Devils and Cabals

Monopolizing presidential debates in the digital info age; Twitter kills international Politwoops; and more.


  • Access Denials: When did it become OK for a single cable channel to monopolize access to a presidential debate, Susan Crawford asks on Medium’s Backchannel? Yet that is exactly what the Fox News Channel did with the first GOP debate earlier this month, with the result that if you didn’t have a cable subscription, you couldn’t watch. As Crawford correctly notes, “There is no speech more central to civic life than a political debate. And yet we have allowed access to that speech by way of the common medium of our era—high-speed internet access—to be controlled by a cabal of private actors.”

  • This past weekend, Twitter informed the Open State Foundation that it was shutting down its Politwoops sites in 30 countries and its related Diplotwoops service, which monitored deleted tweets by diplomats and embassies. This follows on Twitter’s equally shameful decision to shut down the Sunlight Foundation’s Politwoops account tracking US politicians’ deleted tweets earlier this year. Explaining its decision, Twitter told the Open State Foundation that it believed all its users deserved the ability to safely and privately delete tweets. Arjan El Fassed, the director of the foundation commented: “What elected politicians publicly say is a matter of public record. Even when tweets are deleted, it’s part of parliamentary history. These tweets were once posted and later deleted. What politicians say in public should be available to anyone. This is not about typos but it is a unique insight on how messages from elected politicians can change without notice.”

  • In Wired, Klint Finley reports on how pro-government Twitter bots are disrupting online activism by Mexico’s protest movements, “drowning out real conversations with noise.”

  • USA Today’s Brad Heath reports on how police in Baltimore regularly use phone trackers (aka stingrays, or cell-site simulators) in everyday cases. He writes, “Records show that the city’s police used stingrays to catch everyone from killers to petty thieves, that the authorities regularly hid or obscured that surveillance once suspects got to court and that many of those they arrested were never prosecuted.” State law requires that defense lawyers be told about electronic surveillance, while the FBI has asked police agencies to keep their use confidential.

  • Food for Thought: The Fall 2014 issue of the World Policy Journal is titled “Connectivity,” and this article by Egyptian political activist Mahmoud Salem, known on Twitter as @sandmonkey, captures well the upside and downside of connection technologies in revolutionary situations. On the one hand, he notes, a Twitter account called “Tahrir Supplies”—created by two girls forbidden by their parents from attending the street protests—collected $700K in medical supplies in one day. On the other hand, he writes:

    A revolution organized by social media is by definition a revolution made up of disparate individuals who share similar but general goals. When it came to details, however, the devil lay there smiling. Ideological disagreements reared their ugly heads. Political divisions cracked the collective. Shrillness and extremism quickly replaced rational discourse among even the most renowned activists, who had been allies for years.

  • ICYMI: Elena Fagotto and Archon Fung offer an excellent and careful parsing in the Boston Review of the benefits and weaknesses of information transparency.

  • This is civic tech: Our Erin Simpson reports on Blue Ridge Labs’ summer fellowship program, which had its roll-out last Thursday night at Civic Hall, showcasing five new civic tech products aimed at helping low income communities.

  • It’s not too early to sign up for the “Platform Cooperativism” conference coming up November 13-14 at the New School, convened by our friends Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider and in partnership with Civic Hall and many other related groups. It’s being conceived as a “coming-out party for the cooperative internet, built of platforms owned and governed by the people who rely on them.”

  • MySociety is looking to hire a U.S. Civic Technologies Researcher.

  • Media tactics: Operating from the principle that “anything can be interesting if it’s packaged the right way,” former Gawkerite Neetzan Zimmerman, now the head of social for The Hill, has boosted the inside-the-Beltway publication’s Facebook presence nearly twenty-fold in the last month, Lucia Moses reports for Digiday.

  • Here’s a great new guide for data visualizers on when to use maps—and when not to.