu and Sina, she was blocked from posting with a moderation message. On the micro-blogging site Sohu the name Liu Xiaobo was removed from the post when it was published.

Yet she might have might have been able to post about Liu Xiabo using Latin letters or a homonym. The creation of alternative signs allows dissident to freely express a censored meaning. Reports the Economist:

News on October 8th that an imprisoned activist, Liu Xiaobo, had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize spread quickly through domestic microblogs despite the authorities’ best efforts to block it. Users wrote homonyms for Mr Liu’s name, or abbreviations in Latin characters.

These alternative signs are the new proxies, routing meaning around censors. As the graphic below shows, by creating alternative signs for a censored meaning, dissidents can post – and thus communicate – ideas the censors are trying to repress. Examples abound, from images of Green Dam Girl and Grass Mud Horse to discussion of “harmonized” blogs.

Just as the Internet does not solve the free speech problem of activist, automated censorship software does not solve the massive censorship problem of user-generated content. In the end, in a massive system like China’s Internet censorship regime, it is the developers vs. the dissidents.

Unfortunately, for censors there is an extra step – updating the software. Users can iterate new signs in a matter of seconds, whereas it takes hours or days to update censoring software to block new signs. Because it is easier to create new signs than find and block them across an entire system, I believe censors will always be playing catch-up with the Internet’s creative linguistic activists.

Watchdogs of the Mobile Network

The big mobile story of 2002 was that the number of mobile subscriptions had finally exceeded the number of land line subscriptions worldwide. In 2007, the story was that mobile subscriptions had hit 3 billion, dramatically narrowing the digital divide. Since then, the story has been about the backlash. Repressive governments like Iran, China, and Egypt have shifted their censorious gaze from the Internet to mobile phone networks, tracking data on the mobile web and shutting down SMS services before elections and during periods of mass protest.

Fortunately, activists are becoming more aware of these activities, not only by governments, but also by the private firms that help them. The Internet freedom organization Access Now has started a No to Nokia! petition, asking Nokia Siemens, the second largest telecommunications equipment supplier in the world, to “completely end all sales, support, and service of tracking and surveillance technology to governments with a record of human rights abuses”. The petition page notes that the company has admitted that their technology was used to “suppress dissent” in Iran, and Access Now alleges that at least one Iranian journalist, Isa Saharkhiz, was tracked down and imprisoned using Nokia Siemens’ technology. The American Islamic Congress also took action against Nokia Siemens last year by staging a protest outside their Manhattan store.

Researchers are also shining a light on how telecommunications companies are collaborating with governments to reveal subscribers’ private communication. The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto and the SecDev Group, an Ottawa-based think tank, have teamed up to create RIM Check (, a research project that allows Blackberry users to check how the phone’s manufacturer Research in Motion (RIM) is routing their phone’s encrypted data. The results are retained by the RIM Check project and will be later made public. The homepage states:

Recently a number of governments have threatened to ban Research in Motion’s BlackBerry services if the company does not make encrypted BlackBerry data and other content available to state authorities . A major concern of these regimes is that BlackBerry data can be encrypted and routed through servers located outside of their jurisdictions. Unconfirmed reports have circulated that RIM has made data sharing agreements with India, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates. Other countries are also requesting the company locate data centres within their jurisdictions.

The RIM case also highlights the convergence of mobile services with the Internet, since much data traffic on the Blackberry is actually Internet traffic, rather than simple mobile service that carries SMS messages. It looks like we are headed into a second front in the war for freedom of digital expression.

The Unsung Heroes of Circumvention

[UPDATED] Most people who use circumvention tools (and there aren’t many of them) use generic simple web proxies, rather than brand-names tools. That was the most interesting take-away I got from the Berkman Center‘s new “2010 Circumvention Tool Usage Report” (PDF), prepared by Ethan Zuckerman and Hal Roberts, along with Rob Faris and Jillian York of the OpenNet Initiative and John Palfrey. Here are some quotes:

First, even though much of the media attention on circumvention tools has been given to a handful of tools – notably Freegate, Ultrasurf, Tor, and Hotspot Shield – we find that these tools represent only a small portion of overall circumvention usage and that the attention paid to these tools has been disproportionate to their usage, especially when compared to the more widely used simple web proxies.

Of the 11 circumvention tools with at least 250,000 monthly users (Ultrasurf, Freegate, Tor, Hotspot Shield, and SWP #s 1 – 7), 7 are simple web proxies. Those 7 proxies together appear to serve close to half of the combined unique users of the 183 simple web proxies whose usage we were able to estimate.

We were surprised to discover that several widely-used simple proxies remained unblocked for very long periods of time in highly censorious nations that aggressively block the more well-discussed blocking-resistant tools. This difference in the treatment of the different types of tools may be the result of the difference in press coverage of these tools. Unlike Freegate, Ultrasurf, and Tor, the more widely-used simple web proxies have not been lauded much if at all in the U.S. press as agents of political change.

Support for circumvention technology has been a major element of the US State Department’s Internet Freedom initiative, and brand-name tools seem to be their focus, with Secretary Clinton’s public support for Haystack being the most unfortunate example.

The report indicates that the importance of these brand-name circumvention tools may be overstated, at least in terms of user volume, which might convince the State Department to change their focus as well. However, if simple web proxies are able to “remain unblocked for very long periods of time in highly censorious nations” because they “have not been lauded much if at all in the U.S. press as agents of political change” then I hope that the State Department refrains from publicly aligning these tools with US interests.

It’s a catch-22 of digital activism research: sometimes a tactic works precisely because it is not publicly known.

Webinar Notes: The Digital Duel


I decided to take notes while participating today in the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict‘s webinar, The Digital Duel: Resistance and Repression in an Online World. These comments are from Daryn Cambridge, Director for Knowledge & Digital Strategies at ICNC. I hope they are useful and I apologize for any errors in summarizing them.

  • Digital technology helps activists define the narrative of a conflict. The value of digital technology for nonviolent activism is all about the story. Digital technology helps activists define the story’s elements (protagonists, antagonists, plot), decide on the medium (video, photos, text), and then distribute that story online.
  • Mass media has taken story-telling power away from ordinary people, which is now dominated by corporate media conglomerates or government propaganda, depending on a society’s media landscape. New media changes this dynamic, giving activists the ability to publish, and shifts media attention from professionals to people.
  • Gene Sharp, an expert on nonviolent civic action, has noted that power is not monolithic (from above and from limited actors) but pluralistic (from below and from multiple actors).
  • Because the Internet supports the pluralistic power model by empowering individuals to critique and define social realities and coordinate action independently, the Internet challenges the existing power structure, which is why repressive governments are trying so hard to control the Internet.
  • For case study analysis, Daryn suggests a “champions and critics” methodology, that acknowledges the increased affordances of digital technology but also the limitations and threats that result. For example, in the 2007 Saffron Revolution in Burma, digital technology allows the citizen journalists of Burma VJ to capture and share information on the protest and crackdown, but also acknowledges that the Burmese government was able to shut down the Internet and that digital technology was not so effective to allow the opposition to succeed.
  • In bringing together nonviolent civic action theory and digital tools, Daryn presents a digital application of a “dilemma action,” an activist tactic in which the opponent loses whatever response he takes. Daryn takes the example of Ethan Zuckerman’s cute cat theory, that if activists post information on a popular and generally apolitical platform like Blogger the government will lose if they allow the content to remain accessible, but will also lose if they block the platform as other apolitical bloggers that use the platform (and their readers) will also see their sites censored and may become politicized through that experience.
  • Conclusions: We must judge the the value of digital tools through the lens of its effect on power; a campaign’s individual context and goals must determine whether and how tools are used.

Analyses like those provided in this webinar are extremely important in integrating strategic theories of activism with knowledge of digital infrastructure. This as the next step in digital activism analysis, moving beyond the optimist/pessimist debate to acknowledge the truths in both viewpoints and to dig deeper into how these tools can be applied for maximum positive impact.

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