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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

Tracking Cyber Warriors

This morning’s Washington Post highlights the great work of the OpenNet Initiative in tracking the recent cyber war between Russia and Georgia. As we highlighted here earlier, DDoS attacks shut down or limited access to a number of Georgian government sites. In response to the Russian cyber attacks, Georgia also blocked access to Russian news sites within Georgia.

The debate on how to deal with these attacks and their actual importance is far from over. As Berkman’s Jonathan Zittrain says, “If a state brings down the Internet intentionally, another state could very well consider that a hostile act.” Although the Post article notes that the UN and other bodies are yet to figure out if a cyber attack constitutes an act of war.

The difference in the Russian-Georgian example, though, is that these were the first online battles to be matched by military confrontation in the real world. However, as Ethan Zuckerman and Jose Nazario have noted, these recent attacks may not necessarily rise to the level of a full on ‘cyber war;’ language that grabs headlines and allows tech journalists to play war reporter. And as Jose Nazario argues, some of these type of attacks are really just plain juvenile–digitally spray painting Soviet symbols on Lithuanian websites, for example. Still, Nazario predicts that the networks that helped carry out this cyber attack will play an expanded role in future political clashes. And it’s potentially a low cost way to defeat your opponents without really fighting. As Sun Tzu wrote, “…attaining one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the pinnacle of excellence. Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.”

Posted in Ideas, Russia. Comments Off on Tracking Cyber Warriors

Journalists at Convention Still Don’t Know What to Make of Bloggers

I had to chuckle at David Carr’s article about bloggers “lurking around every turn” at the Democratic convention. In a somewhat annoyed tone he writes:

Each time there was a reporting stop — at a small McCain counterdemonstration, a Hillary counterdemonstration, or in the bloggers’ tent — the people formerly known as the audience refused to behave like one. They brandished video cams, iPhones and recorders, doing their own documentation of what was under way.

He continues that every time he stops to speak to someone the bloggers and citizen journalists with recording devices seize on him and his every conversation: “When [I] stopped in the Big Tent and talked to Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, a blogger nearby perked his ears up from three feet away and started live blogging the conversation.”

And Mr. Newmark’s words indeed sound pretty bloggable:

“I think when you think about the network democracy or participatory democracy thing, this is a turning point in American history,” Mr. Newmark said, “potentially realizing the vision of the founders of this country because they and we wanted a more direct form of democracy. And with the Internet, we can start moving a little bit more in that direction.”

An unprecedented number of bloggers have been given credentials to the convention; some granted traditional journalistic credentials with limited access, while others have gained a coveted “state blogger credential” which allows unlimited floor access and were given out to leading political bloggers from each of the fifty states. Not to be outdone, the Republicans have reportedly already given out credentials to 200 bloggers for their upcoming convention.

This all strikes me as for the better, and will hopefully lead to some more substantive discussions about policy instead of just personalities, in what have become overly-scripted and staid political conventions. However, a comment by Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos in a New York Times article about the “year of the political blogger” worries me. Bloggers may have already begun to adopt bad journalistic habits like talking to each other more than conducting interviews or sniffing out stories that don’t make it into the traditional media. Markos prefers to stay in the bloggers tent, adding, “I have no interest in going to the convention hall and chances are I will not,” he said. “There’s nothing happening in the convention hall that would justify braving the long security lines and crowds.”

Posted in blogging, Citizen Journalism, Elections. Comments Off on Journalists at Convention Still Don’t Know What to Make of Bloggers

India Bans SMS Services in Kashmir

The Indian Supreme Court has ignored the Jammu and Kashmir High Court’s decision to lift the state-wide ban on SMS (Short Message Service, or texting) services, MSN News India reported. The ban was imposed on August 3rd after the state blamed SMS messages for “spread(ing) rumors during protests” and “whipping up communal tensions.” Ultimately, the ban was extended after the Indian government declared that “the curbs imposed on SMS services were necessary to prevent unscrupulous elements from misusing them.”

The state’s ban only reaffirms the powerful role SMS messaging has played in the region, especially in allowing protestors to mobilize and share political updates. Activists in Pakistan used SMS messaging to communicate and organize protests when former President Musharraf declared martial law in November 2007; and it has been used on campuses across India to mobilize student demonstrations, most recently at Delhi University. Now, despite the “indefinite curfew” that was imposed on the valley on Sunday, thousands have marched across Kashmir, in opposition to India’s military occupation and its most recent acts of aggression in the region.

From Sri Nagar, the BBC’s Altaf Hussain wrote, “The strength of the protests is an embarrassment for the Indian authorities.” Blogger KashmirViews, who was an eyewitness to the march in Eidgah, supplemented Hussain’s claim:

“There were people from all parts of Valley, enveloping everything under the sun. Political, social, economic and religious organizations. Lawyers, doctors, cops in civvies, white collar employees, blue-collar employees. Children’s gangs, Women’s guild, cart pushers, the destitute and even the differently able (Handicapped) were present.”

With the overwhelming opposition it faces, India’s decision to ban SMS messaging – as well as two local TV stations – is not entirely surprising. In a country, and region, where cell phones are far more accessible than the internet, SMS messaging has become a critical device for mobilizing people. Also, the state’s explanation for the ban – to restrict the circulation of “rumors” by “unscrupulous elements” – seems dubious. Given India’s rapidly growing tech sector and increasingly tech savvy population, the government would be unable to limit the use of digital networked technologies within its own country without generating dissent among the country’s growing middle class. Sadly, India has disregarded such a policy in Kashmir.

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New Book Investigates the Role of Bloggers in Authoritarian Regimes

Young bloggers are more worried about shopping, sex and music than politics, according to a recent article by Anthony Loewenstein. Loewenstein still finds that there is a unique power to blogging, though, when he writes:

Across the world, young generations are challenging tired state media by writing online about politics, sex, drugs, relationships, religion, popular culture and especially Angelina Jolie. From Egyptian activists opposed to female circumcision to outspoken, pro-Western women in Cuba, people are being empowered by new technology to create spaces away from the prying eyes of meddling authorities.

Lowenstein’s views are based on interviews he did with bloggers, a bit different than our more empirical approach, but still interesting findings, and more in line with a journalistic analysis anyway. It seems that bloggers around the world are arguing more for incremental reform than revolution. Lowenstein quotes an Iranian blogger in Tehran, “Most of the people (I know are) in favour of reform, not revolution, because people are too tired to experience another revolution.” A common refrain he heard from bloggers in other countries he visited, including Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China.

Yet, he still found an increase in awareness about political rights because of the Internet and satellite TV in the countries he visited.

He also talks about censorship in China, noting as we did that many Chinese are not as sensitive as those in the West regarding censorship. And in China, he also quotes a young Internet user who says she and her friends prefer to use the Internet for “entertainment, sharing information, earning money and other fun.”

Loewenstein concludes, however, that these types of activities are still revolutionary:

Letting people speak and write for themselves without a Western lens is one of the triumphs of blogging. The culture of blogging is unlike that of any previous social movement. Disjointed and disorganised, its aims are deliberately vague. While many want the right to be critical in the media, others simply crave the ability to date and listen to subversive music. That in itself is revolutionary for much of the world.

I’m looking forward to reading Loewenstein’s new book, The Blogging Revolution, which forms the basis of his article–but only after I finish John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s new book on digital natives, Born Digital, which has also just been released!

The Russian-Georgian Cyber War: Distributed Collaboration’s Ugly Side

The Kremlin may not be orchestrating the Cyber war against official Georgian Web sites, according to an article by Evgeny Morozov in Slate. Instead, it may be the result of distributed collaboration, with a nastier bent than we usually like to talk about. Evgeny also cautions that the West’s paranoia over Kremlin strength might lead many to underestimate the “great patriotic rage of many ordinary Russians” (it is worth mentioning that Evgeny says his geopolitical sympathies, to the extent that he has any, are with Moscow’s counterparts).

To test this theory, Evgeny conducted a fascinating little experiment to see if he, as a basic user, could join Russia’s cyber warfare on his own accord, without any coordination or requests from the Kremlin or Russian authorities. He found that it was actually quite easy to join in a distributed, cooperative effort to take down Georgian sites. Evgeny shows that with the help of Russian blogs and Web sites he was given a “convenient list of targets” and a software utility called DoSHTTP, which users were encouraged to download and use to launch denial of service attacks from their own computer. According to Evgeny, “In less than an hour, I had become an Internet soldier. I didn’t receive any calls from Kremlin operatives; nor did I have to buy a Web server or modify my computer in any significant way. If what I was doing was cyberwarfare, I have some concerns about the number of child soldiers who may just find it too fun and accessible to resist.”

We tend to focus more on the positive sides of distributed collaboration here at the Berkman Center. In fact, the ability of distributed groups of Internet users to contribute to large scale research projects by either contributing their time as volunteers or spare capacity on their computers is indeed one of the more unique and important characteristics of human interaction on the Internet. As Yochai Benkler has pointed out in his book and numerous articles, ubiquitous computer networks combined with cheaper, faster Internet connections means that complex tasks that once took PhDs or graduates students months or even years of dedicated effort, can now be completed by thousands of volunteers in minimal time, and at a fraction of the cost–Wikipedia being one of the more famous examples.

However, as Evgeny shows, and as Berkman Fellow Gene Koo has highlighted related to the work of trolls in the US election campaign, there are spoilers on the net that can cause as much mischief and damage as others do good. That said, there still needs to be some level of coordination and organization for sites like Wikipedia or the one that Evgeny visited to get set up and run–and I don’t think it is clear if that was simply individuals acting on their own, or if there was some level of institutional support behind those sites. It also doesn’t answer the question of why the Cyber attacks took place immediately preceding the movement of Russian troops into South Ossetia earlier this month. In any case, it is an example of a possible downside of distributed collaboration, although I doubt one that outweighs the more positive examples spreading across the Internet.

Price of Monopoly and Democracy

Shrinking the digital divide, the gap between those people with effective access to information technology and those without, worldwide has been on the table of activists, NGOs and governments for years now, and the UN has devoted a global conference on this issue, the World Summit on the Information Society, with the goal to “bridge the so-called global digital divide separating rich countries from poor countries by spreading access to the Internet in the developing world.”(0) The UN states in the Millennium Development Goals Report of 2006 that by the end of 2004 the digital divide is still a grim reality at large. By 2004, merely 14% of the world’s population were using the internet with the following large digital divide apparent:

  • over half the population in developed regions had access to the internet,
  • 7% in developing regions, and
  • less than 1% in the fifty least developed countries.
  • broadcastSubscribers2006

    In 2008, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reports that only 3% of the Sub Saharan Africans are online. However there has been tremendous growth in technology with the hope that these developments will eventually benefit everyone. To believe that such eventual global reach will occur without planning or analyzing and addressing existing (political and infrastructural) issues, would be naively optimistic! Although decreasing the digital gap is desperately needed for social, political and economic development, merely improving access to Information is not sufficient in my opinion.

    Equitable access to communication for everyone should also mandate affordability. In 2007, Wired magazine reported that, “only about 3 percent of the world’s population has broadband, and prices vary wildly. In Japan, DSL or cable averages 6 cents per 100 Kbps … But in Kenya, that same hookup speed costs $86.11.” In this regard, the ITU notes that in Africa, “the scarcity of international Internet bandwidth and lack of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) drives up prices. Africa, the poorest region in the world, has the most expensive Internet prices. The average monthly Internet subscription is almost USD 50 in Africa, close to 70 per cent of average per capita income.”

    The APC (Association for Progressive Communications) lists lack of competition in developing telecommunication markets as the main cause of the high prices (1,2). In some African states, satellite internet rates of around $10-15000 per Mb per second per month have been reported while the actual cost incurred to the operator is around $2000. More recently, the development of fibre broadband networks connecting West, Southern, and Eastern Africa is very encouraging. It promises higher data transmit rates, faster transmission and hopefully cheaper prices. However, without competition for the states of companies that have monopolies in the African market, the prices will not be accessible to the majority of the public(3,4). This need for further competition to drive down the broadband prices isn’t unique to Africa. According to GlobalVoices, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, and Peru (in decreasing order) also suffer from high Internet access fees.
    So, the situation is prevalent in developing countries and any meaningful remedy will not happen over night. On the other hand, we can not afford to neglect discussing issues, existing shortcomings, and devise solutions as any meaningful improvement in democracy (or simply the living conditions of millions) will depend on hearing the voice of millions who may not (or simply can’t afford to) have access to the most connected network of Information. After all, as Yochai Benkler notes in The Wealth of Networks, “the networked information economy improves justice from the perspective of every single one of … theories of justice.”

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    Web 2.0 Tools Redesigning 21st Century Battlefield

    A new video documentary project called “In Their Boots” hit the web recently, highlighting stories of troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan – and their families. NPR reported that these live, weekly webcasts called “real stories,” which are followed by an interactive online discussion, aim to raise awareness and understanding about the dramatic impact of war. The “issues and analysis” segment of its webcasts offer solutions to soldiers, veterans, and their families on concerns such as “accessing veterans’ benefits, living with Post-Traumatic Stress, and grappling with the economic challenges of reintegrating into civilian society.”

    The host of the program and a veteran of the war in Iraq, Jan Bender, said that the purpose of the webcast was to show “the reality of a country being at war, and sometimes a reality that isn’t on the surface.” Such online programs not only create a forum for soldiers and their families to express, as Bender says, a “full spectrum of emotion,” but they also capture the realities of life in combat zones which have become too dangerous for journalists to explore. Often brutally honest depictions of the dramatic impacts of war, webcasts such as In Their Boots and military blogs, called “milblogs,” have presented a new, interesting challenge to officials seeking to control the message regarding US military policy, including the difficulty of separating personal opinion from official policy on the Web.

    As military blogs have become increasingly popular over the last few years – especially since snapshots of Iraqi prisoners being abused at Abu Ghraib were exposed online, and candid blog posts have been published by soldiers such as Colby Buzzell (also known as the “Blogfather” of military blogs and the author of “My War: Killing Time in Iraq”) – officials have become extra cautious of the content posted online by servicemen and women. Since then, the army released specific blogging guidelines and has shut down soldiers’ blogs, while the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) began “blocking access ‘worldwide’ to YouTube, MySpace and 11 other popular Web sites on its computers and networks.” Although top military officials such as Lt. Gen Caldwell implored the armed services to let troops blog and post to YouTube earlier this year, soldiers continue to practice self-censorship.

    As the military continues to keep a watchful eye on milblogs, it reveals its desire to use web 2.0 in a top down, chain of command fashion; which is ineffective in the networked sphere where these tools are best utilized in peer-to-peer formats for learning and communicating among officers of a similar rank as well as between soldiers and citizens. Ultimately, Web 2.0 tools have significantly redesigned the 21st century battlefield, presenting new challenges to the military not only regarding its transparency, but its hierarchical structure.

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    Is Google Is Making Us Stupid? New Research Says Yes

    Following up on our earlier post on Nicholas Carr’s article in the Atlantic, which argued that search engines like Google, and the Internet in general, have changed the way that we read and think, reduced the amount of time we can focus on the written word, and in general made us stupid, comes a fascinating bit of research from James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago. At the Brittanica blog he shares the results of his research that looked at citations in scholarly science articles once journals go online. In the abstract he writes:

    …because [online journals] are used differently than print—scientists and scholars tend to search electronically and follow hyperlinks rather than browse or peruse—electronically available journals may portend an ironic change for science. Using a database of 34 million articles, their citations (1945 to 2005), and online availability (1998 to 2005), I show that as more journal issues came online, the articles referenced tended to be more recent, fewer journals and articles were cited, and more of those citations were to fewer journals and articles…Searching online is more efficient and following hyperlinks quickly puts researchers in touch with prevailing opinion, but this may accelerate consensus and narrow the range of findings and ideas built upon.

    On his blog, Carr concurs with the findings, “Search engines, after all, are popularity engines that concentrate attention rather than expanding it, and, as Evans notes, efficiency amplifies our native laziness.”

    But what about getting these articles outside of the academy? Evans’s article sits behind a wall that requires you to be a subscriber to access it, or to be part of a university that has an institutional subscription. I would argue that to increase knowledge and to broaden the gene pool of ideas out there, open access to scholarship is a much more critical issue–as John Palfrey, Berkman and others have fought for at Harvard. If only academics, or those wealthy enough to attend a university are able to access cutting edge research, how can those ideas have an impact beyond the ivory tower.

    Those observations aside, Evans’s findings beg consideration and contemplation. Thankfully, he isn’t totally despondent, concluding in his blog post, “…I hope (and I’m exploring this in my work) that changes in interfaces and even richer indexing in tandem with advances in natural language processing might improve our ability to retrieve, summarize, compare, and resuscitate forgotten ideas and findings, or ideas and findings not popularly accessed today, and bring them into conversation with the new.”

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    Tracking Foreign Policy, Politicians and News Sources with “Google Insights”

    Google Insights for Search is a great new tool (if not the most elegant name) that allows you to investigate the prevalence of search terms over time in Google. Although it was designed for advertisers, it has a ton of potential research purposes, which Hal Roberts and Ethan Zuckerman have already begun to think about. For example, since it allows you to look at world-wide searches, you can investigate the popularity of different social networking platforms in various countries, as Ethan tells us the folks at Pingdom have already done.

    One of the things I thought this might help us understand better is meme creation and tracking–in other words, when does a story emerge, go viral, and die. It also lets you compare the relative popularity of different news stories next to each other. For example, I wanted to see the importance of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and, for a pop culture reference, Paris Hilton. The results imply, sadly, that Googlers care a lot more about Paris Hilton than any leading foreign policy issue. Although in May 2004, we see a huge spike in searches for Iraq at the expense, it appears, of Ms. Hilton. The spike in Iraq searches coincides with the break of the Abu Ghraib abuse story.


    I also was interested in tracking searches for politicians, so put in Bush, Obama, McCain and, again, Paris Hilton (who you can tell gets a little bit of a bump recently due to the McCain campaign ad criticizing Obama.) There is a huge spike for Bush around the 2004 election, which is also the first time we see an uptick for Obama, likely due to his speech at the Democratic convention that year. Obama’s recent rise in searches is also quite significant.


    Finally, I wanted to compare newspapers to blogs, which was inspired by Hal’s post. However, I did it a bit differently than Hal, since I thought it might be more useful to compare specific media sources in the US. I chose two newspapers and three blogs/bloggers–the New York Times, Washington Post, Daily Kos, Huffington Post and Andrew Sullivan. In this analysis, it is clear that searches for online versions of newspapers blow bloggers out of the water. It is also apparent that bloggers and newspapers tend to attract extra eyeballs around similar news cycles–for example you’ll notice an uptick in coverage around US national elections in October/November 2004 and 2006.


    News Sources

    These are the type of ideas we also want to explore with Berkman’s MediaCloud project. By grabbing RSS feeds from hundreds of newspapers, blogs and email lists, time stamping each story and then tagging it with keywords, we’ll have a huge, searchable data set to start answering questions around meme tracking, agenda setting in mainstream media, and the impact of blogs and other online media in repressive regimes–among many other topics. Research this fall will likely be on the computer science side of the tool, but eventually we expect to have all the data freely available on the web so that any researcher can use it–just like Google has done with Insight (although even more data would be nice)!

    Posted in Ideas. 1 Comment »