Viewsdesk - chasing the global public sphere

June 2011

Free Speech01:46, June 14, 2011

In an article in the New York Times, the Internet guru Clay Shirky commented on the US State Department policy of supporting free speech and open networks and their lack of a policy aimed at destabilizing autocratic governments. It is, he says, the same thing. For once, I disagree with him. From a practical point-of-view (and given time) he is right. But from a policy perspective, there’s a huge difference.

I believe promoting universal ideals and values is better than supporting subversive organizations. I have a few reasons for this.

Reason I: Freedom of speech is not an end, but a mean.
I think most proponents of an open society would agree. The end is the open society itself: the democracy; the freedom; the opportunity for all to lead the lives they choose. Despite all its flaws, the most universal agreement we have on the issue is the Declaration of Human Rights.

Reason II: No One Path
No democracies–neither in the western nor global world–share the same history. There are radical differences to how democracy came about in Sweden and France for example. Both these two countries where once monarchies with a king who held absolute power. The method used to dismantle authoritarianism ranged from revolutions to reforms, but regardless of which path they took, democracy was an effect of increased demands from its people. Not the other way around.

Reason III: They might not want your help
What’s important is that whatever method people use to achieve democracy, is their method. Their way. Reading bloggers from the Middle East, it becomes apparent that there are inherent issues with being associated with technology that can be labeled in the service of foreign interests. (I have expanded on my views on this in an earlier post.)

Reason IV: The Neutral Network
One of the reasons that the Internet is a very good tool for promoting change is because the technology itself is apolitical. The inherent openness of the network is a major reason it got allowed into the repressive states to begin with.

In a parallel universe, where closed services like AOL prevailed over the open Internet, do you think Iran would have let it inside its borders? I doubt it. Even less so if it was not operated by AOL but by the CIA. And, even-even less so if the CIA operated it under with the express intention of bringing the Iranian state down.

Reason V: Outflanking Them
I believe that, in the long run, openness and transparency will prevail. I believe that once people can exchange ideas freely, the modes of the state will have to change. But it’s not primarily the US Government, or any other foreign entity, who should be the instigator of change. They can provide the tools, but should do so with care. The people will do the rest. In due time, perhaps. But they will.

Digital Culture00:49, June 13, 2011

Back in 1961, President John F. Kennedy addressed the American Newspaper Publishers Association, to share with them his views on how to handle new challenges to publishing in a time of the Cold War.

Like with so much on the Internet, old things return for a second or third round, and that’s exactly what has happened to JFK’s address. This time, it’s forces challenging the status quo who invoke John F. Kennedy with the intent to prove that the iconic president would be on their side, had he lived. They latch on to the enormous cultural capital that the assassinated president has, to prove the point that the citizens of the US have lost their freedom of speech.

The videos have been watched more than two million times.

All the viral varieties of the speech focus on JFK’s criticism on aspects on a closed society. JFK implies that there are secret societies that must be exposed; that a democratic government must be completely transparent and that the press should be allowed total freedom.

Only problem is that JFK never said what video editors make him say. Not even close. The original speech is almost twenty minutes long. Something has been left on the cutting-room floor.

That “something” is a more nuanced message, and even some very outright controversial views on the relationship between the press and the state. And between self-restraint and censorship. The full text is, of course, available online for those who look.

WikiLeaks tweeted a link to one of these videos a few months ago, and more recently another version has been used when discussing the political uprising in Spain during the last weeks. The increasingly powerful hacker group Anonymous published a link without commentary. None of them have checked the source. If they would have, I doubt they would feel comfortable enough to pass it on. Both videos has about a million views each, yet reading the comments it’s clear that no one have reacted to the blatant falsification. So, there are two million people out there, who think they heard JFK saying something, he very definitely didn’t.

Фото на документы в Ивантеевке!

Faking JFK? I Can Do That Too!
To prove my point further, I spent half an hour in an audio editor and made my own version of the very same speech. However, I cherry-picked the parts that were not in favor of anything remotely close to a liberal view on information politics. It’s the very same JFK speech. I did not alter individual words, or even moved sentences in the chronology. I just deleted the parts that didn’t prove my point. Let’s just say, it’s quite another animal in my version. Look at the video below.

Whose Responsibility?
In a world where posting a link to Facebook or forward a link to thousands of Twitter followers is done in a heartbeat, it’s so easy to forget the most important responsibility: checking your facts before passing it on. Relaying and curating information is an important function for the net generation, but the readers rely on you. Your stories must be correct. I thought that was what scientific journalism was all about?

If facts are left unchecked and false information is relayed in an infinite loop, fed by the viral logic of the net, the Internet is just a huge gossip machine. (Not that any of us would be terribly surprised?)