Youth, “the Internet” and speech

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Last week, just a few days after my return from Cairo, I stumbled upon an event organised by UNESCO and whose combination of supporting countries amused me. The two-day conference, “Youth and the internet: Fighting radicalisation and extremism”, was supported by Bulgaria and Egypt. Everyone who knows me, understands the amusement. But beyond this fun fact of limited importance, the topic and its relationship to my own work and interests were intriguing enough to dedicate the event a day. I know quite a few people around me are interested in this write-up, I decided to take the time and actually expand it, in a way that it can relate to a broader work I am into: exploring excitable speech through post-colonial lenses in the Balkans and MENA as well as contributing to a project that aims to train citizens to mitigate hate speech online in South Sudan. More on the distinction between ‘hate speech’ and ‘excitable speech’ later (a research paper coming up on that).

I was having my own expectations about the line-up of speakers and the probable directions the discussions would head to. And I was quite correct.

Diversity (or lack thereof)

To start with, female participation was pretty limited. This is not a new fad, we know that female experts and researchers are less represented in general as well as in fora, conferences and the likes. But the female underrepresentation also provoked this sort of nonsense:

How can anyone, in 2015, come up with this bullshit? Which is — even more striking — in a context of work and exchange that favours, highlights, emphasises and calls for inclusion, understanding, nuanced approach and sensibility.(And I will spare you the bewilderment some male researchers and journos I talked to, expressed at Women Without Borders being represented by an elderly male.)

Anyhow, let’s skip the gender bit, for now. There was something else that bugged me: the number of non-youth speaking on behalf of youth. Why not inviting young people? I don’t mean to say that only youth can speak about youth, others have experience, empathy and knowledge to do so. But this doesn’t mean non-youth are the sole entitled to speak about challenges youth (however loosely defined this group is) faces. Inclusion and diversity also means this. I am disappointed as it is very rare to observe target groups being actually actors of happenings and discussions that concern them: if it is about education, we’ll call policy-makers, stars, journalists and perhaps teachers but we’ll rarely if ever will invite learners (pupils, students, kids) to participate and chim in.

Causes of radicalisation

The talks moved to presenting different visions and understandings of why and how radicalisation and extremism spreads online. I was wary of hearing yet again different flavours of the widespread, reductive and short-sighted vision social-networks-and-the-internet-is-guilty-of-terrorism. This happened but — thankfully — was also diversified with more in-depth and nuanced perspectives. One of the participants even mentioned that we can use the online space as a tool to combat extreme speech. Which, against a backdrop of heated debate in France around then-Intelligence Bill and the mass surveillance it enables if promulgated, was a welcome relief.

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French anti-terrorism draft law: what it says, in brief

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Back in July 2014, La Quadrature du Net, Paris-based digital rights advocacy NGO, was summing up the few developments around the proposed anti-terror draft law:

This new bill institutes a permanent state of emergency on the Internet that allows the judicial system to be largely bypassed and favours instead recourse to police and administrative systems that, besides failing to guarantee fair hearing, are largely disproportionate, ill-equipped and thus ineffective in reaching the stated goal of fighting terrorism.

As the bill was to be discussed in the Parliament, la Quadrature du Net has launched a dedicated mini-website to help inform and educate the public about everything one needs to know regarding the measures in the draft.

This post is not aimed at analysing the bill and its possible impact on civil liberties and, more broadly, digital rights in France. The parliamentary debate has kicked off on Sept 15 and will resume on Sept 16. It is urgent to have more attention drawn to this dangerous text; yet, I realised that French impaired completely ignored the ongoing fight. The post thus contains a tentative translation in English of the most important articles from the bill. Amendments have been proposed as well, but I will hopefully get to them later. If you wanna help translating, leave a comment.

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Fraud fighters wanted in the Middle East

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Petri dishes. Image in the public domain.

Petri dishes. Image in the public domain.

[Originally published on OpenDemocracy]

I was recently approached by a scholar from the American University of Sharjah (UAE) who asked me to edit a draft of a research paper of his which needed“rephrasing and unifying”, a common request by non-native English speakers prior to submission in a peer-reviewed journal.

Having agreed on fee and timeline, I edited and returned the paper. The scholar’s response was astounding: “when I checked your rephrased document on a plagiarism detection site, it indicated that 87% is copied…the aim is to reach 10% at most”. His expectation, as it turns out, was for me to rewrite the paper, concealing plagiarised chunks of text. Though I had noticed entire paragraphs in irreproachable English, I had assumed co-authorship, not academic theft. Replying that I did not expect to devote my time to “forging research papers,” I was not surprised when payment was withheld.

This all took place while news made the headlines of a miracle cure developed by the Egyptian army for HIV and hepatitis C – today remaining in the anthology as ‘KoftaGate’ –  someone needed to address this culture of unethical scientific behaviour.

Forgery, plagiarism and other plagues

Plagiarism is one of the most widespread manifestations of scientific misconduct: it happens everywhere. When misconduct is identified, the publication is generally retracted. An independent watchdog launched in August 2010, Retraction Watch, has become the go-to institution for remarkable work in this field.

In 2012, a close examination of more than 2,000 retracted biomedical and life-science research articles showed that two-thirds were removed because of proven or suspected misconduct. Plagiarism accounted for nearly 10% of retractions. Fraud or suspected fraud, e.g. photoshopping images and “arranging data” to support one’s claims are other types of forgery. Last but not least, there are also scientists so fond of their own work that they practice duplicate publishing.

Follow-up studies make it clear that misconduct can happen at any stage of a career, from the trainee to the senior researcher. Some blame the “publish or perish” rules that govern research. Others explain it by limited resources: if a lab does not have enough money to sustain its projects, then it might as well resort to crafting what is deemed necessary to publish the study in the hopes of getting better funding. Whatever the reason, however, lies and copy-paste habits are unethical and harm science as they influence research trends, waste public funds and can have a direct impact on people’s lives.

Misconduct also spans across all scientific domains. Some experts evenbelieve that as much as 90% “of all [archeological] artefacts and coins sold on internet auctions as genuine are nothing but fakes.” Among antiquities forgery cases fall the largely overlooked traffic of real but stolen artefacts, a long-lived practice found to occur in many countries across the Middle East including embattled Syria.

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Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression (Conditions apply)

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[First published on openDemocracy.]

12 March marked the World Day against online censorship. Reporters Without Borders remained faithful to their habits and announced this year’s ‘Enemies of the Internet’. Repressive governments in the Middle East also remained faithful to their habits and continued to crack down on free speech, both online and offline.

The Algerian government for instance marked this day in a special way, by taking Jordanian Noorsat satellite TV channel Al-Atlas completely off air. Addressing each and every event of suppressed free speech is impossible; I believe however that the few examples below will suffice to highlight the unconditional disrespect for freedom of expression citizens encounter every day across the MENA region.

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Bulgaria’s ‘chilly welcome’ to Syrian refugees

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[First published on openDemocracy.]

Over two million people have fled the havoc in Syria and sought refuge in bordering countries; at least one million of them are children, estimated the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) back in August 2013. Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq are the top five countries where most have resettled. Over the past several months, however, the exodus has shifted to Europe. For the majority of Syrians searching for a safe EU haven, the journey starts in Turkey where refugee smuggling blossoms. Today, Bulgaria counts over 10,000 refugees, an atypical surge this European border country was unprepared for.

Despite financial help from the EU, the Bulgarian government has consistently preferred to engage in exacerbating the situation. Intensifying influx of refugees in the country prompted the opening of more camps to host the newcomers. These hellholes are in incredibly squalid conditions, but this is where the Bulgarian government welcomes asylum seekers. In October 2013, Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev played the tough guy and sacked the head of Bulgaria’s Refugee Agency for “failing to handle the influx.” Yet, reception centres continue to be overcrowded, Syrians undergo an administrative hassle for weeks, and food, clothing and medicine are largely funded by donations from ordinary citizens.

The official excuse for not providing humane and dignified conditions for the refugees was “tight finances.” Bulgaria is indeed the EU’s poorest member, and media outlets have asked whether the country should shelter even more people in need. Yet, Bulgaria has recently received 6.4 million euros (8.8 million USD) from the EU’s Refugee Fund and 2 million euros (2.7 million USD) in aid from the Czech Republic and Slovakia; funds specifically dedicated to managing the Syrian refugees influx. Thus, the “tight finances” should not be a barrier any more.

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