Esra’a Al Shafei is a 23-year-old from Bahrain who runs an online hub for journalism and free expression called MideastYouth.com. In 2009, she was made a TED Fellow at the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford. “TED gives you a sense of credibility,” she says. “I’ve been running Mideast Youth for four years, but before the fellowship, nobody talked about it.” TED connections have led her to sources of technical and moral support that helped her launch CrowdVoice, which tracks voices of protest around the world.
Most digital activism campaigns use apps and devices not explicitly designed for activism: Twitter, Facebook, email, blogs, SMS. There are a few applications designed for activists, like the secure email system RiseUp.net, the social network Crabgrass (also a RiseUp project), the database application Martus, and SMS encryption application Guardian. That these applications have relatively small user bases need not be a problem – after all, most technology users are not activists. However, they also have a minority user base among activists, most of whom use commercial applications.
However, in repressive regimes, using commercial applications can be quite dangerous. In Egypt, for example, the founders of the Facebook group were later arrested. Popular commercial applications, like Facebook, often make their profits by degrading user privacy by selling highly targeted advertising. Also, firms guided by the bottom line are more likely to cooperate with repressive regimes in whose borders they operate. This lack of security endangers activists. It is no coincidence that all four activist platforms listed above are dedicated to providing secure communication.
CrowdVoice, a service recently created by the activist organization Mideast Youth, is different. (Full disclosure: Meta-Activism Project Adviser Esra’a Al Shafei is the organization’s founder.) It is an alternative media outlet which relies on activists to crowdsource links to information related to causes they care about, such as women’s rights in Iraq or Kurdish human rights. As the video below shows, if activists find a link to a piece of information, an image, or a video that they think is useful, they simply copy and paste the URL on the appropriate CrowdVoice page. The content is then added to the page, which is structured in a visually-appealing mosaic of interlocking tiles that invites browsing.
The challenge for Crowdvoice now is to rise awareness of the tool among activists. This is the same challenge as the other activist apps, which lack advertising budgets and entertainment value. It is no coincidence that the activist applications with high user rates – circumvention applications like Tor and UltraSurf – help users view censored content like pirated movies and porn. Come for The Fast and the Furious, stay for the free political discourse.
While the previous statement was tongue in cheek, the point is a serious one: activist technologies will get the widest user base if they spread as other social technologies do – among friends. In a world where activists are isolated because of their small numbers and the dangers of self-identification, activist technologies are most likely to reach them through non-political friend networks. CrowdVoice’s technology could just as easily aggregate information on spring fashions or music groups as it does about political causes. Could broadening its content help is gain more activist users as well?