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Fernando Rodrigues on “Journalism and Public Information in Brazil”

One of the most promising realms of Internet & Democracy is transparency and accountability. This Tuesday, we welcomed Fernando Rodrigues, an innovative leader in this field, to talk about his work on exposing corruption in Brasil. Fernando says:

“The Politicos do Brasil is a website, the project started in 2000. We have more than 25,000 politicians listed on the site, covering the three national general elections – 1998, 2002, and 2006. Everyone who ran for office in those elections are listed (most of them). It’s a free search website. Anyone can search, look for information about any politician. And just to give you a flavor of what this is all about, in 2006, when we last updated it, it had an audience of more than 1 million unique visitors on the first day.”

See the Berkman Events blog for a complete transcript of the talk and Ethan Zuckerman for liveblogging and commentary.

Posted in Ideas, Tech Tools. Comments Off on Fernando Rodrigues on “Journalism and Public Information in Brazil”

The 2007 Korean Presidential Elections and Internet Censorship

South Korea’s 2007 presidential election has recently come under fire by various global blogs and media for being undemocratic. The reason: for the first time, the country’s National Election Commission (NEC) implemented strict Internet content regulation during the campaign. Internet users were not allowed to post or directly link to any comments or content that would favor or disfavor a particular candidate or party.

Many took this as a curb on free speech and a step backward in Korea’s still nascent democracy. Few, however, approached it from the broader context of why the regulations were created and if they served any democratic purpose.

I wish to explore both sides of the argument by clarifying the facts around the NEC regulations and providing the broader socio-political situation under which the rules were made.

The Facts

The NEC only prohibits what it calls “campaign UCC” material. (UCC is short for user-created content, which includes all Internet content produced by the user such as pictures, videos, web posts, replies, etc.)

The NEC distinguishes between “campaign UCC” versus personal opinion.

“Campaign UCC” are UCC’s that contain campaign-related content that show a blatant intent to help or hinder a particular candidate or party from being elected.  Some examples of “campaign UCC” material according to the NEC Web site are: short comments like “Lets help candidate A get elected,” long posts with selectively clipped criticism of a select candidate, or videos containing one-sided material. Posting or directly linking to such UCC is prohibited. Violators are legally punished and can face up to a maximum of three years in jail or a 30 million won (approx. $33,000) fine.

In contrast, personal opinion consists of content with strictly subjective or abstract viewpoints on a candidate or party. For example, short comments like “I want candidate A to be elected” or “I like candidate A” and long posts or videos that cover both candidates are all permissible. However, when such personal opinions are repeatedly posted or forwarded to the extent that it is obvious there is intent to influence the election decision, then it falls under the “campaign UCC” category and is prohibited.

The Case for the NEC Regulations

The NEC regulations were prompted by a very unique socio-political situation in South Korea. In the previous 2002 presidential elections, the country witnessed for the first time the substantial power of the Internet on politics. President Roh was dubbed an “Internet President,” and the 180 degree turnaround on election day fueled by younger generation Internet users shocked both citizens and politicians.

The Internet’s such power awed some, but also scared others. Especially as support for the elected President Roh continued to decline through his term, many became wary that the Internet – with its tremendous amplifying power and speed of mobilization– might again fall prey to partisan propaganda and produce unfavorable results.

The NEC regulations came as a response to such worries. The reason the laws were implemented was not to censor debate, but rather, to protect it. The NEC recognized that at times, in order to guard against partisan or biased voices from taking over substantial, qualitative political debate, some censorship is necessary. In this sense, the origin of the regulations was very much democratic.

The Case against the NEC Regulations

On the other hand, users who have been charged by the NEC are clearly infuriated about having their right to free speech violated. In various interviews with the Korea Times, The Korea Herald and other mainstream newspapers, netizens have expressed how they are shocked to not have the right to post whatever they want on what should be personal Internet space. The fact that the regulations extend to personal blogs is particularly alarming. The argument is that not all of the Internet can be treated like a public space for deliberation; personal blogs, homepages, and other domains must remain private territory that is off-limits from the government.

Freedom vs. Equality

Ultimately, South Korea’s case of Internet censorship boils down to a values debate between freedom and fairness (or equality). The two values, both the pillars of democracy, are infamous for frequently colliding with each other. The question is: do we uphold freedom of speech and risk a lower quality public debate, or do we consent to some federal regulation for purposes of maintaining an equal playing field in the public forum?

Owen Fiss, author of The Irony of Free Speech, offers some insight on how to strike a balance between these two values in the context of free speech. His line of argument falls more in line with the NEC’s. In some cases, in order to protect freedom of speech, which posits that all voices and parties should have the right to have a say in public debate, federal intervention is necessary. The question is if the Internet, in the context of political elections, falls into that special category of cases.

An interview with an official in the NEC on such questions is forthcoming.

An Internet & Democracy Framework: Information > Deliberation > Participation

One of our tasks at the Internet and Democracy Project is to develop an intellectual framework which will aid us in studying the effect of the Internet on democracy. We are beginning by doing background research on the scholarship of democracy: Juan Linz, Seymour Martin Lipset, Terry Lynn Karl, Joseph Schumpeter, Robert Dahl, Larry Diamond. This has been very useful in placing our own research within the context of previous democracy research. Our next step is to do an overview of previous theories of democracy and the Internet, which fellow Corinna di Gennaro is spear-heading.

I am really glad that we are laying a thorough foundation for our framework, which I hope will not be embedded in current institutions and normative practices (rule of law, elections), but rather in more fundamental aspects of what democracy is. One way to define democracy is as a political system which arises when power flows down the pyramid from elites to citizens. The institutions that arise in a democracy, like separation of powers, civil rights, and the political equality of citizens, are just expression of underlying changing in this power dynamic. Democratic institutions safeguard the power of citizens against the usurpation by the powerful. But what causes this shift in the balance of power from elites to ordinary citizens? How do you get to democracy? And, more germane to our purposes, how can the Internet facilitate this power shift?

Below is a framework which attends to the effect that the Internet could have on the power shift from elites to citizens. This is a first draft and I may be completely off track, so I am eager to receive comments and critique. According to this tentative framework, the Internet facilitates the three steps of power acquisition by citizens:
1. Information
2. Deliberation
3. Participation

1. Information

This is the first step in a citizen accruing political power. A citizen must first have accurate information about the political situation in their polity and in order to determine the political outcome which would best preserve their own self-interest. The need for information is behind the need for freedom of information, as well as Diamond’s emphasis on the importance of alternative sources of information. With regard to previous theories about the effect of the Internet on democracy mentioned at the Berkman Center, Victoria Stodden’s emphasis on the Internet as a conduit for alternative information and democratic values is encapsulated in the information category, as well as Yochai Benkler’s pipeline and accountability pathways, which posit that the Internet aids people in evading censorship (removing blocks to information) and in increasing transparency (facilitating the flow of information about the government). The information category thus provides four testable hypotheses about the Internet’s effect on democracy: a conduit for alternative information, a conduit for democratic values, a means of evading censorship, and a means of improving government transparency. All four hypothetical effects of the Internet would increase citizen power and thus strengthen democracy.

2. Deliberation

The Internet not only allows citizens to access information, It also allows citizens to deliberate over this information and develop political option that coincide with their interests. A testable hypothesis which might arise from this category is that the Internet, a low-cost communication network, has greatly facilitated communication and group deliberation in may ways, including e-mail, forums, and blogs, which has increased the ability of citizens to advocate in their own self-interest.

Within deliberation exists the idea of coordination and group-forming, whereby citizens form organization that represent their interests in a public forum. Often these organizations become NGOs, although more informal networks also hold sway. A hypothesis from the organization element of the deliberation category might be that The Internet facilitates the creation and continuation of citizen organizations by allowing frequent and reinforcing communication, as well as promotion of these groups through low-cost high-visibility web sites.

The deliberation function is encapsulated in Diamond’s emphasis of the importance of multiple channels for self-expression and freedom of opinion and belief in a democracy. It also incorporates Benkler’s public sphere and political organizing pathways.

3. Participation

In the end, power is expressed through participation in the political sphere, as citizens bring pressure on leaders to make policies that attend to the interests of citizens. There are many forms of participation which show the political power of citizens, among them political protest, which exists outside of formal institutions, and voting, which occurs within the institutions of a democratic political system. A possible hypothesis might be that the Internet can facilitate both extra-institutional and intra-institutional expressions of political power. It can be both a means of organizing citizen action outside institutions (online political movements) and facilitating institutionalized participation (e-voting and elections).

The vast body of Diamond’s ten characteristics of democracy can be described as institutions that protect the citizen’s ability to participate in the political process (elections, protection of minority rights, rule of law, a constrained executive, political equality). This category also encapsulates Stodden’s description of the Internet as a tool in democratic processes (for instance, e-voting) and well as Benkler’s rule-making and political organizing pathways. (Political organizing includes a deliberative phase which precedes participation.)

(cross-posted in Zapboom)

Posted in Ideas. 1 Comment »

Understanding the Iranian Blogosphere

We just read an excellent paper on the Iranian blogosphere by Nima Mina from SOAS at the University of London entitled “Blogs, Cyber-literature and Virtual Culture in Iran.” It was written as part of the George C. Marshall Center’s Occasional Paper Series. Dr. Mina’s work demonstrates how academics are beginning to have a more nuanced understanding of the Iranian blogosphere than conventional wisdom or the media would have us believe. As Iranian blogger Hamid Tehrani has also shown, the Iranian blogosphere is not just a space for would be democrats to write and debate, but is also used by Islamists and religious movements.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Mina’s paper is the four case studies that show how the Internet has supported the grassroots democracy movement within and outside of Iran. These cases include discussions of the online daily newspaper ROOZ and the “citizen journalism” Radio station Zamaneh, as well as the ability of banned literary figures such as Reza Hassemi and Mahshid Amirshahi to connect, communicate and find new audiences inside Iran. The ability of users to connect on the Internet to produce media, news and literature is well established, but the chance for exiled literary figures and their fans at home to connect in this way is an interesting and exciting phenomenon to study and better understand. We look forward to more work from Nima Mina on this theme.

These recent studies track closely with many of the findings from the I&D project’s own network and content analysis of the Iranian blogosphere, which shows that the blogosphere is a (filtered) communication space where a wide variety of political, literary and artistic themes are discussed by Iranian expats and a broad cross section of those living in Iran. We expect to release our study of the Iranian blogosphere next month, but until then check out our first two case studies on the use of the Internet and cell phones during elections in Ukraine and South Korea.

Identifying “Poli-fluentials”: A Digital Tool Marketing Strategy

Equally important to the creation of a new digital tool is its effective distribution. The efficacy of a distribution method largely depends on the accuracy of picking the right point-persons in the community who will facilitate and secure widespread use. A recent line of political research by Carol Darr and others at the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet identifies these people as “poli-fluentials” and sets forth a strategic survey method that can identify them.

Darr’s work is based on what started as marketing research by Ed Keller and Jon Berry, veterans of RoperASW. In their search for the trend-setters that influence the success or failure of new products, Keller and Berry developed a set of survey questions that asked consumers about seemingly mundane actions such as how often they contact their friends, if they participate in any community activities, and if they read daily papers. What they found, as the subtitle of their book “The Influentials” says, is that “one American in ten tells the other nine how to vote, where to eat, what to buy.” These handful of point-persons, aptly called “influentials,” basically dictate the actions of the majority through spreading their opinions and knowledge via word of mouth.

“Influentials” are identifiable by some unique characteristics. Compared to “non-influentials,” these people are the most active members in their communities, the most communicative with their family and friends, and most knowledgeable about current affairs via avid consumption of daily news – be it of politics, the new Apple product on the shelf, or the next door neighbor.

In the context of Internet and democracy, however, we want to narrow down one more step from “influentials” – we want to find the “influentials” within the political context. Darr’s recent work, “Poli-fluentials: The New Political Kingmakers,” hits exactly that point.

By taking Keller and Berry’s original survey and tweaking the questions to pertain to political activity and knowledge, Darr is able to identify a niche group of people that she terms “poli-fluentials.” For instance, instead of questions on participation in community activities, Darr’s survey asks questions on participation in political activities. Instead of asking about communication with friends in general, Darr’s survey asks about communication with friends about political news.

Her research and survey methodology are critically relevant to Internet and democracy since, like any new product must be marketed to consumers, new digital tools must also be effectively marketed to political activists.

Once identified, “poli-fluentials” will be the best point-persons to 1) let you know if that tool is an effective match for the community or not, and 2) if it is, most effectively spread the tool throughout the community through word-of-mouth viral marketing. Micro-targeting these people not only minimizes the cost of marketing a new digital tool, but more importantly, assures its smooth reception into a community.

I&D Case Studies Now Available

The Internet and Democracy project is proud to announce the release of its first case studies, “The Role of Digital Networked Technologies in the Ukrainian Orange Revolution” and “The Citizen Journalism Web Site ‘Ohmynews’ and the 2002 South Korean Presidential Election”. Both analyze the influence of the Internet on key democratic turning points in Ukraine and South Korea, respectively.

The first case study, “The Role of Digital Networked Technologies in the Ukrainian Orange Revolution,” is by I&D research assistant Josh Goldstein. The report is a narrative case study that examines the role of the Internet and mobile phones during Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. The first section describes the online citizen journalists who reported many stories which were not reported by the self-censoring mainstream journalists. The second section investigates the use of the Internet and mobile phones by pro-democracy organizers. The conclusion of the case study is that these technologies made a wide range of organizing activities easier, however the Orange Revolution was largely made possible by savvy activists and journalists willing to take risks to improve their country, rather than by particular digital tools. You can download the report here.

The second case study, “The Citizen Journalism Web Site ‘Ohmynews’ and the 2002 South Korean Presidential Election,” is by I&D research assistant Mary Joyce. It investigates the influence of the citizen journalism Web site OhmyNews during the 2002 South Korean Presidential election. It begins with a discussion of the phenomenon of citizen journalism and the importance of an independent media to democracy. It next moves to a discussion of the motivation for the creation of OhmyNews by Oh Yeon Ho and its innovative model for producing and moderating citizen-generated news. It then discusses how real world activism may have contributed to online activism and lays out a narrative of OhmyNews’ activity during the Presidential election. Finally, the paper concludes with a discussion of the feasibility of the OhmyNews business model, the site’s struggle to remain profitable, and the organization’s less than successful attempt to expand to other similar markets, notably Japan. The paper is available for download here.

More case studies, including one on the use of the Internet and cell phones during the monks’ protests in Burma, are forthcoming.

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Blogs, SMS and the Kenyan Election

 Two weeks ago, Kenya was a haven of democracy and prosperity in Africa, with a competitive national election process and an attractive annual economic growth rate of 6-7%. Last week, a presidential election pitted incumbent president and Kikuyu tribesman Mwai Kabaki against leading opponent and Luo tribesman Raila Odinga. After what was initially described as a very close vote, Kabaki swiftly announced himself the winner and swore himself in for another term.

This week, the election results are being described domestically and internationally as fraudulent, and violence has erupted between rioting mobs and police in Nairobi, and between ethnic groups throughout the country. Mobs in the town of Eldoret burned at least two dozen inside of a church (see Red Cross helicopter video of Rift Valley humanitarian situation on You Tube) and dozens more have died in the streets of Nairobi’s Kibera slum. The port of Mombasa has ground to a halt, already causing petrol shortages as far is Kampala, Uganda. Today, despite cancellation of a major anti-government rally, protesters turned to the streets and were met by police using tear gas and water cannons.

Blogs and mobile phones have played critical roles since violence erupted.

Besides South Africa, Kenya has long had the most vibrant blogging community in sub-saharan Africa. Since Sunday, when the government instituted a media blackout, blogs have become critical to spreading the latest news. On Tuesday, the blackout was lifted, but in this rapidly changing situation, bloggers have been far swifter and more detailed in their reporting about the latest clashes. Berkman and Harvard Law School alumni Ory Okollo (Kenyan Pundit), as well as Berkman friend Juliana Rotich (Afromusing ) have been critical in relaying information from the volatile Eldoret/Burnt Forest. Also, Nick Wadhams has presciently put the current violence in perspective of previous Kenyan elections.

Ndesanjo Macha has been posting excellent Kenya updates on Global Voices and White African has a list of bloggers covering the conflict.

While only about 3.2% Kenyans have Internet access, mobile phones are far more ubiquitous. The African digerati in Kenya are leaders in experimenting with how to use mobile phones for sharing information. White African recognizes that “the problem with mobile phones is that they’re so dispersed – there’s no central core for users to all tune in to. Of course, that’s the strength in mobiles too. The trick is to leverage the strength without destroying the medium.”

Soon after violence erupted, Mashada, a prominent online forum launched an SMS hotline to help share information. Further, several prominent Kenyan blogs are accepting comments via SMS. Perhaps most prominently, BBC Africa’s Have Your Say received over 3800 and published over 1300 comments after requesting updates from Kenyans. Readers can vote up messages they deem most relevant. While these innovative SMS tools are allowing more people to contribute opinions and information, none of them can directly reach the majority of Kenyans, who need Internet access to see the posted messages. While Twitter is perhaps the most promising tool in this regard because of its ability to delivery messages to mobile phones, there are no reports of it being used widely this week in Kenya.

Kenyan Pundit writes that the ability to send mass SMS has been disabled. Also, Afromusing received this text message while in Eldoret: “The Ministry of Internal Security urges you to please desist from sending or forwarding any SMS that may cause public unrest. This may lead to your prosecution.” This is a reminder of both the power and the danger of SMS, particularly in east Africa. In Uganda last year, a protest against developing Mabira Forest was organized via mass SMS in Kampala and quickly turned violent and resulted in at least one death.

Quentin Peel reminders us that “this is not a story of one tribe seeking revenge on another, as it was in the massacre of minority Tutsis by the majority Hutus in Rwanda. Kenya is a much more economically and ethnically complicated country.” Odinga’s cancellation of today’s major rally is an encouraging sign of level-headedness and concern for stemming the violence. As a beacon of stability since the 1960’s, its incredibly important for us to watch the humanitarian and political developments in Kenya over the next few days.

Cross posted to In An African Minute.