Internet Weakens Democracy?

Check out this provocative and fascinating piece by Evgeny Morozov of the Open Society Institute. The central question it raises, whether the Internet is really a force for democratic change, is as complex as it is necessary to ask. Cyber-savvy young voters (see also our coverage of “Born Digital”), kindled by Obama, may have heralded a civic reawakening for America, but as Morozov rightly points out, one should be cautious about overstating the internet’s power as a catalyst for an activist citizenry, especially in authoritarian countries. As Morozov sadly notes:

The Berlin Wall may have fallen, but the Chinese Firewall has been erected in its place.

The role of the internet in democratization is sometimes ambivalent or contradictory. The Berkman study of the Saffron Revolution in Burma turned on this question. Why was the internet, so crucial in organizing and publicizing protests, not ultimately effective in overthrowing Burma’s repressive military junta?

Morozov provocatively points to the web’s endless stream of entertainment as a possible explanation for the malaise of democratic movements. The internet is a sirensong of cheap thrills and escapism, foreign movies and sex. It is slowly transforming “digital renegades” and potential activists into “digital captives” of Hollywood distraction. As Antony Loewenstein, author of a book about blogging in repressive regimes, remarked at a recent Berkman luncheon, far more bloggers want to meet girls than agitate for reform.

Having said all that, Morozov’s conclusion — that young people in repressive regimes prefer Paris Hilton clips to freedom — strikes me as too cynical. Though no quick fix panacea, the internet has contributed to greater participation and group association. Strong correlations between increased internet capability and democratization, though not ultimately conclusive, surely reinforce this belief.

Perhaps the changes have less to do with formal democratic movements than the immense proliferation of speech on the web. This is what makes the Iranian blogosphere so vibrant, the Chinese one so resilient and the Burmese one so dedicated, despite varying levels of autocratic control. The web has broken the authoritarian choke-hold over information, even if what is flooding in from the outside is imperfect or censored. Web 2.0 technology is clearly one source of this altered dynamic; it’s easier to gag a newspaper than censor a thousand blogs.

The more impossible internet output becomes to contain, the more plausible I think it is that censorship regimes will crack, even ones as massive as the Chinese firewall. This may not be democratic activism of the most visible form, but perhaps it gives more radical democratizing movements a chance to succeed.

More Online Journalists Jailed Last Year Than Traditional Reporters

Source: Committee to Protect Journalists

For the first time in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ prison census, more online journalists than traditional journalists are now in jail. From the press release:

Reflecting the rising influence of online reporting and commentary, more Internet journalists are jailed worldwide today than journalists working in any other medium…45 percent of all media workers jailed worldwide are bloggers, Web-based reporters, or online editors. Online journalists represent the largest professional category for the first time in CPJ’s prison census.

As our case study series and the CPJ report have shown, bloggers and online journalists have increasingly drawn the attention of governments that limit free speech, and they rarely have the type of protection a large, traditional newspaper can provide. As the CPJ’s Joel Simon notes:

The image of the solitary blogger working at home in pajamas may be appealing, but when the knock comes on the door they are alone and vulnerable. All of us must stand up for their rights–from Internet companies to journalists and press freedom groups. The future of journalism is online and we are now in a battle with the enemies of press freedom who are using imprisonment to define the limits of public discourse.

Twittering in Mumbai: Where Tech, Reporting and Terrorism Intersect

Interesting Times piece a few days ago about citizen journalism and the recent Mumbai terrorist attacks. It seems several bystanders used cellphone cameras, Twitter and texting to get details of the attack from inside cordoned off security zones and a raging firefight with the terrorists. This use of technology was particularly interesting as it spread news about the attacks much faster than any official information, or even mainstream media reports. As the Times perhaps somewhat existentially remarked:

The attacks in India served as another case study in how technology is transforming people into potential reporters, adding a new dimension to the news media.

While perhaps there are qualitative differences between the Twitter page of Arun Shanbhag (an assistant professor at Harvard Med who happened to be across the street from the Taj hotel when shooting erupted) and a fuller piece of reporting by a veteran journalist, the fact remains that Arun’s updates to Twitter and Flickr provided much more immediate access to the actual events than the recycled story about the Brooklyn rabbi which quickly flooded CNN. Even the rabbi’s story, it seems, was closely followed on Twitter by frightened members of his Hasidic congregation back in New York.

The phenomenon of citizen journalism as an effective conduit of information was well-documented during the Saffron Revolution in Burma. In fact, most of the details reaching Western news outlets were coming from grainy cameraphone pictures and rogue bloggers. The technological response to the recent attacks in Mumbai demonstrates greater technological sophistication. I’m sure that in large part this is because internet literacy and participation is much higher in India.

The possibilities of citizen journalism should therefore only continue to expand as knowledge and use of technology spreads.

I have been thinking about some remarks made recently at a Berkman luncheon by Atony Loewenstein, author of The Blogging Revolution. He suggested that blogs have a role to play in reducing the spin and distorted perspective not only of manipulative government mouthpieces, but also of the mainstream media as well.

It seems to me that something similar could be said of twittering in Mumbai. Citizen journalists can free us of the editorial lens inevitably a part of any major news source (whether liberal, conservative, philo-American or not, and so on). Indeed, to approximate reporting facts as nakedly as possible requires the rich and instant global connectivity which only the Internet can provide. Our picture of how events develop and conclude will be immeasurably complicated (but also enriched) by the dozens of individual perspectives writing news as it happens, clicking photos and, of course, twittering

Antony Loewenstein Speaks At Berkman

Anthony Loewenstein, author of the recent book The Blogging Revolution, stopped by for a luncheon/lecture here at the Berkman Center yesterday. Loewenstein, a journalist in background, prepared for the book by traveling to some of the world’s more repressive regimes and interviewing bloggers about how the internet and blogging in particular is changing the world they live in. The full transcript of his remarks can be found here. I wanted to offer a few of the points I found to be particularly interesting.

1. Loewenstein repeatedly pointed to a sort of blind spot in Western journalism that is actually obscuring our view of the non-Western world. This includes the fact that most Western coverage is reported by Western correspondents who sometimes (as he himself confessed during the Q&A; he only spent a month there and mostly spoke to American bloggers living in Syria) do not remain long in a country or learn the requisite local languages to penetrate deeply into more indigenous stories and perspectives.

In particular, the Western “lens” (and here Loewenstein singled out the New York Times) tends to self-filter news into the categories and pre-suppositions that fit the exigencies of American foreign policy. On this point, one had the feeling that Loewenstein was mostly right (e.g. the newspeak “War on Terror”), though he seemed to have an almost conspiratorial conviction about Washington’s influence. He was careful to stress that the Manichean division of “good” versus “bad” nations (for example, “Israeli” vs “Arab”) has been more a hallmark of Bush-era policy.

The point of all of this is that bloggers fill in our picture of the developing and Islamic world where newspapers and major media fail, in large part because the bulk of Western stories obsessively follow themes like “terrorism” and “Palestine/Israel” which tend to reduce and oversimplify our view of the entire region. Instead of puffing our ghosts and specters, the West should be tuning in to hear the real story from the ground, as provided by citizen journalists and just average people writing blogs.

2. This does not mean, however, that bloggers are the harbingers of upcoming democratic revolutions in the Middle East or China. Although the internet widens the scope of free expression (or at least makes it more difficult for authoritarian regimes to contain dissent), Loewenstein often encountered a kind of weariness for calls to arms and revolution. One Iranian blogger, in particular, told Loewenstein that he felt strongly about reform, but that it needed to come about in a gradual, almost Burkean, sort of way.

Loewenstein connected this to a need for the West to overcome its epistemological shortcomings and embrace moderate factions, particularly elements of political Islam like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Instead, in the relentless fight against a spooky AlQaeda menace and pragmatic energy policy, Washington props up pretty bad rulers. If they read native blogs, they would have a better idea of who these factions are. The would hear the voices of moderate factions who are as uneasy with American or European meddling as they are with the regular torture, repression and abuse which characterizes their own regime. This includes Muslim women against female circumcision or restrictive social policies, pro-reform Islamists and change-eager Cubans.

3. Having said all that, most blogging in the developing world is not political in scope. Not everyone running a blog (and these are generally middle class folks to begin with) is a dissident or human rights activist. Much of it centers on dating or music, fashion and everyday life. Loewenstein rightly insists, however, that this is itself a kind of free expression and step toward an open society worth paying attention to.

I think there is a kind of cynical rebuttal to his argument which says that the banality of everday blogs in repressive regimes is highly conditioned by the fear of speaking out on anything political. Of course, this dynamic must differ from regime to regime. In Iran, where even Western music and fashion is banned by the morality police, the struggle to do banal and everday things is already a political struggle; in Thailand, where only the borders of internet are really policed (lese majeste and jihadist websites), it’s easier to maintain an apolitical kind of free expression.

4. Loewenstein had harsh words for internet companies which collude in censorship. He pointed, as we have before as well, to the geo-locational filtering YouTube uses to adapt content to local countries. He did concede that perhaps blocking four videos instead of four thousand is better, but I almost wanted him to stick to his guns and insist that countries take YouTube all or nothing. Not because I think this will loosen the knots of censorship, but because public outcry and dissent could be wide enough to choke back the state’s ever encroaching authority and control over democratic discourse.

All in all, a great talk and we thank Antony for stopping by!

In Burma, War Against Cyber Dissidents Expands, Even Non-Political Bloggers Jailed

Since the 2007 Saffron Revolution, a popular uprising of students and Buddhist monks, Burma’s military government has been watching the internet with growing unease. The web, as our study of the conflict demonstrates, played a pivotal role in organizing and increasing the visibility of that conflict to the outside world. Citizen journalists, utilizing the content creation powers of Web 2.0 technology, were able to smuggle mobile videos and pictures out to the world, not only in person, but through anonymous uploads and file hosting sites at poorly regulated internet cafes.

Now, according to the exile newspaper Irrawaddy, Burmese authorities are stepping up their efforts to punish political activists who use the internet by imposing lengthy and draconian prison sentences. During the Saffron Revolution, the government’s response was to black out all internet access (possible because the government owns the only two ISP’s) and most mobile phone coverage. Yet when the internet was restored several weeks later, the government changed tactics. First, it limited bandwith at internet cafes, making even highly compressed audio and visual data difficult to transmit. Then, it began invoking a little used 1996 national security law which punishes unlawful access to an electronic network with jail time ranging between 7 and 15 years.

Burma’s authoritarian military-led government has never had a particularly warm relationship with free speech. Since its junta in 1962, the government has consolidated, restricted and stifled all traditional media outlets, putting them firmly under the watchful eye of state censors. The internet, however, and the rise of digital activism which it inspired, has been a much harder beast to tame. Even when it became possible (through ISP consolidation) to monitor and block internet access, citizens circumnavigated the blocks using foreign proxies and encrypted email services.

A disturbing sign in these most recent developments is that the increasingly nervous military government has begun cracking down not only on political dissidents critical of the regime (like the Generation 88 pro-democracy activists), but average Burmese citizens who happen to run blogs, like Nay Phone Latt who last Monday was sentenced to 20 years and 6 months in prison for blogging.

If the military autocracy hadn’t so ruthlessly (though perhaps less brutal, given the high internet visibility) quashed the Saffron Revolution, perhaps we could nurture aspirations for a freer, more open Burma. If there is any hope of cracking a regime that asserts absolute control over the individual, the internet’s capacity for instant and global expression is it. Right now, even this seems in jeopardy.

Craig Newmark: “no vision, but I know how to keep things simple, and I can listen some”

Craig Newmark was visiting the Berkman Center today and he explained how founding Craiglist brought him to his current role as community organizer. But these are really the same, he says.

In 1994, Craig was working at Charles Schwab where he evangelized the net – figuring that this is the future of business for these types of firms. He showed people usenet newsgroups and The Well and he noticed people helping each other in very generous ways. He wanted to give back so he started a cc list for events in early 1995. He credits part of his success to the timing of this launch – early dot com boom. People were alwyas influential and for example suggested new categories etc. He was using pine for this and in mid 1995 he had 240 email addresses and pine started to break. He was going to call it SFevents, but people around him suggested CraigsList because it was a brand, and the list was more than events.

So he wrote some code to turn these emails into html and became a web publisher. At the end of 1997 3 events happened: CraigsList had one million page views per month (a billion in August 2004, now heading toward 13 billion per month), Microsoft Sidewalk approached him to run banner ads and he said no because he didn’t need the money, and then he was approached with the idea of having some of the site run on a volunteer basis. He went for volunteer help but in 1998 it didn’t work well since he wasn’t providing strong leadership for them. At the end of 1998 people approached him to fix this and so in 1999 he incorporated and hired Jim Buckmaster who continued the traditions of incorporating volunteer suggestions for the site, and maintained the simple design. Also in 1999 he decided to charge for job ads and to charge real estate agents (only apt brokers in NYC, which they requested to eliminate the perceived need to post and repost).

He has generalized his approach to “nerd values:” take care of yourself enough to live comfortably then after that you can start to focus on changing things.
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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. 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]

New Voices–Expanding the Size of the Tent

I’ve been lucky enough to be part of two great conversations at Berkman today, which both boil down to increasing the number of voices on the Internet and in the technology field. Ultimately, we can’t have a liberal networked public sphere anywhere in the world if rich white guys in urban areas (the coveted ‘latte drinking pansy’ voting bloc) are the dominate group in every conversation.

First, I sat in on a meeting of the gender and technology group at Berkman which is asking what I think is a difficult but important question–why are women so underrepresented in the technology field and on the Net. As our blog research has shown, women are certainly blogging less than men in Iran, Russia, and the Arabic blogospheres. Check out the group’s blog and facebook group–and hopefully an event on the topic is coming soon to push the conversation forward. Seems like there isn’t enough research in this area either.

Second, David Sasaki from Rising Voices spoke today about efforts to increase the number (and quality) of underrepresented groups in online conversations. David showed some great videos from African bloggers and also discussed the micro-grants they are giving for citizen media training. He mentions how much demand there is now for this type of training, which was funded by a Knight Challenge Grant. He shared some great examples of what participants have done as part of the project–one of my favorites is a teacher blogging from the smallest school in the world–a 4 student school in a remote Iranian fishing village. On the site I also discovered Iran Inside Out, a great video project.

In many cases this type of work allows us a better, unfiltered view of countries like Iran that are either ignored by most traditional media, or only discussed in terms of the nuclear issue or other limited frames.

Posted in blogging, Citizen Journalism, Ideas, Iran. Comments Off on New Voices–Expanding the Size of the Tent

A2K3: Connectivity and Democratic Ideals

Also in the final A2K3 panel, The Global Public Sphere: Media and Communication Rights, Natasha Primo, National ICT policy advocacy coordinator for the Association for Progressive Communications, discusses three questions that happen to be related to my current research. 1) Where is the global in the global public sphere? 2) Who is the public in the global public sphere? and 3) How to we get closer to the promise of development and the practice of democratic values and freedom of expression?

She begins with the premise that we are in an increasingly interconnected world, in economic, political, and social spheres, and you will be excluded if you are not connected. She also asserts the premise that connection to the internet can lead to the opening of democratic spaces and – in time – a true global public sphere.

Primo, like Ó Siochrú in my blog post here, doesn’t see any global in global public sphere. She thinks this is just a matter of timing, and not a systematic problem. She notes that the GSM organization predicts 5 billion people on the GSM network by 2015, whereas we now have 1 of 6 billion connection to the internet> note that Primo believes internet access will come through the cell phone for many people who are not connected today. She refers us to Richard Heeksproposal for a Blackberry-for-development. Heeks is professor and chair of the Development Informatics Department at the University of Manchester. But Primo sees the cost as the major barrier to connectivity among LCDs and thinks this will abate over time.

With regard to the cost of connectivity, she notes that Africa has a 10% internet subscription rate versus in Asia-Pacific and 72% in Europe. South Africa is planning an affordable broadband campaign: to have some facilities declared ‘essential’ to make them available to the public at cost to the service providers. This comes from the A2K idea of partnership for higher education in Africa – African universities are to have cheaper access. She also sees authoritarian behavior by states as another obstacle to connectivity. She cites research by our very own OpenNet Initiative that 24 of 40 countries studied are filtering the internet and using blocking tools to prevent freedom of expression. This is done via blocking blogging sites and YouTube. She is worried about how this behavior by governments impacts peoples’ behavior when they are online. She notes surveys that show two extreme reactions: people either practice substantial selfcensorship or put their lives on the line for the right to express an opinion.

Primo notes the cultural obstacles to the global public sphere. She relates a story that some groups are not accustomed to hearing opinions that diverge from their own and will, innocently, flag them as inappropriate content. Dissenting opinions come back online after a short amount of time, but with the delay dialogue can be lost.

Crossposted on Victoria Stodden

Posted in A2K3, Africa, blogging, Citizen Journalism, Developing world, Free Speech, Ideas, Tech Tools. Comments Off on A2K3: Connectivity and Democratic Ideals

The First ‘Batonable’ Election

‘Batonable’ is how of the Black Eyed Peas (and probably more famously of the Obama ‘Yes We Can’ video) summed up the power of the Internet and new media on the US presidential election. Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post, who sponsored the panel exploring new media’s role in this elections, explains:

He dubbed the way information is passed along in the new media “batonable”: someone puts out a piece of content; the person who sees it then picks up the baton and runs with it, then passes the baton on to their friends, who then pass the baton on to their friends. In that way, the information is disseminated in its original, unadulterated form — as opposed to the traditional media process where those passing it along often do it through their own filters.

YouTube in particular has had huge effect. It’s almost hard to believe, as Huffington notes, that YouTube didn’t even exist until February 2005.

Ethan Zuckerman has a good post from a couple months back on some of the user generated campaign videos. And you can watch a conversation on Berkman’s own YouTube channel with Jesse Dylan, the producer of the Obama video.

Posted in Citizen Journalism, Elections, Ideas. Comments Off on The First ‘Batonable’ Election