“When we got on the net, you could be public and private at once, yourself and safe with strangers. It was a growing place … we’re not on that net anymore. It was a moment, and is gone.” – Quinn Norton, in a series of tweets.
Last month there was a controversy over the publicness of Twitter. In short, as I wrote here, this is what happened: BuzzFeed republished a Twitter discussion in which sexual assault survivor and Twitter user @SteenFox had asked women to discuss what they were wearing when they were assaulted. Although the women had given @SteenFox permission to retweet the tweets, some were still upset that BuzzFeed had republished them.
The controversy erupted first on Twitter, then spread to long-form, whereupon Hamilton Nolan called Twitter fundamentally public, writing that “Just because you wish that someone would not quote something that you said in public does not mean that that person does not have the right to quote something that you said in public. When we choose to say something in public, we choose to broadcast it to the world…”
And I agreed with him.
I also wrote:
This is an important discussion, and a serious one. As Twitter, and social media in general, becomes more and more popular globally, journalists will need to put more thought into how to they approach using it for their stories. While it sometimes may seem justified or in the public interest to amplify a tweet (think the Justine Sacco affair), in many other cases, it’s at least worth asking: “Am I doing harm by amplifying this content?”
When I was submitting the piece to my editor, she asked me in an email: “I don’t suppose you want to add any personal comment about seeing your own tweets in the newspaper in the past and how you felt?”
I declined, and I don’t know why. I guess the underlying urge was not to insert too much of myself into the story, but frankly, I probably should have. Because today, this happened:
Even some Snowden supporters voiced unease at his participation in the event. Jillian York, the director of international free expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who has previously given numerous public talks in support of Snowden and the NSA revelations, tweeted: “Snowden’s question WAS softball. If he knows as much as he claims, he would’ve known that the wording gave Putin an easy out.”
Snowden's question WAS softball. If he knows as much as he claims, he would've known that the wording gave Putin an easy out.
— Chillian J. Yikes! (@jilliancyork) April 18, 2014
There are two things I want to address here. The first is how it feels to get a taste of my own medicine, and the second is the Snowden issue, given that was the context for my frustration. Let’s start at the beginning.
Why did I say that?
When I heard that Snowden had asked a question about Russia’s surveillance to Putin, the first thing I did was dig up the question. See, I’ve said this a few times, though probably not loudly enough: I’ve been frustrated at how little attention Russian surveillance receives compared to both NSA surveillance and other issues that receive a lot of attention from US journalists, like Turkish censorship.
Now, some have argued that of course Russia surveils, of course Russia violates human rights, so we don’t need to spend so much time on that, nobody’s surprised. That argument’s flawed for a couple of reasons: First, it feigns surprise that the US is violating human rights (really? how does that possibly shock you?); second, it ignores the fact that Russia is pretty damn well defended in certain circles.
So here’s the thing, and I’m going to make this extremely clear: I support Edward Snowden in exposing the crimes of the National Security Agency and I absolutely believe that he should be able to return to the United States freely. But you know what? I don’t have to support Edward Snowden’s personal life choices. I don’t know him from Adam, and from what I can tell, we don’t share the same politics across the board. And in criticizing his question, I had a couple of thoughts in mind.
The first is the fact that, when requesting asylum last year, Snowden was quoted on the record thanking Russia for “being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless. Full quote (bold mine):
These nations, including Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador have my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless. By refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation, they have earned the respect of the world. It is my intention to travel to each of these countries to extend my personal thanks to their people and leaders.
Well, fuck that. What principles? What principles does Russia follow when standing up against human rights violations, exactly? And since when is Russia powerless?
Then there’s the question itself. Admittedly, my views shifted a bit last night when Snowden published his piece in the Guardian, but let’s hold that thought for a second. Here’s what Snowden asked:
I’d like to ask about mass surveillance of online communications and the bulk collection of private records by intelligence and law enforcement services…
…Now, I’ve seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance, so I’d like to ask you: does Russia intercept, store, or analyze, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals, and do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify placing societies, rather than subjects, under surveillance? Thank you.
Putin’s response was, of course, bullshit.
In my criticism, I was working from one fundamental assumption (that I admit could be wrong): That Snowden had done his research on Russian surveillance. Because if he had, he would know that the Russian Supreme Court has actually released numbers on targeted surveillance, and that the number of people targeted in 2012 was more than half a million. And that that number is probably much higher. And that even if Russia does not conduct mass surveillance PRISM-style (and it might), it absolutely utilizes targeted surveillance in a way that resembles mass surveillance, but might not be on a technicality.
Nevertheless: It was perhaps an unfair statement on my part, and I followed it up with a series of more nuanced comments that in sum were: I don’t blame Snowden, I’m glad he asked the question, this doesn’t actually matter that much.
A few hours later, Edward Snowden published this piece, which I really appreciated, not least for this quote:
I blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance practices not because I believed that the United States was uniquely at fault, but because I believe that mass surveillance of innocents – the construction of enormous, state-run surveillance time machines that can turn back the clock on the most intimate details of our lives – is a threat to all people, everywhere, no matter who runs them.
…and I subsequently tweeted that I may have been wrong.
Quoting tweets instead of people is shitty journalism
That didn’t stop the Guardian‘s Ed Pilkington from retrofitting my tweet to fit his piece this morning. In trying to find a critical “Snowden supporter”, he apparently came across my tweet and decided to use it to show that not all the Snowden supporters were fawning over the question.
Sigh. This just about sums up the issue for me. Everything has become black and white. You’re either with Russia or the US. You’re either a Snowden supporter or you’re not. You think Glenn Greenwald is awful, or you’re a Glennbot. There is no gray, no nuance.
And I suppose that’s what provoked my thinking this morning, and what triggered Quinn to say what she said, that smart quote in the beginning of this post, posed as a series of tweets: “When we got on the net, you could be public and private at once, yourself and safe with strangers. It was a growing place … we’re not on that net anymore. It was a moment, and is gone.”
I like to think aloud. As my colleagues well know, I do some of my best thinking by fumbling around with half-thoughts in meetings, striking upon epiphanies in the midst of my most unformed thoughts. And that’s how I use Twitter too. For years friends have been telling me to stop, to get a second account, to take a breath of fresh air. While I’ll admit that I could use a little more offline time, the fact is I can’t just shut my brain off. This is a moment in time where I feel driven to do something, to do better. And thinking aloud on the Internet (as I did with this blog for many years) is some of my best thinking.
But, as Quinn pointed out so succintly, that Internet has passed. This is not that Internet. This is an Internet where I feel driven to self-censor, so as not to piss off my friends, or accidentally get quoted yelling a stream of fucks (that happened once) by a journalist of questionable repute, or what have you.
And part of this is that expression, wide open totally inappropriate expression, has always been a fuck you to authority. It was my fuck you to teachers, and it’s my fuck you to the NSA. I have fought not to feel driven to self-censorship by the threat of surveillance, and I have won. And so it makes me even sadder now to think that the threat of being taken out of context has even a stronger silencing effect.
I welcome your thoughts.