Joshua Marshall, Media and Democracy at Berkman@10

Probably the best part of Joshua Micah Marshall’s talk at Berkman@10 was the discussion of distributed collaboration. Marshall runs the popular Talking Points Memo, and was the winner of the respected George Polk Award–a first for a blogger. He discussed how his community of readers play an active role in generating story ideas and help with investigative journalism tasks such as gathering insider information or even applying pressure on politicians to release how they vote on, for example, the change in House rules that allowed Tom Delay to remain the Majority Leader even though he had been indicted. The distributed nature of the community allowed TPM to have better information on individual Representative’s voting records than the leading news agencies or even the White House on that internal vote since constituents are not nearly as easy to hang up on as political journalists.

Marshall also highlighted the iterative process of each story, which is often improved over time by reader comments and contributions. Marshall’s talk hit on many of the unique benefits of online distributed collaboration and community that were raised earlier in a plenary session led by Berkman Faculty Co-Director Yochai Benkler and Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia.

I found the ‘old media vs. new media’ parts of the speech a bit stale compared the discussion we had at the event’s Open Media Session, which focused on what we want out of all media and actions to make sure we reach those goals, instead of rehashing the same old debates about the negative impacts of the Internet on traditional media.

The session was also heavily reliant on contributions from the impressive group of participants including journalists and staff from media outlets such as the New York Times, WGBH, and overseas newspapers, as well as representatives from other interesting new experiments such as Charlie Sennot’s Global News. Sennot noted that he tried initially to create Global News as a not-for-profit, but when that didn’t work he switched to a for-profit, advertising-driven model that has worked well. Among the many possible future actions for Berkman or others working in the space, one participant asked for research and guides on various business models for new media ventures, similar to the Citizen Media Law Project’s database and Legal Guide.

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Politics and the Internet at Berkman@10

An exciting speech by Dean Kagan opened the formal Berkman@10 conference, with the announcement of the Center becoming a university-wide research center, the promotion of John Palfrey to Vice Dean for Library and Information Services, Phil Malone to Clinical Professor of Law, and a hard pitch to get Jonathan Zittrain to accept an offer to return to Harvard Law School. (PLEASE COME BACK JZ!)

JZ’s excellent book talk led to the session I’m really interested in, the Politics and Internet session.

What is the impact of the Internet on democracy?

Ethan Zuckerman from Global Voices talked about how useful blogs have been to get the voices of the unheard out–including about Burma and other places before the mainstream media. But he’s worried. Haven’t figured out how to shape the agenda through citizen media yet.

Moved to our study of the Iranian blogosphere–what did we learn from it? John explained the map which you can see in our study here. John also referenced his work on the US blogosphere and the bi-polar political network structures where you see conservatives vs. liberal bloggers, as compared to Iran’s four major networks and seven clusters. Victoria Nash, one of our friends at Oxford Internet Institute asked about Cass Sunstein’s criticism of talking in silos. And it seems that blogs may have us falling into silos more than other online discussion platforms, according to her and to John Kelly.

Rob Faris of the OpenNet Initiative went to the second part of the argument. More speech is possible than ever before, but governments are figuring how to block and stop that speech that they don’t like–especially political. Azerbaijan/Jordan/Tajikistan filter exclusively political speech. The dictators dillema is critical here–do dictators stop political speech at the expense of killing all the great generativity that the Internet allows that Jonathan Zittrain discussed in his book talk. According to Rob there is a push and pull between citizens and government on filtering.
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Youth, Civic Engagement and the 2008 Election

The kickoff event for the Berkman@10 conference was held at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics on Civic Engagement and the Youth Vote in 2008. A panel led by the Berkman Center’s John Palfrey began with questions to the panel about how youth are involved in the 2008 campaign, what is the trajectory, what is the narrative of this campaign, and is this a watershed moment for civic engagement or is it just a temporary blip on the radar screen? So, are more youth involved or not?

Ari Melber, a blogger for The Nation’s campaign blog put the 2008 election into historic context. He noted the ongoing discussion comparing youth involvement in politics during the Vietnam War, when it was at its high point, to today. Ari rattled off some impressive statistics that you may want to check on the transcript before repeating, but the take away is that we are not at the level we were at in the Vietnam era, however there is a clear and significant spike in youth involvement today compared to 2004. On the Democratic side, we’ve seen a 90% increase in voters under 30 voting in primaries. He can’t say if it is a long-term shift, but their impact is certainly being felt. Starting in Iowa, the under 30 voters have turned the tide for Obama—if there wasn’t an increased turnout of the youth vote, Edward would have won. That trend has continued in other states, with Obama wining the youth vote in something like 22 of 33 states—including Clinton’s home state of New York.

John next turned to Jesse Dylan, founder of HOPEACTCHANGE and Director/Executive Producer of the “Yes we can” video. Interestingly, he came late to Obama, and before that was leaning towards Ron Paul. The speech in South Carolina is what turned him into and Obama supporter. He noted that the video was turned around in just two days, and he would have viewed it as a success if just 10,000 people had viewed it. He highlighted the importance of story and narrative for engaging people and bringing them into the political process, and feels that video is the easiest medium to do that in, which is why we are seeing the importance of it in this election cycle.

Wess Hill of HOPEACTCHANGE echoed this theme when he said that he believes the Obama speech in South Carolina struck a chord with so many people because it captured the story of the US—from early pioneers to Latinos and other immigrants trying to achieve the American dream. He has no empirical evidence, but feels the “Yes We Can” video lets people connect to that idea.

Ari Melber also noted that the Internet allows a new way to engage in politics. The old metrics are simply “do you vote,” “do you volunteer for a campaign,” “do you write letters to the editor,” but these are pretty limiting for measuring engagement. Now the way to engage in politics is much more varied and rich. Our empirical methods do not seem to accurately measure the type of activism we are seeing—such as comments on a blog or response to YouTube videos. Ari argued that there may be also be a gateway drug quality to these videos, that then get youth to joing Facebook groups, contribute online or otherwise get involved in campaigns.

Jeff Frazee was the National Youth Coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 Campaign. He discussed how Facebook was the primary platform for the campaign, but that it has lots of limitations—for example once 1000 members join a group mass communication to the group is no longer permitted. The Ron Paul campaign did not have significant resources to throw at technology. For all the campaigns online success, including organizing and fundraising, Jeff felt that the campaigns achievements were more due to Ron Paul’s message, and that he had the right voting record on issues like the War in Iraq and small government.
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I&D Short Film: An Introduction to Digital Activism

The following short film was made by members of the Internet & Democracy Project. It features interviews with the world’s top digital activists, talking about how cell phones and the Internet are empowering the individual in her fight for social and political change.

The Democratic Power Shift on the Internet

Moving Beyond Anecdote

When discussing the effect on the Internet on democracy we seem to be trapped in anecdote. We’ve seen examples of how low-cost digital tools like Facebook, Youtube, and blogs have been used to unite people globally around a cause, increase awareness of civil rights abuse, and share information about social justice campaigns.

But how do we move beyond the anecdotal examples of the Facebook group which organized to support the monks in Burma, the video of Zimbabwean union members being beaten by police, and the blog-based campaign to release the blogger Abdel-Monem Mahmoud? What does all this activity mean about the effects of the Internet on democracy?

The Internet and Political Power

One way to go about answering this question is to go back to first principles, to look at the network structure of the Internet and see what about it might constitute a democratizing force. In using the term “democratizing force,” I am not referring to institutional change, to a government becoming more responsive to citizens. I am referring to a more literal definition of democracy: “the people rule” (demos kratia). “Democratizing forces” increase the power of citizens. So when I say that the Internet might constitute a “democratizing force,” (and I belive it does), I mean that the Internet increases the political power of the people that use it.

How does the Internet increase the political power of its users? The effect is not primarily institutional. The institutions of democratic government by and large have not moved onto the Internet. Online e-voting is still uncommon and binding hearings and caucuses rarely occur in cyber-space. This makes the task of showing that the Internet increases political power more difficult, because the lack of institutional presence on the Internet implies that the Internet increases power informally rather than institutionally.

Democratic institutions exist to decentralize power from the executive. The judicial branch, legislative branch, universal suffrage, and the like all serve this purpose. However, decentralization of power is a central tenet of democracy even outside the institutional context. When institutions are removed, democracy is still all about the idea that the authority to make decision that effect the public are not decided only by a head of state or small group of elites but, to the greatest extent possible, by the people affected by that decision.
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Berkman@10 Is Here!

The final event to celebrate Berkman’s 10 year anniversary is here, and there are at least three events that those interested in the Internet and Democracy Project won’t want to miss. You don’t need to be in Cambridge, since many of these events will be webcast, live-streamed, recorded, blogged and otherwise accessible online. The Internet and Democracy team will try to blog as many sessions as possible. A number of social tools will also be used to allow those remotely, as well as attendees, to be part of the conversation.

First up is tonight’s event on Civic Engagement and the Youth Vote in the 2008 Elections co-hosted with the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School.

Tomorrow, John Palfrey will lead a discussion on the Internet and Politics, which will be webcast from Ames court room, and draws on many of the examples, hypotheses, theory and research of the I&D project.

On Friday, among several of the interesting “Openness” sessions will be a discussion on Open Media that will be facilitated by Persephone Miel, Jake Shapiro, Dan Gillmor and Bruce Etling. Check out the wiki to see what themes will be debated.

Be sure to follow along online and be part of what promises to be an amazing discussion on the “Future of the Internet” over the next few days.

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Will the cyclone bring political change to Burma, where just last year the Internet failed?

There has been a great deal of speculation lately, including in the British Telegraph and Boston Globe, that the military junta’s horrific response to the humanitarian crisis in Burma may lead to their downfall. As the New York Times reported, the junta went forward with a constitutional referendum to further entrench their rule everywhere in the country except in cyclone effected areas (and even there, the vote was only delayed until May 24th). Amazingly, those seeking shelter in schools or other public buildings because their homes were destroyed were kicked out by the government to make way for polling stations.

As highlighted in the OpenNet Initiative’s technical analysis of the shut down of the Internet after last year’s political demonstrations, the junta clearly wants tight control over all information that comes in and goes out the country. Their reaction to offers of humanitarian assistance from abroad is not surprising–they want to control all of it, just like everything else in the country. Most offers of assistance were initially turned down, the government has been slow to process visas for aid workers, aid that has made it through has been taken by the regime for its own use, and those that tried to distribute aid on their own have been stopped. There are now government road blocks to prevent foreign aid workers from reaching cyclone survivors.

But how realistic is it that the regime could lose power? In any political revolution, there is a flash point that raises already simmering discontent over to a boil. This often includes economic factors such as relative deprivation, food crises, and other factors that lead to demands for political change. There is something that must get the masses into the streets, and emboldened enough to stand up to the existing regime. The most recent Burmese protests were driven by plans to end government fuel subsidies, and photos and information were shared virally through the Web to increase knowledge globally about the protests and no doubt to generate international support, and possibly a level of protection for protesters.

Obviously, the situation was dire in Burma even before the cyclone. The regime appears to be bungling the relief effort and has further tarnished their already poor reputation. With such tight control of information within the country, one has to wonder if the stories of denied humanitarian aid, interference in aid distribution by the government and other examples of a severely mismanaged response are circulating within Burma as much as they are on the Internet and global press. These lead to international pressure, but the regime has been able to ignore those calls for change from outside for years. Sadly, it seems that without greater access to information internally about the regimes response to the crisis, that the average Burmese citizen will likely not be able to do much but continue to focus on survival in the short term.

Harvard Law Faculty Vote Unanimously for Open Access to Scholarship

Open access to scholarship and information on the Web is one of the core principles of the Berkman Center, and by extension the Internet and Democracy Project. We are extremely pleased that the Harvard Law School faculty recently voted unanimously to to make each faculty member’s scholarly articles available online for free–making it the first law school to commit to a mandatory open access policy. This will help to bring down the barriers to open scholarship that are unfortunately created by journals, scholarly databases and publishers that charge fairly high fees for access to work that should be made available for free online at places like faculty Web sites, Google Scholar, and other online repositories. This effort was led by Berkman’s own John Palfrey who was recently appointed Vice Dean of Library and Information Resources (congratulations John)! Finally, the vote follows a similar effort and unanimous vote for open access by Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences–a first by any academic institution in the US. We hope this helps build the open access movement as the idea spreads to other schools and faculties around the country.

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Is Oil to Blame for the Lack of Democracy in the Middle East?

Following yesterday’s post on the the democracy deficit in the Middle East, I noted with interest Thomas Friedman’s op-ed where he brought up my point about the inverse correlation between the price of oil and democracy. Friedman writes: “I’ve long argued that the price of oil and the pace of freedom operate in an inverse correlation — which I call: ‘The First Law of Petro-Politics.’ As the price of oil goes up, the pace of freedom goes down. As the price of oil goes down, the pace of freedom goes up.”

He also sites Larry Diamond’s excellent new book The Spirit of Democracy, which we liked very much and have added to our library of resources for studying democracy and democratization–along with others from Diamond, including Developing Democracy: Towards Consolidation. According to Diamond, none of the 23 countries that rely on oil and gas for 60% or more of their exports are democracies–including Iran, Russia, Venezuela and Nigeria.

I’d like to see some empirical analysis of oil prices against democracy indicators–similar to what Mike Best has done with Internet penetration against Freedom House indicators. Another major question that remains unanswered is what happens when the price of oil goes back down. The price of oil has traditionally fluctuated in boom and bust cycles, similar to the business cycle. Perhaps not coincidentally, in 2003, when the price of oil was in the $30 to $35/barrel range, Iran’s reform movement was going strong, while today the price has recently reached near $120/barrel and the conservatives are firmly in control. Obviously, this may be no more than correlation, but it is indisputable that Iran is highly dependent on oil. A crash in the price of oil could lead to a major economic, and perhaps political, crisis.

However, experts now debate if the price of oil will ever come down, as demand is expected to continue to climb from the developing world including China and India, supply may not be able to keep up. If we believe Friedman’s law of petro-politics, that is not a good sign for democracy.

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Too Much Democracy in Kuwait?

The logic in a New York Times article that discusses concerns by Kuwaitis before Parliamentary elections that they are falling behind their neighbors economically because of their (limited, but growing) democratic institutions seems a bit off. Blaming a democratic political system for economic problems (slow growth , high unemployment, etc.) is unfortunately quite common in new or transitioning democracies. Before any election in any part of the world, the economy is often a leading, if not the top issue on voters minds. The article raises interesting and still unsettled questions about causation versus correlation between healthy democracies and strong market economies. The two go together, but are not necessarily caused by one another. Seymour Martin Lipset was one of the first to argue that wealth was a precondition for democracy. Samuel Huntington observed that poverty was probably the principal obstacle to increased democratization. But, there is a mutually reinforcing effect of a strong middle class on democracy. Look at the world richest countries and you will also find the strongest democracies–except in the oil-rich Gulf states like Kuwait. Huntington and others have argued that this democratic deficit in the Middle East is because autocrats there have been able to give citizens state-financed public goods–schools, healthcare, etc., all with low or no taxes–in return for limited political freedom. In Kuwait,the question really should be why when oil is hovering around $120/barrel, how in the world is it managing it’s economy so poorly. That sounds like poor governance and inept management of the economy, not too much democracy. Kuwaitis are among the few in the region who actually have the ability to vote out those they think are managing the economy poorly and replace them with those they believe can do a better job. If it was more of a dictatorship, the opportunity to debate the issue at all would not even be possible. It is easy to understand frustration with poor economic performance, but a bit of a stretch to blame it on democracy.