Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

This is no longer our Internet

“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.”

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.

11 Comments

  1. Quoting tweets is fair game, and is far from “shitty journalism”. Tweets is just another form of public speech. The platform is irrelevant. What is the difference between something you say in a blogger comment, on your public facebook wall, twitter, a public mailing list (which often also is indexed by Google search engines and other third party sites that provide web based access to mailing lists), a phpBB web based forum? It’s all public info.

    If you don’t want something you say publicly amplified, then don’t say it, period. The same applies to me and whatever I say publicly.

    Private emails are of course an entirely different matter.
    This has been discussed in the past a couple years ago on the Australian Link mailing list (google for “quoting link is fair game?” followed by my email address fcassia @ gm) the general concensus at the time was that since the mailing list is public, then it’s public speech.

    Just my$0.02
    FC
    PS: I think you’re mixing the issues here. Quoting tweets is one thing, and the whole Snowden and your opinions on it is a separate matter. To me the line is clear: if it’s been indexed by google, it’s part of the public web and thus public speech, quotable material.

    • What’s the difference between a tweet and a quote given to a journalist upon request? Well, there’s certainly merits to both – you could argue that I might manipulate my words for a journalist, but in this case a journalist manipulated my words (that is, quoted something out of broader context) to suit his agenda.

      Is it a legitimate thing to do? Sure. Is it great journalism? Not really.

      (He was also factually incorrect: I have not given numerous talks in support of Snowden).

      • Politicians – actual public figures, on the public payroll – are given deference by journalists, often getting automatic anonymity, often getting veto over how they are quoted. while journalists feel free to mine the words of ordinary people from twitter, without asking permission or consent, without consideration. This is a disturbing double standard.

  2. I thought what you said initially, the thing you regret, was fine.

    What kind of friends get pissed off at you when you say what you think? I wouldn’t count them as friends. If the Internet changed (and I don’t see it that way) then this is a change for the better. Keep saying what you think and what you see. If that causes you trouble, then be thankful you have a job where you’re allowed to or even expected to cause trouble.

    We should all be more sympathetic to people who speak their own truth, well-thought-out or otherwise, and get grief for it.

  3. As a relative newbie/mostly cautious tweeter, but avid blog/post reader and ancient vet of chat boards, I gotta say that every doubt, fear and ambiguity I’ve ever about the whole damn thing (privacy, journalism, quotes-out-of-context AND Snowden/Greenwald) is perfectly encapsulated in this blog entry. I don’t look for or assume privacy anyplace anymore except maybe my own bathroom and (now THIS is stupid) a couple of credit cards. I felt that way long before the NSA revelations–at least ten years ago, maybe–when “Law & Order” began solving crimes with E-Z pass data, and NYC sent me a traffic ticket based on a very good B+W photograph of my car (w/me driving it) rolling thru a red light on the West Side Hway. I’d like to think that lifting, cross-referencing or purposely mis-referencing a journalist’s quotes and opinions (without checking first?) is somehow more sacrosanct than the people at the next table taking pix of what I’m eating and Instagramming the pix to their contacts list, but that’s just foolish now. I especially appreciate your last paragraph: it’s everything fierce and everything sad all at once. Nicely, if painfully, done.

  4. You are what you tweet, apparently.

    I think you have to expect that your tweets are public, and that whether you’re speaking carefully on the record with a journalist or tweeting, there’s a good chance you will be taken out of context.

    Similarly, I find it annoying when someone feels the need to qualify that forwarding a tweet does not constitute an endorsement of it. Duh! People who take tweets at face value, without bothering to explore the context, or person tweeting, further are the ones at fault. And public comment shouldn’t be adjusted to accommodate their laziness.

    And while Twitter is an easy to use quoting device, I think the problem of context on the Net has existed as long as the Internet has.

  5. Maybe we should try reference our own tweets. So, you could have mentioned or replied to your previous (earlier tweet on the subject you want to address). That way your new tweet will be in the context of previous tweet. If someone opens the newer tweet the older tweet will also show up. Today it’s possible to link tweets, click reply on older tweet and in the form remove @twitterhandle, write the tweet and click tweet button.

    • The problem with that is that not all tweets are created equal. A tweet that is a response, for instance, is not automatically treated as a new tweet, does not necessarily get published on third party applications, and thus doesn’t reach the breadth of your intended audience. (There may be a way to tweak settings to accommodate it somehow, but it’s already no longer that simple a prospect. And most importantly, won’t change the behavior of someone who is already quoting a tweet out of context to fit a narrative.

      • Well, I have to disagree. All tweets are created equally, that’s the beauty with Twitter, 140 characters and public. But, depending on app or twitter.com some tweets aren’t visible directly in your timeline. Fx, if someone you follow replies to someone you don’t follow then the tweet won’t be visible in your timeline.

        If you reply to your own tweet when both tweets will be visible, if someones timeline if someone follows you or if you open one of tweets directly.

        Nothing can stop someone/journalist/pr-person/politician to use one tweet out of context to fit a narrative.

  6. I came here to essentially say the same thing that Clinton Fein did in his comment. Twitter is a successful communications tool precisely *because* it strips context, otherwise it wouldn’t be the firehose of information and horseshit that we’ve come to love. Does this make it a less-than-ideal thing to quote by a journalist? Sometimes, but it also depends on what standard we’re holding journalists to – would you be as upset if a blogger with a handful of readers had done the same?

    Personally, I kinda like it when people quote from Twitter because it allows a point of entry into the conversation for the motivated reader. The fact that I can go and find out the context of your tweet (and directly reply!) is a pretty cool feature, though I would guess few are motivated in that manner. But hopefully as readers become more internet-savvy they can understand the context of contextless communications mediums in reporting.

  7. I don’t think quoting tweets is inherently “shitty journalism.” Whether someone talks into a live microphone at a conference, TV camera or a social platform with 37,000 people following in a forum instantly accessible to the global media — you’re quotable.

    I DO think quoting a single tweet written by someone out of context, without context, in a way that does not reflect subsequent corrections, refinements or other followup comments by the author that make a clear statement regarding what someone really meant to say and convey, is.

    Twitter is by its nature profoundly public, as you know. Facebook is less so, if not exactly private: we’re in a different context, where you’ve shared a public blog post to nearly 2000 friends in an update. Not quite private, but not ethically quotable without permission, either.

    If you like to “think aloud,” and talk something through, by all means, call up a friend or go to a coffee house or talk it out to a voice recognition app, or share selectively to a group here or newsgroup. There are still lots of places online that I think of as “our Internet,” where I can speak more freely. Twitter is not one of them, though I’ve been fairly blunt at times over the years there.

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