Wondering What to Do After Protesting? Try These Four Tech-Supported Activism Strategies.
A flurry of activism including airport protests and the recent Women’s March on Washington have left many participants feeling energized and more confident than ever in the power of people. But where do we go now? What are the next steps for the would-be soldiers of activism? I’ve studied the opportunities for individual people to serve as vigilantes to leverage technology across the globe, including in developing democracies as part of Harvard Kennedy School’s Transparency Policy Project. I have also examined the promising civic innovations happening across localities in the United States to regain civic voice and civic power.
Below are four tech-supported strategies that you can use with your friends, neighbors, and colleagues. It will also be critical to engage with existing community institutions as well as state and local government. The tools I mention here can help you connect and organize, but they won’t do all of the work for you.
1. Truth advocacy: We need to hold power to account by bringing new and relevant facts into the public light, whether it’s undisclosed tax information or facts about where public officials receive their financing from. Digital platforms can help amplify facts and, in turn, put pressure on public officials. Take, for example, Mumbai Votes, a project in India that uses crowdsourced information from students and activists. Mumbai Votes puts out a scorecard for elected officials, tracking their political behavior and their ties to big business, and helping shed light on whether people are maintaining their campaign promises. Or Fair Play Alliance in Slovakia, which increases citizens’ ability to obtain, process, and understand information about politicians and politics in the hopes that this will increase voter accountability, force politicians to follow the desires of their constituencies, and encourage better all around governance. Domestically, there are many tools that citizens can leverage for advocacy, including text-based FrontlineSMS, which is being deployed in several parts of the United States. An easily accessible way to engage is to look at the Sunlight Foundation’s website and identity key domestic issues you feel passionately about.
2. Social monitoring: In addition to advocating for specific causes, community residents can also monitor governance on the ground. People can serve as citizen watchdogs in their communities by spotting public problems and bringing them to light, often through use of mobile phones. For example, people are reporting nonemergency public problems from potholes to rodents to public officials by using apps like SeeClickFix and engaging with open government data to track progress. But this approach isn’t just about quality-of-life problems. For instance, people in Kenya turned to Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, to monitor election violence after Kenya’s disputed 2007 presidential election. Checking out Ushahidi’s website is a good first place to start.
3. Mobilization: Many of us who marched or organized recently may have been inspired to protest by our friends posting on Twitter or Instagram. Throughout the past years, we have witnessed the ability digital tools serve as important catalysts to strengthen ties between people. From the Arab Spring to MoveOn, social media, text messages, and online platforms can help people organize and mobilize around key issues. For instance, CoWorker.org is an online platform for non-unionized workers across the country to come together online around specific campaigns. They have organized around a host of worker issues, including better labor practices for Starbucks baristas. But mobilization isn’t only about online tools—it can mean postcard writing campaigns or knocking on doors around a specific cause. Start by hosting a potluck dinner bringing together different parts of your networks, discuss key topics you are passionate about, and even have everyone call or email their elected officials before dessert.
4. Participatory democracy: Finally, being an activist requires working with elected officials to make our communities more inclusive, responsive, and representative. A new set of democratic innovations can let people become more direct decision makers. Take, for example, participatory budgeting, which gives people the power to make budget decisions over a direct portion of public monies. Neighborhood residents identify local funding priorities, work directly with public officials to draft viable budget proposals, and then send the proposals back over to community residents for a vote. If passed, the proposals are implemented by elected officials. More than half of the New York City Council is implementing participatory budgeting, and the process is allowing traditionally marginalized communities to have a say in politics. Check out the website of the Participatory Budgeting Project to see if the process is happening in your community, and if not, call your local elected officials and ask them why they are not.
There is no quick fix for democracy. Each of these strategies requires people to take action and work together in new and, sometimes, difficult ways. But the good news is, there are increasingly accessible pathways and opportunities for action. We just need the will to do it. As Tim O’Reilly wrote in 2010, “Those of us who spend our time on the Internet celebrate Wikipedia, but most of us have forgotten how to do crowdsourcing in the physical world.” Now we have to start blending the online and offline work to be active participants in our democracy.
Will the Internet Always Be American? A Future Tense Event Recap.
The internet’s gotten a bad rap lately. Because of the internet, a recent study suggests, students struggle to tell fact from fiction. Recently, in the New York Times, Timothy Egan argued that the internet is responsible for shrinking attention spans that have, in turn, given rise to a culture that needs constant stimulation in the form of hyper-paced TV shows and presidential elections. And our first social media president told us in his farewell speech to stop arguing with strangers on the internet and talk to them in real life.
It’s hard to remember that just a few years ago, people largely saw the internet as the embodiment of openness and freedom—American ideals. We saw that rhetoric in 2011 during Arab Spring, when Twitter was the tool of choice for revolutionaries. We saw it when Google moved back into China. But at “Will the Internet Always Be American?”, a Future Tense event held in Washington on Jan. 24, the first thing we heard was a debunking of that sunny rhetoric.
Rebecca MacKinnon, author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom and director of the Ranking Digital Rights program at New America, kicked off the discussion. She observed that in the early days of the internet, there was an assumption that it was inherently a liberating force. The formula was easy: Take authoritarian state, add internet, get democracy. But that formula failed to account for the idea that authoritarian regimes could adapt and in fact thrive in the Internet Age. MacKinnon pointed to Russia under Putin as an example of a country skilled in what she calls “digital bonapartism”— an offshoot of a Marxist concept that was used to describe political leadership by a populist demagogue who seeks to legitimize himself through democratic rhetoric. The theory goes that leaders of authoritarian regimes like Russia and China permit access to digital tools (at least some of them) and use the rhetoric of free speech, even while they attack dissenters through campaigns of misinformation, surveillance, censorship, and targeted online harassment.
However, Emily Parker, a Future Tense fellow and author of Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground, warned that a fatalistic view of the internet was misguided, too. “So much of it is about expectations. Anyone who thought the internet was going to unseat the Chinese government? That’s a problematic assumption,” she said. “I still say that the internet has transformed China. The degree of news that Chinese citizens can get that they weren’t able to get access to before” is impressive.
The event also addressed other ways that the diffuse nature of the internet clashes with governments. For instance: Who has sovereignty over the cloud? And how should U.S.-based tech companies operate within the borders of other countries? What is their corporate responsibility to human rights, and how do they define human rights? There’s no existing legal framework for these companies in the U.S., let alone the rest of the world.
Carolyn Nguyen, Microsoft’s director of technology policy, described the tension between the need to respect national sovereignty and the utopian idea of a borderless cloud. No one would know that tension better than Microsoft, which according to Nguyen, has sued the U.S. government four times over privacy and transparency rights.
A recent case highlights the gray area that exists when the cloud bumps up against national borders. In 2014, the Department of Justice issued what seemed to be a cut-and-dry warrant requesting emails and other personal data for a suspect. Microsoft resisted, arguing that since the data was stored in one of its Irish data centers, it didn’t have to comply with a domestic search warrant. Jennifer Daskal, an American University law professor, explained that mutual legal assistance treaties, or MLATs, already provide a means for countries to work together on information gathering for law enforcement. (She recently wrote about the case for Future Tense.) Microsoft felt the DOJ should use that mechanism to seek the information in the company’s Irish data center, and in 2016, the 2nd Circuit Appeals Court agreed.
Thanks to the Microsoft case, data is now legally tied to its physical location. That’s tricky for several reasons. As Ross Schulman, co-director of the Cybersecurity Initiative at New America described, it’s ridiculously easy to bounce data around the globe. Google, for example, will move your data to the server closest to your physical location. And if data is tied to its physical location, and it’s currently in a country whose local privacy laws aren’t as protective as the United States’ it would actually be easier for the U.S. government to draw up a MLAT then go through American due process.
The significance of an increasingly localized digital space was driven home when moderator Andrés Martinez, who is editorial director of Future Tense, asked the panelists whether countries might retreat into their own Balkanized internets. Could—or should—an American internet look and behave differently than a Chinese one? Hao Wu, filmmaker and fellow at New America, suggested that a customized digital experience made a lot of sense from a business perspective. And some countries have bristled at the idea of American-imposed values dominating the internet. Joshua Keating, a staff writer at Slate, said those values of freedom and openness, predicated on the moral authority of America, were damaged by the revelation of government-sponsored systems of surveillance. “[W]e’ve gone from this idea of the internet being something that exists separate from nation states and outside of physical space to one that advances territorial claims,” he said.
You can watch the full event on the New America website.
Trump’s God-Awful Phone and Twitter Security Isn’t as Scary as His Cybersecurity Policies
One of the big surprises of the 2016 election season for me (and yes, I know there was a lot of competition) was that—out of nowhere and all at once—it seemed a lot of people suddenly cared a lot about basic user cybersecurity practices. Not their own cybersecurity practices, necessarily, but Hillary Clinton’s, certainly, and now, it seems, also Donald Trump’s.
Trump, the New York Times reported this week, is still using his personal Android phone to post on Twitter. There’s a lot we don’t know about this phone: whether it’s encrypted, whether it automatically connects to nearby wireless networks, whether you can unlock it by drawing a large letter “T.” We do know it’s the same phone he was using before he became president—not one approved or issued by any government security team—and blog Android Central makes a fairly compelling case that it’s a Samsung Galaxy S3. So it’s probably safe to assume it has security roughly equivalent to that of your Android phone, or worse if you’ve gotten a new phone recently. (At Lawfare, cybersecurity researcher Nicholas Weaver argues that the Galaxy S3 “does not meet the security requirements of the average teenager.”)
In related news, CNN also reported on Jan. 24 about Trump’s failure to protect his @POTUS Twitter account with two-factor authentication, which would require anyone trying to compromise his account to figure out not just his password but also a code sent to his phone. Meanwhile, CNN pointed out that at that point, the @POTUS, @FLOTUS, and @VP handles had password reset emails linked to Gmail accounts (Pence’s was reportedly firstname.lastname@example.org, if you’re looking to get in touch). On the morning of Jan. 26, it seemed that Trump’s account was still tied to a Gmail account, as—of all people—TV Guide managing editor Alex Zalben found. (Other Twitter users and outlets later confirmed his finding.) Trump’s account seemed to be tied to the Gmail address of his social media manager, Dan Scavino. Only after those reports circulated Thursday morning did Trump’s reset email change to a whitehouse.gov address.
(This raises an interesting question: Are whitehouse.gov email accounts actually any more secure than Gmail ones? Possibly not. Google has some fairly effective monitoring tools for anomalous behavior among its users as well as a lot of data on phishing and spam email, and we don’t know much about how whitehouse.gov accounts are monitored, or whether the people in charge of protecting them are being listened to right now. Just based on the president’s continued use of his personal phone, it seems unlikely that he’s listening to anyone with any deep understanding of computer security at the moment.).
And I haven’t even mentioned that Trump press secretary Sean Spicer may or may not have accidentally tweeted a password on Thursday.
None of this is great news. As a cybersecurity researcher, I would, of course, prefer a president who took personal cybersecurity measures seriously. After all, we’re talking about a person with access to the most secret information in the country, someone whose Twitter account could conceivably be used to tank the stock market or cause an international incident, if compromised. Weaver also points out that, if he’s carrying his Android phone everywhere with him, it can be used to record any and all of his interactions by adversaries who have compromised it. In fact, Weaver argues, “anyone around the President should presume they are being actively recorded by hostile powers, regardless of location, unless they are positive the phone is out of the room.”
This laxness and disinterest in cybersecurity will set the tone for national cybersecurity initiatives and efforts as well as personal ones. Will a guy who won’t even secure his own phone ever be bothered to secure an entire country’s networks? Meanwhile, his appointed cybersecurity adviser Rudy Giuliani only recently learned about popular encrypted messaging app Signal, so he doesn’t seem likely to provide the necessary technical expertise or wisdom.
But the truth is, when it comes to setting the tone for national cybersecurity, Trump has already done something much more damaging than using a possibly outdated Android phone or linking his Twitter handle to a Gmail address. In deciding to effectively ignore the Russian election hacking efforts, he has issued an open invitation to foreign powers to target U.S. networks and information without fear of retribution.
So yes, I might wish for a president who, at the very least, had enough cybersecurity common sense to implement two-factor authentication and replace his smartphone. But even though they could have serious consequences, the shortcomings of Trump’s personal cybersecurity still seem almost trivial in light of the shortcomings of his national cybersecurity policy.
What’s not trivial—what’s frankly nothing short of remarkable—is that people are (apparently) interested in his personal cybersecurity. That people are reading and writing articles about whether his Twitter account is protected by two-factor authentication, and whether his smartphone is encrypted. Of all the things to be concerned about, these may not the most pressing. And yet—and yet—how strangely wonderful that we’re now willing to malign people (or, at least, high-level politicians) on the basis of their cybersecurity shortcomings. The people who malign them on these bases probably didn’t like them much to begin with, and criticisms of their cybersecurity practices may well be reflections of this pre-existing personal animosity.
But still, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have somehow succeeded where years and years of National Cybersecurity Awareness months and well-meant educational campaigns have failed. They’ve managed to attach to the act of failing to protect a server or a smartphone, or not implementing two-factor authentication for a social media account, the kind of social stigma that we usually reserve for people who don't wash their hands after using the bathroom.
Netizen Report: Internet Shut Down in English-Speaking Regions of Cameroon
Citizens in the predominantly Anglophone regions of northwest and southwest Cameroon have been without internet access for more than a week after months of protests concerning the marginalization of English speakers in the predominantly French-speaking West African country. Protests have led to mass arrests and what the U.N. high commissioner for human rights has called “excessive force” used by Cameroonian law enforcement against protesters. The internet shutdowns follow the arrests of two prominent Anglophone advocates and civil society organizations’ calls for a “ghost town” action, in which citizens stayed home from work and school and otherwise refrained from public activities.
Mexico’s Twitter troll takeover
Systematic trolling on Twitter has become a top concern among journalists and human rights defenders in Mexico. Amnesty International released a dispatch this week from Mexico City, where a leading expert on the issue described how a “repentant troll operator” approached him and confessed that she was paid the equivalent of $2,500 per hour to run a Twitter accounts that generated a counter protest in the face of citizen demanding justice for the 43 students who disappeared in Ayotzinapa in 2014.
China puts kibosh on VPNs
China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced it will require all virtual private network service providers to obtain government approval if they wish to continue operating. This will render most of China’s VPNs, which many in the country use to circumvent the Great Firewall, illegal. The ministry’s move is part of a 14-month “clean up” of internet access services, according to CNN, that will run through March 31, 2018.
Future Tense Newsletter: Welcome to the Twitter Presidency
Greetings, Future Tensers,
Though the country witnessed an immense transfer of power on Friday—by which I mean the handoff of the @POTUS account from President Barack Obama to President Donald J. Trump, of course—it seems the new leadership may not quite have a handle on all of the government’s handles. This week, Lauren Wagner wrote about the Badlands National Park account tweeting, then deleting, facts about climate change. (Apparently the posts came from a former, unauthorized employee.) Slate also covered the kerfuffle on Friday over the National Park Service’s “mistaken” retweets, including one featuring side-by-side aerial photos comparing crowd size at Obama’s ’09 inauguration to Trump’s ’17 affair.
Though a few Department of Interior accounts went rogue, Jacob Brogan explains that it’s unlikely that @DeptofDefense was throwing similar shade. That Monday message about social media posts providing “an important window into a person’s #mentalhealth”? Probably not a snarky subtweet.
In the latest installments of our Futurography series, we’re continuing our conversation about the enduring legacy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Joey Eschrich describes why it’s telling that modern adaptations of the story transform the Franken-creations from something hideous into something sexy (looking at you, Westworld). Charlotte Gordon highlights what real-life artificial intelligence researchers can learn from the fictional Dr. Frankenstein’s big mistakes. And professor Kevin Esvelt explains how the novel helps him think about his own cutting-edge genetic research.
Here’s some other pieces we read between checking to see if @NASAClimate is still online:
- Another Facebook CEO?: Anna Lauren Hoffman writes that no, hiring a “chief ethics officer” won’t fix Facebook’s problems. So long as it and other Silicon Valley megacompanies still prioritize profits over nuanced moral thinking, not much will change at these epicenters of social and political activity.
- Commander in tweets: As Donald Trump assumed the presidency this week, he sacrificed something dear in the process: his Android phone. Jacob Brogan explains why his presumably more secure replacement device may mean fewer 3 a.m. tweets
- Know your rights!: Is the massive Women’s March last weekend (or Trump’s reaction) inspiring you to take to the streets again? Check out Future Tense’s updated guide on how protesters should be protecting their mobile devices.
Why are we still talking about Frankenstein? Nearly 200 years after the debut of Mary Shelley’s novel, its themes of scientific advancement and moral consequences still resonate. So what does it tell us in an age where creating life in the lab—through artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, robotics—seems more plausible than ever? Join Future Tense for a live event on Feb. 2 in Washington exploring the spawn of Frankenstein. RSVP to attend in person or watch online here.
Paying no attention to the man with the flying car,
for Future Tense
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.
Badlands National Park Tweets About Climate Change, Deletes Tweets
On Tuesday afternoon, the Badlands National Park Twitter account posted four tweets about climate change, and then deleted them hours later.
Did the Department of Defense Just Subtweet Donald Trump?
Scroll through the U.S. Department of Defense’s official Twitter account and you’ll find a reliable array of posts featuring tanks, training exercises, firearms, and the like. On Monday morning, though, the account tweeted something a little different, a message about the relationship between social media and mental health.
Netizen Report: Bahrain Orders Newspaper to Stop “Using Electronic Media Tools”
The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in internet rights around the world. It originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Afef Abrougui, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Mohamed El-Gohary, L. Finch, Weiping Li, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.
On Jan. 16, the Bahraini government banned the online edition of independent newspaper Al-Wasat from “using electronic media tools.” The ministry’s order implies that the paper has been banned from publishing on its website and social media channels alike. The paper has about 229,000 followers on Twitter and more than 354,000 on Facebook.
The Ministry of Information tweeted that it banned the daily from publishing online for “repeatedly publishing and broadcasting material that causes a rift in society and a spirit of division that harms national unity and public order.”
It is not clear what material is the ministry referring to, but activists suspect it may have been in response to the paper’s online coverage of the Jan. 15 execution of three men convicted of murdering three policemen, following what rights groups have described as an unfair trial. Al-Wasat is not new to government harassment. In 2010, it was banned from broadcasting audio reports and interviews on its website. It was forced to close its video section for part of 2016. In April 2011, the paper’s co-founder Karim Al-Fakhrawi died, while in the custody of Bahraini security officials, after he was subjected to torture.
Israeli lawmakers give nod to “Facebook Bill”
Israel is considering new legislation that would allow Israeli administrative courts to demand that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter remove online content that Israeli officials consider incitement to violence. Informally known as the “Facebook Bill,” the law was approved by a ministerial committee in late December.
Both Palestinians and Israelis have expressed concerns about the new bill’s implications for free expression, in light of its vague language and the fact that Facebook already removes content that incites violence. Dozens of Palestinians have been previously arrested by Israeli authorities for “incitement through social media” after voicing their opposition to the occupation.
Global Voices contributor Marwa Fatfata writes: “Many Palestinians have turned to social media as a non-violent means of expressing criticism and anger over human rights violations, and as a way to simply show the everyday realities of occupation. If passed, the bill could be used to silence this type of speech and thus extend the occupation into the online world.”
Kenyan Twitter users fear an election day social media shutdown
Kenyans have started expressing fears of a possible shutdown of social media by the government in the run up to the August 2017 presidential elections. On Twitter, there have been rumors of a bill that would seek to regulate the use of social media in Kenya. There is precedent for such a shutdown—in mid-December, security personnel shut down the internet and telecommunication equipment around Kenya’s Parliament building as opposition and pro-government MPs clashed over the amendment of the laws regarding the upcoming elections.
Online speech cases suspended in Oman
Two courts in Oman have suspended the prison sentences of activist Hassan Al-Basham and writer Hammood Al-Shukaily, the Gulf Center for Human Rights reports. Al-Basham was sentenced to jail in June 2016 for “using of the Internet in what might be prejudicial to religious values” and was also convicted of “insulting the Sultan.” On Jan. 17, the Supreme Court revoked a three-year jail sentence against Al-Basham and referred it back to a primary court on the grounds that his defense team’s request for a medical examination was ignored. The next day, a court of appeal in the capital Muscat suspended the three-and-a-half–year prison sentence of Hammood Al-Shukaily, who was convicted of “incitement to protest” in connection with a poem that he wrote and posted on Facebook.
Spanish student faces criminal charges over tweets
A 21-year-old student in Spain could face up to two-and-a-half years in prison over 13 tweets she published that federal prosecutors say derided victims of terrorism. The tweets contained jokes about Luis Carrero Blanco, a prime minister during dictator Francisco Franco’s rule, who was killed in 1973 in a bombing carried out by Basque separatist group ETA.
One of the tweets in question read: “Kissinger gave Carrero Blanco a piece of the moon, ETA paid for him to take a trip there.” Insult or humiliation of victims of terrorism is a crime under Spain’s penal code. Prosecutors are also seeking three years of probation and eight and a half years of what’s known as full disqualification, which would bar the student—an aspiring teacher—from civil service employment, including working in a public school.
Philippines slaps porn sites with censorship
The Philippine government started blocking multiple major adult websites, including PornHub and Xvideos, under laws intended to eliminate child pornography. The restrictions appear to vary by internet service provider, according to the International Business Times, making it difficult to assess the full extent of the block. The Philippines ranks highest for average time spent on PornHub, according to the site’s Year in Review statistics for 2016.
“How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument“—Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts
Trump Finally Sacrifices Something That Matters to Him—His Phone
Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump’s marketer-in-chief, recently claimed that her boss would actually be sacrificing power when he assumed the office of president. Inexplicable as that claim is, in the lead-up to his inauguration, Trump may have finally given up something that actually hits home—his cell phone.
The Associated Press reports that Trump recently surrendered his Android handset at the behest of security agencies, presumably replacing it with a secure device like the one President Obama has used. In the past, Trump was sufficiently attached to his own device that data analysts were able to demonstrate that his personal tweets came from it.
While it’s not clear what will be taking that device’s place, the AP writes that President Obama’s secure devices had limited functionality, having been “heavily modified for security purposes." We may, in other words, be seeing fewer angry 3 a.m. tweets from the newly minted leader of the free world, if only because it’ll be marginally more inconvenient for him to send them out.
Of course, cybersecurity comes in many forms, and simply replacing a device will neither fully protect the new president nor the nation he ostensibly serves. While Trump may not be able to tweet from his new device, his Twitter account still presents a security risk, as ZDNet’s Zack Whittaker observes.
Given that Trump’s tweets can have almost immediate consequences for the stock market—and that they may well have broader geopolitical effects—protecting access to that account should be a priority. And at this point, there’s no way to know if the people who tweet for Trump also got a security upgrade. It's even possible that taking Trump’s phone from him may make us less secure, since it could encourage Trump to give Twitter access to more of his aides, furnishing would-be hackers with more potential intrusion points.
Whatever the security implications of the actual device and the apps on it, though, it may be more important still that Trump had to give up his old phone number. As Josh Keating wrote in Slate last month, Trump’s surprisingly accessible phone number had spawned a variety of troubling situations, not least of all because he was apparently willing to answer, even if he didn’t know who was calling, something that’s already created problems in his relationships with other world leaders. Assuming he can resist the temptation to give out his new number—which, let’s be honest, he’ll probably announce on Fox News next week—such situations may become a little less common.
A Cellphone Rights Guide for Trump Inauguration Protesters and Women’s Marchers
If you’re participating in any protests this inauguration weekend, you’ll likely have your cellphone on hand. And if you do, then you need to be aware of your rights when it comes to your phone. In 2014, Lily Hay Newman wrote a comprehensive cellphone rights guide for Ferguson protesters. Below are some tips—mostly the same, some updated because of changing legal and technical environments—that will help you keep your information safe.