Yes, Protest Does Matter.

In the past week, we have seen peaceful protests around the world, in response to the actions taken by Donald Trump, as he has assumed the American Presidency.

Despite not having attended any of the demonstrations myself, I’ve been troubled by the fervent reaction against those who have done so, and the poor arguments that have been made against speaking out. So, without passing comment on the content of any of Trump’s policies or actions, I’ve decided to address the common criticisms publicly:

1. Protesting doesn’t make any difference.

I almost can’t believe that this statement is still being uttered in 2017, after all that has been written, and after we have seen and to-this-day celebrate the outcomes of peaceful protest in the past.

The ultimate goal of protest is obviously to bring about change, but few who take part in any single act of resistance are naive enough to believe that that one particular event will have devastating political ramifications on its own. Movements are built over time, and are successful by building the pressure on those in power.

In this particular situation, there is a real chance that sustained protest can have an impact on the policies of the Trump administration. The Republican party is not full of evil people, and many viscerally disagree with his approach to many issues, but at present feel unable to speak up against them. If all these people hear is silent indifference to what is going on, they are far less likely to have the courage to take the first steps themselves in opposition.

For many, even if there is absolutely zero chance of political change, demonstrations are still immensely important. First and foremost, they are about standing up and publicly stating that you refuse to quietly accept actions that you fundamentally disagree with, and may otherwise be powerless to stop. It’s about demonstrating to other people who facing the brunt of the effects that they are not alone. That’s why they are called ‘demonstrations’.

I won’t draw comparisons between Trump and Hitler at this point, but I do find it rather curious how one of the biggest questions people have when looking back at history is how the German population could possibly have let fascism take hold, seemingly without much protest. I wonder how many people were dismissing those who spoke up, with the same argument: ‘Protesting won’t make a difference’.

2. It’s a foreign country. It doesn’t have any impact on you or people you know. Focus on your own issues.

There are a few constitutent parts to this. Firstly, this kind of statement is often made in a blanket fashion, completely ignoring the personal relationships that the person on the receiving end may have. Where their wife may come from; where their friends may live; where the company their work for is based, for example.

Secondly, even if a person has zero personal ties to the US, the idea that we could close our eyes and ears to what happens outside of our country is a non-sequitur. In fact, it’s the worst kind of nationalism. Following the argument through logically, no Scottish person should ever speak about the evils of apartheid – because it was a South African issue. Neither should the UK have gotten involved in the Second World War. There are innumerable examples of why this doesn’t hold water.

There is a valid criticism to be made of people who only care and speak up about what they see on the news in a foreign country, whilst acting completely indifferent about what is happening in their own back garden. However, that sort of criticism can only be made with in depth knowledge of a person and their motives, and is certainly not something that should be applied with a broad brush to people whose background you have no idea about. Just because somebody is concerned about the actions of Trump, doesn’t mean that they aren’t equally as passionate about the right wing agenda of the UK Government, or that they volunteer at a local foodbank every night.

All of this aside, the reality is that what happens in America does impact what happens in the UK. The policies and rhetoric of the most powerful man on Earth, who leads the biggest military superpower in modern history, who happens to be our supposedly closest ally, definitely has repercussions around the globe. To pretend otherwise is simply foolish.

To bring it home, so to speak: the ‘solidarity’ word is one that comes with a lot of baggage, but it is exactly what protest is often about: making a statement about what kind of society you want and believe in, even in spite of everything that may be happening elsewhere. It’s about saying: ‘The most powerful nation on the planet may be targetting refugees, but we won’t accept those same actions here.’ If all the protests in Glasgow yesterday achieved was to make a single refugee feel more welcome and secure in their adopted city, then they were already a success.

3. The American people chose to vote for Trump. Get over it.

This is one of the most ridiculous assertions of the lot. The idea that once a political party or candidate wins an election that they are infallible, and should be immune from any sort of criticism is ludicrous. At best it is complete hypocrisy on the part of those uttering this nonsense, and at worst an extremely dangerous perspective, that results in human rights abuses in countries like Turkey and Russia.

4. Protesters are just idiots who are virtue signalling whilst contributing exactly zero to the cause they’re apparently so passionate about.

This is pretty much a word for word comment from someone who didn’t approve of the demonstrations held in Glasgow yesterday, but the language is similar to a lot of others.

Here’s how ‘virtue signalling’ is defined:

virtue signalling (US virtue signaling)

noun [mass noun]

the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue: it’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things | standing on the sidelines saying how awful the situation is does nothing except massage your ego by virtue signalling.

On its own, the phrase is seemingly innocuous, but more and more frequently it is now being used to dismiss people who are taking a position that others disagree with, without them having to actually intellectually engage with that position. It’s become one of the lazy phrases like ‘fake news’ that I can’t stand, as it doesn’t actually mean anything in practice.

Given that the phrase is based on intent, the only way ‘virtue signalling’ could accurately be ascribed to those who chose to demonstrate against Trump or his actions, would be if the person using it knew those intentions. In other words, they would need to know the specific motivating factors involved… something that is clearly impossible when applied to a group.

It’s probably worth being crystal clear on this: disagreeing with your position doesn’t mean that somebody is ‘virtue signalling’. It means they disagree with your position. Challenge them on their arguments, not with some spurious empty phrase that only serves to shut down discussions that you can’t handle.

Trump image by Gage Skidmore – used under CC-BY-SA 2.0 license

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Trump, Prostitutes, and 4chan. Still want to ban sites that publish fake news?

Today the big story on the web is that a story leaked from a ‘British intelligence officer’ about Russia blackmailing Donald Trump, published by BuzzFeed, and then dutifully re-posted by other major established media outlets was allegedly made up by posters on 4chan.

Whilst the articles state that the claims are ‘unverified’, and ‘contain errors’, it appears that there has been very little in the way of fact checking or corroboration of sources going on. Indeed, publishing allegations without due dilligence is exactly the operational basis of other sites that don’t fall under the banner of ‘credible’ media. The fact is that the outcome in either case is the same: either willingly or blindly (through a desire to publish content first to drive advertising revenue), these sites are spreading misinformation. Looking at the Mirror’s coverage, one would be forgiven for thinking that the info was at least partially credible:

Screen Shot 2017-01-11 at 12.46.40.png

It’s all too easy to scoff at the Mirror, or BuzzFeed. Nobody takes them seriously after all; everybody knows that! That clearly isn’t actually the case, and it demonstrates the problem with the reactionary drive towards ‘banning’ or filtering sites that publish fake news from online platforms.

Of course, these claims to have made up the story could very well be made up themselves… but that doesn’t invalidate the criticism. If anything, it highlights the issue with asking or expecting third parties such as online service providers to filter out untrue content.

To echo the questions I raised in my previous post on this topic: Exactly what constitutes fake news, where do we draw the line, at what point do ‘credible’ news sources lose that credibility, and who makes those determinations? Should BuzzFeed articles be removed from Facebook? What about The Mirror? What about CNN? Maybe only articles claiming to have made up fake news should be treated as fake news. Where does it stop?

For an interesting read on this that was shared by my colleague Davide recently, check out this page:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/08/blaming-fake-news-not-the-answer-democracy-crisis

It only gets worse when charges of fake news come from the media, which, due to the dismal economics of digital publishing, regularly run dubious “news” of their own. Take the Washington Post, that rare paper that claims to be profitable these days. What it has gained in profitability, it seems to have lost in credibility.

Edit: I published this earlier today before Trump’s press conference, and felt compelled to update it as a result of what he said. Responding to questions from the media, he apparently decided to pick up the ‘fake news’ mantle:

When Jim Acosta, Senior White House Correspondent for CNN, attempted to ask Trump a question, the President-elect refused to answer. “Not you. Your organization is terrible,” Trump said. “I’m not going to give you a question, you are fake news.”
So now Trump has appropriated the term ‘fake news’ to thwart off any criticism without response. That’s what happens when you set up an empty vessel as something that is inherently wrong with no real definition. This should have been easy to avoid. – (source)

This is precisely why setting up a straw man term such as ‘fake news’ is so dangerous, because an empty vessel that is inherently bad without any clear definition leaves the power in the hands of those who want to wield it for their own ends. If we want to try and combat ‘fake news’, we first need to understand what it is we are fighting against. Otherwise, the question becomes whether it is our version of fake news that is bad, or Donald Trump’s?

Automattic/WordPress.com fight back against Censorship

WordPress LogoAutomattic – the company behind WordPress.com, have taken a decisive step in the fight against bogus DMCA claims.

Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, people can submit a takedown notice to web service providers where their intellectual property is being used without permission. This is the legislative attempt to protect hosts like Google, WordPress, Tumblr, etc from being held responsible for the content that their users post – provided that they swiftly restrict access.

However, whilst this system is designed to give a balance between protection and enforcement, the reality is that many times it is abused by those who wish to silence critics, or to censor views with which they disagree. The Church of Scientology infamously issued thousands of DMCA takedown notices to stop the spread of anti-Scientology views on Youtube, for example. This tactic is highly effective, as the content is almost always restricted (at its peak moment of attention), and the process to challenge the notices (a ‘counter notice’) isn’t something that creators are, or arguably should be, familiar with. In effect, it becomes a virtual game of ping-pong, with the burden of proof shifting to the ‘author’ of the content to prove that they actually have the rights to publish. Sites themselves can take action, but with the sheer volume of notices that they receive, it is often impractical, and rarely a route that businesses want to go down.

I’m both pleased and proud to see that WordPress are fighting back against two such bogus DMCA claims, as announced in this latest blog post, where you can find all the details of the two cases in question.

For the full text of the original post from Oliver Hotham – one of those that fell victim to the misrepresentative DMCA, continue reading below, where it is republished with permission.

Continue reading “Automattic/WordPress.com fight back against Censorship”

Online Abuse: Asking the Wrong Questions

ask.fm
The whole discussion about anonymous abuse online is asking the wrong questions. Rather than target the technology, let’s look at what’s really going on. It’s far too easy to point fingers at the web, rather than analyse how we use it and why.

Head over to the Open Rights Group website to read more from me on this.