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Making Links 2010 Keynote, Tanya Notley, Tactical Tech


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This is Tanya Notley's keynote presentation delivered to the Making Links Conference in Perth, November 2010. It looks at new trends in technology use for social justice. It includes detailed notes of a draft version of the talk and extra links.

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  • Keynote. Making Links 2010. Tanya Notley. I was in Thailand earlier this year and I asked Burmese rights advocates there what they'd be doing to monitor and highlight the inevitable election fraud that would take place in their upcoming elections. For the last five years we've seen citizens groups use bulk SMS , mapping tools, videos posted to YouTube, blogs, Twitter and Facebook to document election fraud, irregularities and other problems. But, just a few months before the elections, people were still not sure what they'd do. There was some planning going on but very few resources to execute the many ideas. And anyway, all the  success stories from around the world were going to be impossible to replicate in Burma. Less than 1% of the population use the internet. The price of a registered mobile SIM card has actually fallen dramatically in recent years. It's now about US$1400, if you can get a much sought after license and that's why just 1% of the population are mobile subscribers. And if you get over that hurdle, you need to keep in mind that the military junta, who control all telecommunications operators, might be monitoring your calls. If you do use an internet cafe you need to know that surveillance cameras and user logs will almost certainly be checked at some point by the military, while people are in prison for posting images and reports to blogs that show what's going on. Plus to use any kind of social media you'll need to know how to first be able to bypass the extensive blocks and filters installed by the regime. And then is if all that wasn't enough, before the election, massive cyber attacks hit major pro-democracy website and stopped all internet activities in the country for  several days. And yet, despite all of these barriers, a week and a half ago, during the elections, people still found ways, which I'll return to, to use digital technology and social media to advance their cause. What this highlights to me is the power of new information flows to support freedom of expression, mobilisation and organisation. But the threat of those information flows is understood to be so great, a military dictatorship will go to incredible lengths to suppress it. And no longer do they see only political leaders as a major threat; a comedian, a blogger, a person posting content to YouTube are all seen as potential threats. More subtly though the story touches on these four themes. I'll talk about them one by one, providing examples from different parts of the world to show how I think they hold true, in different ways, no matter where you are and what kind of government you live under.
  • Firstly, I'm going to look at examples showing that people are using social media to organise and they are often consciously not including civil society organisations in this process. Second, I'll discuss examples that highlight how digital technology use is shifting who can become an information and knowledge-broker. Third, I'll discuss how Governments are using social media to reclaim and defend their own power as knowledge brokers. Finally I'll explain why at Tactical tech we're concerned that people's direct actions mean they are increasingly exposed to digital security and risks and privacy vulnerabilities.
  • Social Media and Mobilisation. Obviously we've all heard the hype about how we can use social media like Twitter and Facebook to quickly mobilise people to get together to take action, and I think many of you in the room are already doing that. Probably we've also all heard a good dose of social media cynicism as well. I think there are a number of reasons for this cynicism. Some of it, I think is a backlash to the ever-proliferating number of people who refer to themselves as social media experts, or far worse in my opinion, social media gurus, who often seem to move very comfortably between commercial marketing and non-commercial social justice sectors and ways of operating. If any of you are on campaigning and technology email lists you might have also felt that listening in on long never-ending discussions about which software will provide your NGO with the most extensive ability to track hits, opens, clicks, actions, sign-ups, unsubscribes, bounces and referrals, can sometimes bring on a bit of an identity crisis. I mean the irony is we have more ways to quantify actions than ever before but do these kinds of measures matter most and are they really meaningful when measuring impact? But moving away from 'social media gurus' and their new role in social justice or human rights sectors, which might be a whole discussion in itself, I can see something else 1 is starting to happen. In the past year we've seen lots and lots of examples of where social media has been used to raise awareness and address rights abuses but where this has happened outside of NGOs, outside of civil society organisations, and very consciously outside of these organisations.
  • So, for example, just a few weeks ago in the UK – the very same week that the government was announcing the biggest budget cutbacks since WorldWar II – an investigative journalism publication claimed that the government had made a quiet decision to settle a long drawn-out tax dispute with Vodafone to pay what some have estimated is about 6billion in taxes. In the end they signed a deal to pay just 1.2billion and the public were told the full amount they were asked to pay was confidential. This is in fact not at all dissimilar to the tax bill Vodafone are currently contesting in India. After this announcement, according to one personal account, a small group of people met in a pub decided that something needed to happen. They issued a call to action on Twitter using the tag #UKuncut announcing a protest that would take place the next day at a London Vodafone store. A few hours later they provided a link to a simple wordpress website that named no names, no organisations but documented and mapped their actions. Over the following days at least 15 similar protests were organised in other cities around the UK.
  • Sam Baker, one of those people at this first meeting wrote about why they took direct action in this way. Reflecting on how unsuccessful the anti-war movement had been in the UK he said, “We can't spend the next five years marching on Whitehall to hear Tony Benn speak [who by the way is a former labour minister and head of the 'stop the war coalition'] – “it's uninspiring, disempowering and largely ineffective” he writes [and] “Tools such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs ignite the potential of bypassing these hierarchies and mass rallies in favour of a more decentralised, democratised, spontaneous model of protest.”
  • The Vodafone protests received considerable media attention. The main reason is that they were timely, responding straight away when the story broke, and at a time when the media were hungry for stories about how everyone would be effected by the governments new public sector funding cuts. While I'm not discounting the many ways different organisations are responding to this issue of funding cuts and tax avoidance opportunities in the UK, and nor am I suggesting this direction action is necessarily the best approach to take, it is worth considering that it was a small, group of unknown, unnamed people who were able to leverage the emotion of that moment to organically start a new campaign. Sam ends his story by saying that they were shocked about the response they received and they're now busy working out how they should follow up and build momentum. In the meantime he advises people: “Don't wait for the unions, don't wait for the next march, don't wait for the politicians and don't wait for us-- take the initiative yourself. Get out on the streets and take action.”
  • Around the same time another social media organised protest was being planned and it too also made the headlines – this time it was based in Spain. Organisers -- who did not affiliate their action with any groups or organisations -- announced a "queer kissing flashmob" on Facebook and Twitter. They proposed that Spanish gays and lesbians could join them to welcome the Pope to their country with a massive 'homosexual kiss-in' to be staged in front of Barcelona's cathedral. They gave clear instructions: "No placards, no flags, no shouting and no slogans. Only kissing allowed.”..In fact their page was shut down numerous times on Facebook, but the mass publicity this creative action received all around the world meant it was eventually re-installed.
  • The Pope may not have noticed the kissers among all the fans that came to greet him and he never directly acknowledged their action, in fact he indirectly denounced gay marriage when he spoke inside the church when he arrived, but the action raised awareness about Spain's 2005 change to the law, that now allows gay marriage, and it brought lots of attention to gay rights issues. [For more on this: http://www.informationactivism.org/en/qk]
  • So while we're on the subject of the power and perils of Facebook and self-organsing let me show you here a story from our film, 10 Tactics for turning information into action, which again illustrates a group of people, mobilising quickly and responsively. If you can’t see this video, I played the second story (1 of 3) included in this video: http://www.informationactivism.org/en/tactic1video [Play pink chaddi story]
  • So three examples, and there are many more which I think show that social media can and does help us to have spontaneous responses to events and to capitalise on the emotion of the moment. 1 I think the real challenge for those of us who work with communities at the grassroots is to work out how we can do a better job of being ready for these spontaneous actions. As organisations fighting for social justice who are ready for the long, ongoing fight to achieve this, How we can support these kinds of mobilisations, how and should we join and promote them? Because as we know one-off direct actions rarely achieve what they ultimately set out to. So on to my second and related point....
  • Who are the new information and knowledge-brokers? I think shifting terrain in terms of information flows and power is not new, since it's been observed since the internet and digital media tools have became accessible. But one area in the field of rights that has been really interesting to observe of late is civil society actions forcing government accountability and in fact forcing the government to do its job. Let me start with a couple of stories from our film, 10 Tactics: [Play Brenda/farmsubsidy stories]
  • If you can’t see this I played two edited videos: 1. The second story included here: http://www.informationactivism.org/en/tactic9video (Freedom Fone) and 2. The first story included here: http://www.informationactivism.org/en/tactic7video (Farmsubsidy.org)
  • So there we saw one organisation forcing the EU to be transparent and accountable, and another – and this model has been replicated in a number of elections since – that bypasses the government to ensure people know where to vote. I think it's going to be really interesting to see how the push towards transparency and open data in governments and more broadly among aid and civil society organisations and hopefully also in the corporate sector, will change not only how information flows but who can become a serious knowledge broker. Here I think open data initiatives like http://blog.openaustralia.org/foundation/ that follow in footsteps of MySociety and Sunlight Foundation are important watch if we want to understand what can be achieved here in relation to rights and social justice. But to move outside of our own sector I want to instead mention Guardian's Data Store project because first it shows how even commercial entities can benefit from opening up the data they gather but second it shows the limitation of opening up data without doing anything else to support its use. The rationale for the Guardian's project they say is to become: “ 'of' the web rather than 'on' the web.” Datastore does this by inviting people to use the data gathered by their journalists and inviting them to share their visualisations using an open Flickr group they've set up. So for example, when WikiLeaks last month gave the Guardian, along with six other mainstream news organisations, access to 400,000 previously classified military documents pertaining to the Iraq war, the Guardian was faced with this challenge of how to first understand and analyse that information but then how to present this it in a meaningful way to readers. A few weeks later with a bunch of people working on it they produced this [short video, play]
  • I played a screen capture of part of this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2010/aug/13/iraq-war-logs/ This is one average day in the most bloody year of the war in 2006. The statistics, the facts become a narrative and even though that narrative is factual and dry, the emotive effect builds up as we read what happened and see the deaths accumulate, realising eventually at the end of the day it's civilian Iraqi's who've suffered most. 1
  • But what they also did was to release to the public a small portion of the spreadsheet they created once their journalists had spent weeks analysing and collating this information. This included all the recorded deaths, when they happened, where, classifications of who was killed and the cause of death. They invited people to use this information and post any results to their Flickr group.
  • Here are a few examples of what's resulted from them doing that making this information public: http://holizz.github.com/iraq-deaths/ Pretty simple, but still a different way of understanding the information.
  • Others took the information into more abstract thinking like this one: http://www.flickr.com/photos/melkaone/5120683291/#/photos/melkaone/5120683291/lightbox/ In this image, black shows civilian deaths, green are allies and it provides a quote from a well known artist who is criticising Jackson Pollock for naming his art with numbers, instead of names. So by adding that quote the meaning is kind of multiple. To me it says: 'The army gave us no names, no anything, the guardian gave us codes and so here is my potently dehumanised representation of that information'. This person made a number of canvas-like artworks with the figures which is interesting and perhaps not what the Guardian was expecting. In the end it's early days for this information but it's likely that the spreadsheet released by the Guardian and later the fuller information made available on Wikileaks, will be used for many years to come by researchers, rights groups and others who want to explore more closely what happened in Iraq. But what's to be learnt from these kinds of experiences of opening up data that was once closed? Well there are plenty of open data advocates out there and I'm not going to repeat their arguments now. But we can see is that by providing your information to the public can add credibility by allowing people to scrutinise your findings. In doing that people become more informed and they can find their own ways to make that data meaningful to different audiences. The fact is, when you provide your information like this to the public, you don't know what will happen. Doing it involves some risks and they need to be worked through. But it clearly provides new opportunities as well. And in this case opening up the data used for journalism has extended the limited shelf-life interest of mainstream media by allowing an ongoing conversation to take place. However, when data transparency is done by governments or by any group without a real interest in supporting tits use in social justice, the real results can also be very limited. Data rarely speaks for itself and finding the narratives within data and using these strategicially requires specific skills, time and resources. We are yet to see many civil society organisations or many research institutes really embrace this opportunity to open up their own data, even though we can see some governments are taking some tentative steps in that direction. But of course even those governments who might be perceived as being quite open, still try desperately to contain information that may challenge their authority or credibility.
  • [Governments are actively working to reclaim their power as knowledge brokers.] Let me share a few stories to illustrate this point.
  • This is the Gaza-bound Freedom Flotilla, a fleet of some six ships who in May sailed from Cyprus. I know this a story you're all probably familiar with since two Australian Fairfax Journalists were on board and the event received much attention here.. The Flotilla were carrying around 663 people from 37 nations including activists, government ministers, writers, aid workers and journalists. While the flotilla was in international waters on its way to Gaza to break a blockaid preventing the free flow of aid, the ships were ordered by the the Israeli Defence force to change course-- an act that was in breach of international public and criminal Laws. When the flotilla ships refused, they were aggressively raided. In the conflict that followed, nine people on board one of the shops were killed. [to hear from those australian journalists: http://www.democracynow.org/2010/6/9/framing_the_narrative_israeli_commandos_seizes ]
  • What happened next is that all mobiles phone signals were jammed, all media devices and footage were immediately confiscated and all passengers on board the flotilla ships were detained for at least three days without any opportunity to communicate to the outside world. At the same time, Israel swiftly mounted a PR offensive to set out its version of events. This included the release of short videos, posted on YouTube and released to the media, which showed Israeli Defence force soldiers who boarded one of the ships by helicopter being beaten with poles. This issue and disputes about what really happened are a long way from being resolved. Most relevant to this talk though, is how Israel worked to control the release of evidence both online and offline. The day before the deadly raid though I was following the flotilla activities online. This included following supporters on Twitter who were using the '#flotilla' tag. I was surprised though when my tweets got responses from some twitter accounts whose profiles provided website addresses for the Israeli govt. 1
  • I immediately became intrigued and did some investigations and realised I was not the only one. Everyone who used this hash tag was getting bombarded with propaganda stories and videos from twitter accounts that provided website links to the Israel Government and to stories suggesting the Flotilla was full of Hamas supporters who were not really trying to get aid to Gaza but instead wanted to support terrorism. 1
  • And I could see that some people got completely freaked by getting these tweets. They became apologetic, said they'd not realised, claimed they were only re-tweeting and would be happy to share both sides of the story.
  • Of course none of the accounts I was contacted by were official Twitter accounts for an Israeli govt dept and nor did they claim to be. So who was doing the tweeting? Zealous supporters of the Israel government or the government itself? I looked closely at tweets sent on the 31 st , the day of the attacks, from @2012israel's account and found it had made at least 500 tweets as direct messages to thousands of people, with all of these tweets providing links to stories promoting the Israeli govt's version of events. It was one of many accounts doing this. Since the Israeli Government worked to control the story of what happened by confiscating the footage collected by hundreds of people, including that of professional journalists on the Flotilla, and never returned the vast majority of it, who knows, maybe they are smart enough to deploy social media actors within government as well since we know a number of governments, companies and political parties are now doing this. And either way observing how worried these direct messages on Twitter made some people who were perhaps less certain about their views showed me that this behaviour can be quite effective. More worrying and less ambiguous examples of people being incriminated because of their Twitter and Facebook actions come from other countries. 1
  • This facebook group was started as a protest against travel bans put on more than 100 young people, by the Syrian govt, after they were outspoken about rights abuses. The young man who started the group was immediately given a travel ban himself by the Syrian government. So he can't leave Syria, and if he finds a way to do that he can't return.
  • 28-year-old Khaled Said was brutally beaten and killed this year in Egypt when he was dragged from an internet cafe by police after he had earlier posted a video to YouTube apparently showing local police officers dividing up the spoils of a drug haul.
  • Le Nguyen Huong Tra, a popular young blogger in Vietnam who usually blogs about superficial celebrity gossip, was arrested for "infringing on the interests of the state" about two weeks ago after she made allegations against a Minister relating to his patronage of certain female television personalities, which I am sure she very much regrets since she is not considered to be anything close to a political blogger. There are hundred of examples like this. Many involve activists who were likely aware of the risks they were taking. Others involve non-activists, everyday people who've perhaps sometimes naïvely and without a full awareness of their digital footprints, expressed their opinions in countries and contexts where it is dangerous to do so. So as social justice organisations working to support community engagement, as we increase our reliance on digital technology, surely we need to understand more clearly the limitations and weaknesses off these technologies both in terms of how their use can be countered and discredited by our opponents or worse switched off by governments at the most critical moments, but also in terms of our reliance on commercial platforms that have very different agendas to our own.
  • The point is that people's online activities mean they are increasingly exposed to digital security risks and privacy vulnerabilities.
  • Making our views public on twitter, Facebook and blogs opens up a new kind of risks, real and potential. We become connected to ideas, to groups, to ideologies that may be opposing people with power. But these kinds of privacy and security risks are not only limited to countries where freedoms are most violated and most vulnerable. Digital privacy and security issues affect us all, no matter where we live; my colleague sometimes uses a boxfish jellyfish analogy to drive home the point that these risks are usually rendered invisible until someone is stung and it's too late. To bring the issue home, we know that a few years ago the Australian government released to every family household internet filtering software that enabled content filtering but that also allowed the administrator of a household network to monitor all internet activities on the network including recording private chats without anyone else knowing this was taking place. I know that because I tested it. It worried me. We know very little, on the other hand, about how the Australian authorities are using social media to monitor people but since I went to an Australian Federal Police conference on the subject of youth gangs a few years ago I know it's happening and is of serious interest to them. 1 So under what conditions do we think it would it be okay for the Australian, or any police force, to look through our closed, friends-only private facebook account? What about Googling us before we are let into a country? The fact is once private communication and communication that may have been public but had a known bounded audience is now taking place in a public domain with an unknown audience. So an ongoing conversation is needed to decide what we are okay with and what is not acceptable in terms of freedoms and controls over that space. As the technology evolves, so our conversations need to continue. For those of us working in rights and on social justice issues there are very specific and pressing concerns and needs.
  • So how does our work at Tactical Tech relate to these four things I've been talking about today. Well it relates quite closely actually. We have three programme areas. ACT, REVEAL and PROTECT.
  • The first is focused on supporting rights groups to choose the right tactics, tools and media formats to turn information about their issue into that can address it. We produce support materials, review software, put on info-activism camps, provide specialist support for projects.
  • The second is a related programme focused on visualising of information,. NGOs have a real problem of producing lots of reports that not many people read and have too little impact. We have a studio where we work with NGOs and information designers, and we provide specialist training and support to grassroots rights groups to develop their expertise in this area so they can make new discoveries and broadcast them in an appealing way.
  • Third we want to help make sure that online advocacy is safer. This is a major area of our work and probably the most challenging because grassroots advocates are so busy working out how they can harness new technology and use it to their advantage that digital security and privacy discussions can sometimes seem feel an added burden. We support a global training network of digital security trainers, and we've produced materials to help advocates make informed decisions. One way we are trying to ge 1 t more people talking about this issue, is through a series of fun animations that we hope will help people engage with this subject through local and online follow-up discussions. Let me end today by playing the trailer for this animation series since it's the latest release from us and has just recently been launched.
  • But before I do that lets quickly return to Burma...The election was just over a week ago and cartoons like these satirizing Burma's sham election were published on popular websites and were distributed at public places ion Burma as well (http://www.cartoonharnlay.com/ )
  • Local and diaspora publications have their own sources and systems of trust so this organization, made up of just a few young women, mapped these news stories from trusted publications to aggregate on the ground reports to help make sense of things: http://www.burmaelectiontracker.org/
  • And then Democratic Voice of Burma, based in the Netherlands, who has  a network of undercover reporters inside, created this comprehensive website using their reporters and  footage and other documentation smuggled out of country. http://www.burma2010election.com/ These examples of information activism stress to us why digital technology is powerful for social justice organisations and also why something like ONO is needed.
  • If this does not play you can see it here: http://onorobot.org/
  • Making Links 2010 Keynote, Tanya Notley, Tactical Tech

    1. 27. 11
    3. 30. act programme
    4. 31. reveal programme
    5. 32. protect programme