Steganography is the art to conceal a message in plain sight, a form of “security by obscurity.” It can be as simple as the “spy ink” that kids use, the hiding of information in digital pictures, up to the complex cultural messages hidden in images and texts. It is a method not only of cryptography; it is a cultural tradition used since the writers of sacred texts inserted hidden meanings so that only the initiated would understand.
Steganography has become a common practice in online social networks, used by teenagers to communicate with their peers using a medium that offers little or no privacy. An article by danah boyd shows how this works.
A more forceful form of steganography in online social media is found in the political discourse, in the rhetoric used with the aim to manipulate public opinion and truth. The activists in cyberspace have found new rhetorical ways that border on steganography. Its form of the short message does not allow developing a structured explanation of facts and persuasion. The message in digital media works by making references to cultural images, events, urban myths and key persons. Some are the now well known “image-memes” that remix cultural references.
One has to be part of the new public discourse online to be able to decipher its meanings, and to be influenced by it. The activists are not the inventors of the form. They are using a new way of communicating and conveying meaning that has grown around digital media and social networks.
To be able to influence the digital natives, political groups need to learn this code. And beyond that, they will need to create their own set of cultural references and new tropes, their own structure of meaning around pointers of signifiers. It is like creating a new set of metaphors to be used in the new political prose of the digital media. A new prose, that builds its rhetorical force around steganographic methods of concealment and the power of consensual meaning.
We digital citizens are sometimes described as a herd. We follow leaders, gather at certain places to exchange information, roam. The herd can muster collective action, very much like swarms, using the most basic signals and feedback. The herd is also a New Commons and its social capital is digital information. We can just feed on it, like at the social networking sites, or we can take action, like at the crucial time of the Orange Revolution. The idea is the collective, the possible aggregation of information to make sense.
Following a part of the herd, I registered at Herdict.org a couple of weeks ago. I became member number 58. Herdict.org is a website designed and managed by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society @ Harvard University. The name comes from the fusion of “Herd” and “Verdict”. The site aims to collect the verdict of the herd on various issues. The first two are PC Health and Network Health. Using a piece of software installed on every herd member’s PC, reports are sent back to Herdict.org with information about its characteristics, installed software and apparent problems.
Given a large enough number of herd members active in the system, it could be a good source of information about which applications are causing trouble, which malware is extending and giving the herd a though time. But it could also signal problems with the Network itself. Problems that go beyond the merely technical. For example, it could spot areas or countries where Internet access is being cut off, or filtering and blocking of sites is being practiced. This could make it easier for digital citizens to by-pass restrictions on Internet access and censorship by using tools like Psiphon. As such it could become a valuable tool for ICT4D and the movement for an open Internet.
But also other possibilities arise. These are not at once evident, but Herdict.org could be a call for collaboration of a very different sort. In one Gedankenexperiment, herd members could put to use their healthy computers to assist and clean up infected computers or “zombies”. In this way a user that has advanced knowledge on how to fight off malicious software could help many users worldwide that don’t have the skills or that don’t know that their PCs have been sequestered. Herdict.org could very well become a place to start such actions and measure success.
See an article in MIT Technology Review: The Web’s Dark Energy: Community policing can make the Web safe, by J. Zittrain.