How Facebook is changing Italian social and political life

Two events have recently shaken Italian cyberspace: the launch of the Italian version of Facebook and the comments of Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi after the election of President-elect Barack Obama. I believe that after these two events Italian social and political life may never be the same again.

I do not think I am exaggerating trends here, although empirical data for now is scarce. Being myself one of the early adopters of Facebook, at the start I only had a few Italian Facebook friends in my mainly Anglo-Saxon circle – most of my Italian friends were offline, and those already on Facebook like myself were mainly living abroad or they were back in Italy after having spent some time abroad. This was hardly surprising, given that Italy still has one of the lowest rates of Internet use in Europe (35.6% according to a 2006 Istat report). But in the past couple of months Facebook has been literally invaded by Italians, quickly helping Italy reach first place for the greatest (and fastest) exponential growth in adoption of Facebook by a country. Italians seem to have a natural affinity with Facebook – they are not only joining in huge numbers (Facebook is now the fifth most popular site in Italy) but they seem to have seamlessly integrated this technology in their everyday life: Facebook is fast becoming the new “telefonino”.

My surprise, however, did not stop here. With the election of President-elect Barack Obama and the subsequent unfortunate comments made by the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi a huge wave of protest has swept Italian cyberspace. The New York Times article, which gave the news, received 2000 comments in a couple of days. Groups to protest the Prime Minister’s words have been literally mushrooming on Facebook overnight – reaching thousands of members in a matter of days (one only needs to enter ‘Berlusconi’ in the search box to check them out). The group ‘I bet I can find 1,000,000 people who dislike Silvio Berlusconi’ has reached 70,000 members, with an increase of almost 10,000 members in less than one week subsequent to the diplomatic incident. And the protest is quickly moving beyond Facebook’s boundaries. Notspeakinginmyname.com is a new website where people can upload a photo of themselves holding a banner stating that the Italian prime minister is not speaking in their names. Clearly young Italians’ discontent (as it is young people who are mainly inhabiting Facebook) and frustration with the current political situation and with their political representatives is finding in the Web a channel to let youth voice be heard.

Italians have just discovered the power of the Internet – which will make for interesting developments for the Italian media ecology and especially for political participation, in a country where the Web is still viewed with suspicion by most political candidates, with a few exceptions. This shift in social habits is only starting and whether it will gain momentum will depend on whether it will reach a tipping point (or a critical mass) – although some of the protest groups on Facebook seem to have already gotten there.

[Cross-posted on Corinna di Gennaro’s blog]

Internet overtakes newspapers as main source of campaign news

There were many firsts in this 2008 election cycle: amongst them the pivotal role played by the Internet in engaging voters, raising funds and organizing volunteers and party supporters. But the most striking trend to emerge was that the Internet has overtaken newspapers as the main source where people look for campaign news.

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press (full report here) has looked at the different media sources where people look for campaign information between October 2004 and 2008. According to the poll:

–    the percentage of respondents who reports turning to the Internet as their first or second choice for getting campaign information has tripled between 2004 and 2008 from 10% to 33% (a staggering 23 percentage point change).

–    At the same time the percentage of people who mention newspapers as their first or second choice for getting campaign news has remained stable at 29% between 2004 and 2008.

TV remains the most prominent source of campaign information. What is striking, however, is that especially amongst young people the Internet is largely the new place where to go and look for political news. 49% of 18-29 year olds and 37% of 30-49 year olds turned to the Internet compared to 29% of 50-64 year olds and 12% of the over 65. For newspapers we see the exact opposite trend: only 17% of 18-29 year olds and 23% of 30-49 year olds looked for campaign news in newspapers (both percentages below the general population average), compared to 34% of 50-64 year olds and 45% of over 65.

Clearly these data show that it is not only ‘digital natives’ who are turning increasingly to new media to get their political information. The 30-49 age group is also choosing technology over more ‘traditional’ sources of information, suggesting that an important transformation is taking place in news consumption habits. This is certainly aided by the increasing attention paid to new technologies by campaign strategists – but also by the growing bottom-up participation encouraged by blogs, social networking sites and interactive features of online news sites.

We’ll Be Studying This Election For Years

“I think we’ll be analyzing this election for years as a seminal, transformative race,” said Mark McKinnon, a senior adviser to President Bush’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004. “The year campaigns leveraged the Internet in ways never imagined. The year we went to warp speed. The year the paradigm got turned upside down and truly became bottom up instead of top down.”

Well, the polls have barely opened and it’s already the conventional wisdom according to the NY Times: the Internet fundamentally changed the nature of the 2008 presidential election–no matter who wins tonight. Here is where I think the conventional wisdom sits and some points I think they are missing about the Internet’s impact on this election.

We’ll let the Times article represent conventional wisdom, and here’s what their points boil down to.

1. Obama leveraged the Net to blow away the Republicans in fundraising;
2. Obama used social networking to supplement his ‘formidable ground game’;
3. Bloggers played a bigger role than in the last election, often ‘trafficking in rumor and misinformation.’
4. But, voters used the Internet to fact check the campaigns themselves, instead of accepting what the campaigns say as fact.
5. McCain didn’t leverage the Internet nearly as well as he could have, or as well as Bush did in previous elections.

Here’s a couple of my early thoughts on how the Internet has impacted this election:

1. First, I don’t disagree with the obvious fundraising point, but it’s not that interesting and will be discussed ad nauseum in the coming months/years. Other factors are much more interesting from my perspective.

2. Bloggers had a much bigger impact than we understand or traditional media will probably want to acknowledge. It’s not an ‘old vs. new media’ argument anymore. Political bloggers on the left and the right helped shape the agenda of news coverage and served to fact check campaigns–and to go way beyond the talking points and issues the traditional media get locked into. Sadly, blogs were also used to spread rumors and hit on trivial issues as our research with Columbia and John Kelly seem to indicate. Early results seem to indicate that this is not a very effective strategy, though.

3. YouTube: Not even in existence in the last election, YouTube played a huge role. The aspect that needs more investigation is the ability of users to create their own content, closely tied to the concept of semiotic democracy or ‘user-generated democracy.’ That said, campaign messages also got out through YouTube. According to the Times, Obama’s substantive speech on race in America has the most views of any political video. This shows, I think, that voters want more than the ‘horse race’ analogies and campaign tactics reporting that the traditional media focus on during elections.

4. Factchecking: The ‘show me’ aspect of blogs and the Internet allowed by hyperlinking means citizens have been able do their own research on the candidates, likely offsetting the ‘rumor spreading’ criticism of the Internet. Since we’ve seen an erosion of trust of all American institutions (media, government, etc.), it’s not surprising that voters have used the Internet to factcheck what campaigns and traditional media have reported, and then make up their own minds about what’s true or not.

5. Polling: More addictive than crack, FiveThirtyEight and other sites have told us more about polls than we ever knew before. How off these polls are from the actual election results will be a major point of discussion, though, and these sites are going to help us sort through the explanations for hits or misses by different polls.

5. Social networking and social capital: Fundraising is obviously critical to a campaign, but we need research that tells us how much social networking led to action for the campaigns, and ultimately led people to vote because their ‘friends’ told them to. Assume a huge effort by the Republicans to catch up on this by the next election.

No matter what, I think Mark McKinnon’s quote is right, a lot of people will be studying this election for a long time to come, for a lot of different reasons. It’s been an amazing one to watch, and will be just as fun to further explore in the months and years ahead.

Campaigns Differ in Approach to Political Blogosphere

US blogosphere map

Today’s Columbia Journalism Review has an article by Renee Feltz on the election blog study we are working on in partnership with Columbia’s Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting and John Kelly. Renee writes that the results of her interviews with bloggers and blogger outreach coordinators shows “…a fundamental difference in the candidates’ approach to the blogosphere.”

According to the article:

Barack Obama’s campaign reaches out to activist bloggers in order to communicate with and mobilize campaign volunteers and feed them into its online social networking site, MyBarackObama.com. In contrast, John McCain’s campaign takes a top-down approach, using blogs—many of which it helped incubate—as an echo chamber for channeling mostly anti-Obama attacks into the mainstream media, in order to create an impression of grassroots online support.

As John’s recent map of the US blogosphere shows, two new clusters emerged in the summer that were not part of the traditional political blog network. Feltz writes of these clusters:

The use of the incubation technique is evident in a map of 8,000 blogs produced by Morningside Analytics for a joint investigation by Columbia University’s Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting and Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. In addition to two large clusters of mostly longtime conservative and liberal bloggers, the map shows a ‘halo’ of about 500 relatively new blogs in two isolated clusters. One cluster includes several hundred anti-Obama blogs (orange) and the other contains several hundred pro-McCain and pro-Palin blogs (green). Most of them were created in mid-July 2007 or afterwards, and are listed listed on “blogrolls” such as McCain Victory 2008 and the NoBama network.

John Kelly says that pro-McCain/Palin blogs that heavily link to each other but not the existing political blogosphere, “…indicates it is not a particularly effective communications strategy, because these sites don’t draw much attention from established bloggers on the left of the right.” However, they did appear to allow the McCain campaign to “generate a buzz for attacks on Obama.” For example, blogs that focus on Acorn or Bill Ayers can lead to higher hits on Google searches about Obama and create the perception of widespread outrage, which has the ability to frame news coverage.

And confirming what others have noted before, the Obama campaign has not reached out as significantly to bloggers, and has focused instead on its own social networking site; which is not surprising given Facebook co-Founder Chris Huges’s role in the campaign.

We’ll report out in the future on the results of our coding of hundreds of these blogs, but in the mean time check out the full CJR article here.

Sunstein speaks on Extremism

Cass Sunstein, Professor at Harvard Law School, is speaking today on Extremism: Politics and Law. Related to this topic, he is the author of Nudge, Republic.com 2.0, and Infotopia. He discussed Republic 2.0 with Henry Farrell on this bloggingheads.tv diavlog, which touches on the theme of extremism in discourse and the web’s role is facilitating polarization of political views (notably, Farrell gives a good counterfactual to Sunstein’s claims, and Sunstein ends up agreeing with him).

Sunstein is in the midst of writing a new book on extremism and this talk is a teaser. He gives us a quote from Churchill: “Fanatics are people who can’t change their minds and will not change the subject.” Political scientist Hardin says he agrees with the first clause epistemologically but the second clause is wrong because they *cannot* change the subject. Sunstein says extremism in multiple domains (The Whitehouse, company boards, unions) results from group polarization.

He thinks the concept of group polization should replace the notion of group think in all fields. Group Polarization involves both information exchange and reputation. His thesis is that like-minded people talking with other like-minded people tend to move to more extreme positions upon disucssion – partly because of the new information and partly because of the pressure from peer viewpoints.

HIs empirical work on this because with his Colorado study. He and his coauthors recorded the private views on 3 issues (climate change, same sex marriage and race conscious affirmative action) for citizens in Boulder and for citizens in Colorado Springs. Boulder is liberal so they screened people to ensure liberalness: if they liked Cheney they were excused from the test. They asked the same Cheney question in Colorado Springs and if they didn’t like him they were excused. Then he interviewed them to determine their private view after deliberation, and well as having come to a group consensus.

Sunstein found that views they liked turned into views they loved and vice versa after discussion with the like-minded. This is a shift in *anonymous views*. And also, the internal diversity in the groups’ views that existed before discussion was squelched after they meet.

Sunstein extended this by examining voting patterns of 3 judge judicial panels. Do Democratic appointees vote differently if they are on panels with all dems or with mixed panels? And Republican appointees? Depending on the subject of the case it appears the same extremism appears when a judge is surrounded by other judges appointed by a president of the same party.
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Saudi activists launch a daring and bold move to support human rights

For the first time in Saudi Arabia, a defense team for jailed Saudi activists are observing, and calling for a two-day public hunger strike to protest the detention without charge of human rights activists. The Saudi and Arab media ignored the group’s call but the group started Facebook and Google groups and a special Web site (http://www.humriht-civsocsa.org) where they disseminate information about the strike and coordinate campaign efforts.

The activist said in a statement they distributed online: “Saudi Justice system and legal procedures (e.g., Criminal Procedure and Arrest and Detention Laws) had failed to render just judgments to jailed Saudi human-right activists who have been arrested with no official indictments, and incarcerated indefinitely in solitary confinements with no right for an attorney or access to habeas corpus.”

“After exerting all means to get fair treatments to the constitutional movement’s detainees, the defense teams decided to observe a 48-hour hunger strike. The proposed strike will take place on Thursday and Friday, 6-7 November 2008, in protest against flagrant human-right violations for all detainees in Saudi prisons who have been deprived of their basic rights as guaranteed by Criminal Procedure Law and Arrest and Detention Law …” the statement added.

“Our demand is quite simple: either to set the detainees free or instantly grant them fair and public trials.”

Apparently for fear of repercussion, very few Saudi bloggers picked up the story and placed the campaign banner on their blogs. Saudi Jeans and Esam Mudeer are among the few.

This move is very risky and the participants face serious consequences, especially because strikes and demonstrations are banned in Saudi Arabia.

Interestingly, all of the campaigns Web sites are accessible from Saudi Arabia, at least so far.

The local and almost all of the Arab media ignored the event, but the activists managed to draw the attention of international media including CNN, Washington Post and France24.

The campaign’s Facebook Arabic group‘s membership grew from 11 in the first day to 376 in just 3 days (173 members in the Facebook English group) and the participants who publicly signed up to participate in the strike reached 26.

While it is obvious that activists throughout the world would use the Internet for activism and advocacy, the Saudi case has three interesting issues:

    1. The Saudi activists live with one of the most repressive Internet regimes in the world, yet the campaigners managed to utilize the online resources available to them to win supporters from inside and outside the country, and to get the attention of foreign international media.

    2. The Saudi activists use the online campaign not just to highlight their grievances and advocate reform, but also to perform an equally challenging task: to counter the government-endorsed fatwa (Islamic edict) that hunger strikes are not permissible in Sharia law. The campaigners have effectively used online tools to present well-documented research that Islam does indeed permit hanger strikes when necessary.

    3. The fact that the campaign’s Web sites are currently accessible from Saudi Arabia does not necessarily reflect tolerance from the authorities to this movement, but could be a trap to find out who the supporters and sympathizers of the movement are.