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Freedom of Speech, Abuse and Social Media

August 9, 2013 5 comments

Over the last year or so, social media sites have been attacked for allowing users to post abuse about other people onto their sites. These include examples of cyber-bullying on ask.fm or tweets on twitter calling for other users to be raped. The ask.fm posts have been implicated in a number of suicides while in one notable case, Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the UK Parliament, was found guilty of libel for a tweet she posted implying somebody else was a paedophile.

Abuse via social media seems new. In fact this sort of abuse is old. The difference is not the abuse itself, but the level of publicity it receives. In the middle of the 19th century an anonymous individual sent letters to various people in the rural English town of Tetbury threatening to burn their property. Agatha Christie‘s 1942/43 detective novel “The Moving Finger” tells a story of letters sent to people in the quiet town of Lymstock that resulted in the recipients committing suicide. Not so different from the ask.fm cyber-bulling (except that as a Mrs Marple story, things were not so simple and in fact the letters were used as a cover for murder).

Hate letters – often called poison pen letters – go along with anonymous or silent phone calls as one way warped minds try and subvert the minds of opponents or people they dislike. (“The Moving Finger” includes the following: “The letters are sent indiscriminately and serve the purpose of working off some frustration in the writer’s mind. As I say, it’s definitely pathological. And the craze grows….“)

Hate letters are the ancestors of today’s abusive tweets and social media comments. There is, however, a difference. Whereas hate mail isn’t public, abusive tweets threatening rape or calling the victim an “ugly cow” are. This has a larger impact as the hatred is seen by many more people and so is much more distressing.

Social media platforms must take such abuse seriously. It can, and does, lead to suicides – especially if the victims already have low self-esteem. It can escalate and lead to false rumours, as happened with Lord McAlpine – libelled by Sally Bercow. Even worse, it could lead to action against the victim.

This is not a case of freedom of speech being blocked. It’s a case of free speech that is liable to cause harm to others being punished. Anybody who tries to justify abuse using arguments that they support freedom of speech is confusing “freedom of speech” with “free speech”. Freedom of Speech is the right to communicate opinions and ideas – and censoring these is one of the first signs of a restrictive society that can, and does, lead to totalitarianism. It is not, however, a right to “free speech” where you can call for the rape of women, or abuse others through words or images. Freedom of Speech also implies responsibilities that justify that freedom.

There are people who would happily ban or restrict social media and even much of the Internet completely.  In the latter case, this includes David Cameron, the UK’s prime minister, who has called on search engines to create blocks for searches for abusive pornography or be forced to do so by law. Such calls will increase, unless the relevant sites (social media, search engines, etc.) show that they accept the responsibilities of their public position, and actively look at ways of fighting, blocking or reporting abuse themselves.    

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Social Media – networking to the future

March 27, 2011 3 comments

On Friday this arrived in my email inbox – a timely reminder of how the world has changed over the last few years.

Linked In Letter

 

I joined LinkedIn.com in August 2004, fifteen months after the site was launched in May 2003, and two years before Facebook allowed for open-access. (Facebook itself launched in February 2004 but was restricted to university / colleges and a few others until September 2006).

I’d been interested in social networks for several years – and my membership of the UK networking site, FriendsReunited.com dates from a few years earlier.

Initially social networking seemed to be more about re-connecting with people from real life rather than communicating on a regular basis. That’s all changed now.  Online social networking – through sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn is the way many people keep up-to-date with what’s going on in their social circles.

I’ve been invited to parties via Facebook, and have also invited people to my own events. It’s the way I find out what’s going on in my friend’s lives – or those that keep up on Facebook. In fact I find it now more difficult to keep up with some people who still resist the online world – as the phone lacks the immediacy that we’ve come to expect. I’m not alone: 10% of the world’s population is now on Facebook (which claims over 600m members).

In the business world, the same sort of thing is happening. I find LinkedIn incredibly useful for contacting colleagues and potential colleagues – and finding people to contact when I’m doing research. It lets me know what people are doing and it is difficult to imagine how I’d do business without such sites now. Again – I’m not alone, with LinkedIn now claiming over 100m members.

These changes promise to do more than just change the way people communicate and do business. For many years, people have talked about computers bringing about a paperless office. In my opinion that’s bunkum – or is so far. (I personally believe that technologies such as the iPad and e-Paper may eventually mean that printed material will become the exception rather than the rule in the business world – but that is some years in the future). However another development may come more quickly: the email-less office. In February 2011 Atos Origin, the French IT consulting and services company, put out a press release setting out an ambition to become a zero-email company by 2014. The company pointed out online social networking was now more popular than email and even searching for information. (Bing is integrating with Facebook – recognising the importance of social networking sites, with some people preferring to search from within the site than to go to an external site). The prevalence of spam – even with efficient anti-spam software has also meant that email was becoming ineffective as a communication tool. Guy Kawasaki, the well known blogger and Internet guru has commented that email is too long, wishing that it could be limited to 140 characters i.e. like Twitter.com, the social networking communication tool. He echoes views that see email as a flawed communication medium.

So what is the future. I find it interesting that the current revolution in the Middle East seems to be driven by social media – with both Egyptian and Tunisian regimes falling as a result of campaigns launched on Facebook and Twitter. Personal contacts however were still important: the revolutions may have been organised virtually, via online social media, but it was the mass street protests that led to the change. I think that this states the position of all online social media. It’s a communication medium, but ultimately, that is all. In this it is not new. Over the last 120 years, mankind has seen several new communication media: telex; telephone; fax; email…. Each promised additional speed and immediacy. Now Facebook, LinkedIn and especially Twitter and instant messaging (e.g. via Skype) promise even faster ways for people to communicate. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, human contact still has to be physical to have any real meaning.

The pursuit of justice and social media.

January 2, 2011 8 comments

You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect persons, nor take a bribe; for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. (Deut. 16:19-20)

The world in 2011 is still split between the haves and the have-nots, the rich versus the less rich and the poor. Despite a global recession, many have profited – while millions look for work and struggle daily to survive. There has been reason for optimism in the last year – at the end of last year, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from unjust detention by the Burmese generals. However, this is the exception – and when it comes to justice it is difficult to be optimistic for many countries.

I think that it is worthwhile looking at a few news stories of the last month of 2010 and what they say about different views on justice, the rights of the individual, and also the potential impact of social media on calls for justice.

The first news story concerns the President of Iran’s bete-noire, Israel. Moshe Katsav was born in Iran, and moved to Israel in 1951, aged 5, as a refugee. He spent the next 4 years of his life, living in tents and a transit camp which eventually was built up to become the Israeli town of Kriyat Malakhi. At the age of 24, he was elected mayor of this town – the start of a life in the political limelight. He was elected to the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset) in 1977 and served as Minister of Housing & Construction; Labour & Welfare; Transportation; Tourism; and was Deputy Prime Minister between 1996-1999. In 2000 he stood for, and was elected President. In 2006 however, he was accused of sexual molestation and rape, and forced to resign in 2007. He was subsequently indicted and tried for rape. On 30 December 2010, Katsav was found guilty by a three judge panel and will shortly be sentenced, He can expect a mandatory jail term.

Although this is a highly unflattering story it is important as it shows how justice should work. It doesn’t matter how influential or senior somebody is, he or she should not be above the law. If they commit crimes then they should be tried and sentenced. The fact that a former President was accused, tried and found guilty shows that in Israel, nobody is above the law. Katsav is not alone – there are other public figures within Israel who have been or are being investigated for various crimes, and this is how it should be. As the Bible says “You shall not pervert judgement…” and have two levels of justice – one for those in positions of authority or with ability to pay, and one for everybody else.

In contrast, a recent news story from Bangkok shows how power and privilege can corrupt calls for justice as well as the potential influence of social media to ensure that justice does take place.

A few days before the Katsav judgement – 27 December 2010 – a road accident took place resulting in the deaths of 9 people (although the first news stories reported only 8). Initial media reports blamed a van driver for the deaths, but subsequently a different story emerged that was suppressed by Thai news outlets. This was rapidly circulated via a Facebook site calling for justice. Within 24 hours, the page had generated over 180,000 likes.  Currently over 270,000 people have said that they like the page, and there are numerous comments.

Driver on Blackberry after road accidentThe story that was suppressed, apparently backed up by CCTV and witness accounts, told of an impetuous 16-year old girl without a driving licence who got impatient with a slow moving van and tried to push it out of the way with her Honda Civic. The van crashed, resulting in the loss of life of a number of students at Thammasat University – one of the best in Thailand – plus an assistant to the dean at the university’s Faculty of Architecture and Planning, and researchers including a promising scientist from a very poor family who had won a national scholarship. The girl that caused the accident, in contrast, came from a well known family. Her father had been a general and her great great grandfather was King Rama V (1853 – 1910) – the king whose policies ensured that Thailand stayed independent (and not colonised like neighbouring countries) and who is viewed as having put the country on the road to modernization. Following the accident, the girl was photographed calmly using her Blackberry – apparently posting to a social networking site (although subsequently claiming to be calling her father).

Although some of the latest reports suggest that the girl will be prosecuted, the fact that she is described as a “minor” may give a get-out clause. (“ persons of that age were not entitled to a driver’s licence, nor could they be fully subject to criminal and civil liability for deaths and damage.“)

Although the comments from Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, that “nobody is above the law” suggest that Thailand, like Israel, will treat miscreants equally, that does not seem to be the belief of those who set up the Facebook page, especially taking account the initial reports blaming the van driver.

In 1991, Alvin Toffler published PowerShift (US). The book is a “study of power in the 1990s and beyond” and traced “the shifting global power structures and describes how the very definition of power has changed in modern times”. PowerShift was written before the Internet had become mainstream, and well before today’s social media tools. The book suggested that the balance of power was changing from the traditional sources to those who controlled information. Although such ideas have circulated for some years, social media – such as Facebook and Twitter – are allowing for injustices to be quickly publicised, and as such, it becomes easier to call for justice. They are an example of the democratisation of information and allow for genuine expressions of “people power”, the “power of the crowd” as well as the “power of the many over the few”. Such calls are challenges to the existing elites of the world – who are likely to do what they can to suppress them. One approach is that taken by China, who, as the year 2010 closed,  was reported to have  banned sites like Skype, Facebook and Twitter. Other ways are to attack challengers to the existing order and some rumours suggest that the Thai Facebook page supporters may even be punished.

Nevertheless, I believe that a genie has been let out of a bottle. Although most of the time, social media is used to communicate with friends and colleagues, it has a power of its own – to change the world. With over 500 million people connected to Facebook – around 10% of all people in the world – it becomes very difficult to suppress injustices and much easier to spread the concepts of freedom, justice and the truth – however much dictatorial and corrupt regimes may try and stop it. However with power comes responsibility. The responsibility is to ensure that what is spread is the truth. There is a real danger that such tools can also be used to spread false propaganda, lies and untruths – allowing for injustice to spread. There is the danger of mob-rule, where a suspect is condemned, without being given a chance to defend themselves – the 21st century equivalent of a lynch mob.

Social media can help ensure that privileged people don’t escape justice. In this, it will serve a positive purpose. It can also act to reinforce prejudice, irrational hatred and bigotry – as can be seen in groups that try to delegitimise and condemn Israel, despite ample evidence to the contrary, as in the example of Katsav’s trial.

You must not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you are called to testify in a dispute, do not be swayed by the crowd to twist justice.(Exodus, 23:2)

Note: After I wrote this Blog post, I came across a link to a fascinating article by the Internet Guru, Clay Shirky, on the Political Power of Social Media – where he discusses issues relating to the power of social media to change governments, etc. He also considers the potential for change, and also the potential for achieving nothing positive. (Article is free but registration required. The article was summarised in the Economist – with comments. Evidently it was written prior to the Wikileaks affair – as some of the comments put the USA in the “control” corner rather than the “freedom” corner!)

Delicious humbug and monitoring News stories

December 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Effective competitive intelligence monitoring means keeping up with the news, and where news is likely to impact you, drawing up strategies to take into account changes.

The problem with instant news via twitter, blog posts and various other news feeds is that news updates sometimes happen too quickly, before the snow has even had a chance to settle. That’s fine – just so long as the source for the news is 100% reliable, and the news story itself is also totally accurate. (I’m using snow as a metaphor here – rather than the more normal dust – as outside there is around 15cm of the stuff with more promised during what looks like being the coldest winter in Europe for over 20 years).

Unfortunately, more often than not, one of these two aspects fails: the source may not be reliable, or the story may not be true, or may be only half-true. Typically however people pick up on the story and it spreads like wildfire (so not giving that snow a chance to settle before it gets melted all over the web).

An example of this has been taking place this last week – with numerous posts reporting the demise of the web-bookmarking service Delicious.

Delicious (originally located at http://del.icio.us) was founded in 2003 and acquired by Yahoo! in 2005. By 2008 (according to Wikipedia) it had over 5 million users and 180 million bookmarked URLs. This makes it an important source for web-searching as, unlike with a search engine such as Google or Bing, each URL will be human-validated and valued.

Apparently, during a strategy meeting held by Yahoo! looking at its products, Delicious was named as a “sunset” product.

Slide from Yahoo! strategy presentation - on plans for various products

An image of this slide was tweeted – and after Yahoo! failed to deny that Delicious was to be closed, posts quickly appeared denouncing the company for the decision. Nobody really cared that sites like AltaVista and AlltheWeb were going – as they were to all intents and purposes dead anyway. (Their search features have long been submerged into Yahoo!’s own – although I for one, still miss some of the advanced features these services offered. Alltheweb allowed searching of flash content, and AltaVista had a search option that nobody now offers: the ability to specify lower/upper case searches).

The problem is that many of the sources posting the story are normally extremely accurate and reliable so when they post something, it is reasonable to believe what they say. This then compounds the problem as the news then gets spread even further – and when the story is corrected, the news followers often fail to spot the corrections.

The example of Delicious is not isolated. There are many news stories that develop over time – and when making strategy decisions based on news it is important to take into account changes, but also not rush in, if a news item hasn’t been fully confirmed.

Ideally check the source – and if the source is a press item (or blog post) then look to see if there is a press release or where the original item came from, in case there is a bias, inaccuracy or mis-interpretation. Only when the news has been confirmed (or where there are no contra-indications) should strategy implementation take place (although of course, the planning stage should be considered immediately if the potential impact of the news is high).

In the case of Delicious their blog gives the real story. The slide leaked to twitter was correct – Delicious is viewed as a “Sunset” product. However that doesn’t mean it will be closed down – and Yahoo! states that they plan to sell the service rather than shut it down (although it is noticeable that they don’t promise to keep the service going if they fail to find a buyer).

There is, in fact, another lesson to be learned here, relating to company awareness on the impact of industry blogs and twitter. It is important to not only monitor what is said about your company, but also to anticipate what could be said.  In a world where governments can’t protect secrets being leaked via Wikileaks, it would be surprising if high-impact announcements from companies didn’t also leak out to industry watchers. Some companies constantly face leaks – Apple is notorious in this regard – and part of their strategies involve managing potential leaks before they do harm. In this Yahoo! failed. As a media company that depends on the web for its business this is a further example suggesting how Yahoo! seems to have lost its way. This is not negated by evidence such as the leaked slide mentioning Delicious, showing they are thinking about their future and product/service portfolio.

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