Posts Tagged twitter

Why I don’t care about the Gillard-Abbott sexism war and neither should you

English: Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gil...

As readers will probably have figured out, I like to follow Australian politics. As you may have guessed (and those who know me would know), I also like to talk about Australian politics. People I associate with know this, so they tend to engage me whenever an issue in Australian politics catches their attention — I even have some friendships based around these conversations.

So when there is a huge scandal in Australian politics that the whole world is talking about, I expect that it will come up somewhere. Sure enough, a lot of people have been asking me about Julia Gillard’s now world-famous speech calling Tony Abbott a misogynist. My answer has surprised a few people, so I now feel the need to write a post and justify it. Simply put:

I don’t really care.

It just doesn’t really interest me. I watched a recording of the speech and got bored after a couple of minutes. Since it was such a big thing, I went back and watched the rest later, but now I just want that 10 minutes back.

So why this uncharacteristic apathy? Well, I don’t really see this as anything new. The issue that was much more important/interesting was the resignation of Speaker Peter Slipper because of the revelation of lewd and offensive text messages that he sent his former staffer.

The Slipper issue I care about. In fact, I might care enough to write a whole post on the right to privacy and the dilemmas that this kind of situation brings up (ie should someone be forced to resign over what were really private comments, no matter how offensive they were?)

Gillard’s speech? Well, the reaction says it all really. Below are a few responses from friends on my Facebook and Twitter feeds (for obvious reasons, I am not mentioning any names and have slightly edited some of the comments for length):

Wow go Julz! She schooled Abbott #likeaboss

Julia Gillard strikes me as the sort of university feminist who screams “chauvinist pig!” when you hold the door for her and “woman-hater!” if you just let it swing back in her face.

Look, I just had to post it. Fucking brilliant. I could watch this over and over again. … There should be a whole channel devoted to this one video.

I look forward to the rude shock that the lefties who are currently engaged in self-congratulation and saying how amazing Gillard’s performance yesterday was will receive when they realise voters havn’t fallen for her BS…

Yes, Tony Abbott, you were just destroyed.

Gillard stands by Thomson after prostitute revelations. Now stands by Slipper after texts. Yet says Abbott is misogynist. #chutzpah

Amazing speech by our PM. Showing some serious leadership.

And so on.

What was really remarkable about these comments were that there was a very clear divide, but it was not on gender lines, nor was it even on the lines of people who are generally feminist versus people who aren’t. The responses that I have seen were split exactly down party lines. Labor supporters loved it, Liberal supporters mocked it.

And there is the reason why I find the whole thing boring.

Gillard’s speech was not a scathing attack on Abbott to expose his deeply held sexism, and neither was it a blatant display of hypocrisy in defence of a real misogynist.

What was it? An uninspiring partisan response to a successful partisan power-play. It was smart PR — a very clever way to divert the public conversation away from the Slipper debacle.

Abbott was trying to embarrass the government while also taking away the vote that they had from Slipper being speaker, Gillard was trying to defend her majority by recycling old allegations at Abbott.

I have annexed a breakdown of the arguments that Gillard used at the end of this post, but more important than what was there is what was missing: there was absolutely nothing about Abbott’s record in office or any policies that he has proposed which harm women, it was a purely personal attack on Abbott’s character. There is no real policy issue at all and it contributes little to the Australian debate, it’s just boring.

That is why its effect will never be anything other than to provoke cheers from Labor supporters and jeers from Liberal supporters. It was not aimed at ‘exposing Abbott’, so much as spurring-on people who already don’t like Abbott. The Liberals had a bit of a coup when Slipper’s text messages were made public and Labor countered with a clever diversion to mitigate the damage. Yawn.

Until I started this post, I had been filtering out the discussion around this issue. It has joined the categories of things that set-off my mental killswitch — like the carbon tax, Gillard “backstabbing” Rudd, and anything that uses the phrases: “clean energy future”, “working Australians”, “great big lie”, there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”, ”
fair go”, “getting on with the job” etc etc.

Now that I am done, I am free to go back to not caring. Trust me, that’s a relief.


Gillard’s arguments:

Transcript of Julia Gillard’s speech.

He has said, and I quote, in a discussion about women being under-represented in institutions of power in Australia, the interviewer was a man called Stavros. The Leader of the Opposition says “If it’s true, Stavros, that men have more power generally speaking than women, is that a bad thing?”

And then a discussion ensues, and another person says “I want my daughter to have as much opportunity as my son.” To which the Leader of the Opposition says “Yeah, I completely agree, but what if men are by physiology or temperament, more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command?”

Then ensues another discussion about women’s role in modern society, and the other person participating in the discussion says “I think it’s very hard to deny that there is an underrepresentation of women,” to which the Leader of the Opposition says, “But now, there’s an assumption that this is a bad thing.”

I have looked for a full transcript of this discussion and I can’t find it anywhere online. Abbott was not expressing a viewpoint in those comments, they were inquisitive and hypothetical. In context, they could well be completely innocuous. Then again, they may not be, but I will not make up my mind until I am shown a full transcript. A couple of soundbites extracted from a whole conversation is not sufficient to condemn anyone.


This is the man from whom we’re supposed to take lectures about sexism. And then of course it goes on. I was very offended personally when the Leader of the Opposition, as Minister of Health, said, and I quote, “Abortion is the easy way out.” I was very personally offended by those comments. You said that in March 2004, I suggest you check the records.

Doesn’t convince me. Whatever Abbott’s stance may be on abortion policy, there is no reason why he has to personally support it.

I was also very offended on behalf of the women of Australia when in the course of this carbon pricing campaign, the Leader of the Opposition said “What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing…” Thank you for that painting of women’s roles in modern Australia.

Gotta hand it to the PM, this one is pretty convincing. I am very reluctant to attribute anything to a “gaffe“, but this does show that Abbott harbours a degree of subconscious discrimination. But then, there is the whole “gaffe” issue.

And on:

And then of course, I was offended too by the sexism, by the misogyny of the Leader of the Opposition catcalling across this table at me as I sit here as Prime Minister, “If the Prime Minister wants to, politically speaking, make an honest woman of herself…”, something that would never have been said to any man sitting in this chair.

That I don’t agree with. I have no doubt that an unmarried male Prime Minister would be attacked on the grounds that he was unmarried.

I was offended when the Leader of the Opposition went outside in the front of Parliament and stood next to a sign that said “Ditch the witch.” I was offended when the Leader of the Opposition stood next to a sign that described me as a man’s bitch.

Now that is just spurious. So Abbott was photographed standing next to the wrong sign at an anti-carbon tax rally, what does that have to do with anything? I have seen several prominent Labor and Green MPs standing next to the flags of terrorist organisations and nobody batted an eyelid.

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Bitches and ladies: in defence of Lupe Fiasco [song of the week]

Lupe Fiasco has just released the video for his new single ‘Bad Bitch’. In it, he attempts to tackle the depiction of women in hip hop culture.

To me, Lupe is in a league above most of his contemporaries in the mainstream rap scene. His music has a sophistication that most sorely lack and he has a lyrical flow that is close to unmatched. Great rapping is like poetry — the words have a meter and fit the rhythm of the song even when you are reading them from a page.

At his best, Lupe’s lyrics can contain biting, insightful commentary on the society in which we live. The issue of women in hip hop is not a new one for him to be approaching. Take, for example, one of my favourite songs of his — ‘Hurt Me Soul‘:

Now I ain’t tryna be the greatest
I used to hate hip-hop… yup, because the women degraded
But Too $hort made me laugh, like a hypocrite I played it
A hypocrite I stated, though I only recited half
Omittin the word “bitch,” cursin I wouldn’t say it
Me and dog couldn’t relate, til a bitch I dated
Forgive my favorite word for hers and hers alike
But I learnt it from a song I heard and sorta liked

And then there’s this absolutely brilliant little send-up of standard rap videos from ‘Daydream’ — possibly his most well-known single:

Now come on everybody, let’s make cocaine cool
We need a few more half naked women up in the pool
And hold this MAC-10 that’s all covered in jewels
And can you please put your titties closer to the 22s?
And where’s the champagne? We need champagne
Now look as hard as you can with this blunt in your hand
And now hold up your chain slow motion through the flames
Now cue the smoke machines and the simulated rain

The subject of the post itself can be seen here:

Meanwhile, the song has not been popular with everyone. In a review that is now the subject of a massive Twitter campaign against Spin magazine, reviewer Brandon Soderberg slammed Lupe for ‘mansplaining’:

Lupe Fiasco Mansplains Some More in the Video for ‘Bitch Bad’ | SPIN | No Trivia.

The whole thing is an impressive exercise in mansplaining. Its hook goes, “Bitch bad, woman good, lady better,” which sounds sweet and all, but does any female want to be called “a lady”? And although the song is a bit more complex than described above — or really, muddled — it is the umpteenth example of so-called “conscious” hip-hop replacing one type of misogyny with another. While listening to Lupe’s well-intentioned grousing, I couldn’t help but think of Azealia Banks, whose pointed use of “cunt” on “212” blew minds and inspired enthusiasm, and whose clothing style might not meet Lupe’s approval. So much of the song’s characterization seems to hinge on the clothes the female character wears (and also how sweet or “nice” she is). …

So often, the appeal of this kind of commentary on hip-hop … feeds on outdated and simplified hip-hop stereotypes. The use of a 50 Cent stand-in for the video also plays into a decade-old understanding of hip-hop as the world of endless thugging and violence, which as I’ve said time and time again lately, just does not represent what rap music actually looks like and sounds like in 2012.

The use of the word “bitch,” sensitively deconstructed by Jay-Z on “99 Problems,” and currently being twisted and challenged by Azealia Banks, Nicki Minaj, and many more female MCs, proves that the discussion doesn’t need a backpack rap hustler selling cynicism. [my bold]

The first thing that popped into my head when I read that was, ‘are we talking about the same hip hop?’

So I looked up the current number one in the US. The most popular rap song there at the moment? ‘Whistle’ by Flo Rida.

The lyrics in that song?

Can you blow my whistle baby, whistle baby
Let me know
Girl I’m gonna show you how to do it
And we start real slow
You just put your lips together
And you come real close
Can you blow my whistle baby, whistle baby
Here we go

Whistle baby, whistle baby,
Whistle baby, whistle baby

And on the subject of depictions? Perhaps these bikini-clad women on jetskis are the new, modern, respected hip hop women that Soderberg was referring to? Or the one on the horse? I think Soderberg may have been a little too hasty in announcing the end of misogyny in rap music.

But then, Soderberg specifically mentioned a few of the female rappers who are causing rap stereotypes to come crashing down like European banks. He seems especially fond of this ‘Azealia Banks’ character. I guess that would be the same Azealia Banks who sang this:

These niggas ain’t fly, got wings like always
You’re finger-fuckin’ the pussy
Lickin’ it all day
Niggas on me cause my position is real sweet
Niggas on me cause all my fabrics cost change

I see what Soderberg was talking about. I guess women everywhere can take comfort in the fact that they have Ms Banks fighting for their cause.

Lupe’s new single may not be the most eloquent deconstruction of gender depictions in hip hop ever written and it may be a little didactic, however that does not mean that it deserves the kind of criticism that Soderberg threw at it.

In terms of mainstream stature, Lupe is almost in the top tier of commercial success and has been around for almost a decade — making him far more influential than any of the other rappers that Soderberg mentioned. Also, he makes some of the best rap music around — infinitely more listenable than Nicki Minaj’s bland, overproduced pop stylings or Azealia Banks’ monotone drawl laid over God-awful David Guetta-esque backing tracks.

‘Bad Bitch’ may be a little obvious in its message, surely Lupe can be forgiven. After all, he has been discussing this issue for his entire career, at times with sophisticated allusions to rap culture. He has released this song as the preview single from his not-yet-released album, illustrating how important he feels this discussion to be.

Soderberg’s reaction is simply patronising, elitist and counter-productive. He clearly would rather maintain his sense of superiority over the average rap fan than give credit to a mainstream rapper like Lupe for doing something positive and important.

Soderberg elevates people saying far worse things than Lupe to some kind of false pedestal in order to whitewash the issue of women in hip hop, as though it had not been a serious problem since 50 Cent’s debut album. He is pretending that the hip hop world is going through a period of deep introspection so that he can slam Lupe for being too late the party.

It’s really quite pathetic.

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Free speech, hate speech and arresting that Twitter boy

English: DUI of Darnall Army Medical Center

English: DUI of Darnall Army Medical Center (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


For anyone who hasn’t been following, 17-year-old Twitter user @Riley_69 (the ’69’ in the username was a bad omen in the first place) was a little disappointed in British diver Tom Daley for only coming fourth place. He expressed his opinion rather crudely and was later arrested for his thoughts.

See, Daley had previously said this in an interview with the BBC, referring to his deceased father:

Teenager arrested over ‘abusive’ tweets to Tom Daley – Telegraph.

Winning a medal would make all the struggles that I’ve had worthwhile. It’s been my dream since a very young age to compete at an Olympics. I’m doing it for myself and my dad. It was both our dreams from a very young age. I always wanted to do it and Dad was so supportive of everything. It would make it extra special to do it for him.

So when Daley did not win a medal, @Riley_69 figured this was the appropriate thing to say:

You let your dad down i hope you know that.

Daley expressed his displeasure, but @Riley_69 did not seem to care much for Daley’s feelings:

Hope your crying now you should be why can’t you even produce for your country  your just a diver anyway a overhyped prick.

What struck me about that tweet was the choice to omit the apostrophe in “you’re”, yet include it in “can’t”, and the omission of any punctuation other than the full-stop at the end. I think this actually justifies the use of the term ‘half-literate’.

Moving along, our keyboard warrior later had this to say:

i’m going to find you and i’m going to drown you in the pool you cocky twat your a nobody people like you make me sick

And in response to criticism from others:

i dont give a shit bruv i’m gonna drown him and i’m gonna shoot you he failed why you suporting him you cunt

For this, Mr Riley was arrested. In fairness to him, when he saw the outcry that his tweets had caused, he did tweet an apology:

 @TomDaley1994 I’m sorry mate i just wanted you to win cause its the olympics I’m just annoyed we didn’t win I’m sorry tom accept my apology.

please i don’t want to be hated I’m just sorry you didn’t win i was rooting for you pal to do britain all proud just so upset.

Kenan Malik doesn’t approve of the arrest (my bold):


… I am simply pointing out that once we allow concepts of incitement and threat to become so elastic, then we open up a broader problem for free speech. The reason for being wary of police action against someone like @Rileyy_69 is not because one wants to defend the abuse of Tom Daley, nor because one is sanguine about death threats, but because if we lose sight of the fact that threats have to be both credible  and understood in context, then free speech in a broader sense becomes endangered. @Rileyy_69’s tweets, and not just to Tom Daley, were vile, abusive, obnoxious. But read in context, and with a bit of common sense, no one would take them as genuine death threats.  This might be an individual craving attention, and perhaps even, as some have suggested, needing help, but not someone who is about to commit a murder.

I get where Malik is coming from, but I have to ask what makes him so sure and if he has really considered the consequences of Riley_69’s behaviour.

I completely understand the argument about free speech and I instinctively feel that curtailing any expression is a bad thing, however it is equally wrong to be absolutist about these kinds of rights. In many situations, absolute free speech will conflict with other fundamental rights and it is a fallacy to suggest that free speech must necessarily trump other rights in every situation.

Malik does recognise this, however I question why this particular instance is such an “elastic” interpretation. The boy very explicitly issued violent death threats against Daley amid very hurtful personal abuse. That kind of harassment and intimidation would be illegal if it were to take place in person or over the phone, the only reason that everyone is up in arms over this is that the communication took place online – a medium that is generally perceived as more remote and impersonal than other forms of communication.

I think that it is about time we drop this assumption that online communication is necessarily less harmful or serious than the same communication offline. Unfortunately, if Mr Riley did decide to go after Daley offline, he would not be the first psycho to take an online obsession and act on it IRL (see, eg, HEREHERE and HERE) and there have been quite a few cases of online harassment that have led to the victim’s suicide (see, eg, HEREHERE and HERE).

On a slight tangent, online communication is the primary means of radicalising

Western individuals who later commit terror attacks. The late Anwar al-Awlaki from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the recent subject of one of Obama’s drone strikes in Yemen, was particularly adept at finding vulnerable Muslims online and coaxing them into committing acts of terror – the Fort Hood shootings being an example.

I say ‘slight’ tangent because, while the attacks wouldn’t have occurred but for Awlaki’s communicating with shooter Nidal Malik Hasan directly, most of the vile antisemitic/anti-American extremist propaganda that Hasan had access to before Awlaki approached him was distributed online.

The argument that people should just “challenge” these points of view are valid to an extent, but this method is limited. Open debate does not sway the kind of extremists who believe that all of society is lying to them and it is their duty to kill others; it will not prevent a psychotic stalker from chasing-down a victim; and it does not make victims of harassment feel any less harassed, so will not prevent their being driven into depression and suicide.

Free speech and open debate is vital for our society, but we have to recognise that the cost of not punishing some forms of speech is higher than the cost of prohibiting them.

It’s a grey area, but from where I sit, “i’m going to find you and i’m going to drown you in the pool you cocky twat your a nobody people like you make me sick” is over that line.

Thoughts anyone?

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Major Cartoon Karnage: The Kony Effect

Click the image to view full size.

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Violence in Syria over?

Maybe, maybe not. See HERE for more information.

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Three nobodies who sparked the revolutions



There is a fantastic article by Lydia Khalil in this month’s Australian Literary Review that goes through a lot of the causes of the Middle East unrest. What I found particularly emotional were the stories of Neda Soltan, Mohamed Bouazizi and Khaled Said – who became symbols of the repression in their respective countries.

These three stories go a long way in describing the actual situations in these countries, in a way that words like “despot”, “repression” and “autocracy” could never sum-up.

Youthquake in the Middle East | The Australian.

For the shabab, the new civic sphere has taken on three seemingly contradictory characteristics: it is at once individualistic, pluralistic and anonymous. This trio is explained in the stories of three young people who personify the struggle of the shabab: Neda Agha Soltan in Iran, Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia and Khaled Said in Egypt.

Soltan was an aspiring musician and a 27-year-old graduate student who worked at her family’s travel agency. One day she happened upon one of the many groups of protesters that had taken to the streets of Tehran that summer of 2009. One minute she was milling about with her friends, shielding her eyes from the sun as she observed from the sidelines the chanting protesters and commotion, the next minute she was slumped to the ground, blood spewing from her face and nose.

A stranger captured her death on a mobile phone and later that day the amateur videographer uploaded the video of Soltan’s murder to YouTube. The scene of her death was played again and again on computer and telephone screens all across Iran and the world. She became an accidental martyr for the Iranian opposition movement.

Soltan had been a sympathiser and observer by any account and was only marginally involved in the opposition. She was not an active dissident, yet she was killed. One face of many, standing along the sidelines, became the icon that defined the opposition. Her murder at the hands of government henchmen highlighted the criminality of the entire Iranian regime.

Bouazizi came from a large Tunisian family of six brothers and sisters. They lived modestly in the backwater of Sidi Bouzid where job opportunities were few.

When he was a young boy, his father died, forcing Bouazizi to sacrifice his already mediocre education in a one-room school to take on a job to support his family. The best work he could come up with was selling fruit at the market, but even then he could not afford an official permit. With his meagre salary as an illicit fruit vendor, he paid for his sisters’ college fees and attempted to save up for a work van.

Bouazizi would set up his stand during the day, trying to avoid the market inspectors who had already nicked him twice that year for not having a proper licence. He couldn’t even afford to bribe an official to let the fine slide. It amounted to three days’ earnings.

As he was setting up one morning to sell his wares, a female inspector came up to fine him for selling without a licence. When he protested, she slapped him, humiliating him in front of the entire market. When he tried to complain to the local authorities, no one would take his meeting.

Desperate and incensed, he doused himself with petrol and set himself on fire in front of the municipal building. He died 18 days later.

Bouazizi’s suicide wasn’t the kind we are used to hearing about from the Middle East. He did not die after strapping on a bomb and killing innocents in the name of jihad. He committed suicide by self-immolation, the ultimate act of sacrificial spectacle. At his funeral, his supporters chanted, “Farewell Mohamed, we will avenge you.”

And they did; weeks later, the Tunisian government was toppled.

At first, it seemed as if Bouazizi’s death was destined to be a desperate act in a desolate town. The first local protesters were friends and family who, like him, were also ignored. Calls for an official investigation into the inspectors’ actions went unheeded. The local media didn’t cover the events.

But the protests grew, despite the lack of official media cover.

Shamseddine Abidi, an interior designer from Tunis who heard what was happening in Sidi Bouzid, started to post videos and update his Facebook page with news of the protests. One of Abidi’s Facebook friends, a journalist from Al Jazeera, picked up the story. For weeks it was exclusively covered by Al Jazeera, spreading the news across the Arab world.

The wave of Arab revolt was sparked in the most obscure, backwater town in the margins of Middle East. It was done by someone with no history of political protest or activism. Bouazizi was a nobody, really, until his tragedy provoked an irresistible movement for change across the Arab world.

On Facebook, an anonymous administrator started a page about one year ago called We are All Khaled Said. The page showed extremely graphic photographs of a battered face. This was Said. It also showed a photograph of a pale young man in a grey hooded sweatshirt. His ears stuck out a bit, but he had a friendly, direct gaze. He seemed unassuming, not at all strident, and completely unrecognisable from the battered face shown alongside. Said was a small shopkeeper in Alexandria, Egypt, with an artistic bent.

The We are All Khaled Said page explained his story as the tragic tale of a young man who was brutally murdered because he refused to be searched by narcotics detectives.

Said was at his usual haunt, an internet cafe in Sidi Gaber, when two cops stormed into the cafe asking people for their IDs. Said refused because he had a small bag of hashish he planned to smoke later and as a consequence was dragged out of the cafe and beaten before being thrown in a police vehicle. The police continued torturing him at the police station, where he died of his wounds. They threw his corpse in the street, claiming he was attacked by strangers. Later they would claim that he choked on the bag of hash he was trying to hide.

The We are All Khaled Said page was not the first group to publicise Egypt’s ubiquitous police brutality but it was the first one that gave a face to the problem. Expressions of outrage were disparate and unconnected before We are All Khaled Said. Said’s story gave a focus and a forum to widespread rage and a desire to right a wrong.

“Each one of us can be Khaled” — this sentiment was expressed over and over by people who heard his story.

Soltan, Bouazizi and Said were unknown, ordinary young people; anonymous members of the masses. Their lives were not marked by anything in particular but their deaths carried a potent symbolism: they came to symbolise the anonymous, persistent struggles of their generation against authoritarianism.

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The Arab YouTube Revolutions

Sure, I’ve written quite extensively on why we should give credit to the protestors and not the internet and how everyone is overstating the role of Facebook in these revolutions, but that is not at all to say that the internet was in any way insignificant.

YouTube has been an incredible tool in building support for the revolutionaries, as well as distributing actual footage of the unrest. David Kenner has made a videoessay in Foreign Policy‘s photoessay section of their website, giving some great examples of these.

I can’t really say anything except you should all watch this, it shows you what has been going on in a way that thousands of articles, blog posts, tweets and status updates never could:

The YouTube Revolutions – By David Kenner | Foreign Policy.

(WARNING: some of these are quite graphic).

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They say Mubarak was bad, but look at Iran and Libya

There’s no doubt that life under Mubarak wasn’t pleasant. His security forces were notoriously brutal and like all good dictators, he crushed any opposition with force, including arrests without charge, and he wasn’t averse to a little torture either. That said, he obviously didn’t have the material that allow real autocrats to hold onto power despite being despised by their public. Remember how the Soviets used to do it, before soft leaders like Gorbachev took over. Stalin and Khrushchev would burn food supplies and let millions of their own people starve to death just to prove a point. Back in Tienanmen, the Chinese had no qualms about letting their tanks run-over anyone brave/foolish enough to keep standing there.

Unlike Egypt, other regimes in the Middle East have got this kind of thing down. Wanna protest in Iran? Better be ready to get trampled. Trying to take the centre of Tripoli away from the ruling regime? I hope you don’t mind some indiscriminate firing into the crowd.

Protests in Tehran Are Stifled by Security Forces –

Anti-government protesters gathered throughout parts of Iran on Sunday, most concentrated in the capital Tehran, to mark the deaths of two men killed during demonstrations last Monday. The government mounted a stultifying security presence in the capital, with the police making arrests and using tear gas to try to prevent the unrest from escalating.

There were reports of indiscriminate shooting here too, but can we confirm them? No. Why not? Well you see, Iran’s autocrats are smart enough to not allow foreign journalists into the country. They also shut down the internet and mobile phones and jam all satellite TV, so no pesky “Twitter revolution” happening there.

Same deal in Libya. Qaddafi’s been around the block a few times, he knows the score. Shut down the internet and then just fire away. Look at what the information that does get out sounds like:

Libya protests: gunshots, screams and talk of revolution | World news | The Guardian

“I’ve seen violent movies and video games that are nothing compared to this. I can hear gunshots, helicopters circling overhead, then I hear the voices screaming. I can hear the screeching of four-by-fours in the street. No one has that type of car except his [Gaddafi’s] people,” she told the Guardian by phone, occasionally crying. “My brother went to get bread, he’s not back; we don’t know if he’ll get back. The family is up all night every night, keeping watch, no one can sleep.”

I’m not trying to make light of the suffering of the Egyptian people at all, I sure as hell would not have wanted to be one of them, but I do have a point here – when push came to shove, Mubarak was not as brutal, vicious and unforgiving as many other leaders in his position. Maybe he does deserve that $64bln that he ran-off with…

[Well, probably not]

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How much influence did Facebook and Twitter have in Egypt? The full story

Leading on from this post, I may have an answer to Malcolm Gladwell’s question, “did social media solve a problem that actually needed solving?”

Writing for Foreign Policy, Reuters reporter Maryam Ishani has detailed the Egyptian “Twitter revolutionaries” and the role that technology played in the whole revolution. She seems to support Clay Shirky’s theory – social media did not bring down Mubarak on the strength of its pure Justin Timberlake awesomeness, but it did help long-term to facilitate the movement’s organising. The people that she says were behind the protests’ initiation seem extremely resourceful, dedicated and intelligent and were able to utilise social media as another tool in their kit in order to aid their project.

The Hopeful Network – By Maryam Ishani | Foreign Policy

The groundwork for the Egyptian uprising was set well before these high-profile figures and organizations [El Baradei and the Muslim Brotherhood] became involved. Nearly three years ago, a group of youth activists with a strong sense of Internet organizing and more than a little help from abroad was preparing for a grassroots, high-tech opposition movement.

I’m going to start by questioning whether these activists were quite as important as Ishani makes out – after all, the story sounds much better if this is the case. She puts a lot of importance on social media – she even says that the whole movement was sparked by Facebook:

Not surprisingly, it was another Facebook page set up by the April 6 youth — this one devoted to the memory of Khaled Said, a man brutally killed in police custody — that sparked the beginning of the current uprising in Egypt. Thanks largely to the legwork done by the April 6 movement and the Egyptian Democratic Academy months earlier, Egypt’s opposition had been integrated into a closely knit online community. The movement showed up in force on Jan. 25, when the protests began.

It’s funny, because everyone else seems to think that the protests were sparked by the events going on in Tunisia – where the Egyptian people suddenly realised that dictators can be taken down.

If we do accept her premise, there is still a lot to think about. I’m sure Gladwell would again take the line that they happened to use social media, but the revolution could have happened anyway. I made a list of the different ways in which these activists used social media, in an attempt to answer this point:

  1. To distribute a manual on protest methods.
  2. To form connections with other groups, such as Italian anarchists, who provided training and expertise.
  3. To quickly communicate information about arrested activists, so that they could be located and freed by a legal team, rather than languishing in prison for weeks without charge.
  4. To distribute videos of protests and brutality against protestors.
  5. As a map, to locate good areas for protests and goof photography vantage points.

Having reduced their use of social media to these points, Gladwell does seem to be on to something. None of these things couldn’t be achieved without the internet; pre-1990, you could still distribute manuals, have communications systems and use maps. The social media would make these things a lot easier, when used properly, but I’m not convinced that they were absolutely necessary.

In fact, the activists used a whole variety of integrated tools, not just social media. For instance, after noticing that the videos of Iran protests around the election last year created a massive stir, but were less effective than they could have been due to poor quality, some of these Egyptians went to the US for film training. Also, they had contingency plans for when the internet failed:

The activists acted quickly during the blackout to create workaround solutions. Within days, clandestine FTP accounts were set up to move videos out to international news outlets. While accredited members of the media struggled to communicate and coordinate, street protesters were using land lines to call supporters, who translated and published their accounts on Twitter for an international audience hungry for news of the unfolding events.

As I said before, this sounds like a very intelligent, very resourceful group of individuals, who used all of the tools and techniques available to them in order to achieve their goals. This is not to underestimate the role of social media in their effort – without these new means off communication, their job would have been far more difficult, we definitely do have a lot to thank Facebook and Twitter for. The question is whether or not they could have achieved what they did without the facilitation provided by social media. This is not as clear cut as social media’s best friends seem to think it is, there are definitely strong arguments for each side.

Speaking of Twitter quickly, Foreign Policy blogger Colum Lynch has written a piece that really illuminates the value that it does and doesn’t have for following current events. He points out that it has sped-up the news cycle in an unprecedented way, and that there is no better tool for following the news as it happens, as well as sourcing a huge variety of content. That said, he also observes that it allows disinformation from dubious sources to spread extremely quickly and possibly be picked-up by lazy journalists in well-regarded publications, allowing it to spread even further.

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Did Facebook and Twitter really bring Mubarak down?

I came across this article in ABC’s The Drum Unleashed by Charles McPhedran, an “Australian journalist based in Berlin”. Reading McPhedran’s argument, it is quite clear that he is coming from a…very trendy particular perspective:

How social media forced Egyptian politics into action – Unleashed (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

Minutes later, Barack Obama, standing before a gilded 18th century fireplace and framed by the stars and stripes, reported that Hosni Mubarak had pledged to create a “better democracy” in his land. Obama himself wanted greater “freedom, opportunity and justice” for Egyptians, remarking rightly that this is what everyone everywhere wants. Like during his election campaign two years ago, Obama’s authoritative tone convinced – even as his words remained vague.

Like the imagery there? The rich an important American president speaking empty words about democracy while supporting a dictator? Of course, this is the year of Mark Zukerberg, and the real hero here who totally brought down the establishment was social media.

On Twitter, a cacaphony reported on events in Suez, Alexandria and the Egyptian capital in a dozen languages. On Facebook, protests were organised in every major city worldwide. A global public community emerged, exposing every lie and untruth of those leaders who refused to help the Egyptian people move towards popular democracy in Egypt.

Obviously this global roar of outrage wouldn’t have occurred without the public protest of millions of Egyptians. However, it has been the social networks that have amplified the message from Cairo, and helped to make a quick massacre of protestors less likely. Even though Twitter and Facebook are controlled by large corporations, over the past few days they have provided a space in which there is a global exchange of short reports and views going on.

I love social media probably more than the next guy, and I would love to thank Twitter and Facebook for everything that happens in the world, but it’s not always the case. For instance, Syria doesn’t seem to think it’s such a problem anymore. There has been a lot of debate recently in slightly more reputable publications than The Drum about how much political impact social media really has.

One of these was Malcolm Gladwell, possibly the most influential social commentator of our generation, in The New Yorker.

Twitter, Facebook, and social activism : The New Yorker.

He outlines exactly how people like McPhedran are thinking:

The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns. When ten thousand protesters took to the streets in Moldova in the spring of 2009 to protest against their country’s Communist government, the action was dubbed the Twitter Revolution, because of the means by which the demonstrators had been brought together. A few months after that, when student protests rocked Tehran, the State Department took the unusual step of asking Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance of its Web site, because the Administration didn’t want such a critical organizing tool out of service at the height of the demonstrations. “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, later wrote, calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools. Facebook warriors go online to push for change.

Then after looking at different examples of revolutions, he goes on to look at how social media really affects things:

The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life

…The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents.

Disputing internet “guru” Clay Shirky, adjunct professor in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, his take-home point is that social media can help make people care more about something, but it is not about to change the world into a democratic haven overnight and cannot actually replace genuine protests. That said, Egypt has seen genuine protests, not just a series of Facebook groups, so there must be more to it.

Clay Shirky responded in Foreign Affairs, arguing that while social media is not the solution to all of the world’s despots, it does allow resistance movements to better organise themselves through facilitating communication:

The Political Power of Social Media | Foreign Affairs.

Despite this mixed record, social media have become coordinating tools for nearly all of the world’s political movements, just as most of the world’s authoritarian governments (and, alarmingly, an increasing number of democratic ones) are trying to limit access to it. In response, the U.S. State Department has committed itself to “Internet freedom” as a specific policy aim. Arguing for the right of people to use the Internet freely is an appropriate policy for the United States, both because it aligns with the strategic goal of strengthening civil society worldwide and because it resonates with American beliefs about freedom of expression.

Finally, he points out that social media cannot change the world overnight, but it can effect change long-term, simply by allowing populations to be more informed and connected:

It would be nice to have a flexible set of short-term digital tactics that could be used against different regimes at different times. But the requirements of real-world statecraft mean that what is desirable may not be likely. Activists in both repressive and democratic regimes will use the Internet and related tools to try to effect change in their countries, but Washington’s ability to shape or target these changes is limited. Instead, Washington should adopt a more general approach, promoting freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly everywhere. And it should understand that progress will be slow. Only by switching from an instrumental to an environmental view of the effects of social media on the public sphere will the United States be able to take advantage of the long-term benefits these tools promise — even though that may mean accepting short-term disappointment.

Gladwell responded with:

This is the question that I kept wondering about throughout Shirky’s essay-and that had motivated my New Yorker article on social media, to which Shirky refers: What evidence is there that social revolutions in the pre-Internet era suffered from a lack of cutting-edge communications and organizational tools? In other words, did social media solve a problem that actually needed solving?

And Shirky had the last word:

Even the increased sophistication and force of state reaction, however, underline the basic point: these tools alter the dynamics of the public sphere. Where the state prevails, it is only by reacting to citizens’ ability to be more publicly vocal and to coordinate more rapidly and on a larger scale than before these tools existed.

This seems a little different from McPhedran’s idea that the world was informed about Egypt because of Twitter. From what Gladwell and Shirky were saying, the revolution in Egypt would probably have happened regardless of Facebook.

Another thing to consider is what Facebook and Twitter themselves could have done regarding Egypt. Adrian Chen at Gawker even argues that Facebook is getting in the way of the protestors and should be doing more to help the revolution along:

Why Facebook Should Do More to Help Egypt’s Protesters.

In many ways, Facebook has made itself actively hostile to those who would organize against a repressive regime or advance an unpopular idea. Most problematic is the policy that bans pseudonyms. Facebook defends the policy by saying their service is about “real people making real-world connections.” But what if the real world is full of secret police looking to crack down on dissent, or snooping bosses who might be supportive of a regime? Harvard Internet freedom expert Jillian C York calls the real identity policy “ludicrously out of touch.”

…Facebook should earn Egyptians’ thanks by doing more to enable protesters and activists to use their service safely. This isn’t just a matter of human rights, but of good business. Imagine if Facebook worked to improve its privacy and security practices to the point that an Iranian dissident would feel comfortable using the site to organize anti-government actions. (Under a pseudonym, of course.) There wouldn’t be much left for us to complain about! (To its credit, Facebook did something like this when it responded to the Tunisian government’s mass-hacking of Facebook by boosting security for all users, including Tunisian protesters.)

Chen does have a point, in that these social media giants wield huge international power without having any real policy, which is a strange situation to be in. It is possible that, had they made a decision either way, Facebook and Twitter could have stifled or spurred-on the revolutionaries. McPhedran’s Messiah complex aside, this is really the way in which social media could affect change, and is kind of worrying. What if one of the networks falls into the wrong hands?

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