Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: February 2011 (page 1 of 5)

Would Anonymity Help Activists on Facebook? A Response to Luke Allnutt

Luke Allnutt has a thoughtful piece on RFE/RL asking the above question: Would anonymity help activists on Facebook? His response, “maybe not,” relies on the idea that anonymity would be extended only to those with special “activist status,” something I haven’t heard concretely argued as a potential model but which is nonetheless troubling. Allnutt writes:

If Facebook had a special “activist’s status,” where it officially allowed some accounts to be pseudonymous, where does it draw the line? I would assume that as long as they’re not advocating violence or hate speech, then any activist would be entitled to such protection– that would mean Middle East democracy fighters, but also anti-gay groups or guys from the English Defense League. Who gets to choose which activists are acceptable and which aren’t?


Connected to the first point is the logistics. How would one prove they are an activist to get a special status? It’s not like activists can fax off their membership cards even if they had them, especially with a move toward more leaderless, loose groupings.

First off, since I’m quoted in his piece, I’ll say this: I have never, and would never, argue for a special status for activists on Facebook. Which bring me to my next point: How we got to the anonymity argument in the first place.

A year ago, as I was beginning to write Policing Content in the Quasi-Public Sphere, I considered, briefly, arguing for anonymity on Facebook but then decided it was a waste of time. Like Allnutt concludes, “Facebook isn’t going to change its real-name policy.” Unfortunately, I’m inclined to agree, and thus have–until recently–made that a low priority in my arguments against the company.

Rather, there are a few other fundamental issues at stake regarding the platform, which I believe would go far in solving a large number of the issues activists face with the real name policy. You’ve heard most of this before, but hear me out:

  1. Facebook’s Terms of Service are still not available in major world languages. I haven’t done a recent count lately, but last I checked, the platform was available in 100+ languages, but the TOS were only available in 7.  A quick check shows that the TOS still aren’t in Arabic or Persian.  Again, I will ask: How can someone consent to a set of rules that they can’t read in their native language?
  2. Facebook offers a limited appeals process that sometimes requires sending in government-issued ID.  So, let’s assume for a moment that a person using their real name–like Najat Kessler did–has their account deactivated, erroneously, for using a pseudonym.  That person will be, in most cases, asked to send in a government-issued ID.  Am I the only one that sees major security risks in doing so?  I realize that Facebook is trying to protect against spammers in this instance, but if someone has a well-formed name, with photos of him or herself, I simply don’t understand the harm in taking them for their word.  Which brings me to my next point…
  3. Where’s the appeals process? In a perfect world, someone like Najat Kessler would be able to easily assert her identity when asked, and be taken on her word.  But in Kessler’s case, she wasn’t even taken on her ID, which she duly sent in to Facebook after being requested.  Her account was never returned to her, despite following the rules.
  4. The “real name policy” is not evenly enforced. Activists–who often have easy enemies–and semi-famous people are the targets of the policy.  Why?  Facebook’s TOS are largely peer-enforced, which means that if I don’t like you, all I have to do is report you–or bully a bunch of other people into reporting you–as using a fake name.  Your account is then sent into Facebook’s review; sometimes nothing happens, other times, your account is deactivated.  The problem here is that your average Santa Claus or Mickey Mouse (see below) is a relative unknown, with no enemies to report him or her, which means that he/she is allowed to remain in the system while folks like Michael Anti–using his widely-known English pen name on the system instead of his lesser-known legal Chinese name–are kicked out.
  5. Facebook's many Santas

    So, is allowing anonymity the solution? Maybe, maybe not. I can honestly say I’d like to see points 1-4 taken care of more than I care about Facebook allowing pseudonyms.

    That said, part of the reason I’ve advocated for allowing pseudonyms is that I think the benefit outweighs the harm. Others have argued that opening up Facebook to the anonymous masses makes it less safe; the truth is, the pseudonymous masses are already there. This doesn’t change reality, it only changes policy.

    And as Facebook increasingly becomes a part of all of our daily lives, it becomes more and more difficult to tell activists to just “take their content elsewhere.” While it’s true that there are a number of other platforms on which activists can operate anonymously, Facebook is simply where the network is.

Objections to AJE Aren’t Really About Lara Logan

As Jonathan Capehart noted in PostPartisan last Thursday, the Lara Logan assualt story has “a pernicious staying power.” Indeed, what happened to Logan during her time in Egypt is both horrifying and inexcusable. Logan was, according to reports, brutally beaten and sexually assaulted by a crowd while reporting from Cairo. She was rescued by a group of locals, including women, and is recovering.

The attack on Logan should not be diminished by the media. She is brave for speaking out about experiencing sexual assault, something that happens to women (but not only women) every single day in every single country in the world, including Egypt and including the United States. It happens all too frequently to reporters, who all too infrequently report their own experience.

That said, the media frenzy surrounding Logan’s assault–again, by no means Logan’s fault–has become a circus. On the one hand, as Jezebel and Salon have pointed out, you have the American media focusing on Logan’s “Hollywood good looks” as the impetus for the rape. Um, no. Rape doesn’t happen because you’re pretty.

Then, you’ve got the racists and Islamophobes using Logan’s attack as an excuse to blame the Mooslims. The abhorrent Debbie Schlussel’s comments are but one extreme example (“t bothers me not a lick when mainstream media reporters who keep telling us Muslims and Islam are peaceful get a taste of just how ‘peaceful’ Muslims and Islam really are. In fact, it kinda warms my heart”), but others like the LA Weekly chose an only slightly more subtle approach (“In a rush of frenzied excitement, some Egyptian protestors apparently consummated their newfound independence by sexually assaulting the blonde reporter”).

Capehart, on the other hand, has used Logan’s assault as an opportunity to vilify Al Jazeera. Now, let me start by saying this: Yes, Al Jazeera and all media could have reported better on Logan’s assault, using the opportunity to educate the world about what is an incredibly pervasive issue. I do think it’s okay to criticize Al Jazeera on this.

That said, I don’t honestly believe that improvement on Al Jazeera’s part is what Capehart was after, rather, his harsh criticism seems more an attempt to undermine Al Jazeera’s popularity–and their seriousness in covering sexual assault. In doing so, Capehart is implicitly continuing the right wing fight to exclude Al Jazeera from American airwaves.

Capehart’s second piece, on Friday, nailed that theory for me (and many of his commenters). In it, he writes:

Nevermind that what happened to Logan IS a story. Leave aside the fact that she is a correspondent for an American broadcaster. How about the fact that a woman could be swarmed by a mob of 200 people, attacked and sexually assaulted and was only saved by the actions of a group of women and 20 Egyptian soldiers? Was Logan the only one? Is that not newsworthy? I’m at a loss for what would drive a news network to ignore news.

But what could Al Jazeera really have done better? Seek out witnesses? They didn’t have the chance to speak directly with the victim who, as Capehart correctly notes, asked specifically for privacy during this time. They had no video footage. Instead, they chose not to follow the pack of US media ruminating on the Logan story like a pack of wild dogs and noted it, briefly, then moved on.

In fact, what Al Jazeera is so good at is picking up those stories missed by the rest of the world’s media, rather than glomming on as a follower. And that includes their coverage of sexual assault. Al Jazeera’s coverage of systematic rape from the Congo to the US military–has been excellent, at times better than coverage from equivalent outlets in the United States. And just as Capehart “proved” that Al Jazeera hadn’t covered Logan’s story well on their website, a quick Google search for “sexual assault” and “rape” within Al Jazeera’s English site shows stories like “Rape Threat Stalks Kenya’s Slums,” and “Rape Rampant in US Military”.

Al Jazeera aside, does Capehart think that the US media does a sufficient job of covering the plight of non-American journalists and the brutality they often face? Did the Washington Post, for which Capehart writes, cover the story of Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya, who in 2000 was raped, kidnapped, and beaten while doing her job? (Hint: the answer is no). The fact is, while foreign correspondents abroad often face brutality, the brutality faced by journalists in their own countries is often far worse…and rarely receives the same attention.

Capehart could have used his column to point out how common brutality toward female journalists is. He could have discussed the sexual harassment faced by Egyptian women daily. Instead, he chose to smear Al Jazeera, adding to the cacophony of American voices protesting Al Jazeera’s entree into the US media scene. We should be asking why.

Protecting Yourself on Facebook: Tips for Morocco

This morning, I got an alarming note from a friend: Moroccans are experiencing phishing and other account defacements on Facebook, similar to what happened last year (and in January) in Tunisia (en Francais). I asked my friend if Moroccans had HTTPS available, and he explained, “yes, but the problem is Internet illiteracy.” Thus, we decided to quickly publish a few tips for activists using Facebook in Morocco (the piece will be available in French shortly). If you have any suggestions to add, please leave a comment and I’ll incorporate them.

1. Choose a strong password.

The easiest way for someone to gain unwanted access to your account is by figuring out your password. A strong password is a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, plus numbers and symbols. The password should not contain things that are easy to guess, such as your name, a pet’s name, your city, or your school. It should be at least 8 characters long. There are precious few resources on creating a strong “mot de passe” but here is a good English source.

2. Use HTTPS.

Facebook recently rolled out HTTPS to all of its users, including in Morocco, but that selection is not default. To turn on HTTPS, go to “Account” in the upper-right corner of Facebook, then select “Account Settings.” Click “Account Security” (3rd from bottom) and check the boxes that say “Secure browsing (https)” and “When a new computer or device logs into this account.” The first will provide you with encryption, the second will send you an email when someone else has logged into your account.

HTTPS Everywhere is a great tool that works with Firefox and encrypts your communications with lots of major websites.

3. Be cautious of Facebook’s increased security choices.

Facebook allows you to increase your security in three ways: By adding a secondary email address,adding a mobile phone to confirm login, and by adding a security question. The first option is great. The second two come with problems: First, if you add a mobile phone to confirm your account login, you must also be cautious about your mobile’s whereabouts. If your mobile is stolen, it may be possible for someone to use that information to gain access to your account.

The second concern is the security question: Though security questions are a good thing and can help to prevent others from gaining access to your account, you must be careful to choose an answer that no one else knows. For example, if the question is “what is the last name of your first grade teacher?” you would be safer giving a fake answer that only you know. If you give the genuine answer, any of your first grade classmates could potentially gain access. And never give an answer that is public information.

Have tips to add? Leave a comment.

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