Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: October 2011 (page 1 of 4)

Free Alaa. Again.

Last week, Alaa Abd El Fattah was staying at my house, playing with all of the toys and things (and the enormous all-terrain stroller he’s taken to referring to as Khaled’s SUV) he and his wife, Manal had sent to our house and today he’s in prison.

When he arrived at my house last Monday, the news had just broke in Egypt–while he was on the plane–that he was going to be interrogated.  Some asshole had uploaded a video of him from October 9, the day of the Maspero massacre, claiming that Alaa had incited violence. Despite that and the requisite nervous phone calls, he managed to explore the city, sharing his knowledge with Occupy Oakland demonstrators and hanging out with us in the Mission, on top of–of course–his participation in the Silicon Valley Human Rights Summit.

From the details I’ve managed to piece together so far, he went in this morning for the interrogation, refused to answer the military’s questions, refused to grant them legitimacy, and was thus detained for 15 days.  At this point, I’d like to provide a reminder that the Egyptian military, which has tried more than 12,000 civilians since January, has received approximately $1.9 billion of US taxpayer money since 1979.  This is, obviously, unacceptable.

I’ve wanted to be hopeful for Egypt.   Alaa has been hopeful for Egypt, despite his intimate knowledge of the system.  Right now, I feel helpless.

What I want–in solidarity with my Egyptian friends–is an end to emergency law and an end to military trials in Egypt.  This is not justice, this is not democracy.  This is not different from the Mubarak dictatorship.  This is not okay.


Carlos Latuff’s Talk at 1º Encontro Mundial de Blogueiros (Brazil)

Latuff's depiction of the martyr Khaled Said

Brazilian activist cartoonist Carlos Latuff, whose work has been regularly featured on Global Voices, particularly throughout the ‘Arab Spring,’ starts the Brazilian panel thanking his country for “bringing Latin America here,” stating that Brazil tends to turn its back on the rest of Latin America.

“In the Arab Spring,” says Latuff, “I’ve used Twitter heavily to communicate with people in Egypt. It was great getting to know [fellow conference attendee Ahmed Bahgat]. Most people in Brazil don’t even know what SCAF [Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces] is.” Latuff then thanks Bahgat for attending, in English.

One of Latuff's inspirational cartoons

“Twitter, just like Facebook, is an instrument or a tool, just like the Internet is just a tool, just like a Molotov cocktail or a mobile phone is a tool – and people use the Internet to accomplish their goals. In 1996, I was sending drawings by fax to Mexico, in 1999 I was in Palestine, which was my defining experience; from then until today, I’ve worked mostly on Palestine. And with the advent of Twitter, something incredible happened: When the protests in Tunisia exploded and when Ben Ali was taken out of office, the people there asked for drawings, but Ben Ali had already fallen.”

One cartoon depicts Mubarak being shot down by lightning

“People in Palestine contacted me before the protests in Egypt and requested I draw cartoons for them. I was afraid that the Egyptian authorities were going to kill them all. But on the 25th, protests began, and the cartoons I had drawn were often printed and shared during protests. It gave me the confidence that I was producing artwork that has relevance for people. This is what leaves me the happiest as an artist.”

“People say I’m an activist and not a cartoonist, as if those things couldn’t come together,” says Latuff. “I don’t care about being promoted as an artist – even if people removed my name, I’d still be happy. I’m not interested in money; anyone can reproduce my cartoons.”

“I have 50,000 Twitter followers, and many of them are from Egypt. No one knows me in Brazil; it’s amazing how many Egyptian press interviews I’ve done,” says the cartoonist. “To me, this is amazing.”

Note: Latuff’s talk simultaneously translated from Portuguese, and thus quotes are imperfect.

Does ‘Trending’ a Topic Matter?

This week, my friend Gilad Lotan of SocialFlow wrote an excellent blog post explaining how trending topics really work, in an attempt it seems, to put rumors of censorship to rest. Twitter has been dealing with these rumors for quite some time, and last December publicly explained that Trending Topics are about velocity, not volume, but their blog post (either because no one read it or no one cared) has done little to silence the calls.

When I was at ONI, we analyzed a number of trending topics that were controversial in some way or another and that people were claiming had been censored, including #Flotilla and#Wikileaks. In both cases, we found that, while the problem was likely algorithmic, it did seem odd that Twitter would choose not to interfere and set a genuinely newsworthy event to trend. Nonetheless, none of us felt it to be ‘censorship.’

Despite my work (or perhaps because of it), I find those calls to be somewhat obnoxious. First off, Twitter is a private company that has been transparent about their algorithms, like it or not. And they’re not denying you your right to speech, they’re simply not trending your speech. That’s like complaining about being left off Twitter’s recommended user list (*cough Scoble cough*).

I think there’s a question here though: How much do Trending Topics actually matter? First off, they have to represent one of two things: Either an intentionally-created hashtag (usually created with the purpose of trending) or a genuinely popular person or thing at that moment (e.g., a celebrity who has just died). In the case of the former, I think it’s a legitimate method of trying to get attention for a cause, but I don’t know that getting a hashtag on the sidebar matters all that much in the long run (I’ll elaborate in a moment). In terms of the latter, I think it’s certainly important – I wouldn’t have known when Farrah Fawcett (of Charlie’s Angels fame) died if it weren’t for spotting her name on the sidebar. Seriously.

But back to hashtags – As far as I can recall, #syria never really trended, but that hasn’t stopped people from using it, searching it, saving it as a search term, and following it. On the other hand, the ability of a well-worded tweet to go viral is proven: I once tweeted a pithy statement, only to find it retweeted 22,000 times.

I think that raises a bigger point: Trending Topics do not imply quality of content. There are certain hashtags full of valuable content all the time (think of some of the smaller, humor-focused ones, or even #ows or #occupywallstreet when they first started). Then there are other hashtags repeated ad nauseum for the sole purpose of getting the hashtag to trend – The #GiladShalit campaign and the #Gaza solidarity campaign have both done this at times, for example, filling up single tweets with only the hashtag. If I spot an interesting hashtag and click on it, only to find a bunch of garbage, chances are I’m not going to check back. On the other hand, if I spot a non-trending hashtag filled with quality tweets, I might save it as a search.

My point is that people complain about censorship, and there are certainly some valid criticisms of Twitter’s algorithm (I don’t like, for instance, that it’s different for different cities), but without much analysis of whether Trending a topic is actually that useful.

I would also add that I’ve been at several conferences where the hashtag of the conference trended locally – which really only implies (given that there were fewer than 500 people in attendance) that the cities in which those conferences took place had a low threshold for trending topics.

Lastly, a comment: Twitter does in fact censor profanity from the Trending list. Whether they did this with Jeff Jarvis’s #fuckyouwashington remains unknown, but I do find it rather absurd that a company that prides itself on free expression is for some reason abiding by unrequired FCC guidelines.

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