Jigsaw – the missing piece in policing the internet?


Should Google and others influence our online behaviours? (Image c/o Cindee Snider Re on Flickr.)

Earlier this month, the results of a pilot project run by Jigsaw (a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc – formerly Google) to send those seeking information on ISIS towards counter-propaganda anti-ISIS materials on YouTube were revealed. Over the course of the two month program, according to Wired, 300,000 people were drawn to the anti-ISIS YouTube channels. Furthermore, “searchers actually clicked on Jigsaw’s three or four times more often than a typical ad campaign”. The success of the programme has led to plans to relaunch the program focusing on North American extremists, targeting white supremacists as well as potential ISIS recruits.

But the efforts of Jigsaw to police the internet doesn’t begin and end with counter-propaganda designed to stop individuals from being sucked into a violent ideology. According to Wired’s Andy Greenberg:

The New York-based think tank and tech incubator aims to build products that use Google’s massive infrastructure and engineering muscle not to advance the best possibilities of the internet but to fix the worst of it: surveillance, extremist indoctrination, censorship. The group sees its work, in part, as taking on the most intractable jobs in Google’s larger mission to make the world’s information “universally accessible and useful”.

Although there are elements of that mission that are to be welcomed, there is much also that is problematic at best and highly unethical at worst.

With regards to the determination to challenge extremist indoctrination, there are very obvious and serious questions that need to be asked here, not least how do we define extremism? Communism and anarchism have, for many decades, been perceived to be “extremist ideologies”, should anyone investigating such ideologies also be exposed to counter-propaganda? Is it Google/Jigsaw who determine whether such ideologies are “extremist”? And, if so, how “neutral” can we expect them to be about ideologies that would see corporations such as themselves broken up and no longer permitted to operate in the ways in which they currently operate? We know that such tech companies are susceptible to state pressure (as with Google, so it is also with Yahoo! and others).

Of course, this is nothing new. Large tech companies are increasingly seeing themselves as a form of global police force that acts as a form of privatised global state department. Much as I value the defence that Apple put up when the FBI demanded access to the infamous San Bernardino phone, is it really appropriate that they refused to do so? My gut instinct is to say, in this particular example, yes (I should add I am an iPhone user so I am somewhat seeing it through the prism of the protection of my communications etc). But should a large multinational corporation get to pick and choose which laws it abides by? If an individual in a liberal Western democracy refused to accede to a request by the security services, you can be sure that both sides wouldn’t be arguing across the media. They’d be arguing through the bars of a jail cell.

This tech company as global internet police force has also been exposed by the revelations that Facebook has been working closely with the Israeli government to “monitor posts that incite violence”. Needless to say, in the context of the long and complicated history of the region, such work opens a whole series of questions about the consequence of such a partnership, particularly given Israel’s questionable attitude towards Arab-Israeli comments on social media. As Freedom House’s 2015 report on Israel notes:

In July 2014, a professor at Bar-Ilan University was publicly rebuked by his dean for sending an e-mail to his students expressing sympathy for victims on both sides of the Israel-Gaza conflict, a rebuke which drew objections from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). Similarly during the conflict, students at some universities, particularly Arab students, were reportedly subjected to monitoring and sanctions for social-media comments that were deemed offensive or extremist.

One can’t help but wonder whether Facebook will actually make such action significantly easier.

Should multi-national corporations either act as independent arms of the state, policing the internet and tackling censorship or directing individuals to counter-propaganda at will? Aren’t there serious ethical issues at play here when such corporations either act as independent arms of the state, or proxies for the state in which they operate? Are we not effectively making multi-national corporations such as Google, Facebook and Apple as arbiters of liberty and freedom?

Jigsaw intends to “end censorship within a decade” (Wired, Nov 16). A fine goal. But it is also about to launch Conversation AI which intends to “selectively silence” voices to protect the speech of others. Squaring the circle of ending censorship and “selectively silencing” voices is a question for the engineers at Jigsaw. However, the question for all of us must surely be to what extent are we prepared to permit large multi-national corporations to make ethical judgements on behalf of all of us? Should issuing counter-propaganda and tackling abuses of free speech be considered a social good when it is at the whim of a corporation or programs using algorithms created by individuals that work for such corporations? Ultimately, do we really need or should we even permit a (as Greenberg describes it) “Digital Justice League”? Or should corporations stay out of complex ethical issues? It seems to me that such corporations should be responsive to our needs and requests (eg harassment reports on social media) rather than deciding for us. By all means, tackle racism, harassment, misogyny and hatred, but it should be on our terms, not theirs.

Vandr – what is it and why should we take notice of it?


Image c/o Neo_II on Flickr (cc-by)

The following article was written for Information Today Europe, my thanks for permission to re-share the article here.

Digital natives. It’s a phrase that’s been commonly used in the media for some time now. Whether it’s in scare stories about the “decline in reading” to a supposed shift in work environments to how people engage in the democratic process, it’s a term and an idea that is pervasive when it comes to how we talk about the ways in which people use the internet. Pervasive, and yet entirely misguided. There is, of course, no such thing as a digital native, it’s a lazy reductive media term to describe a much more complex set of behaviours.

The theory of digital natives emerged as a result of a paper by Marc Prensky called Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants [PDF] in which he noted a radical change in students thanks to their immersion in new digital technologies. Prensky labelled these students as “digital natives” – ‘“native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the internet’. Alternatively, Prensky identified those that were not born into the digital world but have latterly adopted the technologies as “digital immigrants” – ultimately dividing individuals between the two groups when it comes to digital technologies.

Of course, this theory now sounds not only misguided, but dangerous given the assumptions it makes about individuals and how they engage in digital spaces. Indeed, since espousing this theory, Prensky has moved on from this notion of natives and immigrants inhabiting digital spaces. However, this theory still maintains a hold on media narratives due to the simplistic interpretation of a complex idea that divides people neatly into two camps. So if even Prensky has moved on from this model, how can we effectively describe and identify the use of digital technologies?

In 2011, David White and Alison Le Cornu posited a new way of looking at how people engage with digital technologies. Acknowledging the flaws in Prensky’s theory, they argue that the actual picture is far more complex. For White and Le Cornu, engagement with digital technologies isn’t so much a fixed thing (ie you are either a “native” or an “immigrant”), rather they propose that engagement with digital spaces is actually on a continuum. In their paper, Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement, they introduce the concept of two particular types of behavior – visitor behaviour and resident behavior (vandr). These behaviours are defined as follows:

Visitor – visitors get what they want and go, they don’t see the internet as a social space and have no interest in prolonged engagement.

Residents – residents see the internet as a social space and are happy to engage with others.

White and Le Cornu argue that the majority of people flit between the two behaviour types. One may exhibit visitor behaviours when, for example, they are booking flights or when visiting websites for a very specific purpose without wishing to leave behind a digital footprint. Alternatively, people exhibiting resident behaviours will have a tendency to engage, to use the internet as a social space to engage with others. Generally speaking, the vast majority of individuals move between the two, sometimes behaving as residents, sometimes as visitors depending on their needs or motivations.

This approach to understanding internet behaviours can be a particularly valuable way to consider the ways in which we deliver and facilitate access to information. Once we understand the ways in which people use the internet, the behaviours they exhibit and the needs they have, we can better orientate services to ensure that these needs are met effectively. For example, how we use social media in the context of visitor and resident behaviours can be a useful way to consider how these tools are utilised, ensuring that they are orientated in a way that takes into account these behaviours.

However, it’s also important to note that these modes aren’t necessarily an indicator of skill in utilising social media. As Donna Lanclos, anthropologist and noted critic of the “digital native” theory, puts it:

“People operate in Visitor mode because they find it useful, because the thing they are trying to do is operational, not because they are ‘not good at Twitter.’  And people are on Twitter, or FB, sometimes because they are connecting with people (and therefore operating in Resident mode) but sometimes because they want information (and are operating in Visitor mode).  Not because they are ‘good at social media’.”

Social media and visitor behaviours are not, therefore, mutually exclusive. You can still act in visitor mode and use social media as a tool, just a tool with a specific focus rather than as a tool to facilitate communication.

This theory of internet behaviours has had a substantial impact in terms of the ways in which I view social media and how I can use make more effective use of these tools. It has been, for me, a really useful way to frame social media use, focusing on particular tools, looking at how they are used and then considering the behaviours that they suit, and adapting their use to take advantage of this.

For example, blogs have great potential to be used as a tool to meet visitor behaviours. In my current role, I have orientated my blog to provide content for my School in a nice simple format, enabling them to access information quickly and efficiently. In providing a space that packages up key pieces of information in a way that is clear and accessible, I ensure individuals can get what they want and go. No more hunting around for guides on databases, a clear section on my blog provides a full list of the main ones. We know that when people want to access information, exhibiting visitor behaviours, they just want to be able to access the information quickly and efficiently. Large library websites are often a barrier to this, a more focused blog offers a way to meet visitor behaviour without provoking frustration as time is wasted finding the information they require.

Alternatively, tools such as Instagram are great tools for those operating in resident mode. As I noted in workshops last year at the NAG conference, Instagram users spend approximately 257 mins per month on the site. At just under 10mins per day, it appears to suggest the tool is used by those happily exhibiting resident behaviors (Pinterest users, according to figures published in 2012, spend approximately 98mins per month, suggesting people use it for a specific task). As I found when delivering my workshops, those in the 16-24 age bracket have long since shifted to the service from Facebook etc as a place to share visual content (a recent Ofcom report found that 35% of 16-24 year olds use Instagram as opposed to 16% of all adults – PDF). With that level of engagement, it clearly makes the case for library services to engage in this space and provide content that takes advantage of the resident mode users appear to be in when using the service.

Whilst it is useful to consider social media in reference to visitor and resident behaviours, it’s important not to be restrictive in how it is factored into social media use. As David White himself explains:

“What’s key here is to recognise that the type of platform does not mandate the mode of use. Apparently ‘resident’ style platforms such as blogs and Twitter are used very effectively by individuals in ‘visitor’ mode. Focusing on mode of engagement rather than specific technologies leads to more elegant and effective engagement strategies.”

Whilst it is useful to use these behaviours as a framework, it’s important not to fall into the trap of believing that Twitter is only ever used in resident mode. Tools such as Twitter are equally used effectively by those wishing to obtain information without leaving a footprint (searches and hashtags are particularly helpful in this regard). Social media platforms aren’t visitor or resident specific, rather they often meet the needs of these modes in different ways.

This notion of behaviours on a continuum is, I think, a really helpful way to consider how people use digital spaces. As Ned Potter puts it, there is the potential to “use social media platforms to provide easy entry points for Visitors seeking information AND use it to add our voice to a more Residential space and provide help and information as part of a community”. Prensky’s approach was very much of its time, but it’s important to move beyond that and understand that how people engage with online spaces is far more complex than the media (and others!) may like to present it.

Interview for El Mundo Web Social

(Full image available CC-BY – ijclark.)

The following interview on communications and radical librarianship was conducted with El Mundo Web Social (you can read the original Spanish version here). Many thanks to Fernando Jerez for approaching me to be interviewed on these topics for his site, it certainly got me thinking about the motivations behind some of the things I do, as well as considering what are, I think, the fundamentals of a good communications strategy.

  1. You are working in a university library. What do you think about the situation regarding adaptation (training) of fellow professionals in terms of social networks?

I think social media has come a long way in libraries in recent years. Whereas there has been some reluctance to engage with the medium in the past, I’d argue that we have moved on significantly in the past couple of years. It is no longer seen as a fringe communication tool that we can ignore if we choose, rather it has become an essential tool in our communications armoury.

That said, there are still some in libraries who, whilst seeing the need for it at an organisational level, don’t see the value of it as a professional tool or as a tool that needs to be on their radar. It’s still seen as fringe in a professional context, even if not in an over-arching organisational sense. There are difficulties associated with this, particularly as social networks help to foster professional discourse and enable the profession to progress in a way that perhaps wasn’t possible before when practitioners were so widely dispersed and often remote. I think it is important to talk about and demonstrate the value of engaging in the medium, but ultimately we have to accept that some will not be converted.

  1. Taking a look at your presentation “Designing a better library experience“, you are talking about some concepts to develop, including ‘commitment’ as the basis of strong, open communication. How do you explain to general managers of libraries the need to increase this investment in online communication?

I think it is vital in the current climate that libraries, institutions and users are brought closer together. I am a great believer in flat organisational structures and I believe that, as much as possible, users should be engaged in the overall running of the service. It’ll take some time to get there, but communication is a key element of laying the foundations to enable such integration to take place. I’d argue that close co-operation between users and the service will create a better service that meets their needs and strengthens the bond between the service and the user.

A stronger bond between the user and the service has a number of positive effects, not least a positive perception of the service by those that use it. Through open dialogue and effective communication we can ensure a powerful relationship that benefits the library as well as the overall institution. However, this must be a two way conversation, it must avoid being hierarchical and must ensure that we learn from those we communicate with as much as they “learn” from us. This is particularly important as social media provides a public forum and such public interactions, if employed effectively, can help to ensure greater collaboration and co-operation with those that use the service. Whether we want to succeed in the terms set for us by a competition orientated, marketised HE, or whether we want to move towards a more cooperative model of library service provision, online communication plays a key role in bringing us closer to the user with the subsequent mutual benefits that brings.

  1. In your articles you speak often of progressive marketisation of services in libraries. Do you think public libraries in social networks are directed to the user ‘as a customer’ or ‘as a citizen with rights’?

I’m very critical of the use of neoliberal terms which act as enablers to a damaging and regressive ideology. As a result, I try to avoid terms such as “customer” as I believe that this is an inappropriate term for the people we engage with in our libraries. The term “customer” immediately creates a barrier between us and the user which then has to be overcome, usually through the use of “marketing strategies”.

For me, as someone who has worked in a retail environment for many years, a customer interacts with a service at a very limited level. I find the use of the term “customer” troubling because the relationship between HE and a student is nothing like that of a “customer” and a retailer. A retailer sells a complete product that the user purchases and uses as they please. In HE the relationship is more of a partnership as we work with students, in co-creation of knowledge to ensure that they obtain the best possible education and ultimately create informed, educated citizens. They don’t buy a good education, because to accrue knowledge is reliant on the user as much as it is on the service provider. It’s a collaboration rather than seller/buyer relationship.

This is also true for public libraries. Public libraries are not there to sell a product to a user, they are about helping to ensure a well-informed, literate citizen that is able to play a full role in the democratic process. Whether this is by ensuring all children have equal access to information resources, or whether it is by tackling the digital divide by providing free access to the internet to ensure everyone has equal access to government as services and information shift online.  Public libraries are not about producing and enabling greater consumption, but in ensuring that, as much as possible, all can engage equally with society and the democratic process.

So, I would argue that at present many are orientated to communicate with users as “customers” but, I would further argue, this is a consequence of a shift in local authority to the belief that profit and consumption are primary concerns whilst engagement in the democratic process and people as citizens being secondary concerns (if it is even on the radar at all). This shift is, in my mind, a direct consequence of the ingrained neoliberal ideology that has corrupted our public services and placed concern for the profit motive above that of the public good.

  1. You’re part of the “Radical librarians” in England (and Voices for the Library too), which emerged from the difficult situation facing public libraries due to cuts from the Government. This movement has a good presence in social media. How do you think you are helping to address the situation from the organized events, blogs and social networks?

The radical librarians movement emerged not just out of the so-called “austerity” agenda here in the UK, it is also a reaction against the increased marketisation of libraries in general,  the gradual corruption of the profession as ethics are abandoned in the hope of remaining “relevant” and a renewed focus on the roots of the profession. We have slowly grown and I think we have seen a slight shift in rhetoric across the profession in general since the emergence of RLC (Radical Librarians Collective), although I am realistic about the extent to which this is the case.

It has not been without its difficulties however. Initially there were many dismissive voices that were dispiriting and challenging to those of us that wished to open up spaces for conversations that had hitherto been hidden. There is also, of course, the danger of burn-out borne of unrealistic expectations of what we can achieve. For me, I think it is vital to ensure that you remain idealistic in thought and deed, but realistic in expectations. I think too often the idealistic can be too optimistic about what they hope to achieve and, in doing so, they run the risk of being exhausted and dispirited if their expectations aren’t realised. I think it is important to understand that building a lasting alternative takes time. What is vital is to build infrastructure, whether that be through gatherings (I don’t like the term “unconferences” but I guess that’s the popular term), journals, blogs and social networks. The building of radical frameworks is crucial to achieve what we want to achieve and our minds should be focused on that rather than outcomes.

In terms of RLC, the journal, social media and the gatherings all lay foundations for consolidation of radical ideas within the profession. By providing a platform for radical ideas, we increase the prospects of the ideas spreading and a clearer understanding of what it is to be radical with respect to the information profession. Before RLC, there was little room for such public discourse. The emergence of RLC not only provides a space for such discussion, but leads to an opportunity for it to spread and take root.

I think, by its nature, the emergence of such groundwork is important as, in the long-term, it helps to address concerns and sows the seeds for radical change. It is a long haul, but a continued focus on infrastructure building is our best hope to challenge the status quo.

  1. Librarians, at the library and the social networks, are working to improve access to information for citizens. People can have more knowledge, but … how to be aware of our freedom to change things, in your opinion?

I think it is vital that we (as librarians) facilitate access to information about alternatives. In the current climate, both politically and professionally, we are beset by the myth of TINA (There Is No Alternative). At a political level, this manifests itself in the belief that “austerity” (government spending cuts) is the only logical path to ensure national and economic wellbeing. In terms of our profession it manifests itself in the belief that the only way to ensure our relevance is to adopt the language and strategies of the market. Anyone seeking to espouse alternatives risks being seen as outdated and failing to acknowledge contemporary realities.

I see it as therefore vital that we facilitate a raised awareness of our freedom to change things. Not only in terms of citizenry but also professionally. The myth that we are neutral is a problem that besets our profession and needs to be overcome. We are a political profession that makes political decisions with every book we purchase and every collection we maintain, because our decisions are filtered through our own beliefs and prejudices. There is an imperative to provide the information required for individuals to form their own judgements. Users must not be steered, but we must ensure that the information sources we facilitate access to are valid and have a solid empirical basis and be wary of the dangers of applying equal weight to all resources. We must also make them aware of the risks inherent in the resources they use, but be mindful of overt intellectual direction. In facilitating such access and ensuring we avoid overt intellectual direction, we empower users and encourage greater intellectual freedom and therefore enable greater awareness of the freedom citizens have to engender change.

We must embrace the political nature of our profession. Realise that our core mission is to provide equality of access to information for all. In terms of our democratic systems, this means facilitating access to state information by guiding people on how they can hold the governing to account through Freedom of Information legislation. It also means giving people the tools to ensure they are protected from state surveillance and an abuse of their privacy.

Teaching these skills can undermine the current structures as people become aware of the methods by which they can protect themselves from the state apparatus, capitalist appropriation of their data and a pernicious neoliberal agenda. Providing such skills can help citizens not only understand how they can initiate change, but also ensures their own freedom. Citizen awareness of our freedom to participate and transform the world should be absolutely central to our profession, for without awareness of such freedoms we cannot ever be truly free.

Are party political messages ever ok from government departments?

Since government realised that social media could be a useful tool to communicate with the governed, there has been a noticeable trend towards departments espousing political propaganda using the medium. The latest being the following example:


Now, I so happen to disagree with the motivation behind this tweet. I actually think that central government shouldn’t be attempting to overtly influence local government decision making processes.  If a local council decides it would like to increase council tax to make up for the shortfall in government spending, and are prepared to go to a public vote over the matter, then that is their right to do so (see Brighton). But I object more to the overt government propaganda contained within the image. It wouldn’t look out of place on some Tory promotional material, and therein lies the problem.

Messages such as that above should surely only be delivered by party political accounts, not by government departments? The civil service should be politically neutral. It has to serve the government of the day, not advance a particular political agenda (of course, it would be naive to suggest they aren’t complicit in cementing a particular political ideology). I would have no issue (although I would strongly disagree with the message) if such a tweet was sent from a Tory minister. I would expect nothing less from them. I would expect, however, a government department to avoid ideological crusades (I know, how naive am I?).

Of course, the truth is that the current government have a particular eagerness for politicising the civil service, turning it into a propaganda arm of whoever is in power. It is important that ministers are surrounded by people who are prepared to question government policy, rather than simply parrot it and push forward a particular ideology. Now, I accept that a certain agenda is bound to be pushed (these are government accounts), but it could surely be done without such overt politicisation (say, a tweet pointing out your rights if a council proposes an above 2% council tax rise)?

It seems to me that a government department should be raising awareness of individual rights with respect to government, dealing with queries from members of the public, pointing people to inquiries and reports or bills going through parliament etc. I don’t think they should be used to present a one-sided, highly politicised perspective on council tax increases. Leave that to the political parties and government ministers.  One thing is for certain, government Twitter accounts should be increasingly handled with care. As the information they share becomes increasingly politicised, so their value rapidly diminishes. Information published by government should always be treated with care anyway, but as it increasingly pushes party political propaganda it becomes ever more difficult to determine what is reliable, and what is sheer political opportunism.

Locked Twitter accounts – what’s the problem?

The need for locked accounts – do they say more about our society than they do about the individual? (Image c/o Thomas Quine on Flickr.)

The growth of social media has presented us with opportunities to connect with people in new and varied ways. Through its use, we can build networks with like-minded individuals and use this network to our advantage both personally and professionally.  However, whilst this ability to build such a network is largely positive, for some this creates serious difficulties.

One of the things I have been struck by when reading the huge volume of “just signed up for Twitter, here’s what you do next” type blog posts (and are there plenty of those floating around) is the extent to which they encourage openness and the importance of engaging with the medium in a very public way. Indeed, it is not unusual to encounter the belief that unless you are fully open, you are not really getting the best out of the medium. This does, of course, present difficulties for those who may have issues with embracing such a public medium and would, therefore, need to use it in a fairly restricted, less than open manner. Openness does present difficulties and those fully able to embrace such openness should respect the desire for some to retain a degree of protection whilst also making use of new communication networks.  Indeed, this post was prompted by hearing of someone with a locked account being hassled on why they chose to utilise the medium in a restricted way, rather than to embrace openness and reap the benefits of doing so.

For some, the full advantages of Twitter need to be balanced with their own personal safety. They see a medium that will be beneficial to them personally or professionally, but are conscious of the fact that, actually, engaging with the medium fully and openly might leave them open to risk. Take, for example, women who have been (or continue to be) harassed by stalkers. Fully embracing social media presents a number of risks and serious considerations. Embrace the public and open approach to the use of social media others encourage and they risk making themselves vulnerable to further harassment. On the other hand, avoiding the medium altogether means that they entirely cut themselves off from fellow professionals and access to a useful information medium because of the fear of further harassment, and why should anyone be prevented from engaging in a medium because of fear?

For others, it is about job security. An increasing number of people have to be cautious about what they share and how they share it. One person’s innocuous comment is another’s cause for disciplinary action. We will see the need to tread carefully become ever more important as we move towards increased privatisation of public services.  Whilst it is also true that the public sector is hardly a liberal social media zone, with controls and restrictions often placed on public sector workers keen to embrace social media, the private sector can be even more restrictive. The corporate brand is primary. Perceptions that the brand is damaged, even through activities in personal time, can lead to serious consequences. For example, a higher education institution may be more tolerant towards employees actively (and legally) expressing political viewpoints, whilst a private company may be less than tolerant. (I am intending on writing a separate post about the privatisation of HE and its possible consequences – this being one of the areas I plan on exploring.)

Ultimately, for some, a locked Twitter account is the only rational solution. It enables engagement (albeit restricted) but it also ensures that there is an element of control. It seems curious, therefore, that some would question the rationale of being on Twitter with a locked account. It suggests a lack of awareness or understanding of the reasons why others might feel the need to have some form of protection. That it is usually men who question the value of locked Twitter accounts (certainly in the experience of those with locked accounts who have talked to me about their experiences), speaks volumes. Not least because of their failure to understand that there might well be specific reasons why individuals choose to engage in the medium in this way.

There is also an element to this that is somewhat egocentric (perhaps unsurprising for social media, a medium that is predominantly ego-driven). For some, using mediums such as Twitter ‘properly’ means ensuring as many people as possible can see what they have to say. The medium becomes all about what they have to say to others, rather than what they can learn from others. I think this is where, sometimes, social media can become problematic, particularly tools such as Twitter. Generate a certain following and you run the risk of believing that everything you have to say is important and must reach an audience. But surely tools such as Twitter are about more than that? Surely it is as much about learning from other people as it is about sharing your ideas and perceptions? In which case, why is a locked account perceived by some as a handicap?

If one is to view social media as a forum by which people learn from others, surely the restrictions a user places on themselves are immaterial? They are getting value from the medium, just in a different way from those who choose to adopt an open approach. Who are we to determine whether an individual is getting a satisfactory level of value from their use of a medium? Isn’t this somewhat arrogant? Doesn’t it also suggest a degree of ignorance of the society in which we live? That for some the only way they can engage in such forums is in a highly restrictive form? It is for this reason that anonymity on the internet also needs to be protected and efforts to curb anonymity must be resisted. Yes, anonymity can be used as a cover for unpleasant actions, but it can also be used by the vulnerable to protect themselves from oppression (anonymity did, after all, play a role in some of the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings).

Twitter isn’t all about building an audience for yourself. There is a place for that and there is absolutely nothing wrong with using it as a platform to attempt to spread your beliefs or to campaign or raise awareness of issues you are passionate about. But we must also remember that Twitter and social media are as much about what we receive as what we broadcast. And, so long as we continue to live in a society that enables harassment of women, or restricts individual freedom, we should not judge those who engage in the medium in such a way others may perceive to be limited and contrary to their belief that social media demands openness to be an effective tool.

With anonymity and locked accounts we should not be challenging those who use such methods to engage with social media. We should be asking what is it about our society that means that people adopt these tactics for their own personal safety and security?  What is it about our society that prevents some people from embracing an open, public approach to social media? What is it about our society that means people have to put up barriers to protect themselves? Locked accounts and anonymity should not concern us; a society that makes these the only logical means by which individuals can engage in public forums most definitely should.

The problem with Twitter becoming a little less Piccadilly Circus…

Messages delivered by third parties for payment on social media raises a number of ethical concerns, for information professionals and society in general.
(Image c/o Joe Price on Flickr.)

One of the things I have become increasingly interested in (and wary of) is the use of social media, in particular Twitter, for either personal financial gain (via a corporate sponsor), or to push certain agendas. Of course, this sort of thing has been pretty much part of the Twitter landscape for some time now (this article on the phenomenon dates from 2011), but either this trend has increased, or I am noticing it far more than I used to. A couple of incidents recently have raised my interest in the area to such an extent that I felt I simply must write a blog post on it (one incident alone isn’t enough to pad out a post, I need two different examples at least to prompt me to sit here and start bashing out a series of letters and symbols).

The first was the news that the Israeli government are offering grants to students if they tweet ‘pro-Israeli propaganda’. According to The Independent:

In a campaign to improve its image abroad, the Israeli government plans to provide scholarships to hundreds of students at its seven universities in exchange for their making pro-Israel Facebook posts and tweets to foreign audiences.

The students making the posts will not reveal online that they are funded by the Israeli government, according to correspondence about the plan revealed in th

This troubles me greatly and, I think, it’s part of a growing trend of using Twitter as a means of covertly pushing propaganda (or misinformation) out into the public domain. Without an awareness of the funding aspect, such tweets not only undermines everything that individual tweeters tweet, but also Twitter itself. Suddenly, everything becomes suspect. Who else is pushing out tweets with an agenda, trying to covertly influence public opinion? If we are not aware that an individual has been sponsored by either state or corporate actors, how can we properly evaluate what they are saying?

I was reminded of this story recently when this tweet popped up in my timeline. Whilst a reasonable comment on the iPhone, a bit of digging into the tweet author raises some questions. A quick check of his bio indicates that the aforementioned tweeter works for Telefonica. A further search on Google revealed this story:

Telefonica, one of the world’s largest carriers, has signed a deal with Microsoft to promote far more heavily the software giant’s Windows Phone 8 operating system and devices running it.

The carrier said in a statement on Wednesday that over the next year, it will enhance its marketing efforts for Windows Phone 8 and Windows Phone 8 devices. The company will focus those marketing efforts in several of its major markets, including the U.K., Germany, Spain, and Brazil.

Telefonica said that its move is designed to enhance competition in the marketplace. The company said Wednesday it wants to “encourage the presence of additional mobile operating platforms as an alternative to the current duopoly of Android and iOS, and provide customers with a more personal smartphone experience like Windows Phone offers.”

[Yes, that is a terribly written article, see other sources here and here.]

I’m not suggesting that the author is posting tweets as part of some grand corporate strategy, that would be a little far-fetched, but one wonders to what extent corporations actually deploy such tactics. After all, if nation states are using the technology to engage in more subtle promotion, you can be sure corporations are and have been doing so for some time (when have you known the public sector be one step ahead of the private sector?). Stealth marketing is, of course, a well-established concept and Twitter (and social media in general) makes it much easier to push out promotional materials from seemingly independent accounts. How can we be sure whether @X is tweeting about a product or service because they value it, or because they are being paid to be seen to value it?

Of course, marketing people love social media, particularly tools such as Twitter. Here is a service which enables a corporate entity to interact directly with both customers and potential customers. That’s a powerful weapon for any business or service. But, of course, utilising it effectively requires care and subtlety. It’s no good being the virtual equivalent of Piccadilly Circus, blazing loud messages out into the ether whilst thousands of people walk past or chatter away oblivious to the messages being pumped out around them. Sure, you’ll pick up a few along the way (who may well then broadcast your message to their audience), but to a significant number you will become background noise and a more sophisticated approach is warranted (besides, no marketing strategy should focus purely on one tactic). Most people do not want their feeds cluttered with corporate messages, they want such messages to be as unobtrusive as possible. Which is why, for those wishing to push out a certain agenda, alternative methods to push out such messages are sought. If it means paying a third-party (a willing customer, a celebrity or an employee) to push those messages out for you, then so be it. As long as the message does not come direct from source. The more removed the message, the more effective it becomes.

However, once the message does become removed from source, certain ethical questions are raised. Individuals are no longer providing ‘personal opinions’, they are providing opinions for money. Once opinions are provided in this way, it then devalues the entire output of that individual. How many other ‘opinions’ have been formed as a result of payment? Can anything they say be taken at face value? Once it is clear that your opinions can be bought, your output becomes valueless.  As Bill Hicks once argued, if you do a commercial, “everything you say is suspect” (I’ll let you look up the rest of that quote…).

It’s difficult to know, however, how this can be tackled. In part it’s just a case of being aware that there might be a particular agenda at play, but then you also don’t want to view with suspicion every single thing that is tweeted by someone referencing either a service or product. Some people may be genuinely endorsing a product or service without financial gain, I see little problem with that. However, when there is a financial incentive behind the tweets that are being posted it clearly becomes problematic. Not only does this kind of tweeting raise questions for the online community in general, it particularly raises a number of issues for librarians and information professionals.

First, it makes it difficult to evaluate published materials. With a lack of transparency about the motives and agendas behind a series of tweets, it is hard to determine whether tweets are genuine opinions and beliefs, or merely the opinions and beliefs of a corporate (or state) sponsor. Taking the example of the accounts to be sponsored by the Israeli government, how will it even be possible to determine whether published opinions are actually those of the Tweeter in question, or whether they are opinions given for financial reward? It could possibly be determined, but it would take a lot of work, far more work than the average Twitter user has to investigate the authenticity of a tweet or tweets. And who is really going to take the time to find out whether X’s comments about the state of Israeli society are an accurate reflection of the reality? I’d be surprised if anyone does.

But it also raises questions about our own ethical principles. How would we square tweeting for financial reward given our professional ethics? It’s not acceptable for anyone, in my view, to sell their opinions in this way, but is it even more problematic if you are a library and information professional? If you clearly state you are such, is there an expectation by the general public that you will hold the highest ethical principles at all times, no matter how unfeasible that might be? When people see ‘librarian’ or ‘information professional’ do they see ‘disseminator of impartial information’? Is it unreasonable if they do? Can any professional truly be held to the highest ethical standards at all times? Likewise, would it be acceptable for operators of an official library account to offer rewards to those who post positive tweets about the service?

But as well as raising questions about our approach to social media, it also raises questions about how and whether we as a profession can tackle the problem. Is there actually anything that we can or should do? What, if anything, can actually be done about covert sponsored social media statements by anyone? Is it about awareness and validating everything everyone tweets or posts? That would surely be too time-consuming and needlessly paranoid/cynical? We don’t want to get drawn into a habit of being sceptical about the motives behind every single thing that people tweet or post. Perhaps all that we can do is to be aware of the problem and to try, wherever possible, to lead by example. For if our opinions and beliefs can be bought, compromising our professional, ethical principles in the dissemination of information, who is left for anyone to trust?

When it comes to the internet, it’s not just government snooping we should be worried about…

Corporations want your data as much as governments want to snoop.
(Image: El Alma Del Ebro in Zaragoza by Saucepolis on Flickr.)

Remember the early days of the internet?  When start-up companies seemed to be, somehow a different breed from the companies that we had grown accustomed to? “Don’t be evil” appeared not only to be Google’s mantra, but the mantra of a whole host of companies that emerged in tandem with the growth of the internet.  Whereas we had grown accustomed to companies that were focused on shareholder profit over rather than the interests of ‘consumers’ or society in general, these companies seemed to be benign, friendly, sensitive to their social responsibilities.

In contrast to the growth of these ‘benign forces’ of the internet, governments and politicians have become increasingly suspicious of the technology, predominantly because it is an area over which they do not feel they exercise sufficient control.  In the UK, this has manifested itself most obviously and most recently in the Data Communications Bill (or Snoopers’ Charter).  A particularly invasive piece of legislation that was seriously considered by the coalition, it proposed to grant powers to the Home Secretary (or another cabinet minister) to order any ‘communications data’ by ‘telecommunication operators’ to be gathered and retained, effectively collecting ostensibly private data on citizens for whatever purpose they deemed worthy.  It appears, on the face of it, that these proposals have now been abandoned, although that is not to say they won’t come back in a slightly modified form.  If one were a cynic, one might suggest the Liberal Democrats applied pressure to drop the legislation in advance of the local elections to ensure they were case in a positive light? Unlikely perhaps, but my cynical mind can’t help but believe there is more to this than simply a matter of principle, after all Nick Clegg wasn’t always so opposed…

This suspicion, however, doesn’t begin and end at the Snoopers’ Charter. There was also, for example, the introduction of the Digital Economy Act, which enables the blocking of website access for anyone who is deemed to have infringed copyright laws but, consequently, also risks penalising those entirely innocent of any such activity.  Then there is the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Ripa) used to investigate Osita Mba, a whistleblower who uncovered a “sweetheart” deal with Goldman SachsUsing Ripa:

…HMRC can see websites viewed by taxpayers, where a mobile phone call was made or received, and the date and time of emails, texts and phone calls. According to the revenue website, these powers “can only be used when investigating serious crime”.

And it doesn’t end with proposed or existing legislation; individual politicians have also made calls for illiberal and unhelpful restrictions on the internet. Back in 2011, following the riots, one politician called for Twitter and Facebook to be blacked out during any further disturbances.  Needless to say this was a particularly stupid and disturbing suggestion, not least because the very same social media helped people in the area affected by the riots to communicate with others and ensure their own safety.  There’s no doubt that the freedom provided by the internet frightens those who believe it threatens existing power structures, underlining that, from their point of view, freedom only goes so far…

The desire to highlight some of these illiberal measures isn’t solely restricted to organisation such as the Open Rights Group, many of the giants of the internet are quick to point the finger at the role of government as a threat to the freedom of the individual. Take, for example, the largest of all the companies to emerge in the internet era – Google.

Last week, in an article for The Guardian, Eric Schmidt (executive chairman) and Jared Cohen (Director, Google Ideas) warned that global governments are monitoring and censoring access to the web, which could lead to the internet becoming ever increasingly under state control.  The usual examples are rolled out of authoritarian regimes seeking to restrict what their citizens can access online.  Curiously, however, there is no mention of the United States or Europe (Russia appears eight times, China seven), it appears that we are not affected by the government monitoring or censoring access to the web – oh, apart from the Data Communications Bill, the Digital Economy Act, Ripa etc etc.This omission seems curious considering an admission by Schmidt in a separate interview with Alan Rusbridger, also in The Guardian.

During the interview, Rusbridger notes:

But [Schmidt’s] company collects and stores an extraordinary amount of data about all of us, albeit in an anonymised form. Which is all well and good, until government agencies come knocking on Schmidt’s door – as they did more than 20,000 times in the second half of last year. The company usually obliges with US officials. (It’s more complicated with others.) This will only get worse.

Clearly, as the legislative examples shown above demonstrate, attempts to monitor the web are not only restricted to authoritarian regimes but are also a problem in Western, (supposedly) liberal democracies as well.  When the US is making 20,000 requests in six months (around 100 requests a day on average), it is clear that the problem is not restricted to just China, Russia and other authoritarian regimes.  But there’s another side to this equation. A side that Schmidt and others in the business community seem to be reluctant to talk about, for very obvious reasons.

The extract from Rusbridger’s interview with Schmidt reveals two facts that everyone concerned with the internet and the free flow of information need to be worried about.  First are the actual requests from US officials for data from Google. The second is the data that Google collects and makes available to US officials.  There are, I would argue, two concerns about the future of the internet: government control and corporate control. The former Schmidt is keen to talk about, the latter not so much.

Google’s business is data.  They collect data from users to ‘enhance the user experience’ (a brilliant phrase used to suggest that the collection of your personal data is actually doing you a favour).  The volume of data collected is vast and is collected for a specific purpose: to make money (to “enhance the user experience”). These services do not charge you to make money, they use a commodity you are giving away for free and then selling it on to advertisers. The transaction is different from the traditional service model (consumer purchases goods from service provider), but it is effective and relies on your data to ensure profitability for the service provider. For example, Google was making $14.70 per 1,000 searches in 2010.  Some services do not even require you to visit the service itself to obtain your personal data.  Facebook, for example, has been known to track light users of the service across 87% of the internet.

Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt (image c/o Jolie O’Dellon Flickr).

The sheer volume of data handled by many of the largest internet companies should be a cause for concern. Indeed, not only is the data collection itself a concern, but also the willingness with which they give it up to government agencies (note in the aforementioned interview, Schmidt suggests that Google usually say yes to government requests for data).  Of course, many would argue that there is nothing to fear about the collection of personal data: if you have done nothing wrong etc. But you are not in control of the personal data and the rules that govern its use, corporations and governments are. Imagine for a moment a different type of government, a different set of rules, a different environment altogether, would you be so keen on US officials demanding your data and it being handed over as easily as Google do now? And what if Google engineered this change in government? Sounds far-fetched doesn’t it? Maybe it’s not as far-fetched as it might sound…

A recent study by United States-based psychologists, led by Dr. Robert Epstein of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, revealed the disturbing amount of power at the hands of companies like Google. Epstein’s study found that Google has the capability to influence the outcome of democratic elections by manipulating search rankings.  The study (available here – PDF) presented three groups of eligible American voters with actual web pages and search engine results from the 2010 Australian general election. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups, two groups were provided with search engine rankings favouring one of the candidates, the remaining group were provided with rankings that favoured neither:

Beforehand, individuals reported having little or no familiarity with the candidates at all. Based on short biographies, they were asked to rate each candidate and say how they would vote.

They then spent time gathering information using a mock search engine, after which they again rated the candidates in various ways and again said how they would vote.

Before their Internet search, there were no significant differences in how they rated the candidates. Afterwards, however, two thirds of the people in the first two groups said they would vote for the candidate that was favored in the search rankings – a dramatic shift that could easily “flip” the results of many elections, especially close ones, concludes the report.

Now, there is nothing to suggest that Google have actually weighted search results in the way suggested in the study nor that they ever have the intention of doing so, but they can. Not only can they do it, but they can do it without our awareness of such manipulation.

Governments may attempt to monitor us through the introduction of ever more illiberal regulatory measures applied to the internet, but it’s important to remember that the corporations profiting from the internet also benefit from our manipulation.  It strikes me that there are two crucial considerations that we need to remember when we reflect upon the role of the corporation (as opposed to that of the state) in the development of the internet:

1)      The relationship between the user and the service.  Unlike traditional relationships, we are not simply the consumers purchasing goods from a service provider.  They are taking data from us and selling it to advertisers to make money.  Our data is the product and we are the vendor.  The problem is we are not remunerated for this transaction, only permitted to use a service under the terms stipulated by the service provider.  They are not acting out of kindness in offering such services for free, they want more data from users to increase profits.  Users need to be more aware that they are the vendors in this relationship, not the customers.  Of course, we believe and trust them because we are not ‘buying’ from them, we still see them as providing us with something for free when actually they make their money using our data.

2)      Considering the volume of data given away, there is a need to remind ourselves of the nature of government and corporations.  Like governments, corporations are not fixed.  Corporations change.  They change either because of a need to increase profits, or they change because they have been bought out by a rival.  You may well be happy giving Google all your data, but what happens when it is no longer Google?  What if your personal data fell into the hands of a company you were not comfortable gaining access to it?  What then? And whilst a takeover attempt of Google may seem far-fetched at this point, remember that that the very idea that Time Warner would merge with a company called AOL was a fanciful notion towards the end of the last century. Nothing remains static in either the worlds of business or technology.

Above all else, however, we need to remember that companies like Google and Facebook are just that: companies. Whilst they appear warm, fuzzy and less stuffy than traditional corporations, they are still corporations.  Corporations that are acting the same as every other corporation before them, lobbying government to lighten regulation, maximising profit and, where possible, shift the focus onto government shortcomings in the hope that their own activities won’t be subject to scrutiny. They are, after all, just corporations like any other and we should treat them with the same scepticism as we treat older, more established corporations.  For when it comes to the internet, we need to keep a close eye on both the governments who regulate it and the corporations who profit from it.

Ten things I’ve learnt from campaigning…

A poster at the Occupy London camp in 2011.

I’m not normally into writing down my reflections on things, but I thought I’d jot down a few things I’ve learnt over the past couple of years as a result of my involvement in library campaigning.  Whilst it is borne out of my (fairly limited) experience of library campaigning, it might possibly be of interest to those who are thinking of getting involved in campaigning in general.  And with the current climate as it is, the likelihood is that more people will start campaigning for the things they care about…joining existing campaigns or starting new ones.  So, here are some of my thoughts based on my experiences so far…

1)      It’s hard. Well, best get this one out-of-the-way first of all.  I ain’t going to beat around the bush, it is hard work.  Hard and often demoralising.  You deal continually with a drip, drip, drip of bad news.  That’s the nature of the beast unfortunately.  When you are fighting for something that does good, it stands to reason that any attack on that is inherently depressing.    However, this can take you in one of two ways.  It can either galvanise you and make you more determined to push on and fight for what you believe in, or it can slowly grind you down until you can’t take it anymore.  Some people thrive on it, some don’t.  But it would be wise to be conscious of this before you commit to something. Don’t let it stop you, but make sure you are prepared for it and have some kind of coping mechanism.

2)      Some people on your own side will try to shoot you down.  Again, another depressing one I am afraid and one that I have personally been victim to.  No matter how much you fight for people, some people won’t appreciate your efforts.  They will disparage you, they will ridicule you and they will make it quite clear to you that they would rather you went away.  Whether this is borne out of guilt from not doing anything themselves or whether it is simply pure malice, there will be those you are fighting for (yes, fighting for) who will try to bring you down and damage your spirit.  It will hurt and you will dwell on it every time you look for reasons to give up.  But they are best ignored.  The vast majority will be behind you.

3)      Learn the art of compromise. In any campaign you will be dealing with a wide variety of individuals with different outlooks and different political viewpoints.  If you all pull in your own direction and refuse to compromise, your campaign will fall apart quicker than you can blink.  Instead you have to accept that sometimes the group will take decisions that you are not comfortable with.  That’s tough.  You chalk it down as a defeat that time, but there will be times when people will make sacrifices to support your proposals.  If you don’t work as a team and make those concessions, you will not succeed.

4)      Language is important. This is particularly important for when you are engaging in debates with people who either disagree with you entirely, or who are possible converts.  Language and how you use it is absolutely key.  It is the difference between a successful campaign and an unsuccessful one. To take an example from my own experience, I am aware that some people think the phrase “save libraries” is unhelpful.  Perhaps in some respects this is the case, it’s hardly a positive phrase to rally people around.  But then some other options are not much of an improvement.  For example, I’ve seen talk that “support libraries” is an improvement but on closer inspection it is a rather superficial alternative.  When opposing privatised or volunteer run libraries, “support libraries” comes across as a confused rallying call: “we support libraries but not these types of libraries.”  “Save libraries” isn’t perfect by any means, but it doesn’t paint you into a corner like some alternatives.  So, choose your words carefully!

5)      Campaigning is good for you! Ok, this is a little superficial but there have been some heavy points up until now so I wanted to balance it with something that might actually encourage people to campaign!  There is a perception that campaigning will be negative for your career.  You will be seen as a trouble-maker, someone who speaks their mind, a member of the awkward squad.  But the reality is that as well as the satisfaction in fighting for something you believe in, you develop a huge number of skills.  In my time involved in fighting for libraries I have chaired meetings; delivered a speech at a rally; been invited to talk about “breaking out of the echo chamber” for a national librarians’ conference; been interviewed by local radio, national radio, French radio and the national press; built contacts with national media and helped co-ordinate a number of nationwide events.  If you don’t think these things are good for your development, well…you’re way off the mark. So, that’s the superficial one out-of-the-way.

6)      You need to manage your time effectively! As I said at the beginning, campaigning is hard.  It takes up a fair amount of your time if you are not careful.  If you have a family, this can create some serious problems.  So, you need to develop your time management skills like a pro.  Ensure you have time away from doing any campaign type stuff, go out, see friends, go to gigs, get drunk, have fun, anything other than spending every waking hour fighting the good fight.  Sure, you’ll get the urge to spend a couple more hours on this or that, but you will do yourself and the campaign some good if you keep yourself fresh and enthused.  Bog yourself down too much and you will soon tire and create substantial problems for you and your family.  And this is also where teamwork comes into play.  Not only is it important to compromise with your fellow campaigners, it is also necessary to share the workload. If you don’t, stress and resentment will soon grow.

7)      Move fast. One of the key things I have learnt about campaigning on anything is to be quick out of the blocks.  This is the case particularly when making public statements.  Be the first to be seen to respond to an announcement or an action and you will have the ear of the press who will want to get stories out quickly to meet challenging deadlines.  Leave your response until 24hrs after the announcement and you will be ignored.  Be clear, be concise and be quick. This is easy if you are a small nimble organisation, much more difficult if you are a large national body.

8)      Exploit social media. The opportunities for campaigning organisations starting out now are manifold.  Whereas before it was expensive and time-consuming to campaign on an issue, now it is relatively easy to get a campaign started and draw attention to your cause.  If you aren’t fully up to speed with the range of social media tools out there, make sure you make that a priority.  Good campaigners are good social media operators.  Used effectively, social media can also play a big part in helping to manage your time more effectively.  A lot of social media tools enable things to be posted automatically without the need to spend an awful lot of time updating all your social media channels (Buffer is well worth checking out in this regard, as is IFTTT). Social media is your friend, learn to use it effectively and you will garner attention.

9)      People will get behind you! Whilst some on your own side will try to shoot you down, this is easily outweighed by the people who get in touch with you to voice their support and appreciation for what you do.  Each time you receive such support, it is a major boost to your energy levels.  You can be drowning in a sea of negativity, but just one message from someone saying they appreciate what you do can lift your spirits like nothing else.  Hang on to those moments and reflect on them when you can.  They will get you through the hard times.

10)   It is worth it.  Yes it’s hard.  Yes people shoot you down.  Yes people criticise you for your tactics.  Yes you will have to make compromises.  But you know what, you are fighting for what you believe in and there is no greater feeling than that.

Designing a better library experience

A few weeks back I was asked by a CPD25 Task Group member if I would be willing to talk about the use of social media as a tool for engaging with students and obtaining feedback, primarily as a result of this blog post I wrote a while back.  The presentation would be one of four looking at how universities and libraries can obtain feedback from students. Other presentations included a representative from Anglia Ruskin talking about their ‘Tell Us’ scheme, Jo Aitkins from the award winning University of Leicester and Niru Williams (University of East London) on the International Student Barometer (I’ll try to write all of these up at some point).

My presentation was split into three main parts:

  • definining the current HE environment
  • how social media can assist in the challenges this new environment brings
  • our experiences of using social media at Christ Church.

The final slide contains a list of references made throughout the presentation which hopefully will be of interest.  That said, if you would like to see the script, do feel free to drop me a line.  One article that isn’t listed but influenced the title of the presentation and reinforced some of my beliefs, was “Students tweet the darndest things about your library – and why you need to listen” [PDF] by Steven Bell of Temple University, Philadelphia. It was this article that led to the discovery of some interesting stats related to Twitter use that are quoted in the presentation and I agree wholeheartedly with his concluding paragraph.

Finally, my presentation touched on some theories around ‘relationship marketing’, indeed they provided the foundation for much of the presentation.  If you are interested in this area, I’d really recommend Service Management and Marketing by Christian Grönroos.  I used it quite heavily when completing the marketing module on the MSc and I think it has some interesting ideas.  That said, ‘marketing’ is a controversial term in LibraryLand, and rightly so.  Some of the terminology associated with it is, I think, inappropriate for public sector institutions.  Some of the ideas are sound, but certain aspects are not a comfortable fit.

To that end, I came across a fascinating article a couple of days ago exploring this particular area.  Marketing and Public Sector Management [PDF] by Kieron Walsh may have been written back in 1994, but I think it is one of the most intelligent articles on ‘marketing’ in the public sector that I have come across.  I’ve always been taught never to end a piece of writing with a quote, but I think this is an appropriate point to end on:

Marketing is a dangerous language for the public service to begin to speak, because the way that we think is influenced by the language that we use. However ill-defined the public service ethic may be, we do need to distinguish between the values that guide the public and private sectors. It is already apparent that the language of commercialism fits ill with that of service…If marketing is to be developed for the public realm, then it will need to develop a language that is defined by the specific character of that realm, not negatively, by contrast with the private sector.

Twitter – can censorship ever be justified?

The internet was alive with chatter on Friday in response to Twitter’s announcement that it was making a change in the extent to which it restricts content.  The change means that content that violates the laws of an individual state will be blocked.  Given the nature of the average Twitter user (generally opposed to censorship) and the impact the use of Twitter has had in a range ofdespotic regimes across the world, it was not surprising that there was uproar about this announcement. Such was the uproar, there were threats of widespread blackouts as people announced their intentions to boycott the service.  Judging by the volume of tweets, it appears that this didn’t really take hold.

However, as Twitter’s blog explained, things were a little more complicated than they initially appeared:

As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content.

In an update it went on to add:

We haven’t yet used this ability, but if and when we are required to withhold a Tweet in a specific country, we will attempt to let the user know, and we will clearly mark when the content has been withheld. As part of that transparency, we’ve expanded our partnership with Chilling Effects to share this new page, http://chillingeffects.org/twitter, which makes it easier to find notices related to Twitter.

Which appears to make the policy a little more understandable.  Indeed, a number of blog posts were subsequently published which argued that not only was the position taken by Twitter reasonable, it was also a victory for defenders of free speech.  As one blog put it:

The alternative would be to see Twitter blocked entirely in countries which consider its content to be a violation of their local laws. If the finger should be pointed at anyone, it isn’t Twitter, but rather the lawmakers that make it possible to censor content in the first place.

So is it really an issue? Should Twitter really be the target of a boycott?

It’s a tricky issue to get right.  Ultimately, the medium should be as lightly managed as possible, ensuring people can tweet freely and share information readily.  As has been seen in a number of cases, the impact of such freedom can have a positive impact upon our society.  But, of course, as with all freedom of speech issues, there are concerns and grey areas that need to be wrestled with.

So how do we resolve such issues?  Surely our viewpoint on censorship ultimately comes down to our own personal moral compass?  Do we believe that censorship is ultimately acceptable if the laws that the tweet breaks are only those we are sympathetic towards?  Would we be more inclined towards censorship if the content was gratuitously offensive to an ethnic minority than if it was content that is adjudged to be libellous to a large corporation?  Both would be in breach of the law, but is one easier than the other to justify?

Personally speaking, I firmly believe in the right to free speech.  I broadly believe that people should not be prosecuted for what they communicate.  But there difficult areas, and I am not really sure I have come to terms with them myself.  I absolutely believe that racist content should be removed.  But I am less sympathetic towards censorship of libellous tweets aimed at large corporations.  And yet both are subject to criminal prosecution.  Perhaps my view on censorship would be best summed up as a necessary evil if it defends the interests of the powerless or the weak, but absolutely avoided if it seeks to defend the interests of the powerful.  It’s not a satisfactory response to freedom of speech issues, but it’s the best I can come up with.

In terms of Twitter, I am not sure that this policy is a wholly bad thing, although it is probably best to see how things play out before rushing to judgement (although is that even a satisfactory response?).  Clearly it ensures that those in repressive regimes actually get access to the technology rather than endure a blanket ban.  It also ensures that tweets are only blocked according to location, so outside of that locality the tweets would be entirely visible – ensuring that in the case of repressive regimes the content still makes it out to the wider world.  This location aspect is certainly superior to some other methods utilised to control content.  As Zeynep Tufekci points out on her excellent post on this issue, Blogger is currently censoring a post on brutality conduced by security forces in Egypt.  This post is currently blocked globally without any indication as to the cause of its removal (unlike the policy that Twitter announced – which will supposedly ensure transparency over removal).  Furthermore, there is a commitment to only block content based on a ‘valid legal order’ which should ensure a degree of protection, providing Twitter doesn’t cave in to spurious government requests for removal.

So, overall I would say that whilst this move is not the most welcome news, I’m not so sure it is quite as regressive as it first appears.  I think the people at Twitter are smart enough to know that if censorship does become a major issue for users they will just move some place else.  It seems to me that they have tried to strike a middle ground ensuring it can protect itself from prosecution (after all, that would lead to the closure of the service for all) and ensure that content is relatively unaffected.  That said, this will need be monitored closely and, if there are attempts to cave into requests by government to censor content without ensuring that valid legal orders are applied, then the strongest possible pressure should be applied to ensure censorship on such grounds is no longer an option.  Time will tell whether this move by Twitter amounts to an attack on free speech or a smart way to defend it.