Italy as seen by the Italian blogosphere

Vittorio Zambardino writes today in La Repubblica about a recent research study carried out on the Italian blogosphere: what are Italian bloggers writing about? The article presents very interesting graphs, which show the top tags used in 2009 and the topics Italian bloggers write about.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the top tag in 2009 was Silvio Berlusconi, which is followed by two current affairs related tags: the economic crisis and the Abruzzo earthquake – which are followed by Facebook in fourth place. In the top 15 most used tags we also find two football teams, Inter Milan and AC Milan, president Obama and the Pope.

Amongst the most discussed topics we find: 1) current affairs 2) soccer 3) the Internet 4) sport 5) politics. These are followed by a rather detailed list of less discussed topics from cinema, to art, to cooking, to music and so on. Finding current affairs at first place and politics at 5th place was indeed rather reassuring, supporting the idea that the Internet is indeed used as a virtual agora for discussion or a virtual civil society, rather than merely a tool for entertainment purposes. It should be noticed, however, that Maria de Filippi (TV presenter of Mediaset reality TV shows) was the top tag in the ‘entertainment category’, where we can find blogger Beppe Grillo at 4th place, and journalists Marco Travaglio and Michele Santoro further down in the list. Finally, finding the Internet as third most discussed topic, was also unsurprising – this is a common finding from research of different country/language blogospheres, where a big proportion of bloggers is made up by IT/media enthusiasts who blog about the medium they are using for communication (see for example our research on different language blogospheres from the Berkman’s Internet and Democracy project).

While the methodology used for this study is not illustrated in this article, it certainly provides a really good snapshot of what the online community and bloggers are talking about: this is very informative of what is going on in Italian society – and should be compared to the news agenda of mainstream media, in order to establish the role of the Internet in public discourse.

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

David Miliband and Britain’s Virtual Diplomacy

Today the New America Foundation held a ‘new media’ press conference with Britain’s blogging Foreign Minister David Miliband. Miliband noted that his blogging isn’t that great since as Foreign Minister he can’t say anything interesting (which I take to mean he’s constrained by his press people, not that he doesn’t have enough material at his fingertips to blog about). Instead, he argues that the best new media work the British government is doing is from it’s younger staff and those in the field like former British Ambassador to Afghanistan Sherard Cowper-Coles, who actually had a quite interesting blog while he was posted in Kabul–which I may just like because I served there at roughly the same time.

Here’s a video from his blog which shows his daily rounds including the dreaded daily ‘country team’ meetings (at least that’s what we called it in the US Embassy) and more interesting snapshots with some important Afghan political players such as Ashraf Ghani (who’s running for President) and the speaker of the lower house of Parliament Yunus Qanuni. This post from a trip to Helmand Province, where Britain’s troops and development efforts are focused, is also worth checking out.

It’s great to see that the British Foreign Office is encouraging their ambassadors to blog, but Cowper-Coles clearly saw it as a lot of effort, and the British Ambassador will likely be remembered more for his comments (leaked by the French) that called the American strategy in Afghanistan was doomed to failure and that our best hope was to install an ‘acceptable dictator.’ Advice, gladly, that the US hasn’t taken.

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Roxana Saberi’s Sentence Reduced; Journalist to be Freed Today

According to the BBC, Roxana Saberi’s sentence has been reduced to to a two year suspended sentence, which will allow her to be released and to leave the country. Her appeals trial was much more open than her initial one. It is likely, though, that politics had a great deal more to do with the court’s decision than legal arguments. There were formal requests from the US government, a request from Ahmadinijad himself, to say nothing of a sustained international media and blogging campaigns calling for her freedom. Saberi was noticeably thinner due to a hunger strike she ended only last week for health reasons. This is all, of course, fantastic news, but we should not forget that bloggers and others remain behind bars in Iran for what in most of the rest of the world is simple political expression or normal civic activity.

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Internet Opens Up Malaysia’s Political Struggle

malaysia

Much has been made of US politicians’ use of new media technology, including the President’s crackberry addiction and the ridiculous meme that Republican’s will be able to recapture the youth vote because some of them are on twitter. But in Malaysia, where traditional media are closely monitored and tend to follow the governing party line, the Internet, Twitter, cellphone cameras and blogs seem to have opened up a political power struggle in Perak, the largest state in the country. Unidentified plainclothes personnel who may or may not have been security officials, walked into the state legislature and literally dragged the elected speaker V. Sivakumar (from the opposition) from the room and escorted the governing party’s man to his seat. According to the New York Times:

Khalil Idham Lim, an opposition assembly member, blogged throughout the heated exchanges and posted pictures, including one of the speaker being hauled away.

Malaysia’s independent news Web sites offered minute-by-minute updates. “If this event had taken place 10 years ago, people might never have known what really transpired inside the assembly,” said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling agency.

A number of opposition members of parliament were also arrested and Web sites showed the MPs being led out in handcuffs.

This is a nice example of the Internet’s ability to empower minority parties that don’t control the press in ‘mildly authoritarian’ states and, hopefully, for Malaysians to hold the governing party accountable for what appears to be a ham-fisted response to political deadlock.

Photo from Opposition MP Khalil Idham Lim’s blog

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Blogging Leads to Better Books

I enjoy the Economist’s award winning blog Democracy in America, which I’ve only just recently stumbled across. It’s somewhat annoying that, like the magazine, authors are anonymous, but even in the Internet age looks like the folks at the Economist are sticking to tradition. So, with that caveat, a ‘New York’ blog author writes that blogging has actually helped him/her to write a better book, thanks to the instantaneous fact checking that happens on the Web. He/she/it writes:

The single biggest insight I have from blogging has directly affected my book. If I say something stupid or wrong, I can expect that I will be humiliated for it, quickly and viciously. I will write a better book as a result. I’ll still make errors of course, at least of interpretation or judgment and possibly small ones of fact. But If I wrote what I plan to write before blogs, I could take some dusty volume of research off the shelf and misquote it or misinterpret it, safely. Who would catch me? An annoyed letter-writer, who would send his observations in response to a review in (say) the New York Times? Who would see it? Who would care for longer than a day? The temptation not to worry about that level of error would be strong, bordering on overwhelming. As is, I don’t want to screw anything up, lest my name be made mud on a good blog (or blogs) that will have more heft and half-life than any old small, cranky review in a middle-circulation journal.

Yes, indeed, lest your name be dragged through the mud.

In any case, Fact checking on the Internet is something we’ve written about here before, especially related to tea parties and the Santelli Rant. During the Internet & Politics conference here at Harvard I heard this same observation from journalists and campaign officials. Instead of taking a campaign spot or the media’s analysis of a speech as fact, users can now go online to investigate suspicious claims or watch an entire speech for themselves; the frequently download 30-minute Obama speech on race being one obvious example of where this happened. So why haven’t we heard this claim more often related to journalism more generally? I’d argue it’s because, as Clay Shirky best summarized, the journalism profession has spent more time complaining about the Internet’s impact on newspaper sales, and not enough time using it to improve the profession.

Saberi Ends Hunger Strike for Health Reasons

According to her father, Roxana Saberi, the jailed Iranian-American journalist who was sentenced to 8 years for espionage, has ended her hunger strike for health reasons. As we wrote here earlier, Saberi began her hunger strike on April 21 after being sentenced in a brief, secret trial. Saberi had worked for a number of foreign news organizations including NPR, which has done a commendable job of keeping a high profile around her case and appealing for her release.

Saberi’s case follows a string of similar arrests of bloggers, increased filtering, creation of a Basiji blogger corps, attacks by Islamic hackers on popular Web sites, and the death of blogger Omid Misayafi in prison. The increased pressure on bloggers and others was likely due to the start of the Presidential campaign; elections will take place in June. The Obama administration has called for a review of Saberi’s case, as has President Ahmadinijad, although the Iranian president has no official influence over the judiciary, which in controlled by even more conservative elements in Iran. Experts have speculated that Saberi’s arrest and swift conviction may have taken place to give the Iranians a chip in diplomatic maneuvering with the US, which has indicated a willingness for renewed engagement and a step back from years of hostility between the two countries.

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Misreading Blogging Identities

Evgeny Morozov over at Foreign Policy has an intriguing post that asks a couple simple but still difficult to answer questions: Who are bloggers, and how does this impact how we defend them when they are arrested for what they write? Evgeny was reacting to a recent Committee to Project Journalists report on the ten worst places to be a blogger, which my colleagues over at the OpenNet Initiative blogged about last week.

The crux of the matter for Evgeny boils down to identity and how various interests label bloggers. This is an issue that has actually come up in a number of conversations I’ve had recently with bloggers and activists from the Middle East, and it is clear to me from those conversations that they have multiple identities. Some folks I know here at Berkman probably think of themselves primarily, or substantially, as bloggers (I’m thinking of Ethan Zuckerman, Doc Searls and David Wienberger, among others). But many others that I have met, who write widely read blogs, actually have identities that they put well ahead of ‘blogger’: usually journalist, activist, writer or professor, to name just a few.

In the US, this might partly be explained by the fact that blogging is still often looked down upon by many traditional journalists who see it as an affront to their profession, and for the blame many assign to the Internet for its role in the demise of the newspaper industry more generally. While this view is slowly changing, I still often see a tone of condescension in how many traditional journalists discuss blogs and ‘what those blogs are saying,’ even though journalist use them as an important part of their daily work. In the US, though, online speech is still largely, if not yet completely clearly, protected, and can be defended when frivolous lawsuits are used to try to limit otherwise protected speech.

This is not the case for many of the individuals who are arrested overseas for what they write on blogs, though. The ability to write online anonymously can in many ways protect bloggers, but, as our studies into the Iranian and Arabic language blogospheres have shown, bloggers tend to write with their name more often than not, especially political bloggers. Their other identities, as activists, writers, journalists or politicians, may actually offer a higher level of protection, informal or formal, than the moniker ‘blogger’ ever might.

The practical question of how to protect those that are arrested for their blogging seems, in my mind, to come down to this: online speech should be protected, and people writing honestly about their personal opinions should have a protected right to do so, except in extreme circumstances. There are actually few laws abroad that currently limit online speech (I’m thinking of Iran, for example); instead, at least in many countries with limited freedom of expression, bloggers are prosecuted for threats to national security, insulting the nation or its leaders, or violation of other equally ill-defined concepts. So, yes, bloggers have multiple identities of their own choosing, and we may in some cases inaccurately label them primarily as bloggers. But that shouldn’t really matter. When it comes to the arrest and prosecution of individuals for what they write online, their right to freely express their opinion on any platform they choose should be respected and defended. Full stop.

The Moral Failure of Promoting Democracy

Marc Lynch, aka Abu Aardvark, has posed a depressing, if necessary question. If internet activism rarely topples an authoritarian regime (see, for example, the failure of Burma’s Saffron Revolution or Egypt’s April 6 Facebook strike, which I perhaps too cheerily praised back in Jan.), isn’t it morally problematic for Westerners to egg on activists they know will not succeed? For all our efforts to praise individual movement leaders, all we end up doing is putting those folks more squarely in the crosshairs of the secret police.

This is all in line with the appropriate caution that Evgeny Morozov outlined in his recent Boston Review piece (see also my thoughts on that piece here). Power is power, and in most of these countries, it continues to flow straight from the barrel of a gun, not any robust notion of democratic legitimacy. X Arab autocracy or Y East Asian dictatorship is likely to feel threatened from within by an independent blogging class and humiliated from without by the ridicule of Westernized democracies. When the Burmese junta could no longer take the heat, they simply downed the internet completely, convenient to do when all ISP’s are centrally licensed and controlled anyway.

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Russian President Starts LiveJournal Blog

Looks like President Medvedev has decided the Kremlin.ru site just wasn’t pulling in the kind of traffic he expected to his blog. So today he starting a new blog on the popular LiveJournal blogging platform, which is a sort of social network/blogging hybrid. LiveJournal hosts a number of the most popular blogs in Russia including Rustem Adagamov and Anton Nossik (who just happens to help run SUP–see below). The NY Times even has a Russian language blog, which occasionally translates and invites comments on Russia-related articles that appear in the English version of the Times. You can also follow the (actually contested) Sochi mayoral race through opposition candidate Boris Nemtsov’s campaign blog.

There was quite a dust up in the Russian blogosphere when LiveJournal was bought by SUP media, which also owns one of the most popular online newspapers in Russia, gazeta.ru, among other media holdings. SUP owner Alexander Mamut is seen as a Kremlin loyalist, which understandably concerned many Russian bloggers since SUP, it was thought, would have a different approach to privacy issues. Still, according to a 2007 Yandex study (pdf), LiveJournal remains the leading blog hosting service for ‘active’ Russian language blogs, although liveinternet.ru and mail.ru have had stronger growth.

Medvedev will apparently continue his video blog format. His first post includes reaction and further discussion of his widely publicized interview with Novaya Gazeta, which I wrote about last week, including the development of democracy and civil society in Russia. Comments on the new blog will remain moderated–so no swearing at the president, please. An example of one of the first comments on the new blog: “Democracy doesn’t need the hungry, democracy needs the starving.”

Revolutionary Guards’ soft power: from “cyber repression” to “humanitarian action”

By Hamid Tehrani, Global Voices Iran Editor and I&D Guest Blogger

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has been celebrating its soft power over the past two months by dismantling several sites it accused of being anti-religion, pornographic, and conducting anti-national security activities. (1)

It seems the Revolutionary Guards Corp was so pleased by its conquest of the virtual world that it launched a Web site (2) where it names the sites this military ideologically motivated organization has dismantled and hacked. The Web site also reveals photos of arrested people who were allegedly involved with these sites.

The Revolutionary Guards Corp accused some Western countries of supporting these anti-religion sites and cyber dissidents who, they claim, are planning a soft overthrow of the regime. The Corp has also warned that the Internet is not out of its reach anymore.

Several Iranian bloggers and Western media members pointed out that this virtual, well-organized attack is a sign that a new era has dawned where the Iranian cyber world is less secure, and repression is more frequent and real.

Some Iranian bloggers also write that this well-publicized action, which was covered several times on national TV, is just the tip of the iceberg, and that it aims to make people scared and tarnish the image of the blogosphere among Iranians. Some bloggers have also demanded that those arrested for running the sites should have access to legal defense as their rights have been violated by mistreatment and torture.

It seems all these thoughts, doubts, and speculations have some roots in reality and that imprisonment for Iranian bloggers, filtering of Web sites, and censorship are hard facts in the country.

But the Western media have chosen to ignore one very important fact, one not discussed much in the Iranian blogosphere–that the action by the Revolutionary Guards involved not only hacking and jailing.

Some of the pornographic sites shut down were not ordinary, normal ones. They exposed naked Iranian women and girls who were filmed without their knowledge, and even some of the victims in these films were sexually violated.

Hacking and dismantling these sites has nothing to do with either censorship or freedom of speech. The action of the Revolutionary Guards, by ending the virtual existence of these sites, can be considered as a humanitarian action because it upholds the honor, private life, reputation, and existence of its people. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for an Iranian citizen in Iran to hire an international lawyer to complain against a foreign-based hosting company.

The Revolutionary Guards frequently use soft-overthrow conspiracies and threats to justify their actions. Soft overthrow can be considered a sad reaction to the George Bush regime’s changed mantra, and the former American Government’s $75-million investment in soft power to achieve this goal.(3)

Bush’s soft power rhetoric not only failed to empower Iranian cyber activists or NGOs but it became an excuse for the Iranian regime to step up pressure on Iran’s civil society.

Now that Bush is gone, the Iranian regime is being courted by the Obama administration’s offer to help in Afghanistan. The Revolutionary Guards Corps flourished with its soft power, and instead of haggling over half measures such as filtering, it wiped off sites and blogs. Cyber dissidents are worried about what their next move will be, and do not know to whom they can pray. But at least they have Bush to curse.