Mauritania’s Strategic Significance

France Mauritania
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 Some clues which might explain why Mauritania under Aziz is a strategically important “security partner”:
  • Free media training by foreign “experts”; more powers for press authority; unprecedented churn in state media at all levels; funding problems for independent media.
  • New legislation to gag whistleblowers and bloggers approved by Aziz, to be ratified by a government severely weakened by the opposition election boycott.
  • Aziz, sanctioned by the African Union after leading the last coup, is now in charge of the African Union
  • A 10,000-strong UN “peacekeeping” force plus additional police is now planned for deployment in CAR - taking control of 6,000 African Union troops, and with 2,000 French troops “allowed” to support.
  • Calls from the political fringe in Libya, hastily and enthusiastically echoed by France, for border security, using troops from neighboring countries AND non-neighbor Mauritania.
  • Patrol vessels and helicopters from Spain‘s gendarmerie to be deployed in Mauritania for border security against smuggling and illegal immigration, after claiming the first Spanish military arrivals a few months ago were there for a “training exercise”
  • The USA, after years of maintaining a “hands-off” policy, is now engaged in joint patrols with Mauritania border security.
  • Reportedly rejected by Algeria, France is said to want to establish a military surveillance and monitoring base in Atar, Mauritania

Mauritania – from the outside

Critical Muslim 09 The Maghreb
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A minor re-draft of the article I wrote for Critical Muslim‘s Maghreb edition (08 – Jan 2014) which was drawn from my interpretation of Mauritanian culture and society as seen from a distance, as an outsider. The intended audience is the same as ever: one which is almost completely unaware of the existence of this country, its people, and their lifestyle apart from the occasional tabloid-style stories.

What I am about to share with you may seem oddly fascinating, and even a little mysterious, as indeed it is, to outsiders, but not to Mauritanians. To Mauritanians, everything you are about to read is just part of everyday normal life and, being rather conservative, they don’t necessarily relish the idea of being put under the microscope as some kind of social curiosity, and quite rightly. As Mauritanian social network activist Nasser Weddady explains, “Mauritanians are very conscious that they and their country are a footnote in the world, and more so in the Arab world itself. We are almost never talked about, very few people can even locate us on the map. Most Arabs don’t even know that we share with them a common language and in the case of some, common ancestry. Furthermore, when fellow Arabs talk about us, the clichés and stereotypes veer quickly into the realm of the exotic.” [1]

Mauritania covers more than a million square kilometers of mainly arid Saharan desert, its two main population centres punctuating the 800 kilometre Atlantic coastline.  Stretching east into the Sahel from these two pins on the map, the angular northern borders wedge against Morocco, Algeria and Mali, while the Senegal river valley softens the outline along the southern edge. The immense desert contains a wealth of natural resources such as copper, gold, gypsum and iron, but the extractive industries offer few employment opportunities for unskilled labour. Meanwhile, persistent drought, desertification and poverty in the interior gradually pushes tens of thousands of Mauritanians to abandon a life of humble self-sufficiency as nomadic livestock herders or smallholders in rural village communities. They arrive seeking new means of survival in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou, but instead find high unemployment and very few work opportunities, even for trained workers or university graduates, let alone semi-nomadic herdsmen, or farmers with only a rudimentary education. The inevitable result is a sprawling mess of urban slums, many of which are routinely bulldozed by the authorities, the inhabitants struggling to find work as day-labourers or begging for charity at chaotic traffic junctions. The towns were not built to cope with such dramatic population shifts, and meagre efforts to create or improve essential infrastructure are failing to keep pace.

The bustling economic capital of Nouadhibou huddles beneath Western Sahara, to the north, tenaciously maintaining a vantage point from which to survey the nation’s massive fishing grounds, its cubist landscape of squat terracotta buildings and rickety shacks scoured by desert sand and sea salt. Beyond the jumble of boat yards, warehouses and dry docks, massive foreign trawlers and container vessels jostle alongside smaller fishing boats and supply ships. While the sea holds the promise of a sustainable fortune in fish, very little finds its way to Mauritanian tables: most is processed at sea in huge factory ships and shipped directly to distant lands. The local and artisanal fishing sector is dominated by immigrant workers with stronger sea-legs, mainly from nearby Senegal. To the south, a little over halfway to Senegal, lies Nouakchott, on a site first established by colonial invaders, and selected as the national capital in 1960, when Mauritania gained independence from France. Nouakchott boasts the presidential residence, known locally as the “grey palace”, a few embassies or diplomatic missions, and a handful of multi-story buildings. Expanding under the relentless influx of new residents, Nouakchott oozes out from the centre, retreating from the ocean into the unforgiving desert, the buildings growing progressively smaller and shabbier towards the margins, finally dissolving into salvaged scraps of wood and flapping tarpaulin. The rather drab and dreary aspect of the twin capitals allows them to serve as an unobtrusive backdrop to their vastly more interesting and ethnically diverse inhabitants, comprising Moors of both Arab and African descent, Berbers, and West African ethnic groups such as Fulani, Songhai and Wolof.

The richness of Mauritanian cultural diversity reveals itself through a vibrant social tapestry of customs and traditions, rooted in pre-colonial history, yet often embroidered by the experience and impact of French rule. The official language is Arabic, although French is widely used, and there is a strong tradition of speaking the local Hassaniya dialect, which also features in conversations between the growing network of social media users. Facebook is the dominant social network, with Twitter trailing behind in the popularity stakes, and there is a small but dedicated, and very vocal, blogging community. Less than five percent of the country has reliable internet access [2], although the telecoms operators promise that this is set to change, with the recent installation of a new high capacity undersea cable connection to Europe. True connectivity depends on the rest of the country being able to connect, and judging by the lack of progress on infrastructure projects in general, and the logistical and geographical challenges of the terrain, that could take several years to reach even partial penetration.

Despite the majority of their efforts often being overshadowed by Western media narratives,  which tend to focus on isolated and often sensationalist topics, such as slavery, terror threats, or the practice of force feeding known as gavage, Mauritanians have tentatively begun to record their history and tell their stories through their various online interactions. It has been said, “Language is a central feature of human identity. When we hear someone speak, we immediately make guesses about gender, education level, age, profession, and place of origin. Beyond this individual matter, a language is a powerful symbol of national and ethnic identity.” [3] In Mauritania’s case, a great deal more guesswork might be required, as multilingual speakers frequently transition almost seamlessly between different dialects and languages. It is not unusual to see Arabic, Hassaniya and French being used in the same online conversation, even in posts from the same user. This aspect of cultural diversity frequently transforms conversations into incredibly challenging, but nonetheless very rewarding, experiences. There is a fairly strong sense of national identity in Mauritania, at a certain level, but this is overlaid with a patchwork of social and political ideas and beliefs encompassing a very broad spectrum. Language, and especially the choice between languages and how that is played out, both feeds into and springs from this sense of cultural identity mingled with fear and prejudice.

The ancient and enduring oral tradition of Mauritania has several unique facets, including traditional Mauritanian singing, performed by both men and women, to the accompaniment of Moorish hand drums and stringed instruments, and enthusiastic yet unfailingly rhythmic clapping of the audience. Far smaller, but popular among urban youth, is a more Western-influenced interest in popular music, notably rap and female solo vocalists. There is a small rap music festival held annually in Nouakchott, and Mauritania can boast at least one internationally-known rap artist and a few rising stars who are gaining recognition in the region.

Poetry is undoubtedly the best-known and most enduring pastime, widely loved and practised in subtly different forms by young and old, and causing Mauritania to be known across the Arab world as “the country of one million poets.”  So deeply ingrained is the poetic tradition, that one blogger [4] recently described prose as relatively new and uncharted territory for Mauritanian writers, explaining that poetry was, for so long, the only prevailing literary standard. He goes on to suggest that prose was the outcome of “displacement from the open nomadic horizon into the narrow space of the city with all its impositions and inclinations,” and relates that to the emergence of central government in postcolonial Mauritania during the 1960s and 70s. The discipline is actually quite male-dominated, but women can and do write poetry. There is even a special form of poetry used only by women, known as “intebra,” consisting of two highly condensed poetic phrases, and used exclusively to convey romantic meaning. A joke between one of my Mauritanian friends and I goes that Mauritanian poetesses perfected the micropoetry format, placing them far in advance of Twitter! Whether male or female, griot is the name used to describe someone who combines poetry, storytelling, humour, gossip, and, occasionally, political commentary, as a performance art, and who quite literally embodies a living history of the country and the events that shape it.

Borrowing from the poetic tradition, and the role of the griot in sharing news, an enterprising radio presenter, working for the country’s first national radio station, Mohamed Lemine ould Agatt, introduced a new programme. It was shortly after the declaration of independence in 1960, and the government was keen to tackle the challenge of fostering a sense of identity and unity among the mainly nomadic community, at that time spread more widely across the desert wilderness. The programme is known as “al-Balaghat” or “messages,” taken from its full title, which translates to “the people’s messages and communications,” and is still broadcast every weeknight. The messages are delivered or relayed to the radio station’s office by citizens at home or abroad, and composed by the presenter into a unique format in the Hassaniya dialect. The result is part poem and part song, and might be easiest to imagine as a kind of “singing telegram.” Individual messages are known simply as “balagh” and, through the genius of ould Agatt, became the first new oral tradition to enter Mauritanian culture for centuries. As with the intebra feminine poetic form, each balagh engages the imagination of the listener, turning what would otherwise be a fairly terse missive into a more rounded communication, reminding them of their heritage and their history. After more than forty years, every Mauritanian knows about balagh, it’s formats and traditions, and it has become the stuff of legend. The story goes that the first president, Mokhtar ould Daddah, warned ould Agatt that the telegraph and postal services would feel threatened by the popularity of the programme, and would try to close it down. Ould Agatt is said to have promised the president that the show would be aired in the evenings, to avoid competing with the other communication companies. Decades later, mobile telecoms has dominated the sector, usurping the national landline network for domestic consumers, balagh and Radio Mauritanie are still going strong, telegrams are reserved for formal state occasions, and the postal service is virtually non-existent.

We can not speak of Mauritania without mentioning the local dress. The typical robe worn by most women shrouds everything but the face, hands, and feet like a brightly-patterned mist, and is a single length of fabric, usually a fine voile, about one and a half metres wide and three metres metres in length. Wearing the “melehfa” is almost an art-form, and the end result is effortlessly elegant, even a little mysterious, as one is forced to ponder how the flimsy fabric is able to remain in place without coming adrift at the slightest movement. Interestingly enough, despite being swaddled in this cloud of fabric, women do not seem to find it any impediment to physical activities like driving or working. The small group of women who have pilots licences tend to wear more practical garb, and women who serve in the military wear regular uniform, but elsewhere, work clothes are often worn on top of the robe.

Men seldom wear the full national costume, which includes a waistcoat-style sleeveless or short-sleeved top, and loose fitting pants reaching just below the knee, in addition to the full-length robe which is routinely worn. The pants are fastened by a long length of leather worn as a belt, which dangles rather precariously from the waist, as if waiting to trip them. It takes very little imagination to realise that such an accessory would be extremely useful to anyone living a nomadic lifestyle, and needing to draw well water, hobble the odd camel, or pitch a tent in a sandstorm. Indeed, the main garment, the “dara’a,” can double as a tent in an emergency. A diaphanous gown, made from two man-sized sheets of heavy cotton damask, joined at the shoulders and the hem, the dara’a sports a large shield-shaped front pocket, positioned slightly to the left below a deep asymmetrical “V” neckline. Many are embellished with richly-embroidered geometric shapes, of which diamonds are prevalent, in shades of light umber or gold, like the sands of the Sahara. The gowns themselves are almost always white or one of many shades of blue, from the pale of a winter morning, to the deep azure of the ocean. The wide shoulder seams drop from the neck to the wrist to form loose open sleeves, and are usually folded into broad pleats which rest on the shoulders. To complete the ensemble, some men veil themselves with a strip of cloth worn turban-style. It is called a “hawli” and can be tied using one of several methods, leaving the eyes uncovered, sometimes also showing the nose or the chin as well. The various methods of wrapping the hawli can sometimes indicate membership of specific cultural groups, but most often it’s just an optional mode of dress, and many men go bareheaded. More colours are used for howli than for dara’a, but certain colours have special significance. Black, for example, is worn for weddings by the groom and his entourage, to match the bridal robe, which is all black. The bride herself remains out of sight during most of the wedding celebration, and is sometimes hidden by her bridesmaids and female relatives, to force the groom to search for her, and also to prevent the guests from staging a fake kidnapping, which is another part of the wedding tradition.

Weddings are extremely popular in Mauritania, and part of the excitement they bring is from knowing that, often despite severe economic hardship, the groom has managed to gather enough money to cover the cost of the wedding and to support himself and his bride in their new life. A change in financial circumstances, however, can sometimes signal the end of the relationship. Although polygamy is legal, it is not that popular, and with two out of every five marriages ending in divorce, second or third marriages are common. Women can divorce and remarry as often as they wish without attracting any social stigma. In fact, it is not unusual for women to celebrate their divorce with a big family gathering. Somewhat more disturbing are reports of a more recent trend of women insisting on marrying men who have not been previously married, yet retaining their right to divorce and remarry. Such behaviour could create quite devastating social imbalance, and the level of inequality such attitudes generates has already opened wounds, to the extent that one man founded a non-government organisation to defend the rights of Mauritanian men.

Compared to most Arab countries, women in Mauritania are considered to be extremely well emancipated, and especially so because the country is an Islamic republic, with a legal system based partly on Islamic principles, and the rest borrowed from France. This perception of gender equality sits uncomfortably alongside stories of women rape victims being jailed for breaking the law; female descendent slaves being used for non-consensual sex by their masters; and girls as young as five being sent off to “fattening farms” in the countryside, to be fed large volumes of camel’s milk and greasy bowls of millet porridge with added lard. Mauritanian society undeniably has many troubling issues to contend with, and civil society groups are very popular in Mauritania, including some dedicated to women’s and children’s rights, and others promoting the abolition of slavery. Yet there are few tangible signs evidencing serious progress on these issues, and a lot of conflicting information about the current status for any of them.

Mauritania also boasts a burgeoning local media, with hundreds of journalists writing for newspapers or news websites. There are also several dozen political parties, and a large number of small independent charities. Mosques, sometimes with small schools attached, are another major feature. These Koranic schools are vitally important, especially in rural and regional communities, often representing the only source of education for marginalised local children living in poverty. Sustained and widespread access to religious education and places of worship, supported by over 8,000 mosques, has created a remarkably tolerant society. There is a long historical connection with Mecca, and Mauritanians were among the first to complete the Hajj pilgrimage, so it is no wonder that Islam is as natural as breathing. Formal education opportunities are patchy at best, with a mixture of state, military, and private schools, including some French academies. The country has only one university, in Nouakchott, and two Islamic education institutes, with demand for places outstripping supply many times over. There are hundreds of highly committed teachers across the entire education sector, but they are almost all rendered powerless by an inefficient government administration and lack of funding. Many state schools struggle because of a dire lack of basic supplies, including desks, chairs, chalk, and textbooks. Koranic schools face even more hardships, since they rely almost entirely on charitable donations, in a country where more than 42 percent live below poverty.

At the end of each school year, the education ministry publishes lists of examination results for secondary school students hoping to enter high school, and also for high school students who had taken the Baccalaureate, many of them hoping to enter university. The 2013 Baccalaureate results were disappointing for two reasons. First, because the pass rate was less than ten percent, and second, because an analysis of the spreadsheet indicated that the results had been tampered with. As the implications of this twin tragedy were still sinking in, the high school student results were released, a little later than promised, but the report was incomplete. No explanation was offered, so I got hold of a copy of the file to take a look. On my first inspection of the high school entrance examination results, one feature stood out. That partial list, containing many thousands of names, recorded an identical day and month of birth for every child, most of whom were born in the past 10 or 12 years. Each New Year’s Eve, if you toast the coming year, it would be worthwhile to remember that you are also celebrating the state-imposed birthday of countless, and uncounted, Mauritanians.

No one knows the actual size of the population of Mauritania, and it is only possible to speculate about the reasons for that, although the prevailing theory is that the ruling class, dominated by Moorish Arab elites, is afraid to reveal that they are outnumbered by an oppressed majority of ethnic negro Africans. Whether the state has imposed a system on its citizens where they are casually assigned the same date of birth, or whether it is a workaround to compensate for a lack of access to reliable data, this situation still seems to indicate a level of callous neglect beyond most people’s comprehension. It also brings to mind the chilling effects of entrenched poverty and illiteracy, where entire villages might not have access to even a basic calendar, and would struggle to read one, even if they did. For many rural communities, the nearest health clinic is more than a hundred kilometers away along unmade roads, while the only means of transport are walking, hitchhiking, or riding a donkey, and the registrar of births or deaths is even further away.

So much of what I have said here about Mauritania seems to speak of a land not only steeped in history, but trapped in it. For a large, and largely marginalised, group of Mauritanians, time is almost at a standstill. The majority of the population are young, and increasingly restless, with aspirations far in excess of what Mauritania currently has to offer. I am acutely aware that my good fortune in making virtual friends with people from Mauritania has exposed me to the brightest and best of a tiny, privileged, minority. Yet they are also a representative sample of their generation, and this indicates a rich, untapped, potential, which is ripe for change.

1.  Weddady, Nasser. “Mauritania Beyond The Exotic”. Free Arabs, 12 APR 2013.

2.  Internet penetration figure based on the 2011 report from http://www.internetworldstats.com/af/mr.htm website.

3. Spolsky, B. (1999). Second-language learning. In J. Fishman (Ed.), Handbook of language and ethnic identity (pp. 181-192). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

4. Bah Ahmedtolba, Elycheikh. “Prose in the land of Poetry: The Novel & Short Story.” Rim – pulse / عندما يكتبني وطني. Blogger, 01 JAN 2011.

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#Stuxnet precursor still in the wild. Are you a carrier?

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Did Iran figure out the exploit, has the magic turned on the magician, forcing Microsoft to issue an alert, or is this just (MS) window-dressing for the nuke talks?

Given the close date of the next Patch Tuesday for November, we [...] will probably have to wait until December –  Wolfgang Kandek, CTO, Qualys, Inc

Since we knew about this attack vector for a couple of years (at least) why did they wait so long? Whatever, if you didn’t already think about how this might affect you, or those you are directly or indirectly connected to, best to take some precautions.

What to do if, like the embargoed Iranians, you OR your contacts use older versions of MS Office, MS Word, and Windows:

  1. Set your email reader to NOT display images by default, since apparently this code tries to run even when only previewing email messages
  2. Do NOT send MS Word files as email attachments. Convert to plain text, RTF, WordPad, etc (NOT PDF) or share using an online application. Better yet, paste the plain text into your email.
  3. Do NOT preview, open, or forward MS Word file attachments.
  4. Microsoft is encouraging customers concerned with the risk associated with this vulnerability to deploy two fixes

More details:

Microsoft is investigating private reports of a vulnerability in the Microsoft Graphics component that affects Microsoft Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008, Microsoft Office 2003 through 2010 – in other words, the older versions of software organizations in Iran are  likely to be stuck with because of the sanctions against supplying technology to the regime – and all supported versions of Microsoft Lync. Microsoft is aware of targeted attacks, largely in the Middle East and South Asia, that attempt to exploit this vulnerability in Microsoft Office products that affects customers using them.

The vulnerability is a remote code execution vulnerability that exists in the way affected components handle specially crafted TIFF images. An attacker could exploit this vulnerability by convincing a user to preview or open a specially crafted email message, open a specially crafted file, or browse specially crafted web content. An attacker who successfully exploited the vulnerability could gain the same user rights as the current user. Users whose accounts are configured to have fewer user rights on the system could be less impacted than users who operate with administrative user rights.

An attacker who successfully exploited the vulnerability could gain the same user rights as the current user. Users whose accounts are configured to have fewer user rights on the system could be less impacted than users who operate with administrative user rights.

In a web-based attack scenario, an attacker could host a specially crafted website that is designed to exploit this vulnerability and then convince a user to view the website. An attacker would have no way to force users to view the attacker-controlled content. Instead, an attacker would have to convince users to take action, typically by getting them to click a link in an email message or in an Instant Messenger message that takes users to the attacker’s website, or by opening an attachment sent through email.

Digital Activism Tactics: TweetStorms Reviewed

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In late 2010, digital activists on Twitter began experimenting with a new form of protest, the “TweetStorm.” I updated this from my old post because there have been a few changes to Twitter, and both Facebook and Google+ have now adopted hashtags, making this an even more attractive concept. Where you read “tweet” below, take that to include status updates on FaceBook, Twitter, and elsewhere.

What is a TweetStorm?

It’s a coordinated action by many users to tweet about a single issue at the same time, generating a “storm” of tweets.

How does it work?

Anyone can call for a TweetStorm, you just need to decide:

  1. What will be in the tweet[s] (the text and what hashtags, any special user to target, eg @whitehouse - but use extreme restraint, or risk alienating* a user who can help!

    TIP: Choose a new, unique hashtag, but everyone has to keep it secret until right before the event

  2. What time it has to be sent (essential to choose a time you know lots of supporters are usually online)

    TIP: Create an online event that people can sign up for, or make a one-off campaign on thunderclap.it

What next?

  • You have to tell people about the TweetStorm, and ask them to get involved by supporting it by sending out a tweet or setting up a scheduled tweet (see below) and by spreading the idea to their followers!

    TIP:  Contact your most active followers  privately, to ask if they will take part and help to recruit others

  • Then, you all either keep the TweetStorm text somewhere handy (Facebook event, blog post, pastebin, etc) and tweet at the appointed time, or schedule the tweets to go out at the set time.

How do I schedule a tweet?

TweetDeck includes a schedule tweet feature, and there are some scheduling services available through mobile or online applications, such as Buffer or Hootsuite.

How do I know what time to send the tweet if I am in a different time zone?

Check times in various time zones here: http://www.worldtimeserver.com/ or here: http://www.worldtimezones.com/

And that is about all there is to it.

TIP: If you plan to use TweetStorms as an ongoing tactic, keep some stats, give people feedback, and THANK THEM for taking part

Summary

  1. Write the tweet(s) and/or choose a unique hashtag and pick some optional @username(s) to target
  2. Recruit your friends using DM, email, FaceBook, Twitter, Google+ etc. Coach them if necessary
  3. Remember to set up your schedule if you need to
  4. Pass the information along – you may want to warn your followers
  5. Post increasingly frequent reminders as the time approaches, but keep the new hashtag secret

Are TweetStorms Effective?

tweet-in-a-bottleEarly analysis indicated that TweetStorms were highly effective. Whether that was the result of serendipity or serious effort remained to be proven in those early days. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that Twitter changed their Terms of Service so that sending “unsolicited” tweets, or using certain hashtags, could get your account suspended. Added to that, as Twitter grew and the user interface changed, many people found it increasingly difficult to maintain the level of close, co-operative contact with their network, which a TweetStorm depends on to be successful.

However, we can say:

  1. TweetStorms do work, and only thanks to the coordinated actions of concerned individuals.
  2. TweetStorms are not necessarily successful in isolation; they are an important adjunct to the conversations, petitions, emails, letters and postcards and other campaign actions.
  3. On Twitter, it is now very difficult to target Trending Topics, so targeted TweetStorms are a good alternative to trending.
  4. They the draw attention of other users, which can help strengthen a cause.
  5. TweetStorms are NOT spam. Spam is useless or irrelevant information sent to random or unrelated targets.
  6. TweetStorms are not meant as entertainment, rather as serious activism for spreading awareness, but you can make them fun, too. They are designed to attract attention from all corners, not only “@UN” or “@StateDept” for example.
  7. TweetStorms show allies the cause remains strong.
  8. They also show potential enemies that supporters of the cause are united. Maintaining secrecy of the tag and targets to the last minute also catches opponents by surprise, robbing them of the chance to spoil your plan.
  9. TweetStorms are democratic in nature: anyone can choose the message, who it targets, and when.
  10. TweetStorms are relatively easy – with potential high returns for minimal effort and zero outlay

Last Word

As activists, it is important to not only take part in TweetStorms, but to actively encourage others to join. Activism doesn’t stop at the ‘send’ button.

* Aside: When I started TweetStorms, to draw attention to human rights issues in Iran, Amnesty International was a target for more than one campaign. They were not at all happy to see their timeline flooded with our messages (there was no “mentions” column on Twitter back then) and blocked my account. Later, they began using the TweetStorm tactic themselves! And no, they didn’t unblock my account.

The original guides to the TweetStorm idea in several languages are available on these links:

TweetStorm-Arabic

TweetStorm-China

TweetStorm-Deutsch

TweetStorm-English

TweetStorm-Español

TweetStorm-Française

TweetStorm-Farsi

TweetStorm-Italia

TweetStorm-Japan

TweetStorm-Nederland

TweetStorm-Portugal

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Online Security: Verification and Validation

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An overview of key points for activists to bear in mind for online security, or tactics to bring into play in case of an online incursion by members of anyone’s so-called “Cyber Army” – updated version of my December 2011 post “Battle Hardening Against Cyber Soldiers” for Cyber Security Awareness Month.

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When it comes to online security, your first responsibility is to yourself, and that has never been more clear than now, with the daily diet of revelations about the allegedly massive scale of global government spying and surveillance finally raising awareness. Of at least equal importance, is the need to stay alert to the risks your actions might create for others in your online network. Every time you share, tag, mention or otherwise connect someone else to your content, you are highlighting your relationship in the context of that content. A simple typing error, a hastily copied story, or unbridled haste to share without fact-checking, can alter that context dramatically, and potentially with rather more serious consequences that any of us previously imagined. Increase your personal security first, using the same logic as those flight safety rules about oxygen masks. Here’s a handy article from the New Scientist, about how to try and evade the NSA dragnet, to help you get started.

Being part of an online network means you need to be able to justify each of your online relationships, and pay attention to any unexpected changes. Harsh as it might seem, treat all former contacts, who reappear after an absence, with neutral (not hostile) caution. Accounts do get hacked, and occasionally, people do get recruited to “the other team” or put under pressure to reveal passwords. If you didn’t put a challenge/response protocol* in place with your trusted contact before they dropped off the grid, so you could verify their identity when they reappear at some future point, then you have to assume there is a 50% chance they are not the person you once knew until they can prove themselves to your satisfaction. Similarly, do not feel obliged to “follow back” or accept every friend request unless you feel confident about doing so. Set some standards for yourself about why and how you plan to grow your network. If you are simply feeling insecure, ego-driven, or lonely, be honest with yourself about your motivations, and try to keep them in check so that they don’t compromise your security.

*Establish a challenge/response protocol with your trusted contacts. This is an agreed question you can ask the other person and an agreed response they must give. Like a password reminder.

Tip: Do NOT use any of your existing password reminder Q&A’s

New accounts, especially breathlessly dramatic ones, should also be treated with measured caution. Wait for verification of all news, especially any that will have serious or long-term repercussions. We learned this the hard way when a very plausible fraud appeared on Twitter in the middle of protest and declared that bit.ly shortened links were blocked in Iran. The ensuing panic and last-minute changes caused a lot of people a great deal of unnecessary extra effort, and some of the suggested alternative link shortening sites are no longer operational, meaning that archived content which includes links using these now defunct services are effectively dead.

Breaking News” reports always seem to demand an urgent response, where in fact they should be treated as “unconfirmed news“. As we all know, a lie is halfway around the social network world before the truth has got its pants on. So, as always, wait and verify, verify, verify. Remember that even the most experienced social media users and big name mass media outlets like the BBC, MBC, CNN etc have all been fooled by fake news, or been too quick to rush to headlines without checking facts; at times, they are even revealed to be responsible for it . If you do happen to post a report in good faith, which later turns out to be false, you should be willing to spend at least as much time retracting it and letting everyone know, than the time you spent sharing it.

Mark unconfirmed status updates as UNCONFIRMED or UNCONF. Do not remove text that identifies news as unconfirmed when re-tweeting or re-posting.

did-the-world-s-nastiest-virus-try-to-self-destruct--49a5bfa353Be cautious with private message requests or emails containing sensational news, documents, image, videos etc. asking you to share news. Suggest to whoever sent it that they post it themselves and you (might) share their update. If they claim to be unable to use or create a social network account, suggest they use liveleak.com, where you can share images, documents, videos and post text updated using an alias. Run a search for the information being privately shared with you, to see if it can be verified, or if anyone is posting warnings about it.

Watch out for people re-using images from unrelated events. Use Google or Tin Eye to search for images by url or by uploading them. Try using Storyful’s Multisearch tool to help you verify news and look for more sources. What other tools do you know of? Add the best to your favorites, and share them often.

Check for images having been altered using special analysis tools like Image Metadata Manager or JPEGSnoop or the fotoforensics.com website.

As far as possible, try to stay transparent in your methods and analysis, and let your network help you by reaching out for help verifying reports, checking facts, or translating content.

ISERI Protests 12 Jan 2011 AlJAzeera cameraman hassledFake videos seem to be all the rage these days, while innocent cameramen are being murderedkidnapped or harassed, and citizen journalists – or indeed, anyone carrying a smart phone or camera – face increasing pressure from police and authorities. 

Here is my current list of suggestions, ideas and wishes for video checking and verification:

  1. Time and Date – video camera clocks can be changed of course, but we used to encourage activists in Iran or elsewhere to show us that day’s newspaper, social media status updates on a screen, or a live TV broadcast in the background of their video.
  2. Incentifying crowdsourced verification by rewarding the crowd. Not necessarily restricted to financial rewards, there are many different ways to motivate using more humanitarian methods, media coverage, thanking helpers with mentions, gamified social media decals etc – see this video for an example (at 10m42s) : 
    Digital Humanitarians: Patrick Meier at TEDxTraverseCity 2013
  3. Patience. There is often no good reason for the rush to post unverified news. This sense of urgency was more relevant four or five years ago, when mainstream media was thumbing its nose at “irrelevant, pointless” social media and users felt driven to prove their worth and expose the slow-footed traditional press. Now social media has gained almost universal acceptance, we should adjust the idea of competition to be first to break “all” news – at the cost of validity – and only apply it where it adds value, such as disaster relief.
  4. Details. We need to encourage those posting video to take the time to add important details – names, dates, locations, background facts, and tagging – for example, while also blurring faces of vulnerable subjects.
  5. Communication – it’s a 2-way street. We need to understand the importance of leaving comments of encouragement, feedback, guidance. At present, too much video is being posted and consumed in a communication vacuum.
  6. Archiving. Too many videos get pulled offline, and any video exposing serious abuse by authorities is at risk of being censored either formally or informally. There are sites that will save text or image content, but I don’t know of any reliable, consistent, centralised effort to preserve video or audio. It’s left to quick-thinking people to save these items privately.
  7. Translation. Really, this should be first on the list. The lack of organised, consistent volunteer efforts to crowdsource translation beggars belief. If you know anyone who can build an app for this, I have a rough design outline that’s been gathering dust for the past 4 years.
  8. Gratuitous violence and shock tactics are on the increase (and being pushed by Facebook and major news outlets when it suits them) and little good has come of it, if any.  People are being traumatised, becoming immune to it, or turning away. This is very damaging to the prospects of crowdsourced verification, because the gore factor is a deterrent to many potential helpers. I resist sharing the 18+ content being posted as relevant to human rights abuse, in the hope that, if we don’t encourage the trend by reacting, rewarding, or promoting, it will fall out of favour.
  9. We need an open source tool for video that works like JPEG Snoop, to extract information about the video, camera, settings, GPS etc.

Your comments and suggestions are very welcome on these subjects – drop me an email through the contact form or leave a comment below.

Take responsibility for your online safety and security

  • Change to a strong password and keep changing it, if not daily then as often as you can.
  • Scan your computer to check for intrusions, keyloggers, rootkits, malware, and trojans and keep your security software up to date.
  • Make sure that your recovery details for websites like Twitter, FaceBook & blogs etc are accurate and up to date.
  • Protect the email accounts you use to register with websites and services.
  • Use https to access websites and services, so that when you do connect, the information you send is encrypted.
  • Copy and paste login names and passwords rather than type them.
  • Do not store unencrypted user names and passwords on your computer.
  • Protect files on your computer or on external storage devices or removable storage like flash drives, SD cards or USB sticks using encryption, such as TrueCrypt.
  • Use a password on all your devices.

Be alert for apparently innocent requests for information about your own or anyone else’s details, such as location, online activity, other connections, friends or contacts.