Mirror, Mirror

On a lampenlicht walk yesterday, talking with friends Jo and Drew, I mentioned how we are the generation that “gets” Facebook-candid, knowing full well that they would indeed understand what I meant. While the tiered levels of security inherent of that platform are often tedious to negotiate, they’re useful for monitoring who knows what. Facebook can be credited for actually bothering to present such options, while Twitter – like most social networking sites – is, by and large, a public affair, unless you choose to lock down your profile. This is understandable in an internet-age where random trolls and cyber-stalkers are a sad fact of online life, but it’s also inhibiting for those who wish to engage more, voice their opinions and be heard – particularly if their “real-time” life doesn’t allow for such in-depth interaction, due to internal or external forces. I won’t try to list everything here. Humanity has more than enough ways to both curtail and elevate its people, from gender bias to gay pride; then there are physical and mental impairments to consider. I spent most of 2002-3 indoors, wound up in anorexia and depression, rarely speaking to anyone but those people I knew on the Something Fishy website, who provided encouragement for recovery; they were also forthcoming in the “ordinary stuff”, with whole threads dedicated to things unrelated to eating disorders. It was a narrow sliver of light.

The internet has provided the gift of communication to those who might otherwise have no voice, or limited contact with the wider world. We know of the plight of citizens caught in global conflicts via conventional news channels; but on a more immediate (and often personal) scale, by the images and information posted on social networking sites by eye witnesses, and the dispatches and on-the-ground footage of foreign correspondents. This has its faults, of course. For me, the summer of 2014 will forever be synonymous with online symbolic interaction, the push-pull of individual censorship v.s raising awareness, and the words “viral graphic content.”

Speaking of censorship – the State Duma in Russia are proving a little overzealous (surprised?) when it comes to handling the personal data of the country’s citizens. Recently accelerated plans to force foreign companies like Twitter, Apple and Google to “store the personal data of their Russian account-holders on Russia-based servers” by January 2015, would effectively provide the state with the means to “monitor all private communications of its citizens around the clock,” (Sarkis Darbinyan of the independent Internet freedom watchdog RuBlacklist.net.)

Of course, the Kremlin would never openly endorse such a move, which is why it has been fast-tracked and dressed up as protection from the big bad foreign servers (the internet, don’t forget, is Putin’s idea of a CIA-pet project.) This would require networking and communications companies like Google’s Gmail and Facebook, to “register as organizers of information dissemination.”

I’d love that on my CV, or a name-badge. “Member of the Information Dissemination ranks.”

Twitter, Youtube and Storyful have proven priceless when it comes to verifying information uploaded (and often subsequently deleted) to these and other platforms, such as Instagram and Facebook, in relation to the Malaysian airlines MH17 tragedy – the coverage of which by Russia Today forced reporter Sara Firth to resign in protest. RT’s replacement of news site RIA Novosti, which “tried hard to produce balanced coverage for Russian and international audiences” and “reflected the views of the opposition and covered difficult topics for the Kremlin,” means that factual and neutral coverage of world events are increasingly hard to come by. Never more so than with the Ukraine conflict, with the state-controlled media weaving a webbed view for the public of “western chaos and Russian order”:

“You will recall the news reports in January when the really bloody events took place, the rapidly changing images of flames, burning tires, running people, alarming music,” [referring to antigovernment protests in the Ukrainian capital.] “What do you think it’s for? For dramatic effect? No. There is a much bigger meaning behind it.”

“Chaos is the key word… All of it is done to create a stable association in our minds: Ukraine is chaos. It is an old mythologem — Chaos as a protoplasm from which the gods will then create the world. And what is Russia then? Russia is Cosmos, it is order, and it is the foundation of peace and stability.”

“If you watch Russian TV you will see that Russia has no problems other than the adaptation of Crimea. We have no inflation, no decreasing incomes. We don’t have any of the typical big-city problems. Russia has none of that. Everything is alright in Russia. What is it? It is called the manipulation of the agenda.” – Valery Solovei, at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO).

The internet provides alternative views, for those still willing to look. Disinformation in altered images can be picked apart and commented upon in live streams of tweets, Facebook posts, blog entries. It’s for this reason that the Russian government would rather see “popular ‘political’ bloggers” that are demanding a say in how their country is run”, stifled, along with human rights activist and Putin-opposer Garry Kasparov, whose website was blocked in Russia earlier in the year.

“I have spent my life thinking about thinking… and I find many others are as interested in the field of improving human performance as I am.”

This view probably doesn’t sit well with the Kremlin.

While this is bad enough for the atmosphere and mindset of the country, with fewer outside influences now permitted in the state-controlled media, the implications of a law to create Russian-based personal data could be just as detrimental for the Russian IT industry, and the country’s economy.

The primary objective “is to force Western Internet giants like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Apple to allow Russia’s security services unfettered access to the personal communications of Russian nationals”, with any company’s refusal to comply in relocating servers or to rent local cloud storage, providing the “legal vehicle to block their services.” This could well flashback on the government: as lobbying group the Information & Computer Technologies Industry Association wrote in an open letter, the move would force most companies to “put their operations on hold, inflicting untold damage on the Russian economy… Russia simply lacks the technical facilities to host databases with users’ personal data, and setting up the infrastructure within the remaining three months is impossible.” The cost and trouble of all this jiggery-pokery could put off foreign companies, who will simply take their business elsewhere – leaving Russian citizens stranded with nasty lifestyle changes, given that many indirectly-affected services will include “ online travel services, airline ticketing by foreign carriers, Internet commerce, Internet payments and even online visa application services at foreign embassies.”

Russia is already on a downward economic spiral, due largely to top-heavy internal corruption and tit-for-tat sanctioning for its involvement in the Ukraine conflict. Those who have the means to are getting out while they can, seeking improved housing conditions (Latvia is a favourite), education and welfare. They leave behind an older generation who will suffer physical and mental pressures, because their government has a bit of blind spot when it comes to “GDP expenditure on national defence.” That’s in stark contrast to, say, the crucial upgrading of infrastructure, and healthcare reforms. The purchase of the Mistral warships from France were a shining example of this little military weakness.
Someone should really warn Putin about houses built on sand.

What’s most interesting (and refreshing) to note, is how the smoke always finds a way of escaping through vents, to warn of the fire. Ahead of the potential 2015 crackdown, resourceful bloggers are sharing “advice on how to use proxy servers in order to access social media sites that, in their view, are under threat of being closed”, while seeking innovative ways to “cheat the feature that counts page visits and keep their daily unique visitor numbers just under 3000, or to make sure that the statistics are hidden altogether.” This is in relation to the “bloggers’ law” set down in August, which forces bloggers with 3,000+ daily readers to “register with the mass media regulator, Roskomnadzor, and conform to the regulations that govern the country’s larger media outlets.” On the personal data law, Anton Nossik, an influential Russian blogger, wrote on LiveJournal that while it does not “threaten individual bloggers directly”, it will provide “legal grounds to block popular social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LiveJournal and Google.”

I was thinking of this while reading Jo’s musings on her personal life, strung out in a composition of articulate tweets. I enjoy a well-plotted thought process, particularly when it’s as honest as the heart of a diamond – faceted, clear-cut, direct. I tried to imagine a situation in which she could not openly vocalise her feelings, and gain feedback from friends across the world – not out of personal inhibitions, but because the basic right to do so had been denied to her. And what if, as a more in-depth way of connecting with online friends, she had gone to write a WordPress blog entry about her life – perhaps to have a bit of a moan about work, the government, her family, all things relevant to us as people – only to find her account inaccessible. Trying to speak out, as many of us do, in that singular way which can feel damn-near impossible in real-time life … and finding yourself trapped on the wrong side of the wall.

“Sometimes I feel on here I should always be upbeat. I don’t know why. I like upbeat maybe that’s why. But sometimes… when you’re on your own a lot, Twitter can be a place just to throw it out there. Whatever it is. Sometimes you’ll get chat about it, other times not and both are okay.”

Which comes down to choice. Freedom of speech. Feelings, opinions, ideas, worries, delights, all built up inside, waiting to be shared. This is what social networking and blogging sites have been created for, to provide us with the access to each other’s lives that was once unimaginable. As a new friend put it yesterday in London, “ten years ago, Facebook and Twitter wouldn’t even factor into conversations. Now, it’s commonly accepted to say “did you see such-and-such”, and no one thinks anything of it.” Which incidentally, is how the best sci-fi stories work – when the technology is so well-integrated as to be background noise. Just another conduit, or an extra sense.

I find it very difficult to articulate myself as it is, on and offline, and often resort to symbolism, or (worse) projecting my feelings onto current affairs. There comes a point when I must knuckle down on my own “musings”; correspondence with people like Jo, and others scattered across the world, is of incalculable value. There’s a delicate wash of relief in reading the thoughts and emotions of people who, even in different contexts and circumstances, seem to hold up a mirror and reflect what I can’t quite face up to.

For the Russian people, such personal benefits could soon be cut off, along with much else they have lost since 2011 with the start of the internet crackdown. The new law will allegedly “ensure faster and more effective protection of Russian citizens’ rights to telecommunication privacy and personal data safety.” But the state Duma appears to be doing a rather good job of hollowing out these key features of free speech, all by itself.

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3 thoughts on “Mirror, Mirror

  1. 1stpeaksteve says:

    Good read!

    I am going to lay off of Russia for this comment since you more than put the spot light on the shortcomings of the current regime.

    I do want to speak about media and social media.

    In a lot of ways, the internet has proven to be a major asset to my life. I have accounts of media professionals as they show what is really going on areas of the world that are struggling.

    On the other hand, I have seen a drop in the art of research. Some do not seek out information from varied sources. They can not use common sense and see the big picture of the world at large around them. They only believe what is presented to them by the favorite talk show host or news outlet and they never see that it is heavily biased. What they are getting is not really news but a form of propaganda to gain ratings, create fear, and to push people to help out one political party or another.

    The world is changing fast. Common people are bonding with others from places they have never stepped foot at. This is probably the most horrific thing to the leaders of the world who use smoke and mirrors to hold their citizens down.

    • raishimi33 says:

      To certain undemocratic leaders and regimes, ja. That’s where the Internet is something of a double-edged sword; it can be used for the manipulation of information and images to spread further propaganda, or it can provide a layered perspective of events via different channels. It’s about learning yo read across, and remember that everyone has their own agenda – taking what is provided and piecing it together to help inform opinions – and being prepared to have these challenged, perhaps changed.

  2. Joanne says:

    Someone on Twitter the other day remarked “If everyone stopped watching the news for a week, would we be happier?” I suspect the answer is yes. If we had no media, had never known media, perhaps we would. Ignorance is bliss so they say. But humans are information seeking missiles and gossip enthusiasts, and so media is a life line in many ways. I think though that having the intelligence to filter and question for yourself is of utmost importance when dealing with any media. It is a skill we have to learn. Question, question, question never accept everything you are told. (Oh how western education systems have so much to answer for when we teach the opposite.) Too many people react too quickly rather than stand back and question (especially with the immediacy social media provides.) They don’t look at the bias or question the meaning of why certain things are put out there. Just follow, copy like sheep. And people argue teaching history is a waste of time… Hmmmm, well it is the one subject where we are taught to actually question the propaganda of the past and can therefore help us make sensible decisions about what we are fed now. For we *are* fed it. How much of it we choose to consume and believe is down to the individual. There is power in knowledge, but more power in knowing what to do with that knowledge and when.
    An excellent post Rachael. Very well articulated and linked together. Loved it.

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