Campaigning safely online

Children's rights defenders who use the internet as an advocacy platform are particularly vulnerable to the risks it poses. It is very important to be aware of the privacy and security issues that arise from using social networking sites, and to be careful about the information online activists reveal about themselves as well as about people they work with. CRIN has looked at existing toolkits by organisations working on the issue of safety of online activists, and has compiled the following list of resources that provide advice on how to stay safe when campaigning online.

Using Facebook for campaigning

Facebook is an excellent platform for campaigning, notably because as a social networking site with over half a billion users, children’s rights advocates can work within a constantly active forum, making information accessible to many viewers without having to attract visitors to official organisation websites. However, the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) has highlighted that Facebook has some flaws when it comes to being used for activism, as it was not designed for that purpose, and consequently does not guarantee a successful result. With this in mind, IFEX has produced a short guide to using Facebook for the purpose of advocacy and campaigning, which outlines key advantages and limits.  The main safety issues it addresses are the following:

  • Facebook is not a secure site, so personal information should not be disclosed! You should remind your users of this, especially those in countries where freedom of expression is restricted, as government agents have been known to join Facebook groups and pages in order to monitor others who also join or "like" them.  In view of this, advise your users on using pseudonyms instead of their real names.
  • Always stay in charge of your wall! Allow for comments and debate, but restrict offensive or inappropriate postings, which can often be posted with the intention of smearing and individual or the reputation of an organisation.

Read Security in a box - How to protect yourself and your data when using social networking sites.

Using Twitter for advocacy

The great thing about using Twitter for advocacy is that as both a social network and a micro-blogging service, it provides to-the-second, on-the-ground information (known as Tweets), posted by and shared among individuals, groups and organisations, and circulated before it is even reported through official channels, such as press releases or the news. Because of its informal nature, the International Freedom of Expression eXchange describes Twitter as "an underground conversation".  It has also been dubbed the "SMS of the Internet" because of its short text-like postings.

Useful in countries with restraints on freedom of expression and the media, rights advocates can alert users on Twitter of information that would otherwise be censored or unavailable, and mobilise the masses with it. However, there are also several basic security issues that should be considered when setting up an account and using Twitter for rights advocacy. The Twitter help centre advises on some of the following:

  • Be selective with the personal details you include when filling in account information (i.e. you may decide not to provide your real name).
  • Keep in mind you can make your profile pages public or private. Public accounts make your profile and tweets visible to everyone; whereas protected (private) accounts require you to manually approve each and every follower, and only those approved can view your profile and Tweets, helping you to keep unknown, unwanted or suspicious persons at bay. Also, protected profiles' Tweets will not appear in Twitter search, which can be used by anyone.

Again read Security in a box - How to protect yourself and your data when using social networking sites.

Using blogs for campaigning

For those with a strong sense of social justice and a desire to express this through informal channels can do so by creating a blog! Blogging enables you to maintain a personalised website on the internet, allowing the author to control and structure information on topics that you feel strongly about. Setting up a blog is easy to do and has little or no maintenance costs, though it can be quite time consuming for the page owner who must upload all the content, so it does require commitment.

Blogs enable people to provide a site which can focus on a specific advocacy issue. They also provide a portal for other people to express their views or opinions. People from areas where freedom of speech is restricted have been known to SMS or e-mail bloggers in other countries in order to get their views posted from a more secure environment. However, as blogs are available to see by all internet users, it is important to have security in mind when creating or maintaining one:

  • A weak access password may leave a blog open to hijacking which could lead to false postings, deleted pages or stolen information. Choosing a lengthy password with random digits will help prevent this (this rule also applies when setting up any social networking account).
  • Some blog providers can provide a secure, encrypted connection with every log-in. Wordpress is an example, see more about this on the Wordpress security page.
  • Blogs usually offer readers a way to contribute or contact the author. Feedback methods such as e-mail enable messages to be moderated before they are displayed on a blog.
  • Linking to social networks is a good way to promote a blog to a wide audience. Though it is worth remembering that some social network applications obtain personal information when linking to other sites.

General tips on e-advocacy

On the issue of online protection, the ONO Project provides a series of animated films to raise awareness about the often unknown or misinformed risks involved in using new media, including those faced specifically by human rights advocates and independent journalists working on sensitive issues.

Circumventing new media restrictions

To challenge State-imposed Internet restrictions, civil society and media organisations around the world are developing new ways of bypassing them, in support of freedom of expression for journalists and human rights activists and citizens’ access to information.

In order to raise awareness on existing forms of Internet oppression, for example, the Committee to Protect Journalists has compiled The 10 Tools of Online Oppressors, which lists the most prevalent tools for online oppression and the States guilty of employing them.

Similarly, Reporters Without Borders annually releases its Press Freedom Index which ranks countries according to their press freedoms record, as well as having an Enemies of the Internet List which covers country-specific issues related to online freedoms and restrictions.

Yet there are copious ways of bypassing existing restrictions, some of which are examined by Freedom House in the report entitled Leaping Over the Firewall – A review of Censorship Circumvention Tools, which provides a comparative analysis of the principle circumvention tools by focusing on their technical and practical merits and drawing on users’ experiences from Azerbaijan, Burma, China and Iran.

The Economist has also looked at innovative ways of circumventing politically motivated shutdowns of the Internet in their report Signalling Dissent, such as how to build a makeshift directional antenna with a tin can and copper wire. Also, be sure to check out readers' comments at the bottom of the page for extra insight into strengths and drawbacks of such tactics.

Specifically on denial-of-access attacks suffered by independent media and human rights organisations, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University has published a research report on the effects of such attacks, and provides initial recommendations to fend them off and mitigate their effects. Read the full report entitled Distributed Denial of Service Attacks Against Independent Media and Human Rights Sites.

Of particular interest to journalists in Arabic-speaking countries, Article 19 published in 2007 a Manual for Arab Journalists on Freedom of Information and Investigative Journalism, which looks at how to better access public information to strengthen investigative reporting, including valuable sources of information and key methods of research.

Article 19 also has an array of training manuals and campaign packs covering freedom of information-related issues. Access the Article 19 online library.

Likewise, the Tactical Technology Collective offers toolkits and campaign strategy guides as part of various projects, including how to turn information into action, understand the risks associated with using digital media for advocacy, and protecting against cyber attacks, among other things. One such project is Security in-a-box, which addresses key questions such as how to protect your information from physical threats, how to recover from information loss, how to use mobile phones as securely as possible, and how to protect yourself and your data when using social networking sites.