Saturday, June 7, 2014

Speed as Strategy

Social media scholar Clay Shirky likes to tell the story of Russia's Voina street-art activists and the June night in 2010, when some of its members painted a drawbridge leading to the Bolshoy Dom, the former headquarters of the KGB and Soviet secret police in St. Petersburg, where Russian President Vladimir Putin would be arriving the next morning. To passersby, what they had painted wasn't immediately clear —until the drawbridge was raised slowly the next morning, revealing a giant phallus rising skyward in full glory at precisely the time Putin pulled up in his motorcade.

Fast forward almost six years, to this past Thursday, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation released an article detailing 65 things the public did not know about NSA surveillance at this same time last year. EFF had been working on the analysis for weeks, based on a year of reporting on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations of mass NSA surveillance of U.S. citizens. The EFF's article was released to mark the first anniversary of the Snowden leaks—as well as EFF's 25th anniversary.

Both Voina's overnight street provocations and EFF's months of reporting are examples of cause activism—but occurring at two vastly different speeds. "Voina's drawbridge stunt occurred in the Internet's native time signature of right now," Shirky said, in remarks at this week's meeting of the annual Personal Democracy Forum in New York. "EFF's occurred in the institutional time signature of a quarter of a century."

Causes need activism at both speeds to thrive and survive, Shirky says. "As online cause communities grow and mature, it's tempting to think we should move the time signatures we operate at from the short-term to the long term, away from quick actions to longer ones. But I think that's wrong. I think what we should do is expand the window of the time signatures in which we can operate because things work better when (the two speeds) can be made to work in tandem."

Just don't underestimate the strategic power of short-term actions, Shirky cautioned. Slacktivism works, he said.

"We've been hearing for some time now that slacktivism is ridiculous, stupid and, 'How can you think that would work, right?'" Shirky said. "But if (slacktivism) never worked, Brendan Eich would still have a job," Shirky added, referring to the former CEO of Mozilla who was pressured into resigning earlier this year following an online protest of his support earlier this year for taking away the right of same sex couples to marry in California. The online campaign to oust Eich, Shirky said, "was a pure slacktivist movement. It was an entirely virtual uprising and it was about public humiliation, and yet it worked."

Slacktivism also works, Shirky said—even when short-term defeat is absolutely assured. "Putin is still very much in control of Russia," Shirky said. "But Voina's action and a thousand other public manifestations of one sort or another robbed incumbents there of their ability to insist that the seeming consensus of the Russian public is real. That (short-term) activity, even if it doesn't lead to revolution, is incrementally achieved."

The takeaway here? If you're a cause organization, don't ask which speed is best, but rather consider how the organization can operate better at both speeds.  "If you're an institution, ask yourself what would happen if something on your issue forced you to react overnight, what could you do? Could you only issue a press release or could you also paint a bridge if you had to?" Shirky asked PDFers. "Or, if you're part of a ragtag group fighting for net neutrality and you know you're up against a September 10th deadline, ask yourself what you might do differently if you knew you'd be having that same fight over and over and over again over the next five years."

"And if you're going to pull a stunt, ask yourselves what residue of human connection and trust will it leave," Shirky added. "When people turned out in Tahrir Square, the social media that turned out to matter the most was that which fed the physical occupation of the Square. It wasn't Facebook or Twitter. Those were good for broadcasting things internationally and nationally. The social media that mattered most was SMS. The biggest social media predictor of physical presence in Tahrir Square was whether your name was in the address book of the phone of someone already in the Square."

"Stunts don't leave that residue of trust. They don't introduce people to each other.  If you're building an institution, ask yourself of all long-term thinking: 'What if we had to surprise the world tomorrow? What would we do?' Because you might have to, "Shirky said.

"I think we cannot forget the lessons of complex movements like the Arab Spring and like Occupy Wall Street, which is that the various time signatures work better together," Shirky said. "Shorter-term is good for surprises but it is lousy for continuity and capacity-building. Long-term is great for continuity but lousy for surprises.  ...We need to start thinking of time itself as a strategic weapon."

-- Marcia Stepanek

[Photography: Bowie15]

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Friday, June 6, 2014

Slacktivism Works

Go ahead. Call online activism slacktivism. Just stop underestimating the impact of small actions such as Facebook likes, status updates or re-tweets for social change. New social research shows this micro-messaging can have a powerful emotional and psychological impact on the recipients of these messages—and, over time, can be key to the success and staying power of social movements.

"We know that these small actions online—anything that takes a few minutes to complete, like a status update or a comment to share, or a re-tweet—are things that many people do just to get attention," says social scholar An Xiao Mina. "But what we're just beginning to understand is how important these small actions are to individuals on the receiving end of these messages." Micro-actions and affirmations can tell people, "We see you, we love you, we care that you are there," An told the annual gathering of the Personal Democracy Forum (#PDF14) meeting today in New York. "Over time, these micro-affirmations can have a cumulative effect. They can create visibility. They can provide emotional uplift for people facing trauma. Creating a cycle of these micro-affirmations," she said, can create the "emotional fuel" that social movements need to launch and to survive.

Consider Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who "was just getting his feet wet with Twitter" in 2010, An said. Ai, who expresses himself and organizes people through art and social media, would start tweeting each day by saying 'Good morning' to his followers. "This would happen dozens of times," An said, "perhaps even hundreds of times, every day, when people would say "Good morning" back to him. And then he would re-tweet all of the 'Good mornings' he got from his followers. In the evenings, he would also say 'Good night' and with that, he might also give a weather update. And again, he'd re-tweet the replies, and his followers would re-tweet his replies each other, across the community. It was a way for Ai to make sure that the conversation was not just between him and his 60,000 followers, but that his 60,000 followers saw each other."

In this way, An said, Ai made the Chinese Twitter community visible—to itself and to others. Before, it had been in hiding. "This visibility," An said, "jumped geographic boundaries. People could now participate at any time of day throughout China and throughout the Chinese diaspora. He showed people they were not alone in their interest in Ai Weiwei and his work."

And that's not all. About a year later, An said, when Ai was disappeared by the Chinese government, many of these same people from this same community spoke out for him and helped to keep him visible.  [See Free Ai Weiwei, an information hub that continues to serve as a source for news about the artist and his work.]

In Uganda, micro-actions via social media also have proven to be powerful. An cited that country's Kuchu movement, a fledgling gay-rights movement which has found organizing strength and sustainability in Twitter hashtag communities, where Kuchu members share the struggles of Uganda's LGBT community—and recruit new followers. Members, An said, have come to rely on Twitter and texting to stave off isolation and to provide the emotional uplift they need to endure media and government harassment. "Twitter is not tangential to the work of human rights in Uganda," An said. "It is essential to it, especially in the face of major human rights violations."

"...Hashtag memes make people feel better about who they are and give them strength and a voice as they continue their work," An said.

Emily Parker, author of the new book, Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground, says the emotional strength and connection that activists can find online continues to make social media "a serious threat" to authoritarian regimes—despite some governments' efforts to quash the use of social media or use it as a tool for surveillance and oppression.

Parker, also a speaker at #PDF14, said the Internet provides ordinary people with an alternative to isolation, fear, or apathy—the very things authoritarian regimes depend upon to stay in power. "Now, in large part because of the Internet, ordinary people are overcoming their paralysis, and discovering they're not alone," Parker said. "For a dissident in China, or Cuba, or Russia, this can be a life-changing experience."

And perhaps most importantly, Parker says, social media can make activism convenient for apathetic people who might otherwise do nothing.

Consider Russia, she said. As recently as a few years ago, there was no serious Internet censorship in Russia. "The Kremlin didn't need to censor the Web because the Web wasn't a serious threat to its power," Parker said "Russia was plagued by its apathy. Most Russians believed they had no power at all to change or to influence their political process." People were afraid of being arrested in protests and figured the protests wouldn't change anything, so they stayed home.

Then along came a Russian commercial lawyer who began blogging against corporate and government corruption and started using his blog to launch campaigns against specific corporations he suspected of corruption. "He understood early on that he was trying to get a weary, cynical population to rally for change," Parker said. "He told me in 2010, 'You have to propose to people the comfortable way to struggle.' In other words, this was not the time to haul Russians into the streets. It would be far more practical, he said, to just say please, just fill out this online form. And so that's what he did. Encouraging lazy, non-committal Internet activism—which many of us derisively refer to as 'slacktivism'—was all part of his master plan. He wanted to show Russians that they can fight corruption from the convenience of their living rooms, and that they could win."

Parker said this lone blogger's repeated calls to readers to write to authorities and demand they investigate alleged corruption eventually led to the annulment of suspicious government contracts worth millions of dollars. "He waged years of these online campaigns," Parker said, "and sometimes he got results. Maybe an official would resign, maybe just a pothole would be fixed. But most importantly, he showed ordinary Russians that they can make a difference and in the process, took a powerful swipe at the apathy that had become the Kremlin's best protection."

Says Parker: "Of course, a Facebook 'like' is not the same thing as on-the-ground participation. But seeing tens of thousands of people expressing virtual protest can have a powerful psychological and emotional effect."

"I'm not going to downplay governments' oppression of the Web," she added, "but what's important to see is that the Internet is helping to create a new kind of citizen. They're networked, unafraid and ready for action. Social media is helping them to overcome the isolation, fear and apathy that are the lifeblood of authoritarian regimes."

PDF14 runs through today. Watch this space for further highlights.

-- Marcia Stepanek

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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Online Harassment Rises

Online harassment is on the rise, affecting 25 percent of all Americans, and especially women under the age of 35, according to a new national poll discussed today by a panel of women at the annual Personal Democracy Forum convening in New York. Across social media platforms, the harassment occurs most frequently on Facebook, and according to Allyson Kapin, who co-organized the poll, victims of online harassment aren't doing enough to fight back.

During a PDF panel this afternoon called Sex, Lies, and the Internet, Kapin said respondents indicated the harassment may be especially occurring against women, with 57 percent of women surveyed saying they've been a victim of online harassment versus 43 percent men. The harassment also spans the issues spectrum, Kapin said, occurring as hate speech and threats of physical violence against women, men, LGBT individuals, people of color, people of different faiths and political persuasions. According to the poll, many American adults who have been bullied, harassed or threatened online knew the person harassing them. Segmented for race, the largest percentage of adult victims are Asians (35 percent) and hispanics (32 percent), with blacks at 28 percent and whites at 23 percent.

"People working in the advocacy space are also being harassed, for example, and often just for expressing strong opinions," Kapin told PDFers, "or for talking about climate change and its consequences, or other issues. It can get scary, from demeaning speech to threats of rape or murder."

One panelist, journalist Amanda Hess, (left), talked about some of the harassment she has experienced in the past year, which included a ghost Twitter account that was set up last summer while she was vacationing in Palm Springs, just to harass her. Hess, who writes about gender issues for Slate, said the harassment began predictably enough. "At first, it was messaging that was, 'you suck at your job, you're an ugly fat pig and a stupid woman,'" she said, but then it escalated from name-calling to threats of physical violence. "It became 'I know where you live, I live in your state and I will rape you and cut off your head.' I saw it as a form of social violence that was meant to scare me from writing about what I write."

Kapin said she thinks the lack of face-to-face communication online makes it easier for some people to lash out and threaten others. "It's easier for some people to hide behind their screens," said Kapin, the founding partner of Rad Campaign and founder of Women Who Tech.

Hess said she reported her harassment to ISPs, law enforcement authorities and site administrators, and even to the FBI, but most people who are victims of online harassment—50 percent—simply ignore it, Kapin said. Only 20 percent of those polled said they respond to harassers online, 25 percent reported their harassment to site operators, and 12 percent told law enforcement authorities.

Still, for those who did report the harassment, there is some relief. According to the survey, 61 percent said their social network shut down the account of the offender, 44 percent said law enforcement at least tried to track down the offender, and 35 percent said the Internet service provider shut down the offender's email account.

"But this isn't enough," said Emily May, the founder of HollaBack!, a site created to protest street harassment. May, also a victim of online harassment, told PDFers: "I think it's not enough to report harassers and get accounts shut down. A rape threat is not a form of free speech. We don't need Band-Aids, we need a social movement where we, as a society, say this is not acceptable."

For more on the survey, click here.

PDF continues through Friday. Watch this space for updates.

-- Marcia Stepanek

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Suddenly, privacy is becoming fashionable again—literally.

Adam Harvey, a Brooklyn photographer and computer software and hardware specialist—whose most recent work explores the impact of surveillance technologies on society—unveiled samples of his new Stealthwear clothing line at today's annual Personal Democracy Forum in New York. The centerpiece of the collection is an anti-drone Burka that uses metallized fabric to reduce one's thermal signature from aerial heat-seeking probes.

"People are more aware today of how they can be tracked and so are interested in learning how they can protect their privacy," said Harvey, who last year opened the Privacy Gift Shop, a pop up store and collaboration with New York's New Museum. Harvey also is working to build a community of artists, designers and hackers and connect them into an online marketplace for counter-surveillance art and privacy products. "People who understand the strategies and technologies being used to track them have a better chance of doing something about it," he says.

Harvey's ultimate goal? "To inspire people to engage with privacy," he told PDF attendees today. One of Harvey's most recent products is the Off Pocket, a phone pouch that uses special metal fabric to shield mobile phones from cellular, wireless and GPS signals.

But that's not all. Since 2010, Harvey has been exploring how fashion can be used as camouflage against facial recognition technology, which the NSA is using as part of its post 9/11 surveillance net. According to 2011 documents obtained from whistleblower Edward Snowden, the NSA intercepts "millions of facial images per day." Harvey says that "once computer vision programs detect a face, they can extract data about your emotions, age, and identity."

Harvey has formed a research project called CV Dazzle, which grew out of his 2010 master's thesis at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. Harvey says he derived the name, Dazzle, from a type of naval camouflage used by the United States Navy in World War I. It  used cubist-inspired designs to break apart the visual continuity of a battleship in order to conceal its orientation and size. Harvey says his Stealthwear is based on the same principle, with the goal of interrupting the visual continuity of one's appearance for the sake of "jumbling" what spyware is intended to see.

"Fashion is about staying one season ahead of the latest trends, and counter-surveillance is about staying one season ahead of the latest surveillance algorithms," Harvey told PDF attendees. "Both rely on models of deception, but surveillance thrives on conformity and fashion thrives on the unique, which can make surveillance difficult."

For more information about Harvey, check out his "Style Tips for Reclaiming Privacy, on his site, here.

-- Marcia Stepanek

[Photography, top: Courtesy CVDazzle, part of Adam Harvey's anti-surveillance facial recognition line, developed to reduce what is scannable by surveillance machines. Photo, bottom: Twitter photo by @climatebrad of Harvey with some visuals of his anti-surveillance wearables.] 

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Snowden Urges Privacy Fight

The NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden today—on the one-year anniversary of the first published surveillance leak from his revelations—urged those attending the annual Personal Democracy Forum in Manhattan to "take back their privacy with technology."

Appearing via Google Hangouts from Russia in a conversation moderated from the PDF stage by Electronic Frontier Foundation cofounder John Perry Barlow, Snowden said "we're seeing a growing appetite for surveillance control among government institutions and it is something we're not just seeing locally, but around the world." A year ago, Snowden said, "none of us really had the full picture" about how far the government had gone to track citizen cellphone calls as well as facial images across the social sphere. Today? "Public interest in privacy has grown," Snowden says. People are worried about their privacy again. "Our government has created programs that are watching not just everybody in America, but also everybody in the world."

The good news? Snowden says Netizens don't have to rely on governments to protect their privacy rights anymore. "We're past the point where citizens are entirely dependent on governments to defend our rights," he said. "We don't have to ask. We can take back our privacy with technology."

Snowden endorsed the Reset the Net campaign, officially launched from the PDF stage earlier today, which calls on tech companies and citizens to work harder to strengthen privacy rights online and "shut off the lights to government surveillance" by popularizing anti-snooping technology. The campaign, backed by a nonprofit called Fight for the Future—the group behind last year's successful Stop SOPA initiative—urges major websites like Google, Tumblr, Wordpress, Twitter, Dropbox, Tumblr and others to promote consumer encryption tools that would make it harder and more expensive for the NSA to snoop indiscriminately on American citizens. The campaign also is working to drive more Web traffic to a coalition of personal encryption companies like Text Secure, ChatSecure, RedPhone and others. "Today, we can begin the work of effectively shutting down the collection of our online communications, even if the U.S. Congress fails to do the same," Snowden said. "The first effective step that everyone can take to end mass surveillance is to adopt encryption."

One of the nation's top encryption experts, Bruce Schneier, addressing PDFers just before Snowden, said fighting back also will require legal firepower and a more strident, pro-privacy mindset among public advocates of greater privacy. "Fighting back is going to be, primarily, a legal battle and we (who oppose government spying) are not going to win this unless we also win the social battle"—meaning the fight for more citizens' hearts and minds, Schneier said.

"The drivers of all of this surveillance and control," said Schneier, "are fear and convenience—if you're the U.S., it's the fear of terrorism, and if you're China, it's fear of citizens rebelling—and convenience, of all of these products and services we consumers have at our fingertips. As long as people on the street are scared [about security threats] and want free stuff," Snowden added, "we are not going to do better here. We've got to fix these things."

Both Schneier and Snowden called on netizens to get more political, and Barlow suggested people also need to exhibit more courage. [Barlow used the PDF stage to announce the launch of the Courage Foundation, a fund amassed to support Snowden's legal defense.] But Snowden insisted he didn't do anything that anyone in the audience wouldn't have done themselves, were they in his position, knowing what he knew at the time. "I'm no hero," he said. "...We all have the ability as citizens to act."

"When I look over the last year," Snowden added, "I had to give up a lot to do what I did, and my biggest fear was that nobody would care or talk about this. But people in this room today show me how wrong I was. The fact that we are talking about this here, today, means we will get a better, more accountable government. All I did was return information to public hands that should have never been turned over in the first place."

PDF14 continues through Friday afternoon. Watch this space for updates.

— Marcia Stepanek

[Twitter photo, top, by CauseGlobal]

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Sunday, June 1, 2014

Feminism 2.0

Hashtag activism — Twitter campaigns to affect fast change or raise public awareness in a heartbeat — is gaining frequency, and is becoming an especially potent tool for networked feminists to shed new light on everyday misogyny.

Consider the trending hashtag #YesAllWomen, created just after Memorial Day Weekend, when details began emerging that Isla Vista mass-shooter Elliot Rodger  was driven by sexual hatred and misogyny to take the lives of six people in Santa Barbara. First to Twitter was the hashtag conversation, #NotAllMen, started by some to convey that not all men feel similar anger and resentment towards women. Then, #YesAllWomen emerged as a counter-narrative, asserting that while not all men are predators, most women are culturally conditioned to fear male violence. When that conversation began to trend internationally, amassing more than 2.5 million participants at its peak, some feminist activists were inspired to create the Tumblr, "When Women Refuse." Its intent, says co-creator Deanna Zandt, is to collect news stories from around the world about violence committed against women who refuse male advances. "I'm hoping to use this site as a tapestry that we can weave together to demonstrate what's happening in our culture, (to show) that these are not isolated incidents," Zandt says.

In an NPR interview that aired today, Zandt—a media technologist and author of "Share This! How You Will Change the World With Social Networking"—talked with On The Media Host Brooke Gladstone about the power of Twitter and other forms of social media to amplify issues.  "Hashtags are digital consciousness-raising," Zandt said. "...These conversations are a mirror of what's actually happening in our culture, when we have free and open spaces in which to have these conversations. ...The power of digital tools to shift the cultural consciousness is incredible at this moment, if we use these tools wisely."

The #YesAllWomen outcry on Twitter underscores the growing power of loosely organized feminist networks that are gaining influence across social media platforms.

What follows is an abridged transcript of the NPR interview. [The full segment can be heard here.]

NPR: Does it take a hashtag to start this kind of conversation? And then, what do you expect it to achieve?

ZANDT: A hashtag is not required but it is often super useful, often in the same way that "Yes We Can" and "Si se puede" became rallying cries for a movement. Hashtags are doing the same thing in the digital space. And what I see is that this is happening whenever we have these extremely emotional moments that are very traumatic for a lot of people. Most people, before they come to a conversation, they feel isolated.  They feel like they're the only ones that this happened to.  So when they start sharing their stories with one another, they realize, 'I'm not crazy for feeling this way. I'm not crazy for feeling scared in this situation.' It's very much like digital consciousness-raising. Consciousness-raising of the second wave of feminism was such a huge part of the movement, and connecting women together and people together to share their stories of systemic problems and make systemic change.

NPR: Someday, this hashtag #YesAllWomen will stop trending. And so what happens then?

ZANDT: There's a lot of discussion right now around the lifespan and the lifecycle of a hashtag. I find them very useful as in-the-moment tools. These hashtags will live on until someone deletes them. They will become an archive and a reference point, a point for journalists to dig into stories, as other related stories come up. It doesn't have to be a platform at any given moment.

NPR: After Sandy Hook, there was such a strong movement and a strong possibility that there would be some substantive gun control. It never happened. I know it's a rich lobby, the NRA, but it would seem that it would take decades for a change in the culture that you're pointing out in the Tumblr.  

ZANDT: I don't actually think that it has to take decades. You know, we look at something like street harassment. Emily May started HollaBack!, to stop street harassment, 10 years ago. And many people said, what? Cat-calling? Why is that dangerous? Why is that bad? And some people still, obviously, say that. But the headway that they've been able to make as a movement around the world has been incredible for people to stand up and say, 'Wait a minute. No. That does feel bad and dangerous when that happens to me on the street.' And that's only been less than a decade. So again, the power of digital tools to really shift a cultural consciousness is incredible at this moment—if we use the tools wisely.

NPR: What's the biggest impediment?

ZANDT: Apathy. People feeling apathetic because they've never felt like they've been able to move a needle before. And I think these are some of the differences that we're seeing when people are contributing to these social media moments. This is, often times, their first experience with contributing to some sort of social change. And they see what happens when it goes from their Twitter stream to their local news station or to a mainstream cable news station, or something on the radio."

-- Marcia Stepanek

(PHOTO, top: A selfie of the participants in an April 28th panel talk about networked feminism, a part of NYU's #WOMENIMPACT conference organized by CauseGlobal. Panelists included, from left to right: Jamil Smith, a producer of The Melissa Harris-Perry Show on msnbc; Penny Abeywardena, head of women and girls issues at the Clinton Global Initiative; Tom Watson, a Forbes contributor and co-faculty at NYU; Deanna Zandt, and author Allison Fine in the foreground.) 

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Saturday, November 16, 2013

SxSW Bound

My workshop on Cause Video, to be co-presented with Jefferson Graham of USA Today, has been accepted on the program roster for the 2014 SxSW. The workshop, "Viteracy Now! Cause Video and the Proof Imperative," is slotted to run on March 11th. Modeled after my NYU Cause Video Lab (which I teach as part of my graduate class, The Wired Nonprofit: Social Media Strategy and Practice with Howard Greenstein and Tom Watson), this SxSW workshop will explore the latest trends and practices in the emergence of short-form video as a critical tool for conveying urgency, proof and relevancy in the social good sector.
Jeff and I also will discuss ways to measure video impact and build cross-sector, group-to-group support for specific causes that can endure from one campaign to the next. Attendees will gain working knowledge of the 10 types of cause videos being used successfully in the social commons and advocacy sector today, and discover which types are best for creating specific outcomes. Attendees also will learn how short-form video is better made in-house, with the best campaigns employing smart social/mobile strategies for maximum impact and continuous engagement.

Hope you'll be able to join us!

--Marcia Stepanek

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Saturday, November 2, 2013

Turning the Outside In

The continuing disclosures about National Security Agency (NSA) leaks are either totally unsurprising, or the stuff of shock and outrage. Spying on friendly governments and their citizens? Tell us something new, right? Still, many ordinary people around the world are genuinely alarmed. Each new Snowden leak—mostly recently, that the NSA has broken into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers around the world to collect data from hundreds of millions of user accounts—is either earth-shattering news, or simply confirms what many already knew or suspected.

Wikileaks triggered similar debates: What did we already know? What should we have known? Who should have known it?

It's true that spying by governments—including spying on their own citizens, enemies, allies, and frenemies—is not new. It’s even expected, post 9/11, and comes as no surprise to government insiders. But the vast scale of NSA spying, enabled by our nation’s shift to a high-velocity digital infrastructure, is novel. Millions of ordinary people suddenly have detailed knowledge that only insiders previously had. Their shock at the extent of the spying is real and consequential.

But focusing on who-knew-what-when misses the real significance of the ongoing Snowden leaks. Civil libertarians and digital freedom activists assert that the issue is less about whether governments spy on each other and their citizens, and far more about how our massive, digital infrastructure is rapidly eroding our long-standing and accepted boundaries between society’s insiders (those “in the know”) and those who know far less—insider-outsider boundaries that diplomacy, good governance, and politics have relied on for centuries.

Suddenly, those who were once exclusively privy to the inner-most secrets of our government are not the only insiders anymore. “Our digital tools have empowered dissenting insiders and are emboldening them to shine a light on all sorts of shadows previously left uninvestigated,” says sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, “ensuring there will always be dissenting insiders if an action is controversial or if oversight is weak.” There will be more Edward Snowdens, she asserts, because leaking is not only getting easier, it’s becoming more expected, if not more respectable. Public polling data continues to reflect rising support for Snowden’s whistle-blowing.

And the blurring of lines between who’s inside and out is happening everywhere. According to digital researcher danah boyd, it’s why teens are leaving Facebook in droves; they’re spooked by their parents’ ability to interrupt their insider postings with embarrassingly jarring, off-topic commentary or “reminders to bring a sweater.” It’s why institutions are finding that the internal communications they meant for a few insiders are suddenly exposed to the world. Consider last year’s high-profile leak by a dissenting insider at the Komen Foundation, disclosing the breast cancer nonprofit’s plans to defund Planned Parenthood under political pressure from GOP opponents. The leak, which Komen’s leaders refused to address for days amid supporter uproar, spread like wildfire through social media networks, and cost the organization thousands of supporters and millions of dollars in lost or cancelled contributions—the organization has never fully recovered.

The eroding insider-outsider boundaries fostered by our expanding digital infrastructure are also upsetting political strategists. This past weekend’s progressive Stop Watching Us rally against NSA spying began as a progressive anti-NSA rally, but Libertarian groups insisting that they should be included just days prior to the event crashed it. The resulting “joined-hands” dissent against government excess triggered a controversial, pre-rally blog post by writer Tom Watson, who urged some of the biggest names in civil liberties and digital freedom of information to stay home rather than march with political outsiders: “[Progressive] organizers trade their own good names and reputations to stand alongside—and convey legitimacy to—a [Libertarian Party] that opposes communitarian participation in liberal society and rejects the very role of government itself.” Critics of Watson’s column accused him of working against political compromise. Supporters, though, suggested that the Libertarians were intentionally crashing a political party not meant for them but unavoidably open, thanks to the digital political infrastructure that makes insider strategy secrets—and organized surprise—ever-harder to handle on all levels. (An informal data survey of marchers revealed that crashers mixed in with political compromisers from all sides of the political spectrum.)

Information will always be power, but now more people have it—and increasingly, they’re not always the “right” people, depending on who is drawing the lines. Our 21st-century governance and leadership can no longer depend on old, established norms about what constitutes “proper” levels of public knowledge and who gets to know more. Security clearances? No longer are those at the top of the leadership pyramid that can control access—nor the conversation.

What really makes the Snowden leaks so provocative—and, frankly, so unsettling to so many—has less to do with Edward Snowden and much more to do with the power of our digital tools to flip who’s out and who’s in—across society.

“The outsiders are peeking in and moving in, and they are here to stay,” says Tufekci. That is the big story to watch. Each new Snowden leak is just another wake-up call about how profoundly our digital tools are redefining the balance of power, big and small.
-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Elisabetta Stoinich; reprinted with permission from the Stanford Social Innovation Review

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Saturday, October 26, 2013


Last updated at 9pm EST

Thousands of people marched on the streets of Washington, D.C., today to protest the National Security Agency's post-9/11 national security apparatus, in a public demonstration they called The Rally Against Mass Surveillance. The crowd, representing an online and offline coalition of more than 100 public advocacy groups from across the political spectrum known as Stop Watching Us, demanded an end to government spying, chanting and waving banners that read "Yes, We Scan" and "Thank you, Edward Snowden." Many showed up wearing costumes and carrying props, including cardboard spy cameras and plaster drones. One protester wore a papier-maiche mascot head of Barack Obama and carried an "Obama-cam"; others wrapped their heads in yellow police barrier tape reading, Caution, Do Not Enter.

Protesters were cheered on in absentia by Snowden, the exiled NSA whistleblower who first disclosed the agency's surveillance programs. In a rare public statement prepared for the rally and read to the crowd, Snowden said "it is time to remind our government officials that they are public servants, not private investigators." The NSA, one of the biggest surveillance agencies in the U.S., was Snowden's workplace before he began leaking some of the agency's top-secret documents to the press in June.

"In the last four months, we've learned a lot about our government," Snowden said. "...Today, no telephone in America makes a call without leaving a record with the NSA. Today, no Internet transaction enters or leaves America without passing through the NSA's hands." Americans are fed up with government and with their lawmakers in Washington, Snowden added. "We are witnessing an American moment in which ordinary people from high school to high office are standing up to oppose a dangerous trend in government. ...We're told (by those in Congress and government) that what is unconstitutional is not illegal, but we will not be fooled. It is time for reform. Elections are coming, and we are watching you."

Another NSA whistleblower, Thomas Drake, showed up in person, talking to reporters about recent revelations that the U.S. government had tapped the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and some 35 other world leaders. Drake told the crowd that any domestic surveillance legislation that may result from the Snowden leaks "must include whistleblower protection" because with them, "government employees will be more likely to turn a blind eye" to abuses of power.

The publicity campaign for today's rally kicked off on Wednesday with the release of a celebrity-studded public service announcement, a video that urged people to join protesters today "to end mass, suspicion-less surveillance" of American citizens. By the end of the rally, the video had wracked up more than 875,000 views on YouTube.

Indeed, more people attended today's rally digitally than in person. Rally organizers said before today that they expected more than 500,000 to participate in the march and in live-streamed "rally watching parties" occurring concurrently in eight other cities. The number of marchers who showed up in Washington, including several busloads from New York City, appeared to number only in the single-digit thousands, a smaller in-person crowd than organizers had hope for and expected.

The march was not without its critics on both sides of the ideological divide, with some saying the coalition of progressive liberals and right-wing Libertarian Party leaders represent, at best, an unsustainable mix of those who would change government and those who would abolish it completely. Rally supporters included members of the American Civil Liberties Union, Chinese activist Ai Weiwei, journalist Glenn Greenwald, as well as leaders of the uber-conservative Libertarian Party, including Gary Johnson, its 2012 candidate for U.S. President.

But Snowden, in his remarks today, insisted that "this isn't about red or blue or party lines and definitely not about terrorism. It's about power, control and trust in government. ...It is about the unconstitutional, unethical and immoral actions of the modern-day surveillance state and how we must all work together to remind the government" to stop "trampling on our right to know, our right to associate freely and to live in a free and open democratic society."

Chief rally organizer Rainey Reitman of the progressive Electronic Freedom Foundation, a pro-privacy group founded in 1990 to protect online privacy and free speech, said "we are not building this coalition for a rally today. We are starting with a rally and we will stop when the NSA stops spying on all of us." Added former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee for U.S. President last year: "There are members of Congress who wrote the Patriot Act (after 9/11) and are now vowing to fix it, but the only way to fix it is to repeal it. ... We're mad as hell."

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Graphic, top, courtesy rally co-sponsor Ben and Jerry's. Photos: CauseGlobal)

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Urban Flow

Adam Magyar is a Hungarian photographer based in Berlin who is creating a stir in the international photography world by combining still photography and video in a way that explores the density and anonymity of urban life. His premiere work, called Urban Flow, combines multiple images of pedestrians into very long panoramas. By slowing time, from 12 seconds into 8 minutes of HD footage, he reveals the minute details of urban life normally invisible to the naked eye -- and transforms the way we view images, making them more interactive and intimate.

Magyar appeared at this week's annual PopTech conference in Camden, Maine, describing his use of industrial machine-vision cameras as "slit-scan" scanning technology that captures moments in time in a way that was previously impossible using conventional optical cameras. Magyar told the PopTech crowd he is attempting to combine science and art to "look into and challenge our identities as individuals in the urban crowd."

"I used to do street photography," Magyar said, "but my photos always revolved more around a theory or urban space than a single image, and so it occurred to me to make that theory an image."

"In my images, I stage a situation where people are seen from a distance and I depict them as particles in a system," Magyar says. In the work, Stainless, a short photo-video montage (excerpt above), Magyar scans "rushing subway trains arriving to stations. The images record people staring towards their destinations, standing at the doors of trains, framed by the sliding door windows. "They are scrutinizing the uncertain future," Magyar says. In all of his images, the main theme is arrival, the rhythms of life, "sections of infinite time flowing by relentlessly, like our own life spans," he says.

It is stark but stunning work. Stainless stretches 12 seconds of real time on a crowded train platform in Berlin into 24:44 minutes, suspending the busy crowd in time, rendering his subjects as free-standing images, frozen in hyper slow-motion, as if in collage.

Check out a shorter excerpt of his work here:

Adam Magyar: Stainless (excerpt) from Urban Video Project on Vimeo.

-- Marcia Stepanek

[Photo, above: Adam Magyar speaking at PopTech conference courtesy PopTech]

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Thursday, September 26, 2013

#CGI2013: Bill Gates on 'Rich Dogs' and Risk

The philanthropist Bill Gates, speaking on a panel at the Clinton Global Initiative, which ends today, urged nonprofit leaders to work harder and better at collaborating with business on social good projects. "It's interesting that nonprofits think the for-profit guys are evil," Gates told some of the world's most influential philanthropists and CEOs, NGO executives and government delegates to Bill Clinton's annual confab. "That attitude has blocked cooperation in many areas of the global food and drug sectors." And, Gates said, that attitude is blocking aid to the many of the world's hungry and dying.

The Microsoft co-founder and former CEO, in a candid assessment of philanthropy's role in global social innovation, also urged fellow philanthropists to start funding riskier projects "that nobody else wants to touch." Said Gates: "If you're a philanthropist, you don't want to go into an area that is already well-covered." Philanthropy, he said, "has more leeway to experiment. It should fund the higher-risk projects and let businesses and governments do the easier stuff."

What follows is an edited transcript of an interview with Gates that The Economist's Matthew Bishop moderated from the CGI stage this past week. Bishop is author of the book, Philanthrocapitalism, about the rise of for-profit/nonprofit partnerships for collaborative social impact.

Q/ BISHOP:  The world is having a discussion right now about what follows the Millennium Development Goals for 2015. How do we set targets (for global social good) for the next 15 years that are big bets—that are achievable bets but not too hard or too easy to achieve?

GATES: The Millennium Development goals are a phenomenal thing. They are the eight priorities that were adopted by the (UN) General Assembly (in 2000) as a report card for the world. They're very focused on  inequity—in health, in education, and in economics. It's quite amazing that several of them will be fully achieved, even though they were set quite ambitiously. The poverty goal [to halve the rate of extreme poverty by 2015] was achieved. And in fact, in the next round—the goals for 2030—we could get to extremely low levels of poverty around the world. In the health area, we had 12 million children dying every year from a starting point of 1990; we're now down to 6.6 million, so we'll be, by 2015, down to close to a 50 percent reduction. The Millennium Goals have been wonderful because they allow us to look at the countries that are doing it the best, and to go in and talk to the leaders of the countries that aren't and make it a priority. I think the world has come around to the idea that you really need amazing partnerships to make these big things happen. For child mortality, you have to break it down and say, okay there's malaria.  What can the drug companies do? What can UNICEF/World Health Organization do? What can the local governments do? There's diarrhea, there's pneumonia, there's the first 30 days. And so it's all become really quite concrete. And even philanthropy, which is a smaller percentage of the dollars here compared with, say, the private sector, rich world donations, and local governments, it can get involved in some of the riskier things. For example, the actual vaccine development teams (are funded) mostly by philanthropy. Philanthropy is the major player in that part of it. So it's amazing to see how all of that has come together.

Q: But when you think of the next set of goals, the next 15 years, how far should we stretch to accomplish even more?

GATES: The inequity today, that a child under 5 has 30 times chance of dying than a child in a middle income country, gives us a chance in the next 15 years to to largely eliminate inequity. We won't get it down to zero. There will still be a differential there.  But  we can make a very dramatic change. So the fact that these Millennium goals are unfinished goals, and that if we keep them as unique as they've been—and keep up these (for-profit/nonprofit) partnerships—we will be largely complete by 2030. To me, that says that these goals should be the centerpiece of what gets adopted as the world's next report card. Now, because Millennial Development Goals have been successful and every cause in the world would like to have an MDG, there will need to be some tough choices made in terms of measurability and prioritization.

Q: As you think about how to put your money and Warren Buffett's money to work to achieve social good, how do you determine how to get maximum bang for the buck?

GATES: Well, obviously, you don't want to go into an area that is already well covered. And because philanthropy is small, even compared to aid budgets, you have to pick something that is probably risky and therefore not likely to be taken up by aid budgets. Take inventing new vaccines. Governments other than U.S. really don't get into that kind of upstream R&D.  And that's a global public good. As Africa develops, it's not going to get organized to finance the malaria vaccine for itself any time soon. So philanthropy can be very complimentary. I totally agree with the private sector that we need those roads and electricity in a big way in Africa, but we need to realize that five or six magical new vaccines are needed, too, so that's a great place (for philanthropy) to specialize. Now, that kind of philanthropy is very risky. You need to have to have a lot of oars in the water. And you're going to need partnerships, working with universities and the NIH and the pharmaceutical companies, where there's a lot of expertise that only exists with them, so crafting exactly how you work with them is important. We do a report card called the Access to Medicine Index, that rates all the pharma companies on how much they do to help poor people. And it's been great because every year, the bar has gone up. The drug companies at the top want to do more and stay at the top; the ones on the bottom definitely see that, their employees see that, and so they push forward on it.

And further on risky philanthropy, consider polio eradication. It can only work if every country in the world manages to get  those polio drops out to over 90 percent of the kids that need them, around the world. And so now, we're down to northern Nigeria, northern Pakistan, and there's been a big outbreak in Somalia recently. In these places, getting access to those kids is very tough because of rumors that these are people from the West coming in with vaccines, they're from the U.S. and the rumors that the U.S. uses vaccination campaigns for bad things. And that has really overwhelmed the trust and knowledge you want to have on the ground to allow those vaccines to come in. We could fail.  We raised a little over $4 billion at a (polio) summit earlier this year and everyone endorsed a plan (for polio eradication) that runs through 2018. It's the kind of thing the world should take on because if you take it on, it will save millions of lives. But it's not an easy thing. It's not like building a wing of a museum, where probably it will get done. This one? Polio? It should get done.

"Polio eradication? It's not an easy thing. It's not like building a wing of a museum, where it probably will get done."

Q: Is it really worth the effort, to take the last few steps that could mean complete eradication?

GATES: That's sort of a math test. The only reason we have so few cases now is because we are spending so much money. If you stop spending the money before (the death rate from polio) gets to zero, then it goes back and hundreds of thousands of kids get sick or die every year, and the problem gets worse. But if you wait to stop spending the money until after you get to zero, it gets kind of nice because then, you can spend the money on other things—pneumonia, diarrhea, neo-natal, and whatever those other causes are. So you really have to judge, can it be done? The whole credibility of the global endeavor is very much tied up in this (the fight to eradicate polio). Will those hold-out countries allow us access to those kids? That's what this whole thing rests on. There are days I worry we won't get it. But overall, I'm quite optimistic.

Q:  Let's consider, for a moment, the "f word" of failure. In the business world, failures can often be taken as a badge of honor: you tried something, and you learned from it. But in the philanthropic world, failure really is a swear word. People don't talk about it and there is a sense that people don't take enough risks.

GATES: Well, people don't take enough risk, that's fair. And they try to do too many things. If you really want to take on big risk, you really have to be willing and able to develop deep technocratic understanding of the science, the tools, and the social science factors that weigh into the delivery (of the aid you're giving). Philanthropy should be taking much bigger risks than business. If these are easy problems, business and government can come in and solve them. Probably the most risky thing (the Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation) is doing involves the money we spend in the United States, where our top priority is changing the teacher personnel system in K-12 eduction so that teachers get feedback, so we learn from teachers who teach extremely well, and so we have a professional assessment system to really understand how to do things better and get the average teachers into the top quartile. But that has become subjected to all sorts of controversies—with the school board system, with some people who love the status quo and amid controversy over just how it would get done. This project has a very high high chance of failure, whereas our malaria work is just a question of when. I'll be disappointed if it takes too long. Malaria deaths will come down. We will discover drugs and vaccines and we'll get more bed nets out. Malaria is just (a matter of) impatience and cleverness. There is no mode of total and utter failure on that path, whereas K-12? All the money we spend on that could end up being wasted.

"Malaria deaths will come down. We will discover drugs and vaccines and we'll get more bed nets out. Malaria is just (a matter of) impatience and cleverness. There is no mode of total and utter failure on that path, whereas K-12 education? All the money we spend on that in the U.S. could end up being wasted."

Q: Throughout your philanthropy, you've been partnering with business. You just announced a partnership with JP Morgan on health innovation. Do you think the business world is finally escaping the Milton Freidman narrow view of a company's role in society and is now more willing to engage in some of these big bets to improve the world? 

GATES: The private sector is the biggest force in terms of dollars and innovation and often, that takes a form of trickle down, where, for example, a medicine will be invented for rich customers and then it's made available over time, as the patent expires and as manufacturing becomes more efficient. Now, that  has done an amazing amount of good. Unfortunately, that model doesn't work for everything because rich people don't get malaria. One truly ironic thing is that a drug was developed for rich dogs. These dogs had a real problem. They had worms and people wanted to pay to get rid of their dogs' worms, and so there was a great market for it. Ivermectin was developed for that. And then somebody said let's try it on humans in Africa. They have worms, too. And in fact it worked very well and the companies were extremely generous in donating all of that. But that's a strange form of trickle-down from rich dogs to poor people. A lot of things we can't do that way. I will say that in terms of some of these for-profit/nonprofit partnerships, it's sometimes interesting that the nonprofit guys think the for-profit guys are evil...and that's blocked cooperation between some of food companies and some of nonprofit actors in (various countries). ...Bridging the gap between the way the private sector thinks about things and what's reasonable to ask them to do—and the nonprofit people, who know how to deliver aid and are devoting their lives to it—trying to get the best of both worlds out of that often takes a middleman listening to both points.

 "It's sometimes interesting that the nonprofit guys think the for-profit guys are evil..."

Q: What could the private sector do better in these partnerships?

GATES: The most classic example is the Clinton Foundation. We went from suing the South African government for off-patent use of drugs to now getting all the poor countries to get their AIDs drugs at the lowest possible price and there's no intellectual property involved in that at all. That model has been very successful.

Q: We need to measure progress carefully, but when is measurement taken too far?

GATES: You need to do things that are hard to measure but there are some things you really can't measure very well. Consider the child mortality area. We are trying to ensure that kids survive malnutrition but many are damaged mentally by malnutrition, and there's a danger that if we don't understand that, we won't focus on the right interventions. There's a huge hidden cost in health care that goes beyond death. They do IQ studies in Africa, and the numbers in some parts are unbelievably low because kids that have gone through early malnutrition are never developed fully mentally. Anything you can measure is great but you want to make sure you're measuring the right things.

Q: And then there is, in much philanthropy today, a push for social innovation. You, for example, have decided to innovate the toilet. Why have you done that, how is your project going and are there similar, less-trodden areas where philanthropists might bring innovation?

GATES: It's a fantastic example where trickle-down doesn't work. (laughter). The rich world toilets are built on a Rube Goldberg kind of scheme, where you bring all sorts of water in, you make it dirty, you send it to very complex plant to clean it up. Just the piping system alone, if you were going to do this in the slums of India, you could never afford it. And so we need something with the smell- and disease-prevention characteristics that are as good as the gold standard, which is the flush toilet, but do not require a completely unaffordable infrastructure. And so you have to get the best people in smell, and in taking the disease out of the waste and getting rid of it. We had a big contest recently at Caltech, and gave out prizes, and now we're working on what does the engineering for those ideas look like.

It's easier at the community level to create a low-cost toilet. You want to go into the individual households so women don't have to go out at night, facing some insecurity or harassment. But that would not have happened without philanthropy coming in. Scientists will say, 'Oh, we know how to do smell, but nobody ever asked us to solve this problem with toilets.' So it's taking high IQ scientists who were not thinking much about toilets in the developing world, and drawing them into the partnership to try and help solve these very real and pervasive global challenges.

There are a lot of universities that have programs to come up with tools for poor countries, and you have crowd-sourcing, where someone will put out something and get back amazing results. There was this one thing, a call for a power light that someone suggested be made by pulling up a weight on a pulley to generate the power needed, and that got funded in, like, 10 days. So there's lot of neat things out there.

So, in you're a philanthropist, fund innovation. Pick what you're passionate about and think about what are the innovative tools. It will probably be risky. Are you willing to wait 5-10 years (for results)? Are you willing to figure which universities have the science to connect that area you want to fund? What you want to fund is often not something government does well, like education or even health. government can often miss some great opportunities. But philanthropy can help where others can't, and it's needed and a very important piece in these partnerships to make the world a better place.

-- Marcia Stepanek

[Photograph: Bill Gates on stage at CGI on Tuesday, September 24th]

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

#CGI2013: Girl Power

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the subject of endless speculation over whether she will or won't run for the White House in 2016, made it very clear today how she plans to focus much of her time for the next two years. Speaking from the main stage of her family's power-philanthropy conference, the once and possibly future presidential hopeful said she will lead an international effort to evaluate progress made in empowering women and girls worldwide. "Whether we are talking about empowering and connecting women in economics or health care or education or politics, it all comes back to a question of the full and equal participation of women versus their marginalization," Clinton said.

Referring specifically to the 1995 United Nations summit of 189 countries on women in Beijing, where she led the U.S. delegation as First Lady, Clinton said there is much work yet to be done. The Beijing summit, she said, had been "a call to action for the global community to insure that women and girls everywhere finally have the opportunities they deserve to live up to their god-given potentials and contribute fully to the progress and prosperity of their societies." But while more girls are now in school and more women hold jobs and serve in public office, Clinton said, "it is still not enough. ...Women and girls still comprise the majority of the world's unhealthy, unfed and unpaid, marginalized in so many ways."

The year 2015 will mark 20 years since that conference in Beijing, officially known as the Fourth World Conference on Women. "It's time for a full and clear-eyed look at how far we have come and how far we still have to go, and what we plan to do together about the unfinished business of the 21st century: the full and equal participation of women," Clinton said. Since the Beijing summit, she said, "we've built an international architecture of laws and norms to protect women but it remains a bare scaffold without the bricks and mortar needed to make those laws effective in people's lives and turn our rhetoric into reality."

Clinton said her Beijing+20 initiative will work through the Clinton Foundation and leverage the convening power of CGI to bring together partner organizations, NGOs, international institutions, governments, businesses and others to evaluate global progress towards gender equity in time for the September 20, 2015 anniversary of the Beijing summit. She said Beijing+20 will also tap new online feminist networks and social media to encourage broad and global input and participation.

The move was generally lauded by political pundits in Washington, who said that throwing herself into the work of her foundation will give Clinton the ability to add to an already formidable network of donors and keep herself current in the national conversation. According to a report by NPR correspondent Mara Liasson, the Ready for Hillary superPAC announced today that it has reached 1 million Facebook supporters.

Clinton isn't the first women's rights advocate to push for a formal assessment of how far UN member states and other stakeholders have come in implementing the commitments made at the Beijing summit 20 years ago. In July, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) adopted a resolution proposed by the Commission on the Status of Women to begin its own review.

-- Marcia Stepanek

[Photograph: Hillary Clinton, announcing her Beijing+20 initiative at #CGI2013]

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#CGI2013: Brokering for Good

Once again this year, Bill Clinton is hosting his annual power-philanthropy conference in New York. His annual Clinton Global Initiative this week marks its ninth year of channeling mega-wealth to social innovation projects around the world. Cool, exclusive, wonky and celebrity-studded, this year's gathering, like others, is also ferreting out new strains of global injustice and dousing them with nonpartisan outpourings of media, money, PowerPoints, and hard work from truly committed people on the ground.

But it is Bill Clinton’s social capital – his remarkable, ongoing ability to forge unlikely alliances among corporate executives, NGO leaders, celebrities, and government officials -- that distinguishes CGI as a game-changer in its own right. "The world's problems are so big, philanthropy cannot do it alone," Clinton said again this year in opening remarks. "We need everyone at the table." Indeed, CGI has done much over the past decade to help erode some of the traditional cultural barriers to business collaboration within the American philanthropy establishment, and has helped to focus it more acutely on social impact. Before CGI, there were no other high-profile, independent forums devoted to channeling philanthropic resources into specific, cross-sector giving projects tied to measurable results. Today? According to the Clinton Foundation's website, CGI members have so far made more than 2,300 philanthropic commitments which have improved the lives of over 400 million people in more than 180 countries. When fully funded and implemented, Clinton says, these commitments will be valued at more than $73.1 billion. 

To be sure, not all of the projects spawned at CGI have succeeded; not everyone gets invited back. [CGI rules require philanthropic commitments that can prove impact from one year to the next.] "Solutions are only effective if they are implemented," Clinton told Time this week. And not everyone thinks CGI is inclusive enough, saying it's still mostly centered around the 1% and not the 99% who are innovating the Internet and digital social networks to create mass philanthropy models capable of channeling more funds directly (and more quickly) to those in need.

Still, more than 1,000 large companies, celebrities, governments and big NGOs are represented here, roaming the halls and small ballrooms of the Midtown Sheraton with an enthusiasm for proving the nonprofit/for-profit collaboration model can work to more efficiently and quickly get money to those in need. During opening day talks, Bono talked about how, when he took his fight against AIDS in Africa to American and European consumers with his One (RED) campaign, he was able to raise $200 million for the cause, while Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook touted the recent launch of, a Facebook-led initiative to bring connectivity to billions of women in poverty living without it.

["U.S. lawmakers would tell us we're not feeling the (AIDs) issue at home," Bono told CGI attendees, sharing that his Global Fund to fight AIDS was flagging until he harnessed it to consumer market forces. "So we went straight to the people, to the shopping malls and Gap stores, and through the marketplace, RED started to turn up the heat on the issue. The marketplace is where the real money lies. Do you want a blue iPod or a red one? Kids started choosing red because they knew that purchase would count."]

Philanthropist Bill Gates, meanwhile, named again by Forbes last week as the wealthiest man in America, urged the nonprofit community to work even harder at nonprofit/for-profit collaboration. "It's interesting that nonprofits think the for-profit guys are evil," Gates told attendees. "That attitude has blocked cooperation in the global food and drug-health sectors" and it's slowing aid to the world's hungry and dying. On the other hand, Gates said, philanthropy has a unique role in the social good sector because it is more easily able to fund the smaller, risker projects, the kind "nobody else wants to touch," Gates said.  "You don't want (as a philanthropist) to go into an area that is already well-covered." 

Cause Global has attended seven out of the nine CGI meetings in New York. This year, attendees have started to refer to themselves as being in "the social commons." As the designer, Eileen Fisher, told Cause Global today: "These are exciting times for philanthropy because the tent is expanding, big-time, and now, it seems, everyone can play." 

Among other first-day highlights:

     *Bono did a good impression of Bill Clinton, to help fill time for the former President when he ducked back stage to get his glasses prior to starting a morning panel. The video of Bono’s impression got more than 6,000 hits by day's end.  Clinton, returning to the stage with his notes, quipped that “it must be real easy to make fun of me; anybody can make fun of me.”

   Sheryl Sandberg joined the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde and 24-year-old Khalida Brohi, founder of Sughar Women Program in Pakistan, to talk about the need to do more to empower the world’s women in poverty. “We’re going to invest in women and recognize that women need to lead,” Sandberg said of Facebook, her employer. Brohi, whose organization aims to mobilize a million women in the next 10 years, shared a phrase her father would tell her to encourage her to translate her tears into action. “Don’t cry, strategize,” Brohi said. Sandberg, meanwhile, gave a nod to Hillary Clinton, saying few have done as much for women’s empowerment as she has, stressing the double standard women face around the world with a quick poll of how many female leaders in the audience have been called “bossy.” “We teach ourselves from very young age that men should lead and women shouldn’t,” Sandberg said. “When this changes, we will have a society more productive, more peaceful and families will be happier.” Lagarde encouraged women to get into politics, citing countries like Rwanda, with a Parliament composed of two-thirds women. “In every crisis you see women rising,” Lagarde said. “When it’s messy you get the women in but when the mess is sorted, you need to keep the women in.”

   Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese-British mobile communications billionaire and founder of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, blasted the West for neglecting investment in Africa, chiding Google for investing only relatively small sums and criticizing U.S.-based Internet giants for being “totally absent” from the push to provide broadband data access to some 3 billion in Africa who still don’t have it. He also rebuked stereotypes about Africa on corruption, saying that “for every corrupt leader, there are 50 corrupt business people, half of them sitting here.”  

*    Barack Obama joined Bill Clinton on stage to promote Obamacare as part of the Administration's two-week blitz to build public support for the new health insurance law. The GOP Congress is waging an effort to defund the law ahead of October 1, when new health-care exchanges will begin to enroll people for health insurance coverage that will take effect in January. “Let's face it," Obama quipped, "It's been a little political, this Obama-care thing." But Clinton was far more pointed. “What you’ve had is an unprecedented effort that you’ve seen ramp up over the last month or so in which those who have opposed the idea of universal health care in the first place have fought this thing tooth and nail through Congress and through the courts and so forth," he said. "They’re trying to scare and discourage people from getting a good deal.” Obama said those who need health insurance should tune out the naysayers. “Make your own decision about whether it’s good for you,” Obama said. “What we are confident about is that when people look and see they can get high quality, affordable health care for less than their cell phone bill, they’re going to sign up.”

   Cherie Blair, the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation of Women, conferees worked on ways to get more smartphones into people’s hands to create new opportunities for women. “Without access to mobile, so many poor have been cut out of the global economy,” Blair said. According to statistics, she said, countries that boost mobile phone access by 10 percent experience a 1.2 percent economic bump. But even the $20 needed to buy a phone is too much for the billions earning less than $2 a day, Blair said, and for women living in extreme poverty, there are often cultural barriers, too. Women in Africa and the Middle East are 23 percent less likely than men to have mobile access, she said. All told, Blair said, some 300 million women across the world could have access to mobile phones but don’t, due to cost, cultural attitudes that give men first preferences, fear of technology and environmental limitations such as a lack of electricity. Literacy creates another barrier, Blair said. 

CGI runs through Thursday. Watch this space for further highlights.

-- Marcia Stepanek

[Photography: courtesy CGI; Bill Gates and Bill Clinton, top; Bill Clinton on the CGI stage with Barack Obama, middle, and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, bottom]

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Cause Week 2013

It's Cause Week again in New York, that wonky week-long stretch of mid-September when a perfect storm of three global-class, do-gooder gatherings floods Manhattan.

[Concurrent with the opening sessions of the United Nations General Assembly, Cause Week also means the start of the annually high-powered, invitation-only Clinton Global Initiative in Midtown, as well as the run of the annual Social Good Summit , the social-media-for-social-change crowd's Millennial version of CGI that's held across town.]

What all of these events have in common—besides their ability to paralyze Midtown traffic—are A-list attendees and speakers from all sectors pushing new policies, new partnerships, and tech-driven social innovation. From Barack Obama, Bono, Sean Penn, and IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, to Queen Rania of Jordan, philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, and Facebook's Sheryl Sandburg, the goal of these thinkfests is to take stock of the world's most pressing social problems, and to rally society's brightest minds to work more effectively for solutions.

First to launch this week is the Social Good Summit, which is being livestreamed to 120 locations around the world in 8 languages. Among top takeaways so far:

* Internet freedom is under growing attack around the world. Samantha Power, the Pulitzer Prize-winning human rights activist, former Harvard scholar and the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, warned #2030NOW attendees of a "crackdown on civil society" by governments around the world. "It's clear that a lot of governments are now sharing worst practices on how to crack down on civil society," she said. They are doing this "to impede the kind of connectivity that can occur virtually, even as they close off public streets and squares." The goal: to dissuade cause-wired activists from using social media and other methods to demand human rights and economic reforms. "Governments are getting more and more sophisticated at shutting down the Internet, and are blocking, filtering, and using technology to trace human rights activists" for retribution, Power added. "They are aware of the explosion in civil society and of the power of social media. It is time to sound the alarm."

* Millennials' passion for "good" products is growing.  Tina Wells, CEO and Founder of Buzz Marketing Group, cited "conscious consumption" as the No. 1 trend driving Millennials today. "Millennials don't just want to buy things that are cool. They want to buy things they love that also contribute to the world in a positive way," Wells says. That's not news, of course. But 80 percent of Millennials are now spending more than three hours a day online, and brands are getting smarter at working with the cause-wired online, inviting them to participate in conversations around the issues that are important to them. Wells is working with the United Nations to elevate the voice and input of youth globally via MyWorld, a UN initiative that enables youth to participate more broadly in the conversations around the UN Millennium Goals. "Millennials understand there is room for digital nonprofits and for-profit organizations to work together for change," Wells said. Note to social marketers and nonprofits: shared experiences equals trust equals consumption and support.

* Drones aren't all bad. Most people would associate them with military strikes, but a handful of activists are finding ways to use drones and tech surveillance capabilities to promote peace and stability in countries experiencing conflict. John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, is working in partnership with Google and satellite companies "to get eyes on remote locations in conflict zones, where there is no other way to verify that human rights abuses are occurring." Prendergast said that monitoring for mass grave sites and rebel movements, for example, can help warn innocent civilians and prevent human rights abuses from occurring in some areas. Kevin Kennedy, chief of integrated training services at the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and Field Support, said his office is using drones for good in four countries—the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, and Haiti, to help monitor public health and rebel movements.

* The news is going social. It's no longer enough to be informed by the media. A couple of new journalism startups also want you to act on the story you just saw, read, watched, or Tweeted. "I think any of us who are Millennials would argue that if you have a microphone plugged into an amplifier, it's wrong of you not to sing," says Ian Somerhalder, co-founder of, a new news platform that drives readers and viewers to get involved in embedded action steps that appear at the end of each article. "We take readers to the next step with calls to action," Somerhalder added. "No longer do you have to read an article and that's it. Dead. Social media engages people. It has changed the world and we're all here witnessing it, and we're all part of it, and it's a really phenomenal thing."

* There is a new Africa rising. Two social entrepreneurs working with social media to fuel support for their organizations in Africa talked extensively about the rapidly growing entrepreneurial scene there. "Charity? Rather than support the traditional NGOs in Africa, support the African social entreprenuer," urged Magatte Wade, founder and CEO of Tiossan, a cosmetics startup that uses proceeds to benefit local education. Teddy Ruge, an Africa-based entrepreneur and a leader of the social enterprise movement there, agreed that local African entrepreneurs are reshaping their own communities for the better, and it is time for traditional aid organizations to work with these new innovators—and to hear their input—rather than drive their own agendas without collaboration.

* Traditional nonprofit philanthropy is dead, reimagined by social media.  In a world of social media, philanthropy and nonprofits can no longer remain in fortresses and operate without partnering with businesses and governments. "Philanthropy needs to collaborate more across sector and with supporters," said Jean Case of the Case Foundation. "We need to help nonprofits master social media and help them to communicate with these tools. When we think of philanthropy, our definition is any effective effort that promotes human progress, which doesn't mean we should get just anyone in the tent. We need talent and help from companies, too. The traditional sense of charitable giving is not where we should stop, because stopping would mean we're not using all the tools in our toolbox." One recent attempt at new engagement:, a mobile app that asks nonprofits what they're trying to do and helps them measure their effectiveness by putting them in touch directly with their aid recipients. Another sign of change? The ACLU is now raising its digital voice, busting out of the gate with soon-to-be-launched multimedia campaign called "My Big Gay Illegal Wedding." The campaign asks supporters to help it find and marry five couples in hotspot states. Think crowdsourcing for mobilization. "The thing about social media is that it demands boldness and excitement," Romero said. "Social media makes us all activists. We can redefine who we are."

The Social Good Summit ends tonight, just as CGI begins. Keep current with the highlights. Follow us @CauseGlobal for coverage and watch this space for updates.

-By Marcia Stepanek

(Photograph: Ripped posters on a wall, Carrer de Bailen, in Barcelona, Spain, by Rene Mansi)

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