*Sigh Sometimes you can’t win…

For the last few days a petition has been circulating on Twitter about the Ugandan anti-homosexuality law. I’ve been telling people not to sign it when I see them tweet about it, because Ugandan LGBT groups have been saying, consistently, that Western interference has been damaging to them.

This morning I tweeted Neil Gaiman saying as much, and eight hours later he was good enough to retweet it, including the link I included in my tweet. That tweet has now become my most retweeted tweet ever.

Except… look at that link. Between me tweeting this morning and the night-time retweetgasm, the post has updated — apparently now those Ugandan LGBT people *do* want us kicking up a fuss, because the situation has changed.

Sometimes, no matter what you do, you end up making things worse…

One big rule if you’re writing about politics

There are people supporting every party and none who can make convincing arguments for a point of view, and who it’s worth reading whether you agree with them or not. But I find they are increasingly outnumbered by people who it’s simply not worth reading.

And there is a simple way of telling who they are — they use canned phrases that seem to come from some political party’s central office.

Mostly these seem to come from Labour supporters at the moment (possibly because Labour are the most popular party, possibly because my social circle skews leftwards). Some of these phrases sound reasonable, others definitely don’t, but they include “Conservative-led government”, “savage cuts”, “our NHS”, “most right-wing government in [insert time period]”, “ConDems”. The problem is when those phrases get used by everyone simultaneously.

It’s certainly not confined solely to Labour, though — “Tony Bliar”, “ZaNuLieBore”, “cleaning up Labour’s mess”, “Red Ed, the unions’ man”… these all have the same effect.

If you’re using these insta-cliches, which tend to spread through political twitterers and bloggers like herpes, then to anyone who is unaligned, or does not share your particular alignment, or even who agrees with you but has an aesthetic sense about the use of words, your post will actually be saying to that person “I have not actually thought about this issue myself, rather I have read a press release from the party of my choice, please ignore me.”

If I read someone saying “We must protect our NHS from the effects of the savage cuts brought in by this Conservative-led government, cuts which are too deep and too fast”, then I know that they haven’t actually thought about the issue themselves and there’s no point reading what they have to say.

If, on the other hand, I read someone saying “We need to protect *the* NHS from government cuts, which I think are far deeper than necessary”, I think “this is a person with whom I could have a discussion, and find out which cuts she thinks are most damaging and what we could do about them. It may turn out that she’s wrong, but it may not.”

Likewise, someone saying “The government need to do this because they’re cleaning up ZaNuLieBore’s mess!” gets instantly disregarded. Someone saying “Realistically, if we want the economy to recover, then some things need to be cut, and while it’s bad, better to cut this than let the recession continue” is, again, someone with whom discussion is possible. They may well be someone I disagree with, but I will at least be disagreeing with *her*, not with a press release she glanced at.

Each of these phrases sound focus-group-chosen to be convincing on an emotional level. “OUR NHS” sounds much more important than “THE NHS”, doesn’t it? But after hearing them a thousand times, they’re not. They’re manipulative, and to me at least they have an actively scary, creepy feel to them, like being surrounded by beings that have been mind-controlled by aliens.

But luckily, there’s a very simple rule you can follow, which will allow you to write convincingly and without people looking at you in the expectation that your faceplate will fall off to reveal the robot underneath. It’s this:

Think about what it is you want to say, and what words you can use to say that as clearly as possible.

It’s a simple rule, but one that’s rarely followed by bloggers and twitterers (and, reading through Orwell’s essays, it appears never to have been followed by pamphleteers).

If you’ve thought about something, and you have a clear idea of what it is you want to say, and you have chosen the words you think will best express your thoughts — chosen them yourself, not picked phrases that have been handed to you by a third party — then people will, when they read your writing, say “That’s a good point” or “I never thought of that”, or “You’re wrong, here’s why…” — all of which are useful reactions if you’re wanting to convince people of something.

If, on the other hand, you string a bunch of stock phrases together, you may well get five hundred retweets from people who already agree with you, but you’ll never change a single mind, except to possibly make some people who did agree with you before disagree with you in disgust.

(Doctor Who post will be up tonight, nearly a week late…)

Tories, ‘hacking’, Twitter and #cashgordon – Look, I Just ‘Hacked’ Mark Reckons’ Site Lib Dem Voice!

ETA: Actually Mark doesn’t use the Lib Dem Blogs RSS feed – just features the RSS feeds of various Lib Dems, under a ‘lib dem blogs’ header, so I thought he did. Feel free to substitute in the name of $prominentlibdemblogger below

Yesterday, a website run by the Conservative party, cash-gordon.com , got redirected to various supposedly-offensive (if you consider elderly people engaging in consensual homosexual acts offensive, which I personally don’t) websites. A lot of people are claiming that it was ‘hacked’ by ‘Labour stooges’.

Now, the Conservatives are claiming that this was people ‘hacking’ their site – and people have been getting threatening ‘phone calls at work about their alleged part in this ‘hacking’ – and arguing that this means there should be more regulation of the internet. In fact all that happened is the Conservatives were incredibly, ridiculously stupid.

The Tories set up a new website, to try to make the Labour party look bad for taking money from unions, to deflect from their own problems with funding from non-domiciled billionaires to whom they gave peerages, though exactly why it’s meant to be bad that the Labour Party were given millions by a union I have yet to understand (and I am no supporter of Labour, as you know). To promote this site, they started a #cashgordon hashtag on Twitter, and got excited when it started trending – even when it turned out that most of those using the hashtag were making fun of the Tories, because they said ‘all publicity is good publicity’.

They even had an unmoderated ‘twitterstream’ on the website, displaying every single post anyone made to Twitter using this hashtag. Can you see the problem yet, boys and girls?

They should have learned from the Torygraph, which last year during the budget had a live twitterstream which very quickly turned into a stream of abuse against the Telegraph, jokes, and general anarchy (a couple of my ‘tweets’ then actually got quoted in Private Eye at the time, because mine were some of the few printable ones). If nothing else, they should have realised that as soon as a hashtag starts ‘trending’ (showing up in a list of popular hashtags), spambots start posting using that hashtag, so very quickly a large proportion of the tweets using that hashtag – and thus showing up on their website – were by that popular Twitterer Ms Britney Fuck-Vids.

However, some people wanted to experiment a bit more, and started posting little bits of JavaScript to Twitter, along with that hashtag. Now, Twitter is a properly-designed website. If you post random bits of JavaScript to it, it displays them as text. However, cash-gordon.com was designed (for $15,000 ! ) by people who literally don’t know the first thing about web design. So it ran this JavaScript in the browsers of people visiting the site.

Those people are *very* lucky that the JavaScript in question merely redirected their browsers to lemonparty ( a site which, I am given to understand, having never visited it myself, shows three elderly gentlemen engaging in mutual oral sex) or, far more offensively, the Labour party website. That shows, if nothing else, that this was people playing around and having fun, not doing anything malicious – allowing for execution of arbitrary JavaScript code from unknown sources could very easily lead to much, much worse (and it’s lucky this was noticed, and the site pulled, before someone put in a link to a Windows virus or phishing site).

But looking at what’s happened, it’s absolutely obvious that nothing was ‘hacked’ (in the vernacular sense of someone ‘breaking in’ to someone else’s website, rather than the sense used by computer people – in that sense it was quite a funny ‘hack’) at all – people posted material that was *perfectly safe* to *their own twitter streams* – their own websites. The fact that the Conservatives – in attempting to use that material for political gain – did incredibly unsafe and stupid things with that material is fundamentally neither the Twitterers’ fault nor their problem.

For an analogous situation, many Liberal Democrat bloggers include a feed from Lib Dem Blogs on their page, showing the titles of the most recent blog posts by Lib Dems. Were I to title a post “Pee Po Belly Bum Drawers”, that title would show up on Mark Thompson’s site. I would not, however, have ‘hacked’ Mark’s blog. I wouldn’t even have visited his blog, or necessarily even known that my post had showed up there (I read Mark’s blog through a feed reader). I hope you are all suitably impressed with my ability to get profanity onto the site of the 20th most influential blogger in Britain. F33r my 133t h4x0r 5ki11z!

However, there are a few differences. Firstly, were I to title my post ” <script type=”text/javascript”>window.location=’http’ + ‘://lemonparty.org/'</script> ” it wouldn’t turn into executable script that redirected Mark’s blog to geriatric porn, because neither Mark nor Ryan who runs Lib Dem Blogs are the kind of complete imbecile who would let that sort of thing happen. Secondly, all blogs whose RSS feeds are aggregated at Lib Dem Blogs have to be manually approved, and can be removed if they start doing that sort of thing, so it’s a relatively trustworthy source. And thirdly, these feeds only go on people’s personal blogger accounts, not on official party sites that cost tens of thousands to build.

So no-one was ‘hacked’, and this was nothing regulation could or should have stopped (though were there some kind of ‘internet roadworthiness’ test along the lines of an MOT, that site would have failed it, and likewise all those responsible for its creation just failed their ‘driving test’). Quite simply, if you put up a giant billboard and a free supply of marker pens, along with a sign saying ‘please draw whatever you want on here’, and you come back a while later and see someone has drawn a great spunking cock on it, that should be *what you expected to happen*, not a shocking discovery. If you don’t want people to graffitti your site, *DON’T ASK THEM TO*

And one final thing – the Torygraph have been claiming that this ‘hacking’ – which we have now proved was nothing of the sort, was by ‘Labour stooges’. As I was following events as they happened, I happen to know that the lemonparty redirect was courtesy of ‘liberal provocateur‘ , who tweets as @hashbangperl (and whose description of himself as a ‘hacker’ on Twitter should definitely be taken in the sense I linked above, and *NOT* in the sense most people use it…)

So, in total, what we have learned today is that if you’re going to pay tens of thousands of dollars for an exciting whizzy social media site for your political campaign, you should give it to somebody with the first clue about what they’re doing. An expensive lesson, and one I suspect the Tories won’t actually have learned…

Linkblogging For 13/02/10

Beatles post tonight, assuming this migraine dies down.

Firstly, while I thought I had reason to be mildly annoyed at Google, at least it didn’t decide I automatically wanted to be bestest friends with an abusive ex and a bunch of people who want to rape me, like it did with someone else… meanwhile Twitter has handed a gift to repressive regimes.

(The first link there has since been turned into a private blog and will not be viewable if you click it. I won’t republish what the author said, but the mere fact that she’s now *had* to close her blog down, as a result of Google’s actions, should say a lot…)

Andrew Rilstone is blogging at a more regular pace again. Here he’s got a short tale about the police, which just might be a metaphor. Mark Steel is less metaphorical on the same subject.

The Mindless Ones have another competition.

Marc Singer continues his run through his comics syllabus with a quick look at Watchmen.

And Justin completely demolishes the government’s response to the Binyam Mohammed case.

And after looking through that list (torture, stupidity, war and abuse) I think my migraine’s worse, not better…

(But this has cheered me up – Cerebus valentines:

Cerebus valentine

Cerebus valentine