Ezra Klein, of new venture Vox. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on the real outsiders in New Media: not the white guys who look like the old guard, just younger

From Vox to 538, white guys get feted as the future of journalism while everyone else gets attacked and dismissed.

Yesterday, I was contacted separately by two distressed friends, both writers, both women. One is famous, successful, hard as diamond under glass and trying gamely to brush off fantasies of personal and specific violence being sent to her by people nominally on the left. She is discovering that as a woman writing and speaking about serious politics in public, it’s not enough just to be good – you also have to deal with the overheads of abuse, bullying, dismissal and disrespect, all while smiling and being nice and pretending as hard as you can that it doesn’t get to you.

My other friend is just starting out, is very young and very talented. She was in tears, wondering if she should just kick it in altogether because of all the people writing in complaining that she’s “all me, me, me” and a “careerist”. “Careerist” is usually used an insult against women and people of colour – the type of people in media who are not supposed to have careers. If you’re Ezra Klein, careerism is fine – you’re expected to be proud of your work, to promote your brand of journalism, to behave as a professional would. “We have to work on your sense of entitlement,” I told my young friend. “It needs to be bigger.”

Right now, there’s a big global conversation going on about journalism and diversity, but we’ve only just started to realise the scale of violence at play.

A month ago, journalist Emily Bell observed in the Guardian that the hot new media startups, backed by serious investment, look a suspiciously large amount like the stale old media establishment in terms of demographics. She pointed out, quite reasonably, that the projects that have everyone talking about the “future of journalism” – Ezra Klein’s Vox, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, and The Intercept, helmed by Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras – have not hired very many women or people of colour. They certainly haven’t been hired in huge numbers in editorial, decision-making roles. The piece prompted a great deal of impassioned response on both “sides”, the best of which has been Julia Carrie Wong’s new series at The Nation, in which she takes apart “Old Problems In New Media”.

To my mind, the real question is: what does an organisation or individual have to do to get feted as “the future of media”? What gets to be a startup, and what’s just one woman, or one black kid, or a whole bunch of angry queers shouting? There’s a magical process whereby an individual or group of individual media workers get transformed from frightening and/or uppity women and people of colour to the next hot thing in the future of publishing. The whiter and maler you look, the more it seems the magic happens.

The magic is to do with being white and male and having various other markers of privilege while still defining as a scrappy outsider, to quote Nate Silver, responding to Bell’s piece: “The phrase ‘clubhouse chemistry’ is an allusion to baseball, but the idea that we’re bro-y people just couldn’t be more off. We’re a bunch of weird nerds. We’re outsiders, basically. And so we have people who are gay, people of different backgrounds. I don’t know. I found the piece reaaaally, really frustrating. And that’s as much as I’ll say.”

Outsiders. That, as Zeynep Tufeci observed at Medium, gets to the nub of startup culture’s intransigent sexism, racism and classism. Those who have the power right now, in tech but also to some extent in media, see themselves as rejects, weirdos fighting for their place, and there are reasons for that. The emotional patterning laid down in puberty is hard to shake. If you got used to being excluded, being left out, having to fight to survive because you were smart or nerdy or different or all three, that’s a mentality that stays with you. That sort of trauma can be useful later in life – it gives you stamina, drive, a determination to carry your ideas through against the odds, a hunger to prove yourself, fierce dedication to your fellow oddballs and weirdoes, and I could go on. But it is still trauma, and it comes with baggage. Part of which is that long after you’ve stopped being an outsider and instead become a privileged pillar of the new establisment, not only do you fail to notice, but when someone points it out to you, you get angry – you get reaaaally, really frustrated – because being an “outsider” has always been a forming part of your identity, and being told there are people further out than you is hard to handle.

These, it turns out, are the kind of “outsiders” the old guard can cope with: outsiders who look almost exactly like them, except younger and cooler. The question the media startups and most critics are still asking is: why the new flagship organisations are so lousy with white guys, whereas the more interesting question is: why do these people still get to set the terms of what “the new media” is? Don’t we live in one of the most exciting times in the history of journalism, and isn’t that change being driven, out of necessity, by women and people of colour? Aren’t the most popular, most viral articles on most mainstream websites – although not necessarily the most prominent or well paid ones – consistently being written by women and people of colour? Take a glance down the top articles on the New Statesman, on The Guardian, on Salon, and you’ll see what I mean.

My qualification to talk about all this is that I’ve spent five years working, largely as a freelancer, sometimes within mainstream publications like this one and sometimes outside them, to change how journalism and commentary was done. I’ve been doing this along with hundreds of women, people of colour, trans people and allies who saw a media world that was closed to them and only spoke to them to tell them lies and thought, fuck that, we have the technology to do better. So we did. Except that when we did, we weren’t called ‘the future of media’. If we got hired by establishment outfits it was intitially as mascots, performing seals who weren’t trusted to cover “real journalism”. I’m thinking of the newspaper that hired me on a promise that it would let me do serious long-form reporting and then pressured me to cover only “fluffy” women’s issues, sending me to cover precisely one story in nine months: the Women’s Beach Volleyball at the Olympics. 

Modelview. Racialicious. Colourlines. Writers Of Colour (now Media Diversified). The Vagenda. Meta. Novara. Trans Media Watch. Those are just the first few names I’ve plucked out of the air in terms of exciting new outfits that, whatever you feel about their content, are real journalism and criticism and commentary, and are undeniably startups, changing the way media is done. They’re just not considered “startups”, not considered “serious” journalism because, as I wrote at Jacobin last year, “objectivity” and “seriousness” are often presumed to be a function of privilege, of whiteness, of maleness, or all three. When Jacobin was profiled in the New York Times, its founder, Bhaskar Sunkara, was rightly hailed as a representative of the future of left media. But when The New Inquiry, the online magazine for which I am an Editor at Large, which was founded by two women, is run by a woman and features a lodebearing amount of serious writing by women and people of colour, was profiled in the same paper, it was relegated to the “Style” section.

There are two problems with the mainstream media for women, people of colour, poor people, disabled people, queers – well, actually, there are quite a lot more than that, but let’s start with two. First, the media misrepresents, throws out lazy stereotypes that perpetuate oppression. And then it shuts us out, denying us a voice, allowing us to speak only as token demographic representatives rather than as reporters, writers, authors, columnists, critics. The media is an industry that produces culture, and both of those elements need taking apart and ramming back together in a way that works for more of us who actually create and consume it.

As Wong writes: ”A journalism more aware of the intersections of race, class and power will be much better equipped to ask the questions that might not even occur to reporters who have never interacted with the state from a position of weakness—whether that’s as a person of color subject to intense police repression or a woman whose access to reproductive health care is increasingly under attack.” And yet this is precisely the sort of journalism that is being dismissed as “unobjective”, relegated to the style section, to the “women’s” section, written off as marginal because it has been pushed to the margins of an increasingly spiteful, embattled white patriarchal establishment.

This is why, whenever I am asked if I’m “really” a journalist rather than “just” an activist or “just” a feminist, I never have an uncomplicated answer. Because the simple act of doing my job as a reporter, critic, commentator and author would be a feminist act even if I never wrote another word about reproductive justice or consent culture, which is not my intention. Being in the media, making media, changing media, creating culture, activism – these things are not the same, but they are part of the same sphere of activity. We are here because we have to be, and we’re changing the game.

Yes, it’s fucking political. For me the politics are in the stories I choose to cover, the perspective I bring, and the fight I have to engage in every single day to stay present, aware and professional whilst trolls and harassers attempt to bully me off the internet just for daring to be female with a public platform. That harassment is an overhead that women and people of colour, and particularly women of colour, have to face in a quantity and quality that those who do not experience it often find difficult to comprehend, especially from their own ‘side’. Whatever you think of Suey Park’s work the backlash against her has been terrifying in the scale of its racism and sexism – she told Salon that she has had to stop her speaking work because of the threats she’s getting.

Technology was supposed to help us move beyond all of this, and it has. If there’s one reason that women, people of colour, queers and everyone else on the margins of the mainstream press have been able to build their own future and set the agenda so successfully, that reason is the internet. And the reason the internet has become so fraught for women and people of colour attempting to carve out public careers or just do some decent journalism and criticism is that the internet is where we’ve been changing the world. Challenging power.

My biggest fear is that old-school media bros, making the jump to digital-only ventures years after the rest of us set up shop here, will decide they invented it, and that everyone else will agree. That Ezra Klein, Nate Silver et al will get to be the pioneers, sticking their flags all over the vibrant existing ecosystems of online journalism. Preventing that from happening is about more than just lobbying for shiny new startups to hire more women and people of colour. It’s about getting the media that women and people of colour are already making properly recognised, properly remunerated, given the respect and credit it deserves for creating the future of journalism – because we have, and we are.


Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?