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May 30 2013


Activist Campaign Successfully Targets Facebook's Advertisers

Last week I wrote up the #FBrape campaign's strategy: to hold Facebook accountable for the misogynistic content of its users by pressuring advertisers. Only seven days after the open letter was published, Marne Levine, Facebook's VP of Global Publicy Policy, published a response agreeing to the campaign's demands to better train the company's moderators, improve reporting processes, and hold offending users more accountable for the content they publish.


The campaigners say they generated 5,000 emails to advertisers, and convinced Nissan to pull its advertising from the platform. This is great initial traction for a social media advocacy campaign, but it represents a miniscule percentage of Facebook's users and advertisers. For people interested in shaping what kinds of speech social media giants allow, the #FBrape campaign quickly confirmed the relative value of targeting companies' revenue sources rather than directly petition the corporations. The #FBrape campaign also had a clear moral high road over the terrible instances of speech it campaigned to censor. But the results are still illuminating, as we struggle to determine how much power companies like Facebook wield over our self expression, and the organizational processes and technical mechanisms of how that power is exterted.

Continued attention will be required to hold Facebook, Inc. to its promises to train its content moderators (and an entire planet of actual users) to flag and remove violent content. Facebook has also promised to establish more direct lines of communication with women's groups organizing against such content. This is the kind of personal relationship and human contact groups have clamored for (see WITNESS and YouTube's relationship).

'fair, thoughtful, scalable'

Technology companies have tended to avoid establishing such relationships, probably because they require relatively large amounts of time in a venture that's taking on an entire planet worth of communications. Facebook itself lists its preferences for solutions to governing speech that are "fair, thoughtful, and scalable." Given the crazy scale of content uploaded every minute, Facebook might look into algorithmic solutions to identify content before users are exposed to it. YouTube has conducted research to automatically categorize some of its own torrent of incoming user content to identify the higher quality material. According to their post, Facebook has "built industry leading technical and human systems to encourage people using Facebook to report violations of our terms and developed sophisticated tools to help our teams evaluate the reports we receive."

This is unlikely to be the last we hear about this. By publishing an official response, Facebook gave 130 media outlets and counting an excuse to cover the campaign, which few had done prior to the company's reply. And whether they relish the position or not, social media companies like Facebook have positioned themselves as arbiters of speech online, subject to the laws of the lands they operate within, but also comfortable codifying their own preferences into their policies. Kudos to Facebook for taking a minute to respond to some of the messy side effects of connecting over a billion human beings.

Matt Stempeck is a Research Assistant at the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab. He has spent his career at the intersection of technology and social change, mostly in Washington, D.C. He has advised numerous non-profits, startups, and socially responsible businesses on online strategy. Matt's interested in location, games, online tools, and other fun things. He's on Twitter @mstem.

This post originally appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

March 30 2012


Poll: How Is Social Media Changing Activism?

How do people end up in the streets protesting something? What motivates them to take action, even when that action could lead to their arrest? Last year, Facebook and Twitter played major roles in helping organize street protests during the Arab Spring, to the point where dictators were focused on either blocking the services or using them to spy on protestors. And now, with the recent Trayvon Martin shooting, the backlash against "pink slime" in meat, and the protests against the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, action has spread through social media like never before. Are we at a tipping point for activism fueled by social media? Is it all good or is there a dark side? Vote in our poll, below, and share your thoughts in the comments below.

How is social media changing activism?

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

March 15 2011


Social media: cutting both ways since the 1990s

Originally posted at my own blog.

Social media -- those avenues to send instant, short, widely-distributed messages and images -- cuts both ways:

  • It can be used to organize protesters, but it can also be used to identify protesters and arrest them.
  • It can be used to spread information, but it can also be used to spread MISinformation.
  • You can use it to promote your organization and cause, and others can use it to tear down your organization.

And it's been used to organize protests since the 1990s - so can we stop now with how "new" it all is?

Back in 2001, while working for UNDP/UNV, I researched how handheld computer technologies were being used, or could be used, in community service / volunteering / advocacy. It wasn't called "social media" or "micro volunteering" back then, but even without the snazzy jargon, I knew something very exciting was going on, something that was changing the way communities are engaged and mobilized. Among the discoveries in my research was that grassroots advocates had used handheld computer or phone devices to help organize and direct protesters during the 1999 Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization, and that in 2001, protesters in the Philippines used cell-phone text messaging to mobilize demonstrators to help oust President Joseph Estrada. In addition, in China, also in 2001, tens of thousands of followers of the spiritual group Falun Gong continued to exist-despite a harsh crackdown-in a vibrant community fed by the Web and encrypted text messaging. I created a web page just on the subject of using text messaging for advocacy - but I was not the first to do so, as you will see on the page.

I also noted in that page that hand held technology can lead to widespread misinformation as well: "Musician and U.S.A. Green Party activist Jello Biafra noted in an article on Zdnet.Uk: 'Be careful of the information gossip you get on the Internet, too. For example, late in 1997 I discovered out on the Internet that I was dead.'"

We're not hearing enough about how effective Web 2.0 tools are in promoting misinformation and negative speech. For instance, micro-blogs, tweets, texts and other technology spread misinformation about and within Haiti, as well as other disaster zones (it will be interesting to see what misinformation gets spread in Japan). During the swine flu panic in the USA a while back, we saw Twitter's power to misinform, and rumors still affect polio eradication campaigns. So-called "new" media has helped spread misinformation to derail government health initiatives here in the USA rapidly and efficiently.

It's not just the misinformation that's a problem in trying to use social media to mobilize community activists and educate the public: in an interview with Radio Free Europe, Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, noted that internal security agencies welcome the use of new- and social-media tools. “The reason why the KGB wants you to join Facebook is because it allows them to learn more about you from afar,” he said. “It allows them to identify certain social graphs and social connections between activists. Many of these relationships are now self-disclosed by activists by joining various groups.” Al Jazeera profiled cases in Azerbaijan, Tunisia and Moroccans where the government or those opposed to any change in government were, indeed, using Facebook accounts to anticipate protests and easily monitor and arrest protesters.

And then there's social media, like YouTube and blogs, being used by GOTCHA media advocates, as I blogged about yesterday: there could be just one person in your community with a video camera and a dream of humiliating your organization right out of existence, and social media makes that easier than ever to do.

Don't roll out the comments saying I'm anti-social media. Don't start pulling your hair and gnashing your teeth, chanting, "Jayne hates Web 2.0!" I love the Interwebs. But it's long-overdue for a reality check on all these "Twitter revolutions." Yes, there are lessons to be learned - but we're not focusing on the right lessons. Back in 2001, the Ruckus Society featured Longwire's Communications Manual for Activists on its web site, and included tips for using various hand held devices and avenues-two-way radios, CB radios, cell phones, pagers, satellite communications and more in community organizing. Those lessons from a decade ago could teach current activists a lot about using social media tools effectively.

November 12 2009


TED India -- the experience of a technology non-profit

I just returned from TED India, where I was one of the 100 TED Fellows they had invited to attend, and my head is spinning with all the new ideas and my pockets heavy with all the business cards. This was undoubtedly the best networking event I've been to, and the people on stage were only marginally more spectacular than the people you turned to for chit-chat on the police escorted-buses from Bangalore to Mysore, where the conference was being held at the Infosys campus. The chap sitting next to me, for instance, told me as an aside that he had invented a needle that can only physically be used once (see Pointcare -- it's needle retracts inside the case after one use and can't come out) which had saved millions of lives in the developing world and caused policy changes In India. We then proceeded to discuss Indian handicrafts. Such is a typical TED conversation.
There are a million things one can write about after attending TED. What I wanted to write about here was my experience as a TED Fellow from the non-profit sector, and what it is like to be meeting so many technology corporations at TED and having the possibility to "pitch" your work to them.
For Video Volunteers, being at TED was amazing in several ways. My goal in attending was to connect with people who could help us develop the business model of citizen journalism amongst the disadvantaged, so it was fantastic there was such a strong presence of Nokia, Google, Cisco, Microsoft, Reuters and various media houses. I had a brief connection with all of them. I explained in my talk on the TED Fellows stage why I felt that content produced by poor communities could be monetized - and also my hope that citizen journalism might allow the next TED India conference stage to reflect the kind of diversity of voices and economic backgrounds that this one (like all conferences, unfortunately) lacked. For me, the efforts to talk about my work with these various companies was a real learning experience in communicating with corporations. VV's strength has been in engaging the NGO community and doing community-level work, and we need to learn to better engage corporates if we are ever going to really scale. All of the companies I mentioned are investing heavily in rural markets, spurred on perhaps by the obvious fact of the size of the population at the "base of the pyramid" (and hence its potential) and by the huge success of one key sector, the cell phone providers, in achieving such growth through rural markets.
Nokia was at TED sharing the experiences of Nokia Life Tools, Reuters of Reuters Market Light, and Cisco, its technology and education programs. The many people from google.com and google.org were talking about their translation tools and their local language search. These tools have made an impact on our work. I just returned from three weeks working on our program in Brazil, where google translate provided us instant translations of the scripts and story pitches the Brazil producers made. The ability of google to search content in various Indian languages has helped some of our community producers, who had no concept of or interest in the internet, to get excited about it. It has huge potential for research in rural areas on issues like health, water, education and thus can improve the content produced by community journalism. But a huge problem is that most searches in the regional languages end in frustration for our community producers, because there is so little content that is digitized. Local newspapers and local government offices don't put their info online, and key data - such as, for instance, World Bank or WHO data on health issues in India - is not translated. There needs to be as much investment in offline activities as there is in developing softwares or applications, or else there will be many great softwares for rural markets but few people able to use them.
Another thing I observed in my conversations at TED with different companies is the possibility of corporate partnerships to drive one off mission. Like me, many of the other TED Fellows running NGOs were eager to connect with these companies. And in general, the corporates seemed open to having NGOs help them in spreading their technologies to rural markets. NGOs eager for partnerships will be tempted to create technology projects tailored to the companies' needs just for the sake of "getting a foot in the door," but this can drive one off-mission. And for the corporations, who seem to have lofty ideals of creating systemic change at the base of the pyramid, they would make more impact by trying to tackle the root problems, rather than focusing on tailoring their technologies to meet a smaller technology need.
TED India struck the right chord between culture, corporates and activists. Because it was held on the campus of Infosys, one of the most iconic companies in "shining India," and because of the conference theme the "Future Beckons," one might have expected it to be super gung-ho and aglow about India's growth and future prospects. But it didn't, and there were probably as many representatives from "civil society" as there were from corporations. The most popular talk (as far as I could tell) was by Sunitha Krishnan, a young woman who has rescued thousands of women from human trafficking and whose very pointed talk - speaking also about the audience's collusion in allowing such things to continue - got a very emotional response, as did Eve Ensler's talk about the "girl gene", which I will remember forever. The TED Fellows program brought people between 20-40 years old into the TED community from a really wide range of interests and backgrounds, mostly from India but also from around the world. There were rockclimbers, a pastry chef, writers, musicians, magazine owners, and many others. Like the Knight Foundation events, there were also a lot of extremely interesting people who ran nonprofits and particularly technology nonprofits - especially in areas like using cell phones to disseminate information in rural areas. Every time I come to a forum like this I'm struck by how many people are working in the information space for social change, and what a positive development that is.
Some TED Fellows wondered at the absence on the stage of some of the most prominent but outspoken activists, people like Medha Pathkar who led the struggle against the Narmada Dam, or the writer Arundhati Roy and people who worked on issues of Hindu-Muslim tension. These are some of the people who are most critical of India's current totally pro-business direction. Did the organizers have to choose between the two opposing points of view? Would either business leaders or the more radical activists have refused to come if the other "camp" was present? Some people said yes, there must have been a compromise, while I felt that probably there was not. Such is the power of a space of dialog like TED, that today (at least in relatively peaceful places like India or the US), even the most vociferously opposing people would be willing to share a stage, when they know that the audience is open-minded, curious and non-judgmental. This was the beauty of TED India for me, and I wish it could be an annual event. Or better yet, that it does spawn lots of TED X events, which are the independently organized TED events, where people take it into their own hands to spread ideas and create dialog.

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