Can a MOOC protect online activists from getting hacked?

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The hacking of NGOs, journalists and human rights workers’ accounts have become more common during the last six years. A recent example is the Nile Phish cyberattack which targeted eight Egyptian human rights organizations in February.

Such digital threats against civil society organizations (CSOs) are not the typical spams or financial frauds that randomly affect individual devices. Their target is rather more specific, as they persist over time and are motivated by political objectives.

In 2015, 20 percent of hackers attacked NGOs, making them the most targeted in comparison to other organizations including sports, and religion. The following year, NGOs were preceded by political parties, but were still the second most endangered organization.

Although many governments and companies are exposed to the same threats, CSOs are equipped with fewer resources to secure themselves. The lack of digital literacy is one of the main reasons why activists are prone to more critical danger and this is what Advocacy Assembly (AA) is trying to change.

“If you’re starting your career as a journalist or you’re starting a campaign and you don’t have the tools for digital security, you are putting everything at risk including your information, and the people you are working with,” said Esraa Haidar, AA’s social media editor, during an interview with Wamda.

Online courses for activists

AA is a massive open online course (MOOC) platform that offers free courses in areas of interest to human rights activists and journalists in English, Arabic and Farsi.

Founded in 2015 it is the brainchild of London-based non profit organization Small Media. Since its launch, AA managed to teach students from various countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Iran, the USA, and South Africa.

AA can be considered as part of the wider umbrella of civic tech, which refers to the platforms and online tools that make governments more accessible by informing citizens, as well as encouraging them, to participate in the political decision making process.

Customized content

MOOCs are not new to the region. Edraak, Rwaq and Menaversity, which offer random MOOCs, are examples of how technology has become prevalent throughout the last couple of years, especially with Edraak reaching one million learners.

The specificity of AA’s topics and target audience makes it different. Unlike other MOOCs that introduce a wide spectrum of topics to address mothers, bosses, and engineering students alike, AA is clear about its focus on digital activism and activists.

“We are trying as much as we can to focus on issues that pertain to the Middle East,” elaborated Haidar, referring to the personalization of the courses. “For example, teaching digital security in the region is very different from teaching it in the US,” she said, referring to the lagging digital literacy in the Arab world, which requires teaching more basics.

Courses given include digital privacy, journalism, law, social media, and video production. The material and curricula are provided by specialized partnering organizations. The Lebanese Social Media Exchange and Egyptian Infotimes, are two out of nine others that offer courses on the platform.

Amr Eleraqi, data journalist and founder of Infotimes, a website that displays Arabic infographics, believes that free online training is perfect for journalists because many are prohibited from traveling, or are financially incapable of attending expensive workshops.

“Digital media is controlling our lives and many journalists need to learn basic online tools to display their stories,” Eleraqi. “It is not only important, it is a real need too,” he continued.

A MOOC can be a stepping stone to more mature CSOs but it is far from being the only need. Ronald Deibert, director of Citizenlab which researches the intersection of ICT, human rights, and global security, has previously pointed out that CSOs are important stakeholders in cyberspace governance and that they need to develop a coherent strategy “that addresses the real threats that plague governments and corporations...while protecting and preserving open networks of information and communication.”

Feature image via Pixabay.

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