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

Related articles

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.

Misinformation: Oops, sorry! Then what?

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It’s a daily challenge, monitoring and sharing news about human rights abuses and other issues affecting citizens in various countries around the world, most of them repressive regimes. Solid news can be incredibly hard to obtain, and even more difficult to verify.  Trusted sources are valued like priceless treasures. There have been many occasions when a news report later turned out to have been misinformation (or disinformation) published in error. I recall one particular  instance when the original source of some misleading news was identified, and it caused a major upset among the community of online activists. I remember it well because I was the party responsible for exposing the source, an anonymous account with a small but aggressively loyal crew of supporters. That merry little band pulled no punches in rushing to defend their hero, while vilifying me for having dared to expose his/her role in the incident. Even though it was a harsh and painful lesson, I look back on it almost fondly now, because I learned more about who my real friends were in a few days of being attacked online than I could ever have hoped for otherwise.

I believe this particular group continue their hate campaigns against others posting human rights news up to the present day, although as far as I know, I have not been their target for at least two years, since I employed the very successful strategy of ignoring them completely. The reason I am not certain whether they are still at it is I also very successfully obliterated them from all my social media feeds, so I can’t know one way or the other. Being able to filter my incoming information streams is a must-have.  The occasional strangers who slip through the fence these days only seems to want to sell me 5,000 followers.

In the unfortunate event that any kind of attack, though hopefully not the worst form of net savagery, should be visited upon you, do not be conned by suggestions, or even your own instinct, encouraging you to continue to read their dross to “know what they are up to”. Unless you are the internet police, or intensely lonely /desperate / narcissistic, you don’t. And you will be much happier, confident and more productive if you resist any urge to get sucked into their warped little world.

Also worth noting that a real reputation is not that easily “destroyed”, and when it does happen, it is more often a case of suicide rather than assassination. In complete contrast to my real reputation – the one I have invested in by establishing ground rules and solid patterns of responsible behaviour, and through building and consolidating relationships – I don’t feel the same level of connection to my “online reputation” at all. This is simply because I didn’t set out to create it, I can never own it, and it seems to be bestowed or removed in a whimsical fashion by despicably superficial rep machines like Klout. Also, I have no deep desire to know what negative remarks complete strangers might make about me, assuming they even discuss me at all, which I doubt. The whole online reputation scenario can be likened to listening at keyholes.

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I’ve made or witnessed several similar discoveries since that early episode, but I lost my interest in sharing the information publicly, because of the chilling effect that a major distraction can have on the limited resources of what is essentially a loose network of geographically dispersed volunteers, spread across an expanding universe of social media platforms. There is a lot of work to do every day, and a definite lack of cohesion at times, leading to repetition and redundancy. Some of this is to our benefit, as we can never predict which platform, news source or user may be restricted at any time, and because multiple versions of the same data have a higher probability of reaching more targets in the great sloshing waves of information now drenching the world 24/7. By taking up the challenge of internet activism, we are battling unstable and ruthless regimes in an unpredictable, often hostile, environment, which houses many security risks. We are using information as our weapon, even though we can never guarantee that what we say won’t blow up in our faces. Our resolve is not in question, but what should we do to strengthen our defences?

Before we think about defence, I want to mention just three of the potential downsides to not sharing factual information about infiltrators, false news and fake accounts:

  • failing to share this knowledge weakens the network by leaving it vulnerable to further attacks or penetration
  • silence creates a false sense of security, on both sides, and limits awareness of the need for vigilance
  • any trusted source which has shared misinformation will find its trust level reduced, either permanently or temporarily. Even if they later apologise,  they have been compromised, however rare and however briefly.

Of course, there could be some upsides, for example:

  • Staying quiet about being the victim of an incident means not having to divert your precious time explaining or discussing it
  • Silence also preserves the positive reputation of those affected; a form of short term damage control with a hidden medium to long term risk
  • Not sharing information means not giving away hints and tips  to prospective malicious actors, or providing feedback to the perpetrators

There are defensive tactics that can be deployed, such as sharing useful information, establishing procedures or best practice, and identifying reliable sources. Even then, there will be times when we take a hit, and a false report penetrates the network. As the flow of information increases, so does the very real risk of bad information – until it begins to feel like its happening all the time. One such incident happened today, when a reliable source published a report about a high profile prisoner of conscience, which they then had to rescind just a couple of hours later.

Today’s event was no different from scores of others I could list, and some of them have been very high profile indeed, and even evolved into “news” stories themselves. In every case, it is always acknowledged that those involved could have acted differently. We could have used patience, by discounting the initial report, or at least waiting for confirmation from a second trusted source. Even if the original source didn’t wait, those that shared the report – including myself -could have done so. It took only a couple of hours for today’s story to be refuted. That’s not long, in the scheme of things, if you’re supporting prisoners who have been rotting in jail for years. I think this clarity of hindsight, although too late for this one example, is suggesting a good strategy for us all to adopt in future.

I think I would like to see the original source of this story identified by the website, if not named, and every effort made to neutralise the spread of false news by sharing enough details of what happened and how, so that everyone can learn and benefit from the experience. My only reservation is the possibility of draining energy from the network by creating an unnecessary diversion.

So we need this to happen without turning it into any kind of witch hunt or blame game drama. We need just enough facts to increase awareness, raise consciousness and send a clear message to anyone planning to spread fake news, that we are arming ourselves against such acts in future. Failure to do this creates an additional risk, of less reputable sources – websites, FB pages, blogs, Twitter accounts, individuals, media outlets – deciding to boost their exposure by making up just any story, then withdrawing it later, once the desired effect and extra attention or following has been obtained, secure in the feeling that it will just blow over and be forgotten. Add to this the risk of spreading malware or recording user information using malicious links in a sensational false news item, and we are facing an even bigger challenge.

The last and biggest threat to anyone sharing false information in future may come from an entirely different direction. Note the increasingly strict rules, restrictions and penalties being called for – and in some countries, being applied – against internet users who “overstep” these new boundaries, which are being retroactively installed along our shiny electronic frontiers.  These important security reasons tend to convince me that it is desirable to release at least some details about sources and methods of distributing false information, as a means of building capacity and resilience in our networks.

Even if this idealistic situation does not come to pass, one thing I consistently wish for is to see everyone that happened to be involved in spreading false information in any way, however small (retweeters and likers, I’m looking at you) invest at least as much time and effort in issuing a correction or an update and undoing those likes and retweets. Those that do, will enjoy the added benefit of having enhanced their real reputation.

Caveat: I am only presenting my opinion here – I didn’t take any time to research other points of view or canvass my friends and associates for their ideas, but I would really like to see this topic opened up into further discussion, so please do leave a comment if you would like to contribute.

Are you Being Squeezed by Social Media?

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Facebook has made several radical changes to support its drive to increase revenue. Twitter is on the same path. But have they tipped the balance and found your breaking point yet?

Dangerous Minds has written a lengthy and eloquent complaint about how Facebook is deliberately “broken” so that your posts are held hostage unless you pay to promote them. They didn’t cover the other parts of this plan, such as removing or obscuring access to RSS feeds of Facebook content, or treating cross-posted content as inferior, so that not even the 15% of your friends or fans – who might see content you posted directly – get to see those posts. They are listed as “X posted something from WordPress”, for example. This is designed to force you to access Facebook directly so they can deliver their promotion pitch. For activists, there is the additional challenge of having content removed, or having pages or accounts suspended. We are not just unwelcome: we simply do not belong.

Twitter has always been cumbersome. From the early days of having to deal with the fail whale appearing often and at random, we have learned to roll with the punches as they change the terms of service and the ‘rules’, mess with search and trending topics, prevent us from accessing our tweets but sell them wholesale to market research companies, remove RSS feeds, arbitrarily suspend accounts without warning, and respond to complaints or enquiries with template emails… the list just goes on. Most of the changes are not announced. The users have to maintain a constant state of vigilance – finding, figuring out and publicising each change. It’s an irritating waste of time. And it’s not what we came for.

As activists, we want to engage in a more meaningful way: to forge relationships, spread awareness, make a difference. These platforms are increasingly hostile environments, and the decisions they make in support of their profit mandate often run counter to our needs.

In my opinion, anyone with serious networking goals is going to have to get off the social media hamster wheel some time. The ideal scenario would be one where we take our friends WITH us, leaving Twitter and Facebook to turn into the consumer wastelands they aspire to be, and without our direct involvement. In other words, to relegate them to a lower rank on our social media menu. I think this would mean cross-posting to Facebook and Twitter (whether automatically or selectively) , but rarely visiting the apps themselves.

The poster image created by Dangerous Minds reads “I want my friends back”. I don’t think most people realise that they are no longer seeing as much content from their friends, and I assume they will be staying in touch through other channels, including private messages. However, after watching Twitter getting blackmailed by a judge into handing over content including private messages without a warrant, or be forced to reveal its earnings data, we can’t really regard private messages as “private” with any certainty. If more changes are planned, ones that shrink the current options, I expect that many users will reach the point where they want out. Then again, I have observed that the majority of social media users, including activists, can be incredibly resistant to change. If that includes you, then I have some questions, and I would love to hear from you:

Have you tried (or tried and failed) to move away from Facebook and/or Twitter, and what happened? What justifies you staying on Facebook or Twitter, and what would it take for you to leave? Are you aware of alternatives that you have avoided because they are not as heavily populated, or because you can’t break your existing pattern of online behaviour, or because you are afraid you would lose your friends or following? Would you move to a social media application that uses a paid subscription model, where privacy, security were top priority, and it was guaranteed to be free of advertisements? What do you suggest as an alternative?