Friday, June 27, 2014


Like many women I know, I was told repeatedly by my older brother growing up that I threw a softball "like a girl"— despite turning in an impressive season many years later as shortstop for a co-ed softball team I organized at the University of Hawaii, while there on an international reporting fellowship.

That phrase continues to catch my attention, and I heard it again the other night, after leaving a movie at NYC's Film Forum. There, on the street near the subway, I overheard two men accusing a third of "acting like a girl" during an argument that would soon turn into a fistfight. I stopped myself from shouting, to anyone in particular, "What's so bad about acting like a girl?"

Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield and her new three-minute cause video out this month, called #LikeAGirl, has saved me the trouble. Greenfield, who directed the 2012 documentary, Queen of Versailles, was commissioned by feminine hygiene brand, Always, to make the video as part of the company's CSR initiatives. Watched by more than 40 million people on YouTube since it launched last month, the video has sparked a new national conversation on female empowerment and self-esteem.

"Always was interested in looking into how girls deal with the confidence crisis that happens around puberty," Greenfield told CauseGlobal. "Everyone knows that 'crying like a girl' or 'running like a girl' isn't a compliment, but no one takes the off-the-cuff remark too seriously or considers its damage."  Greenfield said she came up with the idea of asking a handful of adults, for her camera, to imitate running, throwing and fighting "like a girl." The results are predictable, but the surprising part comes when Greenfield later asks young girls the same questions.

Have a look. When was the last time you used or heard the phrase? How did you feel when you said or heard it?

-- Marcia Stepanek

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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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