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.

I&D Project Releases New Case Studies on Switzerland

Great news! The team over here at the Internet and Democracy project is happy to announce today the release of Three Case Studies From Switzerland, the newest installment in its ongoing set of case studies on the evolving interface between networked technologies and democracy. Headed up by Berkman Center Executive Director Urs Gasser and a team of collaborators at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, this three-part report reviews a variety of experiments happening on all parts of the democratic process. As the report outlines in our Executive Summary, the case study reviews projects affecting:

The pre-voting stage in the first case study of the automated Swiss candidate-voter matching system, Smartvote; The voting stage itself in our second study on the implementation of electronic voting (e-voting) in Switzerland; The post-voting phase in our third study on the use of blogs by elected candidates in the Swiss government.

It is important to note that this report marks a departure from our usual focus in the I&D case studies to date, where activity online was often assessed in conflict with the adversarial efforts of institutions to supress or resist. In contrast, these new studies examine an opposite scenario: a unique political environment in which institutions and networked technologies are actively working together in an effort to enhance democratic governance.

The report is accessible here.

We hope this piece will provoke lively discussion and broaden our understanding of the role technology can play among strong, established democracies. Enjoy! We’re looking forward to any comments or responses you might have.

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.

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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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)

Khatami Web Sites Filtered

According to the Associated Press, a number of pro-Khatami Web sites have been filtered in Iran. It appears that the authorities in Iran have increased filtering efforts of late, possibly in an attempt to thwart the Khatami campaign just as it gets started. Even religious authorities are striking out against religious bloggers that are not officially sanctioned, warning that they may be dangerous to society. The two blocked Khatami sites, Yari News and Yari , were set up last summer in anticipation of Khatami’s run, although his official campaign site is still visible.

However, the filtering does not see to have phased Khatami supporters. Majid Ansari told AP:

Reformist opponents assume they can block the path of people’s understanding but people are wise enough to judge these actions. Blocking sites won’t stop Khatami from challenging (Ahmadinejad).

As you can see from last year’s Iranian blogosphere map, the relative location of Khatami’s Web site and Amidinijad’s blog show how reformists and conservatives are set across from each other in contentious political dialog. The position of these two groups on the network map indicates that they are linking to the same sources and talking about the same issues, but not as much as they link to those in their own group.

iran blog map

This is not dissimilar from the US political blogosphere, where conservatives and liberals cluster up into two large network formations set across from one another. For those of you that couldn’t make it all the way through our paper, we plan to release an interactive Iranian blogsphere map in the coming weeks with an updated map (that you can see here) as well as sample ‘mock blogs,’ popular links and media preferences for the different clusters in the blogosphere.

Hat Tip: Hamid Tehrani

Reformist Khatami Enters Iran’s Presidential Race

Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami announced Sunday that he will run against conservative incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in this summer’s presidential election. The Times reports that Khatami has a large following in Iran and his chances will be helped by difficult economic conditions in Iran, including run away inflation and a collapse in revenue due to the recent slide in oil prices. Corruption is also a major issue that could hurt Ahmadinejad. However, conservative politicians are still (halfheartedly) behind Ahmadinejad, and he still has the support of Iran’s Supreme Leader, who retains the most political power in Iran.

Khatami oversaw reforms that lead to major advances in free speech as President from 1997 to 2005. This coincided with an explosion in Iranian blogging as well as the opening of a number of reformist newspapers, although those reforms have since been harshly reversed. In announcing his candidacy on Sunday, Khatami said,
“The Iranian nation’s historical demand is to have freedom, independence and justice, and I will work for that.”

Obama Hints At Tech Spending In Address

Estimates for the size of the crowd on the Washington mall today have settled to somewhere around two million. Befitting a crowd of such grandeur, Pres. Obama’s inaugural address outlined many of the largest problems facing America today. Yet, as I stood near the Washington monument (freezing), I was pleased to hear the recently sworn-in president plant this quote about technological infrastructure:

We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.

As I have written about in previous posts, the Obama camp seems particularly keen to bridge digital divides. They have talked about funding public works programs to increase broadband access in rural areas and using the web to make government more transparent and responsible.

As his speech suggests, Pres. Obama understands that such investments not only harvest savings for government and private business, but also, and perhaps more importantly, catalyze democratic discourse. This is almost certainly what he means in suggesting that digital networks “bind us together.” Just as real highways in theory increase civil society by linking people who were formerly geographically separated, so the information highway brings ideas and groups together in dialogue, if anything at a more dramatic rate.

Live Feeds of Inaugural Disappoint

A lot of excited Berkmanites were just huddled around the large screens in our conference room to watch the inaugural ceremonies. Sad, as one fellow put it, that Harvard’s network, probably one of the best in North America, couldn’t stream without interruption. Obviously, a problem on the networks end as well as they were pummeled with requests for the live streams. BBC seemed best for a while but eventually also froze up periodically. Interesting to see the CNN cooperation with Facebook as well which allowed folks to chat with their friends while watching the event. We look forward to Chris Van Buren’s update on how it was live in DC!

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What the McCain and Obama Campaigns Say About the Impact of the Internet

This morning at the Internet and Politics conference in Cambridge we’re having a fascinating, and surprisingly frank, discussion with representatives from the McCain and Obama online campaign staff; likely because its under Chatham House rule, so no names or direct quotes below.

First the McCain Team:
They argue that the web strategy is what kept McCain alive when he was left for dead in 2007. It was critical during what was really three campaigns for them (early on when he had tons of support/money, then the phase where they went from hundreds of staff to a handful, then after he became nominee.)

Republicans believe that YouTube was a huge help for them in getting their message out. They really liked a totally in-house produced video about John McCain’s record of service. They believe that it helped to define McCain in the terms that the he wanted.

They also report that the Internet responsible for 1/3 of all money raised in primary.

This campaign was a David and Goliath story according to Republicans. They argue that they did more with less; but next time they’d rather be in Obama’s shoes–with lots of resources and lots of people.

McCain didn’t keep bloggers at a distance like Obama did. Bloggers and conservative blogosphere hugely important to the McCain comeback according to his e-campaign folks. They say McCain loved the conference calls and outreach that he had with conservative bloggers. Loved their questions; loved the whole thing. This seems like an under-reported story to me. Not entirely surprising given McCain ‘straight-talk’ approach.

They said they had a different audience online and on YouTube. I’d imagine that’s a big reason why they were less successful was because their supporters, and their candidate was older and less likely to use the Internet.

They argue that pro-Sarah Palin blogs and grass roots activism around her was totally organic. The Palin google search/optimization strategy was one of their biggest spends, but there really was a groundswell of organic support around her that really re-energized the campaign. They in no way saw her as a drag on the ticket.

And now to the Obama folks:

Define their role as tapping the huge grass roots network that was out there for Obama and putting them into a larger organization. They argued that there was a lot of people already excited and waiting to help. Leadership in campaign said that having a successful online strategy was critical because the party establishment was behind Hillary. Also sounds like they had a good management team.

Interesting to hear the words they use to describe the campaign as work place: values and ethos around candidate, creativity encouraged, told what to do but not how to do it, expertise of teams valued.
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