Susan Benesch is one of the leading thinkers on countering hate speech online. She’s a fellow at the Berkman Center this year, and I’m terribly sorry to be missing her talk at Berkman this afternoon. (Instead, I’m watching from home so I can be primary caretaker for my son for a couple of weeks while Rachel gets to travel.) She teaches international human rights at American University and is the founder of the Dangerous Speech Project, which tries to understand the spread of speech that incites people to violence.
Susan’s talk is available online and I’ve tried to blog it remotely while cursing my inability to teleport across the state. The talk is wonderfully titled “Troll Wrastling for Beginners: Data-Driven Methods to Decrease Hatred Online”. Unlike most conventional online wisdom, Benesch believes you should engage with the trolls, in part because it may be the most successful path to countering dangerous speech. The approaches states have taken to dangerous speech – punishment and censorship – don’t work very well, and some evidence suggests that they work even worse online than offline. She suggests the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was ultimately killed by a drone strike – despite being punished (via summary execution from a US drone), his online speeches continue to be influential and may have influenced the Boston Marathon bombers. Censoring that speech doesn’t work well in an online environment as it’s likely to move onto other platforms.
So what about “don’t feed the trolls”? Benesch points out that there are several implicit assumption in that advice. We assume that if we ignore a troll, they will stop (which, in turn, tends to assume behavior that’s only on a signal platform.) There’s an assumption that online hate is created by trolls; in the few experiments that look at racist and sexist speech, at least half is produced by non-trolls. We tend to assume that all trolls have the same motivations and that they will respond to the same controls. And finally, we assume that the trolls are the problem – we need to consider effects on the audience.
(Benesch doesn’t define trolls until pressed by the audience and points out that it’s a term she uses with tongue in cheek, most of the time – she acknowledges that different trolls have different motivations. Her goal is to move away from considering trolls as the problem and towards understanding dangerous speech as a broader phenomenon.)
One of the benefits of online speech environments, Benesch posits, is that we can examine the effect of speech on people. In offline environments, it’s very hard to measure what reactions dangerous speech leads to – in online environments, it may be possible to track both responses and effects.
Benesch’s suggestion is that we should approach dangerous speech through counterspeech, in effect, talking back to the trolls and to others. In explaining her logic, she notes that the internet doesn’t create hate speech – in some cases, it may disinhibit us from speaking. But more often, the internet creates an environment where we are aware of speech we otherwise wouldn’t hear. Most of us wouldn’t have been aware of what speech is shared at a KKK meeting, and many of us wouldn’t have heard the sexist jokes that were told in locker rooms. Now speech is crossing between formerly closed communities.
This is a new feature of human life, Benesch suggests, and while it causes a great deal of pain, it’s also an opportunity. We can “toss speech back across those boundaries to see what effect it has.” For the most part, we don’t know what will happen when we expose speech this way, and it’s possible the effects could be very positive. She asks us to consider norm formation in teenagers – most 16 year olds, she argues, have historically developed opinions from a small, homogenous community around them. That’s no longer the case, and it positive opportunity for teens to develop a broader and more nuanced worldview.
Believing in counterspeech means having faith that it’s possible to shift norms in speech communities. Benesch asks “What is the likelihood an American politician will use the N-word in public?” While there’s a constitutionally protected right to use such an offensive term, the probability of a speaker using the term is near zero. Yet, she argues, 60 years ago there were places in the US where you likely could not have been elected without using that word. “People’s behavior shifts dramatically in response to community norms,” she suggests, and as many of 80% of people are likely to follow the norms of speech consistent with a space and a situation, even trolls.
One of Benesch’s case studies for counterspeech comes from Kenya, where dangerous speech was a key component to violence in the wake of 2007′s disputed election. With over a thousand killed and hundreds of thousands displaced, the 2007-8 unrest was one of the ugliest chapters in the nation’s history, and as Kenya prepared for elections in 2013, many Kenyans were worried about inflammatory and dangerous speech online.
Benesch worked with Kenya data scientists at the iHub and the team at Ushahidi to build Umati (from the Swahili word for crowd), which collected reports of online hate speech. What they found was a wave of inflammatory speech from Facebook, and astonishingly little dangerous speech on Twitter. This disparity is not well explained by platform usage – Twitter is extremely popular in Kenya. Instead, it’s explained by counterspeech.
When inflammatory speech was posted on Twitter, prominent Kenyan twitter users (often members of the #KOT, Kenyans on Twitter, community) responded by criticizing the poster, often invoking the need to keep discourse in the country civil and productive. This counterspeech was surprisingly successful – Benesch tells the story of a Twitter user who posted that he would be okay with the disappearance of another ethnic group, and was immediately called out by other Twitter users. Within a few minutes, he had tweeted, “Sorry, guys, what I said wasn’t right and I take it back”.
This isn’t the behavior of a troll, Benesch argues. If the user in question were simply looking for attention, he wouldn’t have backed down when his inflammatory tweets met with spontaneous counterspeech. This online counterspeech is especially important when online speech is magnified by broadcast media, as it is in both Kenya and the US – it’s possible for television and newspapers to magnify not just the hateful speech but the attempts to counteract it.
By studying successful examples of counterspeech, Benesch is trying to develop a taxonomy of counterspeech and determine when and where different forms are most useful. She takes inspiration from examples like that of a young man in the US tweeting angrily about Nina Davuluri being named Miss America. The young man inaccurately and disparagingly referred to Davuluri as “an Arab”, and was immediately countered on Twitter by people who called out his racism. Within a few hours, he’d tweeted something resembling an apology to Davuluri herself.
Benesch wonders, “Can we put together the ideas of counterspeech and the idea of influencing 16 year olds?” It’s not realistic to believe we’re going to change the behavior of hardcore haters, she tells us, but we only need to influence a critical mass of people within a community, not the outliers.
Twitter and Facebook aren’t the only environments for inflammatory speech online – anyone who’s participated in online gaming knows that there’s toxic and hostile speech in online environments. Riot Games was concerned about the speech surrounding their popular game League of Legends and cooperated with academic researchers to understand speech in their game universe. The study found that fully half of the inflammatory messages were coming from users we wouldn’t normally consider to be trolls – they came from people who generally behaved like other game players, but were having a bad day and lashed out in ways that were inflammatory. They also discovered that very small changes in the platform – changes in language used to prompt players, apparently minor changes like font and text color – could improve behavior substantially.
Facebook’s “compassion research” project works on similar ideas, trying to get people to use Facebook in more pro-social ways. When you try to flag content on Facebook as offensive, Facebook first prompts you to engage with the person who offended you, suggesting language to communicate to the other user: “Could you take this down? It hurts my feelings.” As with Riot Games, they’ve found that small prompts can lead to dramatic behavior changes.
Benesch has been using these insights to consider problems of inflammatory speech in Myanmar (a topic I learned a little about in my visit to the country earlier this month.) In Myanmar, Facebook is the dominant internet platform, not just the dominant social media platform – if you search for information in Myanmar, you’re probably searching Facebook. In this environment, a rising tide of highly inflammatory speech inciting Buddhists against Muslims, particularly against the Rohingya people, is especially concerning. Not only does Facebook in Myanmar lead to echo chambers where no one may be willing to challenge inflammatory speech with counterspeech, but some of the mechanisms that work elsewhere may not work in Myanmar.
In a country that’s suffered under a military dictatorship for half a century, the idea of “reporting” people for their speech can be very frightening. Similarly, being encouraged to engage with someone who posted something offensive when you have reason to fear this person, or his friends, might threaten your life, isn’t a workable intervention. Any lessons from Facebook’s compassion research needs to be understood in specific human contexts. Benesch asks how you should respond to offensive speech as a Facebook user in Myanmar: you can like the post, but you can’t unlike it. If you respond in the comments thread, you’re participating in a space where the page owner can eliminate or bury your comment. This points to the challenge of using a private space as a quasi-public space.
We need more research on questions like this, Benesch offers. We need to understand different responses to dangerous speech, from “don’t feed the trolls” to counterspeech, to see what’s effective. We need to understand whether counterspeech that seeks to parody or use humor is more effective than direct confrontation. And we need to understand discourse norms in different communities as what works in one place is unlikely to work in another. Louis Brandeis advised that the remedy for bad speech is more speech. As researchers, we can go further and investigate which speech is a helpful counter to bad speech.
I’ll admit that the topic of Benesch’s research made me uneasy when we first met. I’m enough of a first amendment absolutist that I tend to regard talk of “dangerous speech” as an excuse for government control of speech. I had a great meeting with Benesch just before I went to Myanmar, and was much better prepared for the questions I fielded there than if I hadn’t benefitted from her wisdom. She’s done extensive work understanding what sorts of speech seems to drive people to harm one another, and she’s deeply dedicated to the idea that this speech can be countered more effectively than it could be censored or banned.
The conversation after her talk gave me a sense for just how challenging this work is – it’s tricky to define inflammatory speech, dangerous speech, trolling, etc. What might be a reasonable intervention to counter speech designed to incite people to violence might not be the right intervention to make a game community more inviting. On the other hand, counterspeech may be more important in ensuring that online spaces are open and inviting to women and to people of different races and faiths than they are right now, even if inflammatory speech never descends to the level of provoking violence.
For people interested in learning more about this topic, I’d recommend the links on the Berkman talk page as well as this essay from Cherian George, who was at the same meeting I attended in Myanmar and offered his thoughts on how the country might address its inflammatory speech online. I’m looking forward to learning more from Susan’s work and developing a more nuanced understanding of this complicated topic.
In 2006, American adman Dan Ligon shared a video, “Ha Ha Ha America”, that he’d entered in the Sundance film festival. The video presents itself as an angry and dismissive rant about China’s superiority and America’s inferiority, badly subtitled in Chinglish. I wrote about the film when it came out, troubled by the racism associated with the Chinglish narration, and my fear it would be misread as reality, not satire, by American audiences. The Shanghaiist and some other China-based commentators were similarly troubled, though one Daily Kos reader found it a helpful wakeup call about China’s rise and America’s failure to compete economically.
A story about shooting Ha Ha Ha America, from Ligon’s site.
The film is shot in Wenzhou, and central to its narrative is the idea that Wenzhou, China’s 16th largest city, is likely to surpass New York City in population soon. This requires some blurring of the numbers – the Wenzhou jurisdiction, which includes two satellite cities and six counties, has a population of about 9 million, though only 3 million live in the city proper. New York City has an urban population of over 8 million and 20 million in the broader metropolitan area. Ligon’s comparison is apples to oranges (metropolitan area to urban population), but it’s a provocative idea that a city most Americans had never heard of could rival the population of America’s largest cities.
What interested me about Ligon’s film was the juxtaposition of a narrative about China’s rise with the images of a cityscape that isn’t going to challenge New York City for tourists any time soon. If Ligon’s argument is that size matters, then perhaps discovering that a massive city that reads visually as a somewhat sleepy provincial capital tells us that a future of Chinese megacities is going to look very different from the European/American 20th century. Or perhaps there’s a subtler message that size isn’t everything, and that iconic, aspirational cities occupy another conceptual space entirely.
Ha Ha Ha America, on YouTube
I was thinking about “Ha Ha Ha America” because I realize I don’t have a very clear picture of what Chinese cities look like. I’ve recently been to Guangzhou and Hong Kong, and in the more distant past, to Beijing, but it’s very hard for me to picture what I think Wenzhou would look like.
I’ve been thinking about Chinese cities because my colleague Catherine d’Ignazio is working on a project called Terra Incognita, an online game that tracks your reading about different cities and invites you to explore readings about unfamiliar parts of the world. The project is a reaction, in part, to my writings about homophily and serendipity. By helping you monitor your reading behavior, Terra Incognita can reveal your blind spots, and then help you find ways to explore content from those unknown parts of the world.
Catherine’s current implementation of Terra Incognita uses a browser plugin to track your reading (only on a whitelisted set of news sites) and opens a portal to one of the world’s 1000 largest cities when you open a new tab. Should you read a lot about Europe, you won’t get a page on Berlin, but might get Brazzaville, which could include a piece from my blog about Congolese sapeurs.
That we’re relying on this blog as a source of compelling content designed to help you explore unfamiliar places is an indicator of the main problem with the project: it’s hard to find compelling readings on many of the world’s cities. This problem is especially acute for China. Roughly 40% of the cities on the list Catherine is working from are in mainland China, and it’s not always easy to find English-language readings that introduce what’s exciting or special about a city to an international audience.
A Google search for Wenzhou will, tragically, turn up a lot of documents, due to a horrific train crash outside the city in July 2011. This New Yorker article by Evan Osnos is an excellent overview of the crash and the factor that led to it, but doesn’t tell you much about Wenzhou itself. The Wikipedia page on Wenzhou offers the intriguing hint that the city is legendary for its entrepreneurialism, and is the “birthplace of China’s private economy.” More bluntly, the article notes, “A popular saying calls Wenzhounese the “Jews of the Orient” (东方的犹太人). ”
Exploring this idea, I found Peter Hessler’s article for National Geographic, “China’s Instant Cities”. Hessler explores the growth of Lishui, a rapidly growing manufacturing city 80 kilometers from Wenzhou through the story of Boss Gao, a Wenzhouese entrepreneur who builds a factory to build bra underwires and rings (the wire rings that bra clasps hook into.) It’s a brilliant story, featured in a collection of 2008′s best magazine writing, and it did exactly what I hope Terra Incognita can do: help readers develop an interest in places they knew nothing about. (I’m now using magportal.com, a magazine search engine, to look for other Wenzhou articles, like Stephen Glain’s article in Smithsonian magazine, “A Tale of Two Chinas”, which contrasts entrepreneurial Wenzhou with Shenyang, a former government stronghold now facing hard times.
As I was writing “Rewire”, I had a helpful and long-running argument with David Weinberger, who worried that my hopes of engineering serendipity by tracking what we read, identifying blind spots and making suggestions would be less effective than a much simpler strategy – just read a really good magazine. The promise of Granta, The New Yorker or other elite magazines is simple: it doesn’t matter if you’re interested in the topic, because the writing is so good it will draw you in.
David’s right that quality matters. But I wonder if the magazine format is the key issue. Introducing someone to your community via news stories doesn’t work, as they lack context to understand the news. An encyclopedia article offers background, but no seduction, no reason to read and explore. Magazine articles need to draw you in and to expose you to the unfamiliar, and can’t assume as much context. Part of the success of Terra Incognita may rest on whether we can find these sorts of high quality, low context stories for a thousand cities.
How would you explain your hometown to a foreign visitor in half a dozen weblinks, or less? Wikipedia’s article on Pittsfield, MA includes an article in the Financial Times that generously describes our little city as “The Brooklyn of the Berskhires”, an article on retirement that points out that Pittsfield is the only US city where the majority of retirees are single, and an ESPN piece that details Pittsfield’s tenuous claim to be the birthplace of baseball. (A historian discovered an early reference to baseball in a 1791 Pittsfield bylaw, prohibiting playing the game near the city’s new meetinghouse, which featured glass windows. Pittsfield also features one of only two professional baseball stadiums that faces west, meaning the batter faces the setting sun. This means ballgames in Pittsfield routinely feature “sun delays”, during which play stops because the batter is blinded, leading also to our baseball team being named the Pittsfield Suns.)
Incomplete? Yes. Biased? Indeed. But if you’re interested in learning more either about Wenzhou or Pittsfield, perhaps Catherine is on to something.
Catherine and I would love your help on Terra Incognita – please sign up for the alpha site here, and if you have specific suggestions of stories to represent a city, please use this form. I’d also welcome general thoughts on how we should be looking for great stories linked to global cities.
Engin Onder and Zeynep Tufekci visited the Berkman Center today to talk about the rise of citizen reporting in Turkey. Tufekci is a leading scholar of online media and protest, and Onder is one of the founders of 140journos, an exciting citizen media group that’s been central to documenting Turkey’s protests in Gezi Park and across the nation.
Zeynep Tufekci offers an overview of the press situation in Turkey to provide context for Engin’s work with 140journos. There’s no golden age of press freedom in Turkey to look back to, she warns. After the military coup in 1980, the 1980s were a decade marked by military censorship. In the 1990s, Turkish media suffered from censorship around Kurdish issues, but there were media outlets that took journalism seriously within existing constraints.
In the 2000s, the concentration of power by AKP after their second election led to large conglomerates moving into the media business and buying up the press. Energy companies ended up buying leading newspapers, firing columnists and steering the paper’s editorial direction towards the government… and, coincidently, would win the next major government energy contract. Zeynep describes the situation as “ridiculous”, noting that a multiday clash in the heart of the nation’s biggest city was broadcast by CNN International, while CNN Turk broadcast a document on penguins. Talking to a Turkish journalist about the situation, the journalist explained a layered system of censorship: “First, I censor myself. Then my editor censors me, taking my already soft story and make it softer. And if that’s not still soft enough, the government may call a newspaper or TV station and demand coverage change.” Should an outlet not comply, they face massive tax bills, which mysteriously disappear when the media becomes more compliant.
While the press is heavily constrained, Zeynep tells us, the internet is largely open. Websites have been blocked, but it was very easy to get around censorship using proxies. The blocking of YouTube, she tells us, wasn’t a serious obstacle to viewing content, as even the prime minister admitted he used proxies to access it. Instead, it was a tax strategy, trying to get Google to come to Turkey and pay taxes. That’s changing, however, and the new censorship regime promised is significantly more serious, including deep packet inspection.
Zeynep tells us of the Roboski Massacre, a bombing in the village of Uludere, in Kurdish areas where informal smuggling is part of the local economy. The village was bombed by military jets, killing 34 people. It was unclear whether this was a mistake by the military, or a conscious attack on the Kurdish population.
Every newsroom in the country knew about the story and all waited to hear whether they could publish about it. A Turkish journalist, Serdar Akinan, decided to fly to the area and took a minibus to the village, encountering the massive funeral procession. He took an instagram photo and shared it on Twitter… which broke the media blackout and led everyone to start publishing news of the bombing. Akinan lost his job for this reporting and now works for an independent news organization.
The story of 140journos starts there, Zeynep tells us. Engin Onder introduces himself as a non-journalist from Istanbul, a former passive news consumer before media and news broke down. “We felt so sad about this issue, and thought we can do some stuff.” Onder runs a group of creative professionals called Institute of Public Minds, a group that operates creatively in physical and digital public spaces.
In early 2012, in the wake of the Roboski Massacre, Onder and his colleagues felt compelled to start building their own media systems to address the weaknesses of the professional media. Roboski wasn’t the only trigger – a set of pro-secularism protests in 2007 and a union protest in Ankara in 2009 also received no media coverage.
Akinan’s coverage of the Roboski massacre was the inspiration for Engin and his friends Cem and Safa. All three were heavy Twitter users, and they realized that Twitter and online services might be sufficient infrastructure to report the news, as it was all Akinan needed to break this critical story. They brainstormed names, and settled on 140journos, honoring Twitter’s character limit and using slang to poke fun at the professional status of journalist.
Cem had been kicked out of his house because his politics so sharply diverged from his father’s. His father read and watched only media from one conglomerate, while Cem began reading underground and alternative newspapers – for Cem, 140journos is about “hacking his father”, creating media that could sway his parents. Safa is a conservative and religious guy, who helps counterbalance the team. Engin tells us that he had only attended one rally before starting the project.
Before the Gezi protests, 140journos reported on key court cases using nothing more than a 3G mobile phone. At some point in a key trial, the judge demanded that journalists with press cards leave – the 140journos remained and continued tweeting from their phones. That led to discovery of the network by mainstream journalists (who probably resented 140journos for being able to remain in the courtroom.)
140journos made a point of visiting a wide range of public protests, including conservative protests against fornication. They believed it was important to ensure different groups understood each other and saw the diversity of protest movements.
Media coverage of 140journos had been pretty condescending, focusing on the youth of the participants, not on the quality of their reporting. Zeynep, on the other hand, took their work seriously, declaring “This is not ‘citizen journalism’ – this is ‘journalistic citizenship’.”
Once the Gezi Park protests broke out, 140journos found themselves at the heart of a massive movement in Istanbul. Part of the mantra of the Gezi movement was, “the media is dead – be the media”. This helps explain why, during a moment the police were spraying tear gas on Taksim Park, a protester was holding up an iPad and taking photos. Gezi brought a culture of documentation to Turkish protest movements.
The tools of the trade, Ergin tells us, include Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Vine, Instagram, as well as tools that help mine social media platforms. Tineye, Topsy, Google Image Search helped they find traffic cameras, which were also helpful. Google Maps allowed the team to identify where documentations took place, as did Yandex Panorama (similar to Google Streetview, but with coverage of Turkey.) When they heard the sames of people involved with the protests, they sought them out via Facebook, then scheduled in person or phone interviews. Internally, the team coordinated using WhatsAp.
During the protests, 140journos were tweeting hundreds of times a day. They noted different media usage patterns in different parts of the world. Istanbulis use a wide range of media types. Ankarans favor livestreaming. In Izmir, there was less content produced, more a complaint about what the media wasn’t covering.
When the culture of protest documentation became common, the role for 140journos changed into a practice of curating and verifying, not frontline reporting. They decided they couldn’t participate in the protests, and never physically appeared in the park so they could cover the protests with a level of detachment and neutrality. They may have sympathized with the protesters, but their role was as journalists, not activists.
To explain the working method, Ergin gives us an example from Rize, a conservative town that’s the home of the Prime Minister. A crowd, allegedly armed with knives, gathered in front of the office of a secularist group. Seeking to verify what was going on, they searched online, found a blurry photo of the protesters outside the office and started reading signs on the street. They began calling shops on the street and interviewing witnesses of the standoff. Ironically, one of the businesses nearby was a TV station which, unsurprisingly, was not reporting on the situation. Eventually, they also found a nearby traffic camera, and used a combination of the interviews and the street camera to confirm the story and report on it.
After the Gezi Park protests, Engin argues that the content of citizen journalism has been legitimized, the quality of citizen journalism content has been refined and the value of credibility has been strengthened throughout their network. There’s now a network of citizen journalists aside from 140journos, and 140journos often uses these networks to vet their work. 140journos builds their reporting on lists of citizens they’ve verified live in different Turkish cities – when an event takes place, they lean on those local sources.
In a remarkable twist, Veli Encü, a survivor of the Roboski Massacre, has become a correspondent. When warplanes fly over Uludere, he immediately reports to the network so that people can watch and ensure another massacre doesn’t take place. Cem’s father, who used to isolate himself in conservative media, has now become an activist and a much broader reader. And 140journos is now producing a radio show driven by citizen media, broadcasting once a week, and projecting their work onto the sides of public buildings to attract attention and open dialog with a broad range of participants.
We move into a Q&A, which I opened by asking whether the rise of citizen journalism has shamed Turkish journalists into changing their behavior. Engin is uncertain. He notes that the CEO of CNN Turk underestimates citizen journalism, likely seeing it as providing misinformation and poisoning public discourse. But media workers are starting to work as pirates, with 10 or more professional journalists contributing anonymously with stories they otherwise couldn’t get published. Zeynep suggests that there has been a significant change post-Gezi, with more actual news carried live. 140journos was a catalyst, she argues, but so were marches where people stood outside TV stations, waved money and begged reporters to do their jobs. There’s another cultural shift, both note. Citizens are willing to put themselves at personal risk to capture images from the frontline of protests.
A Berkman fellow asks whether there are any Turkish tools being used to produce this media. For better or worse, Engin explains, the tools used are those of social media, and almost all are hosted in the US, but available for no cost online. Furthermore, the journalism the team is doing is wholly non-commercial – they support themselves through other jobs and engage in their reporting as part of their civic engagement.
In the next few weeks, 140journos is planning to release two new tools. One will use elements of gamification to help increase the practice of verifying and factchecking reporting. The other will provide background detail on locations throughout Turkey on a data-enhanced map, which can be used as a way to provide context and background information on stories the network releases.
Another question asks whether there are any plans to monetize content. Engin is insistent that the priority is building better content, not working on sustainability. Another questioner asks whether coming internet censorship will make it difficult for 140journos to share content. Engin explains that the group has so many friends in the Pirate Party that they won’t have trouble finding VPNs, or helping their readers find VPNs. At the same time, he notes that it’s unclear how these admittedly draconian laws will actually be implemented. Engin notes that his group is non Anonymous (or anonymous) – they strongly believe they are doing nothing illegal, merely reporting the news.
Another question asks whether the Turkish government will begin mining online data to identify protesters. Zeynep explains that this isn’t necessary – every phone in Turkey is registered to an individual’s national ID, and the government has the identity of everyone who has appeared at protests. While there have been occasional arrests of people who tweeted to incite violence, there have not been widespread roundups of people involved with these demonstrations. Engin notes that the government probably cannot shut down the internet in Turkey without collapsing the government entirely.
Zeynep closes the conversation by noting her amazement when she discovered that 140journos was four college students, working in their free time. She draws an analogy to the groups that coordinated logistics during the Tahrir protests, who used social media to build a logistics team, inspired by a local cupcake shop that used Twitter in that fashion. Zeynep suggests that we’re seeing a technological shift that makes certain kinds of mobilization significantly easier than it ever had been before.
It’s hard to explain just how much Myanmar has changed. It’s at least as hard to know whether to believe in all the changes Myanmar has made.
Thankfully, there are few truly despotic societies in the world, but Myanmar was one of them from 1962 until quite recently, ruled by a military junta with a horrific record on human rights. The nation’s media was heavily state controlled, with a policy of pre-publication censorship that turned domestic media into an organ for state propaganda. It was difficult or impossible for international media to report critically on the country, and events in the nation were often wholly invisible to the rest of the world. When Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, killing over 200,000 people in the Irrawaddy delta, the military government released no information on the crisis for days afterwards and is reported to have obstructed UN relief efforts out of fears relief workers would act as spies. If there were an Olympics for closed societies, Myanmar would have been a steady contender for the silver, behind perennial champion North Korea, but duking it out with Eritrea, Turkmenistan and heavyweight Iran.
That’s all changing, and rapidly. In late 2010, the government released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and in 2012, she and her party, the National League for Democracy stood for election and won the vast majority of vacant seats – Daw Suu now represents the constituency of Kawhmu in the lower house of parliament. Pre-press censorship has been eliminated, and strict internet controls were lifted in 2011. Long-banned dissident organizations now operate within the country, lead to a surreal situation where formerly banned publications now fight state-controlled publications for ad revenue. According to Reporters without Borders’s Press Freedom Index, the Myanmar press is a dismal 145th… but that’s up from 171 of 175 in 2009… and its current score is better than Singapore, Malaysia, China and Vietnam.
This helps explain why the East West Center decided to hold its biannual conference on media in Yangon this March, and why I jumped at the chance to speak at the event. I’d looked for excuses to travel to Myanmar before the 2007 Saffron revolution, hoping to investigate internet censorship and look for ways around the country’s firewall. (After the revolution and the crackdown that followed, I decided it was too dangerous to come to the country, not for me, but for anyone I ended up working with there.) The changes to Myanmar seemed miraculous, and I wanted to see for myself what the country was really like.
I was lucky to be able to come to Yangon for a few days before the conference to get a read on the press and telecommunications situation. I was doubly blessed that colleagues from Open Society Foundation, which has had a Burma-focused project for two decades, were around and helped introduce me to lots of interesting folks. I met tech entrepreneurs, newspaper editors, foreign correspondents and others navigating the local media environment, all of whom are trying to figure out just how open contemporary Myanmar is and what the future has in store.
The opening of the East West conference included a reminder of just how closed Myanmar’s media environment had been. One speaker showed a page from a 2010 edition of government newspaper New Light of Myanmar, which included an ad urging citizens, “Do not allow ourselves to be swayed by killer broadcasts designed to cause troubles”. (The “killer broadcasts” in question were from VOA, BBC, RFA and other media organizations attending the conference.) Another speaker introduced a source he’d interviewed decades before… inadvertently leading him to spend over sixteen years in prison.
East West Center is clearly aware that Myanmar’s press today is far from free, but has chosen to celebrate the remarkable progress made. Open Society Foundation (where I serve as a member of the global board) is doing much the same – we continue to support independent news organizations like The Irrawaddy and have supported their decisions to operate within the country, despite restrictions and threats to their freedom to publish.
Here’s some of what I learned from meeting with Myanmar journalists, activists and entrepreneurs:
- The media scene is crowded, probably too crowded. Prior to the 2012 censorship reforms, it wasn’t possible to publish a daily newspaper in Myanmar, as all stories needed to be pre-approved by the Ministry of Information. But a large ecosystem of weekly and monthly journals has been growing for years, and now there are more than 200 periodicals published. And now there are 14 licensed daily newspapers in Burmese and about half a dozen in English.
The rush to start daily newspapers has been economically disastrous for many of those involved. There’s simply not enough ad revenue to go around, and more than one publisher has already gone out of business. Referring to the press situation in her remarks on Sunday, Aung San Suu Kyi joked that her party wasn’t wealthy enough to start a newspaper, implying both that all papers are losing money and that papers are as much political tool as source of news.
- The internet is growing in Myanmar, but for now, it’s Facebook. About 1 million of the country’s 60 million people are online. That number is likely to change sharply as two new mobile phone operators, Telenor and Ooredoo, come into the market later this year and offer data services. People who are online are on Facebook – as an Australian entrepreneur put it, “The internet here is America Online – everyone’s on through Facebook, and they rarely leave that walled compound.” Indeed, I saw ads featuring corporate URLs and those URLs were rarely .mm sites, but more often Facebook pages. The publishers I talked to rarely had accurate traffic statistics for their websites – the unit of measurement is Facebook likes.
This situation is potentially disastrous for online media. They’ve got to put their content on Facebook to find an audience, but they get no benefit from the ads it generates, and it’s hard to lure audiences onto their sites to generate pageviews. The situation is likely to get worse when the mobile phone operators join the market – it’s quite possible that Facebook will negotiate for their site to be accessible without data charges, as they’ve done in other developing markets, which will badly tilt the playing field against independent website operators. This isn’t Facebook’s fault – they’re competing for dominance in a new market, as we’d expect them to. But it’s going to be a real challenge to build a web ecosystem that can support independent media, and Myanmar needs help with webhosting, design, online ad sales, etc. to get there.
- Despite exciting changes, there are serious threats to press freedom aside from economic challenges. Given the chance to question the deputy Minister of Information U Ye Htut at the conference, two foreign correspondents complained that they were receiving very brief visas to report within the country, and wondered whether their reporting had led to briefer visas. While the deputy minister assured us that the government was simply putting into place a more consistent visa policy, I conducted my own informal survey with journalists I spoke to that contradicts this. Journalists who were writing about Myanmar’s repressed Rohingya minority reported receiving two week visas, while the friendly television journalist who spent half our interview demanding I confirm that Myanmar was more open than other nations in the region received a 70 day business visa instead.
- Visas aren’t the problem for domestic journalists – prison is. Four reporters and the CEO of Unity Journal were arrested when the paper reported on an alleged chemical weapons factory in the center of the country and are still being held, despite international pressure. The reporters and publisher now face a trial for revealing state secrets. (The government denies that the facility is a chemical weapons factory… which leaves open the question of what state secret was revealed.)
- Media professionals report that they fear legal repercussions of their reports, including defamation lawsuits. Bertil Lintner, legendary historian and correspondent on Burma, noted that the country seemed to be moving from a model of explicit censorship to “the Singapore model”, where censorship happens through a system of economic and legal pressures.
- People are understandably terrified about hate speech. Virtually every conversation I had about the internet in Myanmar centered on hate speech. The fear, specifically, is of speech that will incite ethnic tensions, especially tensions between Buddhists and Muslims, including the Rohingya. This is understandable – the history of post-colonial Myanmar has been one of constant conflict between the army and ethnic minority groups. According to friends in the country, Burmese Facebook is filled with images designed to provoke these tensions, sometimes featuring the images of people raped or killed and text blaming the violence on minority groups.
As a result, virtually everyone I spoke to believed that either the government or Facebook needed to control online speech, including people who’d served substantial prison sentences for their online writings.
- People really don’t want to talk about the Rohingya. Most local media won’t use the term “Rohingya”. Instead, they refer to “Bangladeshis”, which implies that the people in question are illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh with no rights of citizenship. One of the more careful local outlets uses the term “Muslims of Bangladeshi descent, some of whom are Myanmar citizens”, which seems absurdly convoluted, until you understand that terming someone “Rohingya” is equivalent to taking sides in a very unpopular political debate over whether these 3 million people are citizens. That there have been Rohingya in Myanmar for centuries, that the country once had Rohingya members of parliament doesn’t do much to sway most people in the country, who seem largely untroubled by a decision not to allow Rohingya to identify their ethnicity on an upcoming census. When I raised this issue with local journalists, I got a great deal of pushback, including speculation that “Rohingya” was a term popularized by international media and not native to the country.
All these conversations left me with an interesting challenge as a keynote speaker. I wanted to acknowledge the complexities of Myanmar’s media environment, while also acknowledging how far the country had come. Below, I offer my notes for the speech – what I ended up delivering was somewhat different, as I ended up shortening to fit into the time allotted. The organizers gave me a title I wouldn’t have chosen – “Civic Media’s Challenges and Opportunities”. It’s fairly far from what I would normally talk about, but I wanted to open conversations about how Myanmar might approach the opportunities offered by participatory media and how the country might protect the openings it has made for online speech.
Students from the University of Missouri covered my talk here.
It’s an honor and a privilege to be with you today. This is an incredibly exciting moment for Myanmar. Your country has experienced so many exciting developments in a very short period of time. This conference on the Challenges of a Free Press is a timely one given changes made in August 2012 to allow reporters to publish stories without ministry review. That development followed very encouraging changes to internet policy in September 2011, which made previously inaccessible international news sites and social media platforms available to the people of Myanmar. We have seen a wave of young people in Myanmar joining Facebook, leading to stronger connections between people in Myanmar and Burmese people in the diaspora.
We know that the future of the internet is tightly connected to phones and mobile devices, and Myanmar is moving to make mobile phones affordable and accessible to all people through sharply reducing the price of SIM cards and now through issuing licenses to Oreedoo and Telenor, which are promising inexpensive mobile service in the country’s major cities this year.
We can see the incredible interest in being on the internet every time there is a conference on the internet in Yangon or Mandalay, like BarCamp Yangon, which has been widely attended every time it has been held. This is an exciting moment and I’m honored by the opportunity to visit Myanmar as these changes are taking place.
Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about the Myanmar press on Sunday and characterized the press in Myanmar as somewhat open. That’s correct. It’s laudable that Myanmar has taken steps to open the internet and end pre-publication censorship, but concerning that other forms of censorship are taking place. As has been raised today, restrictions on visas for journalists are concerning, as are the arrests of reporters at the Unity Journal. And in speaking to people about the rise of the internet, I hear a great deal of enthusiasm to put some controls on the internet back in place to cope with a troubling trend of extreme speech.
It’s understandable that Myanmar is wrestling with these challenges about openness. Myanmar is experiencing changes associated with the internet in a matter of months rather than a matter of years. My country has had twenty years to get used to the internet and the changes it brings about. Over those two decades, my country and others have had heated debates about the benefits and costs of the internet. Given how easy it is to copy and share music, books and movies with the internet, what are the rights and protections for artists, authors and filmmakers, and for readers and viewers? Is the internet dangerous because it puts us in contact with strangers from all over the world or is a powerfully positive force for peace and understanding, for exactly the same reason? Will the internet create new businesses like Google or Amazon that lead to opportunity and wealth, or will it destroy old businesses like stores and newspapers?
I’m interested in all these debates – and very interested to see how they play out in Myanmar – but I am most interested in the question of how the internet may change what it means to be a citizen. There have been great hopes for the internet and democracy, the idea that governments can listen to people’s wants and needs more directly, that citizens might vote directly on legislation or help draft new laws, that we might have robust debates in a digital pubic sphere where it’s possible for everyone to express their opinions. There are also great fears: that the internet gives us distraction instead of dialog, that we are more likely to use this new technology to entertain ourselves than to engage in debate and discourse. It’s possible that the internet may make it easy to surround yourself only with opinions you agree with and to ignore other important voices, or may provide a platform for hate speech. Some worry that the internet may make it easier for people to take to the streets and protest against a government – others argue that this is a good thing, not a bad thing – and yet others argue that it’s a mistake to either blame or credit the internet for protests we’ve seen in Ukraine, Egypt, Tunisia, or in Europe and the United States.
The center I direct at MIT studies these questions through the lens of “civic media”. Civic media is digital media used for public purposes, like participating in political conversations or social movements. It uses many of the same tools as social media, like Facebook or Twitter, but the aims are different. Social media is mostly about staying in touch with your friends. Civic media is about trying to improve your community or work for social change, and while it often starts by talking about ideas with friends, it’s also about influencing governments or large groups of people.
Civic media is participatory media – even newspapers and television stations are discovering that they cannot simply deliver information to their audiences. The audience expects to be able to talk back, to share news stories they want to see covered, to offer their interpretation and opinions. Media that doesn’t enable participation is likely to be criticized or ignored – when CNN in Turkey did not cover protests happening in Gezi Square, millions of ordinary Turks, not just protesters, turned to Twitter to talk about events in the square and to mock CNN and other stations for failing to cover the story. News organizations are learning how to use social media well and are turning into civic media outlets – newspapers like The Guardian in the UK and television channels like Al Jazeera work hard to invite public participation and blur the lines between old media and new.
Because civic media uses the tools of social media, it is both personalized and personal. I get some of my news each day from a newspaper, but much of my news from the thousand people I follow on Twitter. You’ll hear tomorrow from Jillian York, an internet freedom activist and an expert on the internet in the Middle East and North Africa – I follow her on Twitter so that I get her recommendations on what I should read to understand social movements in Tunisia. This means I get news personalized to my interests – I am interested in Tunisia and what Jillian thinks about Tunisia – and personal, in the sense that I pay more attention to news my friends think is important.
This has an important consequence – my picture of the world is going to be different than yours, because we are each seeing a personalized picture of the world. This has some complicated implications for democracy. If I am only reading about Tunisia, and you are only reading about Ukraine, how do we have a conversation about important issues? It is possible we may be facing a future where it is difficult to have conversations about important public issues because we don’t have the same knowledge. We are slowly learning how to navigate this new world, to seek out opinions and perspectives we may not agree with so that we have a broader view of the world, but it’s difficult, both in terms of time and temperament. There is so much information available online, and so much that we agree with politically that it can be very hard work to pay attention to ideas we disagree with.
I study civic media because media is one of the most powerful forces in an open society. Even when media doesn’t tell us what to think, it tells us what to think about, what issues are most important for us to discuss and debate as a society. It monitors powerful institutions – governments and businesses – and can draw attention to corruption and wrongdoing. And civic media can help us come together and do remarkable things. We’ve seen hundreds of thousands of volunteers work together to build a free encyclopedia, Wikipedia, that’s vastly more comprehensive than any previous book and accessible to people even in very poor nations. Tools like Kickstarter are making it possible to “crowdfund” projects, raising money to that people in a city like Detroit can convert a vacant lot into a public garden, or colleagues of mine in Kenya can build a new device that provides internet connectivity when you’re hundreds of kilometers from a city.
I hope that the internet is opening a space for debate and participation that is more open, more fair and more inclusive than offline spaces. I hope that people who have been excluded from civic conversations in the past due to their gender, race, background or economic status will be able to participate in this new space and that their contributions will be embraced. I hope that civic media will be a space where groups that sometimes do not talk in person, like the Rohingya and the Baman, can interact. But I am deeply conscious of the challenges we face in the space of civic media, challenges of verifying information online, of coping with extreme speech and with finding common ground for civic conversations between people who have very different points of view.
Here are some lessons that have been learned about civic media, both in my lab and by researchers around the world, which I share in hopes that they may inform debates and conversations in Myanmar over the next few exciting years:
- Everyone can speak online, but it’s very hard to be heard.
Social media invites us to speak all the time – when we post an update to Facebook or Twitter, we are speaking to our circles of friends, and potentially to anyone else online. And while we’re likely to be heard by people who already are interested in hearing what we have to say, there’s no guarantee we will be heard by a broader audience. Because everyone can speak, media is an ongoing competition for attention: if we want our concerns to be heard, we are competing against everyone else, including professional news organizations, celebrities, politicians, other citizens.
This leads to a phenomenon people call “the long tail” – a small number of people have very large audiences, while most of us have small audiences most of the time. What’s so surprising and unpredictable is that this circumstance can change very quickly – a comment you made to friends could be amplified and spread to a huge audience if it was particularly insightful, funny or controversial. That experience can be very disconcerting, as if you were having a conversation with friends and you suddenly found yourself on this stage, with a microphone, speaking to a large audience. Surprising, but also very powerful, which is why people work to understand how social media works and how they might get their ideas heard by a wide audience.
- The internet is powerful for mobilization, but most mobilizations fail.
We’ve all heard how protesters in Tunisia used Facebook to document their frustrations with the Ben Ali government and let international media know about their protests, how Turks used Twitter to call people into Gezi Park. We know about these uses of media for mobilization because they were successful. We don’t hear about the thousands of efforts that fail. The US government has invited people to petition the government, circulating questions or demands online that the government is required to respond to if sufficient numbers of people sign the petition. (The number was 25,000 and has risen – it now takes 100,000 to be guaranteed a response.) Early last year, the number of petitions submitted was over 150,000. Only 162 had received a response. That’s because the average petition received 65 signatures. Over 100,000 people tried to start a political conversation, and well over 99% failed. Just because people use the internet doesn’t mean they will find an audience for their ideas.
- Mobilization works when an idea is popular and when people use the right techniques
I have been deeply interested in the campaigns for a 5000 kyat SIM card for Myanmar – we have seen evidence of this campaign all over Facebook and it’s been well documented in US and European media as evidence of the deep interest people in Myanmar have to connect with one another and with the wider world. I think the campaign was so successful because it expressed a concern that many people in Myanmar had, that it invited other people to participate in the campaign and personalize it for their audiences, and because it used humor more than anger to make its point.
We are writing a case study on the campaign at MIT and reviewing some of the cartoons involved: I remember a cartoon of an elderly man on his deathbed. The nurse asked if he was waiting for his family to visit before he died, and the man explained that he was waiting for a 5000 kyat SIM card. It’s likely that many people posted that cartoon to Facebook and forwarded it to friends both because they agreed with the cause and because they found it funny. Because civic media is all about reaching an audience, campaigns that figure out how to make themselves replicable are the ones that are the most powerful.
- It’s hard to get heard online, but being censored almost guarantees an audience.
Trying to silence speech online tends to make it louder. This is something we call “the Streisand Effect”. It’s named after the singer Barbara Streisand, because she made a very foolish error in trying to remove content from the internet. A photographer posted images of every house on the coastline of the state of California to document the condition of beaches and the dangers of erosion. One of those houses belonged to Streisand and she sued the photographer to have the photo of her house removed. Very few people had looked at the photo of Streisand’s house, but once people heard about the lawsuit, everyone wanted to see the pictures. There’s nothing as appealing as a secret.
In the Soviet Union, when the press was heavily controlled, there was an incredible market for underground publications – samizdat. And old joke holds that a mother tried to get her son to do his schoolwork by having an underground printer print his textbooks as samizdat. Social media makes the internet incredibly hard to censor, because the tools of social media are optimized for sharing media – censor it in one place and people will share it in other places. Nations like China have put hundreds of millions of dollars into trying to censor social media and, ultimately, they have failed. When major news events like the train crash in Wenzhou take place, people use social media to spread the information and even with tens of thousands of online monitors, information that was embarrassing to the government was released. This is very disconcerting and uncomfortable for governments, but it is simply the reality of how these new systems work.
It’s true that censorship and democracy are incompatible, as some in the Myanmar government have wisely observed. But civic media and censorship are also incompatible, and the spread of social media tools are starting to make it difficult for governments to censor, even if they wanted to.
- Censorship is the wrong way to deal with hate speech
I know that people in this audience are legitimately concerned with extreme and hateful speech online. This is a problem in many nations – China is facing problems with hate speech against a Uighir minority after a recent terror attack. My country faced terrible problems of hate speech against our Muslim population after the 9/11 attacks, and I know Myanmar is facing problems with hate speech aimed at the Rohingya population. I want to share a story from Kenya that illustrates the problem and offers a possible solution.
Kenya had a badly disputed election on 2007 and experienced a wave of political violence in its wake. I was involved with forming an internet company called Ushahidi that tried to document that violence – my colleagues built a tool that let people send a message from a mobile phone and have it appear on a map so we could understand what parts of the country were violent and which were peaceful, and where people needed aid and assistance. This idea of building a map through the participation of thousands of people has become popular and is now called “crowdmapping”. We used crowdmapping to document Kenya’s elections in 2013, hoping that this election cycle would be peaceful, but resolving to document any evidence we found of intimidation, hate or violence.
Part of this was a project called “Umati”, which is the Swahili word for “crowd”. Umati volunteers monitored Kenyan social media – blogs, Twitter and Facebook – and reported cases of hate speech leading up to and following the election. These instances were posted for the public on a highly visible map – in other words, rather than silencing the speech, the project sought to shame those engaged in hate speech. It worked. Those operating the project quickly discovered a pattern called “cutting” – when someone posted hateful speech, their friends would react negatively and cut off contact with them. This was especially common on Twitter, where everyone can read what you write. Hate speech persisted much longer on Facebook, because speech was often only visible to a small number of people and there wasn’t as much shaming. Exposure and shaming worked, and we also learned something very surprising – there was no strong correlation between hate speech and acts of violence in the 2013 Kenyan elections. Hate speech is ugly and offensive, and some speech may be dangerous. But speech is less powerful than we often believe, and pressure from our friends and family through making speech visible is more powerful than we generally think.
- You can’t legislate truthful speech.
It’s reasonable to worry that misinformation can and will spread online. A year ago, a few kilometers from my lab, two terrorists set of bombs at the finish line of the Boston marathon, injuring and killing dozens of people. Later, 100 meters from my office, the two attackers shot an MIT police officer, Sean Collier. I was in Dakar, Senegal at the time and I was following events online to understand whether my friends, family and students were safe. There were floods of information online, and most of that information was wrong. It wasn’t just amateurs who got the story wrong – one of New York City’s largest newspapers, the Post, falsely accused two men of the murder on the front page of their paper.
Participatory media isn’t the cause of misinformation online – speed is. When news happens, everyone wants to know, and wants to know now. News organizations compete to be the first to report a story. The result is that people report speculation and theory as well as truth. This isn’t because they have malicious intentions – it’s because people have conversations about what’s going on in the world, and these days, these conversations are hard to distinguish from news. It’s a very fine line between writing “I saw the attackers on the MIT campus” and “I heard that the attackers were on the MIT campus”, and both can and will be said online.
The solution is not to force everyone to slow down – it’s to learn how to read differently. When the internet was introduced, there was a tendency to believe that if someone was online, it must be true, because someone had reviewed and verified it. We all understand now that there’s no guarantee that something is true just because it is online. We are slowly learning to be skeptical about reports from people who are anonymous, to take reports more seriously if someone has been writing online for a long time, to understand that reports made immediately after an event are likely to be wrong and to be revised later. It takes a long time to learn how to read differently, but this is a valuable skill not just for the internet, but for all writing – I teach my students to ask who is writing a story, how they’ve obtained their information and what agenda they are supporting, and those are critical questions to ask of all media, whether it is produced by professional reporters or by amateur bloggers.
I realize that the picture I am painting of Civic Media is a complicated one – it’s a space that is both promising and challenging at the same time. I want to leave you with two ideas, one which I find promising, and one which I find challenging, in the hopes that you might help me become wiser about these questions.
The first idea is that the internet is helping citizens become monitors. In Kenya, citizens now monitor elections, reporting irregularities at poling stations or stolen ballots by using their mobile phones. In Brazil, I am working with citizens in Sao Paulo who are monitoring the mayor’s office, reporting whether he is keeping the promises he made when he was elected, documenting where streets aren’t paved or streetlights haven’t been installed. The rise of citizens as monitors is going to change the balance of power between citizens and their leaders, and I predict it’s going to be a change for the better. But I also predict it’s going to be very unsettling and disconcerting for many years to come. Whistleblowing is an extreme example of monitorial citizenship – what Edward Snowden did in revealing that the US National Security Agency was spying on Americans and non-Americans and lying to our lawmakers about it, is a very important form of monitoring, and I believe Snowden should be celebrated, not prosecuted. But I think monitoring will be just as important when millions of citizens are monitoring everyday government actions in cooperation with governments, not only in opposition. The big lesson we’re learning in Sao Paulo is that citizens often don’t know the good things their governments are doing until they monitor the government.
The second idea is that we need to work hard to ensure that our conversations online aren’t always local ones. It’s damaging for a democracy if we only listen to people we agree with – we need to hear a diverse range of opinions to have a healthy debate about the future of our communities, locally and at a national level. But some of the most important conversations we need to have today on subjects like climate change have to take place at a global level. It’s deeply exciting to me that Myanmar is entering into this global conversation online, but we will need to work hard to make sure the world listens to Myanmar and to help Myanmar listen to the rest of the world. People who can act as bridges between Myanmar and the rest of the world, particularly people who’ve worked and studied abroad, will be key figures in ensuring that Myanmar uses the internet to engage globally, not just locally. And people around the world want to help start this conversation – please take a look at a project called Global Voices that I’ve been lucky to be involved with for ten years. 1600 people, mostly volunteers, work to share stories from all over the world in more than 30 languages. We have some excellent reporting from Myanmar – that’s how I know about all the exciting changes happening on the local internet – but we could use more help.
Thanks so much for listening to me and I look forward to a conversation about these ideas, today and in the days to come.
Organization: Invested Development
Overview Title: Investments Intern
Start/End Date: Spring Semester 2012
Schedule: 15 hours per week
Invested Development is looking for a highly motivated business student at the junior or senior undergraduate level. The ideal candidate enjoys learning about technology startups and businesses that create impact in emerging markets. Specifically, an interest in international business, investing, entrepreneurship, and mobile tech and/or alternative energy startups is preferred. The intern should possess a strong commitment to social enterprise.
The intern will report to the ID Marketing and Research Manager. Primary tasks will include compiling key findings documents from research reports, online research, sourcing pipeline, lead generation, and creating deliverables for internal and external use.
Initial assignments will include:
Send resume (PDF preferred) and cover letter to Christina at ctamer[at]investeddevelopment.com. Use “ID Intern - first name last name” as the subject. Please note that only shortlisted candidates will be contacted for an interview.
About Invested Development
We are a for-profit, impact investment fund manager sourcing and funding the most impacting solutions to global poverty. We invest in seed stage social enterprise with mobile technology and alternative energy solutions that are affordable and scalable in emerging markets.
Organization: Waste Capital Partners
INDIA COUNTRY DIRECTOR
Waste Capital Partners, a solid waste management company with a social mission, is seeking a country director for its India operations. Waste Capital Partners employs waste pickers to conduct doorstep garbage collection while also utilizing the collected garbage to create and market compost and recyclables. We are a rapidly growing young international company with a focus on delivering better livelihoods for waste pickers, cleaner cities, and a better environment. We seek an experienced professional that has strong field operational experience and is now seeking to build a high-performing business working with marginalized communities.
Manage Waste Capital Partners’ two service lines in India: Household and Municipal Solid Waste Management Services.
COMPENSATION is competitive and will be a combination of salary and vesting stock.
LOCATION is flexible Please apply by submitting your resume and cover letter at http://www.wastecapitalpartners.com/jobs
Authored by: Myra Valenzuela
(Pictured: Abduallah Abdel Qassim, 47, a partner in aluminum shop making window frames that received microloan from Social Welfare Fund for equipment. Image credit: World Bank Photo Collection).
High rates of youth unemployment across the Middle East and North Africa were a major catalyst for the Arab Spring revolutions. To help address this pressing issue, the Development Marketplace is preparing for a country-level competition in Egypt early next year. The proposed DM competition will focus on social entrepreneurs with projects that have a strong impact on creating sustainable job opportunities, especially for low-income and marginalized groups. The main focus of the Egypt DM will be on supporting projects in the agricultural supply chain sector.
In order to understand the bigger picture of social entrepreneurship in Egypt, I spoke with Ehaab Abdou, who recently joined the Development Marketplace team to develop the Egypt DM program. Prior to coming to the Bank Ehaab was an Ashoka Fellow and advisor for the Middle East Youth Initiative at Brookings. For Ehaab, there are three main challenges facing social entrepreneurship in the MENA region and in Egypt in particular:
Although the social entrepreneurship field in Egypt has its challenges, there have been some recent positive trends. The SE ecosystem is growing; for example, Technoserve is likely to expand its work to Egypt, joining other major players like Ashoka, Acumen, Endeavor, Schwab, and Skoll Foundation, all of whom have been working in the region for the last few years.
Plans to hold public-private dialogues around the restrictive regulatory framework are in the making. Additionally, civil society groups interested in becoming implementing partners of the Egypt DM program have expressed a desire to work collaboratively and not competitively. There is a strong sense of urgency now to build on this recent momentum and offer social innovators in Egypt the support they need to transform society. (Pictured: A Yemeni woman entrepreneur who rents the use of this pool table to the residents of her town. Image credit: World Bank photo collection).
As Ehaab asserts:
"For social entrepreneurship and inclusive business models to thrive and play their desired and much needed role in the region's development, we have to create the necessary ecosystem which includes the missing intermediaries as well as addressing the restrictive legal and regulatory framework."
Organization: Calvert Foundation
Calvert Foundation seeks an Investor Relations Associate to work closely with impact investors supporting low-income communities throughout the US and around the world. The Associate will support the organization’s work with investors, donors, and financial professionals at the cutting edge of investing for social impact.
The Associate will be a primary point of contact and provider of administrative support for impact investors. The successful candidate will be a talented and socially-committed individual, with strong communication and administrative skills, a sharp attention to detail, and a can-do spirit.
Principal Duties and Responsibilities:
Qualifications, Skills and Required Experience:
Comments: This position is full-time with generous benefits that include medical, dental, life, PTO & sick leave, 401(k), transportation subsidy, and more. The position is based in Bethesda, MD. No phone calls please. Interested candidates should send a resume and cover letter to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Investor Relations Associate” in the subject line.
Organization: H2O Venture Partners
What is H2O Venture Partners? H2O Venture Partners (www.h2ovp.com) is an exciting, ground-breaking business in the field of social entrepreneurship and impact investment.
Based in Oxford, UK, but with activities in India and Africa, we are a team of ten entrepreneurs and support staff. We style ourselves as ‘pre-business plan investors’ who then run a full, highly creative process of business creation. Increasingly we apply our skills to impact investment: creating sustainable, profitable enterprises benefiting the poor of developing countries.
As part of H2O’s East African agricultural program we are establishing processes for identifying and mentoring a cadre of local entrepreneurial managers who can work to validate nascent commercial opportunities and, if appropriate, develop these into full businesses.
What is the Job?
We are recruiting a New Businesses Manager to be based in Kigali to identify and recruit entrepreneurial managers in-country (supported by executive search consultants) and thereafter to support the business development activities of those managers on their individual projects, including:
The New Businesses Manager will also undertake some travel to provide business development support for other H2O projects in the region.
Who Are We Looking For?
Educated to first degree level or higher in a relevant subject, you preferably have experience of working in the region.
You are a creative self-starter, who enjoys working autonomously and with considerable discretion to deliver high level outcomes. You are an experienced pair of managerial hands, able to run a process to tight timescales, willing to identify and address problems promptly, and able to work effectively with a range of people of different backgrounds, personalities and skill sets.
You will have a strong ability to communicate in written and spoken English, and a good grasp of Excel and PowerPoint.
Experience of business development is also highly desirable, but for candidates with demonstrable entrepreneurial potential the post will provide an opportunity to gain considerable exposure to the excitement and challenges of business creation.
What are the terms of employment?
Please respond with a CV and covering letter to Dr. Antonia Cardew
Closing date: we will run a rolling recruitment process, but in any case, please submit applications before 16 February 2012.
Organization: Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship
The Skoll Centre is looking to hire an entrepreneurial leader to help grow the Centre as the Skoll Centre Manager. This is a senior position within the team dedicated to designing and driving forth overall strategy and its operational implementation. They should have deep experience in global social entrepreneurship and a proven track record of managing teams and organisations.
The Manager will work directly with the Centre Director in all external facing efforts in building a collaborative network, including partnership and business development, as well as relationship management across Oxford University, the Skoll Foundation, and other investors.
The Manager oversees all operational aspects (including budgeting, marketing, finance, human resource and reporting) whilst also serving as a strategic advisor on the Skoll Centre activities, especially its Developing Talent portfolio.
The right candidate will need to know how to spot opportunities, manage people and key relationships, and create structures in flexible and open environment. They will be a collaborative self-starter, an excellent written and verbal communicator and an experienced ambassador for social entrepreneurs.
Full details available here.
Closing date February 10, 2012
Authored by: Stuart Hart
Editor's note: This post originally appeared on Stuart Hart's blog.
Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, economies of scale have ruled the day, with massive investments in power plants, pipelines, factories, transmission lines, dams, and highways to more efficiently serve the burgeoning consumption needs of the rising consumer classes. Industrial-era technologies (such as electricity, petrochemicals, and automobiles) were also closely associated with mass production, the assembly line, and centralized, bureaucratic organization, resulting in the rise of organized labor, worker alienation, and growing social stratification.
As we enter the second decade of the new century, however, the "dark satanic mills" of the Industrial Revolution are giving way to a new generation of technologies that promise to change dramatically the societal, economic, and environmental landscape. The information economy powered by the microchip has already begun to revolutionize society by democratizing access to information and empowering the repressed. Indeed, YouTube, Twitter, and the rapid emergence of the "blogosphere" have spawned a bottom-up revolution in user-generated content.
Authored by: Ignacio Mas
Mobile money helps people pay for things in two ways. Directly, by sending value to suppliers of goods and services; and indirectly, by getting remittances from friends and family members which can be used to pay for things. Mobile money works best when there is a coincidence of timing between sources and uses of funds, as then the transaction is immediate. But when there is separation in time between when money is available and when it needs to be paid out, mobile money has so far proved less useful.
The separation in time can occur for two main reasons: (i) if the payment needs to be made on a specified future date (e.g. rent, school fees, electricity bill, seeds for planting), or (ii) if the payment is sizable relative to income flows, such that there needs to be an accumulation of funds prior to the commitment of the expenditure (e.g. buying a motorcycle or new farming implement). These expenditures constitute spending goals, and people will use a variety of mechanisms to achieve them.
Bridging that gap is the role of the store-of-value account in a mobile money system, except that it appears that most people don't leave much value in there. That is probably to a large extent because for regulatory reasons mobile money is usually not marketed as a savings vehicle. But it could also be that people find mobile money too liquid, too easily available: like cash in the pocket, it is best gotten rid of in favor of something valuable (a chicken or a pig), lest it comes to be used for something superfluous.
Since these spending goals represent future expenditures, one could use a system of deferred payments to apply current income to these future goals (see this detailed paper, Savings as Forward Payments: Innovations on Mobile Money Platforms, written by Colin Mayer and myself). Think of these as Me2Me payments (across time), instead of the garden-variety P2P payments (across people, in real time). All it takes to create them is one additional optional field in the standard money transfer menu: the date when the transaction is to take effect. (Immediate execution could be the default, if no date is specified.)
Thus, if I had a good day and made $5 today, I'll cash in the $5, send $2 to myself for February 28 because that's when school fees are due, and another $2 to myself for June 30 because that's when I aim to buy a bicycle; the remaining $1 I'll keep in my liquid mobile money account for daily expenditures. Or if I am a farmer, I'll cash in the value of my crop at harvest time, but can then send good chunks of it to myself to those dates when I need to pay for the rent of the land for the next season, and pay for soil preparation and seeds at planting time. With the remaining value, the farmer could even create monthly payments to himself emulating a salary until the next harvest.
Me2Me payments to future dates are functionally equivalent to commitment savings sub-accounts, each of which is associated with a particular future date. Through this scheme, there is no need to pre-define or open multiple accounts. In the customer's mind, each date, and hence each sub-account, would be associated with a purpose. In this fashion, mobile money providers can create an easy-to-use commitment savings platform that maps out how people think about their needs and their money.
Most people save because they want to buy something. Applying a payments logic to savings behaviors makes it more tangible and relevant for people. It's parking money for a purpose, it's pushing it forward until you have enogh. It's reinforcing the positives (the spending goals) rather than the sacrifices (savings).
Enabling Me2Me payments is a value add for mobile money providers. But more importantly, it can help soften the brutal network effects that are inherent in the early phase of development of P2P networks. With Me2Me, mobile money may be a very useful even when few other people are on the network, because it helps people manage their own money.
Authored by: Blair Miller
Editor's note: This post was previously published on the Acumen Fund blog.
I had an interesting moment of reflection the other day about the field of social entrepreneurship. We are reaching a point where we are seeing a second wave of professionals moving into this space. I look back to about 7-10 years ago when I started pursuing this work. We were all entrepreneurs in our own right trying to define a career path that just didn't fit with the mold. We all came at if from different angles and were experimenting in different sectors, geographies, and educational degrees.
The other day though I began to realize that the field of social entrepreneurship is becoming more professionalized. We have people prescribing their careers. First consulting out of undergrad, then a one year stint at an NGO or social enterprise abroad, then B-school, then they land a "job" at an organization in this field. It is so interesting that people are pursing "jobs" in this space, and it is also exciting to see as it is demonstrating that the industry is growing and becoming more institutionalized.
So as I observe this shift, there are two things I am thinking about.
First, what does this mean for the level of innovation pumping in and out of the industry? With a more "traditional" career path into this field, will it stifle the entrepreneurial drive of our industry and/or bring in the systems and processes we need to really grow?
Second, while there is a more traditional path into the field, there are still not traditional career progressions within the field. I find that many people who come into the field for a "job" struggle to see what their career path beyond that job looks like. That aspect of our industry is still very entrepreneurial: the people who are successful at staying in this field understand how to move in and out of sectors and organizations.
With this in mind, it is interesting to see how our field will evolve...
Authored by: Marc Gunther
In the developed world, brewing giant SABMiller, whose global brands include Miller, Peroni, Grolsch and Pilsner Urquell, competes with the even bigger brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev, which owns Budweiser, Beck's, Stella Artois and Michelob. They're the Pepsi and Coke of beer, which, by the way, is the world's third most popular drink, after water and tea.
But in Africa, SABMiller's biggest competitor is the guy (or gal) who makes beer at home. That's a big reason why the company, which had revenues of $28 billion last year, recently began selling Impala, a beer made from cassava, in Mozambique. Similarly, for about a decade, SABMiller has been selling Eagle Lager, a beer brewed with sorghum, in Uganda.
Using ingredients local like cassava and sorghum crops appeals to local tastes, supports local farmers and keeps costs down so SABMiller can price its beer lower to compete with homemade brews.
"By using locally-sourced raw materials, we can make high-quality, but affordable products for consumers who would otherwise be drinking informal or illicit alcohol. So the long term commercial opportunities are significant," Andy Wales, SABMiller's global head of sustainability, told me in an email interview.
Beer at the bottom of the pyramid, you could call it.
Authored by: Tracy Elsen
Opportunities in China for impact investing are growing, where investors look to create positive social and environmental benefits alongside returns. Impact investors actively choose to put their money into companies that address social and environmental issues through their business models. Tao Zhang, the Chief Operating Officer of New Ventures, WRI's center for environmental entrepreneurship with local operations in China and five other high growth markets, answers questions on the country's current investment climate for environmentally-focused small and medium enterprises (SMEs).Is there a culture of impact investing and impact-focused companies in China?
Zhang: Impact investing is a very new concept in China and most companies remain very commercially focused. Many companies with environmental and social benefits inherent in their business models are not yet familiar with the impact investing concept, and thus are not in a position to present themselves as "impact" companies. At New Ventures, which is led in China by Country Director Walter Ge, we have worked with companies that have only realized the environmental impact they create after they have gone through an exercise to help them manage their environmental performance. In this exercise, New Ventures helps companies to quantify the positive impacts of their products and services, such as reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
However, on the other hand, there are many companies that provide real environmental solutions in China, such as those that we work with in the energy efficiency, water quality, and recycling sectors.
Zhang: There is abundant opportunity in China for impact investing, particularly relating to the environment. A lot of the big business decisions in China are driven by government, not by the private sector. However, there is a huge demand and room for the private sector and investment, particularly SMEs, to help implement the government's goals for environmental protection and poverty reduction. The government has a "top down" approach, and it makes sense to add in a "bottom up" approach, which is where SMEs and their investors can play a significant role.Who are the investors in China right now putting money into companies creating impact?
Zhang: Right now it is very much commercial capital, as I don't think there are many self-declared impact investors. There are a few trying to gain traction, but they face challenges building capacity on the ground to source deals and interact with entrepreneurs. These developments will require significant time commitment from investors. Impact investors from more mature markets in the U.S. or Europe do not have enough resources to set up an office or hire staff on the ground in China. And it's hard to find and hire the right type of people in China because qualified investment professionals tend to choose to work for more traditional investors.What needs to take place in China for impact investing to grow?
Zhang: Given the need for China to create sustainable economic growth over the decades to come, impact investing has an important role to play and should gain traction in the country.
The government has an opportunity to develop policies that encourage more investment into Chinese impact companies both internationally and domestically. Specifically, policies relating to foreign investments in Chinese start-ups need further clarity. Investors have been finding it challenging to convert their money into local currency upon entry and vice versa when they repatriate the capital upon a successful exit.
Meanwhile, organizations that promote impact investing can do a better job marketing its potential benefits. When one talks to different stakeholders in China, including government officials, about impact investing, time and energy is required to explain to them what it is all about.
The good news is that some Chinese cities, like Shanghai, are starting to pilot foreign limited partner-friendly policies to improve the investment climate for international investors. This growing trend in China will potentially make international investors feel increasingly comfortable investing in local companies.
The government is also starting to take notice of impact companies. At the recent China New Industrial Development Forum in Shenzhen, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced a report on the "Green Impact of Chinese SMEs", which is scheduled to come out in March 2012. The report, which makes extensive use of the environmental performance indicators that New Ventures uses, will collect and analyze the financial, environmental, and social performance of Chinese green SMEs, highlighting their environmental and social contributions to the economy.What is New Ventures planning to do in China to grow the impacts of the environmental companies it works with?
Zhang: New Ventures China recently received funding from a Hong Kong-based foundation to look into the feasibility of creating China's first genuine environmental impact fund. The objective of the study is to look at the macro picture and figure out how to take advantage of New Ventures China's portfolio of environmental enterprises to either set up or help facilitate a fund.
Hopefully, New Ventures can help provide these companies not only with technical assistance but also the necessary financing to help them scale up to the point where they are sufficiently attractive to traditional venture investors.
We will also work with the Information Centre of MIIT to tackle the barriers to the growth of environmental entrepreneurship in the country. By sharing best practices from New Ventures China's high-impact environmental SMEs, we are well placed to develop recommendations for policy-makers and investors to accelerate environmental entrepreneurship and green investment in China.
Organization: MaRS Centre for Impact Investing
Position Type: Full-time
Location: ON - Metro Toronto
Application Deadline: 2012-01-30
The Director, Centre for Impact Investing will provide strategic direction for the Centre’s programs and initiatives, manage the operations and staff of the Centre, and manage an extensive network of external stakeholders and partners.
About the Centre for Impact Investing
Building upon the foundational work of the Canadian Task Force on Social Finance, which was supported by Social Innovation Generation (SiG) and MaRS, the Centre for Impact Investing is a national social finance hub dedicated to advancing impact investing in Canada. The MaRS Centre for Impact Investing will increase awareness, develop and share knowledge and expand the effective application of social finance, by catalyzing new partnerships, mobilizing new capital, attracting and developing talent, and stimulating innovation focused on tackling social and environmental problems in Canada. The Centre will support the growing, vibrant network of players active in social finance across Canada, and help connect Canadian partners to the active global community working in the field of impact investing in both developed and emerging markets. The Centre will be active in market and product development, as well as develop and deliver programs and services focused on research and policy, impact measurement, education and multi-sector engagement initiatives to mobilize private capital towards public good. The Centre will also deliver current MaRS programs such as the Social Venture Exchange (SVX), the Canadian B-Corp licensing hub, and SocialFinance.ca.
For more details, visit: http://www.marsdd.com/careers/directory/director-centre-impact-investing/
How To Apply:
Interested candidates should forward their resume and cover letter to email@example.com by January 30th, 2012.
MaRS thanks all candidates; however, only candidates selected for an interview will be contacted.
If you have any questions about the position, please contact Allyson Hewitt, Director, SiG@MaRS and Director, Social Entrepreneurship. Allyson can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Organization: Root Capital
The Lending Analysis Assistant supports the growth of the analytical capacity of the Lending Team by providing additional analytical capabilities to the Lending Analysis Manager and to the Junior Analyst. He/she will also support ongoing projects between the Lending Analysis and the Impact Assessment team as appropriate. This position will work closely with other members of the lending team, accounting team, and supervisors. Through his/her work, s/he will reflect the organization’s belief that a well-supported and well-informed strategic team will be the most effective in achieving RC’s mission.
MISSION AND HISTORY OF ROOT CAPITAL
Root Capital’s mission is to grow rural prosperity by investing in small and growing agricultural businesses that build sustainable livelihoods in Africa and Latin America. Root Capital is a nonprofit social investment fund that grows rural prosperity in poor, environmentally vulnerable places in Africa and Latin America by lending capital, delivering financial training, and strengthening market connections for small and growing agricultural businesses.
a. Conduct analytical analysis for portfolio management and reporting purposes.
b. Assist in identifying and creating a set of reports for different levels of lending staff.
c. Assist in the updating of the Lending Model by providing background and trend information.
d. Provide ad-hoc analytical support on a case by case basis for different projects.
e. Provide analytical support for the 2013-Annual planning process.
2. Collaborate and co-manage other interns in the construction of a "Lending Team Master Database"
QUALIFICATIONS AND EXPERIENCE
SALARY: Commensurate with experience.
APPLICATIONS AND NOMINATIONS
More information about Root Capital is available at www.rootcapital.org
Applications are due by February 29, 2012. Candidates are encouraged to apply as soon as possible.
Applications including resume and a cover letter describing your interest, qualifications, language abilities, salary requirements, and how you learned of the position should be sent to: email@example.com. Please type “Lending Analysis” followed by your name (Last, First) as the subject line of your email (e.g. “Lending Analysis – Marrero, Marc”).
Authored by: Eric Kacou
2011 will live in history as the year Africa made a dent in the world, to paraphrase Steve Jobs. As previously discussed in this NextBillion series, The Economist, a 'beacon of afro-pessimism', headlined "Africa Rising" late last year. What a jump from "The Hopeless Continent" in 2000.
Thankfully, the cover underscores solid empirical evidence. Africa leapt forward at 4,9 percent last year in a growth starved world. While the Arab Spring heralded a new era of accountability, inspiring - some might suggest - the occupy Wall Street movement.Moving beyond the Survival Trap
Anyone visiting Africa would be hard pressed to see Africans celebrate this feat. This is not for being an ungrateful people. Rather, it is because the growth spurt has not materialized into tangible improvements in the life of the average African citizen. At least not yet...
Who is the average African citizen? It is a young woman (or man) living off subsistence farming on a very small plot of land in a rural area. This citizen feels stuck scrapping to survive in the pre-industrial age while the rest of the world moves forward in the digital age.
In reality, most Africans are still mired in the 'survival trap', a vicious cycle that makes individuals, businesses and nations react to short-term crises instead of developing long-term strategies for prosperity.
This where Haiti and Africa share a lot more than meets the eye. Beyond a shared history and deep cultural roots, one realizes that their development indicators are very similar.
Today's greatest challenge is the struggle for prosperity. It is also, arguably, today's greatest opportunity.
Make no mistake: Freeing the 2.7 billion people struggling on less than two dollars per day from the survival trap is not optional. In reality, it is not only a moral imperative, but it is also an economic one.
Authored by: Renee Manuel and Felix Oldenburg
Over the years, financial indicators and quantitative metrics have grown in importance in evaluating society's competitiveness. In spite of this, the most important indicator remains remarkably simple: How many changemakers are there?
As representatives from Ashoka, we talk about making a world where "Everyone is a Changemaker" - empowering people to engineer social change in a way that no one has thought of before. From 30 years of experience searching for leading social entrepreneurs, we have learned two things:
1. Social entrepreneurs emerge in every society, no matter how progressive or traditional, and often from the most unlikely backgrounds.
2. As resilient and creative as they might be, the speed of growth of their innovations depends on whether we can create and support the needed infrastructure for their ideas to scale.
But what happens when the financial ecosystem in which social entrepreneurs work is fundamentally broken? Where, for instance, the financing structures that are offered encourage dependency, organizational growth, and shrinking salary pools to pay top level talent?
Instead of empowering social entrepreneurs to unleash their innovations on the market, the current forms of capital hinder citizen sector organizations and box their ideas into programmatic grants and traditional non-profit models, or offer loans and equity at conditions that threaten to undermine their social purpose.
Authored by: Carmelina Macario
When you start to think about investing your money to save for retirement or to grow your net worth, you are faced with a lot of questions:
How much do I put aside every month? Who do I trust with my money? I am a high- or low-risk investor? What do I want to invest in? Enter the financial advisor - they can help answer those questions, set up a portfolio for you and give you piece of mind. But what about when they can't offer you something you want to invest in? What happens with even Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) funds don't met your needs?
Enter impact investing. Of course it isn't a new concept (NextBillion has covered it extensively) but it is a concept that is gaining popularity in the investment community. For the uninitated, impact investing is the act of investing your money into projects that will have a positive social or environmental impact and getting a return for it. Impact investing experts credit the gain in popularity to among other things: the instability of financial markets, the creation of a common framework for reporting on impact investments and to the shift of donors lending money to causes rather than giving money to causes.