Cyber Warfare Precedes Georgian-Russian Hostilities

While the world and many of its leaders were focused on the spectacular opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, a full scale war broke out between Russia and Georgia over the disputed territory of South Ossetia, including cyber attacks on official Georgian Web sites. According to a number of sources, Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks have wreaked havoc on and shut down (at least temporarily) official Georgian Web sites, including those for the President’s Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense. Blogger Jart Armin says that the attacks are the work of the Russian Business Network, a hacker group allegedly linked to the Russian mafia. He also has technical details on the attack.

This online attack follows ones earlier this year against Estonia, after the removal of a monument to Soviet soldiers in Tallinn, and against Lithuanian sites which were painted with anti-Lithuanian slurs and Soviet symbols following a Lithuanian government decision to ban such symbols in the country. The cyber attacks on Georgia are made possible by malicious software loaded on unsuspecting ‘zombie’ computers around the world that are ‘turned on’ by hackers who hold them in waiting for use in such attacks, as Jonathan Zittrain warned of in his book, and on the Colbert Report.

For those looking for some background, James Traub wrote an excellent piece on the history and politics behind the dispute, including the events that led to military engagement. As others have noted (posthumously), the likelihood that the dispute would turn into military conflict appears to have always been more a question of when, than if. It is disappointing, but not hard to believe given the continual pullback of overseas correspondents by news services, and with the world’s attention focused on the Olympics, that very few independent observers have been able to verify claims made by either side, such as claims that thousands of civilians had already been killed by early in the weekend. As with other breaking news stories, Global Voices has helped to fill the information vacuum by tracking what local bloggers are saying about the quickly escalating events, as well as analysis.

UPDATE: Berkman friends Evgeny Morozov (Russia Internet guru) and Ron Deibert (OpenNet Initiative partner) discuss the cyber war in Thursday’s Washington Post. Ron notes quite appropriately the lack of international law around cyber attacks when he asks, “International laws are very poorly developed, so it really crosses a line into murky territory…Is an information blockade an act of war?” And for a good, non-technical explanation of botnets and how this attack was discovered, fought and investigated, see Jose Nazario’s interview on the News Hour. Nazario argues that those behind the cyber attack on Georgia are likely non-state actors since the history of these botnets has been for use against gambling and other non-political sites, but that it may take years before we know, if ever.

Balkanization in the South African Blogosphere (Updated)

UPDATE: I would like to address a question that was asked of my research project. The 30 blogs used were found within the South African blog directory Amatomu. Specifically, I used a group of highly-read blogs under the “Life” section of the directory. I chose this portion of blogs (as opposed to business, news, technology, or sport blogs) because personal diary weblogs seem to be pertinent to the study of social behavior in cyber spaces. I also utilized a smaller number of blogs found within the blogrolls of the Amatomu grouping. Lastly, I used Afrigator, another digital media directory, to locate other bloggers within the South African blogosphere. Thanks everyone for the interest and comments on the research.

In his article “The Daily We”, Cass Sunstein proposed a theory of Internet polarization that has sparked interesting dialogue among cyber philosophers. Essentially, Sunstein argues that while the web has demonstrated its potential to democratize public discourse, the habits of its users also feeds a kind of balkanization. Empirically, research has shown how individuals tend to navigate toward online content that fits within their own spheres of interest and opinion, creating a fragmented and polarized net. Sunstein explains, “Not surprisingly, many people tend to choose like-minded sites and like-minded discussion groups. Many of those with committed views on a topic—gun control, abortion, affirmative action—speak mostly with each other.”

Adamic and Glance tested this theory in their frequently cited article, “The Political Blogosphere and the 2004 U.S. Election: Divided They Blog,” in which they analyzed the degree to which liberal and conservative networks overlap. It is perhaps just as telling to explore how different races and ethnicities interconnect in cyber spaces. Within a heterogeneous blogosphere, will we observe polarization and segmentation along racial, ethnic, or linguistic lines or will we observe an integrated network, whereby linking behavior is, largely, colorblind? I undertook a short research project to address this question, using the South African blogosphere as my empirical field. South Africa is a fitting candidate for such analysis, as it is a racially mixed society—comprised of blacks of Bantu descent, whites of European ancestry, Indians and Malay persons, and “Coloured” persons of mixed black and white descent. Interestingly, South Africa is as fractionalized linguistically as it is ethnically. The “rainbow” nation has eleven official languages, including the widely-used Zulu (isiZulu), Xhosa (isiXhosa), Afrikaans, English, and many other less prominent languages of specific ethnicities.

In this study, I examined three sectors of the South African blogosphere specifically—English-speaking white bloggers, black bloggers, and Afrikaner bloggers. I utilized the blog search engines Technorati and Blogpulse as well as the South African blog directory, Amatomu, to conduct my analysis. I surveyed approximately 30 blogs in each sector.

English-speaking white bloggers make up the largest and most trafficked portion of the South African blogosphere. After analyzing this sector of the network, I have found evidence that this portion of the blogosphere is rather segmented. A majority of English-speaking white bloggers link to other English-speaking white bloggers within South Africa or in other industrialized democracies. Within the examined group, 43 percent of links originate in blogs authored by other English-speaking white South Africans, while 21 percent of links come from blogs authored by whites in other English-speaking nations, including the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand. 6 percent of in-site links originate in the blogs of Afrikaners within South Africa, and 2 percent of the links are from South African bloggers of Indian descent. 4 percent of in-site links originate in blogs authored by Coloureds in South Africa, while only 2 percent derive from South African blacks. Finally, 2 percent of these in-site links originate in non-English speaking European blogs, 2 percent came from South East Asian bloggers, and 1 percent derive from the blogs of African-Americans in the U.S. I was unable to determine the race and ethnic background of 21 percent of the blogs I examined, which were then coded as “n/a.”

Blog Chart_1.a

In this study, I also analyzed a group of Afrikaner blogs. The Afrikaans blogosphere, like the English-speaking white sector, is also considerably large. However, of each South African group examined, Afrikaner bloggers were, by far, the most isolated group in the greater network. 83 percent of the links in these blogs originate in other Afrikaner blogs. 3 percent of links come from bloggers who utilize both Afrikaans and English in their online diaries, while 9 percent of these links originate in the blogs of ethnic Afrikaners who choose to blog solely in English. Only 3 percent of the links examined derive from non-Afrikaans bloggers in South Africa, and less than 1 percent of links originate in blogs authored by South African Coloureds. Lastly, 0.5 percent of these links came from Afrikaner bloggers residing in countries other than South Africa (such as Canada and Australia).

Blog Chart_2.a

The last sector examined was the South African black blogosphere. Black bloggers make up the smallest portion of the South African network, and many blogs reported no in-site links when entered into Technorati and Blogpulse search engines. Nonetheless, the black blogosphere was the most integrated of the three groups examined, as nearly the same portion of in-site links in this sector originate in the blogs of English-speaking whites as in blogs authored by South African blacks. Of the group examined, 33 percent of links originate in blogs authored by other South African blacks, while nearly 32 percent of links derive from the blogs of English-speaking whites within the nation. Twelve percent of in-site links are from bloggers, both black and white, in industrialized democracies like the U.S. and U.K. 8 percent of the links originate in blogs authored by Coloureds and/or Indians within South Africa, and another 8 percent of links are from bloggers in South East Asian countries, like India, Philippines, and Indonesia. Lastly, 3 percent of these links derive from other African bloggers outside of South Africa, and another 3 percent of the links examined originate in an Afrikaans blog.

Blog Chart_3.b

Despite this breakdown, a word of caution is warranted. Due to the small size of the South African black blogosphere, these results are somewhat skewed. Although nearly 32 percent of in-site links originate in the blogs of South African whites, it appears that only a handful of blogs are feeding this integration. According to Technorati search results, 56 percent of those whites who linked to the black blogosphere did so to Living Bridget, an active black blogger in South Africa. Indeed, the small number of black bloggers in South Africa limits the ability of Technorati and Blogpulse in reporting blog reactions. Perhaps stronger indicators of linking behavior on the black blogosphere are the individual blogrolls of each online diary. A preliminary look at these blogrolls indicates that black bloggers tend to link primarily to the weblogs of other South African blacks.

This study has found support for Sunstein’s theory of Internet balkanization, by illustrating how South African netizens tend to associate with others of similar racial and ethnic backgrounds, whether they be in South Africa or abroad. It remains a question as to whether linking behavior within cyberspace reflects real-life social relations or if this type of segmentation is only an artifact of web-based forums. Nevertheless, it is socially relevant to consider how races and ethnicities interact online in South Africa because the implications of polarized cyberspaces in this nation could, in fact, be harmful.

In recent years the Rainbow Nation has experienced a host of social, economic, and political troubles that have rocked this young democracy. Corruption, widespread violence and crime, and xenophobic attacks (mostly fueled by conditions of pervasive poverty and inequality) are only some of the problems that face South African citizens. If the online public sphere is indeed balkanized, an opportunity for effective dialogue to address these problems will be missed. Sunstein comments, “Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a more difficult time addressing social problems and understanding one another.” Perhaps the next step in this research would be to analyze if and how online forums are addressing social problems in South Africa. It is likely that one will observe either pertinent and effective communication among vested and diverse parties or, in a worse case scenario, another “Daily We.”

“Shooting Back” Project Empowers Palestinian Citizen Journalism

Israeli Human Rights Organization, B’Tselem, has generated a pervasive discussion on human rights violations in Israel through its compelling video advocacy project, “Shooting Back.” Launched in January 2007, the project provided Palestinians living in high-conflict areas with video cameras in order to capture, expose, and “seek redress for” human rights violations in the Occupied Territories. Since then, Shooting Back has empowered Palestinians through citizen journalism, combining the forces of two powerful digital technologies, the video camera and the Internet. The project demonstrates how the video camera is not only a useful tool for documentation and advocacy, but has also become an invaluable source of protection for Palestinians.

The Hub detailed that the project’s videos, which include images of Israeli settlers attacking shepherds with baseball bats, a Palestinian detainee being blindfolded and shot at close range by an Israeli soldier, and Jewish-Israeli settlers harassing their Palestinian neighbors, have “sparked public debate and promoted accountability in Israel.” B’Tselem’s Director of Video, Oren Yakobovich, told Democracy Now, “It’s giving power… And what I hope to achieve, (is) a feeling that everything is being filmed, nothing is being done in the dark.” As a result, the Israeli Defense Force decided to increase their presence along settlements to deter attacks on Palestinians, Haaretz reported. Diala Shamas of B’Tselem told the Guardian, “The footage not only has evidential value. It also has had a remarkable value in terms of advocacy and campaigning.”

By filming human rights violations which the mainstream media often fails to expose, Shooting Back has triggered a critical discourse surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, serving as a successful example of how grassroots groups are effectively monitoring authority figures using technology, what Steve Mann defined as “sousveillance.” Just as camera phones have become a valuable device worldwide, especially in exposing and preventing potential police abuse of protestors, video cameras have become a vital defense for Palestinians with no other means of protection against Israeli settler and military attacks. As Yakobovich explained, “The cameras have above all a deterrent effect; they protect Palestinians. They also enable the public to see incidents which otherwise are invisible and whose veracity can always be challenged.”

Due to its effectiveness, this form of citizen journalism has become a pivotal tool for individuals and NGOs seeking to document and broadcast human rights violations. Open Source Media outlets such as The Hub and YouTube’s Citizen News channel, have empowered citizens by not only giving them the media tools to engage in sousveillance, but more importantly, an online platform from which to share their concerns with the global community.

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Trade Unionists Launch Digital Mosaic for Zimbabwe

Trade unionists across the globe have come together online in support of The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). The International Trade Union Confederation has launched a digital mosaic, which pictures Lovemore Matombo and Wellington Chibebe, the President and General Secretary of the ZCTU. Matombo and Chibebe were arrested on May 8th of this year after speaking out about the political violence that has ransacked Zimbabwe. The photo mosaic is comprised of the faces of over 2,000 trade unionists across the globe, who have made a public declaration of their support for ZCTU. The website that houses the mosaic calls for visitors to “spread the word”, “add your support”, and “lobby for change”, and also updates various news reports on Matombo and Chibebe’s upcoming trial.

Similar to what was done following post-election violence in Kenya, the web has documented Zimbabwe’s election turmoil and has served as an activist mechanism. We have learned how Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change utilized Google Maps in order to inform citizens of campaign rally locales and areas of violence or detention. We have also seen how Sokwanele, a Zimbabwean activist group, has made use of e-cards to get out the vote and digital photos to index violence. is yet another example of creative digital activism, but this time it is digital activists outside of Zimbabwe banning together in solidarity with trade unionists inside the troubled nation. While we normally associate union activism with offline protest, this group is expressing solidarity through cyberspace and using digital media to convey a powerful message.

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Frontline SMS Launches New Version, Continues to Foster Change

Global Voices recently revealed an update on the work of Frontline SMS, Ken Banks’ revolutionary communication software. The blog detailed that over three hundred NGOs have downloaded the new version of Frontline SMS and over a hundred have joined the new online community, using Frontline software for missions ranging from connecting health care practitioners, to educating farmers, to empowering women.

Here are a few inspiring initiatives utilizing Frontline SMS software:

Josh Nesbit has been using mobile technology in the rural health initiative in Malawi, “setting up a text-based communications network for a rural hospital and its Community Health Workers (CHWs) using Frontline SMS.”

The Grameen Technology Centre in Uganda has incorporated Frontline SMS into its AppLab by turning “mobile phones from a luxury item into a valuable expenditure-saving and income-earning tool.” The Grameen Foundation’s Village Phone program, which began in Bangladesh as part of the foundation’s groundbreaking microcredit program, has expanded to Uganda, Rwanda, and Indonesia, using mobile technologies to empower women – now known as “phone ladies” – and their communities.

The Australian Centre for Agricultural Research has implemented workshops on Frontline SMS software into its Cambodia Crop Production and Marketing Project. The project uses SMS technology to “facilitate the sharing of knowledge and information at all stages of the value chain from famer to end-user” in order to “deliver practical benefits” to rural farmers.

Frontline SMS has not only managed to effectively connect software developers and practitioners, as Ethan Zuckerman noted, but it has also found a way to bridge the divide between online and offline activism. By creating a channel through which a larger, more diverse network of people can connect with one another, especially in developing countries, such mobile technology software has triumphed in providing individuals a platform by which to affect meaningful change for both themselves and their communities.