Hate Speech on Facebook: the causation effect

I have to say, I have never been a huge fan of Facebook, but as everyone else, I use it. I came to terms with the fact that if I do not want my data to be owned by them, I should not use it. I also came to terms that there are TONS of very good policies with respect to data privacy and ownership that we really SHOULD enforce and apply, not just to Facebook but also to a lot of other companies (starting with mobile and internet providers, if you ask me).

But, this post is not really about Facebook. This post is about how mixing correlation and causation, when it comes to analyzing social media and hate speech on social media, can have very damaging effects and why we REALLY should try to avoid it, even if it makes for a pretty catchy headline.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In January this year this article was published and circulated on Twitter and elsewhere , followed by some discussion about how social media is being used for hate speech and incitement to violence. The information in the article is not news to anyone that has been looking at social media and hate speech in conflict settings before: from the amazing work done by iHub Research with Umati; to the work done by Holocaust Museum Fellow Rachel Brown to produce Defusing Hate: A Strategic Guide to Counteract Dangerous Speech and of course the amazing work one by the PeaceTech Lab on creating a taxonomy of terms used in hate speech in South Sudan.

The issue of Hate Speech and online content is really a tricky one and while it has been flagged quite some time ago – a big event that triggered a lot of conversations about this was, in the era of predominance of non-digital tools, the events of the 2008/2009 post election violence in Kenya, where mobile phones and radio were used to spread rumors; incite to violence and to perpetrate hate speech.

One of the great work that was done following the Kenya events was the research implemented by iHub Research under the Umati project. The Umati project had as objective to figure out what type of hate speech on social media were happening, and if they were in fact triggering actions on the ground.

The questions I am trying to highlight here is very simple: is social media hate speech content the cause OR the effects of actual violence happening on the ground? The article mentioned before makes the point that social media are being used in South Sudan to trigger and actually fuel violence on the ground. What the article does not say, but implies, it is a concept that has many more repercussions on the way we see social media hate speech and violence: that is that if we stop hate speech online we indeed will be able to lower the level of violence in the country.

In fact, this is the biggest problem I have with this rationale: considering hate speech on social media as the cause of a problem (violence on the ground, and in the South Sudan case, a genocide), as opposed to the symptom of the widespread violence already happening in the country.

But is this the case? What data do we have to say that there is a causation effect in between hate speech on FB and violence on the ground? And this is the problem: the data we have proves the contrary.

Let’s start again with the Umati project. Two main findings in fact prove the contrary of that.

  1. Hate Speech online does NOT mirror the violence on the ground: “Despite this clear increase in the volume and severity of hate speech incidences online during and after elections, there was little reported violence on the ground as compared to the 2007/8 post-election period. Notably, had the trend in Umati data been used in isolation to predict the possibility of post election violence, the prediction would have been that there would be violence, given the highly vitriolic data Umati came across in February and March (examples provided in Appendix II). The peaceful election outcome suggests that there are overriding factors that can strongly contribute to the serenity of an election period.” (from here)
  2. When there is a relationship in between hate speech online and events on the ground, it is indeed a reverse relationship: ” We have observed that most dangerous speech occurs as a response to events that happen on the ground. These events come to the attention of the commenters mainly through traditional and online media reporting. The media therefore, plays a vital role in highlighting what topics are discussed online and suggests that responsible reporting by media houses, whether in newspapers, online or on radio, may shape the type of conversations that form around those reported topics.” (from here)

When I spoke with the Umati research team, back in 2013, they explained to me that they could not prove that hate speeches on line did in fact translated into specific actions on the ground. And, if you know a little about social media and how they works this makes totally sense: social media are a mirror of what people and communities are talking about. They are indeed a barometer of the temperature of that community, meaning that they are the arena where conversations happen (freely and in between peers) and in this way they are a way to look into a certain community and its dynamics. In fact, if we assume that Social Media like Facebook have an automatic way to influence real actions on the ground we would have never came out with the term slacktivism.

But there is more to this: while I do agree that social media hate speech can have an influence in the conversations that people have, and therefore increase the level of acceptance of violence, and therefore increase the overall outcome (meaning people are more likely to commit violent acts), I think we need to make sure that we do not end up curing the symptom and disregarding the real disease.

If we focus all of our attention on hate speech on social media, and specifically on Facebook, we run into the risk of not understanding why and how violence on the ground is happening, and with this, not really focusing on the fact that real violence, committed by real people, is happening, and that the role of media (see above from the Umati reports) is here key in making sure that events and facts are indeed reported accurately and as such cannot be used as a source of hate speech.

This is all to say that we need to ficus on the right issues and try to solve the right problems:

  • If hate speech is happening on social media, we have to look at the reality on the ground to see what is triggering it before we assume that they are the cause. The fact that two things happens in the same time or follow the same trajectory does not mean that they are positively correlated, as shown below (real data):

  • Hate speech is based on facts: facts are used to trigger a certain vision of the other person/group (they have done this and therefore they are “less of a human/person/group). If we want to fight against hate speech, facts needs to be set straight (and with this I mean REAL facts, not alternative facts);
  • Demonizing social media platforms because they are a place where hate speech happens is not helping, neither us, nor social media platform, to learn how to address the problem. Furthermore, it may actually translate into repressive or censorship-like laws under the umbrella of anti-hate speech regulations, something that we have seen before can be easily used to repress freedom of speech (a very good reading on the subject is here)
  • When hate speech on social media are rising. there is something MUCH more effective that we can do to stop it, which is to fight is here it is. Back in 2011 in Egypt, social media activists were targeting social media pages of the regime by blasting them with real facts and counter arguments (peacefully) until the owners of those pages were basically giving up the pages themselves.

So, all in all: engagement is the way you counter hate speech. And you can use Facebbok for hate speech as much as you can use it for engagement, you just need to look at the full picture. Go where people are, and use their means of communication, rather than demonizing them.

 

 

Monitoring Hate Speech online: are we focusing on the right issue?

Not long time ago I came across this article on Hate Speech Monitoring and this sentence really made me thinking “.. monitoring hate speech, rather than rushing to remove it, can help discover how best to combat it.” So, I started wondering, are we really discovering how to combat it? If Hate Speech Monitoring is done to help combat this phenomenon, are we really using the results of hate speech monitoring in the right way and coming up with good strategies against it?

In the past 5 years the development and Peace-building community has been heavily focusing on Hate Speech and specifically on the monitoring of hate speech online. It goes without saying that with the increased availability of Internet, even in hard to reach places or conflict settings, hate speech assumed a new and more complicated dimension. Aside from making hate speech more difficult to monitor, the availability of technology and connectivity also highlighted the sometimes dangerous connection in between the Diaspora and local communities.

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Increasingly, funding and attention has been given to support research organizations into monitoring Hate Speech and online tools like Facebook and Twitter, so understand the phenomenon and to see if there is a connection between online Hate Speech and actual hate crimes on the ground. While this connection is far from being proven so far, mainly due to the fact that online tools provide a protection and anonymity that real actions on the ground do not provide, there are no doubts that the presence of Hate Speech online is a good barometer of the mood of certain sectors of the population in a given country, and should not be disregarded.

The topic of Hate Speech has indeed attracted the attention of the big donors in the Democracy, Governance, Humanitarian, Development and Peace-building fields. An example is the European Union, that has lately funded projects aiming at combating online hate speech co-funded under the Programs “Rights, Equality and Citizenship” and “Fundamental Rights and Citizenship” for a total of 4 million euros. This number is probably one tenth of the amount spend by donors like USAID in the same field.

When looking at those projects thought, one common threat seems to emerge: the outcomes of those projects is rarely aiming at understanding the phenomenon to counter it from an anthropological and social prospective, and it rather focuses on the legal repercussions of Hate Speech. More than that, the majority of those projects are specifically looking at: how to enforce Hate Speech regulations and laws; how to create new one; how to create efficient reporting mechanisms to identify Hate Speech; etc.

Aside from the already discussed issues related to the use of Hate Speech regulations as a way to repress freedom of speech, which is on going debate and a very real risk, the main problem lies in the fact that legal measures cannot be the only way we solve the problem. If we stop looking at the phenomenon from a “legal” perspective, and instead we look at it from an “Information Ecosystem” perspective, the currently explored outcomes of Hate Speech Monitoring are far from addressing the real problem.

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Online Hate Speech in indeed a form of communication. More specifically, it is a form of communication that allows for people to use tools like Facebook and Twitter to reinforce their cognitive bias, and to find others that agree with them and that they can use (not necessarily consciously) to spread their message.  As such, Hate Speech are an expression of hate as a feeling, that from an ethnographic perspective is very similar to love: but while love seems to deactivate areas traditionally associated with judgment, hatred activates areas in the frontal cortex that may be involved in evaluating another person and predicting their behavior. Hence, like Jacobs and Potter (1998) remind us, hate crime is “not really about hate, but about bias or prejudice”.

If this is the case than, maybe we should starting to look at them in a way that addresses the underlying issue behind hate speeches, and mainly engagement and interactions. If hate is based on bias and prejudice, and than we should target the root causes of those factors, rather than try to punish their expressions. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that regulations against Hate Speech should not be in place. What I think we are forgetting here is that we are not going to stop Hate Speech with Hate Speech laws: the only way to stop them is to address the root cause if it, hence, to engage people that do act on their prejudice and bias and change those bias and prejudice.

The example that come to mind is what Egyptian bloggers were doing to counteract the pro-Mubarak Facebook pages in Egypt: they would target a specific page for days, posting videos, messages and all they could against the regime: it was not juts about posting messages, it was about providing to all the viewers of that page a totally different vision of Egypt, with articles, interviews and as many verified information as they could find to CHANGE their mind. It was not about telling them that they were wring, it was about giving the them the chance to change their mind and see another point of view: all in all, they were targeting their biased ideas.

66226827So, why can’t we use the same methodology to counter-act hate speech? Why can’t we start working on changing people’s perception of the “others” by using the same tool they are using to propagate Hate Speech? If we want to really address the issue, maybe nice reports about what people us to propagate Hate Speech are not that useful if they sit on a website for people to read – we need to start working on what we do with those reports and how we target people with the right information to change their views, not how we can pout them in jail if they express them. because, let’s be honest, their ideas do not get to stay in jail with them.

Social Media for Local Media and NGOs

In the last year, working as an Advisor for several organizations I have been training lots of journalists, mainly in small local community media, like community radio stations, and NGOs, on how to use social media for their work. One things needs to be noted: from country to country, and inside the country, from place to place, there is a huge difference in the awareness and use of social media that small local media and NGOs do.

I am referring here to small local media or NGOs because normally those type of organizations do not have the money to hire their own “social media” expert so they rely on their existing capacity to learn how to use those tools. On the side of NGOs is just because they too often think that the Social Media is part of their PR or comms system. Having said that, there are some who have learned how to do and master it very efficiently, and others that still struggle, either for lack of technical capacity or for lack of previous knowledge.

In general for local media outlets and NGOs that start using social media by themselves, those are most common issues I have faced and how I have addresses them:

1. Using social media as a newspaper. This is a very common mistake that lots of traditional media and NGOs entering the social media space do: using Twitter and Facebook in the same way they were operating before, as one-way communication system. Normally this means that they use those tools only to push information out to the public, basically transforming their twitter feed or their Facebook page into a newspaper. Those cases are also normally paired with almost no interactions with users: no replies to comments, little pools, poor or no use of forums, etc.

Social-Media-Cartoon

Why? The reason why this happen is that while people recognize the importance of Social Media in their work, they do not address the issue from a systematic point of view. They simply add Social Media management to the work of the IT person – normally – or the editor – or the PR or comms person for the NGOs – and they believe that this all it takes. The fundamental mistake here is the lack of understanding that the use of Social Media is not just an additional tool but it is a change in the way we communicate and relate to the audience or our stakeholders, being them beneficiaries or people we want support from. New tools here come with new approaches.

What to do? The simple way to address this is to have a more systematic approach that begins with the understanding of what a two-way communication system is. For traditional media this has been and will still be for some time a struggle. While traditional journalism and PR comes from the perspective of “publishing”/ “advertising”, social media relies on the process of “sharing” and “interacting”. The first is a totally outfacing process – I tell you, you listen; the second one is a process relying on a conversation – I talk to you, you reply, I reply to your reply and so on. The shift here is related to the understanding that a relationship needs to be build and that a relationship is necessarily based on a conversation rather than on a unidirectional stream of information. One practical way to do so, is to actually start incorporating Social Media management into all the activities of an NGO or media outlet, and guide individuals through the process of relating to their audience in a very different way.

2. Think that social media can be an accessory. What I am referring to here is the idea that the use of social media will not require any additional efforts. This is a very common mistake related to the fact that Social media accounts are indeed free, meaning you do not have to pay to have one, and for this reason people tend to think that also their use/management is free. Which is not the case.

Social Media Cartoon

Why? One of the main problem here is the fact that, as I mentioned before, normally Social Media management is a task that is given to the IT person – or the editor, or the PR or comms person. Normally the editor/PR person choose which content is published and the IT person is the one mandated to publish the information on the Social media account. This system, it’s not only a problem in terms of sustainability, but also in terms of practical workflows. In fact, the very principle of Social media – immediate, real time and highly interactive tools – becomes pretty much impossible to be fulfilled by this system. By the time the editor/comms has decided what needs to be published and when, the audience may have already replied and waiting for an answer, that will need to be read by the IT person, reported to the editor/comms person again and then referred to the IT person to be published.

What to do? I had several conversations with journalists and NGOs like Al Jazeera, BBC, and UNICEF and I consider those three organisations to be probably the best users of Social Media in the traditional media an NGO landscape (granted UNICEF is not an NGO, but it’ a similar type of organisation in terms of mandate). One of the main technics that they use is that they train all their journalists/workers in using social media individually. This leads to a completely different workflow but also to a completely different “relationship” with the audience. What happen in fact is that social media becomes a tool for journalists/development workers and not a “company” tool necessarily, where individual journalists/NGO workers handle and control their own relationship with the audience, but in the same time they enrich the conversation on behalf of the “company”. The result is one conversation under the umbrella of one organisation, that have different distinct voices under it. This system, makes the conversation faster, easier and richer.

3. Trying to control the conversation. This is something that most NGOs and local media outlets can’t really cope with: the fact that on social media you cannot really control the conversation or try to direct it the way you want (one notable example is this tentative of the NYDP to use Twitter for their own PR campaign). If you do not engage in a conversation in your real life – or in your job as organisation – Social Media will just be a reflection of that. With the difference that while with in-person conversations there are only as many people as you can reach – with social media one person can reach many other people, and therefore spread the voice much faster and broader. Controlling the conversation is not an option, but being able to handle a conversation is the first prerequisite for using Social Media properly.

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Why? The reason why this happens is strictly related to the fact that the while in the pre-social media time organizations where able to decide what to talk about and how, now this prerogative is not there anymore. Anyone, any where, can decide to start a conversation about an organization and provide information and input into the conversation without even having to talk to the organization in question. Social media does not allow for any control of the conversation and does not allow anyone to take ownership of it – and this mans that organizations need to learn to do something they have never done before: 1) engage with their audience even if the audience it hostile; 2) provide proofs for what they say and convince the audience 3) be ready to apologize for their mistake and be held accountable for what they do/say.

What to do? This is normally what I suggest to organizations and what I trained them on:

1. Learn to listen, not just to talk. Listening does not mean hearing. It means listening!

2. Have processes, protocols, editorial guidelines in place – what you say reflects who you are but different people may read different messages in the same sentence. Be mindful and careful about your language and your reactions.

3. Learn how to handle a conversation. A conversation is based on the mutual ability to listen and understand not on the ability to “convince” people that you are right.

4. If you screw up, be the first one to say it. Do not wait for people to find out.

5. You will never make everyone happy and you will never be liked by everyone. So make sure you choose a target carefully and go for the “influencers” and not for the masses.

This last point is very important. Traditional media and NGOs have in common one thing: they both believe that what they do is unique and that they have little to learn from other fields. Wrong. Lots of their processes are shared with tons of other fields and lots of other organizations have things to teach them. One is for example the audience research that business and bug companies do: learn who is out there, what do they like, who do they listen to and what do they think about you. Think as a business that needs to sell a products and the product is your reputation and your image. Your brand is your mission and your values, and the more people know your brand, the more they may be willing to be your advocates and to engage in a social media conversation on your behalf.

I find still very fascinating that Social Media continue to be an unknown territory for lots of small organizations – but also for big one. The change in mentality when it comes to the way we relate to the rest of the world has not happened yet. The very exciting thing here is that we are in a transition mood and we have the possibility to learn from what others are doing and make the best out of it.

Why the emergency will not be twitted

I have meant to write this blog post since very long time. But I never did since I realized that I am not sure I know what exactly I want to say on the matter. So, take this blog post for what it is: a reflection on what I have been thinking about the issue of using social media to communicate during humanitarian emergencies, and specifically on their usage to communicate with affected communities (I personally dislike this term, but I will use it for lack of a better one).

I’ve always been a big fan of using social media to communicate during disasters. If we look at Haiti for example, we can see the incredible use that not only “official” organization have done of the tool, but also and foremost the local population. The example of the NYC police department during Sandy or of Carel Pedre in Haiti are notable examples of the way different actors have been using social media as a powerful tool during emergencies.

On the other side, if we look at the events coming out from the Arab Spring, we see other very interesting examples of the use of social media by local communities, examples that we have just barely really analyzed, due to the fact that the majority of the interactions were happening in Arabic, while most of the analysis of those phenomenon are being done by English speakers academics.

Notable examples of people using social media during natural disasters can be found in the Philippines, like this map generated by OCHA using social media, or in New Zealand during the earthquake in 2011. 

Now, the question I have been trying to answer to in the past 2 years on the matter is: has any of those initiatives demonstrated without doubts that social media generated content can and is used to make decisions by responders (both local population and humanitarian responders), in a way that allow us to say that those tools are indeed necessary for emergency response?

Unfortunately so far the answer that I have given to this question is no. This does not necessarily mean that indeed social media cannot be used to inform decisions, but that we have not yet been able to demonstrate it.

For several reasons:

1. The technology gap is still there. We may see the future as a world where everyone will have a Twitter account, and where the entire world will have cheap and easy access to internet, but so far this is not yet happening. In the refugee camps in Dadaab, in Mali, in Niger, in Central African Republic people do not have access to those means, internet is still unreliable and where present, expensive. Their emergency is not twitted, facebooked it or youtubed it. (Photo: Meridith Kohut / Internews)

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2. Responders still use other means to gather information. So far there is not prove that any emergency responder agency has been using social media data for targeted and specific responses, apart from single and isolated cases. They still need to figure out the verification issues, the filtering of the enormous amount of data, the processing of the data, and the analysis of it. Once they will have this figured out, then they will be able to see if the intelligence gathered from that data is usable at all. On the community side, according to Internews Information Needs Assessments, people still rely on Radio, or word of mouth to gather the information they need to make better informed decisions.

3. The use of more “traditional” tools, like phones, has proven to be more efficient and more reliable. 911 is still the first number people in the US call in case of emergency, as well as in other countries (where there are other similar there are other numbers). Not only phones are much more widespread than internet, but also allow for more structured (and private) interactions in between people in need and responders – without the noise of the social media.

4. The human contact: we often tend to forget that in emergencies people do need a human contact. Talking to someone looking at him/her in the eye has a huge psychological value that a piece of information, for how useful it could be, does not have. Human interactions are still the basics of what people in distress look for, and are still a fundamental part of the recovery path. Sometimes we should ask ourselves not if a toll is useful or not, but if THAT tool is the best way to convey that MESSAGE.

5. Recents studies, like this one, and this one, and this other one, highlight that social media so far do not seem to carry a specific value when it comes to providing quality information as opposed to other sources. It also looks like it much less trusted than traditional media. Even in the social media sphere it looks like traditional media are still the one that people turn to, to understand what is going on, especially in times of incertitude. In this sense, it looks like traditional media is doing a good job at highlighting relevant information and guiding people through the noise of the social media chatter. This study form Farida Vis on the London Riots shows how the top 200 accounts during the riots where in fact Mainstream Media and Journalists:

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Conclusions

Those are some of the potentials and opportunities that I see in using social media during emergencies:

A. Social Media seems so far to be a very good ADDITIONAL tool to be used by official sources to spread information during an emergency. The tricky point is: how prepared official bodies/agencies are in using this tool, and how much of their strategy is being build in advance so that during the emergency they are actually ready to do it?

B. Social Media still need to prove its value when it comes to be a tool to gather emergency information from affected communities. So far, as I said before, there is little data on how social media information has been used by organization to make decisions. This does not means that the value is not there, but that we are still in the process of understanding how this data can be used, by whom and why. Anecdotal evidence is not enough, and we are still struggling to find tools that would allow us to monitor and understand what is the value of the data collected via social media during an emergency. A huge opportunity can be identified here in terms of working more with humanitarian organization in general to understand their decision making processes, so that social media data can be analyzed and provided in a format that make sense to them, and can be integrated with other data.

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On the other side, we also still need to prove there there is anything valuable in the data exchanged on Social Media during emergencies. We still need to demonstrate that Social Media is a tool that communities use during emergencies AND that carries valuable information that are not already known by responders through other means. Do communities really communicate important information during disasters using SM? And do we define what is “important”? Also, do communities on Social Media make decisions out of Social Media content during emergencies?

The third factor to consider is the comparative advantage: does Social Media provide any advantage when it comes to relevant and timely information to be gathered in order to make decisions?  In other words, is SM economically sustainable? Is the time, and people, and technology used to filter, analyze and manage social media during emergencies really well spend?

C. The Social Media network is as valuable as the real social network. If we work too much on building one and do not work enough the build the later one, we are setting ourselves up for failure. On the other side, huge opportunities lies in the study of social networks and their modeling in disasters. If we look at trusted sources and important nodes in those networks, we can observe how they function during disasters and try to predict where people will turn to in case of need. This will give us a lot of insights about which interactions to observe and monitor during emergencies.

All in all, there is a lot that we do not know, and unfortunately there is also a lot of misleading information out there. The way we carry out analysis of Social Media content from affected communities and the intelligence we get from it needs to be based on very scientific and precise methodologies.

In addition to that there is also very much a lack of fundings in this kind of research, as it seems that as much as donors are interested in funding new cool technologies and big data projects, they are not that interested in funding research to understand how that data can become really usable and relevant.

Asia Trip 2013: Follow the adventures of a crisis mapper in Asia!

I owe an apology to my readers: I did not disappeared or stopped blogging, I just changed platform for a little while. No worries, this is still my official blog, but for the time being you can see what I am up to here. I am using this platform because it is simpler and easier, it allows me to post from my phone and not necessarily original content. As to say: different methodology, different content, different technology.

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I have started a long trip in Asia, visiting 6 countries in one month to work on social media, local technology communities, crisis mapping, local context with regard to communication with communities, media and much more. For the trip, I have set up a Tumblr, so I am using it to write about my trip, my discoveries, and interesting projects or people I am meeting.

I will be back blogging here once I am back into a more of a normal life, but for the time being, please refer to my Asia Trip 2013 Tumblr for more information about what I am up to 🙂

And, as always, contact me if you have any tips, suggestions or comments 🙂

Breaking news: Journalism is dead!

ok. I needed a catchy title for this post, and yes, I do not think that journalism is dead, but I do think that most journalists will be, if they do not understand what is going on in this new connected world. I will proceed gradually. If you are a journalists and you agree with all of the statements listed here, then yes, your job is dead and you should think about finding another job.

1. Journalists are the gatekeepers of information. No they are aren’t anymore. Today I gather most of the information I need simply by using twitter and facebook, or, if I am looking for some specific technical informations, I look for blogs written by experts in the area. Information’s landscape today goes much beyond journalists and traditional media, since everyone can reach everyone at any time, independently form their physical location. This is not valid only because of the internet, but also because of mobile phones.

2. Journalists are the one that have access to information before anyone else. Again, this was valid before, because journalists could get access to place and information much easier than others, but also because an information needed to pass from eyewitnesses through them to get out. Today eyewitnesses get information out before they even talk to a journalist: they tweet it, they facebook it, they blog it, they text it. For this same reason the meaning of “Breaking News” is becoming blurry and definitely not part of the “journalist” jargon anymore.

3. Journalists are the only one that can push information out more then anyone else. Again not true anymore. it is till true that probably there is not blogger that has as much readers than the New York Times or the Guardian, but the aggregated number of bloggers, twitter accounts or facebook pages that can push information out will always be higher than a single media outlet.

So what is the role of journalists? Is journalism really dead?

I was lucky enough to participate and moderate a panel titled “Verifying Crowdsourced Information – Journalists as Curators” and featured Matthew Eltringham, Founding Editor of the BBC UGC Hub, Erik van Heeswijk, Digital Editor-in-Chief of VPRO, David Clinch, Editorial Director of Storyful, and Charlie Beckett, Director of LSE Polis. The panel was indeed an incredible discussion on how user generated content can be and is indeed used both by traditional news outlets such as the BBC or by new typology of media initiatives  like Storyful.

What emerged in this panel was the extreme importance of context and analysis as well as the value that traditional journalisms has in terms of the ability to apply traditional media tecnics, like investigative jounralisms, to new media . In this context all panelists agreed that the rise of social media is an opportunity for journalists to turn user generated content into high quality news sources. But this also require traditional media to accept the new important role that social media is playing in today’s information landscape and the new role that journalists need to create for themselves.

A couple of months ago in a lecture given by Ethan Zuckermann in Nairobi, I asked him how to handle the difficult relationship in between traditional media and social media actors. Zuckermann replied back by saying that there should be no real difficulty and that the both actors needs to accept that they are now covering both tasks: journalists needs to be also social medi actors as well as social media actors needs also to realized that they are performing journalism tasks. The video of his presentation is here and I really suggest you to watch it!

Of course the usual argument used by traditional media stating that there is not such a thing as citizens journalism, since journalists are the only one that can do in-depth verification and analysis is not valid anymore. Looking at this very interesting article on the use of Twitter during the hurricane Sandy, it seems that “the crowd” itself is getting very close to elaborate spontaneous ways to verify information.

Looking at studies like this one on the spreading or rumors on Twitter, we can already identify ways in which “influential sources: on Twitter manage to spread counter- rumors in a timely manner. This specific study does also highlight how incredibly important the roles of journalists is in the sphere of social media. I had the pleasure to listen to a presentation done by Farida Vis, Research Fellow in the Social Sciences, Information School at the University of Sheffield, UK (@flygirltwo) on her study about the use of Twitter during the London Riots and 2 points she made were very interesting to me:

– The crowd on social media seems to still trust more than anything else traditional journalists and media, as shown in this graph:

– the use of less sophisticated content (like videos taken with the mobile phones) did not only not affect the user experience, according to the number of users accessing an using it, but increased the physical security of the journalists on the ground

To conclude, this is what I think is the situation right now:

1. Traditional Journalism will still exists as long as journalists will understand that they have no choice in embracing social media and the technology revolution.

2. The added value of journalism, being it in the creation and implementation of verification technics or the reliability of their voice as opposed to the noise of the crowd need to be created and demonstrated, it will not be given for granted forever.

3. There is not such a things as citizens journalism as opposed to “traditional” journalism  There is journalism, and it both a new and an old concept that needs to be continuously adapting to the change in the reality of information systems.

4. Tools like Storyful and the BBC User Generated Content Hub are demonstrating that journalisms is not really changing, it is doing the same things it was doing before but in new ways. The skills and the knowledge are there, we only need the will.

Towards the design of a communication with affected communities model

Several weeks ago something incredible has been released by Infoasaid that seems to have passed under silence.

Infoasaid is a DFID-funded project that is being implemented by a consortium of two media development organisations – Internews and BBC Media Action. The overall goal of the project is to improve the quality of humanitarian responses by maximizing the amount of accurate and timely information available to both humanitarian responders and crisis-affected populations through enhanced information exchange between them in an emergency. The project has two main objectives:

  • To strengthen the capacity and preparedness of aid agencies to respond to the information and communication needs of crisis-affected populations.
  • To partner with a number of aid agencies to help inform and support their communications response in a variety of emergency contexts.

Infoasaid works at multiple levels to improve communications with crisis-affected communities. This involves the development of a range of preparedness tools to help aid agencies communicate better in an emergency; deployment of teams to the field to support partners in delivering communications responses; advocacy at system and organization level; and research to promote learning and strengthen the evidence base in this sector.

Some weeks ago they launched a new website, which has been an incredible effort from part of the team. The new website, which you can find here, is an amazing resource for all agencies and NGOs that need to face the difficult talk of communicating directly with affected communities during emergencies or disaster, or in general in complex emergencies.

Let’ have a quick look to this website.

Section one: the Media and Telecoms Landscape Guides. This edition of the website shows something that I personally find one of the best resources in terms of research and practical resources for media and telecommunication landscape in a country. When deciding how to communicate with affected communities in fact, one of the first questions is how to channel this communication and what best ways to deliver the message are already available in the country. This is what you can find here: Mobile providers, radio stations broadcasting in the country, press and TVs, availability of mobile network , Internet penetration, and a contact directory of media and telecoms operators in the most crisis prone countries in the world

These online guides are a useful tool for humanitarian responders seeking to communicate effectively with crisis-affected communities. The information contained in each guide acts as a baseline of the media and telecommunications environment and therefore can serve as a useful preparedness tool. In the immediate aftermath of an emergency, an information needs and access assessment can be undertaken in order to verify whether the channels of communication outlined in the guide are still functioning. The guides are being developed for 22 countries at risk of both natural disasters and conflict or both.

The second section of the website is indeed the best part of it.  The message libraryWhen the CDAC network was created the first time in 2009, the network emerged in response to the policy paper ‘Left in the Dark’ with a view to improving two-way communication between aid actors and disaster affected populations. CDAC Network members believed (and still believe) that information to, and communication with, affected people is essential – as a life-saving device, as key to taking ownership of their own recovery, and as critical to accountability and genuine participation. CDAC Network members believe that communication is aid.

In one of the following deployment of the CDAC network, in Haiti, one of the main problem that emerged was not only the need to communicate but the need for a coordinated and homogeneous message to be delivered to the affected communities. The problem was posed by the fact that as agencies and organizations were growing in number and size, all of them were trying in different ways to deliver messages to the beneficiaries of aid, with the result of many messages, sometimes contradicting each other, delivered to many people, sometimes not the right receiver for that message.

What emerged from that experience was the need for a coordinated afford to organize this communication channels in a way that could avoid confusion and misunderstanding (and frustration) from part of people that were already in distress. The CDAC network in Haiti continue to do this specific job, under the direction of Ben Noble, which I had the fortune to meet when I went there in August 2011, who is not only coordinating this effort but also leading, according to me, to the development of what will be called the first model for the functioning of this kind of initiative in a protracted and complex emergency like Haiti is right now.

Out of that experience, and many others, like the deployment of CDAC in Pakistan, this concept of coordinating the messages being sent to affected communities became even more complicated by the emergence of new technologies that allow everyone, even the tiniest organization, to set up its own communication channel and broadcast messages to large groups of people.

The Infoasaid Message Library is so far the very first experiment in this sense: a complete, searchable library of messages categorized according to topic, target and communication channels.

The message library is an online searchable database of messages that acts as a reference for those wanting to disseminate critical information to affected populations in an emergency. It has been developed in collaboration with a number of different clusters/sectors in humanitarian response, including, Health, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), Nutrition, Food Security, Protection (Child Protection, Gender-based Violence, Mine Risk Education) and Education.

The messages include: warnings and alerts, advice on risks and threats and how to mitigate them and prompts for programmatic interventions. Embedded in the message library is guidance on contextualisation, including advice on how to adapt each message according to language, feasibility, education levels, cultural belief and practice and the ‘do no harm’ principle. The message library is designed to be used as a reference tool and each message should be translated, piloted and adapted to suit the local context and to ensure comprehension before dissemination. All messages are downloadable and exportable in different format and the website offers also a complete guide on how to use the library (and an illustrative video).

For each message there is a specific section that shows the target of the message, the possible issues related,to the messages, like sensitivity issues or cultural issues and the  preferred means to spread that message. See a couple of examples here.

In addition to this, for each message that have a high sensitivity Or risks associated to it, there is a window that ask the user several questions to guide him/ her through the process of thinking if the message selected is really the right one for the specific intent of the sender, and if all possible risks and consequences have been evaluated with the right attention.

 The third section of the website is an online curriculum for communication officers, small NGOs and humanitarian officers. This curriculum has one very practical and ought through course on how to communicate with affected communities. The ‘Communication is Aid’ e-learning course aims to raise awareness about the key components of effective communication with crisis affected communities and to build knowledge and understanding on how to communicate in practice.

The course is divided into five modules. The first two introduce learners to the course and the key concepts it covers. The remaining three modules are interactive, scenario-basedchallenges and involve learners having to make key decisions to do with communication during an earthquake, a post conflict situation and a hurricane/flood.

The modules are divided up as follows:

  1. How to use the course
  2. Why communication matters
  3. Knowing your target audience
  4. Crafting and adapting messages
  5. Communication: A two way process

 The course is based on practical and real cases and is completed with exercises and tests to measure the level of understanding of the user all the way through the course. In addition to this, the course is free and can be re done as many times as possible.

The fourth section of the website is a set of diagnostic tools aimed to enhance the effectiveness of communication with crisis-affected populations. These include checklists and information sheets on the following:

  • Questions on Community Profiling
  • Questions on Information Needs and Access Assessments
  • Radio Feasibility Assessment Checklist
  • TV Feasibility Checklist
  • Assessing the Mobile Environment
  • Characteristics of Different Channels of Communication
  • Emergency Preparedness and Response Checklist
  • Communication Strategy Template

This website is the first tentative to create a coordinated “conversation model” with affected communities and I hope that all concerned actors will use it as much as possible, contributing to is and enriching this pool of resources to include all possible typology of messages, case studies and additional information to it.

As coordination is indeed one of the most difficult thing to achieve during humanitarian emergencies, the existence of CDAC can make a huge difference in the provision of humanitarian aid.

My dream is that one day we will not need to have CDAC anymore, because humanitarian organizations will have incorporated in their own mandate, as part of humanitarian aid, communication with affected communities.

Integrating Local Media and ICTs into Humanitarian Response in Central African Republic

[This blog post os cross posted on the Ushahidi blog]

It is done. I have been dreaming about this project for the past 2 years and today, I am incredibly proud to announce the launch of the Internews Crisis Map for Central African Republic.

The “Integrating Local Media and ICTs into Humanitarian Response in CAR” project is a collaboration in between Internews, Ushahidi, the Association of Journalists for Human Rightsin Bangui and UNOCHA–RCA and funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund. This is an innovative system that comprises a bounded network of trusted local media organizations who gather real-time first-hand information from affected populations to create a two-way communication flow with humanitarians to improves emergency response, community participation and community resilience.

This new media and communications system aims at increasing the efficiency, transparency and accountability of humanitarian relief efforts and increase community resilience by leveraging the relationship that local media have with their communities while being strengthened in this task by technological solutions. If you want to read more about this project you can go here and here.

I am particularly proud to tell you all about the incredible (and yes most awesome awesomeness) customizations done by Robbie McKey to the Ushahidi platform we are launching today (yes yes, this will all be available on Github to be used, spread, and admired by everyone!). A big thanks to Patrick Meier as well for being so pro-active about this partnership and seeing the huge potential two years ago (together with Mark Frohardt).

So let’ start from the user interface functionalities: 

1. Printing Maps: the CAR map has a printing map functionality available for three different types of pages. The big map (which is our home page); the list of report page; and the single report page. The idea behind this customization is that you can print (or save as PDF) any report you like without having to copy and paste it manually. This also allows people to search for specific reports (like water needs in Bangui) and print the reports/save it.

2. Action needed/urgent and actionable plugin modification. This plugin was already created some time ago, but we tweeked it a bit. Now from the main home page, you can see only urgent reports, reports that needs to be addressed or reports that have been addressed already. This system has been developed with the ideas of allowing for a better organization in between humanitarian organizations responding to needs on the ground.

3. Low Bandwith version.  This is really not a modification that we have done but just a trick. Basically you can decide to brows the entire platform as a mobile version (even on your computer). This comes extremely useful for places like CAR, where the internet connection where available, is often very weak and cannot necessarily load the entire platform.

4. Offline Version. This is the most important piece of the puzzle: this Ushahidi deployment allows users to browse all the reports and see them offline. In the incoming weeks the functionality will be expanded to allow people to actually edit reports offline and then upload the content once they have connectivity back.

5. Information Evaluation. We have changed the information evaluation criteria according to the peculiarity of the project. Since we are working with humanitarian organization and radio stations, we have decided to use the only criteria that we normally use in the media world: direct source, indirect source, I don’t know. The same has been done for the probability of the information: confirmed, not confirmed, I don’t know.

We also changed the appearance of the platform and specifically:

1. Change time span for report visualization. When you go the home page of the platform you will see only the reports that have been inserted into the platform in the past 2 weeks. The reason behind this change is that we don’t want to end up with a super crowded platform – since this is supposed to be a long-term project – and we also want to make it easier for humanitarian organization to find the latest information on the map. By going to the TimeLine, people can always go back to the visualization of all reports inserted in the platform.

2. Possibility to set an icon/color for All Reports category. We ended up not using this, since we cannot find an icon that can work with all categories, but still we now can set up an icon and change the color of the All Report categories.

3. Big Map as the home page. We realized that we needed a bigger map on the home page but also that the map was our main way to add value to the feed of information that we are already collecting from the ground from radio stations. Having the Big Map as the home page we get rid of the report list, already available in the List of report page, and of the news feeds, that are now coming in only from the back end for the managers of the platform to decide what to do with it.

On the back end side we have done only one customization, but a very important one:

1. Editing information: this customization basically allows us to see who has modified what and when. The functionality that was there before was allowing admins to see when someone had opened one report from the back end and changed something. With this improved system, we can now see from a Log Report page, who has changed something but also what exactly – the field- was changed. This customization was specifically done to make sure that humanitarian organizations that have access to the platform and journalists can always monitor who is doing what and preserve the integrity of the information.

This platform is an incredible achievement, not only with respect to the technology customization, but also visi-a-vis the framework of the agile development methodology that we want to use in future innovative projects in humanitarian emergencies. The technology here is just the starting point and the base for the creation of something that is entirely customized around the users and in this way designed to respond to specific operational needs.

In the coming weeks we will continue working on the translation of the platform into French and to finish all the customizations (and making sure that everything is working). We will also gather feedback from the humanitarian community using the system in Central African Republic and will refine the customizations done to make sure that this is really going to become a tool that will support humanitarian organizations in their work in CAR, by providing them meaningful and actionable information coming directly from the affected communities. In September we will come back and assess what are the outcomes of this novel project are in terms of consequences for the local communities in CAR.

One thing is left to say here: KUDOS to the Internews team on the ground; to the Ushahidi team; to  the UNOCHA staff in Bangui; and of course to the Association of Journalists for Human Rights, who made this all possible with its incredible daily work, trying to bring better information to affected communities in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Appropriateness, affordability and sustainability of technology

Since I started working as innovation and new media consultant I often find myself struggling on exactly should be and how to look at the assessment of environments for the implementation of projects involving the use or the introduction of the so called new technologies.

One of my main concerns is that often I will find a general focus on the evaluation of the infrastructure that allow the technology to work amd the quality of the technology in terms of functioning, and not on the qualitative background necessary for the technology to actually be used.

What I think it is extremely important here is not to focus on one or the other but to make sure that all of them are taken into consideration and understood in their complexity.

The technology

The functioning of the technology is pretty much straight forward. It does work or it does not work. On the other side that fact that a technology works does not mean that the technology is the right one for the goal you have. Increasingly people choose a technology because they like it and then try to fit it to their objectives. The reason is that often there is interest, from donors and NGOs in financing and trying new technologies as to show how innovative your organization or project is. In this context the main problem that emerges is that the technology itself, being it radio, mobile, wifii, computer based, can be working perfectly but not really adding anything to the original context. Other times the technology is working perfectly but the additional cost of it it is too high for the users.

I see this every time people approach me asking to help them in using a Ushahidi platform for their project. What often happen in this case is that people see Ushahidi as a powerful tool for crowd sourcing, but they forget that the platform is also a mapping tool. For instance, not necessarily all crowd sourced information is mappable, and more than that, not all mapped crowd sourced information is actually going to give an additional value to the the information itself. E same thing happen when people want to use the Ushahidi platform to map historical data, where most likely a GIS map or a static map will be more useful in term of visualization and also in terms of accessibility – allowing for offline, printable maps to be produced more easily.

Affordability of technology

The affordability of technology is something extremely important that is often linked to the sustainability of a project. One of the main issue here is that traditionally people have been focusing on how much does a technology equipment/ maintenance costs. This is indeed a problem, but not always the main one. Sometimes the cost a technology is not directly related to the money necessary to buy or to maintain it, but to the cost associated with the consequences of using it. I will make an example here:

Pamoja FM is a radio station in Kibera in the city of Nairobi. Pamoja FM decided some time ago to use a short code number agreed with Safaricom to increase it’s revenues. Since the radio receives a lot of SMS from its listenership they thought that having a short code would have allow them to get more money out of it, pne of the reason being that Pamoja is a community radio station and for this reason it is not allowed to do advertisements. Safaricom did an agreement with the radio and gave to them a 4 digit short code at an increased price so that part of the revenues from the short code could go to the radio station. The short code worked beautifully. The radio was getting 5 shillings per SMS and the number was easy to remember. The problem was that the increased price was really increased since the prices for one SMS on the user end was 10 shillings, compared to the normal price of 2 shillings. The number of messages that the radio was receiving decreased from 500 a day to almost 0. In this situation the technology was working and doing exactly what it was supposed to do, but the assumption that users would have paid such an amount of money to send an SMS to the radio was wrong.

Appropriateness of technology

This issue is strictly related to the how do u chose which technology is the best for your project and for the place where u are going to implement it. Some time ago I had a discussion with Laura Hudson from FLSMS about the necessity to have not only technical assessment but also “cultural behavior” assessment on the use of technology in a specific context.

One example is what happened to the Ushahidi Chile project when I was still finishing my Master at Columbia University and with a group of students, and the support of the Ushahidi team and a local organization, we set up 2 phone numbers to receive informations directly from afford communities in the country. In the first 2 month of the project the team in NYC was very surprised that very few people were actually reporting using those numbers and that we were receiving more messages asking us to answer the phone (which we could not do) than to report directly via SMS. Once we went to the country we discovered that Chileans normally do not use SMS, and that they are much more used to phone calls than to text. We could not find out what the reason was, but everyone we talked to confirmed to us that they were very rarely using text rather than calls. A similar example is the U-Shahid project in Egypt, where even if provided with an SMS system, people during the elections were reporting using much more twitter and Internet than their phone, simply because they were more used to that and because the Internet in their phone was comparatively cheaper than the SMS.

The appropriatness of techology is also related to the social aspects and role of that technology Ina given context. I will use as example one of the Radio stations we work with and it’s role in the community in Kenya. I am currently working on a project to use Mobile Money to create a system where listeners will be able to place greeting messages in the radio station by calling unique number and paying with their mWallet for the message. In choosing the radio stations to be involved in the pilot project we had to exclude some very interesting community radios. The reason behind this was not that they were not appropriate for the project but that they were such an important point of gathering for the community that the introduction of a remote system to place greetings could have jeopardize the important role that those radios are playing in their community. The introduction of a new technology here could have as secondary effect the distraction of a social system that is not only working but very important for the local population.

The true is that even if people do have technology, and use it, they use it in a very different way according to their culture, their life and the actual context they live in. Decide to use SMS in a country just because there is a high literacy rate and a good mobile penetration is not enough: we need to understand how people use mobile phones, why and in which context.

For this reason when doing an assessment for the use of technology cultural behaviors and social dynamics should be considered as one of the main important component.

So, how do I assess the use do technology?

I have been asked this question once and I answered by saying that I do two things: I go to the local market, and I take public transportation. Why?

Local market because in this way I can see how people do make transactions, how do they communicate, and how do they evaluate prices, and what social dynamics are present as related to gender, economical situation and information sharing. For instance, do people use mobile banking, and if yes, how often and frequently? Do people talk about politics and what is going on in the country in the market? Where do people in the market come from, and if from far, are they the once that share info with the others coming from other areas? Do people listen to the radio in the stands? Do they play with their phones? Do people compare prices? And if yes, how?

Public transportation for a very specific reason: people get bored when they do long trips, and they tend to find way to spend that time. This is when the driver may put up some music, and normally is the radio. And in the same time is when people will either read or play with their phones – if they have one. What do they read? Do they use their phones to send SMS? Do they go on Facebook? Do they tweet? Do they play games? And if the driver put the radio on, what programs is he listening to? Does the radio program have only music or also debates? …

Of course, this isn’t the only way I do assessment, but it is normally a very good start. Listen and observe before asking and drawing conclusions 🙂

New technologies and early warning systems in non-permissive environments

I have been invited to participate in a Conference organized by Oxfam Australia “Early Warning for Protection: Technologies and practise for the prevention of mass atrocity crimes” held in Phnom Penh on the 3-4 November 2010.

I was asked to intervene in the Session dedicated to New Technologies for Early Warning introduced by Patrick Meier with two other incredible speakers, Ambassador Daniel Stauffacher, Chairman, ICT4Peace and Gowthaman Balachandran, independent consultant and former country representative for Oxfam in Sei Lanka.

My intervention was focus on New technologies and early warning systems in non-permissive environments and I decided to use the example of the last project I worked on in Egypt, the “Blogging the Egyptian Election” project, and to use that example to highlight important issues related the use of new technologies in repressive regimes.

This the outline of my intervention.

“In Egypt massive violations of human rights related to the elections, violations of political and civil rights. In May 2008 the emergency law was revised and extended for indefinite time and even if apparently restricted to terrorism and narcotics trafficking but it still continues to deprive political parties and civil society organizations of the rights to peaceful association and limit their ability to conduct activities in the streets without prior approval.

In April 2008 elections hundreds of candidates were arrested to prevent them from participating in the elections, the law still allows for civilians to be trialed in front of military courts if suspected of being part of the Muslim brotherhoods and often those accusations are based on speculations.

The disappearance of human rights activists and opposition representatives is still the normality in the country especially when approaching the elections period.

Those incoming parliamentary elections in November 2010 are consider as critical because they will lead to the presidential elections in 2011 where for the first time the candidacy of President Mubarak father is not given for granted. The candidate of the opposition Mohammed El Baradei is gaining some strong support and Mubarak father may decide to leave the arena free for the election of his son Gamal.

If the regime will feel threaten by the opposition there two ways they can try to change the result of the elections: by winning the election with fraud and so by trying to buy votes or just creates votes as they like, or my massively arresting candidates or intimidating them and prevent anyone else to have the 5% in the parliament that allows a party to present its own candidate for the presidential election.

In this landscape one of the most active political group in the country since a couple of years is represented by digital activists. Especially bloggers are incredibly active and they organize and galvanize people by using social media like Twitter and Facebook and spread information about the repression of the regime using You Tube and blogs.

The U-Shahid project is a project that will try for the first time to centralize those efforts by creating an online platform where bloggers can share their information and where citizens can report any violation of political, civil and individual rights by the regime. The U-Shahid platform will allow not only young people to report via twitter and Facebook but also ordinary citizens to report by calling and leaving a voice message or by texting with their mobile phone.

One of the main important part of this project is the idea is that if there is a violation of any sort in a specific area the people living in this area, if they subscribed to the SMS alerts system, will be able to know it immediately and go on the site.

Different points according to me make this system very interesting in terms of Early Warning System:

1. The first one is that this system has been created and will be managed by Egyptians: Egyptians are the ones that will report, as Egyptians are the ones that will process and Egyptians are the ones that will respond to the violations.

2. The second one is that it is a system that leverage on the power of the crowd: the Egyptian NS can decide to try to send false information to the platform, but the power of numbers can prevent their tentative from having any efficacy. If the national security wants to actually overcome the incoming messages form the populations by sending false reports, they need to have as many nationals security officers as the Egyptian populations, considering that we will consider as verified only information supported by video and pictures.

3. The third one is that this system has the potentiality to actually stop certain violations just by making public the happening of the same violations. In 2007 for the first time an Egyptian court send to prison two police officers for beating and raping a man because of a You Tube video posted by a blogger. The Egyptian gov’t pays lots of attention to what information is given to the public and tries to minimize this information.

Those three reasons are also why the Egyptian gov’t is being very active in trying to limit digital activism and in general the use of ICTs in the country. Information is power and the Egyptian gov’t is very much aware of the meaning of the spreading of ICTs usage in the country.

This year the National Security created a special Facebook Task Force working 24 hours a day to monitor Facebook and has also recruited groups of young people to create Facebook pages to publicize the good work of the government and of Mubarak’s son Gamal. In addition to that a couple of weeks ago the government has also created a new directive for the three phone companies in the country and for the private companies that makes it illegal to send SMS to large group of people, which seems very much designed to prevent the alert system I was talking before to take place. This informal directive also force the phone companies to use a software to filter messages to find out if someone is talking about the president or his son and eventually block his number.

To this date, only one person has been sentenced to prison in Egypt for his online activities, but security services have used detentions and harassment, and in some cases torture, to intimidate online writers. In 2007 at least 4 bloggers where incarcerated or tortured for their on line activities. In 2008 security forces arrested Isra Abd al-Fattah for using Facebook to call for a general strike and held her for two weeks on charges of “inciting unrest”. In May, state security officers detained and beat Ahmed Maher, a 27-year-old engineer who had also used Facebook to call for a general strike to mark President Hosni Mubarak’s 80th birthday.  Many others have received less-publicized threats and low-level harassment. This focus on legal repercussions and extra-judicial intimidation for online activity is the primary method of state control of the ICTs which appears to be increasing.

There are different aspects of this project that according to me are particularly important when talking about using new technologies in non-permissive environments for early warning systems:

1. The first one is that there is an adjunct value in having those systems managed entirely by the local populations: people in the country know what can be done, where things will happen and what to expect from the government and they trust themselves. It is not anymore a matter of responding; it is matter of empowering local population to take actions according to their knowledge of the environment they work in based on their existing social networks. So it is matter of preventing. In Egypt in particular no one will ever trust a system like this one set up by foreigners: Egyptians in general don’t trust foreigners and they will just not report. But they trust their social network and they know how to use it.

2. There is no new system that can work in those settings. New technologies don’t necessarily mean entirely new methodologies: the method used remain the same, the technology can just increase the efficacy and reduce the effort by maximizing the results. The U-Shahid platform doesn’t create anything new, it just relies on what people where doing even before: it relies on the social network already existing in between young people using social networks.

3. Technology doesn’t delete conflicts, it brings it into another field: in Egypt right now there are Facebook battles where activists attack the Facebook groups created by the gov’t by submerging their walls with messages until the group get closed because it becomes an arena of discussion for the opposition. This battle is happening in a complete non violent setting, where it may happened as it did that someone end up in jail, but if this battle was happening in the street I bet much more people would end up in jail or in a torture chamber.

4. There is also another comparative advantage in using new technologies in repressive regime: every time the regime tries to limit the use of technologies, and most of the time they have the means to do it, they are trapped into the fact that new technologies are not only used by the opposition but also by them to communicate and to do propaganda of their own ideas. This means that very rarely a repressive regime will effectively shout down entirely the entire ICT systems meaning literally mobile phone networks and Internet. Even in China and in Iran for example the power of the state control is not enough to be able to shout down everything. In Egypt they cannot shout down SMS entirely so they try to limit their use; on the other side the U-Shahid people manage to send alerts not via SMS anymore but by Twitter.

5. The authoritarian regimes have access to technology and use it, they learn from the opposition movements how to use it and what to do with it. There is no safe way to use technology: if something is dangerous to be done without technology it will be dangerous the same in being done with the technology. The advantage in using technology is the threshold: organization efforts and results can be maximized, so the risk being the same there is much more to gain with less effort. But organization and efforts must be there in the first place. The U-Shahid project has trained on the use of new technologies and the platform almost 130 people. This people had their name and their phone numbers and addresses taken by the NS, and they know they will be watched out. But the fact that everybody else can also participate in the reporting now means that even if all of them get arrested, the NS cannot arrest the entire Egyptian population.”

6. Only the home made technology can be effective: early warning systems based on the use of technologies can be effective only if they are based on the simple principle that the local population knows how to manage them, where to implement them, and if they are the ones that thought of using those means in the first place. This is because only if there are those preconditions the technology chosen will be designed around the existing system. In the U-Shahid project, also thanks to the fact that the Ushahidi platform is really customizable, everything was re-worked out according to the environment.