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Category: social media

Don’t give up the fight – Digital activism in times of COVID19

Physical distancing doesn’t have to mean social distancing. Communities are more important than ever and physical distancing should mean getting socially actually closer.

May 17 will provide a key opportunity for this, and here are some ideas about how to make it happen.

There is an online collaborative version of this document so that everyone can contribute their ideas and share tips on how to organise these activities. We warmly invite everyone to participate


LGBTQI+ people are particularly vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19 as many are part of the poorest people and are already victim of many forms of discrimination, stigma and persecution. Funding is desperately needed and May 17 can provide a good entry point for a call for solidarity. There is an infinite list of resources on how to create a fundraiser. This article is a good place to start

One additional tip that we would like to offer: Underlining the vulnerability of LGBTQI+ people in the face of COVID-19 is important, but it is likely to get unnoticed in times when people are concerned mainly about themselves. A more effective frame to connect with people in these times could be to share advice and tips on how we, as a community of people who have been often forced to live in isolation from others (either physically or mentally),  have learned to cope with this. Showing understanding and providing support (“This is how we can help you now. Help us to help you more in future”) could be an effective tactics to generate some reciprocity.

Flashmobs from home:


For May 17, a specific LGBTQI+  anthem can be played (and sung?) simultaneously by people at their windows. The information should be available early on online so people can get  ready to join and the event should be well referenced so that when it happens curious people who wonder what is going on and search the net can find the answer easily.

  • Cacerolazo: Banging pots and pans has been used around the world, more to express outrage than in order to voice support, but it’s been used these days also to support health care workers


People hang flags, posters or banners at their window or wear something identifiable when they take walks. More permanently visible than a flashmob.

For May 17, there could be a special hanging of Pride flags together with banners (or handmade “red cross” flags) supporting health care workers, both to show support and gratitude to health care workers in general but also to salute LGBTQI+ health care workers who risk their lives:

A gay man is the first nurse reported to have died of the virus in New York City, reports The New York Times.

Online community events:

Homo Sapiens is not a solitary animal. Forced to confinement, this species finds every possible trick and tactic to keep connected to mates. From  Zoom yoga classes, Skype book clubs, Periscope jam sessions to Cloud Clubbing, the internet is rife with creative ways to keep engaged with others. Some of these can definitely be of inspiration to creative campaigners for May17

  • Virtual church services

With online/TV/radio preachers all over the world, online services are nothing new. The challenge is to try to replicate the feeling of community, which makes services so important for worshipers. This tutorial offers a large range of technical advice

Here is one example of what this can look like

  • Cloud Clubbing

Most clubs have now taken their parties online and DJ rely on voluntary donations to keep them afloat.

For May 17 it would be interesting to customise the party so that it has a distinctive flavor. For example there could be a “protest” dress code or playlist could feature plenty of protest songs. Looking for inspiration? Here might be a good place to start looking.

  • Online performances

Cabarets, drag shows, standups, can all be taken online with a minimal technical equipment. But whole festivals can also be taken online, as for example the Digital Drag Fest.

This article reports on a nice initiative that brings drag artists from different countries together

  • Meditation classes

Members of the LGBTQI+ community are particularly vulnerable to social isolation. Meditation can be extremely helpful to help people cope.

For May 17, a special event can be designed to help people overcome internalised stigma.

If you don’t have the ability to conduct a meditation yourself, you can organise a collective watching of free online meditations and psychology talks. I would personally recommend Psychologist, Bhuddist and Meditation teacher Tara Brach. Her inspiring talks are all free online on her site. Of particular relevance : Her talk on how to confront the pandemic fear and her talk on how to confront addiction. You can check many more meditation classes on the free and collaborative app Insight Timer.

Start engagement journeys

The idea behind engaging supporters is that it requires GIVING before asking. So instead of asking people to like, share, sign, donate, etc., an engagement journey starts with offering something to the target group. At a time when the COVID-19 crisis has everyone yearning for ideas of things to do at home, to keep the kids entertained, to eat healthy, etc it could be a good idea to start by inspiring people.

For the whole week around May 17, global organisations could prepare a whole 7-day “anti-homophobia diet”, with recipes from around the world (or the neighbourhood!) that could be shared with the life story of an LGBTIQ+ person from this country. And why not go vegan, by the way, as an acknowledgment of the environmental damages that partly provoked the COVI-19 pandemic.

Or organisations could launch each day of the week leading up to May 17 week a quizz program which could, with minimal back-office management, lead to an “IDAHOBIT award”

Another idea is to tap into the specific experience and skills of the LGBTQI+ community and make other people benefit from. Drag artists could share make-up tips and tutorial. Non-Binary people could give gender-neutral clothing lessons, etc.

Live programs

Live programs (Facebook lives or online radio programs) can be a good way to connect people. Watch this tutorial if you haven’t organised one before.

Viewers/Listeners can be invited to call in and share their opinions or stories, which makes it more interesting than just listening.

May 17 could be a good moment to launch an online radio station, or at least a regular online event (e.g. on the 17th of each month), with a distinctive flavor that can keep a specific target group engaged (“17” could be appropriate to target young people)

“Collective” film screenings

Now movie theaters are closed and we can’t organise movie watching parties at home, there are other ways of creating that special feeling of watching a film with other people. This is pretty easy to organise on zoom.

With teleconf apps like zoom, skype, team, etc.  you can also organise collective screenings through screen sharing, which can be more fun when watching a comedy, a sing along, a horror movie, etc.

These moments can become a good way to engage with your community members who usually don’t engage with you, either because they are too shy or because they are generally not interested in community activities.

For May 17, a special event can be organised around watching a documentary on a topic which you feel passionate about. If there is a silver lining to the COVID crisis, it is that a lot of community members have much more time and interest than before to engage in deeper reflections. We have started updating a list of documentaries we published some time ago that deal with many aspects of our lives. All these documentaries are interesting material to organise community discussions around.

Watching one of the fabulous films from that list that specially focus on LGBT activism can be a great way to make your audience gain more insights into the fascinating work that your organisation does, and maybe get them hooked to become volunteers.

And you have of course a host of LGBTQI+ themed movies to choose from. Take this list of 50 as a good starting point

Reader circles

More demanding that movie circles, reader circles invite people to collectively read a book, an essay or an article and facilitate a discussion, possibly also bringing in the author or selected authoritative commentators. This is a good upgrade from online events with no preliminary reading, as in these reader circles people start with a common framing of the debate, which makes conversations more relevant.

For May 17, a reading list can be sent in advance with a list of 7 topics that will be discussed during live event on each day of the May 17 week

An interesting list of books to get started

Offline virtual protests:

  • Political art display

Creating political artwork is a great activity to do when you are stuck at home and want to express yourself.Some organisations like 350.org are engaging with their supporters and provide them with training kits for creative aRtivism. A clever way to keep people engaged and to get them to use this time of social distancing to develop new skills

When physical gatherings are not possible, it is still possible to show the power or people offline in other ways: gather photos made of individuals with signs, print them out and display en masse publicly at the specific target. Consider chalking outlines of participants.

For May 17, people can be invited to create artwork, which can be displayed either online or printed out by organisers and hung as a banner.

This can be a good opportunity to connect with a virtual political art making party. Check out this guide to making political art by 350.org

  • Projections

Guerilla projections and protest holograms require just a few people, and often require no permit! Consider projecting a live feed of comments as well.

For May 17, a hologram demonstration can be a powerful way to show that sexual and gender minorities are respecting the lockdown rules but that freedom of assembly is, in the long run, not negotiable.

More ideas on how to make this happen on our Creative Campaigning Resource Center

Taking your conference online

If you were thinking of a conference or a panel discussion to mark May 17, taking it online might provide an opportunity to change the format, as lengthy presentations are not an option for an online event. These tips for creating lively panel discussions might seem basic but make sure you tick all the boxes.

Facilitation of the interaction with the audience will be all the more difficult online but here are some useful tips on how to make it happen.

Release your advocacy reports and research

Every year, many organisations choose May 17 to release annual reports on the situation of LGBTQI++ people, or other pieces of research and advocacy papers. This year, it might make sense to publish specific pieces of research on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the community. This report from Egale Canada provides inspiration for this.

Personal connections

Helping people connect to each other, not necessarily (only) to your organisation, is a powerful objective, and not necessarily easy. But some initiatives provide great inspiration for this. On Amnesty’s model of writing personal letters or postcards, May 17 can be a good moment to launch a virtual postcard campaign, inviting audiences to connect with people from around the world. The COVID-19 crisis can potentially be a powerful frame to connect people over. And this article provides advice on how to run such a letter-writing campaign

The global LGBTQI+ federation ILGA has just launched this type of campaign

This initiative from a former Trans inmate is also a powerful example, as is the Rainbow Cards  campaign, which also provides inspiration

Sometimes the challenge can be how to deliver the messages to people in isolation, more than to actually get the messages written. In which case it makes sense to team up with LGBTQI+ organisations on various continents, which can also provide a great way to educate your supporters about the diversity of gender expressions and sexualities. The initiative can also be directed at specific minority groups in the country/area you are in, for example migrants/refugees. In that case it is important to team up with an organisation that works with them and channel the support messages through them. The organisation Freedom from Torture for example channelled the messages of support to migrants that their supporters wrote through the psychological support services these people accessed.


Inviting for contributions from you audience in order to create an original piece of work is a good way to build a sense of community

This lip-sync video on Lili Allen’s pop hit “fuck you very much” is a very old example of this tactic, but we still like it 🙂

Living Libraries

For May 17, you can invite audiences to dialogue directly with specific people. This can specifically draw users from “neighbouring” communities who are curious, but not yet supportive. Organisers obviously have to publish a very specific code of conduct (what questions/language are appropriate, protection of data, etc.) and make sure it is complied with.

Selfie contests

Arguably, selfie contests have been around for many years and campaigners had better find creative angles in order to make this kind of action still appealing but there are now a lot of special apps that can bring new momentum to this. Check some out here.

Here is an article with some ideas around this.

(Re-)Launch a survey

Many people are likely to still be under lockdown by May 17, unfortunately. So with more time on their hands, they might be more likely to respond to that survey you wanted to do, or on which you got too little feedback. A good moment to reiterate.

More resources

There is a lot of thinking and innovation taking place at the moment on how to react to the COVID-19 crisis. We are building the list below as we go. Please send us your suggestions on the collective working document

Digital Charity Lab: Digital projects for non-profits during the Coronavirus crisis

More Onion: Digital Engagement during COVID-19 crisis Webinar

Creative Engagement on Instagram

IG has become the favorite way to share among teens and young adults, beating out Facebook and Twitter. In the US, young people 18-29 years old make up half of the users on Instagram. 

What makes Instagram different from social media networks such as Facebook or Twitter is the way people use it. Instagrammers frequently check the site, often several times a day, and engage with posts at a much higher rate than with other social networks.

We have compiled in this article some tips shared by non-profit users on how to make the best of IG to increase the level of engagement with your followers, and beyond:




  • Videos get more than 20% more engagement than static content, according to a study by Quintly. The same report notices that the use of hashtags seems to decrease interaction.
  • People prefer to connect with people, much more than brands and logos. Having a personalized presence increases your reach on Instagram and creates deeper connections with donors and supporters. This means that your communication on IG c/should sometimes share your personal stories, away from your cause or mission. Just you, your cat, etc. 

  • Likewise, sharing from time to time content that is NOT related to your cause but to other subjects that your (potential) audience is interested in (including entertainment, art, etc.) can make your content more “relatable” to people and help them associate your account with pleasant content (see “pairing” tactic for comm on the online course). 
  • You have 2,200 characters for captions, and if you exceed three lines of text the caption will be truncated. While there is no definitive study on whether lengthy captions encourage or discourage engagement, the caption needs in any case to be catchy from the outset, so directly addressing the target audience rather then repeating what is in the image. An example of how this works is to post an enigmatic/confusing/intriguing picture and asking the audience for its opinion (remember that blue or gold dress ??). Be aware that longer captions are preferred by the algorithm, so if you rely on them it pays off to spend time on captions. 
  • On IG too it pays off to focus sometimes on the user instead of the cause. E.g. a post by @doctorswithoutborders : « #mentalhealthweek we’re highlighting some of the de-stressing tips we give our aid workers. These tips can also help you!⁣⁣ »

  • The avalanche of photos on snapchat makes original artwork stand out. Consider using less photos and more creative artwork which, if you are consistent with the graphic design, can become part of your « brand ».

  • The IG “stories” feature (a slideshow of pics and/or videos that disappear after a day) seems to be the most popular feature (Some report 500 million users of stories each day). Here are a few tips on how to make stories work for your engagement:

As it focuses on storytelling and storytelling being a nr1 campaign tool, there seems to be a point in using this feature more. Especially in places where these are not yet popular, it can really help to get better noticed by your followers, as your story will show up on your followers’ feed.


It could particularly be interesting to use this feature as a “medium is the message” toolA good example of this was the WWF “last selfie” campaign on snapchat where the organisation used the ephemeral nature of Snapchat (pictures disappear after a short while) to encourage users to screenshot their Snapchat posts before they disappeared and share to Twitter.

IG stories could be about disappearing voices of LGBTQI+ people, last messages of people needing to go in hiding or leave the country, etc.

For accounts over 10.000 fans, IG stories allow to insert “swipe up” GIFs that lead users to other content. So your stories can be an effective way to publish your call for action and generate engagement on your other channels.

Stories allow you to share other people’s content and therefore potentially engage their audience, generate alliances, engage the reciprocity effect, etc., all without having to create content yourself.

IG stickers are popular. Most are pretty much just gimmicks but they make content look more personal and can therefore favor engagement. Some stickers are directly MADE for engagement:

The Question or Quizzes Stickers features in IG Stories are a very convenient way to kick start this form of engagement, which can help people engage over topics that they are curious about (or that you make them curious about).


This works especially well for a Q&A type of interaction (or living library).

Question stickers can also be used to host your very own Instagram Stories contest that could look something like this :

If you want to take it one step further, you can add in another qualifier by requiring participants to tag a friend on your post before the contest goes live. This will get more eyes on your stories, and may even get you some more followers!  

The poll or vote stickers are obviously interesting for quick engagement

For calls to action that require simultaneous collective action (remember the “thunderclap” site?), the Countdown sticker is useful. Once you put a Countdown Sticker on your Story, viewers can add the event to their calendar and turn on reminder, notifications so this will allow you to engage them at a specific moment. You can also use this tonotify viewers when you’ll be going Live (see below).

Music stickers are a good way to create the right mood for your message (pairing, again…). But they can also lead people to a specially recorded audio that could be part of your campaign, but it should of course not overwhelm your story’s main message.

Live videos (which work a lot like the Facebook’s live video feature. A Live tag will pop up on your Instagram Stories bubble to alert your followers that you’re live) help create a sense of community. It can also be a good way to create « happy few » feelings for audiences which you want to engage more into taking action, all the more as users can join in the live video and they then appear on the screen (much like a video conference).

For more ideas, this is an interesting article on fostering engagement with IG stories.

And HERE is a free online course to develop an IG stories strategy









Crafting Headlines for Change: The Art and Science of Petition Titles

An interesting article was published on change.org on how to edit effective titles for campaigns.

In essence, the article draws from the experience of 164.000 petitions launched in English over the past few years.

Insights include that :

  • Tone and first words are important. The analysis dissects the impact of the use of semantics that are either positive or negative, related to virtue, to power, etc.
  • The correlation between length of title and effectiveness is far from obvious. Long can be better on some occasions
  • To name a clear target helps get support. The higher the target, the better.
  • Petitions against companies gain high traction
  • A petition title that clearly states a location attracts more signatures
  • Using Hashtags in titles leads to more engagement, even though there is no hashtag functionality on change.org website

Access the full article, charts, and detailed insights HERE



Fake news, real damage – How fake news been has used against LGBT people

Think about the first time you heard the term ‘fake news’ – most likely it was uttered by Donald Trump, during his run for President in 2016. But although the term was new to most people even two years ago, the concept is painfully familiar to the LGBT community; after all, many grew up hearing nasty, whispered rumours from schoolmates, or reading lies about LGBT issues in the media every time LGBT rights were ‘debated’.

But fake news – or disinformation – is now on the rise, super-charged by social media and weaponised by authoritarian leaders and the far right worldwide. And unfortunately, it’s starting to become clear that the LGBT community – along with other minority groups  – are one of the main targets. Now more than ever, we need to know why and for what purpose.

The disappointing result of Taiwan’s recent equal marriage referendum shows how – first and foremost – fake news is used to undermine the fight for LGBT rights. This has always been the case of course. Whenever progress tries to take a step forward, there are those whose aim is to spread lies about the LGBT community. They would be laughable if they weren’t so damaging.

Take the recent Romanian referendum to try and band same-sex marriage: campaign posters and ads urged people to vote “Yes” otherwise gay couples would steal their children.

Even when progress is made, and seemingly secured, fake news continues – perpetrated by those who want to roll back equality, which is rarely a one way street.

But while attacks on LGBT people are often the means and end to fake news stories, in more and more cases they are a proxy in a broader struggle to drive polarisation and stoke fears about progressive politics. LGBT people are cast as scapegoats, to try and build support for the far right or authoritarian leaders.

Just look at the recent Brazilian election, which saw a far-right former military officer win the Presidency. Fake news, spread through WhatsApp in particular, played a major role in the outcome. And one of the main stories spread by Bolsonaro’s side, was that his opponent had ordered the distribution of “gay kits” to schoolchildren to turn them homosexual. This was a reference to an actual proposal by Haddad’s Workers’ Party to launch a “Brazil without homophobia” programme in schools, part of which involved distributing anti-discrimination materials to teachers.

If we are now living in the age of populism, unfortunately Brazil marks a worrying harbinger of what’s to come. We can expect more of this in national elections – and progressives need to prepare accordingly.

And we can expect more at an international level. Because increasingly, fake news about LGBT people is used by authoritarian regimes on the chessboard of international diplomacy. A pink curtain is descending across the world, dividing support for LGBT rights (and liberal democracy) on the one hand, and reactionary authoritarians like Putin and Erdogan on the other. They demonise homosexuality and portray it as symbolic of a corrupt, immoral West. Internationally therefore, fake news about LGBT people is used to fan anti-gay hatred and deploy it to undermine ideas of universal human rights, and build alliances that can push back against Western influence.

Fake news is not new. Nor are lies and misinformation against LGBT people. But that does not mean we are facing ‘business as usual’. Too often the LGBT community is the canary in the coalmine – often, it is LGBT people who suffer first when politics takes a new and dangerous turn. Now is no exception. Fake news is being weaponised, and LGBT people are directly in the firing line.

Fight back ! Why LGBTI organisations have to join the fight against fake news

Last year, posters appeared across Oregon ‘promoting’ Central Oregon Pride. Featuring a well-known drag performer, 10-year-old Desmond Napoles, the posters claimed that the pride event was sponsored by the North American Man/Love Boy Association. It was of course disinformation. A targeted campaign to try and link pride and sexual predators who prey on children. 

2018 saw a rise in fake news never seen before. It was massively used by all forms of conservative or populist branches: from Conservative Christians trying to spread the rumor that a new movie would depict Jesus and his disciples as gay lovers, to Brazil’s Bolsonaro intoxicating the electoral debate with claims of a “gay kit” promoted by his opponent that would aim to turn children gay.

Fake news is not a new issue for LGBT+ people or the charities and campaigns who represent them. What’s new is the scale of the problem. Social media has supercharged disinformation; groups and governments opposed to LGBT rights can now create and share fake news with just a few clicks of a mouse. That poses a real threat. But what can charities, campaigns and activists do?

First and foremost, there’s a need for direct action. As the case of Oregon Pride shows, fake news is a very real risk for organisations. Imagine if vigilantes had seen those posters and taken matters into their own hands. Moreover, these sort of  attacks undermine and weaken charities, delegitimise their activities and hurt the cause they fight for. 

As such, tackling fake news now needs to be seen as a core communication issue. The right strategies, skills and tools are needed. 

The obvious response to fake news is to fight it head on. But be warned – it’s important to recognise the goal of those who spread lies and disinformation. In the case of Oregon Pride and other disinformation campaigns like it, the goal was to portray the idea that LGBTQ+ people are having an internal debate over including sexual predators into the queer rainbow. Denying it would mean walking right into the trap, because there is no debate. 

Research has shown if a lie needs to be repeated, it’s best to limit it’s description. Because rehashing lies to debunk them can make them more ‘sticky’. Instead, giving audiences new and credible information is more effective at undermining misinformation. 

Also, its important to consider the medium of any response. Video can be highly effective in correcting misinformation, a recent study found. Fact-checking videos seem to increase attention and reduce confusion compared to text or written rebuttals.

However, LGBT+ charities, campaigns and activists can only do so much alone. Resources in the sector are often tight. And importantly, a disinformation campaign against just one LGBT+ organisation can cause collateral damage to the wider community. Indeed this is often the aim – to slowly build a broader negative narrative about the queer community through a drip-drip of individual stories and memes. An attack on one therefore needs to be seen as an attack on all.

In light of that, it’s worth considering what can be learnt from Lithuania’s elvesproject – a coalition of activists, academics, professionals and civil society groups who are fighting on the digital frontline against Russian troll attacks. Could there be national – or even international – LGBT versions, who could fight the spread of fake news targeted at, or impacting on, LGBT people?

These measures would go a long way to preparing the sector for what lies ahead – a resurgent far right and an increasing number of authoritarian and regressive governments. The problem though is that these sorts of tactics only address the problem when it arises. What about action to tackle it before it becomes a problem?

Most fake news is spread via social networks. It’s therefore crucial to look at how to work with them on this issue. Because even when they have taken action to tackle disinformation, there has been little thought to how it could impact on the LGBT+ community.

Only last year for example, Facebook announced plans to disseminate a survey to its users which would determine the trustworthiness of news publications. At first glance this looks like a good thing. But LGBT charities began asking questions. What about conscious and subconscious bias? If members of the public were homophobic for example, what’s to stop them downgrading LGBT publications because they don’t like gays? The sector needs to be in the room having a open and honest conversation with social networks when they consider these sorts of actions.

As we’ve seen however, social networks are moving slowly on issues of disinformation and doing the bare minimum to tackle it. So LGBT+ organisations should think about developing their own tools that work with social networks. In Taiwan for example, CoFacts, a voluntary, collaborative chatbot for factchecking questionable messages being disseminated on Line was used effectively during the gay marriage referendum. 

Nevertheless, the problem posed by social networks suggests that regulation is also required.This is not without it’s problems though.

Consider Malaysia, which led the world in passing the first ever Anti Fake News Act. Sounds good doesn’t it? Except the law was largely criticised by civil society for being too encompassing. It imposed hefty fines and jail time on “any person who, by any means, creates, offers, publishes, prints, distributes, circulates or disseminates any fake news or publication containing fake news”. 

Regulation like this all suffers from the same problem – how to walk the thin line between tackling fake news and veering into political censorship. Activists across the world will attest to the fact that the term ‘fake news’ is itself becoming weaponised, not just applying to genuine misinformation, but also opinion that people strongly disagree with and even satire. LGBT organisations are acutely aware of the dangers this can pose. 

As such, it seems important for LGBT+ organisations to be in the room from the very start when legislation like this is being debated and drafted. The European Union, for example, is considering further regulation on social networks. And so too are countries across the world. At both a national and international level it seems useful for LGBT organisations to partner with free speech and civil rights organisations, to hash out what would be effective and jointly advocate for effective policies.

Ultimately however, perhaps the sector should not overlook a more tried and tested method to help people identify for themselves what is fake news and what isn’t: education. After all, if you accurately educate people about LGBT+ issues, they are already inoculated against the lies and hate people want to spread.

How social media took us from Tahrir Square to Donald Trump

This article appeared in MIT Technological Review – It is so fascinating that we share it with the LGBTI community

As the Arab Spring convulsed the Middle East in 2011 and authoritarian leaders toppled one after another, I traveled the region to try to understand the role that technology was playing. I chatted with protesters in cafés near Tahrir Square in Cairo, and many asserted that as long as they had the internet and the smartphone, they would prevail. In Tunisia, emboldened activists showed me how they had used open-source tools to track the shopping trips to Paris that their autocratic president’s wife had taken on government planes. Even Syrians I met in Beirut were still optimistic; their country had not yet descended into a hellish war. The young people had energy, smarts, humor, and smartphones, and we expected that the region’s fate would turn in favor of their democratic demands.

Back in the United States, at a conference talk in 2012, I used a screenshot from a viral video recorded during the Iranian street protests of 2009 to illustrate how the new technologies were making it harder for traditional information gatekeepers—like governments and the media—to stifle or control dissident speech. It was a difficult image to see: a young woman lay bleeding to death on the sidewalk. But therein resided its power. Just a decade earlier, it would most likely never have been taken (who carried video cameras all the time?), let alone gone viral (how, unless you owned a TV station or a newspaper?). Even if a news photographer had happened to be there, most news organizations wouldn’t have shown such a graphic image.

At that conference, I talked about the role of social media in breaking down what social scientists call “pluralistic ignorance”—the belief that one is alone in one’s views when in reality everyone has been collectively silenced. That, I said, was why social media had fomented so much rebellion: people who were previously isolated in their dissent found and drew strength from one another.

Photo of two men breaking paving stones in Cairo, Egypt in front of a building with "facebook" spray-painted on it
Digital connectivity provided the spark, but the kindling was everywhere.


Twitter, the company, retweeted my talk in a call for job applicants to “join the flock.” The implicit understanding was that Twitter was a force for good in the world, on the side of the people and their revolutions. The new information gatekeepers, which didn’t see themselves as gatekeepers but merely as neutral “platforms,” nonetheless liked the upending potential of their technologies.

I shared in the optimism. I myself hailed from the Middle East and had been watching dissidents use digital tools to challenge government after government.

But a shift was already in the air.

During the Tahrir uprising, Egypt’s weary autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, had clumsily cut off internet and cellular service. The move backfired: it restricted the flow of information coming out of Tahrir Square but caused international attention on Egypt to spike. He hadn’t understood that in the 21st century it is the flow of attention, not information (which we already have too much of), that matters. Besides, friends of the spunky Cairo revolutionaries promptly flew in with satellite phones, allowing them to continue giving interviews and sending images to global news organizations that now had even more interest in them.

Within a few weeks, Mubarak was forced out. A military council replaced him. What it did then foreshadowed much of what was to come. Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces promptly opened a Facebook page and made it the exclusive outlet for its communiqués. It had learned from Mubarak’s mistakes; it would play ball on the dissidents’ turf.

Photo of a protestor in Tahrir Square holding a photo showing President Mubarak's face crossed out
The generals in Egypt learned from Hosni Mubarak’s mistakes.


Within a few years, Egypt’s online sphere would change dramatically. “We had more influence when it was just us on Twitter,” one activist prominent on social media told me. “Now it is full of bickering between dissidents [who are] being harassed by government supporters.” In 2013, on the heels of protests against a fledgling but divisive civilian government, the military would seize control.

Power always learns, and powerful tools always fall into its hands. This is a hard lesson of history but a solid one. It is key to understanding how, in seven years, digital technologies have gone from being hailed as tools of freedom and change to being blamed for upheavals in Western democracies—for enabling increased polarization, rising authoritarianism, and meddling in national elections by Russia and others.

But to fully understand what has happened, we also need to examine how human social dynamics, ubiquitous digital connectivity, and the business models of tech giants combine to create an environment where misinformation thrives and even true information can confuse and paralyze rather than informing and illuminating.

2. The audacity of hope

Barack Obama’s election in 2008 as the first African-American president of the United States had prefigured the Arab Spring’s narrative of technology empowering the underdog. He was an unlikely candidate who had emerged triumphant, beating first Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and then his Republican opponent in the general election. Both his 2008 and 2012 victories prompted floods of laudatory articles on his campaign’s tech-savvy, data-heavy use of social media, voter profiling, and microtargeting. After his second win, MIT Technology Review featured Bono on its cover, with the headline “Big Data Will Save Politics” and a quote: “The mobile phone, the Net, and the spread of information—a deadly combination for dictators.”

However, I and many others who watched authoritarian regimes were already worried. A key issue for me was how microtargeting, especially on Facebook, could be used to wreak havoc with the public sphere. It was true that social media let dissidents know they were not alone, but online microtargeting could also create a world in which you wouldn’t know what messages your neighbors were getting or how the ones aimed at you were being tailored to your desires and vulnerabilities.

Digital platforms allowed communities to gather and form in new ways, but they also dispersed existing communities, those that had watched the same TV news and read the same newspapers. Even living on the same street meant less when information was disseminated through algorithms designed to maximize revenue by keeping people glued to screens. It was a shift from a public, collective politics to a more private, scattered one, with political actors collecting more and more personal data to figure out how to push just the right buttons, person by person and out of sight.

All this, I feared, could be a recipe for misinformation and polarization.

Shortly after the 2012 election, I wrote an op-ed for the New York Timesvoicing these worries. Not wanting to sound like a curmudgeon, I understated my fears. I merely advocated transparency and accountability for political ads and content on social media, similar to systems in place for regulated mediums like TV and radio.

The backlash was swift. Ethan Roeder, the data director for the Obama 2012 campaign, wrote a piece headlined “I Am Not Big Brother,” calling such worries “malarkey.” Almost all the data scientists and Democrats I talked to were terribly irritated by my idea that technology could be anything but positive. Readers who commented on my op-ed thought I was just being a spoilsport. Here was a technology that allowed Democrats to be better at elections. How could this be a problem?

Photo of Obama supporters holding signs at Democratic National Convention
There were laudatory articles about Barack Obama’s use of voter profiling and microtargeting.


3. The illusion of immunity

The Tahrir revolutionaries and the supporters of the US Democratic Party weren’t alone in thinking they would always have the upper hand.

The US National Security Agency had an arsenal of hacking tools based on vulnerabilities in digital technologies—bugs, secret backdoors, exploits, shortcuts in the (very advanced) math, and massive computing power. These tools were dubbed “nobody but us” (or NOBUS, in the acronym-loving intelligence community), meaning no one else could exploit them, so there was no need to patch the vulnerabilities or make computer security stronger in general. The NSA seemed to believe that weak security online hurt its adversaries a lot more than it hurt the NSA.

That confidence didn’t seem unjustified to many. After all, the internet is mostly an American creation; its biggest companies were founded in the United States. Computer scientists from around the world still flock to the country, hoping to work for Silicon Valley. And the NSA has a giant budget and, reportedly, thousands of the world’s best hackers and mathematicians.

Since it’s all classified, we cannot know the full story, but between 2012 and 2016 there was at least no readily visible effort to significantly “harden” the digital infrastructure of the US. Nor were loud alarms raised about what a technology that crossed borders might mean. Global information flows facilitated by global platforms meant that someone could now sit in an office in Macedonia or in the suburbs of Moscow or St. Petersburg and, for instance, build what appeared to be a local news outlet in Detroit or Pittsburgh.

There doesn’t seem to have been a major realization within the US’s institutions—its intelligence agencies, its bureaucracy, its electoral machinery—that true digital security required both better technical infrastructure and better public awareness about the risks of hacking, meddling, misinformation, and more. The US’s corporate dominance and its technical wizardry in some areas seemed to have blinded the country to the brewing weaknesses in other, more consequential ones.

4. The power of the platforms

In that context, the handful of giant US social-media platforms seem to have been left to deal as they saw fit with what problems might emerge. Unsurprisingly, they prioritized their stock prices and profitability. Throughout the years of the Obama administration, these platforms grew boisterously and were essentially unregulated. They spent their time solidifying their technical chops for deeply surveilling their users, so as to make advertising on the platforms ever more efficacious. In less than a decade, Google and Facebook became a virtual duopoly in the digital ad market.

Facebook also gobbled up would-be competitors like WhatsApp and Instagram without tripping antitrust alarms. All this gave it more data, helping it improve its algorithms for keeping users on the platform and targeting them with ads. Upload a list of already identified targets and Facebook’s AI engine will helpfully find much bigger “look-alike” audiences that may be receptive to a given message. After 2016, the grave harm this feature could do would become obvious.

Meanwhile, Google—whose search rankings can make or break a company, service, or politician, and whose e-mail service had a billion users by 2016—also operated the video platform YouTube, increasingly a channel for information and propaganda around the world. A Wall Street Journal investigation earlier this year found that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm tended to drive viewers toward extremist content by suggesting edgier versions of whatever they were watching—a good way to hold their attention.

This was lucrative for YouTube but also a boon for conspiracy theorists, since people are drawn to novel and shocking claims. “Three degrees of Alex Jones” became a running joke: no matter where you started on YouTube, it was said, you were never more than three recommendations away from a video by the right-wing conspiracist who popularized the idea that the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012 had never happened and the bereaved parents were mere actors playing parts in a murky conspiracy against gun owners.

Though smaller than Facebook and Google, Twitter played an outsize role thanks to its popularity among journalists and politically engaged people. Its open philosophy and easygoing approach to pseudonyms suits rebels around the world, but it also appeals to anonymous trolls who hurl abuse at women, dissidents, and minorities. Only earlier this year did it crack down on the use of bot accounts that trolls used to automate and amplify abusive tweeting.

Twitter’s pithy, rapid-fire format also suits anyone with a professional or instinctual understanding of attention, the crucial resource of the digital economy.

Say, someone like a reality TV star. Someone with an uncanny ability to come up with belittling, viral nicknames for his opponents, and to make boastful promises that resonated with a realignment in American politics—a realignment mostly missed by both Republican and Democratic power brokers.

Photo of Donald Trump speaking at a podium to a crowd of people
Donald Trump’s campaign excelled at using Facebook as it was designed to be used by advertisers.


Donald Trump, as is widely acknowledged, excels at using Twitter to capture attention. But his campaign also excelled at using Facebook as it was designed to be used by advertisers, testing messages on hundreds of thousands of people and microtargeting them with the ones that worked best. Facebook had embedded its own employees within the Trump campaign to help it use the platform effectively (and thus spend a lot of money on it), but they were also impressed by how well Trump himself performed. In later internal memos, reportedly, Facebook would dub the Trump campaign an “innovator” that it might learn from. Facebook also offered its services to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but it chose to use them much less than Trump’s did.

Digital tools have figured significantly in political upheavals around the world in the past few years, including others that left elites stunned: Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, and the far right’s gains in Germany, Hungary, Sweden, Poland, France, and elsewhere. Facebook helped Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte with his election strategy and was even cited in a UN report as having contributed to the ethnic-cleansing campaign against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.

However, social media isn’t the only seemingly democratizing technology that extremists and authoritarians have co-opted. Russian operatives looking to hack into the communications of Democratic Party officials used Bitcoin—a cryptocurrency founded to give people anonymity and freedom from reliance on financial institutions—to buy tools such as virtual private networks, which can help one cover one’s traces online. They then used these tools to set up fake local news organizations on social media across the US.

There they started posting materials aimed at fomenting polarization. The Russian trolls posed as American Muslims with terrorist sympathies and as white supremacists who opposed immigration. They posed as Black Lives Matter activists exposing police brutality and as people who wanted to acquire guns to shoot police officers. In so doing, they not only fanned the flames of division but provided those in each group with evidence that their imagined opponents were indeed as horrible as they suspected. These trolls also incessantly harassed journalists and Clinton supporters online, resulting in a flurry of news stories about the topic and fueling a (self-fulfilling) narrative of polarization among the Democrats.

5. The lessons of the era

How did all this happen? How did digital technologies go from empowering citizens and toppling dictators to being used as tools of oppression and discord? There are several key lessons.

First, the weakening of old-style information gatekeepers (such as media, NGOs, and government and academic institutions), while empowering the underdogs, has also, in another way, deeply disempowered underdogs. Dissidents can more easily circumvent censorship, but the public sphere they can now reach is often too noisy and confusing for them to have an impact. Those hoping to make positive social change have to convince people both that something in the world needs changing and there is a constructive, reasonable way to change it. Authoritarians and extremists, on the other hand, often merely have to muddy the waters and weaken trust in general so that everyone is too fractured and paralyzed to act. The old gatekeepers blocked some truth and dissent, but they blocked many forms of misinformation too.

Photo of protesters at the Unite the Right rally
The old information gatekeepers blocked some truth and dissent but also many forms of misinformation.


Second, the new, algorithmic gatekeepers aren’t merely (as they like to believe) neutral conduits for both truth and falsehood. They make their money by keeping people on their sites and apps; that aligns their incentives closely with those who stoke outrage, spread misinformation, and appeal to people’s existing biases and preferences. Old gatekeepers failed in many ways, and no doubt that failure helped fuel mistrust and doubt; but the new gatekeepers succeed by fueling mistrust and doubt, as long as the clicks keep coming.

Third, the loss of gatekeepers has been especially severe in local journalism. While some big US media outlets have managed (so far) to survive the upheaval wrought by the internet, this upending has almost completely broken local newspapers, and it has hurt the industry in many other countries. That has opened fertile ground for misinformation. It has also meant less investigation of and accountability for those who exercise power, especially at the local level. The Russian operatives who created fake local media brands across the US either understood the hunger for local news or just lucked into this strategy. Without local checks and balances, local corruption grows and trickles up to feed a global corruption wave playing a major part in many of the current political crises.

The fourth lesson has to do with the much-touted issue of filter bubbles or echo chambers—the claim that online, we encounter only views similar to our own. This isn’t completely true. While algorithms will often feed people some of what they already want to hear, research shows that we probably encounter a wider variety of opinions online than we do offline, or than we did before the advent of digital tools.

Rather, the problem is that when we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s not like reading them in a newspaper while sitting alone. It’s like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one. In sociology terms, we strengthen our feeling of “in-group” belonging by increasing our distance from and tension with the “out-group”—us versus them. Our cognitive universe isn’t an echo chamber, but our social one is. This is why the various projects for fact-checking claims in the news, while valuable, don’t convince people. Belonging is stronger than facts.

A similar dynamic played a role in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The revolutionaries were caught up in infighting on social media as they broke into ever smaller groups, while at the same time authoritarians were mobilizing their own supporters to attack the dissidents, defining them as traitors or foreigners. Such “patriotic” trolling and harassment is probably more common, and a bigger threat to dissidents, than attacks orchestrated by governments.

This is also how Russian operatives fueled polarization in the United States, posing simultaneously as immigrants and white supremacists, angry Trump supporters and “Bernie bros.” The content of the argument didn’t matter; they were looking to paralyze and polarize rather than convince. Without old-style gatekeepers in the way, their messages could reach anyone, and with digital analytics at their fingertips, they could hone those messages just like any advertiser or political campaign.

Fifth, and finally, Russia exploited the US’s weak digital security—its “nobody but us” mind-set—to subvert the public debate around the 2016 election. The hacking and release of e-mails from the Democratic National Committee and the account of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta amounted to a censorship campaign, flooding conventional media channels with mostly irrelevant content. As the Clinton e-mail scandal dominated the news cycle, neither Trump’s nor Clinton’s campaign got the kind of media scrutiny it deserved.

This shows, ultimately, that “nobody but us” depended on a mistaken interpretation of what digital security means. The US may well still have the deepest offensive capabilities in cybersecurity. But Podesta fell for a phishing e-mail, the simplest form of hacking, and the US media fell for attention ­hacking. Through their hunger for clicks and eyeballs, and their failure to understand how the new digital sphere operates, they were diverted from their core job into a confusing swamp. Security isn’t just about who has more Cray supercomputers and cryptography experts but about understanding how attention, information overload, and social bonding work in the digital era.

This potent combination explains why, since the Arab Spring, authoritarianism and misinformation have thrived, and a free-flowing contest of ideas has not. Perhaps the simplest statement of the problem, though, is encapsulated in Facebook’s original mission statement (which the social network changed in 2017, after a backlash against its role in spreading misinformation). It was to make the world “more open and connected.” It turns out that this isn’t necessarily an unalloyed good. Open to what, and connected how? The need to ask those questions is perhaps the biggest lesson of all.

6. The way forward

What is to be done? There are no easy answers. More important, there are no purely digital answers.

There are certainly steps to be taken in the digital realm. The weak antitrust environment that allowed a few giant companies to become near-monopolies should be reversed. However, merely breaking up these giants without changing the rules of the game online may simply produce a lot of smaller companies that use the same predatory techniques of data surveillance, microtargeting, and “nudging.”

Ubiquitous digital surveillance should simply end in its current form. There is no justifiable reason to allow so many companies to accumulate so much data on so many people. Inviting users to “click here to agree” to vague, hard-to-pin-down terms of use doesn’t produce “informed consent.” If, two or three decades ago, before we sleepwalked into this world, a corporation had suggested so much reckless data collection as a business model, we would have been horrified.

There are many ways to operate digital services without siphoning up so much personal data. Advertisers have lived without it before, they can do so again, and it’s probably better if politicians can’t do it so easily. Ads can be attached to content, rather than directed to people: it’s fine to advertise scuba gear to me if I am on a divers’ discussion board, for example, rather than using my behavior on other sites to figure out that I’m a diver and then following me around everywhere I go—online or offline.

But we didn’t get where we are simply because of digital technologies. The Russian government may have used online platforms to remotely meddle in US elections, but Russia did not create the conditions of social distrust, weak institutions, and detached elites that made the US vulnerable to that kind of meddling.

Photo of Vladmir Putin speaking at a podium
Russia meddled in US politics, but it didn’t create the conditions that made the US vulnerable to such meddling.


Russia did not make the US (and its allies) initiate and then terribly mishandle a major war in the Middle East, the after-effects of which—among them the current refugee crisis—are still wreaking havoc, and for which practically nobody has been held responsible. Russia did not create the 2008 financial collapse: that happened through corrupt practices that greatly enriched financial institutions, after which all the culpable parties walked away unscathed, often even richer, while millions of Americans lost their jobs and were unable to replace them with equally good ones.

Russia did not instigate the moves that have reduced Americans’ trust in health authorities, environmental agencies, and other regulators. Russia did not create the revolving door between Congress and the lobbying firms that employ ex-politicians at handsome salaries. Russia did not defund higher education in the United States. Russia did not create the global network of tax havens in which big corporations and the rich can pile up enormous wealth while basic government services get cut.

These are the fault lines along which a few memes can play an outsize role. And not just Russian memes: whatever Russia may have done, domestic actors in the United States and Western Europe have been eager, and much bigger, participants in using digital platforms to spread viral misinformation.

Even the free-for-all environment in which these digital platforms have operated for so long can be seen as a symptom of the broader problem, a world in which the powerful have few restraints on their actions while everyone else gets squeezed. Real wages in the US and Europe are stuck and have been for decades while corporate profits have stayed high and taxes on the rich have fallen. Young people juggle multiple, often mediocre jobs, yet find it increasingly hard to take the traditional wealth-building step of buying their own home—unless they already come from privilege and inherit large sums.

If digital connectivity provided the spark, it ignited because the kindling was already everywhere. The way forward is not to cultivate nostalgia for the old-world information gatekeepers or for the idealism of the Arab Spring. It’s to figure out how our institutions, our checks and balances, and our societal safeguards should function in the 21st century—not just for digital technologies but for politics and the economy in general. This responsibility isn’t on Russia, or solely on Facebook or Google or Twitter. It’s on us.

Zeynep Tufekci is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina and a contributing opinion writer at theNew York Times.

Stop preaching the converted: Talking feminism in online video gaming!

This article which first appeared on creativetimesreport may seem irrelevant at first sight, but it’s actually a VERY IMPORTANT one! It is a great example of someone who went out of her “comfort zone” and stopped preaching the converted. A strategy at the heart of all good campaigning work. Her example, and the lessons she shares, are enlightening!


Angela Washko, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, 2012.

Angela Washko, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, 2012.

[Chastity]:Abortion is wrong and any woman who gets one should be sterilized for life.
[Purpwhiteowl]: should i mention the rape theory?
[Snuh]: What if they don’t have the means to pay for the child and got raped?
[Xentrist]: clearly Chastity in sick
[Snuh]: What if they are 14 years old and were raped?
[Chastity]: I was raped growing up. Repeatedly. By a family member. If i had gotten pregnant i wouldnt have murdered the poor child. because THE CHILD did not rape me.

This intense and personal discussion regarding the ethics of abortion unfolded in the lively city of Orgrimmar, one of the capitals of an online universe populated by more than 7 million players: World of Warcraft (WoW). After several years of raiding dungeons with guilds, slaying goblins and sorcerers, wearing spiked shoulder pads with eyeballs embedded in them and flying on dragons over flaming volcanic ruins, I decided to abandon playing the game as directed. Fed up with the casual sexism exhibited by players on my servers, in 2012 I founded the Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft to facilitate discussions about the misogynistic, homophobic, racist and otherwise discriminatory language used within the game space.

As a gamer who is also an artist and a feminist, I consider it my responsibility to dispel stereotypes about gamers—especially WoW players—who have been mislabeled as unattractive, mean-spirited losers. At the same time, I question my fellow gamers’ propagation of the hateful speech that earns them those epithets. The incredible social spaces designed by game developers suggest that things could have been otherwise; in WoW’s guilds, teams come together for hours to discuss strategy, forming intimate bonds as they exercise problem-solving and leadership skills. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, this promising communication system bred codes to let women and minorities know that they didn’t belong.

Angela Washko,The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness: Red Shirts and Blue Shirts (The Gay Agenda), 2014 (excerpt).

Trying to explain to someone who has never played WoW (or any similar game) that the orcs and elves riding flying dragons are engaging in meaningful long-term relationships and collaborative team-building experiences can be a little difficult. Typical Urban Dictionary entries for WoW define the game as “crack in CD-ROM form” and note, “players are widely stereotyped as fat guys living in there parents basements with out a life or a job or a girl friend [sic].” One only needs to look into the ongoing saga of #gamergate—an online social movement orchestrated by thousands of gamers to silence women and minorities who have raised questions about their representation and treatment within the gaming community—to see how certain individuals play directly into the hands of this stereotype by attempting to lay exclusive claim to the “gamer” identity. But gamers, increasingly, are not a homogeneous social group.

World of Warcraft is a perfect Petri dish for conversations about feminism with people who are uninhibited by IRL accountability

When women and minorities who love games question why they are abused, poorly represented or made to feel out of place, self-identified gamers often respond with an age-old argument: “If you don’t like it, why don’t you make your own?” Those on the receiving end of this arrogant question are doing just that, reshaping the gaming landscape by independently designing their own critical games and writing their own cultural criticism. Organizations like Dames Making Games, game makers like Anna Anthropy, Molleindustria and Merritt Kopas and game writers like Leigh Alexander, Samantha Allen, Lana Polansky and others listed on The New Inquiry’s Gaming and Feminism Syllabus are becoming more and more visible and broadly distributed in opposition to an industry that cares much more about consumer sales data and profit than about cultural innovation, storytelling and diversity of voices.

What’s especially strange about the sexism present in WoW is that players not only come from diverse social, economic and racial backgrounds but are also, according to census data taken by the Daedalus Project, 28 years old on average. (“It’s just a bunch of 14-year-old boys trolling you” won’t cut it as a defense.) If #gamergate supporters need to respect this diversity, many non-gamers also need to accept that the dichotomy between the physical (real) and the virtual (fake) is dated; in game spaces, individuals perform their identities in ways that are governed by the same social relations that are operative in a classroom or park, though with fewer inhibitions. That’s why—instead of either continuing on quests to kill more baddies or declaring the game a trivial, reactionary space where sexists thrive and abandoning it—I embarked on a quest to facilitate conversations about discriminatory language in WoW’s public discussion channels. I realized that players’ geographic dispersion generates a population that is far more representative of American opinion than those of the art or academic circles that I frequent in New York and San Diego, making it a perfect Petri dish for conversations about women’s rights, feminism and gender expression with people who are uninhibited by IRL accountability.

Angela Washko, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, 2012.

Angela Washko, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, 2012.

WoW, like many other virtual spaces, can be a bastion of homophobia, racism and sexism existing completely unchecked by physical world ramifications. Because of the time investment the game requires, only those dedicated enough to go through the leveling process will ever make it to a chatty capital city (like Orgrimmar, where most of my discussions take place), meaning that only the most avid players are capable of raising these issues within the game space. At such moments, the diplomatic facades required of everyday social and professional life are broken down, and an inverse policy of “radical truth” emerges. When I asked them about the underrepresentation of women in WoW—less than 15 percent of the playerbase is female—some of these unabashed purveyors of “truth” have attributed it not to the outspoken misogyny of players like themselves but to the “fact” that gaming is a naturally male activity. Many of the men I’ve talked to suggest that women are also inherently more interested in playing “healer” characters. These arguments are made as if they were obviously true—as if they were rooted in science.

When I ask men why they play female characters, I’ve repeatedly been told: “I’d rather look at a girl’s butt all day in WoW”

Women now have to “come out” as women in the game space, risking ridicule and sexualization, as more than half the female avatars running around in WoW are played by men (women, by contrast, are rarely interested in playing men). Unfortunately this is not because WoW is an empathetic utopia in which men play women to better understand their experiences and perspectives; WoW merely offers men another opportunity to control an objectified, simulated female body. When I ask men why they play female characters, I’ve repeatedly been told: “I’d rather look at a girl’s butt all day in WoW,” “because it would be gay to look at a guy’s butt all day” and “I project an attractive human woman on my character because I like to watch pretty girls.” I found these responses, which were corroborated by a study recently cited in Slate, disturbing to say the least. They also bring to mind Laura Mulvey’s discussion of the male gaze in her influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” published in 1975: “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact.”

The simulated avatar woman customized and controlled by a man who gets pleasure out of projecting his fantasy onto her is in strict competition with the woman who talks back—the woman who plays women because, as Taetra points out in the image below, for women it is logical to do so. Women haven’t been socialized to capitalize on—or in many contexts even to admit to having—sexual desires and consequently do not project sexual objects to conquer and control onto their avatars.

Angela Washko,The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness: Playing a Girl, 2013 (excerpt).

As I continued to facilitate discussions about the discriminatory language usage on various WoW servers, I realized that the topic generating the most negative responses and the greatest misunderstanding was “feminism.” Here’s a small sample of the responses I’ve gotten when asking for player definitions of feminism (and framing my question as part of a research project):

[Chastity]: Feminists are man hating whores who think their better than everyone else. Personally I think a woman’s job is to stay home, take care of her house, her babies, her kitchen and her man. And before you ask, yes I am female
[Xentrist]: Feminism is about EQUAL rights for women
[Hyperjump]: well all you really need to know is pregnant, dish’s, naked, masturbate, shaven, and solid firm titties. feminism is all about big titties and long stretchy nipples for kids to breastfeed.
[Taetra]: Feminism is the attention whore term of saying that women are better than men and deserve everything if not more than them, which is not true in certain terms. Identifying with the female society instead of humans. Working against the males instead of with.
[Yukarri]: isnt it when somebody acts really girly
[Try]: google it bro
[Holypizza]: girls have boobs. gb2 kitchen
[Raspberrie]: idk like angry more rights for females can’t take a kitchen joke kind of lady
[Defeated]: is that supporting woman who don’t make me sammichs? they need to make my samwicths faster
[Kigensobank]: i dont know if WOW is the best place to ask for feminists
[Mallows]: I think that hardcore feminists often think that women are better lol and they change their mind when they don’t like something that men have that is undesirable
[Alvister]: da fuq
[Misstysmoo]: lol feminism is another way communism to be put into society under the pretense of
protecting women

[Seirina]: Feminists are women who think they are better than men. Theyre nuts. Men and women are equal. We’re just sexier.
[Yesimapally]: Big Chicks who love a buffet but hate to shave their hairy armpits??
[Nimrodson]: i think it’s a word with too many negative/positive connotations to be worth defining
[Dante]: woman are usefull as healer
[Scrub]: yes, women were discriminated against while back, but after many feminist movements the laws were changed. It is now the 21st century and women have all if not more rights then men do. so the feminist activists are doing nothing more then creating drama

The tone of many of these comments reflects what one might find on a men’s rights forum. Recently the gaming and men’s rights communities have overlapped unambiguously, as Roosh V—a so-called pick-up artist dubbed “the Web’s most infamous misogynist” by The Daily Dot—just created an online support site for #gamergate supporters despite not being a gamer himself. I conducted an interview with him for another (seemingly unrelated) project a week before he announced this site.

Angela Washko, BANGED, currently in-progress

Angela Washko, BANGED, currently in progress.

Most of the women I’ve addressed in WoW do not see themselves as victims within this system, likely because their scarcity greatly increases their value as projected-upon objects of desire (as long as they don’t ask too many questions) without having it related to the physical body outside of the screen. Among the women I’ve talked to, I’ve found that there are two common yet distinct responses to my questions about feminism and being a woman inside of WoW. Response type #1: “Feminists hate men and feminism encourages physically attractive women to be sluts.” Response type #2: “Feminism is about equal rights for women, but I don’t talk about it in WoW because bringing up issues about the community’s exclusivity compromises my participation in competitive play and makes me a target for ridicule.”

Opportunities to interact online without potential repercussions for one’s offline life are becoming fewer and fewer.

Of course phrases like “get back to the kitchen/gb2kitchen” or “make me a sandwich” can be said in jest, but they nonetheless reinforce conservative viewpoints regarding women’s roles. The overwhelmingly popular belief communicated in this space—that women are not biologically wired to play video games (but rather to cook, clean, produce and take care of babies, maintain long, dye-free hair and faithfully serve their deserving men)—creates a barrier for women who hope to excel in the game and participate in its social potential. This barrier keeps women from being taken seriously for their contributions within the game beyond existing as abstracted, fetishized sex objects. Women who reject this role may be publicly demonized and called “feminazis.”

Unfortunately I did not learn how to turn WoW into a space for equitable, respectful conversation, as I had intended. Instead I came away with some thoughts about how much bigger the issues are than the game itself. Back in the days of dial-up modems, when my family finally realized the impending necessity of “getting the internet,” there was a huge fear of allowing anyone to know “who you really were.” Anonymity was the default then, and protecting your identity was key to avoiding scams, having your credit card information stolen, being stalked IRL or whatever else parents everywhere imagined might happen if someone on the internet knew your “real identity.”

What I learned early on from playing MUD games (text-based multiplayer dungeon games—precursors to MMORPGs like WoW) was that you could actually be quite intimate, revealing and honest with little consequence. There was no connection to your physical self in that kind of setting. But that seems to have changed drastically since the transition from Web 1.0 to 2.0. Web 2.0 has all but eliminated the idealized possibilities of performing an anonymous virtual self, moving internet users toward performing an (often professionalized) online version of one’s physical self (i.e., branding). The possibility of anonymity has disappeared as an increasing number of sites, Facebook foremost among them, require us to use our real names and identities to interact with other individuals online. Opportunities to interact online without potential repercussions for one’s offline life are becoming fewer and fewer.

Angela Washko, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, 2013

Angela Washko, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, 2013

Though I had initially hoped to convince many WoW players to reconsider the adopted communal language therein, I quickly realized that this was both a terribly icky colonialist impulse on my part and that its persistence was related to a more complicated desire to hold on to a set of values that is becoming increasingly outdated and unacceptable. Throughout my interventions in the massively multiplayer video game space, I’ve found that WoW is a space in which the suppressed ideologies, feelings and experiences of an ostensibly politically correct American society flourish.

“It’s just a bunch of 14-year-old boys trolling you” won’t cut it—gamers are not a homogeneous social group.”

In many areas of physical space, racism, homophobia and misogyny play out systemically rather than overtly. It has fallen out of fashion to openly be a sexist, homophobic bigot, so people carve out marginal spaces where this language can live on. WoW is a space in which the learned professional and social behaviors (or performances) that we all employ as we shift from context to context in our everyday life outside of the screen are unnecessary. At the same time, this anonymity produces one of the few remaining opportunities to have a space for solidarity among those who are extremely socially conservative in a seemingly unsurveilled environment unattached to participants’ professional and social identities. For the players I talk to, my research project provides a potentially meaningful platform to share concerns about how social value systems are evolving while protected by the facade of their avatars.

Thanks to the emerging visibility and solidarity of visual artists, writers, game makers and other cultural producers fostering a “queer futurity of games” (to quote Merritt Kopas) and more inclusive internet spaces in general, I believe that new spaces will be produced by and for those targeted by #gamergate and its ilk. I hope that efforts will move beyond examining how marginalized groups are represented and move toward creating game spaces that promote empathy. Rather than playing a female blood elf solely because you like the design of her ass, players would be allowed to fully experience the perspective of a person they might not understand or agree with. Perhaps by living as an other in this queer utopian game space, players will come to respect people unlike themselves; at the least, they will have a harder time denying that the experiences of other gamers are valid, acceptable and even worth celebrating.

2019 : Celebrate Blade Runner’s Year of the Replicant !

2019 is a blessed year for science fiction fans. It is a crucial year for Neo-Tokyo, in Katsuhiro Otomo’s cult manga Akira. But it is also and especially the year that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is set in.

(Adapted from an Article published in LeMonde)

We’re in 2019 reality. Los Angeles is not yet completely overtaken by the pollution shown by Ridley Scott. But the androids that are at the heart of Blade Runner’s plot are already there – albeit in a very different form from the Replicants, these artificial beings impossible to differentiate from a human being without resorting to a complex test.

Replicants in 2019 reality do not haunt the basements of large mega-cities, but rather the depths of the Web. And they are everywhere, as the New York magazine summarizes in a long article entitled “How much of the Internet is fake? “.  A lot, it turns out. A substantial portion of website traffic is done by automated programs and not by humans. Some are useful and well known, like Google’s crawlers who roam the Web to index all pages and their updates, almost in real time. Others, on the other hand, are designed to pass as humans. Their goal is simple: to increase the statistics of visits or views, or even click on advertisements. You can buy thousands of views of a YouTube video for a few euros; and there are automated networks that click on ads to “inflate” their numbers and bring earnings to the more or less legitimate sites that host them.

The problem is such that in 2013, according to the Times, almost half of the clicks on YouTube were made by robots – making the company’s tech people fear a phenomenon of “inversion”: Once the clicks of the machines would exceed those of the humans, the anti-machine tools would end up considering the human traffic as being the “fake” one, and would turn against the legitimate users of the site.

The “Inversion moment” officially never arrived; Without achieving the complexity of the Blade Runner Voight-Kampff test, the anti-spam tools have improved. The most common was, historically, the captcha, which asked the user to decipher one or two badly written words to prove that they were a human. The test proved too simple in the face of increasingly sophisticated robots: it has largely been replaced by a more analytical test, which asks the user to identify objects on images. Google, and others, are already working on a new generation of tools that analyze how the mouse moves on the screen to guess if it’s being manipulated by a real being.

But knowing that it is a human who clicks is not always enough. The Russian propagandists of the Internet Research Agency, who have tried to influence the US presidential election, are very human, as are the employees of the “click farms” who inflate the views on YouTube of their customers.

And as control tools improve, so do the skills of those who generate fake traffic.

In the past two years, simple AI tools have made it much easier to create “deepfakes”, these faked – and mostly pornographic – videos in which the face of a person is superimposed, in a relatively convincing way, on a character of a video. “ The fact is that trying to protect yourself from the Internet and its depravity is basically a lost cause… The Internet is a vast wormhole of darkness that eats itself” says in a rather disillusioned interview to the Washington Post actress Scarlett Johansson, a regular victim of deepfakes.

The worst is perhaps to come: on the Internet, pornographic innovations usually find other usage, and 2019 could be a good year for shady political videos. Because at the end of the day, one of the biggest differences between Blade Runner’s 2019 and the one we’re about to experience is that “replicating”is not just a multinational thing, as is the Tyrell Corporation in the film. Today, everyone, or almost everyone, can for a small cost buy or build a small robot factory. More than was foreseen by the original book by Philip K Dick on which Blade Runner was based on, the Replicants are now truly amongst us.

Having said that, Happy 2019 !


Is humanity controlled by alien lizards? – how fake news and robots influence us from within our own social circles.

Is humanity controlled by alien lizards? – how fake news and robots influence us from within our own social circles.

Even these days, there are still 12% of Americans to believe humanity is controlled by alien lizards who took human shape. Replace “alien lizards” with “bots”, and the laughable conspiracy theory might not be that funny anymore.

Increasingly all social debates and political elections are manipulated by social bots and the most worrying news is that opponents to a cause or a party manipulate supporters of this cause or party from within their own social circles. We must absolutely understand how this is working against our social struggles, if we are to keep control of our campaigning strategies.


One of the most verified truth of campaigning is that people only get really influenced by attitudes and behaviors of other members of their social circles, as the conformity bias drives most of us to follow what we perceive our fellows think and do.

And where do these patterns appear more clearly than on social media? Clicks, likes and comments drive most of us to distinguish what is appropriate from what is not.

Political strategist have been constantly researching how to make the most of this and use individuals as one of their main channels to propagate their ideas.

In recent years the explosion of the use of social bots, allied to a shameless use of fake news, have given the strategists the most worrying tools to influence attitudes and behaviors, including our own.

The increasing presence of bots in social and political discussions

Social (ro)bots are software-controlled accounts that artificially generate content and establish interactions with non-robots. They seek to imitate human behavior and to pass as such in order to interfere in spontaneous debates and create forged discussions.

Strategist behind the bots create fake news and fake opinions. They then disseminate these via millions of messages sent via social media platforms.

With this type of manipulation, robots create the false sense of broad political support for a certain proposal, idea or public figure. These massive communication flows modify the direction of public policies, interfere with the stock market, spread rumors, false news and conspiracy theories and generate misinformation.

In all social debates, it is now becoming common to observe the orchestrated use of robot networks (botnets) to generate a movement at a given moment, manipulating trending topics and the debate in general. Their presence has been evidenced in all recent major political confrontations, from Brexit to the US elections and, very recently, the Brazilian elections:

On October 17, the daily Folha de S. Paulo, revealed that four services specialized in the sending of messages in mass on WhatsApp (Quick Mobile, Yacows, Croc Services, SMS Market) had signed contracts of several millions of dollars with companies supporting Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign.

According to the revelations, the 4 companies have sent hundreds of millions of messages on large lists of whatsapp accounts, which they collected via cellphone companies or other channels.

What these artificial flows represent in terms of proportion is frightening.

According to a Brazilian study, led by Getúlio Vargas Foundation, which analyzed the discussions on Twitter during the TV debate in the Brazilian presidential election in 2014, 6.29 percent of the interactions on Twitter during the first round were made by social bots that were controlled by software that created a massification of posts to manipulate the discussion on social media. During the second round, the proliferation of social bots was even worse. Bots created 11 percent of the posts. During the 2017 general strike, more than 22% of the Twitter interactions between users in favor of the strike were triggered by this type of account.

The foundation conducted several more case studies, all with similar results.

Twitter is Bot land

Robots are easier to spread on Twitter than on Facebook for a variety of reasons. The Twitter text pattern (restricted number of characters) generates a communication limitation that facilitates the imitation of human action. In addition, using @ to mark users, even if they are not connected to their network account, allows robots to randomly mark real people to insert a factor that closely resembles human interactions.

Robots also take advantage of the fact that, generally, people lack critical thinking when following a profile on Twitter, and usually act reciprocally when they receive a new follower. Experiments show that on Facebook, where people tend to be a bit more careful about accepting new friends, 20% of real users accept friend requests indiscriminately, and 60% accept when they have at least one friend in common. In this way, robots add a large number of real people at the same time, follow real pages of famous people, and follow a large number of robots, so that they create mixed communities – including real and false profiles ( Ferrara et al., 2016)

How Whatsapp is trusting the debate in Brazil

But Twitter is not the only channel. All social media experience the same strategies of infiltration, depending on what is being used by the specific group targeted by unscrupulous strategists.

In most countries whatsapp is a media restricted to private communications amongst a close circle.

But in Brazil, it has largely replaced social media. Of 210 million brazilians, 120 million have an active Whatsapp account. In 2016, a . En 2016, Harvard Business Review study indicated that 96 % of Brazilians who has a smartphone used Whatsapp as prefered messaging app.

Although disseminating information is rather difficult, with Whatsapp groups being limited to 256 people, the influence of messages is extremely high as the levels of trust within Whatsapp groups are higher than anywhere else. So investing in reaching these groups turns out to be extremely effective.

Furthermore, regulation and traceability of fake news are extremely difficult as messages are encrypted.

As a result, some Brazilians have reported receiving up to 500 messages per day according to Agence France Presse

And the impact of this tactic is not to be underestimated: The internet watchdog Comprova created by over 50 journalists analysed that among the fifty most viral images within these groups, 56% of them propagate fake news or present misleading facts.

The “virality” of fake news is particularly strong in the case of images and memes, such as the one pretending that Fernando Haddad, the candidate of the PT, aimed at imposing “gay kits” in schools.

Not only is this highly immoral but, in the case of Brazil also illegal, as the law only allows a party to send message to its enrolled supporters. Not to speak of how this constitutes illegal funding of political campaigning.

Following the disclosure, Whatsapp closed 100 000 accounts that were linked to the 4 companies, but this represents only a fraction of the problem, and in any case the damage was done.

This manipulation is generated within supporters groups to discredit their opponents 

In line with what has been happening since the beginnings of politics, influencers act within groups of supporters of a cause or a party to discredit their opponents and help tighten the group.

The same strategy is applied to target the moveable audiences and win them over.

In this respect, the major change that bots bring is the size and speed of the manipulation.

Attacking from within

But the worrying trend is that the army of fake news and opinion distortions also attack our movement from within.

The University of Washington released in October 2018 the results of investigationsin the social discussions during the 2016 US presidential elections that showed that many tweets sent from what seemed to be #BlackLivesMatter supporters  were not posted by “real” #BlackLivesMatter but by Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) in their influence campaign targeting the 2016 U.S. election. Of course, the same was true of #BlueLivesMatter.

The creepy graph below shows in orange the IRA accounts, within the larger blue circles of pro and anti BLM conversations.

The IRA accounts impersonated activists on both sides of the conversation. On the left were IRA accounts that enacted the personas of African-American activists supporting #BlackLivesMatter. On the right were IRA accounts that pretended to be conservative U.S. citizens or political groups critical of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Infiltrating the BLM movement by increasing the presence of radical opinionswas a clear strategy to undermine electoral support for Hillary Clinton by encouraging BLM supporters not to vote.

Outrageous fake news that come from our opponents are relatively easy to spot and dismiss, but when more subtle fake news and artificial massification of opinion use our own frames and come from what seem to be elements of our own movements, the danger is much bigger.

What does this mean for SOGI campaigning?

Political pressure on social media to reinforce regulations is mounting from governments and multilateral institutions such as the EU.

Issues of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and sex characteristics are almost always used by conservatives to discredit progressives and whip up moral panics.

Supporting institutional efforts to control fake news would probably always work in our favor.

More and more public and private initiatives are being developed to bust fake profiles.

For example, Brazil developed  PegaBot, a software that estimates the probability of a profile being a social bot (e.g. profiles that post more than once per second).

TheBBC reportsthat through the International Fact Checking Network (IFCN), a branch of the Florida-based journalism think tank Poynter, facebook users in the US and Germany can now flag articles they think are deliberately false, these will then go to third-party fact checkers signed up with the IFCN.

Those fact checkers come from media organisations like the Washington Post and websites such as the urban legend debunking site Snopes.com. The third-party fact checkers, says IFCN director Alexios Mantzarlis “look at the stories that users have flagged as fake and if they fact check them and tag them as false, these stories then get a disputed tag that stays with them across the social network. “Another warning appears if users try to share the story, although Facebook doesn’t prevent such sharing or delete the fake news story. The “fake” tag will however negatively impact the story’s score in Facebook’s algorithm, meaning that fewer people will see it pop up in their news feeds.

The opposite could also be favored, with « fact-checked » labels being issued by certified sources and given priority by social media algorithms.

Of course, this would create strong concerns over who would hold the « truth label » and how this would play out to silence voices which are not within the ruling systems.

But beyond these and other initiatives to get the social media platforms to exert control, campaign organisations also need to take direct action.

As a systematic step, educating our own social circles on fake news and bots now seems unavoidable.

We might even need to disseminate internal information to our readers, membership or followers, warning them of possible infiltration of the debates by fake profiles that look radical. But this might also lead to discredit the real radical thinking which we desperately need.

One of the most useful activities could be to increase our presence in other social circles and help these circles identify and combat fake news. Some people are so entrenched in their hatred that they will believe almost anything that will justify their hatred. But most people are genuinely looking for true information. After all, no one likes to be lied at and manipulated. If we keep identifying and exposing fake news within the social circles of these moderate people, we can surely achieve something, at least help block specific profiles by reporting them.

The net is ablaze with discussions on how to counter the manipulation of public opinion by bots. As one of the first victims of this, we surely must have our part to play.








Will truth be defeated? What can be done when 12 million Americans believe Obama is an alien lizard?

On February 12, 2014 the New Zealand Prime Minister proudly announced on TV that he could medically prove that he was not a …lizard.

Although this made everyone laugh, the sad truth is that he had to respond to a constitutional request of a citizen who demanded that the PM proved that he was not “a lizard alien in human shape trying to enslave the Human race”. And sadder even, he was not alone. In 2013, 4% of the US populations (that’s 12 million people), believed the alien lizard myth, and that Queen Elisabeth and Barack Obama were among them.


If you draw a parallel with the myths and urban legends surrounding LGBTI people, it is not. “Abuse of children”, “witchcraft”, “demonization”, are just a few of the myths that are being used to persecute, and often kill, LGBT people. Hardly is there an earthquake that is not blamed on “gays”, in places as different as Italy, the USAHaiti or more recently Indonesia.

From firm belief that planet Earth is flat, to certainty that HIV can be cured with garlic, there are countless urban legends and myths that resist all forms of argumentation.

Some campaigners will argue that it is education to rationality that will over time overcome legends and myths. But if education might be a necessary condition, it is by no mean sufficient. Actually, in a lot of cases the more educated people are the better they are equipped to justify their beliefs. Education might make it more difficult for people to hold crazy beliefs but once they do, they will use their education to cling to them even more.

That is one of the reasons why having our campaigns systematically target “people with higher education” might be something we should put serious research in, and not just assume that they are more progressive, or easier to convince.

Social research into human behavior has shown that people make their distinction between true and false, or right and wrong, on the basis of the group they (want to) belong to, and not on the basis of what they know is true. Hence religious dogma and “alternative facts”.

And with the choice of communications channels being more and more in the hands of the users (no more sitting in front of the 8 o’clock news), people live in a social bubble and the influence of the “in-group” is getting stronger and stronger.

Social media research shows that the bubbles are tighter than ever, with very little flow between opposing bubbles.

So your “truth” is unlikely to reach your target in the first place. And if it does, it is likely to be dismissed.

So is truth once and for all a loosing game?

“Providing information” and doing so on one’s Facebook page is definitely not the most effective thing to do when it comes to changing people, but there might be some other options to consider:

The most obvious move is of course to reach beyond your own “bubble” and identify the “bubbles” that are closest to you: the first tier. Human rights groups, women’s liberation forums, and all your natural allies.

But some of the “second tier” bubbles are harder to identify, although this is often where the biggest gains can be achieved. If you aim at early adopters of new trends, discussion forums on technological progress could be a good target. If you aim at young modern women, you might want to try discussion forums on fashion or modern lifestyle. When you know that a new series with an LGB or T character hits the net, it might be a better use of your time to participate in the discussions on mainstream discussion forums rather than on your own channels.

But even so, the basics of campaigns communication still apply and aggressively trolling these circles will be counterproductive, only alienating enemies even further. Communication has to be smartly framed, and this takes a bit of preparation.

Counter-intuitive as it may be, “truth” won’t change people.

If we want to have even a slight chance to change hearts and minds, we have to be good at becoming part of our target’s reference groups. And this requires going out of our bubbles and take the conversation where people are.