Tag Archives: Facebook

Facebook https is now live for Sudan

A very big thank you to the team at Facebook for allowing users in the Sudan to access Facebook securely. Instead of using the regular http:// access to the site, using https:// means that your connection is securely encrypted. This prevents malicious users from spying on your account and seeing your password, for example. This is why all online banking websites use https, as does Google with gmail. Tunisia in many ways set the precedent. Read this excellent account on the inside story of how Facebook responded to Tunisian hacks.

As we have seen in many situations, Facebook is often used by activists to schedule and coordinate mass action. This is equally true of the Sudan, with this Jan30 Facebook group, which now has over 17,000 members. However, in my recent Skype conversations with a number of Sudanese activists, I’ve realized that many of them didn’t know that the Tunisian government (for example) had been able to hack into Facebook accounts. While using https is not a complete panacea, it definitely is a step in the right direction re communicating securely in repressive environments. I’ve also encouraged colleagues to switch to using Hushmail for email communication.

So for colleagues in the Sudan, to set up https:// access, go to “My Account” then “Settings” and then “Account Security.” Here’s the equivalent in the Arabic interface:

You should click on “Browse Facebook on a secure connection (https) whenever possible” and also on “Send me an email” that way you get sent an automated email when a new computer or mobile phone logs into your account. If you have any questions, feel free to add them in the comments section of this blog.

Here are some other steps you can take to use Facebook more securely:

1. Do not share sensitive info on FB
2. User passphrases instead of passwords
3. Change you name, or at least do not provide your full name on FB*
4. Do not use a picture of yourself for your FB profile picture
5. Logout of FB when not using the site

* Use this with caution as it violates FB’s terms of service and if someone is targeting you, they can report you to FB. Also do not give FB your identification if asked (@JillianYork).

Again, using https and following these five steps is no guarantee that your account won’t be hacked, but it maximizes your chances of using Facebook more safely. If you have any security tips to share, please add them in the comments section of this blog post.

A big thank you once again to Facebook. I emailed them (via another colleague) with my concerns regarding Sudanese activists and they responded in a just a matter of hours. Facebook is also in the process of rolling this https option out for all their users worldwide.

Facebook Fosters Political Engagement

I recently presented my dissertation research at the American Political Science Association (APSA) convention and attended a related panel entitled: “Internet: Collective Action, Social Mobilization, and Civic Engagement.” Jessica Feezell, one of the lecturers on the panel, presented her co-authored research paper (PDF) on ”Facebook and Political Engagement.”

Abstract. Can online groups help to foster political engagement among citizens?  We employ a multi-method design incorporating content analysis of political group pages and original survey research of university undergraduates (n = 455) to assess the quality of online political group discussion and effects of online group membership on political engagement measured through political knowledge and political participation surrounding the 2008 election.

We find through OLS and 2SLS multivariate regression analyses that participation in online political groups strongly predicts offline political participation by engaging members online.  However, we fail to confirm through 2SLS that there is a corresponding positive effect on political knowledge, likely due to low quality online group discussion.  This work contributes to an active dialogue on political usage of the Internet and civic engagement by further specifying forms of Internet use and corresponding effects.  Overall, we conclude that online groups perform many of the same positive civic functions as offline groups, specifically in terms of mobilizing political participation.

This study is an important contribution to the study of digital democracy. We need more empirical studies of this kind. My only concern is selection bias apparent in the research. The undergraduates surveyed by the authors were “students in three large political science classes.” In other words, this is a self-selected group of already politically interested individuals.

So the question remains: does Facebook foster political engagement in individuals that are not politically inclined to begin with? And related to my research: would the findings also hold true in countries under authoritarian rule, like Egypt?

Patrick Philippe Meier

Gene Sharp, Civil Resistance and Technology

Major civil nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to lead to sustainable democratic transitions than violent campaigns. This conclusion comes from a large-N statistical study carried out by my colleague Maria Stephan (PhD Fletcher ’06) and Erica Chenoweth. Recently published in International Security, the study notes that civil resistance movements have achieved success 55% of the time while only 28% of violent campaigns have succeeded.

Another colleague, Chris Walker (MALD Fletcher ’07), wrote in his excellent Master’s Thesis that “techniques associated with strategic nonviolent social movements are greatly enhanced by access to modern information communication technologies, such as mobile telephony, short message service (SMS), email and the World Wide Web, among others.”

It stands to reason, then, that increasing access to modern communication technologies may in turn up the 55% success rate of nonviolent campaigns by several percentage points. To this end, the question that particularly interests me (given my dissertation research) is the following: What specific techniques associated with civil resistance can tactical uses of modern communication technologies amplify?

This is the question I recently posed to Dr. Peter Ackerman—another Fletcher Alum (PhD ’76) and the founding Chair of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC)—when I described my dissertation interests. When Peter suggested I look into Gene Sharp’s work on methods of nonviolent action, I replied “that’s exactly what I intend to do.”

In The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene identifies 198 methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion. The majority of these can be amplified by modern communication technologies. What  follows is therefore only a subset of 12 tactics linked to applied examples of modern technologies. I very much welcome feedback on this initial list, as I’d like to formulate a more complete taxonomy of digital resistance and match the tactic-technologies with real-world examples from DigiActive’s website.

  • Quickie walkout (lightning strike): Flashmob
  • Hiding, escape, and false identities: Mobile phone, SMS

Do please let me know (in the comments section below) if you can think of other communication technologies, Web 2.0 applications, examples, etc. Thanks!

Patrick Philippe Meier

Greek Riots, Facebook, Twitter and SMS (Updated)

I am particularly interested in riots since part of my doctoral research focuses on the strategic and tactical uses of digital technology to organize, mobilize and coordinate protest events in repressive contexts. On this note, Alternet just published this piece by Andrew Lam on the “Greek Riots and the News Media in the Age of Twitter,” which echoes some of the issues raised during the panel discussion I participated in last week in  DC on the decline of foreign reporting and rise of citizen journalism.

The Greek riots are a classic case of iRevolutions in the making, i.e., individuals and networks (hyper) empowered by linking technologies like Facebook, Twitter and SMS. What follows first are my thoughts on the two main points that the Andrew highlights in his piece. The second part of this post sheds light on the dynamics of riots by drawing on complexity science and Clay Shirky’s work.

greekriotmontage

Initial Conditions: The riots were sparked after a 15-year old student “died from a gunshot wound in his heart, inflicted by a policeman following an altercation between a police patrol and a small group of youths in Athens” (1). Thousands of young people took to the streets after quickly spreading the news via Facebook, Twitter and SMS.

But as Andrew points out, no one bothered to verify or investigate the police officer’s claim that he was innocent: “When the coroner’s report came out several days later, it said the bullet was dented, meaning it ricocheted before hitting the teenager, but the information changed nothing. Athens had been burning for several nights, and the people, whose rage fueled the flames, couldn’t care less for facts.”

These valid points aside, my first question is what took the coroner so long? Extracting a bullet (pardon the morbidity) is not exactly brain surgery.  If said coroner had a mobile phone, s/he could have taken a picture of the dented bullet and shared it as widely as possible hoping that it would go viral. I have no idea how effective that would have been, but it’s a thought. The second question I have is whether any investigative journalists were pressing the coroner to get on with it?

Future Conditions: Andrew notes that “professional front line reporters may very well be on the way to being redundant in a world where, according to Reuters Director of News Media Development, Chris Cramer, ‘Every key event going forward will be covered by members of the public, and not by traditional journalists.’” (I just checked the Wikipedia page on the riots and it was edited close to 200 times within 48 hours of the shooting).

However, as I mentioned during last week’s panel, the mainstream media has an increasingly more important social service to play in the Twitter Age: distinguishing fact from fiction. Andrew is thus spot on when he writes that “the role of the mature news organization […] is to filter real news from pseudo news, rather than treating all content as equal.”

Complexity Science: Power laws are a defining signature of complex systems. The Richter scale, which relates earthquake frequencies to magnitude, is probably the most well known power law. As we all know, there are many small tremors every day but only a few major earthquakes every century. As it happens, protests such as strikes also follow a power law distribution. See for example this piece by Michael Bigs in the American Journal of Sociology. Here’s the abstract:

Historians have persistently likened strike waves to wildfires, avalanches, and epidemics. These phenomena are characterized by a power-law distribution of event sizes. This kind of analysis is applied to outbreaks of class conflict in Chicago from 1881 to 1886. Events are defined as individual strikes or miniature strike waves; size is measured by the number of establishments or workers involved. In each case, events follow a power law spanning two or three orders of magnitude. A similar pattern is found for strikes in Paris from 1890 to 1899. The “forest fire” model serves to illustrate the kind of process that can generate this distribution.

One classic way to illustrate this is by using the analogy of grains of sand falling on a sand pile. Eventually, small and large avalanches begin to occur at different frequencies that follow a power law.

sandpile1

The study of complex systems is often called the study of history. The sand pile becomes increasingly unstable over time as grains of sand cause “fingers of instability” to run through the structure, like fissures running across a wine glass or cracks in the earth as an earthquake unloads the built up tension. If you want to understand the vulnerability of the sand pile of a “Richter 9″ earthquake, dissecting the falling grains will give you little insight. In other words, the answer lies in the past, in the evolution of the sand pile.

I make this point to reinforce the fact that the recent shooting and riots in Greece should be understood in context. The incident was  but one of several that befell Mount Olympus. As Katrin Verclas and others have commented (below) in response to this blog post, “the disenchantment of Greek students, the mistrust in and corruption of the right-wing government,”  as well as the “many acts of police brutality and incompetence through the years,” provides the historical context behind the shooting. “This is why people wouldn’t wait for the coronary report. There were many things wrong even before the shooting and the coronary report.”

Networks Analysis: One way to think about the impact of the information revolution on the ability of groups to mobilize and organize is to use the analogy of disease contagion, which also follows a power law distribution. As Clay Shirky writes, “The classic model for the spread of disease looks at three variables—likelihood of infection, likelihood of contact between any two people, and overall size of population. If any of those variables increases, the overall spread of disease increases as well.”

As a consequence of the information revolution, the likelihood of an individual receiving and broadcasting information is increasing significantly while the likelihood of any two people communicating is increasing exponentially; and world population is also growing at a furious pace. Since each of these three variables are increasing, the overall risk of protests increases as well.

The reason I raise this issue of power laws and epidemics of information is to address the issue of rumors. As Andrew Lam writes, “the streamlining of news [via Twitter and SMS] makes the story skeletal and thin, bordering on becoming rumor and hearsay.” Countering false rumors  in a highly connected network may require a systems approach since command-and-control is unlikely to work (short of switching the network off).

This is where the work by Malcom Gladwell, Mark Buchanan and and the Santa Fe Institute’s (SFI) research might shed some light on the viral cure for false rumors in the Twitter Age.

See also my follow up post on the Greek riots.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Links: Facebook, Palentir, People Power, MapMaker

  • People Power: Revolutions Colored Green: Think of popular protests, of the kind that make clever use of technology to mobilize support, flummox the authorities and disseminate facts and images. Campaigns have recently been applying the latest “people power” techniques to environmental activism. In time, eco-protest may lead to political change, but the focus is narrower.
  • 16th Century Map Maker’s Intriguing Knowledge: How was it that a German priest writing in Latin and living in a French city far from the coast became the first person to tell the world that a vast ocean lay to the west of the American continents?

Netting War Criminals using Web 2.0?

The Aegis Trust in London has turned to Facebook and Google Maps/Earth to track the movements of Sudanese Government Minister Ahmad Harun and Janjaweed leader Ali Kushayb. The two are charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) with organizing the destruction of Darfur’s town during which more than 100 civilians were murdered, and women and girls raped. Some 34,000 people were forced to flee in the mayhem which also saw the destruction of food stores and the mosque.


Could this be the beginnings of Michele Foucault’s Panopticon albeit reversed? The panopticon is a prison structure originally designed by Jeremy Bentham in which well-lit prison cells surround a central watchtower. Guards can monitor any prisoner’s activities without the latter knowing they are being watched. Foucault uses Bentham’s panopticon as a metaphor for power dynamics in society more generally. However, the information revolution potentially challenges this metaphor, allowing the multitude to observe elites.

While the predominant feature of the information society in the West is the spread of the Internet this is not the case for the majority of developing countries with repressive regimes. Indeed, mobile phones are the most widely spread ICT in developing countries and also the technology of choice for activist networks in these regions. To this end, I hope the Aegis Trust will include SMS text messaging as a way to report sightings of individuals charged with crimes against humanity.

Patrick Philippe Meier