Tweeting fire in a crowded theater…

That’s what British PM David Cameron essentially argues happened in the U.K. riots.  Two men received four-year jail terms Wednesday for inflammatory Facebook posts. Never mind that nobody but police showed up for one bloke’s post about a “Smash Down” and the other man created a riot page as a drunken joke.

Just over 1,000 people have been charged with rioting and looting in London alone, and more than double that number were arrested in the street battles that have left at least five dead. Such horrible violence and wanton destruction is frightening, but thus far no arrests concerning social media posts have been connected to actual rioting. Fear and freedom face off.

Shift to American history … Back in World War I, Charles Schenck tried to pass out anti-draft leaflets to recently drafted servicemen. It didn’t matter that he never actually convinced a draftee to oppose the war effort; Schenck was convicted of espionage. Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that such protests created a clear and present danger to national security.  Schenck, Holmes said, was as dangerous as someone falsely crying fire in crowded theater. Freedom of speech could be forfeited when lots of people could die from that speech.

Holmes backed off his staunch position within a year but the U.S. Courts held onto the theater metaphor for another 50 years. That’s when the courts adopted an “imminent” standard, separating actual harm from intent. In other words, the threat had to be real.

The British Parliament continues to debate whether shutting down the internet in times of severe unrest is legal or even possible. As in U.S. law, the focus for such action seems to be on imminent danger.

However, the sentences for Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe Keenan, the two men charged with inciting social disorder via Facebook, appear to be more about looking tough on crime than actually being tough. The greater ethical issues beyond the force of law are becoming apparent.

These two Facebook posters exhibited extraordinarily poor judgment. However, imposing harsh sentences on them does not make the British any safer, nor does it address the very real crises that lead to the riots in the first place.

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Tornados, Floods and Fears

My 10-year-old went into an absolute panic as we drove along listening to an NPR story about the Southern tornado and flood devastation. We will be leaving Washington in a matter of months for my new job at Eastern Kentucky. Spokane has snow, lots and lots of snow, but not tornadoes. The power and destruction seemed like an alien animal to her, one she could not get her brain around.

Japan’s tsunami videos were fresh in her mind and she could not imagine gradations of awful that might be inflicted on Alabama. Once home, she huddled beside me as I paged through Facebook checking the status of Southern friends. I was grateful for social networking connections that let me immediately find out who was safe, whose house was hurt, who knew of those who had been injured or worse. My daughter had more basic needs. She asked, “What does a tornado look like?” Just then a friend posted Chris England’s video, the viral one of the twister approaching the University of Alabama. I debated showing a frightened child the truth of her fears, but I took a deep breath and pressed play.

My daughter watched the storm intensely, and gradually her shoulders began to relax and she lessened the grip on my arm. “That’s really big and scary,” she said. “If I saw that coming, I would go hide in the basement.” Then, she sighed and picked up her homework. Armed with information, my daughter found a way to face her fears. Truth gave her power.

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Apple and the Ethics of Indiscretion

Which is worse: That your iPhone is tracking your every move without you knowing about it, or that this little feature was corporate accident? Apple better come up with a reason other than, “We didn’t mean to.”

Lawmakers are clamoring for an explanation that has yet to be forthcoming. New York Times’ David Pogue says the whole tracking thing just isn’t that big a deal: What else should we expect? In fact, the computer programmers who discovered it first thought the whole thing was rather nifty, at least until they realized that other people might be able to follow them. It’s not just that the data is being collected; it’s that the data is unprotected, unencrypted, unprotected, uneverything.

Perhaps spouses tracking errant partner’s iPhone whereabouts seems minor, but ITPro notes the trackers may also leave iPhone users more vulnerable to cyber thieves. But we really don’t know. We don’t know the intent Apple developers had any more than we know what the tracker might be capable of doing. Apple at the moment is oddly silent.

Privacy International director Simon Davies posted an Open Letter to Steve Jobs asking for transparency on Apple’s privacy policies, particularly in light of this tracking surprise. The London-based group’s deputy director Gus Hosein put it best: “Apple seriously screwed up here …  I don’t know how, but over the years, location data has suddenly become fair game.” And, that location data can be “very, very dangerous information to be collecting, particularly in such a haphazard way.”

Foursquare allows us to pick and choose when we tell friends where we are, and we at least get a coffee discount for the privilege of sharing. The lack of control is what is so troubling. Neilson reports today more than half of smartphone users are concerned about the privacy violations in location tracking, and that data was collected before the iPhone story broke.

Maybe we should expect to be followed. But it would be good to know whether those who are following us, actually know what they are doing.

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Losing our Minds: Rise of Tablets Doesn’t Mean Rise in Reading

Sure, the birth of the tablet has been largely credited with fall of Borders and the decline of the American bookstore, at least according to the Economist. Yet Google‘s newly released study shows 84 percent of tablet users mostly play games, while less than half read e-books. That means bookstores still may have hope once the tablet novelty wears off … or reading is declining…again.

The National Endowment for the Arts called the decline of reading a national crisis in 2004, but enthusiastically reported a surprise boost in 2009 with more than half of all Americans reading literature. It remains unclear what impact the tablet really will have on American literacy in the long haul.

Every major technology has faced a similar crisis. Radio promised educational and art opportunities as justification for its advancement and led to the birth of popular music. Radio gave Bach to the backwoods and Lady Gaga, too. Television promised the same educational and arts opportunities, giving us Masterpiece Theater and also Kate Plus Eight. We shouldn’t be surprised that tablets offer us Angry Birds along with the complete portable works of Jane Austen.

Perhaps the tablet is the best and latest answer to the problem of bowling alone: you can be isolated as you play your favorite game but look hip instead of lonely.

Tablet survey

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U.S. Military Counters Extremism with Truth, a.k.a. Lies

The U.S. Military is creating fake profiles on foreign social media web sites designed to counter extremist viewpoints and paint a more attractive portrait of American policy. The new software is called the cutting edge of psychological warfare.

“The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries,” The Guardian reports. Apparently Facebook, Twitter, and sites operating in English will not be targeted because well, that would be engaging in psychological warfare on our own people.

The reasons why a fake profile approach is bad seem pretty self-evident but let’s lay them out anyway:

  • American credibility in countries these profiles are targeted, places with languages such as Farsi, is already pretty low. Folks there are going to get wind of this little trick. That means any posting by anyone remotely pro-American is going to be even more suspect. Misrepresentation cheapens genuine public support.
  • Lessons should be learned from the oft-criticised State Department “Shared Values” campaign from the Bush era. Only a handful of researchers have suggested the program actually worked. Whether such propaganda was successful or not, isn’t really the point. Truth should be the hallmark of American messages if we want to have real relationships with our world neighbors, Sheldon Rampton argued. Propaganda is the tool of those who merely wish to maintain power.
  • Misrepresentation is a lie that insults the intelligence of an enemy and frankly places that enemy outside the social contract, Sissela Bok believes. Creating fake profiles is just another way of saying, “They are lying so anything we do is justified.” So, lies are told to promote a greater truth. That’s a pretty twisted justification for an effort encouraging American-style democracy.

In one of my first reporting jobs, my colleagues and I were pretty frustrated with how we were being managed. Our supervisors created a cash award for whomever was deemed to have the best attitude. Rather than actually listening to us or trying to make better working conditions, they tried to buy us off. It didn’t work. I can’t help but wonder if the situation is that different in the Middle East. Rather than trying to trick people into thinking favorably about Americans, perhaps we might actually engage people with integrity. Perhaps we could try actual truth spoken by real people, instead of pretend truth created by fake people.

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Bar Karma and “What Others Receive”

For the cutting edge crowd-sourced drama Bar Karma to survive, CurrentTV creators need to listen to a little bit of music.

The show’s writers could use some help from Darren Solomon. He asked a bunch of musicians to create two-minute scores that could be played randomly and simultaneously on YouTube in InBFlat and on Google Maps in marker/music

InBFlat is fully crowd-sourced drawing on random musicians who submitted entries and the viewer’s ability to pick and choose from 20 instrument selections. Try a combination of glass marimba, electric guitar, and DSi synthesizer. marker/music narrowed the focus to a single community in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Solomon worked with students and faculty at Northern State University and placed the locations of recordings on a Google Map.

Solomon’s ethic of interactivity requires that everybody involved really participate. Yes, he makes the final cut on what sounds but the actual content is fully developed by the whole. And that is where Bar Karma falls down.

Crowd-source viewers are developing intriguing plots for Bar Karma, coming up with great variations on what happens when “a guy walks into a bar.” In this case, the bar is sort of a cosmic waystation drawing everyone from a writer whose children’s book leads to a terrorist attack to patient in the middle of highly questionable surgery.  It’s the professional team of writers who are falling flat. So the viewer part of crowd sourcing seems to be working out well, dispelling fears the program design would be just a gimmick.

Early reviewers of the first show begged for better conversations to live out the complex plots, but so far that hasn’t happened. A change of philosophy is in order. It’s not enough to say you really want to be interactive … you have to take the plunge for real. For this show to make it, the creators are going to have to throw the dialogue out for public editing just as they threw everything out from a Mazda product placement to the theme music. Frankly, the public can’t do any worse than show’s current dialogue.

 The last line of the only narrative option InBFlat gives the ethic that Bar Karma needs: “It’s not about what I produce. It’s all about what others receive.”

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Gaddafi losing social media war

Perhaps one day world dictators will be effective in using social media to be persuasive. That didn’t happen today. Even as rumors swirled that Gaddafi has been shot, the Libyan government sent out a mass text message threatening protesters they would face soldiers armed with “real bullets” if they showed up for demonstrations today. They came anyway and the death toll is rising.

More benign government text messages asked workers to open stores and return to their jobs, and called on parents to keep children out of protests. All reports indicate those messages were not persuasive. Other pro-government messages promised phone credits to users who forwarded them.

And meanwhile, more than 10, 000 people signed up for a single Facebook protest page. One English language page had over 6,000 fans.

As in Egypt, barring the foreign media was ineffective at stopping information. A smart phone comes in and out of view as this camera records citizen attacks:

Mashable’s Chris Taylor points out that while revolutionaries long have been successful without technology, information has always been power. Placing information technology in the hands of people means Thomas Hobbes had it right: even the mighty can be overturned. A 58-year-old Libyan man with a cell phone was able to give eye-witness accounts in one of the most incredible interviews NPR ever produced. Link and listen.

A threat to the credibility of such interviews is their anonymity. No matter how compelling the story or how necessary anonymity may be, unnamed sources still pose the same threats to truth as in old media. Last summer, news reports circulated widely that North Korea created its own Facebook page, after launching YouTube and Twitter accounts. Forbes sent the Dear Leader a fax asking if the sites belonged to his government. A very polite response came: No, we don’t do that sort of thing. In fact, such sites are banned. Supporters outside the country created the accounts. So, North Korea did not spread international propaganda; the assumption just was that if propaganda was spread then it must be come from the government.

The check and balance to internet anonymity is internet accessibility. Lies and misattributions tend to surface in a free and open environment, even if that environment is a very thin wire.

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