Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Cory Booker, destroying snow, with Twitter

Hat tip to TechDirt for this fantastic piece.

Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark in New Jersey, is probably one of the most clued up politicians when it comes to the social media, he's on there all the time, he responds to questions and comments from individuals, and keeps his followers up to date with what he's doing. It says a lot that I can follow his tweets and find them genuinely interesting, despite living on another continent and disagreeing with him about a large chunk of his politics.

Right now New Jersey is under an unbelievable amount of snow and Booker has used this to stage a collosally intelligent "real people" campaign. He's using Twitter to find out where people are struggling and then getting his people out to help them, or just going to their houses himself. His last tweets suggest he is out shovelling snow, he's also delivered diapers, and seems to have covered about half of Newark in his campaign to destroy all snow that lies in his path.

The best part is, that some of the blame for how bad the situation is might actually lie at his feet, but how hard is it to criticise the guy hip deep in snow clutching a shovel when he's trying to get vulnerable people what they need?

There's so much here which can be learned from its hard to know where to start. He's nailed the crisis by putting a human face on the solution, his own face, trying to inspire others to follow his example and get out to help others. He's staying on top of what must be an impossibly demanding twitter load, really connecting with people. He's also turned a potential PR disaster into something which is garnering positive coverage pretty much for everyone.

This is a man who gets social media, and gets the politics is a campaign every minute of every day. I'm literally in awe of how smart this guy (and his team) is.
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Fighting back against Big Copyright

There's a really interesting bit of news on ArsTechnica, RapidShare have hired a lobbying firm with the express purpose to "counter negative attacks on the company from US copyright interests." This might not seem like a big deal, but the file sharing industry has been almost painfully timid at fighting back against Big Copyright's campaigns against them. Despite provably doing nothing illegal, RapidShare was recently called out as one of the 5 worst websites in the world by Congress.

From the article:

It should come as no surprise that RapidShare has hired the same lobbying firm that Google uses—the Dutko lobbying group.

The registration form that RapidShare filed with the government makes it pretty clear what the three lobbyists the company has hired will be focusing on: "Develop and implement a coordinated government affairs/public relations program for RapidShare targeted at Congress, the Administration and the media to help counter negative attacks on the company from US copyright interests."

Dutko is definitely a high-powered lobbying organization. According to the Open Secrets database, Dutko Worldwide generated $12,940,000 in lobbying income in 2010 in the course of advocating on behalf of Adobe Systems, Google, Motorola, Qualcomm, TiVO, Level 3 Communications, and dozens of other technology related firms.

Considering how much the content industry has gotten away with in the last few years its good to see that one file sharing service is actually starting to fight back.
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Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Book review: Griftopia

I like polemics, they speak to a writer who is passionate, engaged and have a strong opinion about the topic upon which they write. Since this is also the way in which I often speak and debate, this type of writing is thoroughly engaging to me.

Considering how little emotion there is now about the financial crisis I was pleased to happen upon Griftopia, a book clearly written by someone who has channeled a great deal of anger into a topic which should anger anyone.

Written by Matt Taibbi, of Rolling Stone, Griftopia posits a relatively simple premise, that the US economy has been engineered by the major banks in a fashion which serves to stripmine the country for any remaining money (and credit) into the pockets of the aforementioned banks. The mechanism being used to achieve this is the creation of 'bubbles' within the economy, primarily the tech and housing bubbles.

Taibbi writes with an engaging style, often deeply profane but rarely without purpose. He is also one of the few writers who is able to write about high finance in a way which actually makes some sense. I've come away able to actually understand what derivatives are (somewhat) and why commodities trading is liable to leave us all broke.

This books fits well within the emerging narrative which I think is likely to define at least the next 20 years, the slow collapse of the United States, as it confronts growing internal and external problems. It deals with a major systemic problem, namely, that the political process has broken to such an extent that private interest can no long be restrained in any effective fashion. Although on a personal political level I dont believe in a great deal of regulation, but I also believe the private companies, left entirely to their own devices will slice the head off the goose that lays the golden egg searching for a massive immediate payoff, rather than taking their daily egg.

I always take a book like this with a pinch of salt, the writer has a point to make, and their proof will have been selected in order to make it. However, a part of me feels that if there was a solid case to be made that this book was a lie various banks would probably have come crashing down on his head in court. He specifically calls several out, particularly Goldman Sachs (who he describes as a 'vampire squid'), and directly blames them for knowingly creating a global recession and preparing to create another one. Thats the sort of thing you don't want in print if you're a major company.

Overall this is as thoroughly readable and interesting a discussion of how global finance as I've ever read. Unapologetic for its rage and all the better for it, it weaves a sage narrative about banks who are actively engaged in stripping America of its remaining assets and weakening the remaining legal statutes that will slow their progress.

A tragic tale of greed, capitalism perverted into something monsterous and men corrupted by the philosophy of pure profit.
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Monday, 27 December 2010

A failure to maintain

I decided today, for no particular reason, that it was time to clean out my twitter "follows" (the people who I follow, not those who follow me) and I noticed an interesting trend. Whilst considering who I should drop, one of the most significant segments were British politicians, virtually no MPs survived in the final analysis (more on those who did later).

Political commentators like Tim Montgomerie did pretty well, journalists dropped off in pretty good numbers, but nothing exceptional, it was just MPs who got a resounding kicking. Hence I sat down and tried to figure out why this was.

The only answer I can come up with is that MPs by and large are absolutely terrible at social media if they don't have someone in a press office prodding them with a sharp stick to put posts up there. For most people the purpose of Twitter is to form an aggregate news feed, and to respost things which are of interest to us.

So what have MPs, and Governmental people been doing wrong?

A surprisingly large number have "moved" their twitter accounts. For example, Number 10 (for American readers, this is essentially the 'Government' Twitter feed, or as close as we have to one) has moved. Why that would be, I have no idea, they moved from one variation of Number10 to another, so its not like they started out with the twitter name "BastardsInGovt" and decided they needed something with decorum. They just decided to make it harder for me to follow them.

Others, and I'm looking at you, candidates for the Labour leadership, created dual accounts, one for their role as an MP, and another for their campaign. Thats a rookie move in itself. It misses the point that your twitter feed is "you" to those who follow you, a seperate campaign oriented feed just makes life complicated, and leads viewers to be confused about which one is 'real' and whether the second account is a PR exercise being operated by the intern in your HQ.

Most simply don't use their accounts any more, the "vacant lot" approach. During the election they were posting on a regular basis, now theres rarely anything being said. This is a real dropped ball in many ways as theres every reason to suggest that if you post interesting things people will follow you and engage with you.

Others are stuck on "transmit" mode, doing little to engage with their audience or create a discussion or debate. Thats a real shame, as a large number of MPs are erudite, interesting people who could do a lot if they got more involved in the street level debates going on on Twitter.

Tom Watson, Robert Halfon and to a lesser extent Dan Hannan and Douglas Carswell deserve special mention, agree with their politics or not, they do get it. Hence they have survived my brutual cull of the chattering classes. However it should be noted that by and large, they have survived not because I find their politics interesting, but because of their rich and varied interests which mean they talk about a great deal more than what they last voted on, the political equivalent of talking about the weather.

As a result, I'm more likely to follow Felicia Day (actress/geek/web celeb), Cory Doctorow (Blogger for BoingBoing/Writer/geek) or Mark Pack (Head of Digital at MHP/Co-editor of Lib Dem Voice), because they actually have something interesting to say, and most show a willingess to discuss, rather than to constantly transmit.

Its a real shame more MPs don't take the time to really engage with this medium, particularly the younger, more tech savvy generation, for whom Twitter is a fact of life, not some novel new thing which has just come along. The grassroots are out there, waiting to listen, to be pursuaded, and to get into the debate, but there's no one listening in the post election world.

UPDATE: Excellent comment from Mark Pack, so much so I thought it worth pulling into the main body of the article to ensure people see it:

I've noticed a lot of Liberal Democrat MPs have taken their use of Twitter down a gear or two since the election. I don't think though that generally it's a case of not getting social media but rather:

a. Good MPs are *very* busy people, especially if they are also ministers

b. Via their postbag and regular constituency surgeries they get to dip in and out of what their constituents are thinking in a way that social media performs this role for many others

c. Even after this May, the vast majority of MPs are from a pre-social media generation and they instinctively turn to other methods which come to them more naturally (and so, arguably, are more efficient for them)

None of this is to argue that social media can't have a major role for many MPs - far from it - but I think it does help explain how good MPs make decisions to downplay social media that are based on something more than just not getting it.

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Saturday, 25 December 2010

Merry Christmas one and all

I wanted to post a short message to say Merry Christmas to everyone who takes the time to check in on this blog. I hope you're all having a great day and spending time with the people you care about.

For my part I'm home with my family, having a wonderful time, and am the recipient of a huge pile of books. Notable highlights include Eating Soup with a Knife, Griftopia, The Accidental Guerrilla and Macrowikinomics. I'm fortunate to have a family who have long since stopped asking about my curious reading habits and now reserve themselves to asking when I plan to invade Poland.

I'd like to say thank you to all the people who've helped make this blog what it is. I started this project out mainly as an exercise in getting my own thoughts in order about various things, and over time its grown into more and more of an interactive exercise. Its still a thrill when something I write generates comment and criticism. My readership has grown every month and I hope to continue to earn more readers in the new year.

Special thanks to James at the Campaign War Room for providing me with advice and guidance both online and off. We've collaborated on a few things now on overlapping interests throughout the year and its been a lot of fun. He's also guaranteed to have at least one thing worth reading on his blog every day.

Ian from Only Dreaming has been a great help both behind the scenes and online. An old schoolfriend its been great to work with him on a couple of projects. The main one being Westminster Hubble, a concept he brought into reality with style. Hopefully we can work on some more projects in the coming year (if either of us can find the time).

Also thanks to David from Kings of War whose commentary on one of my posts generated a lively discussion on the nature of Anonymous and its role in the future of online conflict. This is a debate we're seeing more and more in the mainstream media and I'll be writing more about it in the future.

I'm sure there are other people who deserve thanks, and I'll try and remember who they are later on.

For now, I'm going to go and eat until things start to hurt.

Have a wonderful Christmas all.
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Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Christmas downtime

Blogging will be light for the next week or so as I'm going home to celebrate christmas with my family. Hoping to get the odd piece up, but I can't claim it'll be my top priority. I'll be around sporadically however, so keep an eye out.
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Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Ahh Christmas

The Christmas season is well and truly upon me and today will largely be taken up with the work Christmas "do", which promises to be a relatively good time for all.

In the interim, here are a few links:

Thomas Rid has a great piece on Kings of War on the use of the media by the US military as a tool to help their force projection overseas:
The first lesson is for public affairs officers and info-ops folks alike, especially outside the United States: if you want to project power, use the BBC. The British media outlet didn’t just say the exercise was “designed to show the military strength of America and its allies,” it helped the U.S. Navy achieve that objective. In the past years, especially American commanders have become much more adept at using the media — “trained, objective observers,” as they said during the planning for embedding in the Iraq War — to get across a certain message. In the case of the BBC video, the real addressee is pretty obvious. And let’s be honest, the Navy did a superb job in getting the right pictures and quotes into the BBC report
Worth reading if you're in PR particularly.

I've been watching the debate about whether DDoS attacks are a form of civil disobedience. The best piece I've seen so far is Evgeny Morozov's piece (hopefully spelled right) on Slate, assessing Anonymous's attacks against the theories of John Rawls:
John Rawls, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, offered one of the best modern theories of civil disobedience in his 1971 masterpiece, A Theory of Justice. Rawls defended civil disobedience as long as the breach of law was public (i.e., authorities were notified of the disobedient act before or shortly after it occurred), nonviolent (i.e., the disobedient act did not impinge on the civil liberties of others and caused no injuries), and conscientious (i.e., the disobedient act was underpinned by serious moral convictions). Furthermore, Rawls argued that those who practice civil disobedience should be willing to accept the legal consequences of their actions, if only out of their fidelity to the rule of law.
James at The Campaign War Room has some thoughts on the effectiveness of "real people" in campaigns. This is an issue extremely close to James' heart and his argument is cogent and useful:
As I've blogged here before, using real people in political and corporate campaigns can transform the power of the message. It's one thing to hear Ed Miliband talking about how the cuts are affecting ordinary people, but another thing to hear from the people themselves who have lost their job or who are worried about doing so. Similarly, it's one thing to hear from a CEO saying that a change in Government legislation will push up the cost of doing business, but another to hear from a hard pressed customer or a less affluent employee. Corporate campaigns can particularly gain from this approach because it is so unusual and therefore has a much greater chance of being noticed.
I'm afraid thats all I have time for at the moment as I'll be dragged away momentarily, but more blogging will follow later in the week.

In closing, taking a look at XKCD's exceptionally funny comic on Wikileaks:


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Tuesday, 14 December 2010

How Clegg could go

As promised I finally got the full story on how the Liberal Democrat rules work for forcing a vote for a new leader (or keeping the old leader).

In essence you have to get 70 constituency Lib Dem parties to say they want a vote, its that simple. If you can get 70 of them to get in a line and say they want it, you can go wild.

The thing is, theres no rule on the size and significance of the constituency organisations so you could go round the houses in some seats the leadership doesnt even know it has supporters in.

Anyway, thats my two cents for the day. I've been avoiding blogging in favour of more time spent on twitter following the rapidly unfolding student fees news and the Wikileaks stuff.
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Sunday, 12 December 2010

Amazon is coming crashing down

There are reports all over Twitter and blogspace that Amazon is down. So far confirmed domains which are not responding are .UK, .DE, .IT and .FR.

Speculation is rife that Anonymous is to blame. It remains to be seen how true this is, but given whats been going on lately, it seems pretty likely that this isnt a coincidence.

UPDATE: Amazon's European Data Services are apparently down in their entirety. If thats the case, and this does turn out to be Anonymous, its a whole other level. It is in fact, srs bsns.

UPDATE2: Speculation is now rife that a botnet was involved with a DDoS take down of Amazon, with sites now coming back online.

UPDATE3: This is a screenshot of a tweet (now taken down) from Anonops:








UPDATE4: Amazon services are back up, no word from the company as yet.

UPDATE5: Loads of speculation now, but its fair to say any Amazon site going down is a massive deal and basically unprecidented. Whatever happened was a massive problem for the company. Business Insider have a surprisingly good bit on it.

I'M CALLING IT: This wasnt Operation Payback, nor was it any conventional part of Anonymous. If it was caused by something external to Amazon itself (I still wouldnt be surprised if it turns out to be some sort of monumental internal screw up), it was a massive botnet.

Only time will tell and I need sleep.
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The crisis war machine

I've just finished Eric Dezenhall's book Nail 'em, Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Businesses, his first book on crisis communications. Coming before Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management is Wrong there's a marked difference between the two books. In an effort to describe some of these differences I'm going to try and review both and draw out some of what makes Dezenhall one of the finest resources for good lessons on crisis comms.

The reason I personally like Dezenall is
that he actually looks at a crisis as what it is, conflict. The immediately frames the issues of crisis communications in their most useful setting.

Dezenall sets up all crises with 6 key components:
  1. The victim: Essentially the person who initiates the crisis, the wronged party, usually a private citizen or group of citizens who have been hurt by another party in some fashion, either physically or emotionally.
  2. The villain: The company or individual who did the hurting of the victim. These are almost invariably rich and/or powerful entities.
  3. The vindicator: The entity which will right the wrongs inflicted on the victim. Usually some form of activist organisation of some sort.
  4. The void: This is the space that's hardest to define, essentially the crisis must play into the passive expectations of everyone else, otherwise its not interesting to the media, and thus the audience doesnt exist. For example, big chemical companies are expected to dump harmful chemicals on people, thus the void can be filled with this.
  5. The vehicle: The mechanism by which the victim delivers the attack on the villain e.g. the internet, media or any other form of dissemination.
  6. The value: The justificaiton for the attacks, e.g. public safety, "right to know" etc.
In my experience this list holds true in pretty much all cases, its never this simple of course, but it does form a useful checklist, and a good way of framing any crisis you experience.

One of the reasons I like Dezenhall is that he emphasises speed and an agile response above everything else. It wouldnt seem out of place to read some of his phraseology (albeit slightly reframed) in a Marine Corps memoir. He also makes a solid case for defining victory early on, and allowing for flexibility in what definition, not every battle is supposed to be won by beating your opponent, some crises are best solved by settling with a victim out of court, others by full fledged battle.

One weakness of both books is Dezenhall's relative lack of knowledge with the internet and the opportunities it presents for attackers. Its not a criticism, but its clearly not where he is at his most comfortable. He scrapes the surface, and does a good job of it, but the pervasive and undying nature of internet rumours arent really explored in the way that more conventional attacks are. Its fair to say that these types of attacks are significantly harder to deal with anyway, and thus a discussion of them is less relevant.

What is excellent is the portrayal of the media as crisis junkies, who validate and reward members of the public for wildly overeacting (or inventing) problems and going after companies. Its a fair point, every journalist wants to break the next Watergate or the cigarette companies, unfortunately they want to do it over the weekend and be ready for print on Monday. Thus they cut corners and find stories which really arent worthy. Its rare to go a month these days without seeing the word -gate applied to the end of a word. This year we've had bigot-gate and cable-gate, just off the top of my head.

The problem is that companies and public figures havent grown any more comfortable with the battlefield environment they find themselves in. Responses remain muted, and too often the temptation is to bunker down rather than fighting back. In boxing the right response to being punched is to counterpunch, not fall back, as it is with communications. Of course wildly swinging doesnt help either, you've got to try and figure out the right response, but you've got to do it within minutes or at worst hours.

One of the most important things to remember is that ultimately all responses are based on gut instinct. Theres often very little time to get data togeather, although flash polling and other data gathering tools can be used, but at some point you have to take a breath and decide what the heck you're going to do.

Dezenhall paints a vivid picture of crisis comms at its best and at its worst, and how both can be achieved. He makes sage points on how you can turn weaknesses into strengths and the importance of finding ways of reframining the debate early to your advantage.

These are books about how to win, by any means avaliable. There's a Malcolm Tucker quote which fits rather well (and crudely) from the final episode of the 3rd season:
Their hordes of f**king robots, they're coming over the hill towards us, and all you've got to do is this, bend down, pick up any f**king weapon you can and twat the f**kery out of them
I'd love to post a link to this, but I'd be breaking the law if I did. If you do want to see it I absolutely don't advise you to go onto YouTube and search for "In the Thick of It" Its the final speech Malcolm gives.

In closing, one final quote from Nail 'em by Otto von Bismark, summing up much of what Dezenhall can teach us:
We live in a wonderous time where the strong is weak because of his moral scruples and the weak is strong because of his audacity

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Friday, 10 December 2010

Los Zetas, the catalyst of the Mexican insurgency

There' s an excellent article in The Counter Terrorist on Los Zetas, the most infamous of the Mexican cartels. It gives a solid overview of their origins, as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, through to their emergence:
Deserters from the Mexican special operations force, Known as GAFES (Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales), they became the close protection detail for Gulf cartel kingpin Osiel Cardenas Guillen. Under the command of "Z1" Arturo Guzman Decenas, the original 31 Zetas brought their skills and combat tradecraft to bear for the Gulf cartel's business interests...

Once in place, the original Zetas each trained a cadre of soldiers, recruited from state and municipal police forces And, in some cases, the rank and file of Mexico's army. This initial group of elite bodyguards catalyzed an evolution of lethal force and tactics used within Mexico's criminal underworld. Late model SUVs with tinted windows and no license plates became the normal method of transport. Tight shot groups in Los Zetas' victims indicated a high level of proficiency, though this particular high-skill level has diluted over the years.
Their split with the Gulf Cartel and emergance as a cartel in their own right:
The Gulf-Zeta split broke the duopoly known as the Company, which had been maintained by both factions to pursue drug trafficking and distribution, human trafficking, product piracy, kidnapping, and petroleum theft.
And now their expanding business interests and growth as a major player in the Mexican drug deal:
The Zetas are known to have pilfered large quantities of oil from PEMEX (Petroleos Mexicanos) to fund their enterprises. Gangsters have siphoned more than $1 billion worth of oil from Mexico's pipelines over the past two years...

Meanwhile, a firefight between Los Zetas' gunmen and the Mexican military left five dead on July 27, when Los Zetas fought to retain control over a PEMEX well near Ciudad Mier, Tamaulipas. The petro theft constitutes a symbolic and a financial threat to the Mexican government while providing a vast stream of income, perhaps as much as $715 million a year, that gangsters use to buy weapons, bribe officials, and bankroll their brutal assault against the Mexican government.
The concluding paragraphs paint a grim picture for the Mexican state:
Los Zetas have spread from an original 31 mercenaries into a sizable private army and criminal enterprise. On the business side of the house, they specialize in drugs, human trafficking , small arms trafficking , extortion (street taxes), kidnapping (levantones), murder, petroleum theft, and CD/DVD piracy. Indeed, drug trafficking likely comprises less than half their criminal revenuegenerating portfolio. Their current allies include factions of the Beltrán-Leyva organization, the Juarez and Tijuana cartels, Bolivian drug clans, thirdgeneration (transnational street/prison) gangs, and the Italian 'Ndrangheta. They conduct raids and ambushes, and employ small unit infantry tactics supported by intelligence operations to engage in close quarters battle with state security forces. Assassinations of police and political figures, including mayors and candidates for state office, and threats against journalists and judicial officials, round Out their violent range of actions.

They employ these means to thwart competition from other gangs, to control economic spheres of influence, and increasingly to control territory to avoid interference from the government and determine who runs the state. In short, the Zetas are waging criminal insurgency against their competitors and state institutions. To do so, they increasingly employ threats (in March 2009 they threatened to kill Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom; in August 2010 they killed two Mexican mayors)... They have the tactical skills to produce insurgent-style, high-order street violence. They also pose a significant threat to state security forces. It remains to be seen if they can consolidate their reach and sustain their onslaught before meeting a more proficient rival (licit or illicit).
The Zetas have operated as a powerful catalyst for the violence which is currently ripping through Mexico. They served to destabilise not only the existing cartel structure, which had until then been relatively sedate, albeit powerful. They have also fought the state to a near standstill, operating as a non state military force in both the countries and many cities.

The real risk is that the Zetas continue to share their skillset with allied gangs, both in South America and into the United States. If the distribution gangs the Zetas do business with were adopt the high level sophistication which the Zetas demonstrate there is no fundamental reason for them to be any less successful.

The Mexican insurgency continues to grow over time, posing a threat not just to Mexico, but also its neighbours. It remains to be seen if the state can ever recover, and if neighbouring states, particularly the USA, can push back against violence.
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Illness and work

A quiet week this week, but I'll be back on form over the weekend. Illness and a significant amount of work have been getting on top of me. Stick with me, I've got at least two (somewhat) interesting pieces coming up.
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Thursday, 9 December 2010

Anonymous and Wikileaks

James at The Campaign War Room has written a piece on Anonymous and its involvement with Wikileaks in the wake of the widespead campaign to cut the organisation off, primarily from its financing. So far PayPal, Mastercard and Visa have taken steps to prevent further payments to Wikileaks. It appears that these companies have been under pressure from the US Government and in the case of Mastercard and Visa may have acted to protect their own interests, as the memos have revealed the extensive lobbying which the US Govt has done on their behalf in Russia.

In response Anonymous have gone on the warpath in support of Assange, and have gotten a great deal of media coverage along the way. The fact that Anonymous are going after major banks, and large corporations seems to have caught the media's interest.

Interestingly in this case Anonymous attacks through DDoS attacks have been largely ineffective. A few bank websites were taken down, but PayPal and Amazon were not affected.

Anonymous has gone after some hard targets before and done relatively well, but this was a whole other scale and its been interesting to watch the reaction within the Anonymous community. Here's a quote from a poster which emerged a couple of days ago:
We have at best given them a black eye. The game has changed. When the game changes, so too much our strategies.
Instead its suggested that Anonymous members sit down with the cables as they become avaliable and start digging information out of them, focussing on whats relevant to their local area, and posting it through any avaliable means online.

The shift in strategic focus is pretty smart. Wikileaks is likely to remain headline news for quite some time to come, and by providing additional analysis will almost certainly yeild insights which would not otherwise reach the mainstream. This tactic was pretty successful when it came to Scientology, and exposed the inner workings of ACS Law.

In essence I believe the role of Anonymous will be relatively limited beyond providing a resiliance to the distribution of the memos in preperation for their final full release. I've just taken a look at a couple of websites which are distributing the encrypted files and there are thousands of people who are downloading, or have downloaded the memos. Anonymous is promoting this resiliance by highlighting the opportunity people have to download the material and distribute it to others.

Of all the analysis I've seen so far on the Anonymous attacks I've most enjoyed this piece (hat tip to Techdirt) which asks the question of whether these activities are really the modern high tech equivalent of a sit in. Evgeny Morozov has this to say:
Launching DDoS should not be treated as a crime by default; we have to think about the particular circumstances in which such attacks are launched and their targets. I like to think of DDoS as equivalents of sit-ins: both aim at briefly disrupting a service or an institution in order to make a point. As long as we don't criminalize all sit-ins, I don't think we should aim at criminalizing all DDoS.
Its a fair point, since the Anonymous attacks were against websites, not against the underlying infrastructure which allows card payments to be made, so really it wasnt going do much more than annoy a few people who wanted to access these sites. Ultimately thats the point of a sit-in, its to inconvenience people and create a small irritation for the organisation targetted. Considering that students across the nation have been running sit ins for weeks, and UKUncut have targetted TopShop and other companies for similar activities, should we consider webspace differently?

The future of protest will incorporate a digital component, thats simply the world we live in. However we've continuously seen the Government and policy wildly overreact to the digital world. People have been jailed for threatening to 'blow up' airports on twitter, so its hard to imagine how the police would deal with an entity like Anonymous. I can only imagine they'll claim it requires sweeping new powers, as these things always do.

Online protest is a component of modern protest, not a seperate entity. Over time the two movements will be drawn togeather more and more, with each section taking on its own unique roles. UKUncut could, for example, organise for its membership to download and use an equivalent program of Anonymous's Low Orbit Ion Cannon to take down the websites of Top Shop or Vodafone. In many ways I'm surprised they havent already, it'd be a lot more impactful on those companies to lose a days worth of revenue from their websites.

The online protest movement remains nascient, and its hard to tell what its future holds, however we can make some assumptions which seem inevitable. Sophistication will grow and the barriers to entry will become lower.
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Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Terrorism as a brand

There is an interesting interview with science fiction author William Gibson on Vulture. He's got some views on terrorism which I thought were worth sharing:
You also wrote in Zero History that terrorism is “almost exclusively about branding but only slightly less so about the psychology of lotteries.” How so?
If you’re a terrorist (or a national hero, depending on who’s looking at you), there are relatively few of you and relatively a lot of the big guys you’re up against. Terrorism is about branding because a brand is most of what you have as a terrorist. Terrorists have virtually no resources. I don’t even like using the word terrorism. It’s not an accurate descriptor of what’s going on.

What do you think is going on?

Asymmetric warfare, when you’ve got a little guy and a big guy. [There are] a lot of strategies that the little guy uses to go after the big guy, and a lot of them are branding strategies. The little guy needs a brand because that’s basically all he’s got. He’s got very little manpower, very little money compared to the big guy. The big guy’s got a ton of manpower and a ton of money. So this small coterie of plotters decides to go after a nation-state. If they don’t have a strong brand, nothing’s going to happen. From the first atrocity on, the little guy is building his brand. And that’s why somebody phones in after every bomb and says, “It was us, the Situationist Liberation Army. We blew up that mall.” That’s branding...

Did terrorism find the right time to shine because it’s so easy to disseminate your international brand?
Everything about the world we live in today furthers dissemination of brands or any other sort of information. It’s a rich time. Forget terrorism, it’s the age of branding. I’m becoming increasingly unwilling to call it terrorism. It plays into a particularly ignorant sort of rhetoric that is very widespread. If the terrorist can get you to think about what he’s doing as terrorism, you’re already in his win position.
The asymmetry of fighting against terrorists is just as applicable to the asymmetry of recognition. Al'qaeda and other terrorist organisations are often discussed in the same context as major national militaries, as if in reality they are the same size.

Over at BoingBoing Professor Mike Brown makes a good, and related point, about the attachment of people to Pluto as a planet. He theorises that because images of Pluto almost universally misrepresent the actual size of Pluto, causing people to think its about the same size as Earth or Mars.

Percieved power is power, the more widely you can disseminate your brand the more effective it will be. Its true for businesses and its true for terrorists.
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Monday, 6 December 2010

Finding the important in the complex

ZenPundit has a short piece up today on complexity, featuring an excellent TED video which I think is worth taking a look at:



TED is a phenomenal resource if you like finding the novel ways in which people take extremely complex topics and translate them for an audience of people who usually have no knowledge of the subject matter.

Here's Zen's take on the type of complexity found in needlessly complicated documents, (notibly this infamous slide):
Excessively complex representations, much less the bureaucratic systems in practice, are poor vehicles for efficient communication of strategic conceptualizations to the uninformed - such as those downstream who must labor to execute such designs. Or those targeted by them for help or harm. In addition to the difficulty in ascertaining prioritization, the unnaturally rigid complexity of the bureaucracy generally prevents an efficient focus of the system’s resources and latent power. The system gets in it’s own way while eating ever growing amounts of resources to produce less and less, leading to paralysis and collapse.
Not much I can add to that, apart from an "Amen"
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Dealing with journalists - An alternative approach

Before anything else, watch this little YouTube video kindly send to me by one of my colleagues a little while ago.



This is a pretty standard journalist trap, made somewhat more creative and entertaining by the supporting character, The Cookie. The politician in this case is Stephen Duckett who, I have learned through my extensive research on Wikipedia, is an Australian economist and health services manager.

The video is undeniably funny, as Duckett tries to evade the journalists questions by cunningly eating a cookie at the slowest rate a man has ever consumed a snack food. He even goes so far as to try and engage the journalist in conversation about how darn good the cookie is.

So is he an idiot? The video certainly suggests he is, but I think there's something very smart going on here, under a veneer of sillyness.

Usually the Bad Person being assulted by the media would charge out barking "no comment" into every microphone within reach. This will lead to a comment in the paper the next daying "Bad Man refuses to comment on Bad Thing". On the other hand, no editor is going to sign off on a story that says "Bad Man ate cookie", because that seems a bit weak all in all.

The press needs a quote, it always needs a quote, and therin lies the strength of the Bad Man. If you can stay clear of saying something incriminating, if you can seem cool and in control (its hard to look guilty whilst eating lunch) then you get to walk free and clear whilst the media tries to put a spin on the nothing that you said.

Of course its a balancing act, stay too far out of the media's gaze and you're 'mysterious', 'aloof' or 'elusive'. The appearence of hiding is toxic, you have to step out and into the blow sometimes and ideally roll with it.

Anyway, this little video amused me, and its a good case study on how to deal with the media in the heat of the moment.
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Sunday, 5 December 2010

Book Review: Senator's Son

Three things happen when I get into a grind at work, I read a lot less, I focus on any one particular book less (I've got about 4 sitting partially read on my shelf) and the quality of what I read diminishes rapidly. So it was a pleasure to have a week off and actually get to some reading done. The one book which stood out was Senator's Son by Luke Larson, having read ZenPundit's review of it some time back its been on my shelf (the imaginary shelf in my Kindle) for quite a while and I finally got to it.

Senator's Son is one of the very few books which I've read that actually contains some real military thought. Ender's Game is one of the others. Written from the perspective of a group of soliders operating in Ramadi and although fictional is based on the experience of the author and soldiers, particularly Marines, who he knows and has worked with.

Its a difficult book to read, ultimately it paints an uncomfortable tale of the early days of US involvement in Iraq, unable to really get to grips with the insurgency. The reaction of the Marines is to fall back on fighting tactics which don't apply to the environment. This is neatly summed up by one of my favourite John Boyd quotes:
When I was a young officer I was taught if you have air superiority, land superiority and sea superiority, you win. Well in Vietnam we had air superiority, land superiority and sea superiority, but we lost. So I realised there was something more to it
As the Marines struggle to initially recognise, and then adapt their behaviour to, what Boyd realised in Vietnam, the story progresses. The key realisation they have is that the war in Iraq is not a war about shooting people, its a war about people and winning their support. Over time they adopt new and novel ways to do this, honing their understanding of how Iraqi's do business and building lasting structures to help them.

The book also deals with the difficulties of men on the ground who have to operate within the restrictive strictures of organisations which are very distant from their reality. At various points military commanders force them to undertake unnecessary risks in order to please his whims, and the Marines are faced with the loss of funding after a Government department seeks to take control of local reconstruction projects, again putting lives at risk.

Strangely, almost perversely, this book makes the case for the military as a nation building organisation, if properly organised and motivated. In the book the Marines are a self organising organisation, they stumble their way towards understanding and over time achieve it and use it to bring safety and security, which is ultimately to their own benefit, as well as for the people of Ramaldi.

The word which best sums up this book to me is 'believable'. The characters truly operate in the way people would in these highly stressful, challenging conditions. Most of them struggle deeply to go beyond their training, feeling that it puts their lives at risk and isnt their job. They are a parable of the fundamental flaws in both British and American operations overseas.

This book is a real achievement, taking a difficult and dry topic and translating it into a real story, which intrigues and fascinates at every step. The historical narrative remains intact, and the impact of key players on those on the ground, something which deepens the story.

This is an elegant and well written book which perfectly encapsulates the many issues which confront us as we move still further into the world of irregular warfare. As the US gears up to enter Yemen, and the Afghanistan conflict shows no real signs of drawing to a close, it'll be increasingly important to understand that we're not trying to kill enemies, we're trying to change minds.
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Saturday, 4 December 2010

A real reaction to Wikileaks

Hat tip to Techdirt for highlighting the response which should have been taken from day one with the Wikileaks material. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' response is measured, calm, and actually looks at the reality of the situation, rather than resorting to wild overreaction and panic:
Let me just offer some perspective as somebody who’s been at this a long time. Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time. And I dragged this up the other day when I was looking at some of these prospective releases. And this is a quote from John Adams: “How can a government go on, publishing all of their negotiations with foreign nations, I know not. To me, it appears as dangerous and pernicious as it is novel.” . . .

Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think – I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets.

Many governments – some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation. So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another. Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.

The whole way this is framed is elegant, subtle and in three paragraphs sums up the entire issue in terms which are useful and persuasive.

Small Wars Journal have the full text of the Q&A session here, and its worth taking a look at as it contains a breakdown of the response the military will be taking to ensure it doesnt happen again:
First, the – an automated capability to monitor workstations for security purposes. We’ve got about 60 percent of this done, mostly in – mostly stateside. And I’ve directed that we accelerate the completion of it.

Second, as I think you know, we’ve taken steps in CENTCOM in September and now everywhere to direct that all CD and DVD write capability off the network be disabled. We have – we have done some other things in terms of two-man policies – wherever you can move information from a classified system to an unclassified system, to have a two-person policy there.

And then we have some longer-term efforts under way in which we can – and, first of all, in which we can identify anomalies, sort of like credit card companies do in the use of computer; and then finally, efforts to actually tailor access depending on roles. But let me say – let me address the latter part of your question. This is obviously a massive dump of information.

Gates is the first Governmental figure I've seen speak on this issue without coming across as shrill and his answers are a confident, no nonesense approach to the issue.

This is how the Government should have been talking about the issue from day one. This section bears repeating to drum the point home:

Many governments – some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation. So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another. Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.

Thats how you communicate in a crisis. You set the good with the bad, you make a real assessment of the problem and you make your opinion public. You stick by it rigidly, you maintain your confidence in it, and you ride out the storm. You're not ashamed, you don't cower, you own it and tell people to get on board.

Congratulations SECDEF Gates, your comments deserve to be in every newspaper on the planet.
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Friday, 3 December 2010

Take a moral position

There have been a few good posts lately on morality and its importance in both Government and politics. Hat tip to both John Robb and ZenPundit for these articles. Its been on my mind for a while to write something from my perspective as a communications consultant on the importance of a moral position to the perception of brands and individuals.

Its fair to say that it is far easier to be disliked than liked, and its not hard to be reviled. The bigger the brand, the more chance there is that scrutiny will dig up nasty details that will cause people to dislike you. Plenty of major brands suffer from this to one extent or another. Tesco is a good example, McDonalds is another. Microsoft struggled for a long time, and Apple is (in my opinion) just starting onto what will be a long slow decline.

There are a group of companies that are hated for reasons which are (relatively speaking) beyond their control. BP is probably the best current example. Ultimately the recent troubles they've had were a statistical possibility no matter what they did, and sooner or later, some sort of oil related disaster was going to happen.

For the majority of companies however, it is concious actions that lead to poor reputation, aided by a generally negative culture which, particularly in the UK, is suspicious of success.

The response by most companies is to undertake a vigerous CSR program, you can look at more or less any major company and find a bit of their website dedicated to the trees they plant, the things they recycle and the schools they give books to. Sadly, this has become so ubiquitous that it doesnt serve to garner a great deal of respect in the main.

The problem is that most companies have confused what it is that makes them unpopular, its not the activity they undertake on the outskirts of their business, its what resides at the very core that causes people to dislike them. Most people are able to take a nuanced enough view to understand the difference between CSR and activities which could be summed up as greenwashing.

Fundamentally, I believe, people are able to recognise what it is to be ethical, and ascribe companies instinctively with a moral value. You can't act evil on a day to day basis, then put out a press release about how you're planting trees in order to save the environment and expect people to treat you any differently.

Innocent smoothies were doing a great job, their brand was about as strong in the public eyes as is possible. But when they aligned themselves with Coca-cola they took a big hit in public perceptions. Due to the negative perceptions surrounding Coke were such that merely being associated with it was framed as a betrayal of Innocent's core values of healthy drinks.

In order to change perception you have to alter behaviour at the core level and adopt a positive moral stance. Consider Google, a company which generates almost universally positive opinion, despite being basically a monopoly and terrifying powerful. They get endless favourable press and widespread coverage of much of their anciliary activity. Even when they do something daft, like attack network neutrality, they somehow get away with it.

Google have avoided the appearence of greed, by investing widely in a range of programs like the self driving cars, they look like a technology company which is looking to provide things people want for the future. They've focussed their attention on relevant positive areas, which people are interested in and excited by. Its hard to argue that building a self driving car is anything other than a good thing.

The Conservatives had to undertake an extremely tough rebranding exercise when David Cameron took over the party. He revamped the Party aggressively around a positive new agenda, with the environment a major part of it. This was highly counter intuitive and was met with scorn initially, but by sticking consistently to the message and demonstrating a commitment to it, it grew in credibility over time.

When the expenses scandal hit Cameron went out and asserted a moral stance. Those who had exploited the system were simply wrong, and deserved to be punished. He didnt shy away from this and his attitude matched public sentiment perfectly. He also undertook measures early on to punish those who had clearly misbehaved. Although these measures were hardly earth shattering, they were significantly more than any other Party did, and the public responded well to his responsible attitude.

Coming into the election the Conservatives were seen as the Party with positive answers for the country, compared to Labour, who were percieved to have taken a negative, opportunistic aspect. The public is almost always turned off by aggression and negativity and I believe this key difference, between a moral positive stance, and a negative opportunistic one, played a major part in the election

Building this approach can be difficult, particularly for companies which have an extremely negative perception currently. It can take years, as it did with BP, and can be shattered in minutes, as it was with BP. It has to be consistent, relevant and something which people within the organisation are going to invest in.

The public finds its hard to trust, and will never give their trust easily. You've got to be willing to invest years, and actually believe in what you're trying to achieve if you expect the public to do the same. Money isnt enough to take you there, money will often trip you up.

Morality has a key part to play in changing attitudes towards brands and companies, if only because a strong moral stance is so damn unexpected.
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Thursday, 2 December 2010

Crisis comms, rarely done right

Crisis communications is one of the few parts of the communications industry that gets any exposure in popular culture. The way its portrayed is usually as follows:

1) Crisis breaks out
2) Consultants are hired
3) Shouting happens
4) Crisis resolved

Of course this does happen occasionally and I would fully recommend Damage Control by Eric Dezenhall if you want to gain insight into how full blown crises are dealt with. James at The Campaign War Room sums the book up thusly:
A brilliant summary of how to run effective crisis communications operations for businesses. Unlike the vast majority of consultants, who tend to advise clients to keep their heads down in a crisis or to use CSR programmes to inoculate themselves against attacks from NGOs, Dezenhall recommends clients fight back aggressively wherever they can, through a mix of communications, legal challenges, opposition research, and other non-communications solutions. While it provides fewer case studies than his earlier book Nail 'Em, and is therefore slightly more abstract, it is a much better book. It is a must-read for anyone in corporate communications but political campaigners will find useful lessons too.
The book also accepts, but does not focus on, the simple fact that most crises can usually be prevented at a far earlier stage with careful planning.

As a consult it therefore fascinates me that you can tell an organisation when a crisis will occur, what the topic will be, and approximately how bad it will be, and they can still fail dramatically to come up with any convincing response to it.

As I alluded to yesterday, the recent Wikileaks material is a perfect example of where a goodly amount of the preparatory work could have been done to mitigate at least the public impact. I'm not in a position to comment on the diplomatic impact, and I imagine that would have been harder to deal with.

However, if you know roughly the date you're going to have a problem, roughly what'll cause that problem and yet respond with a mix of panic, anger and full blown confusion.

Here are some steps which might have been considered in order to push back on the impact of the Wikileaks revelatons, not just this time, but also during the releases on Iraq:

Good communications: The narrative that these releases 'threatens national security' was never going to work. For one, people won't believe it until they've seen the material, and once they've seen the material your national security, if it is threatened, goes out the window. More effective would have been to try and soften the impact by taking the most important step, getting there first.

Getting out ahead of the issue: If you know what your opponent is going to be saying before they say it, you've got the opportunity to actually release what they have in your own time and with your own narrative surrounding it. In this case, there wasnt complete clarity on what Wikileaks actually had, but I'm willing to bet that someone had a reasonably good idea. I can't believe that Bradley Manning could stick a USB stick into a computer and download tens of thousands of documents without there being some sort of record being kept. I would have suggested getting out as much 'safe' material as possible and let the media deal with it as they will. It'll be embarressing, but it might actually mean that when you claim the material you havent given the media is due to its impact on national security, you might have some credibility, as you'll be seen to have gone part way.

Opposition research: Julien Assenge is not the great white hope of liberal democracies, nor is he a saint, bestriding the land and handing out raw justice. He has a well established agenda and is almost a caricature of himself, talking about how he will change the world with Wikileaks. Playing up to him, treating him as if he's a collosal threat to American democracy is silly, and makes it look like a collosal overreaction. Place him in his proper context when discussing him and his work publically, a man who has gotten lucky with some interesting releases a couple of times, who doesnt like American foreign policy, but who ultimately is not going to shift the way America works and behaves in the world.

However, there are some things which realistically wouldnt work:

Legal challenges: Wikileaks exists in the gray area of webspace where no one has really achieved anything with legal action. Arresting him will give him greater credibility and allow him a collosal stage from which to continue his work. It also won't shut down his organisation, which is somewhat larger than one man. Going after him legally will just make you look impotent when it fails to work. Ranting about bringing him to justice like Osama Bin Laden also reminds people that you didnt catch him either.

Direct action: Attacking Wikileaks web infrastructure through DDoS attacks or pressuring Amazon to stop hosting their site is also a pointless exercise. The information is being distributed through a network, its avaliable through websites, on torrents, via direct download, its everywhere. Stopping it at the source is like trying to plug a hole in a dam, ultimately, its going to come down and you're going to get wet.

Good crisis comms comes down to having a good story you can be confident in, which presents your side of the issue without overplaying it or giving your opponent ammunition. Panic is unacceptable and counterproductive. Anger just comes across at frustration and inability to come up with a real solution. Where possible, cut your opponent off at the knees by getting out there first in outlets who are likely to give you a favourable hearing.

Be first, be right, be consistant.

Speed kills, skill helps.
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Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The upside of the latest Wikileaks

There is a great article on The Economist about the positives of the Wikileaks material which has been floating around the last couple of days. The best part is a quote from Shane Scott, the New York Times national security reporter who has this to say:
American taxpayers, American citizens pay for all these diplomatic operations overseas and you know, it is not a bad thing when Americans actually have a better understanding of those negotiations.

Perhaps if we had had more information on these secret internal deliberations of governments prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we would have had a better understanding of the quality of the evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
The article hinges on the central point that by forcing material which has traditionally been the elite preserve of the civil service into the public domain it might actually promote more legitimate mechanisms of public oversight. They argue that this is essential for a true liberal democracy:
Organisations such as WikiLeaks, which are philosophically opposed to state secrecy and which operate as much as is possible outside the global nation-state system, may be the best we can hope for in the way of promoting the climate of transparency and accountability necessary for authentically liberal democracy.
I think this is a wholly fair point. A lot of the bile and vitriol smacks of a civil service which is upset that their apple cart has been disrupted and they feel that this is somehow unfair. Fundamentally it appears that the 'service' part of the civil service has been forgotten. Another part of the article speaks thusly:
I think it's important to distinguish between the government—the temporary, elected authors of national policy—and the state—the permanent bureaucratic and military apparatus superficially but not fully controlled by the reigning government. The careerists scattered about the world in America's intelligence agencies, military, and consular offices largely operate behind a veil of secrecy executing policy which is itself largely secret. American citizens mostly have no idea what they are doing, or whether what they are doing is working out well. The actually-existing structure and strategy of the American empire remains a near-total mystery to those who foot the bill and whose children fight its wars. And that is the way the elite of America's unelected permanent state, perhaps the most powerful class of people on Earth, like it.
Institutions, including embassies, exist as part of a service provided by the perminant institutions of Government on behalf of citizens and thus should submit to a certain amount of public scrutiny.

Obviously its important that certain institutions can maintain a veil of secrecy, otherwise intelligence agencies couldnt operate for example, however there has to be a line. Even the CIA is a civil service institution, not a private sector company which can operate entirely in secret.

Here's the sort of thing which, if a normal human being said it, would just be embarresing, snobbish crap:

On all four occasions the Ambassador has eaten at one of his houses, the menu has been similar and focused on beshparmak [boiled meat and noodles] and plov. The wait staff appeared to be graduates of a Soviet cafeteria training academy.

The wine, at least, was somewhat upscale with reasonably good French vintage bottles uncorked for the guests. The Astana residence has wooden plaques on the doors that would fit in nicely in a Wyoming hunting lodge but are somewhat out of touch with the upscale 'Euro-remont' that is so popular among the Kazakhstani elite.

Somehow, because a diplomat is saying it however, it becomes a state secret. If you would be embarressed by your opinion of the wine Alexander Mashkevich serves at dinner becoming public, don't write it down and put it on a database that tens of thousands of people have access to.

Normal human beings arent allowed to stamp something with 'secret' and thus protect our nasty little opinions from wider consumption. If I write something on this blog, its been said, and it will remain on the record. Even if I chose to go back and delete it later (which I've only done once), its still there on Google cache for god knows how long, if I say it, I have to live with the consequences.

Theres an argument to be made here that if paid civil servants are ashamed that they've been caught out saying things which are rude, tawdry and downright silly, they should probably not have said them, or at least kept it verbal.

I'm in full agreement with The Economist (weirdly, no journalist name on the article that I can see) on this one. There needs to be a recognition of the fact that part of the public interest and outcry on this is because US taxpayer money is being spent by the bucketload so diplomats can whine about the fact the wine isnt good enough quality.

If theres an argument to be made that this activity is important, then make that argument. You can't go around saying you want to execute the guy who leaked the material, that just makes you look weak and impotent.

Theres a real case here to take a step back, apologise for the dumb stuff, and try to rebuild trust by opening up to the public and making it clearer what embassies do and why their work is an important service to the citizen.

Thats what a civil service is for, and thats what it should be doing, not trying to defend its right to say stupid things via a glorified email system.

Fundamentally, Assange is more trusted than Governments, more trusted than the civil service, because he is giving people what they believe is truth. Its hard to fight that. The tens of thousands of documents paint a picture of an organisation which is bloated with its own self importance. Trying to attach Assange is only going to drive trust in him and his organisation higher, and ruin the credibility of those with vested interests who are doing their level best to destroy him.

Stop acting offended, and take some steps to rebuild trust. That way, when he releases whatever is next on his list, the public might be willing to actually listen to your counter argument, and you might not have to fight so hard.

Never forget crisis comms is about what you do before the crisis, not what you do after.
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Wikileaks, a symptom, not a disease

As it stands the latest round of Wikileaks material (link down, possibly due to DDoS attack at the time of writing) it seems to me that there are likely two primary consequences:

1) Public: People are likely to realise that the rarified atmosphere of diplomacy is not actually about handing out ferrero rocher, but is pretty much the same back biting, nastiness and drama which everyone experiences in the workplace on a daily basis. Albeit most of us arent exposed to billion dollar budgets, nor do we have the power to approve drone strikes (even when we really think we should). In this country certainly I doubt that'll come as much of a surprise to anyone. We've already had our faith in politics pretty much comprehensively shattered by last year's scandals around MP's expenses. The long term impact will be pretty minimal, but will cause a shift in general opinion in the short term certainly.

2) Private/diplomatic: The public won't be exposed to a great deal of this, and its uncertain how much damage control the US was able to do before the leak, but revelations about China's view on Korean Unification, or Saudi backing for bombing Iran, will have long lasting impact on relations between states. Rob Dover over at KoW sums it up thusly:
A former colleague of mine at Bristol was asked about the impact of 9/11 on the international system: he said it would take 30years to know. I don’t think we need to wait that long, but we will need to observe a little bit of soak time.
I have to say I agree, I think over the next few months we'll see some interesting moves in the diplomatic sphere. It'll be interesting to see how North Korea treat the one ally they have left when their honest support is now in doubt.

Robert Haddick
over at Small Wars Journal makes some good points here, both about how we've ended up in this situation and the possible responses which might have to be undertaken:
The Wikileaks scandal reinforces what should be an instinct to be circumspect with anything transmitted in digital form. No doubt a battalion or more of counterintelligence specialists warned Defense Department network administrators about the security risks presented by the post 9/11 data-sharing arrangements. To apparently no avail – it seemed ridiculously simple for PFC Manning to extract (allegedly) hundreds of thousands of classified files. With the horse out of the barn and galloping into the next county, the Pentagon is only now tightening its computer security procedures. But there are still those million who have Secret access; the new security procedures are not likely to ward off a few trained and determined infiltrators...

We should expect “Balkanization” of digital communications, with those needing high security dropping out of the existing system and setting up their own. The Defense Department’s SIPRNet has been an inadequate attempt at this answer, as the Wikileaks affair has revealed. DARPA (ironically the original inventor of the internet) now recommends that the Defense Department establish its own network hardware and software, a system that would emphasize security and would presumably be incompatible with the existing internet.

Users who need high security but who can’t afford their own custom network would be wise to revert to the pre-Internet age of the courier, the telephone, and for the most sensitive of thoughts, the face-to-face meeting. This should not be much of an adjustment for those possessing either suspicious minds or experience.

Of course private networks are not new, ironically the internet evolved from an attempt to create a redundant, secure method of communciations, primarily in response to military need. Civilian style darknets are also an option if you need a secure network which only a few hundred people need access to.

The problem fundamentally is that if you want data hundreds of thousands of people can access, you can't make it secure. Even if you took it over to a new network there would need to be common protocols so that different terminals could access it across the world, and sooner or later, someone is going to write a document in Microsoft Word and then its game over. Some bastard with a USB stick is still going to be able to screw you over.

Movie piracy is a good model to look at. Avatar, one of the most hotly anticipated films of the last year leaked after promotional copies of the screener were sent out for the Academy Awards. Its a simple supply/demand equation, albeit with no prices. Someone has a product that lots of people want (movie screener/secret government data), it costs them nothing but time to steal it, and they get the vicarious pleasure of sharing it with thousands, or tens of thousands of people. They even get to be in the media if what they share is big enough.

Putting people like Julian Assange in jail, as advocated by Sarah Palin, also won't work. As proven by the dramatic failure of prosecuting filesharers in preventing the sharing of illegal copies of pretty much everything. This is the issue with dealing with distributed networks, you shut down one node (which is a cruel way of describing Assange and Wikileaks) and other nodes will simply emerge.

As always when dealing with networked systems the trick will be to make things substantially more difficult whilst also accepting that 100% security simply isnt possible. Things will leak, you just have to take every reasonable step to ensure its as inconvenient as possible. Allowing people to download thousands of documents in one hit is a bit of a disaster waiting to happen, so fixing that might be a good start.

As always when cats are out of bags, there will be a collosal overreaction, so I'll leave you with the wise words of Bill Kristol, proving that he believes sage debate is the way forward:
Why can't we act forcefully against WikiLeaks? Why can't we use our various assets to harass, snatch or neutralize Julian Assange and his collaborators, wherever they are? Why can't we disrupt and destroy WikiLeaks in both cyberspace and physical space, to the extent possible? Why can't we warn others of repercussions from assisting this criminal enterprise hostile to the United States?
Just an FYI on this, "extent possible" is the same "not at all" in this context.
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Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The modern newsroom

Apologies if this is a little disjointed, I'm writing the majority of this on a coach with very sporadic internet connection:

Hat tip to Mountainrunner for this fascinating post at the Knight Digital Media Centre entitled Three signs your newsroom is not ready to cross the digital divide. Here are the three signs, along with their respective fixes:
1. The staff still reports to an assignment desk that is focused on print and/or is organized in departments that correspond to the sections of a newspaper. This inevitably means that newsgathering for print gets more time than the news organization can afford and print production demands drive the daily reporting and editing assembly line. The fix: Newsgathering staff reports to the online assignment desk. Print becomes a production team that draws heavily on the online report for content at the end of the day.

2. News meetings focus on top news for the next day’s paper and meeting times reflect print. If your frontline editors are focused on daily meetings that happen in the middle of the morning and late afternoon, you’ve got a big problem. If you’re spending more than one-fifth of the meeting time talking about the next day’s newspaper, you’ve got an even bigger problem. The fix: Meetings run by online editors at times that reflect digital publication timetables (like when to serve peak traffic) and focus primarily on online content, traffic and engagement metrics.

3. The top newsroom executives - say the Editor and Managing Editor(s) - are all print veterans who look at online from the outside. The fix: Either the top newsroom executive or the Number 2 has been steeped heavily in online - both the practical and the strategic - for at least five years, if not 10. That’s a tall order. But if you think an editor or managing editor has time for much of a learning curve about digital, that time is gone.
I always like it when a piece I read summarises a set of points that have been on my mind better than I've been able to personally. I've got to the strange point in my life where people occasionally ask me for career advice and one of the careers I've taken pains to discourage them from is journalism, not because I think journalism is a bad thing, but because I think anyone going into the field is going to spend the next decade waiting for the industry to figure out what the heck it is doing.

Here is, in my opinion, the most important line of the piece:
If you think an editor or managing editor has time for much of a learning curve about digital, that time is gone.
Therein lies the key problem for newspapers in particular. The key people live and breathe print. Even the Guardian, which has done very well at addressing the new technology and incorporating it into their brand, has not gone as far as purely online organisations like The Huffington Post, in creating a sense of community around their reporting.

The economics of paywalls are still in the air, although it seems pretty clear that the Murdoch empire is really struggling to put a brave face on their attempts to create exclusivity. Fundamentally it seems unlikely that The Times experiment has been a success, which is to the benefit of pretty much every other paper, since it saves them trying it out themselves.

There is a great internet meme which fits the mindset which seems to have pervaded most old media, derived from a South Park episode parodying capitalism. In this episode gnomes steal underpants and devise a foolproof plan to turn the stolen garments into profit. They summarise it on this slide:
















Some news outlets seem to have adopted a similar strategy summed up thusly:

1) Produce interesting content
2) Charge more than competitors for a product which isnt qualitatively better
3) ????
4) PROFIT!

Right now the leading amalgamation of new and old media, The Huffington Post, is doing its level best to translate its 20+ million monthly visitors (of which I've very much one) into profit and even they can't yet say if its worked.

We're in an interesting position where bloggers are the ones generating massive audiences, but journalists are the ones with the credibility, where Guido Fawkes breaks stories that the main papers can't get ahold of, and where Wikileaks gets to decide what some of the world's biggest papers are going to talk about.

Its a funny old world.
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Saturday, 27 November 2010

Proposals afoot to shut down UK based free speech on the internet

Hat tip to Guido Fawkes for this one, probably one of the most sinister things I've read in quite some time. From Order Order:
Nominet – the quasi-private entity which controls the .uk part of the internet - plans to allow the police to take down any website without recourse to the Courts. This is at the request of the Serious Organised Crime Agency.
He goes on to make a good point, that free societies don't allow police to judge right and wrong, thats what the courts are for. It means they dont have a vested interest in going after things which annoy them, like being criticised on the internet.

This sort of move is exactly the kind of bone headed idiocy which only a public body could undertake. Its an assault on free speech, and it won't work, and it has the added advantage of making the Serious Organised Crime Agency look like a bunch of squealing children who don't like it that the internet is mean about them.

Lets just say it for the record, this move won't make you safer, it won't stop bad people doing bad things, it won't get child porn off the internet or limit piracy. The only purpose it can possibly serve is to take down a limited number of targetted websites, like Fitwatch, who piss the police off.

So yes, slow handclap SOCA, once again you've made yourself look like a bunch of petty, stupid children who care more about your own power than the good of the society you serve.
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Friday, 26 November 2010

D-notice issued over Wikileaks

Its being confirmed at the moment that there has been a media D-notice issued over the upcoming release of Wikileaks diplomatic cables. This is of course an attempt to limit the damage these releases are going to do. The projected damage to international relations is unpredictable, but most people seem to think it'll be pretty severe, if not disasterous. Since no one knows what the heck Wikileaks actually has for sure, its hard to predict.

D-notices are of course bloody stupid in the modern world, since all they do is attempt to stop mainstream news outlets reporting on a story. The problem is that there are tens of thousands of outlets who are not affected by D-notices, including yours truly. In the final analysis I may well not write anything on it because A) I doubt I'll read any of the material first hand and B) Far far more significant minds than mine will do far better pieces on it.

All a d-notice will serve to do is limit the exposure those least interested in current affairs have. So you'll be stopping people who don't care, reading about something they arent interested in, and probably don't understand. What a staggering victory that will be.

Also, theres a good chance that at least some of the main media outlets will publish and be damned. There is no reason for them not to, a D-notice is a request, not an order, and if the material released is good enough, they'll go for it anyway.

The collosal power of Wikileaks will grow once more with this release, and there is still no sign anyone in any world Government has the first idea what to do.
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Thursday, 25 November 2010

Sky News, working hard to prove they're morons

UPDATE: Ian at Only Dreaming has written a far more amusing and cogent analysis of this which I thoroughly recommend you read. As its better than mine, it goes at the top.

Sky have a great story today, they're reporting that Stuxnet has been "bought", and might be used, by criminals or terrorists.

Yes, Sky News is reporting that a computer virus might be used by bad people.

My favourite quote is this:
A senior IT security source said: "We have hard evidence that the virus is in the hands of bad guys – we can't say any more than that but these people are highly motivated and highly skilled with a lot of money behind them.
Well yes, it is in the hands of bad guys, the people who wrote it in the first place. Its malicious code designed to do bad things. The people who wrote it are criminals just to start off with.

They also report as fact that it was used to target Iranian nuclear facilities, something wholly unproven. (A colleague of mine in the office just piped up with "Although the fact the Israeli Defence Minister giggles every time the virus is mentioned is a clue", tasteless, but undeniably amusing.)

The next brilliant quote is this:
Will Gilpin, an IT security consultant to the UK Government said: "You could shut down the police 999 system.

"You could shut down hospital systems and equipment.

"You could shut down power stations, you could shut down the transport network across the United Kingdom."

Well yes, we knew that, because it can in theory shut down a nuclear reprocessing facility. So saying that makes you a moron, not some sort of savant. Also, can it really do those things? Stuxnet in its current form targets one extremely specific operating system, produced for industrial processes.

I can't face writing a more detailed analysis of this article as A) I dont have time B) What would be the point? These idiots (And I'm looking specifically at the author Sam Kiley , who should know better), will keep putting this nonesense about.

Literally no part of this piece makes the journalists who reported this anything other than a complete moron in the eyes of anyone with the barest level of knowledge.

Well done Sky, as you charge boldly towards the absolute bottom of the barrel in your reporting.


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