I&D Project Releases Case Study of Post-Election Crisis In Kenya

We’re following up yesterday’s release of our Burma case study with a look at Africa and the role of technology in Kenya’s post-election violence. This case study builds off of the work of Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich, examining how last year’s post-election domestic conflict in Kenya was both exacerbated and mitigated by the networked public sphere.

In doing so, their effort is to broaden the existing scope of research on how technology is making its impact felt in political action even within the developing world. They write:

Written largely through the lens of rich nations, scholars have developed theories about how digital technology affects democracy. However, largely due to a paucity of evidence, these theories have excluded the experience of Sub-Saharan Africa, where meaningful access to digital tools is only beginning to emerge, but where the struggles between failed state and functioning democracy are profound.

The entire report is available on our site here.

It’s a great piece: Joshua and Juliana have put together a very nuanced examination of the situation, and it goes a long way in bringing out the complexities of the ways in which networked technologies function in times of turmoil.

I&D Releases New Case Study on Burma’s Saffron Revolution

Over the past few months, the Internet and Democracy team has been hard at work producing a new set of case studies that take a closer look at the complex role of technology in the creation, progress, and outcomes of domestic crisis. This follows up from our previous case study work earlier this spring into the makeup of the Iranian blogosphere, and from last December into the role of networked technologies in Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution.

To coincide with the first anniversary of the internet blackout in Burma, we’re announcing today the official release of our study of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, available here.

Chowdhury’s research challenges long-held assumptions about the capacity for widely adopted information technologies to subvert authoritarian regimes and promote useful societal discourse. In practice, the relationship of technology to politics seems to be far more intricate than these broad notions would suggest, and indicate many possibilities for further research. As he writes in the abstract:

The 2007 Saffron Revolution in Burma was in many ways an unprecedented event in the intersection between politics and technology. There is, of course, the obvious: the event marks a rare instance in which a government leveraged control of nationalized ISPs to entirely black out Internet access in an attempt to prevent images and information about the protests from reaching the outside world. At another level, it is an example of an Internet driven protest which did not lead to tangible political change.

Looking forward to seeing what you guys think about it!

Update: You can read Veronica Alfaro’s response to the Burma case study here.

(photo courtesy racoles, CC BY)

What’s The Sarah Palin Hack Got To Do With It?

This news is about a week old now, so I&D is not moving anywhere close to internet time like a good blog should, but, worth nothing here that last Tuesday saw the first majorly publicized security compromise of the 2008 presidential election season. “Members” identifying themselves as Anonymous hacked US vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s e-mail and exposed the contents online through Wikileaks. The story made the usual rounds, on Slashdot, Wired News, Gawker before hitting all the mainstream traditional venues. Beyond the usual hubblaboo that’s gone down since — there’s definitely some interesting swirling issues here that are salient to democracy in general, and the way in which candidates relate to the voters.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in blogging, Current Events, Elections, Ideas. Comments Off on What’s The Sarah Palin Hack Got To Do With It?

Facebook More Popular than Porn on Internet

My own little Google Insights search (Facebook is blue in the above graph, porn is red) confirms that searches for social networks are indeed taking over porn on the Internet, as Andrew Sullivan blogged recently. This is potentially an important moment for the cyber utopian camp that argues the Internet can be a tool for positive change and help us to create and maintain closer social ties online–as opposed to a tool for porn, LOLcats, 419 scams, etc.

I’m curious, though, if this finding is reflected in visits/page views or simply in Google searches. It also seems to reinforce the need in my mind for some more empirical research into the impact of the Internet, including social networking sites, on creating social capital. For leading sociologists like Robert Putnam, social capital, or the building of trust through participation in social and civic groups, is critical to civic participation and democracy. He’s noted an increase in the 9/11 generation’s civic engagement, which also happens to be the largest, if not exclusive, age group using social networks sites. Bill Tancer also has other interesting findings on how we are using the Internet these days in his new book.

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Burmese Web Sites Attacked on Eve of Saffron Revolution

As we near the one year anniversary of Burma’s Saffron Revolution and the total shut down of the Internet in that country, a number of dissident Web sites have come under Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks since September 17. The sites include a number of those that have provided critical news and information on events inside Burma that are run by exiled dissidents, including Irrawaddy, Democratic Voice of Burma, and New Era Journal. Most have set up mirror sites to get around the attacks.

It would seem odd that anyone besides Burma’s military government would want to carry out such an attack, and many dissident groups suspect as much. As the mirror site for Irrawaddy claims:

Many in the Burmese community—both inside and outside Burma—believe that the military authorities are behind the cyber attack. Our Web hosting companies have been assisting us day and night tracing IP addresses to identify the cyber criminals.

However, as we’ve seen from similar attacks last month on official Georgian Web sites, we may never be able to prove who was behind the attacks.

An I&D case study which investigates the Internet’s impact on the Saffron revolution will be released in the coming weeks. Look for it here on the I&D blog, as well as the Berkman Web site.

Will Online Tools Promote Voter Participation?

Recently came across VoteForChange.com, a neat, aggressively simple little web app that registers users to vote and neatly organizes polling information.

The basic premise is great: take the clunky user-unfriendly format of bureaucratic voter registration forms and break it down into nice, neat, discrete steps that automatically piece together a filled out sheet that’s all ready to be quickly printed and mailed in a few minutes. The strategy here, is also pretty obvious: by lowering the usual time and effort costs of finding/filling out a form, the hope is to increase election participation from a pool of unregistered eligibles (by and large youth voters).

From a historical point of view, this is an interesting push. As Gasser and Palfrey point out in Born Digital, much of the political activity on the web, particularly by digital natives, historically hasn’t been about civic engagement on the level of voting. Instead, most have turned to public service activities like helping out at shelters, covering news stories, and coordinating fund raising drives.

Certainly the explosion of election stories that have been filtering to mainstream media via blogger coverage this year and the unprecedented shifts in the campaign contribution distributions seems to suggest that this year might be the year that online tools take a more central stage in political activity (at least within the United States). Though, no doubt, only time will tell how much tools like VoteForChange will actually encourage greater involvement on the critical level of the ballot box.

Can voter participation be a part of online life in the same way that contributing to political discourse via blogging, video sharing, and commenting has?

Madison and the Smart Mob: The Promise and Limitations of the Internet for Democracy

Updated with Conclusions Below:

Kicking off the release of a number of Internet and democracy publications this fall is the recently published paper by Robert Faris and Bruce Etling: “Madison and the Smart Mob: The Promise and Limitations of the Internet for Democracy.” From the Fletcher Forum summary:

“Color revolutions” in countries as disparate as Burma and the Ukraine demonstrate the potential of the Internet and text messaging for disseminating democratic ideals. These new technologies have no doubt revolutionized peer-to-peer relationships, but they remain limited in improving processes among government institutions.

This piece builds off our thinking about the Internet and democracy over the last year, and is informed by the ideas and work of many here at the Berkman Center including Faculty Directors John Palfrey (Born Digital), Yochai Benkler (Wealth of Networks) and Jonathan Zittrain (The Future of the Internet), among many other staff and fellows.

Check it out, and let us know what you think about it here on the blog.

A reader asks that we post our conclusions. Here they are:

There is a growing number of anecdotes that suggest that the Internet and cell phones are having a significant impact on democracy. These tools seem to be changing public life substantially across social, economic, and political domains. This is a paradox, given that there is little evidence that these tools are having a systematic influence on political structures and processes. In this paper, we draw upon two distinct literatures to describe where the digital network technology is most likely to positively influence the transition to and persistence of democracy, and where the disruptive nature of digital networks is less likely to promote lasting democratic reform. We argue that the Internet is most effective in supporting political processes that draw upon widespread participation of citizens, such as elections, grassroots movements, and participatory media. This naturally follows from the sharp drop in the costs of disseminating information and online organizing.

However, consolidated democracies are composed of much more than effective involvement of citizens. The Internet does not have an obvious or significant impact on critical attributes such as civilian control of the military, a supreme constitution, protection of minorities, and freedom of religion. These intra-governmental processes—exactly what is most needed in many countries around the world—appear to be immune to the transformative power of digital tools.

There are linkages between vertical and horizontal processes that leave room for a degree of guarded optimism. Vertical accountability mechanisms have been shown to be powerful tools that can be leveraged to enhance governance and democracy. Moreover, digital tools that promote the development of strong civic organizations capable of improving governmental decision making could provide critically needed support for democracies around the world. Although we are witnessing a profusion of new online communities and organizations, it is unclear whether they can fill this crucial role.

Ultimately, vertical and horizontal governance are complementary approaches. As the example of Rodrigues and his Politicos do Brasil website demonstrates, the Internet allows citizens low-cost ways to collect, aggregate, index, and disseminate meaningful information due to preexisting horizontal institutional processes. For the Internet to reach its true potential, governments need to redouble their efforts to make information about horizontal processes publicly available. This includes public disclosures on a range of issues, from decisions about government spending to background documents related to the creation of law and policy.

We will continue to see headlines about the Internet’s impact on political transitions and future color revolutions. However, if the goal is lasting and meaningful improvements to the quality of democracy around the world—with all its benefits for decreased violence and improved economic, political, and social benefits for citizens—we need to ensure that the Internet can move democracies from “thin” electoral democracies to “thick” consolidated ones. Otherwise, we will continue to be disappointed with the failure of new democracies to grow the roots necessary to prevent backsliding into illiberal democracy and autocracy.

Persian Translation of Iranian Blog Study Now Available

We are pleased to release the full Persian translation of our case study: Mapping Iran’s Online Public: Politics and Culture in the Persian Blogosphere. In this study we used social network analysis to map the online network combined with human coding of hundreds of Persian language blogs to reveal the issues that are most important to different parts of the network, as well as basic data on the bloggers in each pole. Please help us share it with Iranian bloggers and Web sites, who are an important audience for our work. Comments on our research are always welcome on the blog.

Born Digital!

Over here at Internet and Democracy headquarters, just finishing up a first read through Berkman’s latest release: Urs Gasser and John Palfrey’s “Born Digital.” Beyond being an incredibly impressive study of technology use patterns in children, the book closes on an awesome chapter about digital natives and activism. If you’re at all interested in the issues surrounding youth participation in civic life, it’s definitely worth a read.

What’s perhaps most striking about the book’s analysis of digital natives and civic nature is its nuanced claim: “The Internet isn’t going to solve the problem of civic disengagement. Not everyone will be taking advantage of these opportunities—indeed, the data suggest that most of them are not at present” they write, “[But] the Internet can become an extraordinarily powerful tool of organization, recruitment, and participation.” This is a nice step away from a naive kind of technological triumphalism, and I think gets at the key need for an examination of the kinds of things the internet changes in a real way, and those which it merely heightens.

In a similarly sophisticated way, Gasser and Palfrey touch upon not only on what is going right online, but what threatens the promise of better democracy as well. They lists three potential hazards emerging in the interface of political involvement and the internet:

1) The Sunstein Gambit:
Specifically, the worry that “citizens simply tailor their environment in such a way that they hear their views reinforcd over and over again, rather than exposing themselves to new ones.”

2) The Signal To Noise Problem: The “worry that the quality of information in the online political discourse is not as uniformly high as it was in the broadcast era.”

3) The Commercialization Problem: Finally, that the “intrusion of marketing, with its powerful underlying data-mining technologies, is only the beginning of a growing tend toward the commercialization of spaces where Digital Natives network online.”

As the authors describe, these problems are not as large as the harshest critics of Internet civic engagement would make them out to be. But, for the people who would create the spaces and tools to forward activism through technology, this discussion forms a great agenda for the future. No doubt how technology is structured and how communities are constructed online can be forces in exacerbating or mitigating these issues, and any attempt to promote better democracies through online coordination confront these design questions.

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A2K3: Connectivity and Democratic Ideals

Also in the final A2K3 panel, The Global Public Sphere: Media and Communication Rights, Natasha Primo, National ICT policy advocacy coordinator for the Association for Progressive Communications, discusses three questions that happen to be related to my current research. 1) Where is the global in the global public sphere? 2) Who is the public in the global public sphere? and 3) How to we get closer to the promise of development and the practice of democratic values and freedom of expression?

She begins with the premise that we are in an increasingly interconnected world, in economic, political, and social spheres, and you will be excluded if you are not connected. She also asserts the premise that connection to the internet can lead to the opening of democratic spaces and – in time – a true global public sphere.

Primo, like Ó Siochrú in my blog post here, doesn’t see any global in global public sphere. She thinks this is just a matter of timing, and not a systematic problem. She notes that the GSM organization predicts 5 billion people on the GSM network by 2015, whereas we now have 1 of 6 billion connection to the internet> note that Primo believes internet access will come through the cell phone for many people who are not connected today. She refers us to Richard Heeksproposal for a Blackberry-for-development. Heeks is professor and chair of the Development Informatics Department at the University of Manchester. But Primo sees the cost as the major barrier to connectivity among LCDs and thinks this will abate over time.

With regard to the cost of connectivity, she notes that Africa has a 10% internet subscription rate versus in Asia-Pacific and 72% in Europe. South Africa is planning an affordable broadband campaign: to have some facilities declared ‘essential’ to make them available to the public at cost to the service providers. This comes from the A2K idea of partnership for higher education in Africa – African universities are to have cheaper access. She also sees authoritarian behavior by states as another obstacle to connectivity. She cites research by our very own OpenNet Initiative that 24 of 40 countries studied are filtering the internet and using blocking tools to prevent freedom of expression. This is done via blocking blogging sites and YouTube. She is worried about how this behavior by governments impacts peoples’ behavior when they are online. She notes surveys that show two extreme reactions: people either practice substantial selfcensorship or put their lives on the line for the right to express an opinion.

Primo notes the cultural obstacles to the global public sphere. She relates a story that some groups are not accustomed to hearing opinions that diverge from their own and will, innocently, flag them as inappropriate content. Dissenting opinions come back online after a short amount of time, but with the delay dialogue can be lost.

Crossposted on Victoria Stodden

Posted in A2K3, Africa, blogging, Citizen Journalism, Developing world, Free Speech, Ideas, Tech Tools. Comments Off on A2K3: Connectivity and Democratic Ideals