Wednesday, 3 October 2018

On becoming a digital citizen...

Over the summer we've run a series of blog posts on the topic of digital citizenship, drawing upon material from the MOOC on Becoming a Digital Citizen which we ran last year. In this final post of the series, Susan Halfpenny wraps things up...

The distant, out-of-focus lights of a city

So what does it mean to become a digital citizen? In the first blog post in this series I stated that “the ‘digital citizen’ is a person who has developed the skills and knowledge to effectively use the internet and digital technologies”; someone who makes use of these technologies in a appropriate and responsible way to engage and participate in society and politics. Isin and Ruppert (2015) take this definition a step further, suggesting that if we constitute ourselves as digital citizens, we have become subjects of power in cyberspace: we are enacting ourselves on the internet, considering and understand the opportunities presented by this medium, such as anonymity, open communication, and participation across geographical boundaries. The digital citizen is also aware of the challenges presented by our information society and a post-truth era where governments have the technology for surveillance on a mass scale.

In this blog series we have considered some of the opportunities and challenges that digital communications technologies present. Is the internet of things presenting further opportunities for mass surveillance? Is anonymity really an option online, or are we risking being publicly shamed? We've looked at both the positives and negatives that technologies can present: how these technologies can be harnessed to improve communications and benefit societies, and how they can be employed to manipulate information and prevent participation. Through the exploration of these topics we can start to comprehend the complexity of our digital citizenship.

When writing our course on digital citizenship, the key concept we felt that resonated throughout all of the topics were ideas of evolution, change and development, and society. There is an interesting contradiction posed by the permanence of online transactions and the vulnerability of our online data. Revisiting this topic in blog form, these themes have once again become apparent. Once you start to explore some of the complexities of the internet and digital communications — and the ways in which they have influenced our behaviour as citizens — it raises more questions that require further consideration before we can state with certainty that we have become a digital citizen (or even truly understand what it would mean to be one).

The digital citizen is therefore a multifaceted beast, and what it means to become a digital citizen is open to interpretation: it changes dependent upon you perspective, reflecting your beliefs, values and ideals. In a sense you don’t ever become a digital citizen: it is a continual process of learning, engaging, and participating in our digital society.

We hope that this series has sparked your interest in how digital technologies have changed behaviour, society, and culture. If you are interested in finding out more about the digital society, why not join Stephanie and I as we embark on our new learning journey... into the world of digital wellbeing! In our new free online course, Digital Wellbeing, we will be exploring concepts of health, relationships and society in the digital age. If that sounds interesting, do feel free to sign up! We look forward to seeing you there...

Digital Wellbeing:
a free online course
15th October 2018

A girl reading a magical book. University of York -- Digital Wellbeing : a free online course -- 15th October 2018

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

The digital world as a uniting force

This week we begin to draw our digital citizenship strand to a close with Alison Kaye looking at some of the various ways in which our digital world can bring us together...

A tangled net

The internet, and social media in particular, has broken down tremendous boundaries.

Once, if we wanted to talk to someone at the other side of the world, we would probably do it through a pen-pal scheme. Conversation would be a slow process. We could perhaps make an international telephone call, but that would be terribly expensive. Now we can (and do) engage in live chat, send photographs and other media to each other, even talk by Skype: global friendships and global relationships have become a real, present, instantaneous thing. Many of us are now genuinely engaging in a global community (or at the very least an anglophone global community - the Tower of Babel has not quite been rebuilt, although translation systems become more advanced by the year).

Communities of interest have been able to come together in ways they never could before. It's really easy to find other people who are into that thing you're into. And that has benefits not just in terms of communication, but also in terms of organisation.


Common crowdsourcing activities include crowdvoting and crowdfunding, but essentially it can be used for all kinds of purposes: to gain collaboration on creative or research projects; to gather ideas; to collaborate on a product; to gather data; to raise funding… It can be used for profit-based activities (and big businesses are certainly using these methods) but there is also a big potential for not-for-profit activities. Perhaps one of the most well-known crowdsourced activities online is Wikipedia, which we've been linking to liberally in these posts. This free online encyclopedia allows anyone to go in and add and edit entries for items, and at the time of writing it has over five million English language articles.

While such collaborative activities happened before the digital age, the internet provides an excellent platform to target many people who can be geographically very distant but share a common goal or interest. Of course there are risks: An infamous example was when The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) launched an online campaign asking the public to name their new £200 million polar research vessel. Thanks to the mischievous efforts of social media, the public collectively chose the name Boaty McBoatface. This frivolous name was felt to be in conflict with the credibility of the NERC, who ultimately decided to shun democracy and risk offending public opinion by selecting the name RSS Sir David Attenborough instead (fifth-placed in the vote), though as a compromise, the name Boaty McBoatface was assigned to the ship’s high-tech, remotely operated sub-sea vehicle.

Crowdsourcing ideas

Idea competitions or innovation contests provides a way for organisations to move beyond the limited capacity of their employees and gather fresh inspiration from their wider customer base. Customers move from being content consumers to content-creators. Lego saw the great potential they had in their very active community of fans by collaborating with Japanese website Cuusoo in 2008 to create Lego Ideas. The concept allows anyone to submit an idea for a Lego kit and potentially see that idea brought to life. If enough support is gained (10,000 votes), Lego’s marketing and design experts review your idea. This allows Lego to not only gather new ideas from customers, but also to see which ideas are the most popular with the community (and theoretically most marketable), while simultaneously making customers feel more connected to the company. Sets generated through the project, like the Minecraft and Ghostbusters builds, have since gone on to spawn their own Lego ranges, including some of Lego’s best-selling sets.


In their 2010 article “Crowdfunding of small entrepreneurial ventures”, Schwienbacher and Larralde define crowdfunding as…

…an open call, essentially through the Internet, for the provision of financial resources either in form of donation or in exchange for some form of reward and/or voting rights in order to support initiatives for specific purposes.

In simple terms, it allows people to raise monetary contributions from a large audience who are interested in the product or goal being delivered at the end. It can be seen as a form of alternative finance. Offline, this has taken the form of benefit events and the likes, but it is now increasingly performed via internet-mediated registries. Several crowdfunding platforms have been created, such as Kickstarter (so successful as to be effectively synonymous with the concept), allowing the public to support specific projects without the need for large amounts of capital. In some cases the platform can be medium specific, like Unbound, a crowdfunding publishing house for books.

Crowdfunded projects can range greatly in both goal and magnitude, from small artistic projects to entrepreneurs seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in seed capital as an alternative to traditional venture capital investment. However, according to research by Mollick in 2013, crowdfunded projects tend either to succeed by small amounts or fail by large amounts, so this kind of overwhelming success is rare.

Crowd campaigning and cyberactivism

Crowdfunding can also be used as a means of raising money for charity. GlobalGiving is a platform which allows individuals to donate to a selection of small philanthropic projects proposed by nonprofit organizations worldwide for humanitarian and charitable causes. Meanwhile, sites like JustGiving serve as the modern equivalent of a sponsorship form, giving platform to individual members of the public who are raising money for charity. A recent high-profile example in the UK is The Helen Titchener (nee Archer) Rescue Fund which raised over £170,000 ostensibly for a fictional character from a radio soap opera, but in practical terms for the domestic violence charity Refuge.

This example serves as a reminder that online crowdfunding is still tremendously reliant on transmission of message, and that old media like radio and television can still have a role to play. Nonetheless, digital tools have opened up a host of new ways for activists to propagate their message. Electronic communications like social media, email, and podcasts allow activists to communicate very quickly and get their information to a large audience.

Petitioning is another old approach given new blood by the strength-in-numbers to be gained online. Platforms like 38 degrees and provide a space for people to create petitions, gather support and organise events. If a large enough number of people support the petition, the organisations who can influence change may be more inclined to listen and consider taking action. The UK government even has its own petitions platform, with a guaranteed government response (albeit not necessarily a positive one) should the petition gain 10,000 signatories.

There are many examples of other creative ways in which people use online communications and digital tools effectively to campaign for change. The BOBS (Best of Online Activism) were a series of international awards to honour “creative and brave projects online that cross language and cultural barriers and thereby showcases the best of what the ever-expanding World Wide Web has to offer.” A look at some of the past winners will give you a flavour of just some of the ways people have harnessed the potential of digital tools and online communications to make big changes in the world.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018


This week's digital citizenship blogpost, by Susan Halfpenny, has been redacted...

Do we have a censorship problem?

Wikipedia defines censorship as…

…the suppression of free speech, public communication or other information which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other groups or institutions.

We often associate censorship with the restriction of obscene or graphic images, or the suppression of extreme or offensive language from an audience: a beep to block out the swearing in a pre-watershed broadcast, or pixelation over certain anatomical parts. A prime online example of this is community standards which prohibit nudity.

However, censorship happens for a variety of different reasons beyond the obscene or offensive, such as national security, control of illegal images, prevention of hate speech and protection of vulnerable groups such as children. The main reasons for government-mandated censorship may be political, religious and/or cultural.

Censorship is not a new thing. Its origins can be traced to the office of censor established in Rome in 443 BC. Throughout history, for as long as human discourse has existed, those in power have suppressed speech or writings deemed objectionable. But censorship over the internet can be automated to an unprecedented scale. What’s more, this mass-censorship can be conducted so discreetly that users aren’t even aware the information has been suppressed.

Internet censorship takes two main forms: user-side censorship and publisher-side censorship. User-side censorship disrupts the link between the user and the publisher. An example would be content blockers being used by an individual, network, or service provider, to prevent access to certain websites based on the materials they contain. Publisher-side censorship refers to instances of websites blocking users who try to access their services, be it from particular locations (something commonplace in online broadcasting), through certain browsers (perhaps because the browser is considered out of date or incompatible with the website, or because the user is employing an anonymised service such as Tor), or on more pernicious grounds such as social demographics. This also ties in with a more subtle form of censorship: censorship by exclusion, such as with targeted advertising that excludes certain groups. With automated systems in place, right of appeal against being blocked or censored can be a difficult, sometimes even Kafkaesque process.

Censorship systems are employed widely, often with blanket implementation, and this can result in ‘overblocking’. In 2008 a Wikipedia article for the Scorpions’ 1976 album “Virgin Killer” was blocked by a number of UK internet service providers after the web address appeared in a blacklist. This conflicted with Wikipedia’s own anti-vandalism blocking mechanisms and left many people in the UK unable to edit the encyclopaedia. Internet-filtering technologies are used in a large proportion of public libraries and other public institutions in the UK, the US, and elsewhere, in some cases preventing access to websites covering sexual health advice, LGBT issues and mainstream political content. Even Facebook’s nudity policies have been criticised for over-censorship, blocking artworks and breast cancer awareness campaigns.

UK and US censorship is significant, but is dwarfed by the activity of some countries. The US-based think-tank Freedom House in its 2015 report into freedom on the net, identified 15 countries where social media and/or communications apps are blocked, and 31 where political, social and/or religious content is blocked. 17 had implemented new laws increasing censorship, and 40 had arrested users for their online content.

Internet censorship unquestionably threatens free and open access to information, and our right to freedom of expression; this isn’t just the moaning of old web-anarchists pining for the days when the internet was a sandpit with no sense of consequence. One of the key issues with censorship on the internet is that there is no code of conduct, no clarity, and often no right to reply: as internet censorship researcher Sheharbano Khattak puts it: “those doing the censoring… aren’t in the habit of revealing what they are blocking access to”.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Is democracy possible in the surveillance state?

For today's contribution to our digital citizenship strand, Susan Halfpenny tries to post to the blog without anyone noticing...

An ivy-covered wall on which is mounted a CCTV camera

In recent years we've seen a growth in mass surveillance of citizens by state and intelligence agencies, through the monitoring of digital communications and the gathering of internet usage data. In the brief time that you have been reading this article, the United States National Security Agency (NSA) alone will have selected close to two terabytes of data for review; that’s the equivalent of about 50 two-hour high-definition movies.

In 2013, NSA sub-contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified information from the NSA that revealed numerous global surveillance programmes. The first and most controversial story revealed that the NSA were gathering phone records from telecoms company Verizon, with evidence quickly following that this mass mining of data extended to virtually every other telephone company in America and that data taps were happening on a global scale.

A 2015 report by US think-tank Freedom House found 14 countries imposing new laws or directives increasing surveillance or restricting online anonymity. The level of surveillance already undertaken by the state and intelligence agencies has reached levels that are almost Orwellian. Big brother is watching you… we are just missing the slogan being ubiquitously displayed to remind us of the fact.

“If you've nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear”

A common position presented by government surveillance programmes in opposition to their threat to privacy is the ‘nothing to hide’ argument. In Britain, for example, when the government installed public surveillance cameras in towns and cities, a government campaign slogan for the programme declared “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear”. We have seen this argument emerge again in Britain in response to the provisions of the Investigatory Powers Act, which enables the interception of communications and the retention of communications data, and to the data gathered by UK signals intelligence service GCHQ.

The ‘nothing to hide’ argument is founded on the idea that if you are a law abiding citizen then the data gathered should be of no concern; that the surveillance provides no threat to privacy but rather offers us protection from criminals and terrorists.

Why privacy matters (even if you have nothing to hide)

“Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.

Edward Snowden on Reddit

Perhaps the most rehearsed response to the ‘nothing to hide’ argument is that benign governments can so easily give way to malign ones. This is a significant reason for caution. But stakes are high even without a fully realised dystopia. The ‘nothing to hide’ argument narrows the understanding of privacy to a singular essence, ignoring the complexity of the concept. Privacy is multifaceted; in a 2011 piece for Wired, Bruce Sterling described it as a plurality of different things that bear resemblance to one another but do not share any one element. For example, the invasion of privacy might be the disclosure of your secrets, maybe revealing how much you get paid, something you didn’t want others to know. In this case the harm to you is that information that you would have preferred to keep concealed is revealed to others. Another example of invasion of privacy may be that you’re being watched by a Peeping Tom – someone observing you as you go about your personal business (maybe taking the kids to school, or eating dinner with family or friends). In this case the harm is that you are being watched, something that you would probably find creepy even if the person watching you doesn’t find anything sensitive or doesn’t share the information with anyone else.

There are lots of other examples and forms of invasion of privacy. These include, blackmail, misuse of personal data, deception, violation of confidentiality, intrusion, misappropriation, and the gathering of extensive data (to state but a few). So, to go back to the concept of privacy, we can see that this involves many things and cannot be reduced to just one simple idea.

Civil Liberties and intellectual freedom

Being able to access information confidentially enables citizens to research, investigate and seek out ideas that challenge the status quo. It enables us to freely explore without fear of retribution; to question politics, culture, democracy and society.

Mass surveillance therefore inevitably poses a threat to citizens’ civil liberties and intellectual freedom, but so does another aspect of state control: censorship. That's an area we'll take a look at in our next post in a fortnight's time.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Public shaming and the mob

For our latest post on the topic of digital citizenship, Stephanie Jesper tries not to make a mistake...

A pitchfork

Someone is wrong on the internet - how do you respond? Social media, comments sections, forums... all of these are fundamentally discursive tools, so response is certainly an option. Perhaps, as xkcd implied, you have a duty to respond.

But there is an old mantra of the internet, the more polite version of which goes “don’t be a jerk”. As the Wikimedia community’s essay on this topic puts it:

Being right about an issue does not mean you’re behaving properly! Jerks are often right — but they’re still jerks… This is not the same as just being uncivil or impolite (though incivility and rudeness often accompany it). One can be perfectly civil and follow every rule of etiquette and still be wrong… Truly being civil and polite means that you show respect for others (such as in not needlessly pointing out grammar issues), even when right. Respect others even when you disagree.

We're generally familiar with trolling these days: behaviours aimed at deliberately sowing discord on the internet, often with the intent of undermining specific groups or people. But aspects of trolling can start in well-meaning ways: be it from a sense of accuracy or even a sense of moral responsibility.

Have you ever @-ed a politician or an organisation, or posted on their wall, to tell them that you disagree with their policy? How polite were you? Have you ever seen someone say something utterly despicable online, and felt a need to pull them up on it? How many other people do you think did a similar thing? We're all answerable to the things we post on line, and that means being prepared for responses beyond “Like” or “Favourite”. If you take a controversial position in a public forum, it seems reasonable that you may have to defend that point. The problems start to occur if that point reaches an audience beyond that which you originally intended: if it goes viral.

Jon Ronson’s 2015 book “So you’ve been publicly shamed” tackles the topic of online shaming, the mob mentality that can hit places like Twitter or Facebook when an opprobrious post starts getting shared beyond its original audience, and the often devastating consequences for the original poster. In this TED talk, he discusses a couple of (in some cases quite sweary) examples, and it’s somewhat horrifying to see how a single misjudged attempt at irony on Twitter can explode into a tirade of abuse from well-meaning people: abuse that grows into a frenzy and demands that the tweeter lose her job, which she ultimately does.

It isn’t just the scale of the response: thousands of people all sending a similar message of disappointment or disdain… These things start out as well-meaning responses, but once the hue and cry is raised and the mob begins to mass, feelings become heightened and thought of consequence can easily go out of the window. The mob is a compelling beast, as has long been established by sociologists. Be it convergence, contagion, or some other compulsion, we find ourselves drawn in to the pile-on, and as the numbers escalate, so does the sense of outrage. The outcome isn’t simply an unusably busy notifications page; in many cases, the author of the contentious post loses their job, as with the earlier example in the Jon Ronson piece, and with these cases:

Perhaps they deserved a rebuking tweet; but they probably didn’t deserve to have their livelihoods destroyed.

Wikipedia lists a range of examples of online shaming, not all of which seem quite as horrific as those mentioned above. Indeed, in some cases, the technique has been used against people engaged in criminal behaviour, as a means of exacting justice. In her 2015 book, “Is Shame Necessary? New uses for an Old Tool”, Jennifer Jacquet proposes the use of shaming for:

Transgressions that have a clear impact on broader society – like environmental pollution – and transgressions for which there is no obvious formal route to punishment

She suggests, as a rule of thumb, to “go after groups”, although she does not exempt individuals who are “politically powerful” or who “sizeably impact society”, so long as “the punishment is proportional”. There though lies the problem: how can you determine proportionality? How can you judge what’s an appropriate response? In short, how do you not be a jerk?