The Facebook Strategy

Two years ago I was working in Egypt for a local organization. In the three months I spent there I worked with 4 bloggers which I will not mention here.

One of the most interesting thing that they thought me was something that they called the Facebook Battle. At first I thought they were talking about one of those super annoying games that you play on Facebook, the ones that all your friends feel the need to invite you to, and that normally end up in my spam email, with a back flag close to the name of the bored friend that sent it to me.

I discover soon that they were not referring to a game, even if the activity was quite fun anyway!.

 The story of the Facebook Battles starts on 1st July, 2010, when the Egyptian Ministry of Interior (MOI) established a special department to monitor Facebook activities and content in Egypt. The department was composed by a team working according to three shifts/8 hours each and composed of 15 individuals: 2 police officers, 10 secretaries of police and 3 engineers. The main task of this group was to monitor Facebook content like groups, pages and chat and to publish reports countering online criticism of current Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak or his son Gamal.

Paired with this department there were also groups of paid young Egyptians from the National Democratic Party (NDP) youth, hired to defend the NDP and the government, by creating Facebook group in support of president’s son Gamal Mubarak and 38 other groups supporting his father, Hosni Mubarak.

 At the time it was not strange for Facebook users to face trials or get arrested based on their online activity in Egypt, like the trial taking place against Egyptian activists facing several charges, such as the misuse of world wide web (see here for more).

 The activists I was working with were specifically targeting this last group: all of them were young Egyptian used to make extensive use of Twitter and Facebook for communicating, sharing information, coordinating and organizing demonstrations (much before “we” discovered that with the Revolution of 2011).

 So, the Facebook War was something very simple: activists were very much extensively present on the net. So whenever a new Facebook page pro-regime was being created, they spread the voice in bw each other using Twitter, SMS, normal phone call or emails. Once the page was identified, the activists were using their social network to spread the voice. Then the attack was planned and organized: each activist was taking a shift, like the Facebook team from the regime was doing. Each shift had a couple of activists in it, and in that amount of time, their work was to go to the facebook page and simply answer to each of the pro-regime comments with a counter argument.

The activists were in this way in a matter of days simply filling the entire Facebook page with so many comments against the regime that the page was not anymore usable of its original purpose, advertising the regime, but instead became a full ‘revolutionary” page against the regime. This was forcing the original creators to shut it down. In one case at least, the activists even managed to get ownership of the page and transform it into a page to show the atrocity of the regime against activists.

 This story came to my mind lately because I had the luck to meet with some of the people behind Peace Text and to discuss about the role of media in non-violent strategies in Kenya for the incoming elections. One of the main issues that came out in that conversation was the role that Facebook and Twitter are playing in the ethnic tensions in Kenya. While 4 years ago in fact, the main vehicle for hate speeches was radio and SMS, now we can notice that social media are (and probably will) play an important role in the incoming elections – and related tensions – in the country.

Sadly enough, it is already possible to find pages in Facebook that push for hate or violence against on of another group. So my question here is, how to face that? Would it be possible to create a Facebook Peacemaker Team that go into all those pages and counterbalance the opinions in there? And what about Twitter> Could we monitor socila media and use them for Peacebuilding activities? Can we just learn from the Egyptian activists and use social media as an early warning system, but also as a “battle” ground where we can fight against violence and hate in a non-violent way?

Happy to hear what you guys think about it!

The Afghan War Diary and the original sin

I have been fairly silent in the past weeks about the issue of WikiLeaks and the Afghan Diaries, but only because I was crazingly busy, not because I didn’t have an opinion about this.

First, let’s understand what happened.

On the 25th of July 2010 WikiLeaks has released a document set called the Afghan War Diary, an extraordinary compendium of over 91,000 reports covering the war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010. The reports, while written by soldiers and intelligence officers, and mainly describing lethal military actions involving the United States military, also include intelligence information, reports of meetings with political figures, and related details. The reports cover most units from the US Army with the exception of most US Special Forces’ activities. The reports do not generally cover top-secret operations or European and other ISAF Forces operations.

After the release of the documents on line, a long and intense debate started over the legality of this disclosure and the overall issue: was it right? Where the Wikileaks people putting the national security at stake? Why did they did it?

In my opinion this discussion was one of the most interesting one in the last couple of years because of what I call the schizophrenia of the original sin. The original sin, as you all know, is the sin of Eve wanting to eat the apple. The apple, was coming from the tree of the knowledge, and she ate it because she wanted to know everything that God knew. The original seen is the symbol of the thirst of knowledge, and of course, it is in the same time the symbol of the challenge to the big authority in trying to access it. Eve ends up condemning all of us to eternal suffering, and this what we took from it: the authority knows better than us, and this is what happen if we challenge it.

I am not religious, so to me is extremely interesting how this all story about the original sin is still so actual and so present in our life.

So let’s go back to WikiLeaks.

In reading all those discussions about the issue, 3 main reasons came out as the most endorsed ones for calling at the scandal and accusing WikiLeaks to be irresponsible in publishing those reports:

1. Security concerns

2. Not reliability of the information

3. The need of a vetting process

Let’s start with the first one. The opinion of those who scream at the irresponsibility of WL in publishing this information for security reasons, was that they were putting the life of the country at stake. Of course we are talking about the life of the glorious United States of America, cause the life of Afghanistan is already at stake, so there is no point of being worried about it (yes I am being sarcastic).  Now, for the security of the US to be at stake after the release of those reports, it means that the likely consequence of this disclosure will be for some crazy Arab to get so pissed off by it to try a terrorist attack against the US. Unfortunately for the fan of this theory, we should remind them that for people to get pissed off at the US, it is bit too late. 9/11 was not a mistake, was an intentional attack against the US because of their foreign policy and their attitude in international affairs worldwide, so I really doubt that those reports are going to change this situation. If it is the Afghans those people are worried about, I don’t think they needed those reports to know that the US army there is killing lots of innocent people: they can see it everyday.

Another way the Afghan Diaries could threaten the US national security is because they are revealing incredible important secrets of the US military strategy in Afghanistan, Unfortunately, again, the only thing that they seem to reveal is the incredible inefficiency of an army that is supposed to be the most advanced in the world. I have for this reason to give some credit to whom said that those reports are dangerous for the credibility of the US worldwide: the absolute randomness, inefficiency and disorganization of the Us army coming out from those documents is astonishing. But, as Obama said, nothing in those report revealed anything that we didn’t knew before. Which is even more scarring.

Let’ s go to the second reason. Some people said that those reports were not all necessarily reliable, and that some of the information contained in the reports may not be accurate. So the result is that there may be some information in the Internet and in the Media not reliable. REALLY???? What a shock, I am soo surprised! Something that may not be true in the Internet, this is really something new. Yes, I am being sarcastic, again. I am sorry but this is just pretty stupid: we all know that in the net you can read and access all sort of information, and that this may not be true. This is the all point of Internet, everyone can put everything in it, and this means that you can find true facts but also bullshits. And, I am sorry for any journalist reading, this is also true for the media and the press: we never know if what they are telling to us it is true or not. In fact there are most notable examples of media spreading false information. If this is the case, it is not really surprising and not really shocking either.

The third reason is what I call the admission of imbecility: the need of a vetting process. I find this particularly interesting because this is also one of the reasons that right wing people in Italy claim to call for a return to Fascism. We need someone that knows better, we need someone that can decide if we can know or not. The admission of imbecility here is pretty evident: we are too stupid to decide by ourselves and the government we have is not there really to represent us, and so to be accountable to us, but rather to protect us, and to take decisions for us, cause in this way we can go on doing our nice lives and don’t need to know. I love this way of thinking (yes sarcasm again): the underlying idea here is also that journalists and politicians have been given by God some sort of extra-power that make them automatically ready to know, and also to decide, not for us, but instead of us. The interesting part of it is that who is advocating for a vetting process to be in place is also automatically saying the there are information we shouldn’t have. I struggle to think at anything I wouldn’t like to know about what my government is doing with my money, in my name and with the life of my children!

The WikiLeaks issue need to be discussed, I agree, but for a different reason. What is astonishing in this story is that we need to have someone secretly handing in information to someone else who is then publishing it on line and then getting lot of crap for having done it. Instead we should be screaming to have in place an efficient system where we vet the information, we are the first to receive this information and we are the ones that call the government to answer to that. We lost our mind in the schizophrenia of the original sin: we still feel Eve was wrong in trying to access the truth, in trying to know. Instead of pretending to have more information, to know better, instead of willing to find out, we ask to know less, we call for someone to hide this evidences from our faces, we ask to remain ignorant.

But in addition to that I find extremely stupid the attitude of the US army in this issue: they  know that they have been doing some crazy mess in Afghanistan. They know that the public opinion, or at least some of it, would have jump on their neck when those stuff would have become public. So, instead of hiding those reports, they should have been the first ones in publishing it. For two reasons: first because in this way they would have had the advantage of the first move, they could have prepared their defense carefully and be able to respond. And secondly because when you admit that you have done something wrong people are more willing to forgive you. And let’s be honest, the American public is not exactly very hard on the US Army anyway!

Let me just conclude: I believe in open data. And by open data I mean  a basic concept: information is power, and this is why we should be worried when people are hiding information from us. Democracy is about  people’s power, so it is about shared information.