The Internet of Nudes — is this what we wished for?

December 14, 2014

The widespread release of nude photographs across the internet is not confined to celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence – sexy “selfies” are going “viral” among teenagers too.

In just a couple months between August and October 2014, thousands of hacked digital photographs – many of them of naked or semi-dressed young people and celebrities – found their way into the public domain.

sexy selfie meme

The typical chain of events involved some geeky hackers announcing that they’d accessed some kind of online storage space that was supposed to be under secure digital lock and key, and were going to upload racy and compromising photographs to somewhere on the web where anyone with an internet browser would be able to see them.

Images of nude celebrities form a kind of sick digital currency in some murky corners of the internet. On sites like 4chan and Reddit there are (or at least were) publicly accessible threads with names like “The Fappening” where such images were posted. The people who posted them – usually anonymously – were considered the coolest hackers because of their ability to forage around and steal the images from mobile phones or other sources.

Both Reddit and 4chan had “rules” that supposedly prevented illegally obtained or copyright-breaching images being uploaded, but the rules were pretty much ignored by everyone involved until a big public scandal drew attention to them.

For the people who break into smartphones or cloud storage servers to steal the private images there is kudos and ego-satisfying status in the hacker community; for the (largely) pubescent male viewers there is the prospect of sexual titillation and the excitement of sharing in something a little bit dirty and a whole lot of illegal.

However, for the celebrities whose images are stolen there is only anger and potentially embarrassment.

Many of the young stars were outraged, and the public backlash against the hackers was severe. Star of the Hunger Games movie franchise, Jennifer Lawrence, was particularly outspoken. She called the hacking a sexual assault and several other victims of the hack – who were mainly young, attractive women – joined her condemnation of everyone who posted and reposted the images.

In a long interview published in the October 2014 edition of Vanity Fair, Lawrence spoke of her anger and embarrassment, but she also stood up for her right to participate in the taking of the images and to share them with her partner:

The 24-year-old actress had not previously commented on the incident, but she spoke to [Vanity Fair journalist, Sam] Kashner at length about the anger she felt. “Just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this,” she says. “It does not mean that it comes with the territory. It’s my body, and it should be my choice, and the fact that it is not my choice is absolutely disgusting. I can’t believe that we even live in that kind of world.

Lawrence also lashed the celebrity gossip blogger, Perez Hilton, who had been one of the first to repost the stolen images of Lawrence and others. Lawrence told Vanity Fair:

He took it down because people got pissed, and that’s the only reason why. And then I had to watch his apology. And what he basically said was, ‘I just didn’t think about it.’ ‘I just didn’t think about it’ is not an excuse. That is the exact issue itself.

It was a scathing attack on Hilton who has made himself as famous and rich as the celebrities he targets on his website. Hilton had already apologised for putting up the hacked nude photographs, and he went further in an interview saying that he would not do it again and that he realised he’d made a terrible ethical mistake in originally republishing the photos. Perhaps Hilton was feeling so contrite because the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World newspaper in the UK was still so fresh in the public’s memory .

When asked what prompted his change of stance about publishing intimate celebrity photos, Hilton told website Digital Spy: “I look at mistakes as an opportunity to learn. I made a mistake and instead of not doing anything I decided not to post any photos of anybody like that going forward, which I haven’t.”

Perez also told Digital Spy that having a child of his own made him more conscious of how his behaviour might affect other people: “I’ve been trying to do better and be better for four years now. I’m not perfect, I’m not trying to be, but it’s a constant journey and a process.”

The dump of nude celebrity images, reportedly stolen from their iCloud accounts, was not the first incident of its kind, but the outcry seems to have been more effective this time in shutting it down. But it won’t perhaps prevent it from happening again.

In the age of television shows like Big Brother, The Bachelor and Dating Naked encouraging all of us to be voyeurs on the private moments of people subject to constant surveillance for our pleasure, it his not hard to believe that more hacks and more photo-dumps will occur.

At the end of the day the commercial success of “pervy” television means that while there’s a buck to be made from voyeuristic surveillance, others will try to cash in. Not only that, many of us consider celebrities fair game; they make their money from exposure and from selling themselves – via television, movies, music videos or their own self-promotion of “branded” material – so they shouldn’t be surprised when our interest in their private lives goes beyond what they might be contractually obliged to share with us.

This doesn’t make it ethically “OK” for us to download their hacked images for our own viewing pleasure, nor does it justify sleazy ex-partners or former friends from selling their “sex tape” escapades to pornographers – but it does explain why it still happens. Sex sells, and illicit sex sells for an even higher price. There will always be unscrupulous people willing to exploit weaknesses in human nature, or digital exploits on secure servers.

I find it hard not to agree with Jennifer Lawrence: hacking is like breaking into someone’s house to steal from them. When the images that are stolen are personal and private then it does become a sex crime, as Lawrence told Vanity Fair:

It is a sexual violation. It’s disgusting. The law needs to be changed, and we need to change. That’s why these Web sites are responsible. Just the fact that somebody can be sexually exploited and violated, and the first thought that crosses somebody’s mind is to make a profit from it. It’s so beyond me. I just can’t imagine being that detached from humanity. I can’t imagine being that thoughtless and careless and so empty inside.

Everybody’s doing it: What could go wrong?

It’s not only celebrities whose private images are stolen; it can happen to anyone. In early October 2014 it was widely reported that users of the mobile social app Snapchat had also been caught in a targeted hacking operation that meant potentially tens of thousands of people were going to see their private photos made public.

selfy screen grabThis event, in which perhaps close to 100,000 images were uploaded to a public server, has been dubbed the “Snappening”, a semantic cross-reference to the celebrity hack the “Fappening”. The issue here is that many of the stolen images were of young teenagers, many of them under 18 years old. This created the added danger that anyone sharing or accessing the images could be accused of transmitting or downloading child pornography – a very, very serious offence.

This is a curious story because the popular Snapchat app allows users to send images and short videos to each other, but the program deletes them after a short period of time. However, there are third-party apps that work with Snapchat to allow users to save files forwarded to them without the sender’s knowledge. According to news reports it was one of these apps, Snapsaved, that was actually hacked and where the images were leaked from.

It’s not entirely clear if the leaked images did or did not make it onto a public website but, if they were, they were quickly taken down. What we do know is that the notorious 4chan community was again involved, although some users claim that it, too, was hoaxed by the original scammers.

Snapchat is incredibly popular with young users – about 50% of its estimated 30 million users are aged 13–17. To protect its reputation, the company is aggressively attempting to have apps like Snapsave shut down.

A Snapchat spokeswoman told The Huffington Post: “We can confirm that Snapchat’s servers were never breached and were not the source of these leaks.

“Snapchatters were victimised by their use of third-party apps to send and receive Snaps, a practice that we expressly prohibit in our Terms of Use precisely because they compromise our users’ security,” the spokeswoman said.

However, it’s not always anonymous geeky hackers who breach our trust. A Sydney University student was recently disciplined for sharing images of a semi-naked female colleague with his friends. He had taken the picture during a consensual sexual encounter with the woman, but without her consent. The picture was then circulated among the man’s friends.

In the United States, 31 teenagers at a high school near Detroit are being investigated in a widespread “sexting” scandal. According to police investigating the case, the practice of teenagers sending and receiving nude or semi-nude images of each other is “widespread”.

Attorney Shannon Smith told the Detroit News: “This is happening everywhere, it’s over the top. I have been contacted by schools and parents elsewhere in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties who have found similar photos on their children’s cellphones and want to know what to do about it.”

Well, perhaps there’s a difference between consensual sexting and hacking someone’s phone or private server, but if images are being shared then they are probably circulating to a wider group than the original sender intended. Officials are also worried about people being put under pressure, even bullied, into participating.

Surely there’s got to be a lesson in this somewhere, but what is it? Well, it’s easy for me – a middle-aged academic who doesn’t use Snapchat or post nude selfies on iCloud – to say: “Don’t post nude selfies!” However, I realise that such advice sounds trite and that thousands, if not millions, of people ignore it every day. However, there is some point in being careful about your privacy in online and social media environments.

If someone does feel pressured into sexting then they should certainly be telling someone about it. Under any circumstances, “No!” must mean exactly that. Nobody should be bullied into doing anything they don’t want to do.

The famous whistleblower (of, if you’re the American government, the infamous traitor) Edward Snowden recently gave his version of my advice at a conference he was asked to speak at. According to Snowden, everyone who cares about their digital privacy should stay away from popular consumer internet services like Dropbox, Facebook and Google.

“Facebook and Google! OMG! That’s a disaster, right?” Yes, I know that’s what you’re all thinking, because I’m thinking it too. How can anyone live today without being on Facebook or using Dr Google to answer all our difficult questions?

Well, Snowden thinks we should all be using encryption tools and finding online and social media services that support encryption. You can also use anonymous routers to disguise your location from prying eyes on the web too. And don’t forget to delete your browser history whenever you’ve finished surfing the web.

Of course, encrypting phone messages, emails or Skype chats only works if the person you’re communicating with is also using the encryption service. Once a message is encrypted (i.e. scrambled so that nobody can read it) it has to be unscrambled at the other end. This is not yet an easy and everyday thing for us to do. It is complicated and can be expensive, but maybe it is what we all have to consider.

Maybe if Jennifer Lawrence and the other hacked celebrities had been using an encrypted cloud server nobody would have been able to access their files, or at least not been able to unscramble them to share with anyone else.

But if you’re sending sexy selfies to your beau, then encrypting them is going to take the “sexy” out for sure. The problem is perhaps that we have to trust other people in order to keep our secrets safe – and that isn’t always possible.

The best thing is to be careful, remember that privacy is your right and only you can consent to it being breached.

First published in Issues magazine, December 2014

Issues109


Why the media doesn’t get Brazil

June 24, 2013

In the largest anti-government demonstrations – dubbed the Tropical Spring – violent clashes broke out as people demanded improved public services and an end to corruption in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup. (Losh, 2013)

Is the world going to Hell in a handbasket? The answer probably depends which side of the class divide you stand on. For the world’s wealthy elites the protests in Brazil are another disturbing sign that the ungrateful wretches who survive on meagre table crumbs are restless, once again.

The issue is not so much whether the handbasket is being winched up or down; but rather: Why? If you were to rely only on the mainstream media for an answer you may just end up more confused than when you started.

There’s a mood for change sweeping many parts of the world today, but our understanding of its significance is not increased by most of the media coverage.

Since the Arab Spring of 2010 a wave of revolutionary struggle has erupted across parts of southern Europe and most recently it has spread to Turkey and to Brazil. However, our media tends to treat each of these uprisings as isolated events and attempts to explain them in terms of local and national issues. The global instability of neo-liberal late capitalism is hardly mentioned. Most journalists won’t even acknowledge it. Perhaps it’s too complicated; for some it is certainly too scary to think about.

Further, the news media’s debilitating fixation on the concept of balance means that these globe-shifting outbreaks of protest are reported with an even-handed ignorance. Simplistic explanations like social media equals more democracy are trotted out to give a sheen of analysis to what is actually intellectually threadbare coverage.

Protestors are routinely labelled as inchoerent, rudderless and violent; on the other hand, governments are portrayed as neutral arbiters of calm and order. This is a politically naïve representation that highlights the profound lack of real understanding on the part of journalists on the ground and of their media organisations. Simple vox pops are left to suffice for clear political commentary from the movement’s leaders and a seething mass of individuals ‘rioting’ provides the most telegenic images. It’s easier than trying to translate and understand the political tracts and speeches that inevitably accompany protest marches.

The problem is that most journalists are used to reporting politics as a game of ‘he said, she said’ in which claims and counter-claims are presented to the audience within a framework of parliamentary democracy. But you cannot report revolution within that framework. Revolutions do not follow that MSM script and most reporters, unfortunately, cannot see past their own faces to what is really going on.

Fundamental questions about the role of States and state-sponsored violence are sidelined, ignored or mis-interpreted.The history of social movements and the long-lived experience of people which finally draws them to the streets is underplayed or ignored altogether in favour of the sexy shots and simple sound bite.

It is not good enough.

The rest of this post concentrates on Brazil, but similar arguments can be made about Turkey and also the Arab Spring.

Read the rest of this entry »


One tweet does not a revolution make: Technological determinism, media and social change

May 11, 2013

This is my recently published piece on technological determinism and revolution – case study of the Arab Spring.

Reprinted from Global Media Journal

Abstract

This paper discusses the problematic influence of technological determinism in popular news media coverage and analysis of the Arab Spring events of 2010-11.

The purpose is to develop insights into how and why elements of a ‘soft’ technological determinism inflect both journalistic practice and news discourse in relation to the Arab Spring. In particular it discusses how the ‘bias of convenience’ and a journalistic obsession with the ‘continuous present’ connect with this determinist inflection to create a potential distortion in the journalists’ ‘first rough draft’ of history in relation to significant and complex events such as social revolution.

Debates about the significance of social media and communications technologies more broadly in generating mass outbursts of protest and even violence have raged in the popular news media for the past decade at least. A wave of interest in ‘theories’ about how and why new services like Facebook and Twitter may create or enable mass protest was generated by the revolutionary events in Iran following the June 2009 elections (Hirst, 2011). Many of the arguments then and now, in coverage of the Arab Spring, are suggestive of a form of technological determinism that is coupled with other underlying and little-investigated assumptions inherent in most forms of news practice and discourse.

The question of the influence of technological determinism within journalism studies is a far from settled debate and this paper follows Mosco’s argument and suggests that the idea of a social media revolution is a myth of the ‘digital sublime’ (Mosco, 2004). At best social media is a new battleground in the struggle for information control. At worst it can blind activists and commentators to reality (Morozov, 2011).

Read the rest of this entry »


Twitterville – as the name suggests

November 15, 2011

There’s something very cool and satisfying about Twitter. I actually think that as a tool for journalists it has the potential to be very valuable and I know that my colleagues (shoutout to @julieposetti) are doing some interesting work to integrate it into both newsrooms and the journalism curriculum.

But, I also know that the sound and fury of an unmoderated twitterfeed can be overwhelming and that the signal-to-noise ratio is very low.

I have written about this at some length in News 2.0: Can journalism survive the Interet? I use the example of the 2009 Iran uprising because the book was published before the Arab Spring.

I know that social media is a valuable tool for political organising, but it can be over-hyped. Revolutions are made on the street with real sweat and real blood; not in the cool vacuum of cyberspace.

I also know that, on the other side, dear old Laura Norder would like nothing better than to corral young people into a panopticon of digital surveillance and stop them from organising riots using their Blackberry and other mobile devices.

So, we have a long way to go before these issues are finally resolved. I call this the techno-legal time-gap: the dissonance between applications and regulation.

And no, I’m not calling for more regulation or laws to stop us using social media.

However, as the name suggests: there are some twits in the twitterverse.

I came across one today. And he/she confirms, for me anyway, my argument that sometimes people think that freedom of speech and expression is just the freedom to be insulting, rude or offensive.

May I introduce one of Twitterville’s many village idiots: @PropheticKleenx

Now this could be a really clever kid with a wicked sense of irony and humour: “Location: Roman controlled Australia”

But I don’t think so.

Anyway @PropheticKleenx sent me a series of unsolicited tweets today using my @ethicalmartini handle. Obviously, I’ve done something to upset this person.

You’d never guess what that might be!

I must admit I didn’t know that ‘history’ had proved Joe McCarthy was right about anything except that pink lipstick with a canary slip is so not right.

I am gob-smacked to hear that Crikey is a Jesuit publication; I thought it was home to fun-loving Trotsky-in-the-closet raggamuffins.

Nor was I across the news that ‘catholicism created communism'; I thought the term “Godless Communist” meant something entirely different.

But I get the drift: @PropheticKleenx doesn’t like me.

I get that. I’m no saint, but I’m not the ‘nadia comanice of casuistry’ either; and I’m not always proud of what I’ve done.

I did actually ‘tweet while tipsy’ a couple of weeks ago.

I am sorry @Joe_Hildebrand, but I did enjoy the ensuing verbal tennis.

But what can you do when someone wants to exercise their freedom of speech by bombarding you with almost unintelligible tweets?

Thankfully they’re only 140 characters.

And, as  I’m sure Kerry Packer used to say when people criticised the crap showing on his television station.

“If you don’t fucking like it, just turn the fucking thing off.”

He did that once to his own network in the middle of a program he didn’t like.

You can do the same with Twitterville; there’s a very useful ‘off’ switch that can stop serial pests from pestering you.

To take advantage of this very social social media function, simply go to the person’s Twitter profile and click on the’block’ button. You find it under the dropdown menu that looks like a head with an arrow down.

I just used it on @PropheticKleenx and it seems that I am not the only one s/he’s been harrassing.

Coincidentally, my mate @julieposetti had to do the same thing last week.

This really is a coincidence. I did not know about this when I started this post. I saw the block tweet from Julie only after I had completed the last step (blocking @PropheticKleenx myself)

I also recommend the same tactic for the witches of Facebook.


Am I paranoid?

March 22, 2010

The last time I visited those great United States, in September 2008, I flew all the way from LA to NYC with a couple of stops on the way and didn’t really have too much trouble. The time before that in 2007 the locks on my bags were broken open by the Transport Safety Authority and Moac & I had to de-shoe in St Louis one time.

But on my way out of the US in the first week of October 2008 – British Airways to London – I was told that my name had appeared on a US Government “watch list”.

Nothing came of it really. I was allowed to travel and the woman who told me really played it down.

But today I got a notification that the United States Embassy in Wellington is following my blog via Twitter.

USA out of my Tweets

I  sent a polite message asking why the embassy wants to follow me and also seeking to know who the embassy staffer is who’s charged with keeping tabs on my blog.

I will block them tomorrow  if they don’t reply.

Am I paranoid?

I really am egotistical enough to think my words are pearls**, but unless there’s some closet radical working in the Embassy mailroom, I don’t think my brand of commentary would be to the Ambassador’s tastes.

This unwelcome attention comes on the first business day after I published my post supporting the Waihopai three.

We should all be self-aware enough to know that our electronic lives are not secure or private, but I do find this a little weird and sinister.

**Dribblejaws alert: That’s a joke, calm down


Updating #media140 day two under way

November 6, 2009

An update from the Media140 conference in Sydney where I’ve been for the past two days.

Interesting ideas and discussion and for me very pleasing to see that some journalists and media organisations  actually get “it”, without going overboard to claim that journalism is dead – but doesn’t know it’s a corpse – in the way that many social media evangelists twitter on about.

This is just a holding post with some highlights and a link to Jay Rosen’s speaking notes.

Jay Rosen is a professor at NYU and one of the world’s leading social media evangelists (IMHO). He’s just about to start on a feed via Skype, so I’ll be back with a review when he’s finished.

Rebooting the News System in the Age of Social Media

Here are the ten key ideas I plan to share with the Media140/Sydney conference underway right now in Sydney, Australia. I will be speaking to the conference via Skype in a few hours.  The theme of the event is “the future of journalism in the social media age.”  These ten Twitter-able ideas are my contribution to that puzzle.

1. Audience atomization has been overcome. (Link)

2. Open systems don’t work like closed systems. (Link)

3. The sources go direct.  (Dave Winer)

4. When the people formerly known as the audience use the press tools they have to inform one another— that’s citizen journalism. (Link)

5. “There’s no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure.” (Clay Shirky)

6. “Do what you do best and link to the rest.” (Jeff Jarvis)

7. “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; I just don’t know which half.” (John Wanamaker)

8. “Here’s where we’re coming from’ is more likely to be trusted than the View from Nowhere. (Link)

9. The hybrid forms will be the strongest forms. (Link)

10. “My readers know more than I do.” (Dan Gillmor)

Bonus notion: You gotta grok it before you can rock it. (Link)

 

Media140  Blog – background on conference & upcoming events

Mark Colvin’s speech about Twitter and Iran

ABC News report

Barry Saunders’ blog on Malcolm Turnbull’s presentation


Some interesting thoughts on social media for legacy giants

November 5, 2009

I’m at #media140 in Sydney, the keynote this morning was ABC managing director Mark Scott. He outlined some interesting innovations for legacy media wanting to get on the Twitterverse bandwagon.

 

He started with the 4Ts: Telegraph, Telephone, Typewriter, Twitter. An interesting geneaology of communications technologies.

Scott noted that the 4Ts have always been about short, sharp reports of breaking news; particularly the generation of good headlines. He talked about how the ABC is moving quickly to embrace social media with the appointment of a coordinator of social media to formalise the ABC’s presence across all social networking sites.

The ABC is also today releasing its guidelines for staff using social media. The four guiding principles are really about brand protection and like the NYT are designed not to give guidance for journalists using social media as  tool, but more about social media as a distribution network:

  1. Don’t mix professional and personal social media views in a way that will bring the ABC into disrepute
  2. Don’t undermine your effectiveness as work
  3. Don’t imply ABC endorsement for personal views
  4. Do not disclose confidential information

Nothing here about journalistic ethics.

Scott made a good point about sharing information and allowing audiences to distribute ABC content. Setting up a number of widgets for people to embed on Facebook and blogs etc is obviously good business sense.

The ABC’s also launching ABC Open as a “digital town square” and part of this is training UGC providers in 50 locations to generate content.

This is the pro-am model and as Scott mentioned there has to be journalistic leadership, but also recognising that the audience is often closer to the story – at least in the initial stages.

The catchphrases are collaboration; conversation, communication and partnerships.

More later when I’ve had time to digest this and get my hands on some more notes.

Julie Posetti also argued that this is a revolution, not a war, but no doubt there will be casualties.


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