AoIR2016: Censorship online, and the challenges of studying what’s no longer there

October 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

Tarleton Gillespie (Microsoft Research), Jillian York (Electronic Frontier Foundation), Sarah Myers West (University of Southern California), José van Dijck (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences), Sarah Roberts (UCLA).

cufxf52waaazmemTarleton Gillespie opened, noting that most users never run into content moderation rules: they never confront what gets deleted or suspended, particularly not the details. Other users run into those rules again and again. It’s also important to recognise that there’s a whole apparatus: not just the rules, but also people who evaluate content, complaints, and policy changes. This apparatus is largely opaque to users, even when users do interact with parts of it. It’s also opaque to scholars. How do we begin to open this up?

Sarah Roberts talked about the shift from our online presence being confined to a server in someone’s closet to being hosted by these multinational entities. Firms have outgrown any policy dimensions they (or others) can come up with, and they really seek outside assistance in developing their policy. Content moderation is often outsourced: what’s the experience of those working with this content? We also need to recognise that one person’s censorship is another’s security. Total automation of these processes, some suggest, would fix these concerns, but this wouldn’t solve issues with the opacity of moderation processes, and it wouldn’t prevent the production of problematic content.

Sarah Myers West voiced her frustration with the limits of research on moderation policies. Platforms are meant to be giving us greater voice, but in practice it can be incredibly difficult for marginalised users to get their content back up when it’s taken down – doing so usually requires getting help from an NGO. At-risk users tend not to find transparency reports and policy statements helpful, as they’re often lacking in necessary detail (especially when translated) and not adequately localised.


Jillian York discussed, which came out of conversations she had with Palestinian activists discussing the kinds of content they were seeing censored. This project tries to track terms of service takedowns, which are much murkier than government censorship practices. There are very different contexts here, for example, when content is taken off a platform, it still exists elsewhere. This might not matter for some users, and some kinds of content. But some users’ Internet use is heavily (or exclusively) focused on particular platforms, and as platforms like Facebook encourage users to stay within the bounds of the site it can mean that content doesn’t exist elsewhere.


José van Dijck reiterated some of her ideas from her keynote, talking about the shift from having companies and institutions that (for example) specialised in news, to companies like Google and Facebook that are data companies…even when they’re clearly incredibly important sources of news. We need to discuss this discrepancy.

vandijckAfter the initial provocations, the discussion opened up, with contributions from the audience as well. Some great points came out of this, including around the ability of users to create change, and whether news organisations and journalists should be treated differently to ordinary users.

AoIR2016: Representation, presentation, embodiment/emplacement

October 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

Crystal Abidin (Anthropology & sociology, communication & media studies, University of Western Australia) talked about her research on ‘Gross is the new like: allure, visceral camp, and carnivalesque commerce in grotesque microcelebrity’. Turner (2004) discusses celebrity’s cultural shift towards the momentary, visual, and sensational. Marhsall (2010) argues that we’re moving from representational media (where others manage our identity) to self-managed media.

yukaWhile some microcelebrities have highly-curated, fashionable and conventionally attractive online presences, others do things like livestreaming themselves brushing their teeth. Kinoshita Yuka is a very tiny lady who can eat a lot of food. She gets away with this because she’s a pretty young woman: she’s not grotesque in the moments she’s not actually eating. Upsetting the existing economy of microcelebrity opens it up to new participants.

Natalie Hendry (School of Education, Deakin University School of Media & Communication, RMIT Univerity) spoke about ‘The visual blog as a body’. She noted that Australia has significant funding for ‘solving’ youth suicide, often through technological approaches, but the resources for this don’t always connect well with people’s needs on the ground. This research focused on white girls aged 14 to 17 years old at a specific hospital.

Visibility in this sector is often framed as either a risk, or a solution, as survivors are positioned as taking a role in showing their linear progress from mental illness to health. Connection is pushed as a way of fixing mental illness: young people are seen as needing to connect to the ‘right’ people (a healthy community, mental health services) and separated from other ‘unhealthy’ communities (for example, people sharing images of self harm online).

Hendry focuses on one research participant, Beatrix, who collected a huge number of images. For her, anxiety is linked to the need to avoid the risk of negative affect. The curation of her identity differs significantly between Facebook (which she sees as more authentic) and Tumblr (which is more of an art gallery, but still represents her sense of self).

glitchKatie Margaret Warfield’s (Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Canada) research focuses on selfies, with this paper looking particular at young women’s experiences. Galit Wellner’s post-phenomenological work is useful, but brackets out power structures, which leaves a clear gap when it comes to understanding selfie practices.

The cellphone serves numerous roles, including as a mirror (as women arrange themselves for a photo), and as a camera (as a sense of a ‘real’ image was sought). Glitch feminism (from Legacy Russell) can be used to understand this: “the irruption of desire that happens online and between body-technology intimate/sexual encounters”.


kendallJill Walker Rettberg (Department of Linguistic, Literary and Aesthetic Studies, University of Bergen, Norway) started by saying that she was only partially going to support the argument she’s making in ‘An image is an Image, even if it’s on Instagram: Why we need to study social media images as representations’. While it is important to understand the context in which images are created and read, it’s also important to read them as symbols.For example, Jenner’s image can be read in the context of celebrity, but it can also be read as a deeply symbolic image that evokes others.

300px-john_everett_millais_-_ophelia_-_google_art_projectThis means we also need to remember that Western art history is not the only lens through which to read images. The most widely shared images of Alan Kurdi were different in the West and in Arabic countries, perhaps in part because of a different artistic, and therefore symbolic, tradition.

Kat Tiidenberg (Institue of Social Studies, Tallinn University, Estonia) discussed her attempts to find a useful theoretical framework for her work on ‘Socially-mediated bodies as practice: studying selfies in situ‘. Drawing on practice approaches is a useful way to think about selfies. It means that you need to think about a very broad range of practices that precede and surround the taking of a selfie. We also need to think about how the selfie as an object functions: how, and why, is it shared? What about selfies that are deleted, or sit waiting to be edited?


AoIR2016: Ethics

October 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

We began with an introduction from Charles Ess, setting out some of the goals of the ethics panels, including:

  1. To foreground new ethical challenges with new insights, suggestions, methodological approaches, and work to help resolve these challenges.
  2. To foster community discussion in contributing to the AoIR ethics guidelines.

This is part of an attempt to think about ethics as an ongoing process of reflection, not as a once-off at the beginning of the project. This means thinking about dissemination, also.

Charles noted a shift in how we’re framing ethics: virtue ethics and care ethics are being given much more attention. He ended with a reminder that while we want to be at the cutting edge, but we must make ethical connections with the past rather than getting stuck in presentism.

calvinandhobbesphilosophyYlva Hård af Segerstad and Dick Kasperowski work looks at the difference between ‘found data’ and ‘made data’ (for example, data created through surveys). There are problems with gathering data from APIs, beyond the technical challenges. It’s tempting to gather as much data as possible, but of course this creates ethical dilemmas. The principle of data minimisation suggests we should only collect data required to answer the research question. Complete anonymisation of found data is often impossible, but there are ways to minimise identifying data. What does informed consent and anonymity mean when it comes to gathering found data? How do we minimise potential harm?

Amanda Lagerkvist presented on ‘The ethics of quantified loss’, sharing work in progress on groups of parents who memorialise their dead children online. Deep felt attachments to the technology used for memorialisation are often ambivalent. Parents speaking about their online memorials felt like a sudden disappearance of the platform used would be like a second death of their child. What is the ethos of online condolences, the ethics of liking or choosing not to like expressions of utter vulnerability and grief? Centring on mourners calls for an ethics of ambiguity: both the sense of a shared vulnerability, and of the strangeness of mourning online on commercial platforms.

Mirko Tobias Schäfer and Gerwin van Schie’s work focuses on ‘Entrepreneurial research: risks, opportunities, ethics’. There’s already a discourse on academic entrepreneurship, but this is mostly focused on the STEM fields. There’s often a lack of attention to digital humanities, and the ethics of the push to find new ways to fund research. We need to ask questions about our critical perspective, dependency, complicity, and risks, when exploring these new funding sources.

Elisabetta Locatelli discussed social media and the erasing of boundaries between academic/critical ad corporate research. This work reflects on research with OssCom between 2010 and 2016, which was financed by a digital communication agency. There are ethical challenges: what does it mean as a researcher to tell brands how to sell products more effectively?

Finally, I spoke a little on the challenges of managing alliances with multiple activist communities.

I really enjoyed the response to the panel and the discussion which followed – plenty to think about later!

AoIR 2016: fakes

October 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

Images of protest in contested social media: Production, propagation, and narratives
Luca Rossi, Christina Neumayer, Julie Vulpius.  IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

This paper discussed the social media campaign around the Blockupy protests in Frankfurt, which was marked by the co-presence of #blockupy, #destroika, and #notroika hashtags.

220px-mc3b3tmc3a6li_vc3b6rubc3adlstjc3b3ra_1Researchers differentiated between images of explicit violence (for example, confrontations with police), and symbolic violence. Images of symbolic violence portray latent expressions of power, and the potential for violence. The symbolism depends on who’s taking the picture – for example, protesters see images of barbed wire as the violence of the state, police figure images of massed protesters as potentially violent) and explicit violence.

Activists in the Blockupy protest mainly shared non-violent pictures, an image of joyful resistance. Media focused on images of explicit violence, while police social media accounts focused on symbolic violence: setting up the narrative of police guarding against the potential threat of the protesters. Understanding how these images support different narratives provides a deeper understanding of contestation online.

Keeping It Fake: Exploring User-Generated Political Fakes and Their Publics
Elisabetta Ferrari. University of Pennsylvania, United States of America.

Political faking is a type of user-generated political satire, satirising not only the politician, but also anyone who interacts with them without realising they’re a fake.

queeneuropeEarly discussions of the Internet demonstrate a concern with fakeness as a mode of online interaction, including questions of authenticity. While these questions are important, it is also useful to explore the positive potential of fakeness.

Ferrari’s work focuses on how creators of fake European accounts interact with their followers and navigate their fakeness. There are some audience members (including politicians) who try to coopt the satire, other members of the audience who don’t get that it’s satire, and others who sometimes even read hidden meanings into the satire.

At times, the people running the accounts aren’t sure whether the people they are interacting with get the satire or not. Are members of the public interacting with accounts ‘for real’ or engaged in their own forms of playful faking?

For Ferrari, gakeness gets articulated as a powerful critique of what is fake in ‘real life’. We should think of satire as a participatory practice co-created by satirists and satirees. We are all faking, at least a little bit, and it’s not always a marker of insincerity. Playful fakeness can be a powerful tool for political critique.

Seeing Is Believing: Do People Fail to Identify Fake Images on the Web? 
Mona Kasra (University of Virginia, United States of America),  Cuihua Shen (University of California – Davis, United States of America), James O’Brien (University of California – Berkeley, United States of America).

moonlandingFaked images can have powerful effects. Especially looking at, for example, Syria today, faked images that try to present a particular side’s viewpoints can have a significant humanitarian impact.

The technology that allows for creating image forgeries is far outpaced by technology that allows us to study and check these images.

Most of us have an awareness that images can be faked. This can sometimes also lead to concern that an image is faked when it’s not. However, we are very poor at identifying what’s fake and what’s not when we’re trying to judge unaided and untrained.

This study explored how viewers try to understand which images are faked. Researchers created faked images and mocked them up as they might be presented on different platforms.

Viewers tended to be bad at looking for discrepancies in lighting, shadows, perspective, and so on. They were more likely to develop post-hoc justifications for their pre-existing understandings of a situation (eg. “I’ve heard of cases like this before, so it seems plausible.”) When they couldn’t find clues in the image itself, they tended to see implausible images as misattributed rather than faked.

How We Use Social Media: Do We See The Advertising Presented?
Ryan Payne (Seneca College, Canada), Jeremy Shtern (Ryerson University, Canada)

Social media users tend not to pay attention to the presence of ads on Facebook and other sites (they said in interviews). “I don’t mind that FB is monetised because I don’t see or interact with the ads”. Users report that they learn to recognise ads and avoid them.

Researchers used eye-tracking to measure what users actually focused on in their Facebook use. Contrary to what many users reported, people do engage with ads and other commercial content regardless of the strategies they discussed using to focus on social content instead.

When users were shown records of what they looked at during their social media time, they often tried to rationalise their use, for example: “Well, they’re my friends and we have a lot in common, so if they’ve liked something it might be interesting to me”.

There’s a lack of understanding of commercial messages on social media particularly when it’s not spread directly as advertising, but rather through other users’ likes or shares. There’s a granularity to understanding users’ digital literacy, and how to educate them about the commercial nature of platforms.


Post-Arab Spring Tunisia: women’s political participation and political decentralisation

July 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

Admira Dini Salim, International Foundation for Electoral Systems
Increasing Women’s Political Participation in Indonesia
Indonesia’s performance on gender equality is lagging. The UNDP Gender Equality Index ranks it 108 out of 187 countries. Civil society continues to fight for change. A lower proportion of women  than men are registered to vote, but turnout is better among women. Despite this, only 23% of voters voted for female candidates in the 2014 elections. Unfortunately, a survey in 2013 showed that if male and female candidates were equally qualified, voters would prefer a male candidate (including female voters). In 2014, 17% of seats in the national parliament were held by women.

cniwbwsumaakyveThe quota system is evolving – at first it was at 30% of candidates that needed to be women (but with no sanctions), after the 2009 election, the election commission added a clause saying that the electoral authorities would announce all parties that didn’t meet the quota. In 2014, working through civil society, the election commission imposed a 1 in 3 quota around gender.

For regional head elections (264 regions) in 2014, female candidates were only 7.5% of candidates. Only 8.5% of female candidates won positions as regional heads or vice.

IFES is working on supporting women to work as election commissioners and in other official positions. The law mandates that 30% of election administrators should be women.

The challenges for women’s political participation are both regulatory and non-regulatory. Regulatory challenges include the lack of enforcement of the quota system, political parties lack of promotion of women as candidates or leaders, discriminatory legislation at the regional level in some areas (for example, in Aceh and other places, there are local regulations that impose curfews on women being out of the house in the evenings, which limits their ability to go to political meetings), and the high costs of elections limit women’s participation. Non-regulatory barriers include social and cultural roles and other factors.

IFES has several programs to improve gender representation, including the Women’s Electoral Leadership Program, She Leads, and the Training of Female Legislators program. These tie in with movements led by local civil society organisations. IFES is thinking about the full election cycles: it’s not just about election day, but about all the stages at which women might be better included.

There are a number of challenges to regulations that could improve women’s participation, including making the 30% quota obligatory and including a strong sanction; offering a subsidy as an incentive for parties to comply with gender quotas; maintaining the open list proportional system to minimize the control by a small political elite in allocating seats in parliament; requiring that female candidates make up 30% of candidates in party lists; and placing women candidates at the top of candidate lists for national, provincial, and regency elections. Civil society is playing an important role in developing and supporting legislation that supports women’s participation in the political system.

Najla Abbes, League of Tunisian Women Voters
Women’s Participation in Political and Public Life: Gains and Challenges

Abbes began by noting that both women and men took to the streets during the revolution. Since 2011, women have been taking part in all levels of elections. However, speaking from her own experience, she notes that the visibility of efforts for women’s rights wasn’t always high, and she began by worrying that women weren’t ready for political participation. But Abbes notes that both men and women were excluded from participation in the democratic process, so everyone will be learning together.

The ‘zipper system’, outlined in Article 16 of the Constitution, requires alternation between men and women in the lists. But at first, only 7% of the top of lists were women. Only one party implemented horizontal and vertical parity, and it was seen as ‘too modern’.

Parity is a great gain, but there’s been an ebb and flow. Abbes notes that Tunisian women get told, “Tunisia is far ahead of the rest of the Arab world, so you should be happy as things are”. But that’s not enough: the requirement of parity is in the Constitution, and it’s important to keep working towards it. Civil society needs to keep working to preserve and extend women’s rights. Part of this work has been pushing for both horizontal and vertical parity to be imposed, and for parties to face sanctions if their lists don’t support parity.

The League of Tunisian Women Voters has been working to support women candidates, including preparing them to participate effectively when elected. They’re also concerned that when women are elected, they’re representing their parties, rather than a ‘women’s agenda’.


Dina Afrianty, Australian Catholic University
Indonesia’s Democracy: Political Decentralisation and Local Women’s Movement
Afrianty’s research suggests that decentralisation has been seen by religious conservatives in Indonesia as an opportunity to return to an Islamic vision of politics. Initial attempts by Islamic political parties to gain power were not successful. After this, many conservative Muslims started to push for conservative interpretations of Islamic law to be incorporated at the local level.

Aceh is currently the only region that is governed by shariah law, with a number of laws brought in at the local level in 2009. These laws have been seen by much of civil society as discriminatory. After the tsunami, when international humanitarian organisations began working in Aceh, more space opened for civil society to voice their opposition. Many organisations from Aceh have pointed to a long history of women’s involvement in leadership in Aceh, including centuries ago when it was a Muslim kingdom, and are engaging in doctrinal debate to offer alternative visions of Islamic law.

Getting more women into power doesn’t necessarily lead to progress. There are several notable examples in Indonesia of women coming into power on platforms that are quite regressive.

Post-Arab Spring Tunisia: local government in Indonesia, a start-up democracy, and the youth

July 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

Greg Barton, Alfred Deakin Institute
Indonesian democratic transition: an examination of the vital elements
Barton argues that we can now call Tunisia a successful democratic transition, as elections have been  held with limited violence and instability. There are important parallels with Indonesia, which is democratic (although not without its problems), well-educated and literate, well-connected, globalised, and with a demographic youth bulge. Both countries also have a significant Muslim population, and Islamic movements have made important contributions to civil society.

There’s a tendency, particularly in the West, to overlook religious participation in civil society. In Indonesia, progressive Muslim movements played a key role not only in the resistance to colonialism and formation of alternative institutions, but also in developing opposition to Suharto. Progressive Islamic thought was supported in Reformasi throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Islam became a positive factor: progressive Islamic thought lays a foundation for democratic thinking and social activism.

Civil society, including religious movements, will continue to play a role in Indonesia’s democracy. One key area here is local elections: these are, in many ways, the most relevant to voters, as they are seen to have the greatest impact on their lives. However, challenges continue in this area. Among other issues, only 7% of candidates in the last Indonesian local elections were women.

Innes Ben Youssef, Free Patriots
Tunisian Revolution: a story of start-up democracy
Tunisia is seen as the only success story of the Arab Spring, and there have been many advances, including the successful implementation of a technocratic government to guide the process of forming the constitution.

To ensure democratic transition, it is important to shine a light on decentralisation and local democracy, and focus on the significant role of civil society, especially women and the youth. In order to do that, we need to re-evaluate the role of the state, strengthen local governments, improve the capacities of municipalities, and improve citizen’s participation in local decision-making.

Ghazoua Ltaief, Sawty
Promoting the Inclusion of Youth in Democratic Transitions


Tunisia is a success, a glimmer of hope as it undergoes a continuous transition process, but it still faces challenges. The constitution has set a new path for Tunisia, and the shift to more decentralised government is key to that. There are still many challenges for youth involvement, and many youth feel disappointed in, and disconnected from, politicians.

Sawty is an important part of the democratic process, working in the regions as well a in Tunisia. One of their programs: “Raise Your Voice”, is aimed at increasing youth participation in local government. Through this program, Sawty is working with youth to articulate their problems, and connecting youth with politicians and other decision-makers to try to develop these solutions.

Sawty is also working with broader networks, including the netmed youth network. This project is helping countries in the Mediterranean to develop youth policies in consultation with the youth. Bus Citoyen, another Sawty program, is a bus that travels around regions in Tunisia working on voter education, including why to, and how to, vote.

Ltaief says that despite the challenges, they are still optimistic (because they need to be).

Post-Arab Spring Tunisia, session 2: local government,

July 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

I presented in the second session, so my notes are more limited here. Still, two very interesting papers from Belhassen Turki and Therese Pearce Laanela.

cndumdlvuaapimaBelhassen Turki, Tunisian Local Governance Project
Local Democracy and Territorial Reform in Tunisia
Turki’s presentation drew on long experience in developing local government to talk about the Tunisian Local Governance Project, supported by international and Tunisian institutions. He began by discussing Tunisian history with decentralisation and the significant growth in municipalities since 1956, which nevertheless were kept weak before 2011: local government had only 4% of GDP in funding, and had limited autonomy.

The new Tunisian constitution makes specific provision, in Article 131, for local authorities’ role in governance. The Tunisian Local Governance Project aims to enhance the dialogue on decentralisation, provide supporting research, strengthen Tunisian local government and share lessons with other MENA countries.

Therese Pearce Laanela, Australian National University
Trusting Tunisian Elections
While there is a substantial body of knowledge about how to organise elections, there’s a need to ensure that people trust the results. Laanela’s research explores an important issue: what makes people trust public institutions? In order to answer this, it’s necessary to look beyond election day and understand the processes that underpin elections.

A huge amount of work has gone into all elections in Tunisia since 2010, and the country has some important strengths in this area:

  • A strong public service tradition (albeit with some upstream problems with decision-making),
  • A strong pool of talent due to the wide availability of education,
  • State of the art electoral practice (including the vertical and horizontal parity required of party lists, and the monitoring of political financing),
  • International support structures,
  • Strong social cohesion (in that most Tunisians are very proud of their country’s achievements, and want it to succeed), and
  • Elite buy-in.

Elections underpin the societal commitment to manage political change in a stable and inclusive way. A lack of electoral trust is therefore costly and potentially risk, but at the same time trust is elusive and messy, and elections take place during a time of agitation. Trust requires not only ongoing delivery of particular services, but also a sense of common purpose, which requires taking the sense of agitation seriously. There’s a need to understand, and be seen to understand, candidates’ and voters’ anxieties about the process.

In Tunisia, electoral authorities are competent and respectful, but they’re being let down by a failure of politicians to pass the necessary legislation in a timely way. This puts staff at the coalface of running elections at risk of being underprepared. Laanela argues that those involved in Tunisian civil society therefore need to be putting pressure on legislators right now to stay on task and pass vital legislation.