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Cell Phones and Activism

At a recently held conference by AAAS (American Association for Advancement of Science), scientists discussed and evaluated current challenges for low cost wireless communication. The conference asserts that, “the right to receive and impart information is a universal human right that can be enhanced and protected by providing access to wireless communication for all”.

Nowadays, cell phones are ubiquitous and have far exceeded our expectations and their initial role. For instance, cell phones are now used as decentralized tools for eradicating (or at least ameliorating) poverty(1,2,3), have challenged traditional microeconomics notions by being used as ATM machines, and perhaps at times (because of their not-so-considerate users) have annoyed us on a bus ride.

Cell phone text messaging (SMS) has become such a powerful norm that it was recently used for organizing (underground) protests. The innovative use of cell phones does not stop here. Recently, Jan Chipchase, a lead researcher at Nokia Design, made his team’s research on innovative cell phone practices available online. Projects such as phone remades and shared phone practices clearly demonstrate a glimpse of innovative usage in the face of adversity. What really caught my eye, however, was use of cell phones for activists.

As Jan Chipchase states, “spread of tools that can capture experiences means that more people are in a position to document and publish (human rights) abuses – including many ad-hoc activists who wont be aware that of the relative ease of tracing communication – and this in a world before the widespread adoption of geo-tagged photos.” Although this use of decentralized, powerful technology is both innovative and noble, security issues loom at large and make existence of NGOs such as Benetech and tools such as Martus ever more prominent.

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Bloggers React to Obama Volunteers’ Refusal to Seat Muslim Women at Rally

The blogosphere has been erupting with frustration over actions taken by volunteers at an Obama rally in Detroit on Monday. The Associated Press reported that two Muslim women were denied seats directly behind Presidential candidate Barack Obama and in front of TV cameras because of their headscarves. revealed that Hebba Aref and Shimaa Abdelfadeel were told by volunteers that “women wearing hijabs, the traditional Muslim head scarves, couldn’t sit behind the podium” due to “a sensitive political climate.” Internet rumors have greatly contributed to this “sensitive political climate” by claiming that Obama is a Muslim (rumors which his campaign has attempted to stamp out through the online initiative “Fight the Smears”).

So far, nearly 8,000 blogs across the US, and abroad, have commented on the Obama campaign’s “discriminatory” and surprising behavior. Some have been supportive, commenting that Obama is “damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.” While other bloggers like Gardens of Sand were more critical, calling Obama “Just as prejudiced as the next guy.” The incident has created a PR nightmare for the Obama campaign, not only making his supporters question his rally cry for “change we can believe in,” but more importantly, it has given his opponents ammo with which to continue censuring him. Conservative bloggers have labeled the incident as “Obama profiling” and “political hypocrisy.” For his part, Obama recently personally apologized to the two women.

Yes, that was an “uh-oh” thing to do. Yet, can we honestly say it was completely unexpected? With all the attacks Obama has received regarding his affiliation to Islam and Muslims in an Islamophobic, post-9/11 world – everything from his middle name, Hussein, to his “tribal” Kenyan Muslim heritage has been under scrutiny – is the “overreaction” of his campaign volunteers really that surprising?

After all, American electoral politics is about more than a candidate’s message, it’s about his image. We have known this since the first televised presidential debates between JFK and Nixon took place in 1960. However, campaigning has “progressed” since then, emphasizing not only candidates’ looks, but the demographic landscape with which they are photographed – a landscape which bloggers have been highly influential in shaping. And as November 2008 draws closer, the candidates – taking a cue from cyberspace critics – continue to be more cautious about including American Muslims in that landscape, a reaction which the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) implored all presidential campaigns to refrain from.

Of the incident, blogger Ebony Mom Politics notes:
“This is the sad political reality of 2008. All things Muslims are viewed with fear. Ever since 9/11 all Muslims have been under a microscope. The crime these women committed was wearing their traditional headgear… A few weeks ago we saw Dunkin Donuts pull a Rachel Ray ad because some conservative bloggers said the scarf she was wearing looked like the garb of radical Muslims. Is this right? No, we are nation of immigrants, but sadly in this season the unspoken sign is no Muslims allowed.”

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Congressional Hearing on China’s Internet Censorship and the WTO

Do China’s Internet censorship policies ignore the regulations of the World Trade Organization? Yes, is the claim of the non-profit public interest organization, California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC). Members of CFAC testified yesterday in front of Congress’ U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, regarding web censorship and other means of information control policies in China. Trade law experts question China’s compliance with obligations set forth in the WTO, of which China has been a member since 2001. Specifically, CFAC believes that China’s policies of blocking websites such as YouTube, BBCnews, Wikipedia, and WordPress and other firewall practices violate the principles of free trade set forth in WTO and GATT treaties. CFAC news explains,

Even when popular US-based websites are not being completely blocked inside China, the websites’ performance is seriously degraded by the Great Firewall, which adds several seconds (or more) to websites’ loading times, as experienced by people in China, says CFAC. This performance deficit puts US-based websites at a severe disadvantage compared to their Chinese competitors, whose websites’ function normally inside China.

Information control is one of many public concerns over China’s repressive practices and human rights violations, including the country’s Tibetan policy and their state-run control over the Olympic games. But what interests me here is that Beijing’s web censorship agenda is no longer just an issue of “democracy.” It is now an issue of international trade, of which the Internet is an increasingly important mechanism. A decade ago, the Internet and other digital technologies changed the face of global trade by lowering the costs of moving goods and information around the world. Now, as we are growing accustomed to the Internet as a basis for international trade and marketing, we are facing the problems that come along with it.

The global marketplace is governed by democracies and non-democracies alike, some with transparent and relatively un-monitored network systems and others who maintain policies of pervasive filtering and censorship. It can be difficult for governments and corporations to navigate through this kind of trade environment. In the past, nations have argued over tariff and non-tariff barriers, government subsidies, and other trade protections that put their own industries at a disadvantage. But in this digital age, Internet regulation is bound to become a central part of these trade wars.

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South Korean Web Protesters Take To The Streets Over US Beef

Sine May 2nd, South Korea has seen nearly daily protests against its new president, Lee Myung-bak, over his decision to resume imports of U.S. beef, which were suspended in 2003 after an outbreak of mad cow disease. In the history of South Korean collective action, these protests show the merger of Korea’s penchant for both the Internet and street demonstrations. Some media have dubbed this protest movement as “Web 2.0 protest,” which build off of the themes we identified in our case study on the impact of the citizen journalism site OhmyNews during the 2002 Presidential election.

Yesterday, the International Herald Tribune discussed in detail the role of the Internet on these demonstrations. When South Korea’s President Lee signed a deal in April with the U.S. to lift a ban on American imported beef, it quickly became a hot topic on the Internet among young people and lead to widespread fears of mad cow disease. In just one week, about 1.3 million students signed a petition on an Internet forum calling for the President’s impeachment. On May 2, thousands of teenagers who had networked in cyberspace and coordinated via mobile phone poured into central Seoul chanting “No to mad cow!,” igniting South Korea’s biggest anti-government protest in two decades.

After examining the increasing number of global political protests that have started in cyberspace (e.g. boycott against Carrefour in China and “A Million Voices against FARC” in Columbia), I found some interesting similarities in the process of Web protests that lead to street demonstrations.

• Online discussion forums and personal blogs are the ideal seedbed for Web protests. Internet users, especially young users, often respond quickly to current events or government policy and begin virtual petitions with alluring slogans, such as “No more FARC” and “Completely Boycott Carrefour”, on online forums or their personal blogs. These virtual petitions and slogans are quickly circulated in hundreds and thousands of online forums and blogs. After cyber protests go viral, often simultaneously stirring up people’s anger or nationalistic sentiments, it is time to stop talking online and take to the street. Cyber activists post plans and schedules about upcoming street protests on online discussion forums, and circulate such information immediately in cyberspace. For example, one media outlet has reported that many South Korean demonstrators rely on internet forums to get information on rallying points, weather forecasts and riot police presence.

• Social networking sites, Instant Messenger (IM), and Short Message Service (SMS) are tools to recruit more demonstrators among peer groups and help organize group actions and coordinate each protester in street demonstrations. For example, in the boycott against Carrefour in China, protestors, especially college students, sent short messages via mobile phone and IM to their friends asking them to participate in the boycott and distribute information about local protests. Besides, the use of IM, SMS, and social networking sites can allow for more efficiently organization of large street protests (often divided into small group actions) and also allow protestors to avoid government crackdowns. (See more cases about how social networking tools and SMS are used to organize protests)

• Camera phones, webcast, and networked citizen journalists extend the influence of street demonstrations to larger audiences, often tapping into large transnational networks. With camera phones, digital camcorders, and wireless Internet technology, demonstrators can instantly shoot and upload photos and videos to Internet sites during the demonstration. In South Korea’s protest, dozens of sites, like OhmyNews a popular participatory media web site, have been offering live broadcasts of demonstrations using videos or photos collected from volunteers with some even hiring commentators to liven up the action. The videos, photos, and stories from citizen journalists not only provide independent and (arguably) trustworthy information about protests that may encourage more citizens to participate, but also can serve to protect protesters from crackdowns by the authorities. In South Korea’s protest, a blogger suggests, “Take pictures and videos whenever police use violence or arrest people. Send the footage to OhmyNews by dialing 5055.”

Despite the positive side of young people’s passion on the Internet, we still should be cautious about irrationalism in cyberspace that may threaten online democracy (as I mentioned in my last post). Yesterday, South Korean President Lee warned that “the spread of false and incorrect information through the Internet and spam email is threatening the people’s rational thinking and mutual trust.” One political scientist in South Korea said that “In the online discussions on beef, you are welcome only if you voice a certain opinion, and you’re attacked if you represent an opposing view.” Regarding Chinese boycott against Carrefour, some media said that the young protesters are very irrational, “since there’s no proof that the French company has been part of the anti-China conspiracy”.

New Pew Study Finds 46% of Americans Use Internet for Campaign News, Information and Organization

Lee Raine of the Pew Internet & American Life Project shared with us the results of a fascinating poll on the Internet and the 2008 Presidential election that he and Aaron Smith just completed. According to the Pew report:

In total, 46% of all adults are using the internet, email, or phone text messaging for political purposes in this election. That is the percentage of those who are doing at least one of the three major activities we probed—getting news and information about the campaign, using email to discuss campaign-related matters, or using phone texting for the same purpose.

I’m especially glad that this poll asked questions about mobilization and creation of online political content instead of just use of the Internet to read campaign news. According to the report:

Online activism using social media has also grown substantially since the first time we probed this issue during the 2006 midterm elections. Among the findings in our survey:

–11% of Americans have contributed to the political conversation by forwarding or posting someone else’s commentary about the race.
–5% have posted their own original commentary or analysis.
–6% have gone online to donate money to a candidate or campaign.
–Young voters are helping to define the online political debate; 12% of online 18-29 year olds have posted their own political commentary or writing to an online newsgroup, website or blog.

The survey also tracks the use of new tools like social networking, video-sharing sites and text messaging for political purposes. As we’ve seen around the world, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are increasingly being used to mobilize networks around causes. The poll found that 66% of Internet users under 30 have a social networking site profile, and that nearly half of them use that platform to get or share information about the candidates or campaigns.

Not surprisingly, 35% of respondents (nearly triple the amount in 2004) have watched campaign videos on sites like YouTube, no doubt including the Obama video that went viral earlier this year, which we’ve discussed at Berkman on a couple of occasions. Ethan Zuckerman has a great post about online campaign videos, particularly less polished, user-generated videos. To me, these videos stand out as some of the best examples to date of semiotic democracy, or how individuals take cultural and political images from mass media, mash them up, and create their own culture and political meaning out of them. This phenomenon may be the most interesting but least talked about aspects of the narrative surrounding the Internet and this year’s campaign, and is emblematic of politics in the Web 2.0 era.

Further, nearly one in ten text message users regularly send or receive text messages about the campaign or politics. Like social networking, video sharing and other new tools, I expect that text messaging will increasingly be used in politics as those tools become more ubiquitous and as younger users mature into voting age. The poll argues that these younger voters are giving Democrats the edge over Republicans online. According to the report:

Young voters in our survey tend to gravitate toward the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign at greater rates than their elders, and their comfort engaging with the political world online is clearly in evidence in our survey. Online Democrats outpace Republicans in their consumption of online video (51% vs. 42%). Furthermore, Democrats are significantly ahead among social networking site profile creators: 36% of online Democrats have such profiles, compared with 21% of Republicans and 28% of independents.

Finally, I was a bit surprised (although I guess I shouldn’t be) that 60% of Internet users believe that “The internet is full of misinformation and propaganda that too many voters believe is accurate.” The majority must have read Cass Sunstein. However, 28% still say that the Internet allows them to be more personally connected to candidates and almost a quarter (22%) say they would not be as involved in the campaign if not for the Internet. It was also surprising that only 6% of Americans have contributed online, since online fundraising seems to be a much larger part of the news story in this campaign.

Check out the full survey report. We will wait anxiously for results of the next round of surveys from the Internet and American Life Project, and hope they can dig more deeply into questions about the Internet’s role in offline political mobilization.

Zimbabwean Bloggers React to Chaos

The Zimbabwean blogosphere has been responding to national crisis for over a year now. Hyper-inflation, food shortages, and the anti-democratic tactics of the Mugabe administration have been closely tracked on the net by a small group of native Zimbabweans inside the country, expatriates outside of its borders, and foreign embassy representatives living in the capital, Harare. In recent weeks, however, it appears that their activity has kicked into high gear, as bloggers attempt to make sense of the chaos around them.

News sources from around the world have been reporting the escalation of political violence since the announcement of a June 27th run-off election between incumbent President Robert Mugabe of the Zanu-PF and his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Much of the Zimbabwean blogosphere has indeed verified that the country has turned into a near militarized police state.

Pro-democracy advocates in Zimbabwe have made use of blogs and other online platforms in a variety of ways. Zokwanele is a democratic civic action movement whose blog has served as newspaper, organizer, and advocate. The blog reports stories and displays images of government-sponsored torture, posts the press statements of Morgan Tsvangirai and other MDC officials, and monitors what internal human rights groups are saying about these events. In addition, Zokwanele and other blogs have set up action alerts and encouraged readers to contact United Nations and Embassy officials about the violence. Some blogs simply post stories about Zimbabwe’s political turmoil from various news sources across Africa and around the world. One site, which organizes NGO workers and other online activists, has even kept a photo index of post-election violence across the country. Indeed, Zimbabwean bloggers have become a key source of information and commentary on the situation there, according to Global Voices.

Many would argue that the online community in Zimbabwe is probably too small and too disconnected from the majority of the populace to have much of an impact on daily outcomes in the country. Only 8.4 percent of Zimbabweans have access to the internet, so one assumes that reports and appeals from bloggers are likely only reaching a small number of citizens. However, as Kenyan blogger Daudi Were who blogs at mentalacrobatics has observed in his country, radio reaches nearly 90% of the population and blogs serve as a major source of information for radio journalists in Kenya. Blogs are thus reaching nearly the entire country once their stories get picked up by radio. If Zimbabwe’s media ecosystem is anything like Kenya’s, bloggers may have a much larger voice than you might expect. Of course, blogs also serve as a window into Zimbabwe’s mayhem for an international community that has grown dangerously complacent.

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Coporate Social Responsibility

“It is Google’s policy not to censor search results. However, in response to local laws, regulations, or policies, we may do so. When we remove search results for these reasons, we display a notice on our search results pages.”1

This is Google’s transparency pledge. Similarly, MSN (Microsot’s search engine) and Yahoo pledge their commitments to transparency and global freedom of access to information publicly. However, they’re also struggling with the (harsh) reality of operating in certain foreign countries. In the case of China, Citizen’s lab just finished a study on the censorship practices of popular search engines. The report concludes, “search engine companies maintain an overall low level of transparency regarding their censorship practices and … that independent monitoring is required to evaluate their compliance with public pledges regarding commitments to transparency and human rights.” What is even more disturbing is that in August of 2006, Human Rights Watch published a report on corporate complicity with Chinese censorship, and the citizen’s lab’s finding confirms that no substantial move has been made on the part of the involved corporations to rectify the situation. One may wonder why the corporate world has not taken any promising, proper initiatives in this regard. In an era where corporations are not merely evaluated in terms of their annual profits but also in their environmental conscientious and loyalty to shareholders, we need to also demand social responsibility.

It is interesting to note that censoring software such as Policenet, Watchdog Router (both used in China), Smartfilter (used in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia) and Fortinet (used in Burma) are developed not inside totalitarian counties but rather in North American companies(1,2). Nart Villeneuve argues that in the case of Google (that censors considerably less than the other engines), the local, authorized content are give a higher weight in the ranking algorithm and therefore the probability of a censored site being selected and presented is substantially smaller. In the case of Yahoo, he notes that, “while tends to not rank ‘authorized’ content as highly as, the results from heavily favor ‘authorized’ content.” One can argue that for search engine companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft present in China, obligatory licensing and the threat of shutdown in case of noncompliance is an imperative incentive for filtering the search result.

Although censored sites form a small portion of the net, these sites are paramount to the dispersion of alternative (at times opposing) ideologies, freedom of expression and growth of democracy. Furthermore, only through public pressure, creation of a code of conduct (1,2) for operating in censored environments and independent monitoring of corporate compliance with their public pledges can we shed light on this grim situation.

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Web Campaigns, Online Participation and Deliberative Democracy

There is already a growing narrative about the impact of the Internet on the 2008 Presidential election. For example, Wired argues that Sen. Barack Obama owes his recent Democratic nomination victory to the Internet. Noam Cohen picked up on this theme in the New York Times, writing that the themes of Obama’s campaign–“openness, transparency, and participation”–were “merged perfectly” with the Internet. Further, Cohen described Mr. Obama as the first real “wiki-candidate,” whose supporters generated video clips, created posters, built enthusiasm for the campaign, and even gently mocked him online. Most of the narrative in the press revolves around the Obama campaign, but it’s necessary to also highlight the use of the Internet by others, particularly the Ron Paul campaign, which used Facebook as their primary online organizing tool–as we discussed last month at the Institute of Politics. And it will be interesting to see how John McCain harnesses the Internet (or not). For one, he’s reached out actively to political bloggers, while Obama has not.

These anecdotes raise the question of the Internet’s impact not just on political campaigns, but also on deliberative democracy. Antje Gimmler notes that the Internet strengthens deliberative democracy in two ways. First, the Internet provides unrestricted and equal access to information. Second, it facilitates opportunities for interaction and participation. In terms of increased access to information, a recent Pew study found that nearly a quarter of Americans (24%) regularly learn about the presidential campaign from the Internet, almost double the number from a comparable point in the 2004 campaign (13%). However, the Pew study also found a growing generation gap regarding campaign news, with those under age 30 more likely to gather their campaign related news from the Internet than older Americans.

The Internet is also becoming an important platform for political participation through social networking and online video sites, such as Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube. Pew reported in January that nearly 10 percent of people under age 30 say that they have signed up as a “friend” of one of the candidates on a site. In the hard-fought battle in cyberspace between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, more than 800,000 peoplehave registered on Obama’s social networking website, making him the most popular politician on Facebook. Perhaps most importantly, Obama’s support in the virtual world has led to action in the real world, with more than 30,000 events organized to support his candidacy.

However, Jame Surowiecki cautions that the collective wisdom of the crowd in cyberspace might not produce the best outcome for deliberative democracy. Deliberation is essentially a procedure of open interaction aimed at achieving rationally motivated consensus through rational, tolerant, and civil interaction or debates. Cass Sunstein and many others have found that deliberative interaction on the Internet is problematic. They argue that polarized and extreme positions often dominate the online discursive space. Participants, especially young Internet users, often cannot detach themselves from their preferences, which results in a discourse of exclusion and persuasion. In the end, the ability of the Internet to improve deliberative politics and the openness of decision-making processes remain open questions.

Increasing the Role of Technology in the Prevention of Genocide

The advent of technology has forever changed our perception of the world and our approach to solving problems. As a true believer in the power of technology and computer science as positive forces for change, I‘m interested in analyzing and developing technological tools that have global effects. One area that offers promise is the application of technological tools to prevent genocide. Recently, McGill University held a Global Conference on the Prevention of Genocide with the goal to better understand how to prevent this man-made catastrophe. The chair of the conference, Dr. Payam Akhavan, stated that, “While genocide cannot be predicted with mathematical exactitude, there are indicia, warning signs, that foretell its possibility, and which provide an opportunity to arrest hate-mongering and violence before it escalates into an all-consuming cataclysm.” The warning signs can be categorized into the following stages:

    • Invention of the enemy
    • Stereotyping/antagonizing a specific ethnic or religious group
    • Disenfranchisement

Unfortunately, history has shown that state-sponsored propaganda, in the absence of other media sources, is often a precursor to genocide. It is therefore paramount that venues for open internal discussion be made available. However, recent studies done by the ONI indicate that unfortunately Internet filtering is not uncommon, and is becoming more prevalent among repressive regimes. Thus, the first preventive measure might be to create online platforms that allow opposing ideologies to engage in debate peacefully. These digital platforms should be free of (external) tampering. Although tools such as TOR, Psiphon, Freenet and the Six/Four system are currently used for viewing filtered sites, publishing anonymously and communicating securely (without fear of prosecution), cryptographic tools that allow secure forums need further development–in particular tools that allow anonymous contributions from participants. 

Blogs and other tools can also raise awareness of what is happening inside a country both domestically and internationally, as we’ve seen in Kenya and Burma. Furthermore, in the case of ongoing crises (such as the Darfur Catastrophe), tools such as Google Earth can be used as anti-genocide
to raise awareness and hopefully shock the international community into action. One thing seems certain: advanced technological tools (web applications, cryptographic protocols, etc.) are readily available and can be used to prevent future atrocities. On June 12, a panel of experts will meet at the UN headquarters in New York to discuss preventive measures. I certainly hope that advancing related tech tools is also discussed.

Anti-Semitism in the Iranian Blogosphere

Hamid Tehrani, the Iran editor for Global Voices, has an interesting new article on the History News Network site about anti-Semitism in the Iranian blogosphere: “Iranian anti-Semitic Bloggers: From Mickey Mouse’s Plot to Gaddafi’s Jewishness.” Hamid reviewed some 30 anti-Semitic blogs, which he sees as a subset of Islamist bloggers, that can be further sub-divided between nationalists and Islamists. Hamid also believes that these blogs have a pretty small readership. Further, he finds they all blog anonymously, are pro-government and emerged after Ahmadinejad became President.

Hamid concludes:

Anti-Semitic blogs are a small part of the Iranian blogosphere and can be considered a sub-group of Islamist blogs. These blogs show that anti-Semitism is a dynamic movement in Iran, able to combine traditional/religious, national and Western elements.

The conspiracy theories these blogs peddle reflect the trademark rhetoric associated with Ahmadinejad: denial of the Holocaust, suspicions about 9/11, claims that inflation is a Jewish plot. All of these claims have a common element: the denial of facts.

All Iranian statesmen do not support Ahmadinejad’s attitude. Former President Khatami calls the Holocaust a reality. Many Iranian religious leaders, despite their strong anti-Israel rhetoric, seldom sound anti-Semitic.

In our own Iranian blogosphere research we did not specifically look for anti-Semitism, but we noted that some blocked blogs reviewed by the OpenNet Initiative that were outside of the Secular/Expatriate cluster (the most frequently blocked cluster), appeared to be blocked because of anti-Semitic remarks.

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