This week, we will further examine the two “old-new” issues that last week highlighted: Freedom of Expression and Privacy. They are the media and communication-related issues already mentioned in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 12 and 19). [No specific readings this week. Pick and choose from studies linked to the discussions below.]

0. Recap

As many of you may have noticed, last week’s assignment was a tad tricky. Since it did not seem to elicit too much debate, let me elaborate. What can be considered Media Reform? I already replied to many about this: What if media reform activities are “reform by appearance”? Who reforms the reformers?

You were disappointed by PolitEcho, for several reasons. I have added the EscapeYourBubble extension to expand the somewhat blue bubble that is my feed on Facebook. They call them selves a movement, with a mission to reduces political divisions. Sounds democratic.  The extension gave me, e.g., this story:

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Ironically, I often read Project Syndicate, a collection of short commentary  and op-eds by the world’s leading political and economic experts on global issues. The site is funded by the current arch-enemy of conservatives in the West, the human rights activist and philanthropist George Soros.

My point: Besides simply dismissing the tools, what can we learn from last week? At the minimum, that media reform takes time and knowledge. And research. There’s a heated debated about the entire concept of Filter Bubbles. Do they even exist? If so, where, or perhaps only occasionally? Public discussions of bubbles (punaviherkupla, etc.) may just enforce the perception, while the reality is different. Here’s a long reading list for those interested in academic and other texts questioning the theory of the Filter Bubble. (Some, in contrast, talk about the emergence of alternative content ecosystems; those that create completely false and unrealistic stories around an event, such as that the Westminster terrorist attack was staged to stop Brexit. These ecosystems seem to be very resilient and growing in power.)

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Apropos, Soros. He is also one of the founders of the Central European University (CEU), a top ranked global academic institution in political science and sociology. It resides in Hungary and its mission has been, for the past quarter of a century, to be a global institution that also supports academic growth in the region. On Wednesday, Hungary passed an expedited law that will make  the existence of CEU virtually impossible.

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I’m sharing this with you as we will be talking about the role of academic work, and freedom, in social justice and social reform, in democracy. As you can see, it’s no small matter and has directly to do with freedom of expression.  Many European and other Western leaders, as well as  professors (also several whom you know…) have now joined the movement to support CEU, to have the new legislation overturned.

I am also sharing it with you because I wanted to offer 1-2 of your stories for publication by the Media Power Monitor. But, as luck would have it, its editor-in-chief is the Director of the Center for Media, Data and Society at CEU. You can imagine he has been busy with other things.

 

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And finally, apropos a “Know the Media” media reform tool that is directly connected to media and communication studies: Let theory help you understand what on earth is going on with the media, by Al-Jazeera:

Now more than ever, we cannot take news media at face value – we need tools to read media critically, strategies to discern how information works. This is what inspired The Listening Post’s project: Media Theorised.

We’ve taken key works of five thinkers from around the world – theorists located in the space between the cosmopolitan centre and the ‘global south’. Roland Barthes, French philosopher; Noam Chomsky, American linguist and political activist; Stuart Hall, Jamaican-British cultural historian; Marshall McLuhan, Canadian academic; Edward Said, Palestinian-American literary historian.

As Roland Barthes would have put it: these are writers who have taught us how to ‘read against the grain’.

Working with journalists, artists and political activists from Africa, Latin America, Asia, the United States and Europe, we have created five videos supplemented by essays to introduce you to these media theorists and to help you apply some of their critical tools in your everyday encounters with the media.

Media Reform can indeed take many forms, and engage many types of actors. Let’s maps some this week.

 

1. Privacy – [Mass] Surveillance (Art. 12)

The rise of the so called Surveillance Society has been perhaps the biggest blow to digital utopians hoping for a more democratic, inclusive, and open world due to the Internet and mobile communications. As the technologist-anti-technologist Evgeny Morozov has famously noted, the very same platforms and apps that foster democratic action also can be used for control. But it’s not only governments that take part in surveillance. As we know so well, is made possible by intermediaries — different platforms and other service providers.

While surveillance for political and commercial purposes is rampant those believing in internet freedom are resisting. For them, the corporatization and balkanization of the internet, and its use for power rather than collaboration and fun, are the very caricature of what our networked communications should be. Many different kinds of actors work in this space. As an example:

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Privacy International: Mission

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  • Another global, but much less organized, group passionate about privacy (and freedom of expression online) is the hacker group the Anonymous. For instance, some of you may remember that their “Finnish Chapter” hacked some data bases and brought down the mains website of the Finnish police a few years back — just to show how badly public sector protects citizen’s data. It’s such a complex phenomenon (in good and bad) that, for those interested, I recommend watching this fascinating documentary about the emergence of the Anonymous: We Are Legion. (Here’s an academic analysis of them.)

 

  • But there is one media reformer whose actions have caused an impact beyond the organized PI, or  the dramatic tactics of the Anon: The whistleblower / freedom fighter / traitor / hero Edward Snowden who in 2013 revealed the existence and scope of global mass surveillance, spearheaded by the U.S.. The idea of an individual acting in such scale and magnitude is rare. No wonder Snowden has been the subject of documentaries and even a Hollywood movie…

 

 

 

  • No wonder this event has also ignited scholarly passion and evoked many academic analyses. If this topic is of your interest I recommend these introductions of two brand new journal special issues on mass surveillance:

As well as:

 2. FoE (Art. 19)

Privacy issues and freedom of expression dilemmas are interlinked. I personally have grown careful about my social media use. I’m aware that, say, mixing strong opinions, online activism, and professorship isn’t always the best match. The US actions on traveling non-citizens, and the possibility I would have give access to my social media accounts, is also a terrifying thought. This first empirical look at the relationship between Internet and telecom-based mass surveillance and self-censorship, was conducted last year at the University of Oxford. This is what the researcher told the Washington Post:

It concerns me that surveillance seems to be enabling a culture of self-censorship because it further disenfranchises minority groups. And it is difficult to protect and extend the rights of these vulnerable populations when their voices aren’t part of the discussion. Democracy thrives on a diversity of ideas, and self-censorship starves it…

But perhaps most importantly,  I personally feel very uncomfortable with the often aggressive and provocative way of debates happen, online —  I don’t want to be faced with fierce opponents, hate speech, and trolls. If you are, for instance, engaged in the recent debates on migration and refugee policies in Finland you must have witnessed the heated exchange of words.

 

Looking at the issue of with the lens of media reform, then, we are, ironically, in a nightmarish situation. On one hand, we have more democratic opportunities to communicate than even before. At the same time we are witnessing the avalanche of hate speech, misinformation, trolling.

Last week, the Pew Research Center on the Internet published a report  — a major act of “Know the Media”, once could say — about how experts in the field see The Future of Free Speech, Trolls, Anonymity and Fake News Online. They conducted a large-scale canvassing of technologists, scholars, corporate practitioners and government leaders — whopping 1,537 responded between July 1 and Aug. 12, 2016 (prior to the late-2016 revelations about potential manipulation of public opinion via hacking of social media):

Many experts fear uncivil and manipulative behaviors on the internet will persist – and may get worse. This will lead to a splintering of social media into AI-patrolled and regulated ‘safe spaces’ separated from free-for-all zones. Some worry this will hurt the open exchange of ideas and compromise privacy

So: Old media reform issues take new forms; issues intermingle. How can media reform movements even begin to address this complexity? Here are some examples:

  • Article 19 is Privacy International for freedom of expression. It writes analyses and policy papers, often from a legal perspective (those interested in public service media, Article 19 has interesting reports, including one about public service media a a human right, for the Council of Europe).

With offices in Bangladesh, Brazil, Kenya, Mexico, Tunisia, Senegal and the UK, and in collaboration with 90 partners worldwide, we:

  • Work on behalf of freedom of expression wherever it is threatened. This work includes monitoring, research, publishing, advocacy, campaigning, setting standards and litigation
  • Advise on the development of legislation to protect freedom of expression and freedom of information in countries emerging from conflict, war and genocide.
  • Campaign to safeguard pluralism, independence and diversity of views in the media
  • Champion freedom of expression, including freedom of information, as a fundamental human right that is central to the protection of other rights
  • Advocate for freedom of information legislation to ensure transparency and to strengthen citizens’ participation.
  • Reporters without Borders and Freedom House (international ranking organizations that many of you may know) are Ranking Digital Rights for journalistic freedom (or vice versa). Finland has famously lead the RwB Freedom of the Press rankings  for years.

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But as we learned with RDR, rankings tell us only one slice of the story. Here is a great guide book to media freedom indices — what they can do and what not — if those are of your interest.

  • What we do know from rankings is a clear trend of diminishing journalistic freedoms around the world. Some of that has been accredited to the increased financial pressures and and lack of support to quality journalism. Other factor is the rise of illiberal governments, wanting to restrict freedoms. Committee to Protect Journalists is an organization directly involved in the safety of journalists — advocating, mapping dangers (and even deaths), and providing concrete information about safety.
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Screenshot of the interactive map of CPJ about journalists killed on duty.
  • As we know, there are numerous alternative not-for-profit news sites advancing alternatives to mainstream journalism — and there are whistleblower operations, the most famous of which being Wikileaks, that claim to work for the same cause.

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  • One could argue, also, that bloggers / microbloggers are a part of individual media reform movement — one that is not organized but that creates a more diverse, free ecosystem. As discussed, it seems that ecosystem is getting out of hand. The most recent wave of media reform is, yes, quality journalism. A very current case (officially to be launched tomorrow) is that by a foundation, philanthropy as media reformer. The tech billionaire Pierre Omidyar has established Omidyar Network for giving away his money, and (with a history of supporting journalism) has just dedicated a whooping $100 million to journalism projects in North and Latin America — more funds open to any projects around the world:

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The question is: Does $ direct the projects? In what way? Again, how do we assess to quality and impact of media reform actions?

 

3. Your Assignment

The above are merely examples of some MR organizations. Let’s map some more. Try to find at least 5 organizations or projects that work with freedom of expression and/or privacy in some way. Let’s crowdsource a map of such organizations for our future analyses!

  • The reformers may be established non-profits, coalitions, associations, research efforts, individuals…
  • Try to aim for some geographic diversity: where are some smaller projects in the Global South that we do not know about?
  • Add the name of your organization in the map, as well as your own name (first name is enough).
  • Add a link to the website (if possible).
  • Mark your Privacy-focused organizations with a yellow tag, FoEs with blue, Mixes of both causes with red.

Here is the link to our crowdsourcing Google Map. Start mapping! Due, as always, within a week.

 

PS: Your final project

I urged many of you start to think about it already — so that you can gather material for it during the next weeks. The syllabus says:

Final paper, drawing from the RDR experience: a theoretical or empirical essay. 40% of the grade.

The twist: As this course is about reform, I suggest (but don’t require) that you take an advocacy angle to the story. What do you want to change? 

You are to write an academic or applied research paper that informs change, whether it is that of theory, or a practical media reform question.

  • Use the RDR themes — privacy, FoE — as your inspirations. You can also directly write about RDR (analyse impact, methodology, provide critique…).
  • Feel free to express your stance, your opinions, your alliances.
  • Feel free to offer normative and/or practical advice/suggestions, based on your work.
  • 10-15 pages, with references.
  • Due 15.5.

More about this in the coming weeks!

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