Social leaking / social whistleblowing

I’m thinking over this story about the Facebook group plotting to overthrow the Turkmen government. I’ve already pondered the journalistic ethics about publishing it (“Did I just kill a revolution?”), but there are some really interesting aspect I want to take a moment to discuss.

In terms of the technology: first, this remarkable feature of modern communication applications to serve as a mirror for humanity, revealing ourselves to ourselves, blemishes and all; second, the darkside of this mirror, namely, its potential to turn against us and become a tool of self-oppression; and third — and this is the pat I want to focus on right now — is the way in which it’s making our civilization vastly more leaky and transparent.

Back in April I was interviewed by Dr. Suelette Dreyfus, an international expert on digital whistleblowing. We had a long conversation on the definition of “whistleblowing”, and it occurred to me that besides the traditional, Daniel Elsberg-style leak, or its Julian Assange update, there may now also be “social leaking” or “social whistleblowing”. This is essentially unintentional releasing of information by the rank-and-file of an organization that at an authority, whether it be cultural, governmental or corporate, would have preferred not to be released.

So, as I see it, such leaking may often take the emotional form of venting. For example, neweurasia‘s Annasoltan has recounted the following anecdote about two Turkmen apparatchiks:

“Once I met two Turkmen diplomats who behaved as though they were in a race with each other to expound on the great achievements of our president. But when one them went to the toilet, the other quickly made scandalous revelations about the government and seemed desperate to convince me that he despised the regime. Imagine: a diplomat, our nation’s representative to the outside world!”

Or, as in the case of this Facebook group, the various reactions of everyday people confronted with a terrifying new idea, namely, the downfall of their government. In this latter example, the outside world has learned something very important about the current collective mindset within Turkmenistan — something we could not have easily determined before:

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Did I just kill a revolution?

Today on neweurasia we’re running an interesting kind of exclusive about a Facebook group called “The Green Revival” (”Yaşyl Galkynyş”) that is plotting to overthrow the Turkmen government. Our blogger, Annasoltan, made contact with the group’s admin, who goes by the pseudonym “Berdi Niyazov” (spoof of Turkmenistan’s two dictators — I’ll call him BN for short). Whoever he/she is, the person has clearly read up on both the Arab Spring and previous revolutionary movements. There’s no telling how serious he/she really is, although the person plays the role well (he/she’s even vowing to start up a revolutionary committee from inside Turkmenistan).

However, should we at neweurasia have published this? As we see it, there are three possibilities as to who BN is: (a) an exile trying to bring pressure and embarrassment to the government; (b) an agent of the government engaged in some kind of data-mining scheme intended to provoke malcontents into exposing themselves; or (c) a sincere reformer truly intent upon bringing about change in his/her society.

The fact that BN chose to both publish his/her group’s platform and respond to reactions in English (albeit a very Turkmen-style English) makes us suspicious that it could be the first two options. However, what if this is just the naked, disarming sincerity of a young Turkmen far from his/her home who dreams of a freer, more prosperous Turkmenistan? The person comes across so sincerely, and when I read him/her closely, he/she sounds North American-educated, with not a little bit of liberal idealism.

That he/she is targeting students studying abroad is interesting. It’s actually in keeping with the authorities’ recent inquisition of university-age youth who have overseas experience or connections (check out neweurasia‘s coverage here and here). Whether this is part of the inquisition or a reversal of the logic of repression — the unfairly targeted are now becoming exactly what the Turkmen authorities feared to begin with — is a key question.

Here’s the dilemma with which we as a journalistic organization are confronted: have we just helped or hindered someone’s insidious scheme, or have we aided or murdered a possibility for positive change?

Both Annasoltan and my boss at Transitions Online, Barbara Frye, argue that the story is newsworthy and on those grounds alone it should be run. Indeed, I must confess that as an editor, the story was just too good to pass up and lose the scoop. Once Annasoltan discovered the group, it was almost certain we would publish the story in some fashion.

Yet, neither this nor standard journalistic procedure totally allays the concern: although BN gave Annasoltan permission to run the story and even hoped it would bring the group more exposure, uncertainty persists as to whether this would be precisely what a Turkmen intelligence officer would want. Moreover, if we assume that BN is sincere, it’s also clear that if he/she isn’t concerned about alerting the Turkmen authorities to the plot. Broadcasting via a major social network could either be a calculated gamble or part of an agent’s plan.

But I also want to know the opinions of you the readers. I’m running two polls at the bottom of this post, the first regarding what you think about this story, and the second essentially an innocent or guilty verdict for neweurasia and myself as its editor (click “Read More”). I would also like to hear from you in the comments section: in general, what do you think of this story?

There are some other important aspects, particularly in terms technology and how everyday people can inadvertently reveal the secrets of their societies. I talk about these in a separate post in this blog: “Social leaking / social whistleblowing”

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In solidarity with all of my colleagues in Egypt

A lot of us at neweurasia admire the work of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and I, myself, interned there this past summer. So, it has been distressing to hear about the detention and apparent abuse, if not torture, of Robert Tait (Central Newsroom) and Abdelilah Nuaimi (Radio Free Iraq), by Egyptian secret services. They were recently released, but according to a mutual colleague, they have experienced something horrific, Nuaimi has apparently been beaten; no word yet on Tait’s condition.

Speaking for myself personally, I’m on record as having ambivalence about the uprising, but that’s an analytical ambivalence, not a moral one, and focused more on its potential consequences than its essential merit. Speaking for neweurasia, we are aghast at the sinister, and indeed foolish, attempts by Egyptian secret services to maintain order at the moral expense of ethics and the practical expense of reputation.

The New York Times has published an account by two of its reporters, Souad Mekhennet and Nicholas Kulish, who had a taste of what countless Egyptians have been unjustly suffering for years, and which many reporters, Egyptian and non-Egyptian alike, have been suffering these past two weeks. I’m re-publishing it in full here, in solidarity with all of our colleagues in Prague and Egypt, and indeed, with the Egyptian people.

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