Alpacas Launch War on Chinese Censors!

This morning my blackberry buzzed with a link to this gem of an internet censorship story (Hat Tip: Byran Haut). I haven’t had a chance until now to pile on, and of course Andrew Sullivan has already beaten me to the punch.

Regardless, here’s the story. Since China moved to contain the pro-democratic Charter 08 movement by shutting down sympathetic online forums, China’s massive internet firewall has become even more draconian. The government’s public campaign has always about pornography, but this is often convenient cover to censor sites with uncomfortable political content. Bloggers, long burdened by the censorship regime, have even started referring to site takedowns as “harmonizations,” a joke on President Hu Jintao’s constant reference to the “harmonious society” of Confucian social theory.

Chinese netizens, in a move as frankly subversive as it is deeply funny, are striking back. A video released last January plays a seemingly innocuous children’s song about alpacas, or “river-mud-horses”, who fight against a band of “river crabs” (a near homonym to the word for “harmony”) seeking to invade their fields. As it turns out, these mythological creatures sound like something quite else in spoken Chinese. VideoGum has the translation the Times won’t give you:

The children are singing about grass mud horses (“Fuck Your Mother”) who live in a desert (“Your Mother’s C-word”) (ha), and defeat the river crabs (a word synonymous with “censorship.”) Do you know what this means? It means YouTube is IMPORTANT.

At first, it may tempting to see the video as childish, like “Ataturk is gay” and “Thai king monkey” videos which convulsed censors, Turkish and Thai respectively. On the other hand, as those episodes illustrate, where the law punishes open speech about sensitive material, farce may be the only remaining outlet. Make me think of the many vulgar Revolutionary War cartoons printed with gleeful impunity. Also remember that the Internet is much more heavily filtered in China than in either Thailand or Turkey.

As the Times’ writer eloquently puts it:

The grass-mud horse is an example of something that, in China’s authoritarian system, passes as subversive behavior. Conceived as an impish protest against censorship, the foul-named little horse has not merely made government censors look ridiculous, although it has surely done that.

It has also raised real questions about China’s ability to stanch the flow of information over the Internet — a project on which the Chinese government already has expended untold riches, and written countless software algorithms to weed deviant thought from the world’s largest cyber-community.

As I have said several times now on this blog, costly censorship regimes like the Chinese will never be successful in the long run. Too costly and too ineffective. The Internet, and indeed language itself, resist this kind of comprehensive control. Nor is this movement a fringe; the joke is rapidly spreading across China, no doubt bristling the country’s zealous censors.

An irony, of course, is that “river crab” was scrubbed from Wikipedia yesterday. Someone seems to think it is a “NON notable neologism.” Only when the “grass mud horses” are victorious, my friend. Only then.

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.

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Media Cloud Tool Launched

Berkman just rolled out one of its newest and most innovative projects: Media Cloud. The idea is that by scouring massive data sets with content analysis, it can quantitatively study the flow of news. Now, what the hell does that mean? In layman’s terms, Media Cloud crunches statistics on how different media outlets, both large and small, report on a given story over time. It can chart, for instance, which keywords are most frequently associated with a specified keyword (say “Katrina” or “Obama”) in articles by a specific source like The New York Times.

Josh Benton, over at the Nieman Journalism Lab recently interviewed Berkman guru Ethan Zuckerman about the project. I thought this conclusion was particularly striking:

As Berkman Fellow Ethan Zuckerman put it, it’s an attempt to move media criticism and media analysis beyond the realm of the anecdote — to gather concrete data to back or contradict our suspicions.

This, as I have recently suggested in my coverage of fact checking and the Santelli conspiracy, is a problem of the highest order. Each side of the political spectrum has a corresponding media boogeyman, whose conclusions are suspect or misleadingly framed. For the right, it’s The New York Times ; for the left, FoxNews. These distinctions continue down the row of lesser blogs and publications.

Media Cloud might be able to cut through the fog of this anecdotal reasoning by using the churning engine of keyword analysis. Although the frequency of keywords cannot tell us everything about context, intent or possible slant, it might give us broad-based statistics and clues as to which ideas were emphasized in connection with a story. Thus, Media Cloud represents a more neutral standpoint from which to digest news coverage and, it strikes me, to discuss the larger questions of bias or framing (see also the current bloglemic about Obama’s Wikipedia page).

Though still in development, it would be wonderful to see Media Cloud expand to include as many blogs and blogospheres as possible. The richer the data dump, the less rough-hewn subsequent analysis can be, even if it means including less established blogs. For the Santelli story, a investigative piece (now removed) sparked a wildfire in liberal circles, backlash in conservative one, and was then picked up again by the NYT. The lower rungs of the blogosphere are thus becoming more vocal and influential. Media Cloud, I hope, will inject a little (dispassionate) social science into discussions and cries of media bias. Check it out.

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)

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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.
Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Facebook Privacy Primer

À la my recent post, Randall Stross at the NYT explores the evolving landscape of user attitudes to internet privacy. Money quote:

When the distinction blurs between one’s few close friends and the many who are not, it seems pointless to distinguish between private and public.

How will laxer attitudes to privacy impact political participation? I can imagine political hack work dredging up embarrassing Facebook material or damaging associations. But I can also imagine people more open about their politics and causes and in a sense more open to discuss and defend their ideas in an exposed public forum, be it on Facebook or not.

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Facebook’s New Stream: Brook or Torrent?

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s entrepreneurial founder, says the social networking site will be dramatically changing this week. In a unique, even theoretical blog post, Zuckerberg laid out his plans to beef up Facebook’s stream of information. Facebook will more intelligently parse the “social graph” of its users:

In 2007, we popularized the term Social Graph to describe how Facebook maps out people’s connections. The idea is that these connections—whether friendships, affiliations or interests—exist already in the real world, and all we’re trying to do is map them out. We believe that connecting people to their friends is just the beginning, and we’re working hard on making Facebook a place for people to connect with and keep track of all the interests in their lives.

It’s a fascinating idea, if a bit frightening in its futurism. Every individual’s private interests collected in a massive voluntary database. Almost Orwellian, no? Of course, privacy groups have always felt a bit squeamish about the near 200 million-user-strong social networking site.


I don’t completely understand what the new changes are, but it feels like the new reforms are a way of “twitterizing” Facebook. The site’s rich Web 2.0 personalization will now be (hyper-)actively broad cast in a continuous (and interminable) stream of information. Another interesting development is the increased emphasis on integrating institutional “pages”. Major and minor companies, politicians and rock bands will all build profiles that can be integrated into a user’s stream.

Whether this runs the obvious risk of turning Facebook into an flashy Yellow Pages-esque turf war, I’m not sure. At the same time, the idea of integrating Facebook and political participation to a greater degree strikes me as a promising and viable direction to renew our civic institutions. Facebook has long been the repository of everything banal and private in a public forum (red cup parties, vacation photos, cryptic wall posts, etc). The idea of instead making it an electronic agora could herald deep changes in our current understanding of “representative” or “republican” government.

Well, open the floodgates. I’m ready.

(Mark Zuckerberg, Image Credit: AP)

The Future of Fact Checking

Remember Jayson Blair, the New York Times “reporter” who fabricated tens of articles by gliding through a loop hole in the reporter’s code of honor? Some established magazines like The New Yorker or The Atlantic can afford to pay fact checkers, but even the Times — whether for reasons of deadline or budget — must rely on reporters to fact-check themselves, taking any heat from the public if they misquote or misrepresent.

Obviously, there is even less impetus or resources to fact-check blogs. In blogging, commentary is so instantaneous that a moment of reflective delay costs its writer timely influence on the cacophonous dialogue of interested voices. Toss in the patina of ideology, opinion, and just plain gossip, which can characterize the blogosphere both left and right, and you have a recipe for old fashioned, low and dirty rumor-mongering.

One need look no farther back than the “Barack Obama is a Muslim” conspiracy on the right (see here) and, these days, the “Rick Santelli is part of massive libertarian astroturf conspiracy” on the left (for background, see here). The blogospheric rumor mill can churn at an alarming pace. But in important ways, it’s not the initial debut of a pernicious internet rumor which poisons national discourse; false claims are often immediately disputed and hashed out in a sort of crowd-sourced wiki factchecker operation.

Rather, the problem is such crowd-led efforts are operationally diffuse. It may take several bloggers from all over the spectrum writing and revising a received idea/rumor/possibility to approximate a verifiable fact. Scouring a host of different blogs, including those ideologically opposed to one’s own position, in the uneven aftermath of some scandalous new piece of blogger cant is sometimes, I fear, too much attention to expect from information technologies already stuffed to the gills with competing headlines.

Falsehoods, rumors, half-stated truths, then, have a tendency to linger in all but the most consistently interested and open minded blogs. Even if Playboy removed the Santelli conspiracy theory article, its ripple effect through the left-of-center echo chamber has likely yet to cease (though Yglesias at least recognized in an update that Playboy’s retraction was problematic), and those who protest the article’s characterization (a group that includes Playboy evidently) seem slow in catching up with the monstrous wave of accusation. As one conservative blogger opined:

Happily facts have won over Playboy forcing the mag to pull down the fallacious story, which is all well and good. But the problem is we now have hundreds perhaps thousands of left-wing DailyKosers and such all imagining they know the real story, the one that corresponds to the fake Playboy tale.

I suppose one could say the same for newspaper corrections, which are not dramatically featured either; still, I wonder whether the web’s increased decentralization of media authority, in many ways a good and important development, will weaken our ability to fact-check even basic news stories. As abstract as that seems, the question is of vital importance, because without stronger sources of factual reliability, the internet will see its share of Jayson Blairs, real astro-turfers, charlatans and fools.

Santelli Barometer

Morningside Analytics, which in my opinion runs some of the most interesting data on the internet, has a barometer of political interest based on how many times an item is linked to in different sectarian spheres of the internet. Below is a screenshot (click for larger image) from their Video Barometer of the success of the viral Santelli’s video.

Santelli\'s Rant on

The orange dot at the top of the scale shows how much higher Santelli’s popularity has spiked over other recent political videos. From this, we can make some preliminary speculations about the video’s web trajectory. For instance, by virtue of its spatial location (slightly right-of-center), it must have been heavily linked by both sides of the blogospheric spectrum, but with a slight statistical advantage on the conservative side.

This seems to add up with what we know of the video’s history so far. Santelli’s initial meteoric rise in the blogosphere following his rant on 2/19 was a largely a conservative phenomenon, amplified by Glenn Reynolds and Michelle Malkin calling for a “Tea Party” movement. After the Playboy article broke 2/27 (for more back story, see my summary here), however, the video must have shifted interest, as news of a right wing astro-turf machine spread like wildfire on the left side of the blogosphere (Daily Kos, for instance). Tossed like a football, the video and the meme was now ricocheting inside the echo chamber of the left instead of the right where it started.

And then the series of blogs, news media and others began doubling back on the Playboy piece to see if it had really done its homework (see my two posts here and here). Now Glenn Reynolds and others began to take issue or debunk the Playboy piece, which was quietly (if such a thing is possible in the blogosphere) removed from the site, likely over concerns of libel, or perhaps to reduce bad publicity.

It is still astonishing to me that so much electronic ink has been spilled in little over the course of two weeks, and unless some brave new development suddenly breaks, I think the flame may now be dead or dying down.