ICT & Public Diplomacy at Fletcher: Ethan Zuckerman

ethan zuckerman

Today I am at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University to attend a panel organized by I&D research assistant (and Fletcher student) Josh Goldstein and chaired by Berkman fellow and Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman. The panel, entitled “ICT and Public Diplomacy” is part of a larger conference, the Edward R. Murrow 100th Anniversary Conference on public diplomacy. I took notes on all the panelists’ presentations but as I still need to edit the other sections, I’ll start with Ethan’s.

Ethan begins with an introduction to the Internet. There has been a fundamental shift in recent years. The ability to broadcast online, which was previously only accessible to physics professors connected to CERN, is now available to anyone. This greater access also applies to cell phones. In a recent study conducted by the London School of Economics, 79% of rural Tanzanians said they had access to a mobile phone if they needed one. (This potential access tends to realize itself at moments of political crisis.)

Mobile phones are part of a participatory broadcasting network. Ethan avers that Robert Mugabe has been unable to rig the election in Zimbabwe because mobile phones (and community radio) are the most effective forms of election monitoring. In Ghana, for example, people called community radio stations with news that voters were being prevented from voting at certain polling stations.

The Internet and mobile phones allow people to participate in politics. We have previously viewed diplomacy as being government-to-government and public diplomacy as being government-to-people. Public diplomacy has by and large been carried out by traditional broadcast media. “The trick nowadays in that everyone is a broadcaster,” says Ethan. They can work with you or against you.

Ethan moves on to an example from China (see image above). There were recently protests in Tibet, some of which turned violent. Editors at Ethan’s organization, Global Voices, read, filter, and contextualize blog content in China and other countries. Part of the content they have been covering recently are digital efforts by Chinese citizens to oppose the Western media coverage of the protests. We Just Want the Truth is a web site created by bloggers critiquing international media coverage of the protests.

There are also YouTube videos. Ethan shows a video, Riot in Tibet: True Face of Western Media, (dionysos615) which shows factual errors made by the western media, including photos of police from Khatmandu, Nepal, being mislabeled as being from Lhasa, Tibet. The the video, which has text in English, is meant to persuade the West that their media is biased, not inform a Chinese audience. Another video in English, Tibet WAS,IS,and ALWAYS WILL BE a part of China, a historical polemic about why Tibet is part of China, has been viewed over 2.5 million times. Ethan suggests that it is actually nationalistic and digitally-literate young Chinese that are a critical part of this campaign, rather than some government conspiracy to oppose the Tibetan independence.

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Benkler-Sunstein debate on “the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” in the Digital Future

MIT’s Communication’s Forum hosted a debate between Professor Benkler and Professor Sunstein on how the Internet has affected and will affect democratic participation. Although I can’t claim to represent the feelings of other attendees, I found myself leaving largely unsatiated (even assuming that their factual assertions were correct): on the one hand it was quite difficult to discern how they represented competing positions and on the other hand, to the extent that there were disagreements, the “so what?” question seemed largely unanswered.

The moderator, Henry Jenkins, began with a good attempt to establish metrics for judging how democratic participation might be judged. And within the first 10 minutes it was clear that Professor Sunstein was much less satisfied than Professor Benkler with the affect of the Internet. But insofar as they described their particular views on how the advent of the Internet has reshaped democratic participation, their views did not seem to be inconsistent.

Professor Sunstein posits that the Internet diminishes the likelihood that people will come into contact with ideas they are biased against, but will restrict their contact to those who agree with them, creating an echo chamber effect. At the same time, the increase in sources of information and competing narratives for events diminishes the likelihood that there will be a common narrative for the participants in the democracy. But, at least as a descriptive matter, this does not seem inconsistent with Professor Benkler’s position that the Internet has enabled more democratic participation by breaking down the concentration and hierarchy of power and dispersing the power to set the agenda.

The differences might have been salient if they were presented as competing metrics for judging democratic participation. But it seems highly unlikely, at least from the discussion, that either advocated a metric that excluded the values that the other metric incorporated. Professor Sunstein did not advocate a state of affairs where a small set of individuals within a strict hierarchy of power set the agenda; Professor Benkler did not suggest that echo chamber effect was a benefit proffered by the Internet.

There seemed to be a glimmer of a normative argument when Professor Sunstein suggested that the development of norms that would push back against the echo chamber effect. But the argument was not developed enough to counter for me Professor Benkler’s point strongest point: that systems should be judged against practically available alternatives.

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Cass Sunstein and Yochai Benkler at MIT – Our Digitized World: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.

Last Thursday April 10 MIT hosted a debate/discussion between Yochai Benkler and Cass Sunstein (audio can be found here). Both are Harvard Law Professors (Sunstein coming here from Chicago in the fall) and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the discussion became very philosophical. Both have written prolifically on technology and our future, especially Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks and Sunstein’s Infotopia and Republic.com 2.0. Henry Jenkins is moderating. he is co-director of Comparative Media Studies and Professor of Humanities at MIT. Jenkins is using those three books as the basis for his questions.

The first question Jenkis poses asks for metrics on how to measure the quality of online democracy. He quotes from both Sunstein and Benkler’s books to set off the dueling:

Sunstein1: “Any well functioning society depends on relationships of trust and reciprocity, in which people see their fellow citizens as potential allies, willing to help, and deserving of help when help is needed.”

Sunstein2: “A well functioning society of free expression must have two distinct requirements: first, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance, and second, many or most citizens have a range of common experiences.”

Benkler: “The new freedom holds great practical promise: as a dimension of individual freedom; as a platform for better democratic participation; as a medium to foster a more critical and self-reflective culture; and in an increasingly information-dependent global economy, as a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere.”

Jenkins asks the professors to give the current space a grade. Sunstein ranks it a C- since there is still babble and chaos and cruelty, even though there is order and brilliance and ingenuity. He likes Benkler’s idea of a self-reflective culture willing ot appraise itself, but his sense is that the internet is the opposite of self-reflection and provides only for entrenchment of pre-existing views.

Benkler gives a higher grade than C- and ascribes this to the importance of the degree of constraint on action being lower on the internet – this is determinative of how evaluate “normative life lived as a practical matter”. He agrees that a well-functioning society depends on trust and reciprocity but finds this in existence on the web through pervasive collaboration. He contrasts this with the authority driven approach traditionally used by the main stream media.

Benkler states that Sunstein takes too passive a view of citizenship in his description of the requirements of a system of free expression. He doesn’t envision citizens as passively exposed to streams of information and equipped with some pre-existing common frame of reference. Benkler imagines a capacity to act, intake, and filter for accreditation and salience, and ultimately set the current agenda. He sees freedom of expression manifested in part by participating in production of the agenda and claims this view will make the networked public sphere more attractive than Sunstein sees it, which will have the result that main stream media will appear more attractive.

At this Sunstein concedes his grade of C- was probably too harsh and he meant it in comparison to a realistic ideal, rather than a historic comparison. We’re doing better than in 1975. In response to Benkler’s point about passivity he states that his calls for exposure to new materials and shared experiences are only necessary conditions and they act as a counterweight to the notion that with unlimited free choice comes a capacity for self-sorting of internet communication. His sense is that “real internet geeks” come close to being libertarians in the University of Chicago tradition, so this notion of capacity becomes idealized as follows: if you are sovereign over your choices we have reached the ideal. Sunstein resists this and says we need to judge by outcomes: in a well functioning system you don’t construct a Daily Me and your attention needs to be grabbed or else you’ll never realize your interest in other issues. Self-sorting alone is too risky to be a reliable mechanism for people to get a good understanding of issues, so his two conditions become necessary features of the web and preconditions for a well functioning democratic society.

He thinks this paints a picture of people’s interaction with the web as more passive than what he meant. Active citizenship is fueled by shared experiences and unanticipated exposure to new materials and ideas. He cites national holidays like Martin luther King day or July Fourth and enabling us to see each others as involved in a common enterprise. This engenders a participatory approach to societal life among citizens.

Benkler responds that the difference between his and Sunstein’s position is power and context, freedom and constraint. He questions whether Sunstein’s proposed necessary condition of a common experience would result in something closer to traditional main stream media being desirable, where the sharing of experience was often through a government controlled agency or a newspaper. Benkler defines an elite as someone who can affect the agenda and observes that today that is a few million versus how it used to be a few thousand. So power is being diffused in myriad different ways. The example he gives is from the net roots of the Democratic party: citizens can now move their donations to marginal seats away from the war chest of safe seats rather than this being an internal decision by the party bosses. This freedom, what Benkler calls the “I can affect” freedom, is what he is interested in.

The second question Jenkins poses also starts with quotes, and he asks whether we are in danger of excessive fragmentation on the web:
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Mapping Africa’s Humanitarian Situation


“Sometimes there is just nothing more you can do than report what you see.” This was Erik Hersman‘s impetus behind creating a tool called Ushahidi, which allows people in Kenya to report acts of violence via mobile phones and theinternet, and have them appear automatically on an online map for others to see.

Ushahidi is a mashup, a blending of two Internet applications to relay information in a visually compelling way. Over the past few months, experimental mashups, particularly those centered on Google Maps, have emerged in an attempt gain a better understanding of humanitarian emergencies and democratic processes.

While Ushahidi is unique in allowing witnesses to report incidents of violence via mobile phone with picture or video, there are three other particularly interesting Africa-centric smashup experiments, each with a slightly different set of functions. This first is Darfur Museum Mapping Initiative|Crisis in Darfur, which is a collaboration of Google Earth and the U.S. Holocaust Museum. This platform allows the user to view professionally collected photos, video and written testimony from Darfur, as well as view images of destroyed villages and IDP camps.

Also, the Zimbabwe Civic Action Support Group recently developed the Mapping Electoral Conditions in Zimbabwe project, a map-based collection of reports of everything from voter fraud to looting to vote buying. Understanding that a crackdown from the authorities is more likely in Zimbabwe’s tightly regulated news space, this site is designed as a secondary news source, reporting only reports published by others. Finally, my friends and colleagues at Northwestern University’s Center for Global Engagement launched Assetmap.org/Uganda, which is an effort to map “ongoing community-led philanthropic partnerships in northern Uganda.”

There seems to two be two particularly compelling reasons that mashups are effective. First, reporting an act of violence or voter fraud is an act of participation in a chaotic environment. It’s a way to be a witness, and urge the world to do the same. Daudi of MentalAcrobatics writes:
“We as Kenyans are guilty of having short-term memories. Yesterday’s villains are today’s heroes. We sweep bad news and difficult decision under the carpet; we do not confront the issues in our society and get shocked when the country erupts as it did two months ago.”

Secondly, an interactive map is a remarkably effective way to tell a story. Tragic violence in Kenya’s Rift Valley or Sudan’s Darfur calls for empathy and action, but it is difficult to feel a connection with a place you can’t imagine. C.J Menard’s famous map of Napoleon’s march to Moscow is often hailed as the best statistical graphic ever made, because it powerfully represents the decimation of 470,000 troops in the frigid Russian winter of 1812. Mashups like Ushahidi and This is Zimbabwe do not claim to be statistically complete representations, but like Menard’s drawing they aim to pull the reader into a visually acute experience.

Tools like Ushahidi are created in order to compellingly present crimes that should not be allowed to face impunity. The obvious criticism, perhaps most acutely felt by those who make these tools, is that they do not actually do anything to help prevent crimes or save lives.

However, many are working to change this. Patrick Meier, a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a Doctoral Research Fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Institute (HHI) is attempting to apply the lessons of digital activism to humanitarian early warning systems. Meier is developing a tool called the Humanitarian Sensor Web, which allows community leaders and service providers like the World Food Program to coordinate their efforts in emergency humanitarian situations. Further, the Sensor Web aims to serve as a source of collective intelligence, with a map-based database of places and events, which will help those who are responding to current crisis or planning for future security or humanitarian relief.

Needless to say, all of the tools discussed in this article are in their nascent (in web terms ‘beta’) stage, but they are evidence of an exciting new set of tools that can provide a variety of important functions, from demonstrating the need for a humanitarian intervention to actually implementing one.

cross-posted to In An African Minute

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Egyptian Digital Activism and State Suppression

Following the examples of Burma and Colombia, digital activists in Egypt organized an online campaign using facebook, blogs, yahoo groups and SMS to organize strikes in Egypt on April 6 to protest the government’s economic policies and to demand political reform.

Users have created an official facebook group whose membership reached over 66,800 on the day of the planned strikes and protests.

The activists have also created a special blog (in Arabic) and posted updates from around the country throughout the day with reports and photos about the strike and demonstrations, as well as arrests made by the Egyptian police and security forces. The activists have also created another facebook group where they published information about how many people participated, where and when.

The protests and strikes on April 6 were limited in some places such as the state-owned textile factory, where police stopped workers from organizing and protesting, but a group of them broke away and managed to start a protest, despite some of them being dispersed by police with batons.

AFP reported that traffic around the country was unusually light for a Sunday, the first business day in Egypt, and that some classes at the American University in Cairo were canceled, while attendance was generally low at schools and universities.

The creator of the Facebook’s April 6 group was arrested by the Egyptian police on Sunday, but cyber-dissidents decided to undertake additional anti-government activities on May 4, the same day Egyptian President Mubarak turns 80.

As fresh clashes broke out the next day, a governor of a northern Egyptian province announced a commercially-financed project to distribute free bread to poverty stricken families “in a gesture reflecting worries by authorities over further unrest.”

While Internet users managed to use several technology tools available to them to campaign and publicize their efforts, the government has used various suppression measures in response. For example, the Ministry of Interior on Saturday threatened “immediate and firm measures against any attempt to demonstrate, disrupt road traffic or the running of public establishments and against all attempts to incite such acts.” Also, more than 200 people, including bloggers and politicians, were arrested.

The digital activists’ arguably limited success in organizing massive strikes and protests can be attributed to the power of state’s suppression and intimidation, rather than the ineffectiveness of the online tools. After all, the activists managed to not just mobilize individuals and groups, but also to make the state take their tools seriously.

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Release of Iran Blogosphere Case Study

iran blog map

As covered in Sunday’s New York Times by Neil MacFarquhar, the Internet and Democracy project is pleased to release “Mapping Iran’s Online Public: Politics and Culture in the Persian Blogosphere”, the latest in a series of case studies aimed at understanding the Internet’s impact on the public sphere around the world. Utilizing a unique methodology that blends computational analysis and human coding, this case study investigates the contours and scope of the discussions taking place in the Persian blogosphere. John Kelly and Bruce Etling, the authors of this report, write “in contrast to the conventional wisdom that Iranian bloggers are mainly young democrats critical of the regime, we found a wide range of opinions representing religious conservative points of view as well as secular and reform-minded ones, and topics ranging from politics and human rights to poetry, religion and pop culture.”

Amartya Sen at the Aurora Forum at Stanford University: Global Solidarity, Human Rights, and the End of Poverty

This is a one day conference to commemorate Martin Luther King’s “The Other America” in his 1967 speech at Stanford, and heed that speech’s call to create a more just world.

Mark Gonnerman, director of the Aurora Forum introduces the event by noting that economic justice is the main theme of King’s legacy. He references King’s 1948 paper where he lays out his mission as a minister, in which his goal is to deal with unemployment, slums, and economic insecurity. He doesn’t mention civil rights. So the effect of Rosa Parks was to turn him in a difference direction from his original mission, to which he returned, which is the gulf between rich and poor. Gonnerman reminds us of the interdependence of global trade and how, even before we leave the house for work, we have used products from all parts of the globe, rich and poor. He quotes King that the agony of the poor enriches the rest.

Thomas Nazario, founding director of The Forgotten International, outlines the face of poverty. He lists the 5 problems in the UN Millennium Report as the charge for the coming generation:

1. global warming
2. world health, including basic health and pandemic avoidance
3. war and nuclear proliferation
4. protection of human rights
5. world poverty

He describes world poverty in two ways: the first is by focusing on the gap between rich and poor. He says there are about 1000 billionaires and claims their money could provide services to half the people on Earth. The second way is to focus on the suffering associated with poverty. Nazario shows us some compelling images of poverty and busts some myths: children do go through garbage and fight rats and other vermin (usually dying before age 5); impoverished people tend to live around rivers since the riverbank is common land since it floods regularly; images of Ethiopia in the 1980’s war, conflict and famine (he notes that when there is extreme poverty, there is extreme fragility of life – any perturbation in the environment will cause death). He says 6 million children die before the age of 5 of hunger and lack of medical care. He also busts the myth that most of the poverty in the world is in Africa – it is in Asia, especially in India. There are 39 million street children in the world, often living in sewers. Of course, poverty is a cause of illiteracy not only because of the cost of education but because the impoverished children usually work to survive.

Amartya Sen is Lamont Professor and Professor of Economics and HIstory, Harvard University. He is a 1998 nobel prize winner in economics and I wrote a book review here of his book _Development as Freedom_. His talk has two components: he speaks first about global poverty and next about human rights. He begins by noting that hope for humanity, as Martin Luther King emphasized, is essential for these topics. Sen hopes the easily preventable deaths of millions of children is not an inescapable human condition and the fatalism about this in the developed world recedes. He also takes on the anti-globalization viewpoint by noting that globalization can be seen as a great contributor to world wealth. He insists globalization is a key component to reform, as there is an enormous positive impact to bringing people together, but the sharing of the spoils needs to be more equitable. Sen advocates a better understanding of economics to help us reform world development institutions, but with a caveat: “a market is as good as the company it keeps.” By this he means that circumstances such as the current conditions governing the distribution of resources or the ability of people to enter market transactions for example, depend on things such as the availability of healthcare and the existence of patents and contract laws conducive to trade.

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Larry Lessig Wants to Change Congress

larry lessig

Larry Lessig, Stanford intellectual extraordinaire and founder of Creative Commons, is here at Harvard Law School to talk about his new campaign Change Congress as part of the Berkman@10 lecture series.

He begins with a quote from Ronald Reagan:

A Democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can exist only until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy

The implication is that democracy will lead to collapse because of the greed of the masses.

The next story is about Prof. Drummond Rennie. In the drug industry, “detailers” are paid by drug companies to convince doctors to prescribe that company’s drugs. There are currently 2.5 doctors per detailer now. Rennie writes about how studies of drug efficacy are also swayed by money. In published drug trials, there are overwhelmingly positive results for trials of drugs in which the trial is funded by the drug company that produced the drug.

Next, Lessig talks about geeks. He spoke up at a Microsoft conference (the only one he was invited to) about the possibility of using the law as part of the code to eliminate spam. The geeks thought that creating code with the government was ridiculous.

Are geeks right in their skepticism of government? We sometimes lose hope when Congress gets something wrong. And it’s not just hard policy questions they get wrong, but also easy ones. An example is copyright terms. Policy-makers always agree that you should limit copyright extensions but governments around the world forever extend copyrights.

The same applies to health policy. The World Health Organization was recently planning to release standards which said that no more than 10% of calories per day should come from sugars. As a result of pressure from the sugar industry, the US Food Nutrition Board promulgated a regulation that stated that a full 25% of calories per day could come from sugar, more than double the WHO recommendation. “Another public policy case that we get fundamentally wrong,” says Lessig.

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Update on Cuban Blogger Highlighted in New York Times

The Canadian Broadcasting Channel (CBC) has an interview “Yoani Sanchez”, one of the Cuban bloggers highlighted by the New York Times article, “Cyber-Rebels in Cuba Defy State’s Limits”, I posted on last month. Sanchez’s blog is part of the website DesdeCuba.com, an online magazine that describes itself as a “portal for reflection and discussion.”

In the interview, Sanchez described blogs like hers as a means for “rescu[ing] individuality and civil society.” Of her own experience, Sanchez explained that her blog was “self therapy against the double standards the conformism, against fear” and that “posting [her] name and [her] face on the net is a way of ending years and years of paranoia and fear, of the feeling that I am under surveillance…”

Sanchez’s optimism makes the report that access to her blog, Generation Y, has been blocked within Cuba disappointing. At the same time, the report notes that Sanchez is still able to access her blog through an indirect route. Which is to say, we can take a little comfort in knowing that even if censorship on the Internet is possible, it is at the very least a lot more difficult than blocking access to any number of particular websites.

Another factor that lends itself to optimism is the ease with which content originally written in Spanish can be accessed in a translated version (an option which came up immediately through each of the search engine’s where I searched for “DesdeCuba”). Even though these translations can lend themselves to awkward sentence structure because the translate function doesn’t (yet?) respond well to differences e.g. noun/adjective placement, the content is nonetheless understandable. And thus, along with the speed of sharing information enabled by the Internet, a sizable transaction cost is cut in communicating the circumstances within Cuba to the outside world.

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The Internet Drives Election Results in Malaysia

On March 8, elections were held to the Malaysian parliament. The incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, who lost its two-third majority in parliament, had held power since independence from the United Kingdom in 1957. In the months leading up to the election, accusations had been flying about corruption and a system designed to keep the ruling party in power. 40,000 people are reported to have marched in Kuala Lumpur in November of last year demanding electoral reform. The government’s reaction targeted online media: the country’s most prominent blogs and news websites were blocked, including Malaysia Today at about 3:30pm, which began the day of the protest with minute-to-minute reports such as “Walkers are gathering in hundreds near Jalan Melayu (Malaya Road) Gate” and directing readers to as yet unblocked sites. In April of 2007, in a by-election in the town of Ijok, it was a Malaysian blogger, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, who reported that of the 12,000 voters in the district, some 1,700 were phantom voters, with people as old as 107 still on the rolls. Others listed as voters were as young as eight years old.

The power of blogs and online news outlets is established in Malaysia. Malaysiakini, a website, is the most popular news outlet in the country (and incidentally was available only sporadically after about 3:30pm during the protest of November 10, 2007). In the March 8 elections, Jeff Ooi, a member of Malaysia’s opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), won a three way race for a seat in parliament and now blogs on his political blog Screenshots, from within Parliament. In fact, five of Malaysia’s newly elected parliamentarians are bloggers.

Blogs are unusually powerful in Malaysian politics. According to a USINFO state report by Stephen Kaufman released today, “Weblogs (blogs), text messages and copies of
Internet-streamed videos became the most influential information
sources for voters ahead of Malaysia’s March 8 parliamentary elections.” On March 25, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said the BN’s strategy of ignoring blogs and online media was responsible for his party’s losses in this election. He states the BN “certainly lost the Internet war” and that is was “a serious misjudgment” to rely only on government controlled newspapers and television to communicate their campaign message. Dr. Abu Hassan Hasbullah, a University of Malay Media Studies Lecturer, reports 70% of voters were influenced by blogs, claiming that the main stream media does not report on pertinent government corruption or on religious and racial tensions. Hasbullah claims that the BN had two websites and one blog in 2004, while the opposition had thousands of blogs. Voice of America reports readership of the country’s independent blogs surpasses that of print media.

What is interesting about this change in news delivery and citizen communciation is difficult for the government to completely control. Malaysiakini.com‘s Steven Gan says “It’s not going to be easy” to impose government restrictions on bloggers and the internet. “I always describe like [this]: Press freedom is like toothpaste, in a sense. When you squeeze a little bit of it out, it’s going to be very hard to put it back in again.”

Crossposted on Victoria Stodden