Seeking Support in Secret


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In mid 2012 the highest court in Russia ruled against gay pride parades in Moscow for the next 100 years. In 2013 a federal bill banned the distribution of "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" to minors. Homophobia thrives not just at legal and political levels but is widespread among the general population; according to a 2013 survey 74% believe that homosexuality should not be accepted by society. As gay teens struggle to find support in public space they increasingly find affirmation online, in closed groups like Deti-404 (The Observer, 2013).

Meanwhile, Chelsea Manning, at the centre of a WikiLeaks scandal in 2010, has come out as transgender and has requested that ‘starting today you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun’ (press release, Aug 22, 2013). Chelsea Manning is currently serving 35 years in a male prison facility where she has been informed that the army will not support hormone therapy or sex-reassignment therapy.

As surveillance of everyday engagement online is increasingly acknowledged by government and private enterprise (including Google’s gmail service) and young people around the world are being alerted to the dangers of cyber-bullying and online predators, how are social perceptions of privacy and safety shifting? Is a closed group on ‘VK’ (the second biggest social network service in Europe, after Facebook) private enough to provide assurance to young queer Russians? Where will Chelsea seek affirmation with restricted online access in a male prison? Can the Dark Web provide an alternative for subaltern publics? Or does the technical expertise and tenacity required to access these spaces of supposedly amplified security make them unattainable for disenfranchised minorities?

This paper draws on current case studies to explore shifting understandings of privacy and networked identity work in cultures where public expression of queer sexuality remains taboo.

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  • Thanks for coming – today I’m presenting on behalf of Sonja Vivienne, a post-doc researcher at the Centre for Communication and Social Change at University of Queensland. While she can’t be with us… she’d like to welcome any feedback via email, twitter or me… and she’d like to thank me very much for my generosity of spirit and intellectual camaraderie… and hopes to one day repay the favour!
    This paper draws on current case studies in order to explore shifting understandings of privacy and publicness…
  • …in particular, in cultures where public expression of queer sexuality and non-normative gender performance are socially maligned and risky.
    Sonja proposes a framework of ‘networked intimate citizenship’ that might support stigmatised people, and others, in navigating privacy…
    Since what have become know as the ‘nymwars’ in 2011, in which Google + insisted on use of legal names as profiles, there has been increased debate about a ‘right to privacy’.
    So, why do we need privacy? What are the strengths and weaknesses of pseudonymity?
    Building on the ‘online dis-inhibition effect’ some people maintain the use of ‘real’ names reduces flaming and vitriol.
    On the other hand, others believe that anonymity, or at the very least pseudonymity, is necessary in order to facilitate safe and genuine engagement of diverse voices.
  • So – a quick roadmap… First I’m going to outline a theoretical and social landscape for this presentation, then describe and analyse 2 particular case studies… before raising some research questions for further discussion and investigation…
  • Let’s start ‘context’ with a brief exploration of understandings of pseudonymity and anonymity… The distinction may be clear to this audience, however to many internet users it is not…
  • While a pseudonym is a fictitious substitute for a legal name, it does not guarantee anonymity.
    Images that are partially obscured may confound facial recognition software and render their subjects unidentifiable to an unknown audience, however, to anyone who has even minimal knowledge of the subject, they are recognisable – and this thread can lead to them then being identified and located.
    Anonymity, on the other hand, assumes no threads link physical identity with its representation. Anonymity is extremely difficult to achieve when sharing personal stories – arguably impossible. Even untraceable ISPs are useless if an anecdote is specific in its nature…
    Imagine that you identify as ‘gay’ or that you see yourself as an ‘ally of same sex attracted people’ and that you live in Russia…
  • As you probably know, in 2013 a federal bill banned the distribution of "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" to minors. In Russia, homophobia thrives, not just at legal and political levels, but is widespread among the general population… according to a 2013 survey, 74% believe that homosexuality should not be accepted by society.
    In numerous well-documented examples gay or sympathetic people, have lost their jobs for offering empathy and affirmation in supposedly ‘private’ online groups, like Deti-404.
  • Deti-404 translates as ‘Children-404’ and plays on the ‘error 404 – page not found’ warning. It was established by 17 year old Lena Klimova, in March 3013 on VKontakte, which is the second biggest social network service in Europe following Facebook, and has the motto ‘Children-404. LGBT teens. We exist!’.
    Presumably, group moderators must approve membership of the group, however, while pseudonyms are available to all, it is not difficult to infiltrate a closed group in order to gather information about other members.
  • The association between a perceived degree of privacy and a degree of safety has broader social significance – for people, young and old, wealthy, privileged… or not – out of date or poorly negotiated expectations of privacy and publicness can cost jobs, relationships and, in some cases, lives…
    Can the so-called ‘darknet’ or ‘deep’ web provide an alternative? If you wish to conceal illegal activity it might be useful to employ multiple ISPs to hide locations of engagement, but ill-conceived pseudonyms or accidental half-revelations can still be traced to source…
    For those who wish to find a secret space in which to seek support… it is, unfortunately, likely that others can find them there too…
  • Drawing on work by boyd, Papacharissi, Hogan, Warner and Lange… and my doctoral research with queer digital storytellers, I have started employing a theoretical construct that I call ‘Networked Intimate Citizenship’.
    This is an attempt to acknowledge the labour involved in…
    negotiating identity simultaneously in
    face to face and online environments with
    publics who are both familiar and unknown,
    now and in the future…
    It involves…
    building bridges across difference while
    maintaining personal congruence…
    In other words having…
    agency and ownership of the
    production and distribution of identity on one’s own terms…
  • This frame requires moving beyond simplistic digital dualisms – comparisons between face to face interactions, and online self-representations.
    Like this photo – an airport scanner – the vast majority of people simultaneously inhabit a body and maintain connection to a digital trace of that identity.
    Who controls how that identity is represented and where that representation travels, is a more complex issue… and worthy of lengthy exploration.
  • Bernie Hogan argues that, unlike Goffman’s ‘front and back stage’, digital self-representation is an ‘exhibition’ - curated by platforms like Facebook...
    Building on this argument, and taking into account the mediating influence of platforms, digitally literate users at least have POTENTIAL to seize agency (over the process of self-representation) and ownership (of it’s distributed and evolving form)
  • Control over self-representation – or if you like ‘curation of your personal online exhibition’ - is central in many arguments about surveillance, however, in the examples I’m about to describe, it is the unanticipated consequences of self-exposure or a lack of digital literacy in managing the boundaries of that exposure that are proving increasingly problematic for marginalised people.
    In the last year or so there have been numerous international examples of the tangled complications of online privacy and publicness, and I’ll now briefly explore 2 of those – the case of queer youth in Russia and that of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning…
  • This image was picked up in late 2013 by online tech/science/art/culture news aggregator ‘The Verge’. It depicts representatives from a loose collective of neo-Nazis and Russian nationalists known as ‘Occupy Pedophilia’ who use social media in 2 ways:
    luring gay people (sometimes by posing as prospective dates) into violent face to face encounters and then
    distributing triumphant images of those encounters
    There are hundreds of active homophobic VKontakte (VK) groups and the largest has 75,000 followers. The leader of ‘Occupy Pedophilia’ regularly publishes stylized videos of ‘sting operations’ or ‘safaris’ and holds regional seminars to help build their following.
    Among varied reports of attacks in May last year, a gay man was burned to death in Volgograd after his assailants sodomized him with beer bottles and, weeks later, 3 men killed a gay man by stabbing and trampling him to death. Incidents like these are notable for the absence of police intervention.
    While groups like Deti-404 have lobbied VK to close down group pages with some success, many others flourish in their place and, anecdotally, VK appears to be taking a ‘hands off’ approach to the widespread circulation of visual evidence of the homophobe group activities.
    Obviously, social network platforms can be utilised for any political and moral affiliation, and in this case have facilitated growth of both ‘Occupy Pedophilia’ and ‘Deti-404’ – however the expectation of privacy and security they offer is largely an illusion…
  • Meanwhile, Chelsea Manning, at the centre of the WikiLeaks scandal in 2010, has come out as transgender and has requested that ‘starting today you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun’ (press release, Aug 22, 2013).
    During the trial, Manning's lawyers presented an email Manning wrote to a former supervisor:
    "This is my problem. I've had signs of it for a very long time," the email reads. "I thought a career in the military would get rid of it. It's not something I seek out for attention and I've been trying very very hard to get rid of it by placing myself in situations where it would be impossible."
  • Since Manning came out, transcripts of conversations with notorious hacker, Adrian Lamo, the person who eventually revealed his/her identity, have also been leaked… and as you can see, they read like a personal confession…
    Some of Manning’s friends say they wonder whether his desperation for acceptance may have inadvertently led him to disclose the large trove of government secrets that he had access to.
    Of course the irony of this lies in the fact that, while hacking and Wikileaks have come to mean a lot of different things, at core, is the philosophy that information should be free and accessible to all…
  •  In both these case studies there are some striking similarities…
    the people involved are both living in environments in which their chosen identities must be concealed to preserve personal safety
    arguably, this leads them to seek affirmation in closed or private spaces online…
    in both cases vulnerable people had (not unreasonable) expectations that they were speaking in a safe place
    in both instances their pseudonyms, or the personal information they disclosed, linked directly to their physical, locatable identity
    and finally… the consequences were dramatic and violent
    Of course there are distinct points of difference too – Manning was clearly digitally literate and possibly should have known that his pseudonym – ‘bradass87’ - was fragile… also, the punitive consequences he experienced were not directly linked to his transgressive identity, so much as his violation of military codes of secrecy…
    But the transcripts also clearly link his understandings of ‘transparency of information’ and his desire to live his identity visibly and in the open…
  • The similarities in these case studies lead me to a preliminary hypothesis – firstly – that the privacy strategies employed by those most at risk and with the greatest desire to see social and cultural change – offer some insights that can be mapped onto a much broader population of vulnerable identities…
  • And secondly – that – privacy is not purely an issue that can be addressed with regulation of platforms or progressive social policy… individuals also need to understand the nuances and potential consequences of sharing personal information in dangerous, or inhospitable, social contexts… this does not necessarily mean that individuals should be blamed for unintentional self-exposure… rather that our shifting and varied cultural understandings of privacy need greater investigation…
  • To return to the complex intersections between
    sharing intimate aspects of identity,
    mediated networks of self-representation and the
    way we regard ourselves as citizens…
    both ‘apart of’ and ‘apart from’ the numerous publics we engage with…
    How might better understanding of privacy and publicness change our approach to education, policy, advertising and platform regulation? Does existing scholarship provide any clues to a path forward?
  • Wellman & Rainie (2012) tell us that 'Networked Individualism' in daily life is ‘perpetual connectedness’, thanks to the 'triple revolution' of:
    social networking,
    internet capacity to facilitate voice,
    always on connectivity of mobile devices
    Berlant (1997) tells that ‘Intimate Publics’ equate, not to chest-baring autobiographical confession (although some of it is), rather participants sharing a worldview - shaping both the content they consume, their experience of belonging, and their self-representation…
    Livingstone (2005) & Papacharissi (2010) tell us that, in order to participate publicly, we draw on private lived experiences & constraints and…
    Fraser (1990) and Young (1997, 2011) tell us that a public sphere should accommodate diverse speaking styles & narrative modalities along with capacity to listen across difference…
  • Meanwhile, Plummer (2003) argues that ‘Intimate Citizenship’ involves ‘asserting the right to choose what we do with ‘our bodies, our feelings, our identities, our relationships, our genders, our eroticisms and our representations’ (Plummer, 2002, p17).
    …and boyd uses ‘social convergence’ (2008) to illustrate the fact that what may formerly have been isolated audiences are increasingly brought together to witness inconsistencies in our self-presentations… She points out that our digital traces are both persistent and searchable… meaning that the future ramifications of incidental over-sharing now are difficult to anticipate…
    In the gaps between, and intersections among, these bodies of scholarship, I offer…
    Networked Intimate Citizenship
    the individual capacity to speak across differences in values, capabilities, social capital, locative time & space
    it requires digital agency, and ownership of fluid but congruent self-representation, and
    negotiation of shifting terrains of privacy and publicness and
    an understanding of self-exposure in the face of surveillance and risks of retribution
  • Privacy and publicness is a shifting socio-cultural terrain, as different people decide what is appropriate to share on Facebook or VK, and what information they are happy or unhappy to share with government or advertisers…
    Networked Intimate Citizenship, in the case of queer Russian youth or even Chelsea Manning, might have looked something like this –
    Individuals understand that the identities that they are sharing are socially maligned,
    And that online self-representation, even pseudonymous, carries risks, even if they are different to face to face risks
    Caution in building trust with divergent publics (both online AND face to face)
    Awareness of balance between risk and reward – connoting ownership of congruent identity and agency in it’s production
    Meticulous management of pseudonymity AND anonymity – enabling speaking across differences, affirming trust and, gradually, hopefully, bringing about cultural change…
    …like this photograph privacy and publicness also have many layers and meanings… while ‘don’t worry we’re from the internet’ is a popular meme, the guy fawkes masks worn by members of ‘anonymous’ also conceal their identity in public... And enable an activist voice...
  • So, to conclude… and in response to the questions I raised earlier -
    No, I don’t think our concept of pseudonymity is enough… and we, all of us, stigmatised or not, need to better understand the navigation of privacy and publicness in order to seek support… while this does not wholly liberate socially maligned people from the burden of stigma the concept of ‘networked intimate citizenship’ supports individual, agentive development of a safe engaged presence and voice in public, on an individual’s own terms…
    Thank you very much for listening… and please don’t hesitate to email if you have further thoughts to discuss…
  • Seeking Support in Secret

    1. 1. seeking support in secret a tangled web Sonja Vivienne Post-Doctoral Research Fellow CfCSC, UQ
    2. 2. how can stigmatised people navigate privacy in order to seek support?
    3. 3. 1 2 3 contex t case studies questions
    4. 4. 1 context
    5. 5. is pseudonymity enough?
    6. 6. Deti-404
    7. 7. broader significance
    8. 8. identity belonging INTIMACY CITIZENSHIP private public negotiated NETWORKS mediated
    9. 9. digital dualism
    10. 10. surveillance & self-exposure
    11. 11. case studies 2
    12. 12. queer russian youth
    13. 13. Chelsea Manning
    14. 14. manning-lamo chat transcript
    15. 15. analysis • socially stigmatised identities • seeking support in secret • expectation of privacy betrayed • poorly managed pseudonyms • punitive consequences
    16. 16. research questions 3
    17. 17. platforms + policy or social context + expectations?
    18. 18. identity belonging INTIMACY CITIZENSHIP private public negotiated NETWORKS mediated
    19. 19. networked individualism intimate publics private spheres
    20. 20. networked + intimate + citizenship
    21. 21. privacy & publicness
    22. 22. Q&A? sonja vivienne +61(0) 418 660 908 Skype: sonjavi Twitter: @sonjaviv
    23. 23. References: Berlant, L. (2008). The Female Complaint: the unfinished business of sentimentality in American Culture. Durham & London: Duke University Press. boyd, danah. (2008, Fall). Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics (PHD in Information Management and Systems). University of California, Berkeley. boyd, danah. (2012, August). The politics of “real names.” Communications of the ACM, 55(8), 29–31. Fraser, N. (1990). Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy. Social Text, (25/26), 56–80. Giddens, A. (1992). The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster. Hogan, B. (2010). The Presentation of Self in the Age of Social Media: Distinguishing Performances and Exhibitions Online. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 30(6), 377 –386. doi:10.1177/0270467610385893 Jurgenson, N. (2011, February 24). Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality  » Cyborgology. Cyborgology. Retrieved November 20, 2013, from Lange, P. (2008). Publicly Private and Privately Public: Social Networking on YouTube. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13, 361–380. doi:doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00400.x Livingstone, S. M. (2005). Audiences and publics: when cultural engagement matters for the public sphere. Bristol: Intellect. Papacharissi, Z. A. (2010). A Private Sphere: Democracy in a Digital Age. Cambridge: Polity. Plummer, K. (2003). Intimate Citizenship: Private Decisions and Public Dialogues. University of Washington Press. Rainie, H., Rainie, L., & Wellman, B. (2012). Networked: The New Social Operating System. MIT Press. Vivienne, S. (2009). Rainbow Family Tree. Retrieved from Vivienne, S. (2013). Digital Storytelling as Everyday Activism: Queer Identity, Voice and Networked Publics. Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. Weintraub, J. A., & Kumar, K. (1997). Public and Private in Thought and Practice: Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Young, I. M. (1997). Intersecting Voices: Dilemmas of Gender, Political Philosophy, and Policy. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Young, I. M. (2011). Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
    24. 24. Attributions: Pseudonymity Anonymity 404 support Lena 404 Nym wars SMC blog: ‘Cyberbullying Law and the New School Year’ by CT Senate Democrats: via Compfight - cc - by-nc-nd ‘Privacy, health, fears over airport X-ray’ by publik16 via Compfight - cc - by-nc-nd ‘From Music to microfluidics’ by Steve Jurvetson via Compfight - cc by-nc-nd Russia’s neo-nazi sport: Email from Manning to Lim, U.S. Army Records Management and Declassification Agency, April 24, 2010. Barbie low angle: ‘Networked’ Cover: ‘The Female Complaint’ Cover: ‘A Private Sphere’ Cover: ‘Intimate Citizenship’ Cover: ‘2nd Anoniversary 13’ by Anonymous9000 via Compfight - cc - by-nc-nd