The Feed

February 5, 2021

When The Plot Twists

You might feel like you are living in a romantic comedy. Or a workplace drama about ‘youthful success’. Maybe you’re an Instagram influencer, looking for that perfect shot.

Then suddenly on the news, there’s a push back on human rights. And you are living the story of an activist. That’s how I felt when Trump was elected in 2016.  That’s how all of us felt when Coronavirus hit. Suddenly the plot changed to a medical drama or a political drama. And you feel less like the star and more like one of the supporting cast.

I have never been to Myanmar. But I have plenty of friends there from my IT networks and tech meetings in Southeast Asia.

Morally, we have a responsibility to push back against bad policies, against immoral actions. This can be in public, using our names. That has great power.  But it’s good to choose how and where you want to engage; ‘pick your fights’. You only have so much time and energy. Activism is a tactical game of years.

As we’ve seen, state actors have rooms full of geeks. Geeks using computers, tracking activists. For a political party, for a country, that’s lots cheaper than buying a tank or a fighter jet.  And these are geeks that want to track you.

When Donald Trump Jr. found USA activists he didn’t like, he flagged the names in a private chat. These names were outsourced to an Indian IT farm. They combed through the social media posts of the activists, looking for posts to use for a smear campaign at a later date.

In Hong Kong, activists learned from the Occupy protests and anonymized their presence at protests, using all kinds of IT tricks for communications. Their motto was ‘Be Water’ – adapt and flow. I think there’s a lot of good ‘Operational Security’ that we can learn from our Hong Kong friends.

Mainland China has been very patient. They have many rooms of geeks and can patiently, methodically track people down from social media. I fear that this has been the endgame for Hong Kong for some time. We will see how it plays out.

————— Notes on ‘OpSec’ (Operational Security) ———————-
In Myanmar, like Cambodia, everyone is on Facebook, it is the ‘default internet’. It’s super convenient. I encourage you to aim higher, try new things.

I see a number of friends from Myanmar jumping on to Twitter, one of the last services not blocked. I use Twitter a lot, run a Twitter portal for Cambodia since 2010. It’s good for news.

Many are using their full name on Twitter. Certainly, it’s good to stand up publicly for your beliefs.  But imagine posting in anger today, under your name, and having that post unearthed five years from now, ten years, in a very different world. It can be a risk to not just you but to your family, to your work.

It is also (unlike Facebook) very easy to set up a *secondary* account on your phone. You can have a public personal account and a more ‘activist’ secondary account using a nickname. You can use Twitter ‘lists’ to create affinity groups of dissenters and friends.

Twitter may be blocked too. You may need to be prepared to jump from service to service. There is an Open Source Twitter clone, Mastodon.  (Vimeo is up I think, and there is even a YouTube clone, ‘PeerTube‘.)

Instagram is blocked. But the ‘Open Source Instagram’ Pixelfed is available. (I use this a lot.) You can post a picture on Pixelfed, and share it via Twitter or other services more smoothly than Instagram. It has an Android app under development but no i0S app. So not perfect for phones, but it works on mobile browsers.

For hopping service to service: I am a fan of the Open Source alternatives to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube. I have notes on that here:

Governments cannot block this kind of media because there is not one central web site for them. But this is no magic cure, there are only a few million users on these services, they are less ‘sexy’ than the big apps.  And there is much less mobile phone app support for them. So you may find these new programs frustrating. Consider them a backup resource.

I will revise and add to these notes. For now, cultivate your strength. Be strategic. ‘Be water.’ Be safe.