Hacking the pandemic: how Taiwan’s digital democracy holds COVID-19 at bay


Kelsie Nabben, RMIT University

Taiwan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been among the world’s best. With a population almost the size of Australia’s, the island nation has reported only 496 confirmed cases of the disease and no locally acquired infections for months.

The unlikely heroes of Taiwan’s success are “civic tech hacktivists”: coders and activists who the country’s celebrity digital minister Audrey Tang describes as the “nobodies” who “hack democracy”.

What began with the hackers of the “open source, open government” movement g0v and student protesters has grown into an experiment in radical democracy that is yielding astonishing results.




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‘Fast, fair and fun’

While the notion of “digital democracy” is as old as the internet, few countries have really tried to find out how to practice democracy in digital spheres. In Taiwan, however, there is a strong collective narrative of digital democracy, and government and civil society work together in online spaces to build public trust.

The growth of civic hacking in Taiwan has its roots in the so-called Sunflower Movement, a stream of protests in 2014 against a trade agreement with China.

The pillars of Taiwan’s approach to digital democracy are “fast, fair and fun”.

Taiwan was among the first countries in the world to detect and respond to the virus, thanks to crowd-sourced, collective intelligence through online bulletin boards. Warnings of the virus were first noted in December 31 2019, when a senior health official spotted a heavily “up-voted” post on the PTT bulletin board.

Before long, civic tech hackers were working on open data projects for citizens to interact with live maps, distributed ledger technology and chat bots to find the nearest pharmacy to claim free masks, with stock levels updated in real time to stop panic buying. Audrey Tang dubbed this rapid, iterative, bottom-up process – as opposed to a top-down government-led distribution system – “reverse procurement”.

A “humour over rumour” strategy has also been very successful to combat misinformation, fake news and disinformation. Taiwan is engineering memes to spread public awareness of positive behaviours through the virality of social media algorithms.

Government departments are responsible for addressing disinformation by providing a “memetic” response according to the “2-2-2”: a response in 20 minutes, in 200 words or less, with 2 images.

Alongside dog memes and pink face masks, one of the most successful is a rapid response to halt runs on toilet paper. This featured a cartoon video of Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang shaking his backside with a caption saying “We only have one pair of buttocks”.

Meme of television presenters obvserving Premier Su Tseng-chang’s figure with the slogan ‘We only have one pair of buttocks’.

How hacktivists reached the halls of power

How has the mindset and culture of hacktivism been cultivated to motivate civic hackers to participate in Taiwan’s digital democracy?

First, a figurehead and a manifesto. Audrey Tang is the figurehead, and her manifesto On Utopia for Public Action espouses post-party politics, free speech and deliberation, all enabled through thoughtful and experimental application of digital infrastructure.

A screenshot of text reading 'When we see 'internet of things', let’s make it an internet of beings. When we see 'virtual reality', let’s make it a shared reality. When we see 'machine learning', let’s make it collaborative learning.'
Audrey Tang’s ‘prayer’ at the Open Source, Open Society 2016 conference.
YouTube

Second, a suite of smart digital tools enable discussion, survey and online “telepresence”. These include the vTaiwan and the Join platforms for public policy participation.




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Third, inviting participation, listening to community voices, and taking action as a result. Taiwan’s culture of civic participation follows the model of open source software communities. This means working from the bottom up, sharing information, improving on the work of others, mutual benefit and participatory collective action.

g0v.asia is a ‘decentralized civic tech community from Taiwan’.

Underlying these initiatives and digital infrastructures, is two-way trust. In the words of Yun Chen, a member of the “decentralized civic tech community” g0v:

The first key is trust … it was the trust that made government officers take open data as performance instead of troubles, which led government to initiate open data and be willing to accept tech assistance from civic tech communities.

Despite low overall trust in government and leadership in Taiwan, recent polling suggests 91% of citizens are satisfied with the Central Epidemic Command Centre. Tang has said “the government needs to fully trust the citizens”, and that this trust is reciprocated.

A small experiment

With all of this enthusiasm, I wanted to try participating in digital democracy myself. I had heard Tang quote some statistics on increased public trust in several interviews, but I couldn’t find the source. At the suggestion of my Taiwanese compatriot Chih Cheng Liang, I simply asked Tang for the source on Twitter.

Tang’s response was extremely impressive: in less than 5 minutes, she replied with a link to the relevant Taiwanese poll.

A radical experiment

In many countries, policy makers don’t fully understand the technical and governance dynamics of the digital realm. In Taiwan, we are seeing what can happen when they do: bringing “hacker” tools and methods into the institutions of government to increase public participation in democracy.

It’s a vast change. Digital infrastructures are inherently political, or spheres for political engagement. They emerge out of the interaction between technology and society, and are influenced and constrained by human agents.

Radical democracy is essentially radical. Tang also sits on the board of of American economist Glen Weyl’s Radical Xchange initiative, which aims at “uprooting capitalism and democracy for a just society”.

There is now talk of trying out the collective decision making system known as “quadratic voting”, and other experimental crowd-sourcing mechanisms that have surfaced from the Ethereum blockchain community.

Other countries are free to pick up both lessons and digital innovations from Taiwan’s innovations. Many tools and models have been made available on an open-source basis at Taiwancanhelp.us.

An image from g0v.tw illustrates the movement’s goal of radical democracy.




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The Conversation


Kelsie Nabben, Researcher / PhD Candidate, RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub / Digital Ethnography Research Centre, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Hong Kong activists now face a choice: stay silent, or flee the city. The world must give them a path to safety



Sipa USA Willie Siau / SOPA Images/Sipa U

Brendan Clift, University of Melbourne

In recent days, the prime ministers of the UK and Australia each declared they are working toward providing safe haven visas for Hong Kong residents. In the US, lawmakers passed a bill that would impose sanctions on businesses and individuals that support China’s efforts to restrict Hong Kong’s autonomy.

The prospect of a shift from rhetoric to action reveals just how dire the situation in China’s world city has become.

July 1 is usually associated with Hong Kong’s annual pro-democracy march. This year, it saw around 370 arrests as protesters clashed with police under the shadow of a brand new national security law.




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Hong Kong police have been cracking down hard on demonstrators for over a year – with Beijing’s blessing – and most of this week’s arrests were possible simply because police had banned the gathering.

But ten arrests were made under the national security law for conduct including the possession of banners advocating Hong Kong independence.

Already, a pro-democracy political party has disbanded and activists are fleeing the city.

What’s in the national security law and how it could be applied

The national security law had been unveiled just hours earlier, its details kept secret until this week. It was imposed on Hong Kong in unprecedented circumstances when Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Beijing’s appointed leader in the city, bypassed the local legislature and promulgated it directly.

The law creates four main offences: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security.

Hong Kong law already contains some offences of this sort, including treason, a disused colonial relic, and terrorism, tightly defined by statute. The new national security offences are different beasts – procedurally unique and alarmingly broad.

Secession, for example, includes the acts of inciting, assisting, supporting, planning, organising or participating in the separation or change of status of any part of China, not necessarily by force. This is calculated to prevent even the discussion of independence or self-determination for Hong Kong.

More than 300 people were detained at a protest this week and ten were arrested under the new law.
e: Sipa USA Willie Siau/SOPA Images/Sipa U

Collusion includes making requests of or receiving instructions from foreign countries, institutions or organisations to disrupt laws or policies in or impose sanctions against Hong Kong or China.

This is aimed at barring Hong Kongers from lobbying foreign governments or making representations at the United Nations, which many protesters have done in the past year.

The law contains severe penalties: for serious cases, between ten years and life imprisonment. It also overrides other Hong Kong laws. The presumption in favour of bail, for instance, will not apply in national security cases, facilitating indefinite detention of accused persons.

Defendants can be tried in Hong Kong courts, but in a major departure from the city’s long-cherished judicial independence, the chief executive will personally appoint the judges for national security cases.

The chief executive also decides if a trial involves state secrets – a concept defined very broadly in China. In these cases, open justice is abandoned and trials will take place behind closed doors with no jury.

A black Hong Kong flag burning last month during an anti-government demonstration.
Viola Kam/SOPA Images/Sipa USA

While Hong Kong courts can apply the new national security law, the power to interpret it lies with Beijing alone. And in the most serious cases, mainland Chinese courts can assume jurisdiction.

This raises the prospect of political prisoners being swallowed up by China’s legal system, which features no presumption of innocence and nominal human rights guarantees. China also leads the world in executions.

Much of the national security law’s content contradicts fundamental principles of Hong Kong’s common law legal system and the terms of its mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

Even the territory’s justice minister – another unelected political appointee – has admitted the systems are incompatible.




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Why it is deliberately vague

In the typical style of mainland Chinese laws, the national security law is drafted in vague and general terms. This is designed to give maximum flexibility to law enforcement and prosecutors, while provoking maximum fear and compliance among the population.

The government has said calls for independence for Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang and even Taiwan are now illegal, as is the popular protest slogan “liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times”.

Posting Hong Kong independence stickers can now lead to severe punishments.
Sipa USA Willie Siau / SOPA Images/Sipa U

A Beijing spokesman has said the charge of collusion to “provoke hatred” against the Hong Kong government could be used against people who spread rumours that police beat protesters to death in a notorious subway station clash last year, echoing the infamous mainland Chinese law against “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.

The law does not appear to be retroactive, but fears that it could be interpreted that way have caused a flurry of online activity as people have deleted social media accounts and posts associating them with past protests.

This is unsurprising given the Hong Kong government’s record of trawling through old social media posts for reasons to bar non-establishment candidates from standing at elections.

Dissent in any form becomes extremely hazardous

Despite the promise of autonomy for Hong Kong, enshrined in a pre-handover treaty with the UK that China claims is now irrelevant, the national security law has escalated the project to “harmonise” the upstart region by coercive means, rather than addressing the root causes of dissatisfaction.

Under the auspices of the new law, the Chinese government will openly establish a security agency, with agents unaccountable under local law, in Hong Kong for the first time. It has also authorised itself in the new law to extend its tendrils further into civil society, with mandates to manage the media, the internet, NGOs and school curricula.

Under the weight of this authoritarian agenda, dissent in any form becomes an extremely hazardous prospect. It is no doubt Beijing’s intention that it will one day be impossible – or better yet, something Hong Kongers would not even contemplate.




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The aim of silencing all opposing voices – including those overseas – is clear from the purported extraterritorial operation of the law.

The international community has condemned Beijing’s actions, but its members have a responsibility to follow words with actions. The least that democratic countries like the US, UK, Australia and others can do is offer a realistic path to safety for the civic-minded Hong Kongers who have stood up to the world’s premier authoritarian power at grave personal risk.

Some 23 years after China achieved its long-held ambition of regaining Hong Kong, it has failed to win hearts and minds and has brought out the big stick. Its promises may have been hollow, but its threats are not.The Conversation

Brendan Clift, Teaching Fellow and PhD candidate, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Latest $84 million cuts rip the heart out of the ABC, and our democracy



Shutterstock

Alexandra Wake, RMIT University and Michael Ward, University of Sydney

At the height of the coronavirus emergency, and on the back of devastating bushfires, Australia’s much awarded and trusted national broadcaster has again been forced to make major cuts to staff, services and programs. It is doing so to offset the latest $84 million budget shortfall as a result of successive cuts from the Coalition government.

In the latest cuts, wrapped up as part of the national broadcaster’s five-year plan,

  • 250 staff will lose their jobs

  • the major 7:45am news bulletin on local radio has been axed

  • ABC Life has lost staff but somehow expanded to become ABC Local

  • independent screen production has been cut by $5 million

  • ABC News Channel programming is still being reviewed.

Even the travel budget, which allows journalists and storytellers to get to places not accessible by others, has been cut by 25%.

These are just the latest in a long list of axed services, and come off the back of the federal government’s indexation freeze.

Announced in 2018, that freeze reduced the ABC budget by $84 million over three years and resulted in an ongoing reduction of $41 million per annum from 2022.




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The indexation freeze is part of ongoing reductions to ABC funding that total $783 million since 2014. In an email to staff, Managing Director David Anderson said the cut to the ABC in real terms means operational funding will be more than 10% lower in 2021–22 than it was in 2013.

To be fair, the way in which the ABC executive has chosen to execute the latest cuts does make some sense, pivoting more towards digital and on-demand services. Right now, the commuting audience that has long listened to the 7:45am bulletin is clearly changing habits. However, with widespread closures of newspapers across the nation, the need for independent and trusted news in depth, that is not online has never been more important.

ABC Life is a particular loss. It has built an extremely diverse reporting team, reaching new audiences, and winning over many ABC supporters and others who were initially sceptical. The work they produced certainly wasn’t the type commercial operators would create.

Clearly the coronavirus pandemic has slashed Australia’s commercial media advertising revenues. But the problems in the media are a result of years of globalisation, platform convergence and audience fragmentation. In such a situation, Australia’s public broadcasters should be part of the solution for ensuring a diverse, vibrant media sector. Instead, it continues to be subject to ongoing budget cuts.

Moreover, at a time when the public really cannot afford to be getting their news from Facebook or other social media outlets, cutting 250 people who contribute to some of Australia’s most reliable and quality journalism and storytelling – and literally saving lives during the bushfires – appear to be hopelessly shortsighted.

The latest Digital News Report 2020 clearly showed the ABC is the media outlet Australians trust the most.

These latest cuts join a long list of axed services in the past seven years. They include

While not everyone will miss every program or service that has gone, and even with its occasional missteps, there is no doubt the ABC is the envy of the liberal democracies that do not have publicly funded assets, particularly the United States.

Has the ABC’s budget been increased?

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has continued to suggest the funding cuts are not real, are sustainable without service reductions for Australians, and has claimed the ABC has received “increased funding”.

The minister’s comments are not consistent with data we published last year based on the government’s own annual budget statements and the reality of the ongoing situation for the ABC.




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The government argues base or departmental funding is higher in 2020-21 than it was in 2013-14. The relevant budget papers do show that in 2013-14, the ABC was allocated $865 million for “general operational activities”. The most recent budget statement shows this has increased to $878 million in 2020-21.

So how can it be the ABC budget shows this increase when we have been arguing they are facing an overall cut?

First, we noted last year the complexity of the budget process, which means, for example, the reinstatement of short-term funding can be counted as extra funds, or the ending of such funds, while reducing an agency budget, will not appear as a reduction in allocation.

Second, the 2020-21 ABC budget reflects the inclusion of indexation for increases in CPI-related costs between 2013-14 and 2018-19. This is the funding that is being halted until at least 2021-22.

So despite statements to the contrary, nothing can change the fact the ABC has suffered massive cuts in recent years. The data published last year showed the reality of the ongoing situation for the ABC, with an annual cost to its budget in 2020-21 of $116 million. As the table below shows, taking into account actual budget allocations and adding the items cut, frozen or otherwise reduced, the ABC should have funding of approximately $1.181 billion in 2020-21, not the $1.065 billion it will receive.

It is against this background the latest funding freeze, due to a failure to meet the impact of inflation costs, occurs. While it doesn’t sound like a lot, the three year impact is $84 million, and has resulted in the cuts announced today.

But more importantly, these ongoing cuts represent an attack by the federal government on the broadcaster, its role in democracy, and in keeping Australians safe, informed and entertained.The Conversation

Alexandra Wake, Program Manager, Journalism, RMIT University and Michael Ward, PhD candidate, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus highlights the painful political truth about health inequality. Is social democracy the answer?



AAP/EPA/Ciro Fusco

Carol Johnson, University of Adelaide

Health inequality was a major concern of 20th century social democrats in countries ranging from Britain to Sweden.

During the current coronavirus crisis, it has once again become one of the most crucial issues that social democrats need to address.

Coronavirus itself does not discriminate in terms of class. Indeed, those with the financial means to travel have often been among the first victims. More men than women appear to be dying of it.

Nonetheless, what a difference your position in the social hierarchy can make.

Access to excellent and affordable health care obviously remains a key issue, even allowing for the fact the wealthy may also fail to have access to ventilators in the current crisis. Years of neoliberal cutbacks have undermined the formerly good public health systems that social democrats established from the 1940s.

Significantly, the struggling Italian health care system has suffered from privatisation and substantial budget cuts.

Years of wage stagnation and the growth of precarious work have also resulted in rising economic inequality. This has made it impossible for many workers to build up a financial buffer for hard times and seriously limited their ability to stock up with food and medicines.

Some poorly paid workers cannot afford not to turn up to work even when they have possible symptoms. Others are continuing to work in jobs that put them at risk.

The economically vulnerable are also less likely to be able to afford the technology to enable people to work from home or help children study while schools are closed. Similarly, it is harder for them to buy in food or other services.

Women are disproportionately affected, too

Women may have a lower mortality rate than men, but have often been in a weaker financial position due to wage disparities and precarious and part-time work. In many countries, these factors can also reduce the payments women are entitled to if they become unemployed due to the pandemic.




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At the same time, women’s (gendered) carer responsibilities will have massively increased. Many are working in industries, such as aged care or health care, with an increased exposure risk. Some are now restricted to home with abusive partners.

Consequently, health professionals have emphasised the importance of having a gendered analysis of the impacts of the pandemic. Similar calls have been made in countries ranging from the US to India.

Bizarrely, conspiracy theories are now appearing suggesting the coronavirus is divine punishment for increased gender and same-sex equality. It is apparently all the fault of “gender theory”.

The perils of globalisation

The list of COVID-19 scapegoats is a long one. Various racial and ethnic groups were among the first to experience virus-related discrimination.

Many racial and ethnic groups are also often in an economically vulnerable position, which then exacerbates their existing problems during a pandemic. Remote Indigenous communities are particularly at risk.




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Doctors are having to make difficult choices about who gets access to scarce medical equipment. The elderly are at particular risk of being denied treatment in some countries. Older citizens are more prone to dying as a result of the virus, but there are suggestions ageism could be a factor, too.

Meanwhile, the perils of globalisation are becoming clear as global supply chains of crucial medical equipment, chemicals and food are disrupted. Countries are discovering they can no longer manufacture the essential products they need, including medical ones.

Major pharmaceutical and other companies are among those racing to develop treatments and vaccines. But will cheap, generic versions be publicly available or will they be subject to restrictive patents and price gouging?

After all, there are claims the shortage of ventilators in countries such as the US is partly due to firms prioritising producing more expensive and highly profitable models over cheaper, basic ones. Bidding wars for scarce ventilators are already breaking out.

A return to social democracy?

Given the market is not coping and the need for government to intervene is more apparent than ever, one might think the time for social democracy has come again.

Some countries, such as Sweden, are indeed evoking social democratic values of solidarity and caring for others. Controversially, the Swedish government may believe those values are so strong that stricter lockdown provisions are not required to enforce community compliance.

Other social democratic countries such as Denmark were among the first to introduce forms of wage support for those thrown out of work.

However, in a time when even conservative governments in countries such as Germany, Britain and Australia are abandoning neoliberal strictures on fiscal restraint to throw billions at the pandemic and their collapsing economies, the need for social democratic governments may not be as apparent as before.

Furthermore, social democratic governments face the same impossible challenges as conservative ones.

In my recent book on social democracy and equality, I argued that one of the main aims of social democratic governments was to make citizens feel secure and less fearful. Providing good publicly available health services and income support for the sick and unemployed was an important part of this.

But how can any government or political party make people feel secure or less fearful in a pandemic and economic disaster of this scale? This is a once-in-a-hundred-year crisis that could exacerbate xenophobia, as well as existing domestic social and economic divisions.

Consequently, the challenge for social democrats is that issues they would normally address may instead be taken up by their mainstream conservative opponents or those on the far right.The Conversation

Carol Johnson, Emerita Professor, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Twitter is banning political ads – but the real battle for democracy is with Facebook and Google



Twitter should get credit for its sensible move, but the microblogging company is tiny compared to Facebook and Google.
Shutterstock

Johan Lidberg, Monash University

Finally, some good news from the weirdo-sphere that is social media. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has announced that, effective November 22, the microblogging platform will ban all political advertising – globally.

This is a momentous move by Twitter. It comes when Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg are under increasing pressure to deal with the amount of mis- and disinformation published via paid political advertising on Facebook.

Zuckerberg recently told a congress hearing Facebook had no plans of fact-checking political ads, and he did not answer a direct question from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez if Facebook would take down political ads found to be untrue. Not a good look.

A few days after Zuckerberg’s train wreck appearance before the congress committee, Twitter announced its move.




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While Twitter should get credit for its sensible move, the microblogging company is tiny compared to Facebook and Google. So, until the two giants change, Twitter’s political ad ban will have little effect on elections around the globe.

A symptom of the democratic flu

It’s important to call out Google on political advertising. The company often manages to fly under the radar on this issue, hiding behind Facebook, which takes most of the flack.

The global social media platforms are injecting poison into liberal democratic systems around the globe. The misinformation and outright lies they allow to be published on their platforms is partly responsible for the increasingly bitter deep partisan divides between different sides of politics in most mature liberal democracies.

Add to this the micro targeting of voters illustrated by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and a picture emerges of long-standing democratic systems under extreme stress. This is clearly exemplified by the UK parliament’s paralysis over Brexit and the canyon-deep political divides in the US.




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Banning political advertising only deals with a symptom of the democratic flu the platforms are causing. The root cause of the flu is the fact social media platforms are no longer only platforms – they are publishers.

Until they acknowledge this and agree to adhere to the legal and ethical frameworks connected with publishing, our democracies will not recover.

Not platforms, but publishers

Being a publisher is complex and much more expensive than being a platform. You have to hire editorial staff (unless you can create algorithms advanced enough to do editorial tasks) to fact-check, edit and curate content. And you have to become a good corporate citizen, accepting you have social responsibilities.

Convincing the platforms to accept their publisher role is the most long-term and sustainable way of dealing with the current toxic content issue.

Accepting publisher status could be a win-win, where the social media companies rebuild trust with the public and governments by acting ethcially and socially responsibly, stopping the poisoning of our democracies.

Mark Zuckerberg claims Facebook users being able to publish lies and misinformation is a free speech issue. It is not. Free speech is a privilege as well as a right and, like all privileges, it comes with responsibilities and limitations.

Examples of limitations are defamation laws and racial vilification and discrimination laws. And that’s just the legal framework. The strong ethical frame work that applies to publishing should be added to this.

Ownership concentration like never before

Then, there’s the global social media oligopoly issue. Never before in recorded human history have we seen any industry achieve a level of ownership concentration displayed by the social media companies. This is why this issue is so deeply serious. It’s global, it reaches billions and the money and profits involved is staggering.




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Facebook co-founder, Chris Hughes, got it absolutely right when he in his New York Times article pointed out the Federal Trade Commission – the US equivalent to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission – got it wrong when they allowed Facebook to buy Instagram and WhatsApp.

Hughes wants Facebook broken up and points to the attempts from parts of US civil society moving in this direction. He writes:

This movement of public servants, scholars and activists deserves our support. Mark Zuckerberg cannot fix Facebook, but our government can.

Yesterday, I posted on my Facebook timeline for the first time since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. I made the point that after Twitter’s announcement, the ball is now squarely in Facebook’s and Google’s courts.

For research and professional reasons, I cannot delete my Facebook account. But I can pledge to not be an active Facebook user until the company grows up and shoulders its social responsibility as an ethical publisher that enhances our democracies instead of undermining them.The Conversation

Johan Lidberg, Associate Professor, School of Media, Film and Journalism, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Backing Putin: Russia’s middle class is no longer a catalyst for democratic change


Cameron Ross, University of Dundee

A wave of protests rocked Moscow and scores of other cities across Russia between 2011 and 2013. The demonstrators called for free and fair elections and some even demanded an end to the Putin regime. Many Russian commentators argued these mass protests were spearheaded by members of the urban middle class, and the world’s media concurred.

History has shown that where there is expansion of the middle class, democracy develops alongside. As the middle class accumulates wealth and property, it develops a vested interest in stability and the rule of law, promoting the development of a set of democratic checks and balances on the government.

Often seen as a bastion of democracy, Russia’s middle class is popularly regarded as a major source of opposition to the Putin regime. But does it give more support to democratic values, such as support for free and fair elections, a free press and a pluralistic political system, than other classes?

Divisions have weakened the solidarity of the Russian middle class and questioned its role as a catalyst for democratic change. That crucial dividing line is between those who depend on the state for their livelihood and those who work in the non-state sectors of the economy. As commentator Andrei Kolesnikov puts it:

The … end of the post-Soviet transition created a specific kind of middle class: one that grew out of oil and gas deposits, one that demanded both bread and circuses … But there is another middle class, too, born out of something very different … the giant army of state officials and public sector workers. Then there are the security services, investigators, prosecutors, judges: the backbone of the state. The class of people working not just directly for the state but also for state corporations and banks, and private structures whose existence depends entirely on connections with the state and officialdom.

My research reveals that most of the middle class support Putin, and given the choice, will opt for stability and the political status quo, rather than risk the uncertainties brought about by democratic reforms.

Who are Russia’s middle class?

So what factors influence who belongs to the middle class? Economists focus on income and property. But defining the middle class this way fails to explain how such a diverse group of individuals could develop a shared class identity or consciousness. Income-based approaches really define middle “layers” rather than classes, and fail to capture low-income citizens who, according to other criteria such as education and occupation, would qualify for middle-class status.

Sociologists, in contrast, stress divisions between employers and employees, as well as those between “manual” and “mental” labour, and add other criteria, such as education and occupation, to those of income.

In a survey of 4,000 citizens carried out in collaboration with the Russian Institute of Sociology, we found that just 26% of the respondents could be defined as middle class, based on individuals who met criteria in three areas: income – an average monthly income not lower than the median for the country as a whole; occupation – non-manual “white collar” employees; and education – those with higher education.

Recognising the middle class’s role as a catalyst for economic development, Putin has called for an increase in its size “to encompass 60% of the population”. But his attempts to modernise the country to boost economic growth may end up sowing the seeds of its own destruction. For, as has been widely demonstrated, a society’s public values shift and become more hospitable to democracy as they become wealthier, more industrialised, more urban and better educated.

A state-dependent middle class

But it is important to stress that the middle classes are made up of a diverse group of citizens, each with a variety of political and moral attitudes, and its social composition will vary in different countries. An important factor here is the degree to which members of the middle class are dependent on the state for their livelihood, which is particularly relevant to the Russian middle class.

For example, in Russia, 76.6% of leading managers in the state sector were members of the middle class in 2011 compared to just 33% in 2007. For members of the military and security forces, the percentage of middle-class members grew from 25% in 2007 to 44% in 2011. In 2018, 48% of the Russian middle class were employed in the state sector.

We would expect there to be differences in the interests and values between those who are state-dependent for work and those who work in the private sector, and our study confirms this is the case. But the differences are not very large, and they have narrowed since the outbreak of the civil war in Ukraine
and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Support for the regime increased substantially in the wake of these developments, as the vast majority of Russian citizens supported Putin’s foreign policy towards Ukraine. Members of both sectors currently prioritise stability and economic security over liberal values, and both express high levels of trust in the Putin regime.

According to our survey, 63% of of state sector workers and 65% of private sector workers supported the idea that “Russia needs to revive national traditions and moral and religious values”, whereas just 37% and 35% respectively, supported the alternative that “Russia should move forward towards a modern way of life, such as in Europe”.

Similarly, 68% of state sector workers and 69% of private sector workers supported “strengthening the state’s power over the economy and politics”, whereas just 32% and 31% respectively, chose the option calling for “the release of citizens from excessive state control”.

Two thirds (66%) of state sector workers and 63% of private sector workers agreed that “it is necessary to introduce moral censorship over the media”, while 34% and 37% respectively, agreed that “the mass media and art should be free from censorship”. Finally, 73% of state sector workers and 64% of private sector workers expressed trust in the president.

In 2019, after almost two decades of Putin, it would appear untrue to say that Russia’s middle class universally supports liberal and democratic values. As has been the case in countries like China, those doing comfortably well seem quite happy to prop up an authoritarian regime if their interests are protected by the state.The Conversation

Cameron Ross, Professor in Politics, University of Dundee

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Young Australians champion ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ in designing constitutional change



Many high school students are politically engaged. But how would they change the preamble to the Constitution?
AAP/Lukas Coch

Benjamin T. Jones, CQUniversity Australia and John Warhurst, Australian National University

When the Australian constitution was written in the 1890s, the authors did not envision an independent nation, but a self-governing dominion of the British empire. As such, the preamble does not contain flowery language about national values. Instead it is a dry, legalistic introduction simply noting that some of her majesty’s “possessions” have federated. One unsuccessful attempt to change it was made in a 1999 referendum.

In March 2019, 120 high school students from around Australia met in Canberra for the 24th National Schools Constitutional Convention. Their mission was to write a new preamble, with the authors of this article serving as facilitators. Over two days of lively debate, sometimes heated but always civil, a final version was drafted.

In a referendum-style vote, a majority of students and a majority from each state ratified the preamble (83 “yes”, 34 “no”, two voted informal, one abstained). The students’ preamble was presented to the federal Senate on April 2 and entered into Hansard.

The referendum result.

The students’ preamble

We the Australian people, united as an indissoluble Commonwealth, commit ourselves to the principles of equality, democracy and freedom for all and pledge to uphold the following values that define our nation.

We stand alongside the traditional custodians of the land and recognise the significance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures in shaping the Australian identity, their sovereignty was never ceded.

As a nation and indeed community, we are united under the common goal to create a society catered to all, regardless of heritage or identity.

We pledge to champion individual freedom and honour those who have served and continue to serve our nation.

As Australians, we stand for the pursuit of a democratic state that upholds the fundamental principles of human values as set out by this Constitution.

The student’s preamble differs enormously from the one written in the 19th century. It is noteworthy that it includes the words “democratic” and “freedom” twice – neither are in the current preamble or the constitution. From the students’ preamble, three elements emerge that young people want to see enshrined.

Acknowledging First Nations

During the debates, the most contested issue was whether to explicitly recognise First Nations people and if so, how. Ultimately, the students, including a representative group of Indigenous students, voted strongly in favour of constitutional recognition. In particular, the phrase “sovereignty was never ceded” is significant.

It is a rallying cry for many First Nations people and a rejection of assimilation. Indigenous Australians are still fighting for self-determination and the right to be heard. The Voice to Parliament put forward by the Uluru Statement is still being debated. Constitutional recognition that sovereignty was never ceded is a more radical proposal. It suggests that Indigenous justice is important to young Australians.

Egalitarianism is still key

The egalitarian ideal has a long history in Australia. The concept of the “fair go” is mythical in one sense, but a cherished part of the collective imagination.

The first line of the students’ preamble commits the nation to the principle of equality. The third line stresses the importance of a “society catered to all”.

Although not explicitly stated, the word “identity” suggests the LGBT community was in mind. Young Australians overwhelmingly supported the same-sex marriage plebiscite in 2017. The government is currently considering new religious freedom laws in response to the sacking of Israel Folau by Rugby Australia.

It is significant, then, that young Australians place such value on society being catered for all, “regardless of heritage or identity”.

Values matter

What permeates through the students’ preamble is the message that values matter. Unlike the original constitutional writers, young people want their preamble to be a mission statement that articulates the “values that uphold the nation”. The trident of “equality, democracy and freedom” are highlighted.

The preamble also notes the twin priorities of a free state that sit together though sometimes in tension. As the third line notes, Australia is a “nation and indeed community”. But the fourth line tempers this with a commitment to “champion individual freedom”. The ideal democratic state for these young Australians places value on both the individual and the collective.

Dr Benjamin T Jones addresses the convention.

Time for change?

At the 1999 referendum, Prime Minister John Howard, despite being against a republic, campaigned in favour of a new preamble. The one he and republican Les Murray authored did not gain much popularity. But it is significant that even an ardent monarchist like Howard was convinced the preamble needed to be updated.

The authors of the students’ preamble were mainly in Year 11 and too young to vote in the May election. Nevertheless, they are thoughtful, intelligent citizens and the future of our democracy. Their voice is worth listening to.The Conversation

Benjamin T. Jones, Lecturer in History, CQUniversity Australia and John Warhurst, Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why the raids on Australian media present a clear threat to democracy



On Wednesday, the AFP raided the ABCs Sydney headquarters in relation to the 2017 “Afghan files” report.
AAP/David Gray

Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, The University of Queensland

The Australian Federal Police has this week conducted two high-profile raids on journalists who have exposed government secrets and their sources.

On Tuesday, seven AFP officers spent several hours searching News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s Canberra home, her mobile phone and computer. The AFP linked the raid to “the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret”.

This stemmed from Smethurst’s 2018 article, which contained images of a “top secret” memo and reported that senior government officials were considering moves to empower the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to covertly monitor Australian citizens for the first time.

Soon after, 2GB Radio Presenter Ben Fordham revealed he had been notified by the Department of Home Affairs that he was the subject of a similar investigation, aimed at identifying the source of classified information he had reported regarding intercepted boat arrivals.

And then on Wednesday, the AFP raided the ABC’s Sydney headquarters. This dramatic development was in connection with the 2017 “Afghan files” report based on “hundreds of pages of secret defence force documents leaked to the ABC”. These documents revealed disturbing allegations of misconduct by Australian special forces.

The reaction to the raids was immediate and widespread.

The New York Times quoted News Corp’s description of the Smethurst raid as “a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths”. The Prime Minister was quick to distance his government from the AFP’s actions, while opposition leader Anthony Albanese condemned the raids.

But to those familiar with the ever-expanding field of Australian national security law, these developments were unlikely to surprise. In particular, enhanced data surveillance powers and a new suite of secrecy offences introduced in late 2018 had sparked widespread concern over the future of public interest journalism in Australia.

The crackdown of the past few days reveals that at least two of the core fears expressed by lawyers and the media industry were well-founded: first, the demise of source confidentiality and, secondly, a chilling effect on public interest journalism.

Source confidentiality

Upon finding out he was the subject of an investigation aimed at uncovering his sources of government information, Ben Fordham declared

The chances of me revealing my sources is zero. Not today, not tomorrow, next week or next month. There is not a hope in hell of that happening.

Source confidentiality is one of journalists’ most central ethical principles. It is recognised by the United Nations and is vital to a functioning democracy and free, independent, robust and effective media.

One of the greatest threats to source confidentiality is Australia’s uniquely broad data surveillance framework. The 2015 metadata retention scheme requires that all metadata (that is, data about a device or communication but not, say, the communication itself) be retained for two years. It may then be covertly accessed by a wide array of government agencies without a warrant. Some reports suggest that by late 2018, some 350,000 requests for access to metadata were being received by telecommunications service providers each year.




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The government was not blind to the potential impact of this scheme on source confidentiality. For example, obtaining metadata relating to a journalist’s mobile phone could reveal where they go and who they contact and easily point to their sources.

This led to the introduction of the “Journalist Information Warrant” (JIW). This warrant is required if an agency wishes to access retained metadata for the direct purpose of identifying a professional journalist’s source.

So, access to a professional journalist’s metadata in order to identify a confidential source is permitted, provided the access has a particular criminal investigation or enforcement purpose and the agency can show it is in the public interest and therefore obtain a JIW.

This week’s raids suggest that either JIWs could not be obtained in relation to Smethurst, Fordham or the ABC Journalists, or the journalists’ metadata did not reveal their sources, or the AFP did not attempt to access their metadata.

Alternatively, if metadata had identified the journalists’ sources, it is less clear why these dramatic developments took place.

After 2015, journalists were advised to avoid using their mobile devices in source communications. They were also encouraged, wherever possible, to encrypt communications.

But in 2018, the government went some way to closing down this option when it introduced the complex and highly controversial Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018.

As well as expanding computer access and network access warrants, the Act provided a means for government agencies to co-opt those in the telecommunications industry to assist agencies with their investigations. This could include covertly installing weaknesses and vulnerabilities in specific devices, circumventing passwords or allowing encrypted communications to be decrypted. A warrant would then be required to access the device and communication data.

It is impossible to know whether Australian journalists have been targeted under the Act or had weaknesses or spyware installed on their personal devices. This week’s raids suggest the AFP would be prepared to target journalists under this framework in order to identify journalists’ confidential sources.

However, this could only be done for some purposes, including in the investigation of a secrecy offence.

Secrecy offences

In June 2018, the government introduced a suite of new espionage, foreign interference and secrecy offences. This included an offence of current or former Commonwealth officers communicating information, obtained by virtue of their position, likely to cause harm to Australia’s interests. This offence is punishable by imprisonment for seven years. If the information is security classified or the person held a security classification, then they may have committed an “aggravated offence” and be subject to ten years’ imprisonment.

This week’s raids reveal just how common it is for public interest journalism to rely on secret material and government sources.




Read more:
Government needs to slow down on changes to spying and foreign interference laws


But the journalists themselves may also be facing criminal prosecution. The 2018 changes include a “general secrecy offence”, whereby it is an offence (punishable by imprisonment for five years) to communicate classified information obtained from a Commonwealth public servant. Fordham’s radio broadcast about intercepted boat arrivals was, for example, a clear communication of classified information.

Again, journalists are offered some protection. If prosecuted, a journalist can seek to rely on the “journalism defence” by proving that they dealt with the information as a journalist, and that they reasonably believed the communication to be in the public interest. The meaning of “public interest” is unclear and, in this context, untested. However, it will take into account the public interest in national security and government integrity secrecy concerns as well as openness and accountability.

Protecting media freedom

Australia has more national security laws than any other nation. It is also the only liberal democracy lacking a Charter of Human Rights that would protect media freedom through, for example, rights to free speech and privacy.

In this context, journalists are in a precarious position – particularly journalists engaged in public interest journalism. This journalism is vital to government accountability and a vibrant democracy, but has a tense relationship with Australia’s national interests as conceived by government.

National security law has severely undercut source confidentiality by increasing and easing data surveillance. National security laws have also criminalised a wide array of conduct related to the handling of sensitive government information, both by government officers and the general public.

And these laws are just a few parts of a much larger national security framework that includes: control orders, preventative detention orders, ASIO questioning and detention warrants, secret evidence, and offences of espionage, foreign interference, advocating or supporting terrorism, and more.

JIWs, and the inclusion of a journalism defence to the secrecy offence, recognise the importance of a free press. However, each of these protections relies on a public interest test. When government claims of national security and the integrity of classifications is weighed into this balance, it is difficult to see how other interests might provide an effective counterbalance.

One of the most disturbing outcomes is not prosecutions or even the raids themselves, but the chilling of public interest journalism. Sources are less likely to come forward, facing risk to themselves and a high likelihood of identification by government agencies. And journalists are less likely to run stories, knowing the risks posed to their sources and perhaps even to themselves.

Against this background, the calls for a Media Freedom Act, such as by the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, have gained significant traction. It may take this kind of bold statement to cut across the complexities of individual laws and both recognise and protect the basic freedom of the press and the future of public interest journalism in Australia.The Conversation

Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, Senior Lecturer, TC Beirne School of Law, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

India’s elections will be the largest in world history


Erin Watson-Lynn, University of Western Australia

The world’s largest democratic election is set to take place in India. Voting will take place in seven phases from April 11 to May 19, and the result will be announced May 23.

An extraordinary 900 million people are eligible to vote, 130 million for the first time. Not only is it the “largest democratic exercise” in history, it is among world’s most expensive. In 2014, the Lok Sabha (lower house) elections cost the Election Commission of India half a billion US dollars.

Several key issues are emerging in this election that will prove decisive in voter decision-making behaviour. Unsurprisingly, economic development is front and centre. Despite having one of the world’s highest economic growth rates, growth slowed to 6.4% in the final quarter of 2018, down from a peak of 8.2% in mid-2018.

Unemployment rates are at their highest since the 1970s, as the economy struggles to create jobs for rural migrants moving to cities and a large youth cohort now entering the labour market. Unemployment and inflation, which directly affect household incomes, are widely seen as the biggest concerns for Indians in the lead up to the election.




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The spread of “fake news” and misinformation is also an important electoral complication. WhatsApp in India is tackling the spread of misinformation through a verification centre called Checkpoint. Indian users of the Facebook owned social networking service, of which there is 200 million, can send pictures, messages, and videos to be fact-checked.

This comes as Facebook removed hundreds of pages that shared misleading content about India and Pakistan following a suicide bombing in Kashmir. How to deal with these increasing tensions between India and Pakistan are a key feature of the political campaign.

How India’s electoral system works

India has a Westminster system of government, a legacy of the British Raj. In the Lok Sabha (lower house) there are 543 seats up for grabs. An additional two seats for the Anglo-Indian community are nominated by the president. These 545 seats will form the 17th Lok Sabha. The Prime Minister is selected from the members of the largest party or coalition.

There is no direct election for the Rajya Sabha (upper house). Rather, the current 233 Rajya Sabha members are elected by the Legislative Assembly in each of the states and the two union territories, with an additional 12 members nominated by the president. The Rajya Sabha may have up to 250 members, but it doesn’t reach this quota at present.




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Kashmir: India and Pakistan’s escalating conflict will benefit Narendra Modi ahead of elections


Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi

There are two distinct personalities leading the major parties in this election. Both have taken advantage of the Representation of the People Act 1951 during their career, which allows candidates to contest an election from two seats – what the Wall Street Journal calls the “political equivalent of spread betting”.

Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – a Hindu nationalist party. Modi won both of the seats he nominated for in the 2014 elections, Vadodara in his home state of Gujarat, and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. He chose the seat of Varanasi and will recontest this seat in 2019. It is unknown whether he will contest a second seat, but there is speculation he might in the south of the country.

Leader of the opposition, Rahul Gandhi, leads the secular Indian National Congress (Congress). Gandhi has already declared that he will contest two seats in 2019, Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, as well as Wayanad in the southern state of Kerala.

Gandhi is latest generation of Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, which has played a decisive role in Indian politics since independence in 1947. In keeping with family tradition, Gandhi recently appointed his sister Priyanka Gandhi as the All India Congress Committee secretary responsible for Uttar Pradesh. The All India Congress Committee is responsible for the Congress’ decision making.

Uttar Pradesh is the primary battleground

It’s no coincidence that both Modi and Gandhi will contest seats in Uttar Pradesh. Commentators often describe Uttar Pradesh as “the battleground state” of Indian elections. With a population size of roughly 230 million people, Uttar Pradesh sends more members to the Lok Sabha than any other state; it holds 80 seats, followed by Maharashtra (48), West Bengal (42) and Bihar (40).

The BJP won the 2014 election with an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. The only time a party won by a larger majority was in 1984 following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, when Rajiv Gandhi led the Congress to win 78% of seats. But an absolute majority is more of an anomaly than the norm in recent Indian electoral history.




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This means that in 2019, both the major parties are courting and negotiating with minor parties. Reports on the status of party alliances have the BJP performing strongly with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), while Congress is struggling to build their opposition coalition.

It’s hard to predict whether Modi or Gandhi will emerge victorious in the election. Opinion polls are presently split. Modi and the BJP benefit from the advantages of incumbency, but recent deterioration in economic performance poses an opportunity for opposition parties.

Although it’s shaping up more like elections of the past, where the result will depend on negotiating party alliances, the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will still go down in history as the world’s biggest election.The Conversation

Erin Watson-Lynn, Head of Programs, Perth USAsia Centre, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.