Decolonising Social Media

Decentralisation and federation allow developing countries to be masters in their own digital house

The impact of social media on developing countries has received little attention in the popular press, with the exception of horrendous events such as the attempted extirpation of the Rohingya people in Myanmar.

These impacts are real and cannot be overstated.

Here in Melanesia, societies are at once more susceptible to gossip-driven scares and even mob behaviour, and more resilient in the face of it. It’s easier to set people off, and it’s easier to spread common sense.

The simple reason is that we are closer together. Your neighbour may drive you round the bend from time to time, but go far enough round the bend and you’ve done a circuit of the island. They’re not going anywhere, and neither are you. That’s the historical truth, anyway.

Social media has made the public sphere vastly larger and noisier, but the same rules apply, more or less.

Women are harassed, abused and faced with physical harm not just by their family and neighbours now, but by the entire online population.

Gadflies and conscientious objectors face opprobrium not just from the chiefs and other people of rank, but from masses of virulent and often anonymous attackers.

And anonymity/pseudonymity is a novelty that many struggle to come to terms with. While it’s freed the tongues of many who felt constrained from speaking before, a significant minority of them have used that liberty to behave horribly to others.

But in the midst of this chaos and rancour, a fascinating thing has happened: People are learning to moderate debate in real time. The pattern here in Vanuatu typically runs like this:

A person attacks another, making allegations that might or might not be true. One side piles on, either in concert with or in reaction to the original poster. Generally speaking, the conversational tide runs almost entirely in one direction, with few people showing the gumption (or the chutzpah) to gainsay the rest.

But then, slowly and sometimes softly at first, the first words of moderation appear. Before long, others find it in themselves to support this view or to supplement it with their own objections. Eventually, a trend begins to come clear, and comments with widely divergent views either peter out or are drowned out.

The process can sometimes be outright vituperative, sometimes not. Sometimes the right answer is found, sometimes the wrong one is reinforced. But even in the worst cases, where we see incitement to violence, to burn homes, expel people, exact vengeance or pour shame on a person or group, there are few if any instances of people actually acting on them.

In cases where people actually have done reprehensible things to one another, they were seldom discussed or organised over public social media channels. Slut shaming in cases of perceived infidelity are the one glaring exception.

The flow of discourse resembles nothing so much as a village meeting. I’ve attended more than a few, and they tend to follow the same pattern. If you walk in cold to the early stages of a contentious meeting, it can sometimes feel like the only possible outcome is open conflict. The tension is often palpable.

But as it unrolls, tempers begin to subside, and more nuanced and reasonable arguments begin to emerge. By the end of it, more often than not, the chief is able to find a ruling that will carry the room, and people part with handshakes and a sense of having accomplished something.

(I’m painting with a very broad brush here, so forgive the massive elisions in that description.)

We’ve been able to resist of the worst conspiracy mongering here. Even when Indonesian state actors conducted a Cambridge Analytica-style campaign to undermine confidence in the government of the day, the effect was minimal.

But it didn’t stop until high-level meetings were held with Facebook executives. Faced with a Prime Minister fully prepared to regulate them or see them leave the market immediately, they did the right thing.

That was only one victory among literally thousands of attempts. Dozens of user reports concerning this influence network received no response at all. Hundreds of reports of incitement and hateful comments went unheeded. In rare cases where a response was received, Facebook’s so-called community standards allowed imagery and language that were shocking to us—and to any thinking, feeling human. Images of dead and dismembered bodies, sexualised and clearly brutalised children… the list goes on.

Then, adding insult to injury, imagery of people in kastom dress were banned, because apparently a nambas or a nipple is beyond the pale, even though they scarcely raise an eyebrow here.

The push here became strong enough that Facebook’s head of Global Connectivity Policy met privately with the Prime Minister to dissuade him from moving ahead with a proposal to require them to register as a local company.

The Prime Minister’s rationale was that Over The Top services such as Facebook should be required to contribute to our Universal Access Policy, the same way all local telecommunication providers are.

But another, and I believe more compelling, argument is language. There is no business case for Facebook to provide support for Bislama, Solomons pidgin, Tok Pisin or any other of the thousand-plus languages in the Pacific islands. It’s just never going to happen.

The only way these languages—and our cultures and societies—get the respect and support they deserve is when social media networks become our networks. Without ownership of the content and of the management service, we are not masters in our own house.

Technology generally and social media in particular can accurately be described as a (re)colonising force. The imposition of standards, expectations and requirements that are not only foreign and new, but often beyond the capability of a great many people here doesn’t just bring development potential. More to the point, they’re largely impossible to alter to fit the local context.

Technology and social media are just as subversive as they are liberating.

And while our societies are generally better at self-regulation, we’re hardly perfect. The suffering and subjugation of women in the Pacific has always been a matter of concern. Social media adds slut-shaming, stalking, coercive talk and mobbing to their already tremendous burden.

The inexperienced have often been victimised by cons, scams and schemes, but they have only grown in proportion since the advent of the internet and social media.

Decentralisation and federation of social media services doesn’t fix everything. It doesn’t provide any guarantees at all. Except one: if we screw it up, it’ll be our screw up, not someone else’s.

And that’s what decolonisation has always been about.

Selling Democracy, Revisited

Why do decentralisation and federation matter, and how do we use them?

My last missive discussed the technical (and to a lesser degree, the social) arguments for a decentralised, federated approach to social media.

It didn’t entirely answer a kind of a big question: Why do we need it?

In a word: Jurisdiction.

There’s no end in sight to Facebook’s 14-year apology tour, and following the announcement that they’re going to take their ball and go home unless Australian news media stop asking for a share of the pyre—er, pie—it’s abundantly clear that something has to happen.

In a conveniently (but not deliberately) timed piece of news, Facebook has shown that it’s willing to take steps to control malicious activity, especially when it comes to state-to-state mis/disinformation operations. Their globe-bestriding status makes it possible for them to analyse and avoid these abuses.

But reach is exactly why their platform is being used for these ops. And lord knows they’ve been effective. Carole Cadwalladr’s exposé of Cambridge Analytica makes it abundantly clear that the platform is a near-ideal factory for weapons-grade propaganda.

I’m counting the hours before the folks at Facebook begin to leverage that power to dig themselves like a tick into our digital landscape. The only thing that keeps them from doing it right now is potential loss of trust among their audience, and the fear that acting in one nation’s favour might prejudice their relationship with another.

In short, they’re still trying to have their cake and eat it too.

Australia’s decision to foist regulation on the company upsets that delicate balance. Now, they have to decide. Publicly at least, Josh Frydenberg has stated that his government won’t respond to Facebook’s extortionate plan to simply turn off all Australian news.

But I expect that if there isn’t a strategic national interest conversation going on right now between the platform and the state, there will be. It’s also highly likely that Facebook will realise that Rupert Murdoch is their adversary, and the Australian Government is simply the hatchet man.

Once it does, all bets are off. Can, as Willie Nelson so coyly put it, old age and treachery beat youth and skill? Not forever. And, I suspect, not this time.

But if Facebook continues to take an antagonistic stance, there will be blood. And they will be subjected to regulation. And it will lead inexorably to more.

AT&T survived its breakup. Microsoft survived the legal sanctions it was burdened with, as well as the commodification of its operating system and software. Despite a balls to the wall rear-guard action against free software, open protocols and interoperability in the nineties and early oughties, it’s still ticking along just fine.

Google will survive as well, because it can argue much more convincingly for the good it does. With a lower evil index, it presents a smaller attack surface for its adversaries. And frankly, it could drop Google News tomorrow and remain the company everyone thinks it is.

But Facebook is a different kettle of fish. Along with its liberating and democratising influence, it brings the potential to quite literally overturn societies, inflict immense damage on personal lives, and oust regimes.

They’re doomed by their own dominance, and damned by their own tacit admission in their threats against Australian media that they actually have market dominance. The one defence a monopoly has is not to abuse that position, and that was the first card they threw away.

That’s why, no matter what play they choose, they’re going to find themselves coping with the perils of interacting with—and accepting liability in—all of the world’s jurisdictions.

It won’t all happen tomorrow, and it won’t all happen because of this stoush with Murdoch. But it will happen.

So if they’re smart, they’ll hive off the risky part, the one the plays an editorial role. They’ll either fragment themselves into a federation of national operations (more or less like every multinational that deals in physical goods), or if they’re really smart, they’ll open up their platform on a pay-for-play basis, and allow other companies to cling remora-like to their data corpus.

That makes for more modest profits, but it wins those profits with next to no accountability.

This is a terrible outcome for some people, of course. The moment you force an information service to work within the constraints of an authoritarian environment, you place people at risk.

The trade-off here is that people would only be at risk from their own authoritarians, and not their strategic rivals and adversaries.

People call this balkanisation. I get it. I don’t like it either, but commercialised and commoditised access to Facebook’s user base is really the only way we preserve anything of worth for a great many people. The stakes are high, and sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good.

And that’s why decentralisation and federation are a good idea for Facebook today.

Three Principles for Digital Journalism

Journalism will only ever be valued if human society places appropriate and equal value on Personal Privacy, Honest Discourse, and Public Openness

What’s wrong with journalism? What happened to trust? 

Maybe those aren’t the right questions. Maybe it’s not what’s wrong with it. Maybe it’s what’s wrong with us. Journalism didn’t change. We did. All of us. We changed the way we think about things, but we didn’t change the way we know them.

Fixing Journalism really means Fixing Us. Us journalists can’t do it for others, but we can’t stand around waiting for the rest of the world to do it for themselves. Maybe there are a few basic principles we can apply ourselves, and trust others to learn and apply them in time.

Journalism is not a thing unto itself. It’s not an externality, existing outside of government, finance, culture and society. It is intrinsic to them all, an answer to one of the key questions in humanity’s perpetual quest for truth.

Sounds highfalutin’, but there it is: The News is what comes out when someone asks, ‘Says who?’

Lies and the Lying Liars who Lie Them (i.e. Us)

From the moment the first hominid used a pre-linguistic vocalisation to cry wolf (or bear, or tiger, or whatever) we’ve been lying to each other.

Many species do. Birds have been taped using false alarm calls to chase competitors away from a kill. Arctic ravens have developed elaborate ruses to draw sled dogs away from their meat long enough for others to slip in and grab a mouthful.

Lying works. Until it no longer does. There’s an all-too-real Tragedy of the Common Tongue that happens when falsehood overwhelms truth, creating radical social harm. Look no further than rumour-driven mob violence, blood libel, pogroms and, God forgive us, the Holocaust to see how devastating falsehoods can become.

This lesson, alas, is as old as humanity itself.

We don’t need truth in every part of our lives. We really don’t want truth in some parts. But we need to know where to find it when we do.

That’s what journalism is.

Honesty, not Trust

Before we can talk about the place of truth in society, we need to make a distinction. Our ultimate goal in establishing a truthful medium of communication is not to create, sustain or enhance trust. Trust is the shim we drive between the very uneven surfaces of credulity and honesty. It may stabilise things in the short term, but there are better ways to compensate for our inability to verify everything always. Trust wears out easily and must often be replaced.

It’s possible to create a complete picture of personal, social and public truth without ever relying outright on trust. That comes when we distinguish between an honest person and an honest statement.

There has never been, nor will there ever be, a person of unalloyed honesty. Even Jesus fibbed a little.

It is possible however for the most dishonest person in the world occasionally to say an honest thing. There’s no need to exercise ourselves unnecessarily over silly things like bias, subjectivity, spin, opinion, perception, and every overcaffeinated wanker ever who asked, ‘But what really is real, man?’

We have only to ask instead, ‘Is this an honest statement?’

Before drench your screen in an indignant spit-take, remember: This isn’t a philosophical treatise. It’s merely an attempt to find a quick and workmanlike framework to begin usefully to determine what the fuck we’re going to do about the death of truth.

Odds are remarkably good that whenever someone questions another person’s honesty, one of them is lying. It is often fairly easy to determine which.

Ignore the wider questions for a moment. Fuck Post-Modernism, and fuck Platonism too. The only question that matters to us is a simple one: Are both participants being equally honest when they claim to be seeking the truth of a particular matter?

That’s not terribly hard to determine, most of the time. Just keep requiring evidence to back their argument. The first person to repeat or run out of it loses. It’s hardly perfect, but it mostly works.

(Yes, there are countless examples of situations where this doesn’t work. Remember: we’re not trying to solve the problem, we’re only trying to combat it. Nor are we suggesting that there’s only One True Answer. There generally ain’t. Which is kind of the point.)

Removing trust is a good thing. A three-legged stool never wobbles. A four legged one almost always does.

The Three-Legged Stool

If honesty is the one leg of the stool, what are the other two, then?

Privacy. Openness.

They’re not contradictory, or even necessarily competitive. And they don’t need to be precisely positioned. As long as we don’t place any of the three legs too close together, the stool will balance well enough.

So where exactly should we place privacy and openness? Before we can answer that, we need to remember what they aren’t.

Privacy is not secrecy. Privacy is something unknown or undiscovered. Secrecy is something hidden. Big difference. One runs the gamut from ignorance to indifference. The other runs the gamut from discretion to deceit.

Retrospectively (and uselessly), privacy is what you didn’t have a right to know; and secrecy is what you did.

In sufficient quantities, both ignorance and indifference can be culpable flaws. But in moderation, they are eminently forgivable, and easily cured.

As long as we never allow either to become a virtue, we just might be okay. Denigrating knowledge is anathema, and people who claim that their own knowledge (or ignorance) is somehow purer and more valuable than another’s are guilty of inexcusable sin.

There can be no private truths. The things we feel individually or in isolated groups are sometimes beautiful, even transcendent. But they are not The Truth. ‘My Truth’ may be philosophically beautiful, affirming, and metaphysically enriching. But private truths are simply a thing we have, alone or together. Not less valuable. Not more. But not Truth.

Likewise, there is no Higher Truth. Not for journalists. There is what is provable, and nothing else. We are, practically speaking, Aristotelian, or we’re not journalists at all. (We’re not telling you how to live; we’re telling you how to work.)

So the things we keep to ourselves, no matter how empirically provable, are of no practical interest to a journalist, except as invaluable and illuminating facets of human experience. Who does your hair? Who dresses you? What side do you sleep on? Who do you sleep beside? Who you sleep with on the side? How do you make your own toes curl? Who’s your spirit guide? All knowable; all pretty cool. But not news.

If it’s not widely shared, there’s no need for it to be known.

If it’s personal, it’s private. It belongs only to those with whom it is willingly shared. This is a rule.

No Secrets

The point at which suppression ceases to be tactful and starts to become malicious is hard to see. Undiscovered crimes are not private; they’re secret. But where do they start happening?

Practically speaking, where does my fist end and your nose start? It’s not a static question, it’s a measure of forces, dynamics. Arguably, your nose started in the space occupied by my fist when I was winding up to belt you. Or in the years of bullying that preceded that. Or in the institutions that led us to assume the other was Other. It’s messy, which is why it has to be approached honestly, which is to say questingly. And fallibly.

Still: What’s personal is private. What’s secret should be shared.

In the early days of the Internet, radical openness was briefly chic–at least among a minority. David Brin’s essays on the topic were not as influential as they might have been if people hadn’t been so busy getting rich off Big Data. But they were pretty neat. In a far-too-tiny nutshell, he argued that all secrets will inevitably be revealed, so better to do without shame than to pretend others don’t know.

He used the Japanese fusuma as his metaphor, the paper wall which magically blocked farts, domestic fracases, sex sounds and countless other private matters. Just pull the door closed and the other room ceases to exist. It’s a nice idea.

A more judicious and more scholarly analysis of the dangerous dynamics of digital disequilibrium came in the Harvard Law Review. In 2013, Neil M Richards wrote about The Dangers of Surveillance. At the heart of his principled cry for what he described as ‘intellectual privacy’ is the contention that it’s not data per se that is dangerous to an individual, but the disparity of access to it.

Our problem, the argument runs, is not that Facebook knows everything about us, but that we know next to nothing about Facebook. What exactly does it know? Who else is it telling? Why is this lie/ad/scam/rumour being shown to me right now? What information about me makes their algo think I’ll be particularly receptive to this so-called ‘sponsored content’?

If we knew the answers to these questions, it would at least make the task of unraveling the untruth a trifle more possible.

As things stand right now, though, Facebook happily and without even the slightest distinction takes money from spivs, salesmen, cranks, crooks, politicians (but I repeat myself), prats and proselytisers, and serves their dross to us in a package that is deliberately made to look allllmost like the truth.

They are breaking all the rules. They are not being honest, they are hiding secrets from us, and they are deliberately collapsing the distance between what is private and personal, and what’s public.

The same is true of every single organisation that controls large amounts of our private information. Every single one. Fight me.

The EU among others has taken often draconian steps to protect what it calls privacy, but without ever adequately defining the word.

In the United States, a small army of high-minded thinkers infused with the sanctity of the First Amendment have threatened cataclysm if even the notion of self-restraint be motivated by anything except individual conscience. In so doing, they inadvertently enable soulless data combines to harvest an entire generation’s privacy and store that seed grain in private silos like Monsantos of the mind.

And this so-called essay, this tendentious half-witted jeremiad, is a comically futile response.

Like an Arial Grande Armee, it will be whittled down to nothing as it traverses the pallid, windblown steppe extending from the VC-studded plains of Silicon Valley to the Ivy League veldt, where the elephants are one by one permitted Into The Room.

Still, We Die

Meanwhile, we journalists die. We are literally killed, or merely criminalised, imprisoned, exiled, doxed, bankrupted, sacked, ground down, denigrated, ridiculed and (miserere dictu) ignored.

It’s because we have no place in this. Human society can’t find where we fit any more.

Because we don’t even know who we are.

We harbour our own secrets. We pimp out our own honesty. We pillage everyone’s privacy and don’t admit that’s what we’re doing.

There’s no point in ascribing motive to all of this. We know why it is. We’re chasing engagement. We’re chasing an audience that’s chasing hot takes. We’re corralling eyeballs, and damn the consequences. The days of the free range consciousness were always numbered. We didn’t start the intellectual range wars. We’re just waging its last campaign.

We’re playing at arbitrage in the attention economy, and losing on nearly every bet.

Even those of us who fight for an open congress of ideas, those who defend the constricting borders of intellectual agnosticism and curiosity as an end in itself… we’re still guilty of thinking of that turf as ours.

(You did, didn’t you? Until you read that.)

There’s no saving us, you know. Nothing will take us back to what we had. No funding, no mandate, no laws will ever return us to the days when Uncle Walter could remove his glasses, turn to the camera, and share his fear that we might not be winning the war.

And thank fucking god for that.

Because that world was rife with secrets. It was rank with dishonesty. The only thing it had in any abundance at all was privacy. Privacy enough to be poor in. To live in. To die in.

Trimming the Legs

A three legged stool may never wobble, but it can be so skewed that it’s an impossible perch. We don’t need perfection, and remember, we’re not seeking solutions. Not here. We only want a framework workable enough to hold us up while we knock out the next thousand words.

Secrecy is the leg that most needs trimming. That can be achieved with a simple realisation: The single greatest expense (measuring time, effort and coin) in journalism is fighting secrecy. National security, the corporate veil, and personal data in public places–every single one of these things has been so solemnised and sanctified that governments and corporations barely make a pretense any more of recognising the public’s right to know.

If it’s data about the public, the public should be able to see it. If it’s public money, the public should be able to see exactly and in detail how it’s spent.

If the data’s not in a presentable form for the public, then we’ve every right to ask why not. If it costs too much to present to the public, well then, just give us what you use, and bind us by the same rules you apply to those who use it. If it can be ethically administered, it can be ethically reported on.

Assuming a journo can distinguish between private and secret, everything should be fine. Sure, domain-specific knowledge comes into it, and technical proficiency, and character tests, and background checks, and lord knows what else. There are processes for all of that.

If we stop thinking about access to our data as a privilege and start accepting it as a right, then it becomes not just possible, but reasonable to find a way to integrate journalism into the functions of a healthy society, not as a cog hanging off the end of the assembly, but as a piston in the motor.

The Secret State

National security has always been an inner circle shibboleth, and as they gain power, the initiated fight to reduce their own numbers. They don’t just want to close the door behind them, they want to kill everyone else in the room. Metaphorically speaking.

This is the age-old affliction of cabalism.

There are few real reasons to hide most information. Most justifications are predicated on security through obscurity. And they endure not because they’re valid, but because discrediting them uncloaks most of the shamanry that populates the upper reaches of power.

There can be no journalism if there’s nothing to do journalism with. Every public organisation owes the world its secrets.

That’s not an absolute. It’s an ideal. And like all good ideals, it’s pretty fucking useless except as a thing to find exceptions to.

The great sin, though, is thinking that you’re winning when you find one.

Data is People! (one one bang bang eleven)

The contention that big data, the algorithms that shepherd it and the profits that derive are all private is bullshit.

The contention that the resources required to acquire data, put some shape on it, and make sense of it all spring up sui generis like mushrooms in Mario World is equally bullshit.

There is absolutely nothing in the world, bar a few private islands worth of wealth, that stops corporations from building their algos publicly, sharing exactly how they were built, down to the slightest minutiae, and still making a very large bundle of dosh. Better still, that bundle of dosh can be amicably and equitably shared among all the contributors to this wealth creation project in amounts commensurate to their contribution.

Socialism! Yes. Just don’t say it like it’s a bad thing.

The ‘how’ of big data algorithms is devilishly hard to understand, and hella expensive. The ‘what’, however is not. And people have a right to know it.

This is not the Secret Sauce. Or maybe it is, but who cares? It’s a secret sauce that can only be spread on a Very Large Dataset using Very Large Resources.

And it’s a Secret Sauce made for use on Us.

If algos and their impacts were public, companies would only have the size and composition of their dataset to compete with. And they would retain the allegiance of that data set (data is people!) by making it worth the data’s while.

That’s how it works right now, only people’s data is kept secret from them. The public don’t have any way to choose who to trust it with, and for what purpose. Those secrets must be revealed. It’s not the end of the world. It won’t bring the data giants crashing down.

It does mean they’d need to compete more, and compete on things we all can see, and measure.

That might be convenience. That might be services tailor-made to order, okay Google? That might be by demonstrably and consistently telling the truth (which would be pretty cool). That may mean straight up profit sharing. Who cares? We’re not prescribing, remember?

(Most) Secrets are Lies…

… and many of those lies are ours.

The majority of the things defined as secret in public sectors everywhere are just facts that might be embarrassing to the government of the day.

Much of the time, they’re embarrassing because we in the media use them to embarrass the government of the day. They are not in and of themselves embarrassing; they are weaponised to commit acts of embarrassment by organisations who are sceptical, cynical, or even inimical to the current posse of elected poseurs.

The ability to embarrass is often crafted by those who want to take (or retake) power. It is always an overtly political process. The moment you put yourself in opposition to whatever power may be, you are committing an act of politics.

To say otherwise is dishonest.

The problem, to return to the beginning, is not whether we can be trusted, but whether we can be honest with each other. Hate the Libs? Own it. Be open about it. Think the Cons are kooks? Good for you!

Now prove it. Be honest. And never forget that to be honest is to be persuadable. It’s as important to be wrong as it is to be right.

None of this Works. Use it well.

This is all useless idealistic claptrap, of course. The slate can’t be cleaned. Our multi-decamillennial legacy of self-deception, tribalism and faith-making can’t be undone by a few well-meaning words.

The Truth is fucked. We’re fucked. We always have been and we always will be.

On the bright side, though, we always have been, and always will be.

This cha/quix/otic ramble across the sere, Goya-esque tableau of Journalism’s Last Stand serves no prescriptive value. It does, though, provide us with a three-legged stool to rest on for a bit. To reflect on what we mean by journalism, to remember that it’s an answer to a problem.

To rethink what the problem is.

Things get better (at least easier to accept) when we reporters apply these questions to our work, and maybe to our lives:

  • Is it private? Yes? Ignore it.
  • Is it honest? Yes? Then share it.
  • Is it secret? Yes? Then expose it.

The triple principle of Personal Privacy, Honest Dialogue, and Public Openness is not an answer. It’s not much of anything at all. But it’s useful.

It’s useful in the same way that Komatsu’s legendary mission statement, ‘Surround Caterpillar’ animated every single action the company took. It’s a mantra, and a good one.

Use it well.

Andy Ayamiseba and his wife in 2014

The long road home

Originally published by the Pacific Institute of Public Policy, this 2013 appreciation of Andy Ayamiseba’s life of activism in exile is one of the few narratives of the compelling story of the Black Brothers and their seminal role the formulation of a modern Melanesian identity, and in keeping the West Papuan independence movement alive in Melanesia.

Andy died a few days ago. While he was loved, admired and supported in Vanuatu, he fought tirelessly to win a home he could return to. He died before the dream was achieved.

In 1983, Andy Ayamiseba and the rest of the Black Brothers band descended from their flight to Port Vila’s Bauerfield airport, to be greeted by the entire cabinet of the newly fledged government of Vanuatu. They were, by Melanesian standards, superstars. They had come to assist Father Walter Lini’s Vanua’aku Pati in its first re-election campaign, and to pass on the message of freedom for West Papua. So began a relationship that would span a lifetime of activism, a liberation dream long deferred, and ultimately, a first glimmer of hope for political legitimacy for the West Papuan liberation movement.

The Black Brothers were already widely known and loved in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Touring PNG in the late 1970s, the band members first met Vanuatu independence figures, including Hilda Lini, Kalkot Mataskelekele and Silas Hakwa. Students at the University of Papua New Guinea at the time, they returned to Vanuatu to play key roles in Vanuatu’s move to independence.

A generation later, it’s hard to imagine the immediacy, the passion and the dynamism of the time. Kalkot Mataskelekele, who would later serve as Solicitor General and on the Supreme Court bench before becoming the republic’s 6th president, was a young firebrand operating a pirate radio service from the bush north of the capital. Hilda Lini, sister to two prime ministers and the first woman elected to Vanuatu’s parliament, was a tireless organiser, working behind the scenes to promote what would become the Vanua’ku Pati.

In hindsight, it seems almost inevitable that the dynamism of this callow young political leadership would mesh and meld with the creative iconoclasm of the Black Brothers. But it had to wait before it reached its full fruition. In 1980 the Indonesian government expelled Ayamiseba and the other band members. Stateless, they sought shelter in the Netherlands. Hilda Lini had contacted them in 1980 during a visit to Europe, but it wasn’t until 1983 that they obtained refugee status and official residency. Finally able to travel again, their first destination was Vanuatu.

It was a triumphal entry. They were welcomed by Father Walter Lini’s government and a large crowd of adoring fans. Likewise, on their first visit to Solomon Islands, the roads were so packed that it took the group two hours to get from the airport into town. Their concert the next day was attended by 28,000 fans.

This week’s [2013] visit to Honiara will be somewhat more low-key, and yet perhaps more epochal than the original Black Brothers crusade. With funding and official support from the government of Vanuatu, independence leaders John Ondawame and Andy Ayamiseba are continuing their tour of Melanesian Spearhead Group members, soliciting support for membership in the sub-regional organisation. The West Papua National Coalition of Liberation, or WPNCL, is an amalgam of two previously divergent wings of the OPM (in English, the Organisation for Papuan Freedom) and a number of political groups advocating for West Papuan independence.

Having met already with the Fijian and Vanuatu prime ministers as well as the incoming chair of the MSG and head of the FLNKS, Andy and John are hopeful that their meetings with Solomon Islands prime minister Darcy Lilo will be equally fruitful. In an interview last week, Ayamiseba explained that he had met and befriended Lilo during his sojourn in Honiara in the mid-90s.

Should Solomon Islands decide to voice its support for WPNCL membership in the MSG, most of the political hurdles will have been cleared for what might prove to be the first crack of light through the doorway of political legitimacy for the cause.
Arguably, the critical opening came weeks before, when Sir Michael Somare voiced the opinion that the MSG is not an intergovernmental organisation, but an organisation of peoples, joined by culture and geography. The statement, made during a celebration of the MSG 25th anniversary, came as a surprise to some. In 2008, it was Somare who flatly blocked a motion to consider West Papuan membership in the MSG. (Admittedly, the motion was ill-timed and ill-prepared. Ayamiseba himself admits that his group had no prior knowledge, and were caught by surprise when it was tabled.)

Political legitimacy for West Papuan independence in the Pacific has long been subject to the vicissitudes of Melanesian politics. While Ayamiseba’s group were the darlings of the Vanua’ku Pati, and by extension the government of Vanuatu, the association came at a price. They were expelled from the country following the party’s schism in 1989, forcing Andy to seek asylum, first in Australia, then in Solomon Islands. His friendship with then-PM Mamaloni notwithstanding, efforts to further the independence movement stalled.

Progress elsewhere in the world was also stymied by realpolitik. In 1986, even nations such as Ghana, which had objected to the manner in which West Papua was brought under Indonesian rule, were less than responsive to overtures by John Ondawame, who had officially joined the independence movement’s leadership following its reunification the year before in Port Vila.

Despite the fact that it clearly flouted international law in its annexation of the territory, no country outside of Melanesia offered significant criticism of Indonesia’s actions in West Papua. Not, at least, until new media and the internet began to break down the wall of silence that had been erected around the territory. But even in the face of clearly documented torture, assassination and political oppression, many nations are still loth to legitimise the independence movement.

In Vanuatu, arguably the home of West Papuan independence, the road to freedom has been a long one, as full of pitfalls and obstacles as Port Vila’s physical thoroughfares – and sometimes, just as poorly managed. When Barak Sope became prime minister in 2000, he brought together nine members of the West Papuan leadership and brokered an accord that would finally bring all independence efforts under one roof. Later that year, his delegation to the UN General Assembly included three West Papuans, two OPM members and one from the Presidium. There, in an alarming example of fervour trumping political savvy, they met with the Cuban delegation.

For all of his energy, support and contributions to Melanesian identity, Barak Sope’s political ineptitude soon brought his government down. His failure even to produce a budget caused significant domestic turmoil, which effectively forced West Papua onto the back burner. It wasn’t until 2003 that foreign affairs minister Serge Vohor welcomed back the Black Brothers, and facilitated the opening of the West Papuan People’s Representative Office, a front for the OPM.

International awareness and support were limited. Vanuatu continued to fumble the issue, balking at formal political support while continuing to express public sympathy and tacit approval. Elsewhere, tribal leader Benny Wenda’s escape from Indonesian custody and flight to the UK opened another front in the campaign. Indonesia did itself no favours when it abused the INTERPOL red list by issuing a warrant for Wenda’s arrest.

For several years, the movement seemed paralysed, unable to organise itself, beset by legal constraints and barely able to manage its own processes. Vanuatu politicians proved fickle, with VP president Edward Natapei voicing support but doing little. Ham Lini, whose personal commitment to the cause remains strong, was unwilling to expend more political capital on the effort after the 2008 MSG debacle. Sato Kilman, the next prime minister in line, wilfully ignored the advice of his own cabinet, supporting Voreqe Bainimarama’s move to allow Indonesia observer status at the organisation.

Quietly persistent, Ayamiseba and Ondawame continued their efforts. Its moral cause made clearer by stark images of torture and brutality circulated by West Papua Media and others, the leadership (under the auspices of the WPNCL) organised an international tour for Benny Wenda, whose travel restrictions were lifted following legal and media campaigns against Indonesia’s INTERPOL warrant. Even Wenda’s rebuff by the New Zealand parliament only fanned the flames of support. His invitation to speak to MPs inside Vanuatu’s parliament was the first of a series of small but significant breakthroughs. Notably, soon-to-be prime minister Moana Carcasses’ attendance at the event was the first public sign of his political break with Kilman.

A naturalised citizen of Tahitian descent, Carcasses perhaps felt the need to placate the nativist inclination common among Ni Vanuatu. Nonetheless, allowing himself to be photographed holding the Morning Star flag (a key symbol of West Papuan independence) symbolised a shift from sympathy to overt political support for the movement. In one of his first acts as prime minister, Carcasses met with Ayamiseba and Ondawame, personally assuring them of his government’s support in their MSG membership bid, and promising the creation of a West Papua desk in the department of foreign affairs.

Arriving as it did on the heels of a surprisingly warm and supportive reception by Bainimarama and other Fiji government officials, the independence movement appeared finally to be seeing the light of day. Outspoken and unambiguous support for membership from the Kanaky leadership was not nearly as surprising; they’ve formally supported independence since the 1990s. Nonetheless, with the FLNKS assuming the group chair shortly, Kanaky support could prove crucial.

At the risk of counting chickens, it seems that the only remaining piece to fall into place is Papua New Guinea. Wenda’s visit to PNG earlier this year did manage to cement some amount of popular support, but achieved few tangible political results. The tea leaves are few and hard to read, but it’s hard to imagine that Somare’s rather startling shift away from outright opposition would have been made were it to cause discomfort in the PNG political establishment.

One of the more popular songs Ayamiseba wrote for the Black Brothers is ‘Liklik Hope Tasol’, a ballad written in Tok Pisin whose title translates to ‘Little Hope At All’. Its narrator lies awake in the early morning hours, the victim of despair. Only the vision of the morning star and the first birds breaking the pre-dawn hush provide the impetus to survive another day. The song, with its clear political imagery and simplistic evocation of strength in adversity, is clearly autobiographical. It is, arguably, the anthem which has animated Ayamiseba’s lifelong pursuit of freedom.
Andy Ayamiseba is old now. While his encroaching frailty complements his unassuming, soft-spoken manner, it masks a dynamism and fervour that only appear after numerous conversations. Once lit, however, that spark provides a glimpse of the man that was, the jazz-funk rebel, walking in his exile hand in hand with equally youthful –and equally naïve– leaders, themselves burdened with defining their respective societies.

What beggars description, though, is the determination required for Ayamiseba and his West Papuan brethren to spend their entire adult lives in pursuit of legitimacy, with only the slightest glint of light to show for that effort. May 1st marks the 50th anniversary of West Papua’s original declaration of independence. Barring any more political missteps or forays into ill-considered revolutionary activity, the coming year might be the one in which its political aspirations begin to be fulfilled. Says Ayamiseba, “You cannot stay blind and deaf for 50 years.”

Post Scriptum. Andy Died February 21 2020. He lived to see the formation of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, the umbrella organisation representing the chief members of the independence movement. He looked on proudly as its members march triumphantly into the MSG headquarters to lodge their membership application. He was there when Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu and Prime Minister Charlot Salwai opened the official ULMWP office in Port Vila.

But he never went home.

Searching for JJ

Some people spend their lives in endless, often fruitless pursuit of an Academy Award. Those people are not from Vanuatu.

Vanuatu woke up today to a rather startling piece of news. Tanna, a movie filmed entirely with amateur indigenous actors on location in and around the kastom village of Yakel, was a finalist for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Then it rolled over and went back to sleep.

When I got the news of the nomination, I began a full-court press to get a reaction from the cast.

That turned into an adventure.

I confess it freely: My heart skipped a beat. Not just because of the inarguable beauty of the film. Not just because it is woven of the same stuff that persuaded me to make a new life in the South Pacific so many years ago.

Mostly, it was because I wanted to see the look on Marceline’s face.

Marceline plays a key role in Tanna’s tragic story. She was nine years old when the movie was made. Significant parts of the film are viewed through her eyes, and her innocence is the gateway to unutterable grief before the credits roll.

I met Marceline on her very first day outside of the island of Tanna. She had never seen a town as big as Port Vila (POP. 50,000) before, and it was exhausting. When she and some of the cast showed up at our radio station late in the afternoon, she was done in. I asked her a few questions in Bislama, and received monosyllabic answers in return. Before the interview was even halfway done, she was full length on the leather couch, sound asleep, her head in cast-mate Marie Wawa’s lap.

Marceline’s world in Tanna is not a fiction. It’s not a memory, either. The scenes you see in Tanna are still playing themselves out today. Her clothing might be a little more natty than what you saw in the film, but grass skirts are still the going thing.

My heart went out to the little girl as I watched her struggling to come to terms with a place that had car after car after car, a place that was noisome and dusty and loud.

I started to take her photo at one point, but immediately relented when I saw her begin to flinch.

One of the stars of the movie Tanna, nine year-old Marceline, smiles during the gala premiere of the movie at Tana Cine in Port Vila. Tanna opens to the public tomorrow.

How in the world was she going to be able to deal with the strobing tumult of the red carpet? The cast members were en route to the Venice Film Festival, following Tanna’s selection in the prestigious Critic’s Week. The film went on to win the People’s Choice award and the Critic’s Award for cinematography.

On their return, I caught up with the group at the airport, shortly before they headed back to their island. Marceline seemed perfectly at home in her skin, a changed creature from the shy and hesitant child I’d seen only a couple of weeks before.

“How did it go?” I asked her in Bislama. “When all the photographers were taking your photo all at once, how did you manage it?”

She shot me a worldly, knowing look, and said, “You get used to it. After a while, it’s no problem.”

The next time they came to Port Vila, it was for the Vanuatu premiere of the film, at our only actual cinema. Marceline and the rest of the core cast members were there, all dressed up in their ceremonial regalia.

This time, when I pointed the camera at her, she gave me a smile as wide as a river.

Starring in one of the most notable films of the year doesn’t quite have the same cachet in Vanuatu as it does elsewhere. For one thing, people have to know about it.

We contacted the Cultural Centre, which facilitates contact with Tanna’s traditional villages. They told us that the phone number they had didn’t work anymore, but there was good news: JJ and Dain, producer and lead actor respectively, had moved up in the world.

They’d both left the island and found employment. As night watchmen with a local security company.

No number was available, but this is Vanuatu, after all. We decided to use the tried and tested coconut telegraph method.

The Cultural Centre worker told us that JJ—whom the world knows as the interpreter on Channel 4’s wildly popular Meet The Natives—was still around. He’d acted as ambassador/interpreter/facilitator between a group of Tannese men from a village that bestowed demigod status on Prince Phillip, and their hosts at different locations in the UK, including Prince Phillip himself.

JJ, happily ensconced at the Daily Post office after a day-long search for him.

JJ is a man about town. He’s gregarious, knowing, worldly and warm-hearted. He’s also a gifted promoter and knows how to keep himself in the story. An essential person, in other words, if you want to spend six months creating a film based on tragic events that are still vividly etched in the memories of the people of Yakel village.

Dain is utterly the man he portrays in Tanna. Laconic, deeply honourable and dignified, terse almost to a fault. And smouldering. Sadly, he’s also gone back to Tanna. He’d had enough of punching the clock.

And we won’t see Marceline until she transits through on her way to Los Angeles.

But we soldiered on throughout the day, fruitlessly searching for JJ, our last best hope. Our Modus Operandi was simple: Find a place he’d been seen, go there, and ask where we could find him.

Again and again, I said the magic words ‘Academy Award’. No bite. People smiled and said, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’

‘It’s the highest possible prize a movie can win,’ I said.

‘Is it? That’s very good,’ they replied, in the tone a parent takes when a child brags about that shot they took at soccer.

Nobody had seen JJ, and nobody was particularly fussed about that, least of all JJ. We tracked down his dad, though.

‘Do you know where he got to?’ I ask.

‘Oh who knows with that boy? He goes where he wants,’ said Dad, half fondly, half peevishly.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘the entire world wants to hear from him. We really anxious to get him down to the radio station for an interview.’

‘Okay,’ said Dad, nodding gravely. ‘How’s tomorrow?’

‘Tomorrow’s fine. But today would be much better.’

We got back to the station, ran our nightly news piece on the difference between an American Oscar nominee and a Ni Vanuatu nominee. I put the finishing touches on this story and was moments away from filing…

Our receptionist said to me, ‘Boss, there’s a man to see you.’


‘He says he’s from Tanna.’

JJ, at last. He came sauntering in with a casual smile.

I ushered him up to our studio and quickly into the interview. He was imperturbable.

‘Going back to LA is like going back to my home,’ he said with a grin. He’s not exaggerating much. JJ has been a key fixer on two significant television series, and the cast of Tanna have strolled down so many red carpets that they’re beginning to think that’s what a building entrance looks like.

The lesson we take from the day is almost Zen. The movie star who works as an occasional night watchman can wander around town all day without a care in the world or a penny in his pocket, and sleep better at night than Meryl or Leonardo have in their lives.

We finish the interview, take a few photos—in which JJ demonstrates his ineffable cool—and when we’re done and walking to the door, he says to me, ‘They told me you would pay for my bus fare if I came down?’

Did Russia ‘hack the election?’ Yes and No

Here’s a quick summation of where we stand, based on public domain analysis and reporting, vis-à-vis the purported Russian ‘hack’ of the US Presidential election.

Anyone who claims that the Podesta emails were not real is delusional. There’s no real dispute over that.

Anyone who believes that Julian Assange isn’t biased against Hilary Clinton is also delusional. Mr Assange also shows a disturbingly willful blindness to find any problems with the state of civil liberties and human rights in Russia—this, again, is not really subject to controversy.

Anyone who believes that Assange can be certain about the origin of the Podesta emails doesn’t understand chain of custody. His de facto imprisonment in the Ecuadorian Embassy makes it physically impossible for him to objectively, empirically verify any claims of provenance. If this were evidence for the courts, he wouldn’t be allowed to testify as to the provenance of the emails.

Anyone who has examined the pattern of overt and covert activities as already detailed by public domain sources that has been judged with a high or a moderate level to confidence to originate from the Russian state would be foolish to deny that there isn’t a strong preponderance of evidence that yes, Russia conducted an anti-Clinton (dis)information campaign.

On-the-record print and TV interviews with avowed state-paid Russian trolls who profess a strong preference for Donald Trump constitute probitive evidence of a classic old-school dezinformatsiya effort. It’s something that both sides used frequently in the Cold War. RT’s overt anti-Clinton editorial slant is obvious, and strongly contributory. Assange’s frequent appearances on the channel are evidence of nothing more than a bit of narcissism on his part.

The fact that the APT28 modus operandi is consistent with well-documented spying activities against the Bundestag as well as the TV5 cyber-attack is a substantive plank in the circumstantial case. The fact that APT28 code was almost exclusively developed in a Russian language build environment, in the Moscow time zone is damning. The fact that that they used of as an URL-obfuscator—and then committed a rooky OPSEC slip-up that allowed investigators to see what other individuals were targeted by the same account—is compelling. The fact that APT28 source has been found in the wild doesn’t diminish the likelihood that this particular use of it originated from the Russian state. The use of encryption keys and certs (e.g. the way the software ‘phones home’ securely) pretty much makes it impossible for third parties to use the code without significant—and obvious—re-engineering. There is no evidence of such changes. In fact, at least one cert used in the Bundestag hacks was re-used in this effort.

The evidence suggesting that Guccifer 2.0 is almost certainly not Romanian (as ‘he’ claimed), and is probably a Russian speaker, is not probitive, but it’s strongly contributory to a conclusion that the account is a sock puppet, probably linked to a Russian source.

The USA intelligence community lacks credibility. It has relied far too much on its own much-sullied authority to make its arguments. But its credibility is laughable, and its patent insincerity and systematic dishonesty is demonstrated by a mountain of evidence. The fact that their assertions are consistent with open-source evidence indicates, however, that they’re not lying about everything—this time. That does nothing to diminish the fact that they’re driving a clear agenda, possibly because they don’t trust Donald Trump and they feel he’s compromised, or at least willing to put personal interest before national interest.

Conclusion: It’s not necessary to believe the CIA/NSA/FBI to conclude that there is a concerted Russian effort to subvert the integrity of key aspects of American democratic institutions, including the US Presidential election. The Russian state has motive, means, opportunity and there is sufficient evidence to suggest that, in absence of any more compelling explanation, they have probably been at it for quite some time. Did they ‘hack the election’? No. Did they sway it? They certainly put a lot of time and resources into the effort. Did they change the outcome? Probably not. The single event that correlates most closely with an actual swing in the electorate is James Comey’s letter to Congress concerning the Weiner laptop. Did they help swing it? Almost certainly, yes. There’s a compelling argument to be made that if countless sources—with Russian actors prominent among them—hadn’t worked so hard to poison the Clinton well, the Comey announcement wouldn’t have been so decisive.

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Don’t argue as if the world were sane

Glenn Greenwald, in every respect a reputable, diligent and ferociously smart gadfly, continually forgets to remember that few people are as sane and as willing to be led by evidence as he is. It’s his great failing.

Nowhere is it more visible than in his incredulity toward the CIA and the rest of the US state security apparatus concerning their claims of Russian tampering in the election process. He is dead right to mistrust the CIA’s every utterance. Lying, after all, is a large part of what they do for a living. Likewise, a politicised and partisan FBI is not a useful source for agenda-free commentary on Russia’s disinformation campaign.

But none of the above provides a sufficient basis to say that Russia has not played a direct and active role in the subversion of the American democratic process. Using the espionage establishment’s lack of credibility to refute the claim of Russian meddling is completely illogical.

We discount or discard the CIA’s claims precisely because we know that they’ve done far, far worse countless times in the past. We know they’ve planted or spun innumerable stories. To people living in vulnerable parts of the world, it’s simply axiomatic that Voice of America and USAID are tools of American influence. We also know they regularly use economic leverage to bring about certain policies, and they regularly plant stories to tarnish the image of any government that doesn’t toe their line.

Yes, they’re hypocrites and liars. Nobody disputes that. Yes, they’re guilty of exactly the sins of which Russia stand accused. But if anything, that realisation should reinforce the suspicion that Russia might be giving back as good as it gets. (Or better, depending on where you stand and how you feel about the success of the campaign to tarnish Hillary Clinton’s reputation.)

The sins of which the Russians stand accused are exactly the things that powerful countries do. They do it continually, shamelessly and cynically. It’s what they do. Continue reading

Weapons of the Weak

Radio New Zealand journalist Johnny Blades created a memorable image last week when he posted a montage of six heads of government from some of the smallest states of the world, each standing at the podium at the United Nations General Assembly.

The leaders of these six countries—Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Nauru, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu—all raised the issue of continuing human rights abuses in West Papua, and advocated for its right to self-determination.

These representations should by rights have emerged from the Pacific Islands Forum in Palau, but if rumour is to be trusted, the organisation’s larger economies are responsible for the Forum’s resounding silence on the issue.

In a tacit demonstration of the unwillingness to live within the Forum’s constraints, a half dozen Pacific leaders engaged in an orchestrated manoeuvre, a chorus of complaint against the clear pattern of systemic disregard for the human rights of indigenous West Papuans.

Talk may be all we can do about it, but at least we can do that. Continue reading

Advisors were never the problem

It’s always someone else’s fault. Even when we were kids, it was always little brother or sister who stole the cookies, spilled the milk or woke the baby. Then you went to school, and it was the kid at the desk behind you.

Then you began to work, and it was anyone but you. Now you’re on the national stage, and it’s not Vanuatu’s fault; it’s some insidious foreigner whose life is devoted to subverting your country.

It ain’t that simple. It never was that simple.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: foreign technical advisors are just that—advisors. They have no executive power, they do not make policy, and they perform their work at the pleasure of the administration of the day.

When we start blaming technical advisors for our problems, we’re no better than a child blaming a sibling for something they both did. Nobody is forcing us to take advice. Continue reading

We should spend more time on sport

Sport and athletic achievement are—when we keep drugs and money out of the picture—one of the few human activities with few if any downsides.

As we saw last week, they provide us with moments of unity and pride the like of which we don’t often see elsewhere.

Individual and simple team sports are low-cost ways of occupying our youth and providing them with invaluable lessons about hard work, achievement and excellence.

In other words, the very attributes that are so lacking when we bemoan the state of society today.

One thing is particularly clear: for whatever reason, Vanuatu’s athletes seem to operate at a higher baseline standard than countries many times our size. Our beach volleyball team came within a couple of rallies of an Olympic berth. Our rowers proved themselves worthy of standing on the world stage. Likewise our boxers and table tennis wunderkind Joshua Shing.

And now, our latest generation of football players is poised to showcase their achievement at football’s premier global event.

Who can read these facts and not ask, ‘How cool is that?’

But there’s more to sport than just that. Look past the puffery and patriotism of competitive sports, and there’s an entire universe of personal discovery and growth.
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