Jigsaw – the missing piece in policing the internet?

jigsaw

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?

vandr

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.

In defence of internet anonymity

Image c/o Thomas Hawk.

It recently emerged that Twitter has added the need to register mobile phone numbers as part of the sign-up procedure when creating an account to use the network. The move is, as is always the case, presented as part of their effort to protect those that use the service, particularly from abusive trolls. However, as with all such protections, it only offers protection to a degree and does actually create more danger for others.

For those of us that live in Western ‘liberal’ countries, the requirement to provide a mobile phone number is perhaps not massively problematic. It is fairly easy to obtain a mobile and use it without having an data connected to that phone (if you’ve watched The Wire you’ll know that those that wish to protect themselves from the law will use so-called “burner phones”). Outside of nations like the UK and the US, particularly in authoritarian regimes, there are far more hoops that need to be jumped through and the possibility of obtaining a so-called burner is fairly slim. As The Guardian noted, Turkey requires all mobile phones to be registered and a passport is required to obtain a sim card and mobile number.

The request to provide a mobile number in order to use the service is therefore troubling for those living in authoritarian regimes. As we know, communication tools that provide anonymity have played a role in overturning a variety of authoritarian regimes (although the extent to which these tools have played a role is perhaps overstated). Anonymity in Western liberal states may be perceived as a tool to harass and intimidate individuals, but in less democratic states they are essential for survival and for hope. Without this cover of anonymity, lives can and will be placed at risk. Anonymity maybe a troubling concept from our point of view (not least given the media coverage) but it is essential. When weighing up the social cost, the removal of anonymity will come at a much greater cost than if it was to be maintained.

Trolls are an unpleasant side effect of creating a space where everyone can engage in public discourse. But whilst there is a need to figure out how we tackle this phenomenon, we also have to accept that the internet will probably only ever be an imperfect space and that imperfection is what makes it so valuable. Because so long as there as there is anonymity, there will be trolls. But there will also be opportunities for dissidents to communicate, organise and challenge the status quo. Whilst I would not wish to minimise the harm that trolls cause to individuals (as I’ve stated before, I don’t buy into this current “right to offend” trend), I prefer to think of the positive impact of anonymity. The potential it provides for people to be free. Either free to engage in discourse without fear of reprisal or harm, or to seek to secure freedom from state oppression.

Of course services such as Twitter have to seek to protect those that use the service. But, when it comes to the internet, every measure of protection can also do great harm. This is true of removing the right to anonymity for those who wish to communicate free from fear of reprisal, but also in creating internet filters that prevent people from accessing information. Those filters may provide some benefit in terms of the things that they block, but they will also prevent those who are most vulnerable from accessing the information they need. Such measures are presented as offering protection to individuals (indeed, isn’t this always how states present measures that repress individual freedoms?), when in fact this is only partially the case. Protection for some, insecurity or danger for others.

Ultimately, we must seek to defend the right to remain anonymous online. It is not always comfortable, but then defending our freedoms to the fullest extent will never be entirely comfortable because we understand that there are those that will abuse the freedoms we are advocating. But we have to accept that the benefits of protecting anonymity far outweigh the consequences of removing this protection. Because the consequences of this will not be felt in the middle-class suburbias of the West, but within the communities seeking to throw off the chains of oppression.

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?

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.