Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image

somewhat political

27 Jul

By

Wikileaks, Afghanistan & The New Rules Of Engagement

July 27, 2010 | By |

As of two days ago Wikileaks has released 92.000 documents about the war in Afghanistan, leaked (most likely) from within the US military. After discussing this with quite a few folks, we all agreed that this will be one of the biggest – if not the single biggest – story of 2010.

As a former media and political science major, as well as a former editor, this stuff is pure gold to me.

First, what I am not going to go into: the Afghanistan conflict, its sense or legitimation or political implications; or the legalities of this kind of thing: does a leak like this break US law, and would that even be applicable? That’s for US lawyers to decide.

The basics first: What happened? Wikileaks got hold of some 91.000 military documents regarding the Afghanistan conflict, from analyst papers to ground reports. (What is Wikileaks?) Before releasing these documents themselves, they gave them in advance to three traditional news media: New York Times (US), The Guardian (UK) and Der Spiegel (Germany). (All of the links go directly to the Wikileaks specials.) After these media ran their exclusives, Wikileaks went public with the leaked documents, called the Afghan War Diaries:

The reports, while written by soldiers and intelligence officers, and mainly describing lethal military actions involving the United States military, also include intelligence information, reports of meetings with political figures, and related details. (…) The reports cover most units from the US Army with the exception of most US Special Forces’ activities. The reports do not generally cover top secret operations or European and other ISAF Forces operations.

So why is the Wikileaks story so big? It’s big not just because it’s something new and a huge scoop, but because it touches on so many complex and highly relevant issues:

  • the issue at hand, the conflict in Afghanistan
  • the way the US government handles information
  • … and by extension, the bigger questions of truth & trust
  • the relationship between governments and their citizens
  • the relationship between US government and their allies, and how information flows between them
  • the way media work today
  • the (new?) role that media play today (trust center verifying information scoops rather than gathering them)
  • the way the internet changes politics and media (and how news media not bound to nation states operate under different circumstances than we are used to)
  • Is it irresponsible to leak documents?

For some great background and discussion, I recommend you jump straight to Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis, both who have great write-ups.

Trying not to repeat to many of Rosen’s and Jarvis’ points, there are a few things I find worth considering.

Truth & trust, governments & citizens The White House was clearly pissed off after seeing the Afghan War Logs emerge. Understandably so, after all those documents will clearly make a dent in the war effort, so to speak. However, legalities aside and assuming the documents are the real thing – the documents leaked are internal military documents. While it’s always painful to be called out on your own mistakes, it’s not job of the media to support certain policies; and it’s most certainly not the job of a whistleblower site like Wikileaks to support any policies. It’s their job to get out information so folks can make informed decisions.

It’s probably part of winning a military conflict to occasionally bluff and put a game face on. But it’s fair game to call that bluff; I’m guessing here, but I’d say that this can happen to a government just like to any poker player. These war reports seem to be such a case where the bluff (“the war is going kinda alright”) is called. The question is: Could the US government – instead of trying to clamp down on Wikileaks and the internal military source – try to make the best of the situation, for example by trying a crowdsourced effort to analyze the patterns of what has been going wrong in the conflict? (Might not work, but should be looked into by some of the smart folks within or around the US government.)

The new role of media What I found particularly interesting is the new role that media played in this case. This is not a case of investigative journalism by the media, but by a third (non-journalistic) party. We are talking about three of the most distinguished media outlets world wide. Yet, they did not get the scoop here, they did not have the sources inside. They were not the address the military sources wanted to talk to. (Why might be a moot question, but an interesting one still. Get back to that in a minute.) Instead, the media were there to a) spread the news and b) verify the information, to lend credibility. They served as a trust center for another organization’s scoop. Once they got the information, the media then did what they do best: sift through the material and make it more accessible, as well as spread the information.

As Jay Rosen put it, referring to a New York Times editor’s note:

“At the request of the White House, The Times also urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.” There’s the new balance of power, right there. In the revised picture we find the state, which holds the secrets but is powerless to prevent their release; the stateless news organization, deciding how to release them; and the national newspaper in the middle, negotiating the terms of legitimacy between these two actors.

So, why Wikileaks not New York Times? We can only speculate why the internal source leaked the documents to Wikileaks and not to one of the major newspapers. But there are a number of considerations at play here: First, Wikileaks is much harder to subpoena than any traditional news organization that operates under US (or European) law. Second, Wikileaks is by nature very much distributed. They are a true internet-based, decentralized organization, making it harder to suppress information. Third, Wikileaks is independent, donation-funded, without anyone to report to. This can be good or bad, of course. And on certain topics, a political biased can be assumed. But again, it makes it harder to believe there could be a reason for Wikileaks to withhold this kind of information, much unlike the news organizations that also want to send their reporters into war zones as embedded journalists along the military. Fourth, Wikileaks knows about secure communications. Maybe Guardian, Spiegel and New York Times do too, but a source wouldn’t want to take any risks. Wikileaks are strong on anonymity. They are strong on crypto. They really know how to keep communication channels secure and anonymous. All of these combined make them a more secure place to go to than any single newsroom.

Is Wikileaks acting irresponsibly? One could make the case for either the value of keeping information secret, or for absolute transparency. In a military conflict, that’s a tough one. But it seems to be like Wikileaks is going to great lengths to be as careful and responsible as the overall context allows (once it’s decided to publish leaked info, that is). They are holding back a significant number of documents until further review and clean up (think removing names etc):

We have delayed the release of some 15,000 reports from the total archive as part of a harm minimization process demanded by our source. After further review, these reports will be released, with occasional redactions, and eventually in full, as the security situation in Afghanistan permits.

Giving the documents to some trusted traditional newspapers of making sure the information is getting a decent journalistic treatment, followed by full disclosure of all the source material for extra vetting.

In other words, it’s a perfect example of getting it all right: Responsible dealing with the information as well as working the media right.

Jeff Jarvis raises an interesting point in his post: Will leaks like this incentivize organisations not to write down as much because they fear leaks, leading in the long run to less transparency? I certainly hope not, but it’s not a fear I share. Large-scale organizations need documentation, and where there is documentation there is a chance of leaks.

What I’d hope for instead is that the mere chance of leaks alone will lead to more transparency up front. After all, if an organization is more transparent the chance of getting called out on grounds of hiding information is a lot lower.

We’ll have to wait and see. Until then, if you do appreciate this kind of document leak, I do recommend you consider donating for Wikileaks.

11 Mar

By

New School: Crowdsourcing 101

March 11, 2010 | By |

At a recent meeting, Trebor Scholz, curator of the Institute for Distributed Creativity mailing list (IdC), host of collective.net and organizer of the Internet as Playground and Factory Conference, kindly invited me to give a brief talk at an undergrad class he teaches at the Eugene Lang College of New School University. So while I was in NYC I dropped in to discuss with his students questions of crowdsourcing vs wisdom of the crowds. Also, I had the pleasure of learning a lot about Wikipedia from Joseph Reagle, who wrote both his PhD thesis and a book about Wikipedia, and talked about leadership in the Wikipedia context. (Great stuff!)

For completeness’ sake, here’s my presentation, but it’s really quite basic:

15 Sep

By

Presentation: Internet und Politik

September 15, 2009 | By |

Today I gave a presentation on internet and its role on politics at ISWA. In the talk I’m laying out the basics of online politics: social networking, new rules of engagement, and a (very brief) view on the state of the political web in Germany. It’s all in German, so I’ll just post the presentation without any further comment.

As always, looking forward to your feedback!

Update: It looks like Slideshare ate some of the images in the presentation. Will repost a new version soon.

21 May

By

Social Media Campaigns: My Facebook Is Mine

May 21, 2009 | By |

Working with companies on their social media campaigns can pose a tricky dilemma for the consultants: on the one hand you’re hired because you know your way around the social media sphere, which of course you do because you’re very active there. On the other hand, you don’t want to abuse your personal social network for your clients. After all, who likes Tupperparty-style personal interactions?

So how much of your clients’ work should be mixed into your own social networks: Blog, Twitter, Facebook? I think we can all agree that full disclosure is the least all of us in the social media sphere need to do. (Here’s a list of my most relevant clients, and I’ll fully disclose wherever a conflict of interest may arise.) But that shouldn’t be all.

I’ve had situations where my business and private activity got mixed up. Partly that’s a good sign, as I often get hired to do stuff I love to do. At other times, there just wasn’t time to set up separate accounts. Sometimes, you forget to log out of your private account and into the campaigns account – it can happen. And frankly, it’s not the end of the world. After all, if I wouldn’t want to be associated with my clients, I wouldn’t work for them.

Still, it feels like all of us – together, or each of us individually – will need to negotiate best practices, guidelines, rules of thumb: Where do we draw the line? What’s ok, what’s annoying, what’s abuse of personal ties and friendships? How many invites to become fans of this new sneaker or that band or this party do we really want to find in our Facebook inbox? Using Overly abusing your personal friends for work will burn your social capital cost you friendships, and no job is worth that.

So here’s what I think I’ll go by, my personal rule of thumb:

  • Facebook: My Facebook is mine, and mine alone. I might decide to post stuff there if I personally care about them. But I won’t run another campaign inside my own Facebook – everything beyond setting up a Facebook page and handing it over is just too socially awkward.
  • Blog: I might blog my observations and thoughts on a campaign or project, mostly on a meta level.
  • Twitter: I might post a link to a project or campaign, with disclosure. The higher frequency of posts per day allows more liberal handling. Where possible, I’ll opt for setting up a dedicated Twitter account.

For all of these, I’m the only person to decide what I run in my personal outlets, how I run them, and what not to run. I won’t ever post anything a client or third party tries to pressure me into.

All of this is in flux, and will have to evolve over time, but it’s a start. And I’m very curious about your take on all this: How do you go about it?

13 Jan

By

Life updates: Domains still moving, SPD / Juso election campaign, Internet Bill of Rights

January 13, 2009 | By |

Domain Name ScrabbleJust a brief update on what has been going on here. First up: The move to my new hosting service provider Mediatemple is still going. Mostly this is due to the amount of domains that I had registered on my old account. My old partner in crime Thomas Lacher and I have had this old server for about ten years. And just like a good basement, a server is something that kind of fills up organically. It was time to clean up and throw out a lot of stuff. And once you start digging, you find things that you hadn’t thought abot for a long time but that are valuable or dear in some way nonetheless. This, and the coordination required for transferring domains to several people and domain hosters is taking somewhat longer than I had hoped, but it’s all coming together. Still, this feels like playing domain name scrabble, and this site might be down for a little while if something goes wrong. No worries, we’ll fix it as quickly as possible. There’s plenty of other ways to get in touch. You’ll find one, I’m sure.

Second, great news. In Germany 2009 is called “Superwahljahr”, a super election year. There will a European election, federal election as well as a whole bunch of state and regional elections. (A German list of the elections can be found here.) I’m excited to be part of all this as a strategic consultant to the youth campaigning team of the SPD, the Jusos. I’ll be working directly with Panorama3000, who I’ve been working with a lot lately and who I also share office space with. Since this is a paid gig I want to be completely open about this up front. Also, over the course of the year it will always be an issue of mixing my blog and other personal online accounts with the campaigning activities. This is something that I’ll have to re-consider regularly. From today’s point of view I’ll try to stick to a simple rule of thumb that has always served me very well: Full disclosure at all points. Simple as that. If I find something really cool I’ll talk about it; if I find something particularly bad I’ll talk about it. Mostly I’ll try not to make a big deal out of it, and I’ll always play with open cards on what’s going on and why I’m writing what I’m writing. (Feedback on this? Please share.)

Third, more good news. Max Senges (who I’ve also been friends with for a long time and have worked with quite a bit) has been very active in the Internet Bill of Rights coalition (IBR) and has invited me to join in and help out. The mission of the IBR is incredibly important – roughly speaking, the goal is to write down rights and duties of users (or rather: citizens online). Think United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the digital world. I’ll try to organize the blog and all related activities. (Thanks for the invitation, Max!) This is an open coalition. If digital rights and ethics are something you truly care for, please consider joining this effort. Drop me a line and I’ll hook you up with the folks who know much more about the details than I do at this point.

Image: Domain Name Scrabble by polaroidmemories

05 Dec

By

Resurrect the dead pool & free the code

December 5, 2008 | By |

photo by flickr user brooklyn_tygerAt Likemind this morning Henrik Berggren (of Soundcloud and Physical Interaction Lab) had a great idea that I’d like to share and discuss with all you out there.

We should start a project (movement?) to open-source all the code of companies and services that went to the dead pool.

In other words: When a company dies, or the plug is pulled on a web service, the code shouldn’t go to waste. It should be open-sourced, so that the code can live on. Instead of going to waste, this growning pool of ideas and code would be a great resource of innovation as it can be improved and built upon.

Now I understand that for every up-and-coming startup it’s tough to even think about the worst case scenario. It’s just like health insurance, drafting your will or thinking about organ donation. But just like with those three, it’s important to think about it anyway in order to be prepared, and in order to spare yourself or your family a lot of trouble.

Keeping this legacy code alive is valuable for everybody involved: The coders will continue to see their stuff used and will continue to build their reputation. Other coders will have great stuff to build upon. Investors might show resistance as they feel they own the code; but in reality it’s dead weight at this point, so they won’t lose anything. And all those who used the service and grew fond of it will have the chance to take it apart and re-build it, maybe make it better.

What do you think?

Image by brooklyn_tyger, licensed under Creative Commons

19 Nov

By

Liveblogging from The BOBs (27 Nov)

November 19, 2008 | By |

THE BOBsOn 27 November, Deutsche Welle will announce the winners of The BOBs, the Best of the Blogs awards. The BOBs are pretty big internationally, it’s probably the world’s most important international blog awards (for blogs, podcasts, videoblogs). With 11 languages, it’s a truly international effort. (More on the BOBs in the FAQ.)

Among the nominations are a lot of truly amazing blogs, and it won’t be easy for the jury to decide who to give the awards to. But one thing is for sure, it’s going to be extremely high-quality stuff. So I’m really excited that Deutsche Welle asked me to come and liveblog (or is it: blog live?) from the awards ceremony. (Full disclosure: It’s a paid gig.) The ceremony is open to the public, by the way, and takes place in the Berlin communications museum, in the evening of 27 Nov.

So drop by if you’re based in Berlin. For those who can’t make it, I’ll be liveblogging here and on the BOBs website.