Using social media for political activity & individual security

Last Monday I did a talk on the political use of social media like Facebook and individual security concerns for RAG (Revolutionary Anarcha Feminist Group).  The text I based the talk on and the audio recordings of the talk (which had four other speakers and 40 minutes of discussion) are with this blog post.  I ranged fairly widely as I think these questions can only be understood in the balances revolutionaries have always had to strike between effective communication and personal security.

As I said at the start I was a bit unsure how to tackle the subject and decided on a narrative format which I think worked OK on the night.  That approach had the advantage of minimising the importance of any variation in technical knowledge or experience in the audience.  If you listen to the audio you'll see the contributions from the other speakers was very broad with two of them specifically saying they had no particular interest in the political questions at all. 

I spoke first and the second speaker Caroline directed a good few questions to me in her contribution but I didn't want to answer those straight away with three other people waiting to speak.  I come back to some of them later, mostly about 30 minutes into the second audio recording. My main point was that all interactions in society required some forms of compromise with capitalism and that really those involved around using Facebook for political activism required a similar set of decisions to be made as using mainstream media distribution ('Easons' is the main distributor of publications in Ireland) or any one of a 100 other questions.  I think I'd already dealt with the encryption question in the text below..

Listen to Part 1 of the talk (I'm on first)
Listen to Part 2 of the talk (I come in around 30 minutes)


Using social media for political activity & the individual security considerations by Andrew Flood on Mixcloud


Text of talk

I wasn't quite sure how to approach this talk. I reckoned a 'when to create a fan page rather than a group' on Facebook angle would be a bit dull so instead I'm going to tell some stories that I think illustrate both the areas of potential and concern. I'm also approaching this purely from the point of view of political activism, I'll leave the discussion of art etc to people who know what they are talking about.

There are a number of fundamental contradictions that revolutionaries have to face as they move through their lives and new media accents some of these and brings them to the fore. My first story takes place in 1917.

In July there had been a failed rising in Petrograd and in the aftermath of this a number of exiled Bolshevik leaders returned to the city. Now what was interesting for us is that rather that sneaking across the border Lenin choose to make a pre announced arrival in the Finland station and this was turned into a big rally to build support for the party. I missed the session but at the London anarchist bookfair a couple of years back Ian Bone said that if this had been anarchists the train would have pulled in not with Lenin ready to alight and launch into a speech but with a note stuck to the front reading 'For more information contact PO Box 1528.'

There is a contradiction for the revoluntary between visible activity and personal security. By security I mean everything from being invisible to the state to being invisible to employers and fascists. Back in the 1970's there were organizations like the Economic League in Britain that spied on left organizations, copied the names of people who signed articles in left papers and sold these lists to employers to draw up blacklists of trouble makers to avoid employing. There services were expensive, but today any employer with a computer connection can achieve the same in seconds via google.

This has consequences. Back in 1992 I was one of a group of anarchists who founded the first online anarchist archive of texts called Spunk Press. This used a file retrieval system called Gopher as although the web had come into existence at CERN it was not until 1993 that the web started to replace gopher in a serious way.

Now the internet at this time was a very obscure place, the hang out solely of programmers and other assorted geeks. So really although what you put up was publicaly accessible so few of the public knew anything about the net that you didn’t pay attention to this. So many of us posted from work emails, pretty much the only emails that existed at that point in time and with footers that included our full names and work numbers. This bit us in the ass quite quickly when the Sunday Times ran a big and bizarre scare story about Spunk press which basically painted us a terrorist organization bringing together a crazy coalition that ran from the ETA to loyalist paramilitaries in Ireland. This had very serious consequences for one of the editors who lived and worked in Britain who was not only personally named but also had the details of the company he worked for connected to the project.

Now the only new aspect to this was that we were 'new media' publishers. Right wing press targeting political activists was not new then, its being going on as long as publishing has. The difference is that with new media the collection of information for a smear article on someone is very much easier than it used to be.

One issue is that your needs for personal security can be at one level at one stage in life and very different at another. A moved to Canada around four years back and in doing so moved from a situation where I had a full time job and citizenship and thus was not very worried about being out there to one where I had neither and would be regularly crossing one of the worlds most paranoid borders, the US / Canadian border where on the US side border guards are in the regular practice of googling anyone who looks suspicious. I'd already had the experience in 2004 of being 'randomly selected' for special searches every time I took a domestic flight in the US. If you google me the first result was an index page of my anarchist writings alongside a picture of me in front of a line of masked and armed Zapatista's. Not really ideal material for a border crossing.

Now there wasn't much I could do in terms of removing this, I could and did have control over the page that picture was on but because I've been online so long articles I've written and even old emails from the 1990's are scatted in thousands of places across the internet, almost none of which I have access to. The solution I came up with was to invent another Andrew Flood who had written all that stuff and providing a picture of him. As an old work email address was all over the net I used the n in this and provided a picture of Nestor Makhno as a young fella in a very Depeche Mode style pose. The idea being that the curious border guard who google me would quickly find this other guy who looked nothing like me and had a different middle initial to mine.

Which brings me to Facebook.

What initially lured me into Facebook was the ability to put up the dodgy photos of me without having to worry about random border guards therefore seeing them. Which is not the same thing at all as thinking that content is not available to the various secret police forces, bored facebook employees and even journalists and the like who are smart enough to get around the often ineffective security settings. Anyone for instance can download every image in a 'friends of friends' folder if they can see the address of one image in that folder.

Facebook is pretty much set up to be a stalkers heaven, although FB logs how often you look at someones profile it doesn't provide this information to them and promises not to (of course whether they are capable of filling that promise is another question, there was a undocumented feature removed two years back that showed your top 7 'stalkers'). It's pretty much designed to allow you to give away all sorts of personal information on an ongoing basis to people who you may well only vaguely know and if your not careful with your settings to people you may not know at all.

It's hardly surprising people people find this alarming but that also they get pulled into the implicit exchange of details involved. You swap someone checking out your drunken party pics from holidays two years back for your ability to surf theirs. Unless they choose to 'like' or comment on a photo you don't even know they have been there and if they do either you may well find it quite creepy that they have looked in the first place. But of course as any of you who are already friends of mine on Facebook will know I probably update and post pics at a greater rate than anyone else you know.

The key thing to understand with using FB for a political tools is that even if you call yourself Ann Anonymous or Michael Bakunin you are making a similar compromise. In the first season of the Wire the cops spend a considerable period of time trying to construct a map of the drug dealer network they are investigating based on who is calling who. A political cop investigating you gets that information for free off your Facebook friend list. I post a lot of protest pics and people happily trawl through them tagging each other.

There was a cool app called Nexus that when ran looked at your friend list and gave you a linked node map of who connected to who, it was a useful warning when ran on my account as my friends were in three clear clusters of activists in Ireland, old friends from Ireland and activists in the US with the 'key' connectors between and within clumps in each of these three groups visible. It vanished 18 months back, I rather suspect the authors got hired by the NSA. In terms of how long it would have taken for the branch to construct an activist map a decade ago FB must be something of a dream in which we do it for them and its accessible instantly and being constantly updated.

The most dangerous thing when it comes to personal or collective security is not in fact what you choose to make public or semi public. There is a decision in that process. The dangerous thing is what you think you are doing in secret but in reality is visible to those with the power to look. Those are the circumstances in which you say something you shouldn't. The only safe way to treat the internet in general and Facebook in particular is to assume that everything you post is going to be visible to anyone willing to try hard enough and will be automatically visible to political police.

So is everyone ready to run home and delete their Facebook profiles? An why haven't I?

This is where we started, the Finland station, Lenin's arrival and the safe alternative of 'For more information contact PO Box 1528.' We need to look at the actual risks and balance those against the actual gains. Facebook keeps me in constant contact with maybe 500 anarchists and another 200 or so old friends or family who map up the net activist map that cops might try and draw. Their profile news posts give me a constant alternative picture of what is happening in the world, the Facebook feed is now where I tend to find out about stuff, selected and indeed filtered for me by 100's of people with whom I have a lot in common. In terms of real world organising in Ireland FB events have been a very powerful way to both spread news of events, we had nearly 1200 sign up for the Anarchist Bookfair page for instance and to recruit from those events after they passed, the anti-capitalist bloc expanded the WSM friend list by a good 150 people I'd say, all of whom are now in ongoing contact.

And as importantly while you can escape Facebook its actually just the most visible manifestation of just how easy it is to track, identify and record people these days. What I partly like about Facebook is that its all pretty obvious. Gmail is collecting exactly the same sort of information about you but until the cock up that was the release of Buzz a couple of months back few realised this. To be even slightly secure online would be to never use a computer at work or at home and to constantly change which internet cafe's you used for your carefully encrypted emails to other people you were very, very sure were consistently taking similar precautions.

And even then there is no escape. I was part of a conversation a while back were it came up how back in the 80's if you happened to be involved in a riot if you walked away at the end of it you could be pretty sure that was it. Today not only are there cameras everywhere but even consumer cameras have face recognition software built into them that when swept over a crowd will produce an index with every face spotted by the software in it. We have one of them in work, its kinda cool as you sweep across it drops little red boxes on every face as it generates the catalog. And even free software like iPhoto has pretty impressive recognition and tagging software that when you tag a couple of photos of someone will then go through all your photos and suggest matches. When I've played with it its successfully picked up pictures of me from 20 years ago despite having pretty different glasses and hair.

It's the interactive nature of new media that makes the compromises we make when we choose to use it for political purposes very visible to us. In many ways this is a good thing as the compromises were always there, previously it was just easier to not notice the downsides.  If your going to rob banks don't announce it on Facebook.


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