The Internet and the 2008 US election: participation and/or fragmentation?

The Pew Internet and American Life Project has just released a report on the role of the Internet in the 2008 US election, which analyses trends in how people consume political news & information and the ways they use the internet to engage with politics. Here are some of the key findings:

More than half  (55%) of the voting-age population has used the Internet to get involved in the political process during the election year (74% of Internet users).

The survey findings show that the Internet has become a paramount tool for people’s engagement in the political process, not only as a source of information (60% of Internet users have gone online to look for political information in 2008 compared to 22% in 1996), but as a tool for active participation. 18% of Internet users actively engaged online by posting comments on the campaign on online forums such as blogs or social networking sites and 45% watched online videos related to the campaign.

Young voters  (18-24 year olds) showed the highest levels of political involvement online. They engaged heavily in the political debate through social networking sites: two-thirds of young people with a social networking profile took part in some form of online political activity. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s In A Tea Party

I’ve been watching the rise of the quasi-libertarian “Tea Party” movement with bemused curiosity. The viral explosion of the net-based movement must far exceed the expectations of its original proponents: the unwitting Rick Santelli, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin, and the host of libertarian organizations which helped to build up publicity.

Yet, as Andrew Sullivan and at least one perceptive Daily Dish reader have noted, there is a certain haziness to the movement’s goals. What exactly are they agitating for (or against)? Besides the Boston Tea Party metaphor and a populist and indistinct discontent with taxes and the stimulus bill, protesters seem to be running on the hot air of their own fervor. Social networking and brilliant internet marketing have created a behemoth with no head, all grassroots and no agenda.

This presents, as I see it, some of the limits of crowd-sourced politicking. Yes, as with the election of Barack Obama, we are seeing thousands of people participate in digital activism; but without some kind of central organization, the momentum is all centrifugal. Or as that Dish reader put it:

Let them find out how easy it is to have things go viral and how hard it is to sustain something without a cogent message or an articulate messenger.

If, on the other hand, the Tea Party camp can stay loud into next year, I think the effect on the big tent of mainstream conservative politics might be tangible. This “squeaky wheel” electoral effect would prove the power of the web to amplify messages, even mildly incoherent ones, through the blogosphere and beyond.

Internet Freedom Roundup

1. Oman, one of the world’s most closed societies, is prosecuting a Web forum moderator for allowing an anonymous post to go up criticizing a telecom company for corruption. I think Arab autocracies are going to come face to face with the explosion of internet speech sooner rather than later. Blogging (particularly anonymous) posting will continue, though aggressively prosecuting the fora where dissenting speech is found might set things back a bit.

2. For a comprehensive look at Chinese censorship and a chart of the security agencies which control the web, see this Digital East Asia article. As it turns out, even Chinese e-books have keyword filtering code buried in their javascript (Hat Tip: NetEffect). Add this to Skype, video sharing websites, WordPress, and so on… Between self-censorship and the Golden Shield, the crackdown on Chinese cyber-freedom is as terrifying as it is ubiquitous. I’m thinking aloud, but doesn’t it seem plausible that the oft-cited Pew poll which suggests the Chinese approve of censorship are results conditioned by fear of authority and a closed information world? From that grossly limited perspective, Tibetans and Falun Gongers may really seem like rabblerousing no-goodniks.

Read NetEffect!

Oh, and you folks should also check out Evgeny Morozov’s spiffy new FP blog, NetEffect. He’s a lucid thinker, great tech writer, and a friend to Berkman. Congratulations Evgeny!

China “Harmonizes” YouTube

I was so preoccupied with work this week that I somehow missed that YOUTUBE IS NOW COMPLETELY DOWN IN CHINA. As yet, the take down has not been explained by any Chinese official, though as the WSJ put it:

The latest YouTube ban coincides with the March 20 release by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile of a video allegedly showing Chinese forces beating Tibetans during protests that occurred in March 2008.

From the perspective of authoritarian Chinese bureaucrats, perhaps it makes sense to grab this bull by the horns. The Tibet video would no doubt have gone viral like Tienanmen , and perhaps they’re still smoldering in humiliation over the alpaca meme. Best to “harmonize” all of YouTube instead. To the degree they’ve said anything, Chinese officials have denied there is a ban, also claiming that the video footage of Chinese police beating Tibetan protesters was fake.

I know China and the U.S. have a complex, if schizophrenic relationship, but if any other country had taken down YouTube to silence videos of police brutality (Burma, anyone?), wouldn’t the US be inclined to say something? How long can we sit on the fence, waiting for China to magically bloom into a regime which protects civil rights, if all we can come up with are muted expressions of concern. Good luck Chinese users and good luck to YouTube trying to compete against Chinese video sharing sites which eagerly self-censor and the strong arm of the Chinese censorship regime.

Khatami Bows Out of Presidential Election

Former president and leading reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami has decided to back out of Iran’s June 12 presidential election, according to Reuters. Khatami allies said that he decided to withdraw in order to unify the opposition and not split the reformist vote, although he was seen by many as the leading reformist candidate against current President Ahmadinejad. Although he has not stated publicly which candidate he will back, he did meet recently with former Prime Minister Mirhossein Mousavi, another moderate candidate.

As we’ve written here before, during Khatami’s presidency a number of independent newspapers were allowed to open, although they have since been shuttered. Many journalists from that era, such as Sina Motalebi, later moved to the blogosphere but were eventually forced out of the country for their writing. As we have also reported here, it seems that the Iranian government is cracking down on online speech in the lead up to the presidential election, especially opposition elements.

Taking Media Cloud For A Drive

Following up on my last post about the possibilities of Berkman’s new Media Cloud analysis platform, I thought I’d give the system a test drive. I wanted to find the keywords surrounding the recent Rick Santelli hubbub (full story here), and see if they revealed anything significant about the story. So I input “Rick Santelli” as my keyword (or pivot term) and asked Media Cloud to spit out the 10 most frequently occurring keywords in any articles involving my search term. The image reproduced below shows the results for three major outlets: The Times, The Post and The Atlantic.

Santelli - Media Cloud Graphy

As you can see, the selected outlets dedicated most of their attention to the story’s relationship to Pres. Obama and the debate over the stimulus bill. This only makes sense, since in the viral clip from CNBC, Santelli calls the White House out specifically. To a lesser extent, The Atlantic and The NYT picked up White House press secretary Robert Gibbs’s icy rejoinder, while Chicago didn’t give much coverage to it.

It is interesting (though unsurprising) that the Atlantic chart shows strong hits for “Matt Drudge” and “Michelle Malkin,” given that the magazine is more analytic than newsy; its blogs were reacting to the original story after it was picked up by conservative blog outlets. The MSM newspapers, on the other hand, avoided the story until the pitch got too high in the blogosphere.

But once they did finally catch onto the internet story, both The Chicago Tribune and The NYT caught on to its most salient detail: that Santelli had called for a “Chicago tea party” and was subsequently accused by a Playboy article that he was astro-turfing for libertarians.

I tried to run the same search for several big blogs and didn’t turn anything up. I hope that’s a programming kind to be worked out soon, because I think it’s there that Media Cloud’s potential will be best realized. Imagine the ability to compare graphicaly the intensity of coverage between prominent but niche blogs and big traditional newspapers. Discussion of what makes something newsworthy could then be studied both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Posted in I&D Project, Ideas, Uncategorized. Comments Off on Taking Media Cloud For A Drive

Yes We Scan! Campaign Underway

Noted technologist and MIT professor Carl Malamud is campaigning hard to be appointed the Public Printer of the United States, a little know position with immense resources, both print and digital. A tireless advocate of the public domain and greater data transparency in a technocrat-driven bureaucracy, Malamud has earned my personal endorsement. Follow the campaign here and his twitter feed here.

As Justice Brandeis is to have said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Malamud gets this and has the technological know-how and gutsy boldness to open the mysterious sausage factory of our government’s innards. Godspeed.

(Image Credit: webchick from Point.B Studio, CC License)

Posted in Current Events, Ideas, Uncategorized. Comments Off on Yes We Scan! Campaign Underway

The Internet and Democracy Oxford Workshop: Lessons Learnt and Future Directions of Research

We have just come back from a three day workshop on: “The Internet and Democracy, Lessons Learnt and Future Directions of Research”, which we at Berkman’s Internet & Democracy project have been organizing in collaboration with the Oxford Internet Institute and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. The workshop gathered around 25 leading academics working in the field in order to investigate:  (1) what are the lessons learnt from existing research? (2) how can we best measure the impact of the Internet and new media on democracy and what are the insights provided by different research methodologies? (3) what are the future directions for the field? The sessions covered an array of topics, with a variety of methodological perspectives.

Day 1
Day one was opened by a public lecture by Matthew Hindman held at the Oxford Said Business School which explored how online audiences are distributed and how site traffic changes over time. The webcast of the lecture will be available online here.
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Did George Will Lie?

I wrote last week about the future of fact checking and its relationship to the blogosphere. Damon Linker, a New Republic blogger I respect immensely, has this interesting round-up on the recent George Will “climate change column” controversy, which pitted liberal bloggers against the staff of the Washington Post.

Linker’s piece eloquently evokes something I overlooked, namely, the danger of crowd-sourced fact checking when animated by a partisan ideology. The shrill calls for the Post to retract Will’s column (because it deliberately “lies”) are a good example. Will may have strayed in his interpretation of several scientific studies or even suggested “misleading” conclusions, but that only opens him up to reasoned criticism, not braying censure for journalistic malfeasance of the highest order. You can read Will’s follow up to his accusers here.

Blogospheric fact checking thus proves to be a mixed blessing. Many lefty bloggers and commentors did poke legitimate holes in Will’s piece, just as right-of-center bloggers debunked the Santelli astroturf conspiracy theory. But both sides, after the initial scramble to “factually” discredit the other side turned the victory into talking points, thereby transforming fact-checking into propaganda. I think this is what Linker is leery of, and I couldn’t agree more.