Is 160 characters enough for you?

160 characters; This is the limit of our (Short Messaging Service) SMS messages sent from our mobile phones. While some may find this adequate others may sometimes find themselves sending a text composing of 2 messages (or even 3) which may either correspond to their own unique style of sentence construction, or maybe the message was something better said over a call than with a text, comfort of texting aside.

There is an article from the LA Times; quite an interesting one. It explains the reason why some must shorten their sentences, and sometimes go back and try to delete an unnecessary character so they don’t need to send a second message with just a full stop. Thankfully, most of us are capable of blending in a healthy amount of shorthand to further increase the amount of information conveyed in a single text message. Twitter users must adapt to less at 140 characters, however, with 20 being used for the unique name identifier, although some may argue that tweeting about what you are doing on twitter isn’t going to be as long as an SMS to a friend about what you’ve been doing during the week.

The LA Times article gives credit to Friedhelm Hillebrand having come up with the number of 160 characters in 1985 after analysing typewriter, telex and postcard messages. But it is also a number that represented the limits of technology of the day; with the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) setting the standards, ways to cheapen implementation and operation were used.

Today, 25 years later the standard operating procedure for SMS messages more or less remains the same and it is far from instant when sending or receiving a text. Languages other than English use different encoding schemes that see their character limit severely shortened. There are regularly no advanced options for SMS, such as re-alerts. It could be time for some new thinking. A few ideas to consider; Longer Messaging Service (LMS), fusing email and mobile phone numbers or migration toward internet-based mobile phones where the phone service runs off the Internet rather than the standard phone network.

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Government Crack Down on peace, goodwill and social media

Social media platforms, like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, have made everyone a publisher. With nothing more than a smart phone, people are able to share news, photographs and video. This new level of freedom of communication has been causing concerns for those who wish to control the media, the message and the mob. Orwell’s Big Brother is none too happy.

Today’s totalitarian state is not the fictional Oceania, but rather places we already have on the radar over concerned with democracy, human rights and human dignity.  Twitter made headlines in June last year when the US State Department asked the company to delay a scheduled down time. The delay was requested in the name of democracy to prevent interference with the organising ability of Iranians protesting against elections widely held to be corrupt.

In the lead up to those elections, Iranian authorities banned Facebook, then reinstated it after Mohammed Ali Abtahi, a former vice president of Iran, noted that, “Facebook is one of the only independent sources that the Iranian youth could use to communicate”. He said without it, people would be “forced to rely on government sources”. Perhaps the Iranian regime felt exposed by such comments?

Skip forward 15 months and Iran has a new strategy. Shown on Iranian TV (now on YouTube with subtitles) is a news bulletin explaining why Facebook and Twitter are evil. Complete with spooky music, the clip informs views that Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is a Jew but doesn’t believe in God. If that didn’t convince you Facebook was evil, it goes on to say Facebook was created to source operatives for western intelligence organisations. To prove this it cuts to a silhouette of a man described as a Facebook user. Our mystery man says he has worked for Facebook for 18 months, and for spy agencies. He claims to reads information on Facebook and then sell it to these spy agencies.  He claims to be doing it for the great money involved.

Soon we have another silhouette. This one claims twitter asked him to share his conversations with them so the data might be used by intelligence agencies. The section ends with a warning that social media sites are the hidden enemy. Next we have a claim that “Facebook is an Israeli spying website“. This is supported by a mocked up front page of the Independent Newspaper. The clip ends with claims of propaganda, psychological warfare and an anti-Iranian network that includes social media and the BBC and aims to change the Iranian people’s culture and faith. This “subtle” attack aims to deter use of a medium of self expression the regime is finding impossible to control.

Iran is not alone. Recently Indonesia, home to the largest Muslim population in the world, joined the attack on social media. The trouble this time is a Facebook page seeking to create warmer relations between Israel and Indonesia. The page bills itself as a virtual embassy of Israel to Indonesia. It says it is for people who are friends of both countries, and so far there are over 56 thousand fans, most of them in Indonesia. The page expresses a wish that real embassies can soon be built and diplomatic relations established. Not if the Indonesian government gets its way.

Al Muzammil Yusuf, a member of the Indonesian parliament’s Commission on Defense, foreign affairs and information, said the Ministry of Communications and Information would take action over the page under its oversight authority for the use of technology. He also called for an investigation to find who initiated the page. It’s starting to sound just a little like the Iranian regime’s witch hunt which led to imprisonments, injuries and killings.

Indonesia is listed amongst the free nations of the world by the highly respected NGO Freedom House.  Such a move against good will, cooperation, and self expression by Indonesia would be shocking given their freedom status is the same as that of Australia or Canada. Then again, in Australia or Canada it’s unlikely the Communication and Information Minister would be causing a stir by using twitter to share Adolf Hitler quotes. That’s this week’s other Indonesian technology story.

Social media, if properly managed, poses a real threat to those working against peace, truth and good will amongst peoples. The management however needs to be based on ethical principles. Governments do have rights in this process and international laws, standards and policies should be considered. Companies like Facebook need to establish relations with governments outside the USA, learn from the experience of others, and chart a course that is good not only for their bottom line but for humanity. With social media comes social responsibility, both for users and for platform owners.

Dr Andre Oboler is social media expert. He is based in Australia and runs the Community Internet Engagement Project.

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Iran’s propaganda against Facebook and Twitter

The Iranian regime has been producing propaganda targeting social media Facebook and Twitter. These sites played a significant role in mobilizing opposition forces during the Iranian elections in June 2009. The election result was disputed and the process was fraught with government corruption. When the government chose to respond militarily, this led to riots.

Barbara Lochbihler, Chair of the European Parliament delegation for relations with Iran, said a year later, “since June 2009, when hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Tehran, the Basij militia and other security forces have been harshly cracking down on all opposition forces.” She added there had been “Mock executions, torture, rape, death sentences” and that “the record points to a terrible human rights situation.”

The Iran regime is now not only targeting opposition figures, and using its intelligence agencies to target dissidents abroad, it is now trying to smear social networking itself. It does this by preposterous accusations of Israeli control, American government control and “interviews” with workers who are silhouetted to protect their privacy and then make claims that they worked for Facebook in once case and Twitter in another, and that western intelligence agencies asked them to use the social networking tools so they could gather information on their friends. It also suggests the Mossad is behind these social media platforms. The allegations are so out of touch with the nature and reality of social networking, any one with an account will see straight through them. The are however designed to spread fear, and perhaps will keep new users off the social networking sites.

The Iranian regime started by arresting bloggers, and having agents spread a message that people should not trust Twitter. Over time they have been rounding up, arresting and in some cases killing dissidents who use social media. At the same time they run Press TV, an English language propaganda service masquerading as part of the free press.

Now they are going after the concept of social media itself. They want to put the genie back in the bottle and restrict information flow so that only the official message can get out, a message which like the elections they hope they can control. They aim to do this through fear, and this propaganda video is part of that process.


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Pesach Seders on Twitter

CIE’s Director, Dr Andre Oboler, appeared in the Passover issues of the New York Jewish Week.  The article in question examined the phenomena of twitter seders and asked whether this use of social media was a positive development. The article, Let My People … Tweet, is by Sharon Udasin and available on the Jewish Week website.

The full quotation provided by Dr Oboler was as follows:

Passover, in my experience, is the biggest gathering of those closest to us short of a major simcha. Leaving to one side the differences between Orthodox, Conservative and Liberal Judaism, the question you are really asking is what does technology enables and at what price? Twitter, and to some extent Facebook, provide a yearlong ongoing chatter of minor news from friends to vague acquaintances. This is a surface level connection, wide and shallow. This can be a distraction and become the focus of our communication rather than time face to face with those we are closest to. Pesach, one of the three pilgrimage festivals, the shalosh regalim, is a time for gathering together. It is, perhaps, a time to disconnect from the world and focus on those closest to us and on a distant past well before the advent of the mobile phone and the computer. This night at least should be different from all other nights. It may take a special effort, but there is indeed something deeper and of great value if we want to take the opportunity. Experiencing the past as if we were there might just require us to switch off in order to be switched on.

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Twitter Warfare

Israel has been attacked in Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr. Eventually it had to happen… and in messages of 140 characters of less, now Twitter too is being used in public diplomacy against the Jewish state.

The use of conventional Twitter campaigning for political purposes is in the news. The BBC recently reported that the UK Labour Party is encouraging candidates to use Twitter, but also wanting to vet their posts to avoid any embarrassing slip ups. In all, 111 British MP’s are already using Twitter. Through the Twitter network they send messages that are picked up by fans, opponents and the media.

In Israel MKs, such as Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, are also making use of Twitter. So is the IDF’s spokesperson and the Israeli Foreign Ministry. What’s new, and likely to rapidly move from public diplomacy to election politics, are efforts to use Twitter to attack, satirise or demonise. Two fake profiles demonstrate the potential. The first, is a FakeDannyAyalon profile on twitter, is an example of political attacks. Using his real picture and a string of 79 posts, the profile spreads over-the-top messages in the Deputy Foreign Minister’s name. One expounds the rights of protestors to express themselves in Iran, going on to say those who do so in Israel should be shot. Another suggests a Palestinian Mandela must be found… so that he can be locked up. The second fake profile of interest is for NGO Monitor. NGO Monitor is the watchdog organisation that reports on human rights NGOs active in the Arab Israeli conflict.  This profile likewise makes over the top and self defeating statements. “‘Telling the truth is less important than defending Israel.’ Yes, EXACTLY! When will you learn?!” it reads. Another comment says “Remember: Everything we say = democratic debate, legitimate criticism. Everything they say = exploiting democracy for a political agenda”.

Ashley Perry and advisor to Danny Ayalon responded to our enquiries saying they were aware of FakeDannyAyalon on Twitter and that “imitation is the highest form of flattery”. Mr Perry noted that public life leads to an expectation of critical debate and that this was welcome. “Danny joined Twitter to interact with the public and let them know what he is thinking and doing on a daily basis. So we welcome the public’s responses, even through the use of satire.” He went on to note that, “The Deputy Foreign Minister welcomes the impact of social media and the ability to interact one on one with Israelis, Jews, supporters and critics around the world, either through Facebook, Twitter or YouTube webcasts.” Despite the interest from imitators, Danny Ayalon apparently soon launch a blog and an interactive website. One wonders if FakeDannyAyalon will be left by the wayside.

The fake profile for NGO Monitor is less blatant than that for Danny Ayalon. IT differs from NGO Monitor’s real account by only an under score. The posts also link to articles that debate and respond to NGO Monitor reports. The profile itself lists the Palestinian Propaganda site Electronic Intifada as its home page. Electronic Intifada was previously exposed as being behind efforts to manipulate the Wikipedia community after they infiltrated and exposed efforts by CAMERA to encourage more people to become Wikipedia editors.

It’s taken a while, but finally twitter too has become a tool of online warfare. While Facebook bans the use of fake names, Twitter only prohibits Impersonation and Trademark violations. It remains to be seen how far satire can be used as a cover, and how good the satire must be to qualify. One this is certain, the online world is only growing in impact when it comes to politics and the international reputation of countries. Israel is starting to get online, but there is a long way still to go.

Dr. Andre Oboler is a social media expert and Director of the Community Internet Engagement Project. He holds a PhD in Computer Science from Lancaster University in the UK and spent a year as a Post Doctoral Fellow focusing on Online Public Diplomacy at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

© 2010 Andre Oboler, originally published by Community Internet Engagement Project, March 1st 2010. This article is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. You may repost it else where provided you post it in full and include this notice.

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