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A Tweet is Not A Bullet. This is Why.

bullet

This is a bullet.

It doesn’t matter who fired it. Or what. Uzi, Glock, AK-47, T-56 – doesn’t matter. The point is, it’s a little metal ball of pain hurling towards you.  At the other end is a man (or woman) who really, really does not like you.  It flies away from him (or her) and to you.

What do you do? Nothing. It’s too fast. It enters your skull and explodes, metal shards ripping through your brain, turning into mush what was once a person with memories and laughter and life.

What can you do? Nothing. A bullet is not a tweet: you can’t argue back. You can’t #stop it. It’s not a Facebook page: you can’t report it. It’s not a racist friend: you can’t block it.  The bullet doesn’t have a voice. It doesn’t have an agenda. It doesn’t have an opinion. It doesn’t care what you were, what you are, how many followers you have, how many likes you get. It simply turns you into a corpse.

Welcome to reality.

This goes out to all the change.org petitioners. To everyone who #iSupportGaza’s. You think it matters? It doesn’t. You think you’re changing something? You’re not. Your opinion isn’t worth a damn. It never was.

Because you – you’re not there. You’re here. You’re sitting in a comfy seat, perhaps sipping a cup of overpriced coffee from a comfy Colombo coffee shop, discussing Gaza with your iPhone in your hands. You’re checking Facebook on your laptop at work. In a few minutes you’ll forget Gaza and switch to Instagram to take a #busSELFIE. Or you’ll #OMG #the #beach #is #awesome #today #nightout #friendsandalcohol.

#PrayforGaza has 4 million tweets behind it. Does prayer help? Maybe it helps you: maybe it comforts you to think that, deep down, you’re a nice person, you’ve done your bit for humanity. It doesn’t really help the people dying out there. Prayer doesn’t help. Bullets do.  I am a human and #ISupportGaza #FreePalestine #PrayForGaza #GazaUnderAttack #GazaUnderFire. #iSupportIsrael because my religion tells me to. Or #iSupportPalestine because OMFG everybody on my newsfeed is suddenly all lovey-dovey about that dying Muslim kid. Big deal. Can you catch a bullet? Will you catch a bullet? It’s easier to talk than it is to do. It’s easier to write and pledge allegiance that it is to jump into that line of fire. Take it from a writer. We have it easy.

You want change? Get up. Get a gun. Go down there and lay your life on the line. 

History is full of wars and battles of opinion (in fact, all religious wars are basically debates of opinion). At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. The guy with the sword wins. The pen is mightier than the sword? Puh-leaze.  Why do you think no-one stopped America invading Iraq and Afghanistan? Why do you think a tweet didn’t stop Aluthgama? Became they couldn’t. Because at the end of the day, you can push paper, you can make declarations, but unless you’ve got the firepower to back it up, they’re just pieces of paper.  And you, little socialite, little Facebook Freedom Fighter, that’s you: just a piece of paper. 

Cue gunfire.

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Social Media: Can They Censor Us?

Yesterday, Eran Wickramaratne, Sanjana Hattotuwa (Groundviews) and Malinda Seniviratne (Daily Nation) got together for a forum on social media and the whole question on censorship.

Now, far be it from me to talk about that, because by a rather unlucky combination of work and delayed meetings, I completely missed out on that thing. Pity – I was really looking forward to it. But an acquaintance and I once had a conversation along the following lines:

“Can they (the government) actually censor social media?” 

Because we’d both met government workers who seem to think they could, actually, control what people were saying on Facebook or Twitter – the general idea seems to be “if China can do it, why not us?”

Let’s look at this from a techie perspective. Take Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Every status, tweet or photo that we put up is data. This data is held by American companies on servers which are usually firmly planted in American soil (take Facebook, which has data centers in Oregon, the Silicon Valley, San Francisco and so on).

So once that data’s in there, it’s..there. I seriously doubt any US company or court is going to honor a request from a third-world country to modify data and breach their own agreements with their userbase. If you believe posts like these, Facebook already does a certain amount of censorship. (Instagram also did it, famously, for RIhanna and her nudes). So will the social networks bend over? For the NSA – maybe, but for Sri Lanka? Perhaps not.

Getting civilians to clear the road for you is easier than getting Facebook to divulge user data. Forget write access.

Getting civilians to clear the road for you is easier than getting Facebook to divulge user data. Forget write access.

So, right: it’s a question of getting to the data before it reaches foreign soil. Now, as I’ve explained on Readme.lk before, Sri Lanka is connected to the rest of the world by a few undersea cables. Tap these cables and, technically, you’d be tapping into all of Sri Lanka’s traffic – Facebook, porn site requests, our daily email flow, you name it. You’d be sitting there like a fat, bloated dataspider, drinking in all the yummy stuff.

Except somehow, I don’t think it’s feasible to monitor all that data. It’s possible to isolate traffic going to, say, the Facebook servers and monitor that. It’s been done.  However, not only would you need massive infrastructure to pull this off, you’d also need to break into the encryption schemes used by these services. It’s mathematically doable. You’re talking massive firewalls in place, monitoring for phrases and symbols and blocking data flow, which is similar to what China seems to be doing.

Is this practically possible? Yes. Feasible, for Sri Lanka? No. Given how half-assedly our government handles most social media accounts, I doubt there’s enough technical expertise to pull it off. The least intensive solution would be to block sites like Facebook. Everybody did it – Bangladesh, Egypt, China, Iran – 

But hello, people, proxies, which allow you to access any site you need: honestly, it’s like fighting a hydra – the moment you cut off one head, another sprouts back. I don’t think Sri Lanka can fight this particular battle. SLT’s blocks, in any case, don’t seem to be very effective – ColomboTelegraph, for example is blocked at the DNS level. Nothing setting your DNS server to Google Public DNS won’t fix. The point is, people will always find a way. We’re not at a level where we can support our own social network, like China.

The total solution would be to pull the plug – total blackout. Unfortunately, whoever’s doing it will need an army, a navy and an air force at their command to quell the inevitable uprising and face the complete collapse of the economy…

Oh, wait.

Nevermind.

The thing is, you can’t seriously control what people post on Facebook or Twitter – unless you ARE Facebook or Twitter or something that can directly impact how they work (for example, if you were a shotgun pointed at Mark Zuckerberg’s head, I think you’d stand a good chance).  Unless you actually pull the plug, people will keep finding a way.

hail hydra

Hail Hydra.

There is one thing the government can do: suggest what to write and what not to. Unfortunately, they have few ways of enforcing said suggestions short of the proverbial White Van.

Are we untouchable, then? No. Social media actually opens up a more effective method of censorship: exploiting he human element.

It’s no secret that almost all of our data is up on social media. Take the average Sri Lankan with a smartphone, who uses Facebook. Not only do I know what they look like from almost every angle (profile photos), I also know what they’re thinking and feeling (statuses), who they’re interacting with, where they are / were (check-ins). I know what they like.   know what they hate. I know who they’re dating.  I know where they learned and what. I can access more data about a person in a few keystrokes  from my home than entire government agencies could ten years ago.

Creepy.

Creepy.

And if Foursquare’s involved, a day or two of monitoring and you can pretty much nail someone’s daily route down to a T. If Instagram’s involved, you know what they’re seeing. You can intelligently guess where that selfie was taken.  Why would you even bother trying to break into US servers or, all the gods help us, trying to filter throuogh terabytes of data every second? Heck, look at Facebook Graph search, a service that can find people in your hometown who like bicycling. That’s the level of search / stalking you can do on a person now. You don’t need a datacenter. You don’t need men in black suits. All you need is a couple of guys with laptops.

Social Media’s not just a platform for sharing opinions – it’s become an inverse Big Brother of sorts, a sort of fucked-up espionage system where everyone voluntarily uploads their data. No longer do governments have to spend time and resources monitoring its populace: all they need to do is hire a guy to check Facebook. Intensively.

People tend to forget that hiding behind an online alias is not easy when you’ve spent years turning that alias into a proper digital extension of yourself.

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#WCY2014 Day Two: the good, the bad and the ugly

Day Two of WCY2014 was actually Day One: with the opening ceremony done and dusted, BMICH opened its doors to a flood of delegates. After an initial plenary session, the attendants split into multiple groups, each focusing on their own areas of interest.

I’d like to say really good things about today. Let’s pull a Sergio Leone here:

THE GOOD

Things happened.

All the events went off as planned. The whole schedule proceeded, which is saying something for like 20-odd sessions carried out over multiple topics, some of them involving UN officials and anywhere between 20 to a hundred delegates each.

THE BAD

Nothing happened as planned for us  local social media fellows.

For starters, we didn’t get ID tags. Which meant, for all points and purposes, that we did not exist at all. This small but fundamental point proved nightmarish. One of our number was detained by the police. The other was barred from entering pretty much every building she tried to get into. Two of us spent a good hour soaking the rain because none of the surrounding buildings, which hosted round table discussions, would let us anywhere near the place.

We were supposed to interview delegates, report the happenings in each session, cover the process and the whole nine yards: instead, we spent the day being turned down by every Tom, Dick and Dinapala in the vicinity. Posted at every entrance was a stuffed suit who seemed to know nothing whatsoever about what was happening but who seemed to make it his life’s purpose to interrogate us on the who, what, when where and why we were here.

It was a fantastic waste of time. We spent some eight-odd hours wandering around like loons trying to sneak in a photo or two. In short, they brought us in as social media fellows and then completely forgot that we existed. Transport? Accommodation? What are these mysterious words you speak, Watson?

THE UGLY

The organizers simply did a very bad job of managing everything between the sessions. Take lunch: someone had the brilliant idea of trying to serve a couple of hundred delegates off a small table parked in a corner. This is what happened:

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Yes, that’s representatives from almost every nation in the world trying to get to the food, which was served on a barely visible 5×2 table in a corner. Of course, they didn’t all get it. Food ran out. A long queue of delegates was forced to hotfoot it over to another building almost halfway towards the other end of BMICH. Whereupon they learned that food there, too, had run out, and that the building opposite had food, but it turns out they were out too….

You get the picture. We eventually gave up after a bunch of irate foreign delegates screamed in frustration and stomped away.

This is not something that should be happening. Forget the tags issue: it’s sheer idiocy to forget how many people need to eat. The committee we were interfacing were quick to acknowledge and rectify the error: nevertheless, it should not have happened.

The overall problem can be attributed to the fact that nobody among the organizers seems to know who’s actually in charge of anything.  Sure, there are events happening, which is a fantastic achievement in and of itself. Unfortunately, nobody seems to be responsible for anything. Who’s coordinating what? Who do you contact to make anything happen? Nobody knows. All we see is a few mid-level organizers and volunteers trying to hold the fort (and failing).

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And to top it all off: why is there a baila party for an entirely different, random local crowd in the middle of the World Youth Conference? These aren’t delegates, local or foreign: what are they doing here? Is this even remotely productive? No. Several people complained that the noise actually interfered with their round table sessions. Should not this money have been spent on better things, like getting the food?

Also, why are random hordes or schoolchildren sitting in for plenary sessions looking like they have no clue as to what’s happening? If it’s school representation, why aren’t reps from all schools there? Why a hundred students from just one school in one session? Is WCY a forum for serious discussion or is it a pseudo-carnival where nobody has any clue what the main attraction is?

WCY invited us here to spread the word about the event on social media and write the good stuff that happened: the reason this blogpost is basically one giant rant and not an actual news article is because we simply couldn’t.

We can’t comment on the content or the discussions because for one entire day we were essentially treated as freeloaders and prevented from doing what we actually came to do. It’s a fantastic amount of incompetence.

At the end of the day, I can appreciate the fact that things happened. As you can see from my interview with a delegate from Ghana, people are meeting up, joining minds across countries to solve problems. Serious issues are being brought to the table. Why, then, is the table so amateurishly made?

Here’s hoping Day Two gets better. I’ll get back to some actual reporting once we get access.

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Turkey and Twitter: the many-headed monster of social media

Remember the countries where “media freedom” and “social media” were simply hazy concepts? Yes, North Korea and Iran come to mind. Well, you may now add Turkey to that list. Just hours after its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, promised to eradicate the social media network, Turkey blocked out Twitter and allegedly brought in a few users for questioning.

The reason behind the banhammer? Audio recordings, allegedly of Erdoğan in conversation, which seem to imply corruption. There’s also been word of related documents.

Interestingly, this ban was suggested two weeks ago by Erdoğan himself, and dismissed at the time by Abdullah Gul, the President of Turkey. While we’re not going to consider the political implications here, it is disturbing to note the Prime Minister’s words:

“We are determined on the issue, regardless of what the world may say. We won’t allow the people to be devoured by YouTube, Facebook or others. Whatever steps need to be taken we will take them without wavering.”

This is terrible news by any measure, and a stark reminder to us Sri Lankans that the social media situation could indeed be much worse (heck, we even have a memes page that pokes fun at leading politicians). At the same time, while it’s a reminder of just how much power the men and women we vote for wield over us, it’s also a revelation:

Social media has truly changed the game.

We thought it would be unbiased journalism, but it isn’t: any organization can be bought out, cut down or threatened (as our politicians have proven time and time again). But social media, that unstoppable surge of the crowd, is proving unstoppable. Like the legendary Hydra of Greek Mythology, it grows. As one head is cut off, another grows: as one website is blocked, another tweets.

Turkey’s situation – the government may have blocked Twitter, but is Twitter the only medium? Consider the thousands of forums, IRC chats, Reddits – each of which is a social network of its own.  Can it possibly tackle them all? Not without turning into another North Korea and violating a great deal of freedoms. In fact, people are protesting. They’re not likely to stop. Heck, Gadaffi, Hosni Mubarak, the Syran Electronic Army – none of them really succeeded. There is no Hercules to kill this monster.

And the overarching point: social media’s so strong that entire governments feel threatened by a network where users post 140 characters at a time – is that not a win, in every possible way, for the people?

Mind you, social media isn’t a golden sword. The hydra is a bit double-edged. We’ve seen social media being put to some pretty bad uses – for example, Buddhist militancy as of late. Tapping into the voice of the masses is a two-way line: you give some and you get some, and sometimes those giving aren’t good people. That’s a fact of life.

The question is, will our government follow in the footsteps of this seemingly despotic Prime Minister? Well, it’s already proved that it’s not above blocking websites – take the Colombo Telegraph, for example, which many people now read via proxies. Even so, CT is kept in the minds of its readers by its strong social media following.  It looks like social media, for now, is winning.