Monday, 29 September 2014

In the wake of dirty politics and the election: digital technologies enabling skulduggery

Now the election is over and I can't be accused of political advertising or attempting to influence people's voting, it is time to talk about how digital technologies have aided and abetted skulduggery in the political sphere.

I have been fascinated by the machinations that ensued since Nicky Hager's book was published (a book worth reading, by the way). In association with that, I read a study about career politicians in New Zealand and how, because their backgrounds are conflating, drawing from an ever-decreasing circle of people, it is harder, the author Geoffrey Miller says, to tell policies apart, except at the edges. Instead, he argues, this conflation results in ad hominen - the personal attacks and demonising of political opponents rather than a discussion of ideas. In other words, dirty politics was probably an inevitable outcome of this narrowing of the kinds of people entering the political arena as a career, as well as the intensification of global influence, especially of right-wing views (particularly emanating from the American Republicans lobby) that aim to concentrate power, influence and money in the hands of the few.

Not withstanding this political side of things, it has been interesting to ponder the role digital technologies has played in this grubby mess of attack politics, and the implications this might suggest about education.

The chronology over the Dirty Politics saga goes something like this: Cameron Slater posts on his site comments about the death of a young man, calling him feral and no loss to humanity (I'm paraphrasing). The family, now having lost that son and one in the Pike River mining disaster is understandably angry. Apparently, so is someone else - possibly associated with this family- who proceeds to hack Slater's blog and Facebook accounts, siphoning emails and messages galore. These end up with Nicky Hager whose book exposes not only the politics being played out on Slater's blog, but also the players - some of whom are associated closely with the very pointy end of government and the Beehive.

The hacker decides to reveal these exchanges via Twitter, making them accessible to all, then activates 'burn protocol' once Cameron Slater's injunction via the courts about further publication is made:

The role that social media in particular and the digital space in general has played, is crucial. Whaledump2's tweet encapsulates this saying, "If I didn't do this, who would have? If I didn't do it this way, how could it have been done?"

Without it, Slater and his 'sources and contacts' couldn't have created the kinds of campaigns they waged against individuals in order to further their own agendas, whether paid or otherwise. Facebook and email were the tools in trade of these people.  Without it, their machinations would not have been revealed, and without it, Whaledump2 would not have been able to share the information. Nicky Hager would have no book, and I would not have spent two and a half nights reading it. Without it, mainstream media (MSM) would not have been able to publish lazy copy, and without it, we wouldn't have been alerted and been any the wiser.

Twitter as a platform has been especially interesting, for it enabled Whaledump2 to share as zip files, these hacked email exchanges to anyone who cared to find them. It meant a whole lot of people could show support. It also meant that Cameron Slater really needed a court injunction to halt any more information spills, since his shenanigans, hypocrisy and those who he dealt with were hung out as dirty laundry. Following the #dirtypolitics hashtag has been very illuminating, for it has presented individuals' opinions on this over quite a long period of time, providing all sorts of links to follow up.

So, while digital technologies, social media and fast broadband mean we have a lot at our fingertips, we are learning that (at the risk of mixing too many metaphors) when we lift up too many stones, we might find a lot of dirt and unpleasant insect life underneath. This highlights how careful we must be to act as honestly and truthfully as we can when other people's lives, livelihoods, attitudes, values and behaviours can be splashed across front page news - all through innuendo and for underhand agendas. It also highlights how the 'truth will out' one way or another. Digital footprints make retraction very difficult and traceability a reality. Whaledump2's decision to destroy the computer hardware in the wake of the injunction preventing further revelations was therefore a necessary precaution.                                                                        
So what does this have to do with education? 
As educators, this whole saga becomes a rich source of salutary lessons on so many fronts. The teachable moments arising from this might lead to explorations on the topics of  things like:
  • online safety
  • cyber bullying
  • ethics, integrity, honesty
  • verifying information, opinion/bias, political agendas, 
  • the language of persuasion
  • social change.... 
As part of the importance of educators making learners aware of different points of views on topics and issues, here is a counter-view of the 'Moment of Truth' event that was generally panned by the MSM afterwards. I add it here because it raises questions about how well we can rely on our media to be ethical and fearless in presenting well-researched and critically aware perspectives, to properly represent events. For example, it was widely reported that our Prime Minister called  Glenn Greenwald, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, someone else's 'henchman'. This reporting spread the intention to deride and undermine his credibility, but did not provide much of an examination of the likely veracity of this statement. We must be alert to such descriptions and examine them before believing one side or the other, and/or promoting one view over another. Whose interests are served?

It is also important to examine how the flow of information works. This blog post is a very good example of an academic using his 'conscience of society' requirement to find out and publicise information, but having to be circumspect in doing so because of the way the processes of undermining of credibility is likely to be serving very particular interests.

We also owe it to those we teach to ensure they are cognisant of their online actions and data and how these actions may detrimentally affect others. Reviewing, rewriting, rethinking before posting are wise cautions. Verifying information is also important and is a necessary process to emphasise at every level of education. The simple question that asks How do you know? is crucial. Expecting students to pose that question to interrogate what they find on the web, is I believe, a core task every teacher should facilitate with students - and as often as possible. Cyber-safety is a double-edged sword - minding our privacy and that of others is important, as is the ethical behaviour which is about not doing harm. Establishing whether or not other people's revelations are about the public interest or the serving of corporate or political interests is also hugely important so we don't end up  being implicated in less than honest or ethical purposes.

We welcome your own thoughts on this.

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