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Facebook Diplomacy: How Governments are Exploiting the Internet

Our friend Evgeny Morozov has a great new piece in Newsweek exploring how democratic governments and dictatorial regimes alike are successfully leveraging the Internet. He cites a number of examples we’ve brought to light on this blog, including Iranian Basiji bloggers and their location on our new Iranian blogosphere map, Israel-directed bloggers during the war in Gaza, and public diplomacy 2.0 in the US. He cites our own John Kelly on Iran’s efforts, writing, “John Kelly, an expert in the Iranian blogosphere at Harvard’s Berkman Center, has found that in the last year, the proportion of religious sites among the top 5,000 most-linked Iranian blogs has grown from 16 percent to 31 percent.”

The Kremlin of course is no stranger to the benefits of the Web either. While it is surprising to many that the Kremlin doesn’t block the Internet at all, Evgeny thinks this might be because they have had better luck spinning it. He writes:

The Kremlin uses a private firm, New Media Stars, founded by Konstantyn Rykov, a 29-year-old Duma deputy. Rykov’s new media empire includes online news sites, a site for supporters of Vladimir Putin (—”For Putin!”), online games and an Internet TV channel with a pro-Kremlin bent. Navigating these mazes of propaganda and trying to plant effective pro-American messages would be difficult even for a Web-savvy State Department.

The article also sheds light on China’s ’50 cent party,’ or the “loose networks of ordinary Netizens to promote government ideology by identifying and countering dissenting opinions on the Web.” A sort of Red Guard for the Internet.

This mobilization of ordinary citizens to push government propaganda may be the most successful tactic for governments on the Internet, instead of public relations campaigns like the Bush administration’s failed efforts to ‘rebrand’ the US in the Middle East, or the Kremin hiring of a web-savvy PR firm to promote its agenda. Further, as Evgeny pointed out during Russia’s war with Georgia last summer, the government may not need to push that hard to get Netizens to act on their behalf, especially when public opinion and traditional media are behind the government. My analysis of our data on the Russian blogosphere during that time showed that the majority of Russian language bloggers were also supportive of the government and highly critical of Georgia, especially President Saakashvili. However, examples like this may say more about the ‘rally around the flag’ effect, than anything inherent about Internet communication during war.

Posted in China, Iran, Russia. Comments Off on Facebook Diplomacy: How Governments are Exploiting the Internet

Berkman Releases New ‘Herdict’ Filtering Web Site

Building on the OpenNet Initiative’s (ONI’s) cutting-edge research into global Internet filtering, Berkman is pleased to announce the launch of the Herdict Web site and Firefox add-on. As we were able to show earlier this week on this blog, crowd sourcing of filtering research can be a powerful new tool for understanding what is being blocked in places like Iran, China and elsewhere. However, to be successful, a large community needs to support this initiative, so please check out the video below and Web site to see how it works. This initiative is the brain child of Berkman co-founder and co-Faculty Director Jonathan Zittrain, who stars (sort of) in the video:

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

And from the official announcement:

Herdict is a portmanteau of ‘herd’ and ‘verdict.’ Using Herdict Web, anyone anywhere can report websites as accessible or inaccessible. Herdict Web aggregates reports in real time, permitting participants to see if inaccessibility is a shared problem, giving them a better sense of potential reasons for why a site is inaccessible. Trends can be viewed over time, by site and by country.

So go to the Web site, try it out for yourself and help spread the word!

A Conversation With Pippa Norris on ‘Cosmopolitan Communications’

Is cultural diversity at risk because of the Internet? No, according to Pippa Norris, who shared results from her research and upcoming book today at the Berkman Center. The starting point for this concern about cultural hegemony is rooted in the long-running debate around globalization. Critics like Ben Barber worry about the ‘McDonalds-ization’ and ‘Coca-Colonization’ of foreign cultures by the US. You could also add Naomi Klein’s widely cited No Logo. For the critics, globalization is a major threat to local cultures and languages.

Cultural goods, including traditional published works, TV, and new media are washing across borders. Pippa showed a graph that demonstrates that the US has the dominate position in audio-visual trade, and America has also expanded how many cultural products it has produced over time. This dominance doesn’t even include the informal cultural market, the pirated copying and distribution of movies, which is quite significant, and would probably magnify US cultural dominance by several orders of magnitude.

There are four theories according to Pippa that attempt to explain the impact of transnational information flows, and the dominance of US cultural production. First, it can lead to ‘convergence’ around western values and culture, putting smaller countries and their cultures under threat. In her book Pippa looks at the case of Bhutan, which until 1999 did not have the Internet or TV, which many in Bhutan blamed for increased violence among children. Another theory argues that increased information flows and cultural production that is dominated by the US will lead to increased polarization–other cultures will simply reject western cultural values. Third, a ‘hybrid culture’ may emerge, where cultures mix the best of the existing culture with that from the outside. And fourth is Pippa’s view, which she calls the the firewall model. There are a number of firewalls that prevent or inhibit cultural dominance by the west. These barriers include trade integration (or lack there of), existing internal barriers to communication including cost and the digital divide, as well as a county’s openness to learning and ability to integrate foreign cultures.

Pippa also discussed her Cosmopolitanism Index. At the very bottom are Burma, Rwanda, Burundi and Iran. At the very top Luxembourg, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and the United States. So what does this mean for Trust in Outsiders? The Cosmo Index shows that parochial societies have the least trust of outsiders, and that even within those parochial countries, the more access you have to media the more likely you are to trust outsiders. One of the least trusting of outsiders is China. Those that are most trusting include Norway, Sweden and the US.

Pippa concludes that increased access to news media is positively associated with increased trust of outsiders, and also limits nationalism. This sounds obvious, but it blows a big hole in Putnam’s theory that TV and the Internet are destroying civic trust. Her policy conclusion is that globalization of news media is much less of a threat to national diversity than many of the pessimists would have us believe. More details are on her website.

Posted in Ideas. Comments Off on A Conversation With Pippa Norris on ‘Cosmopolitan Communications’

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


A recent Economist article takes you cyber-evangelists out there to task, arguing that young people’s use of social media to get Obama elected was nice, but it masks the real use of social media by youth, which they label ‘cyber-hedonism.’ The Economist asks:

…as young surfers are exposed to facts, sights, sounds and a range of interlocutors that are far beyond their parents’ ken, how will they use that access? Will they try to change the world, or simply settle for enjoying themselves?

Their answer: enjoying themselves.

Hence the minting of another ‘cyber’ hyphenated word to explain that (gasp!) teenagers use the Internet to flirt, meet people and look at pornography. It seems to me the pendulum that was initially too far on the side of cyber-optimists has now swung too far in the other direction. Like anything, the reality of how youth use the Internet is somewhere in the middle of extreme media viewpoints like this one. We have far too many examples of young people using the Internet for positive social change to say that it’s all hedonism. However, the Economist may be on to something when it writes:

In authoritarian countries with rising living standards—such as Russia and China, until recently—official tolerance of cyber-hedonism has been a sort of Faustian pact offered by the authorities: we will let you enjoy yourselves, in new and unconventional ways, if you keep off politics. But now that economies have turned sour, will the young go on keeping their side of that bargain?

Doubtful, if recent protests in Russia are any indication.

Posted in Ideas, Organizing. Comments Off on Cyber-Hedonism?

Egyptian Dissident Suddenly Released From Prison

Against a backdrop of increased repression of bloggers and political speech in Egypt, Ayman Nour, a political rival to Hosni Mubarak, has been released from prison in what most see as a purely political move. Nour was arrested years ago on weak charges after running against Mubarak in the 2005 election. Marc Lynch writes that this his detention was for many democracy activists “the single most potent symbol of Mubarak’s refusal of American pressures on democracy issues.”

Observers tell us not to expect a ‘Cairo Spring’ any time soon, though. The move was likely an attempt to buy good will with the new US administration and Democratic Congress, which was increasingly critical of Nour’s detention. As we wrote here earlier, Nour’s detention was raised as key issue for democracy scholar and new NSC staffer Michael McFaul. Blake Hounshell at Passport reminds us as well that Secretary of State Clinton will arrive soon in Cairo for an official visit, and that Nour’s release could also ease pressures to limit Egypt’s annual military aid package, which will come up again for debate this spring. And as Marc Lynch concludes:

[Nour’s] detention was never the only or even the most significant aspect of the regime’s crackdown on political opposition, which included the arrest of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members, heavy pressures on the press and the judiciary, and much more…His release does not come close to reversing the authoritarian trends in Egypt. I hope that this does not become an excuse to begin ignoring democratic reform, human rights and public freedoms issues in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.

Posted in Middle East. Comments Off on Egyptian Dissident Suddenly Released From Prison

The “Freedom to Scream” in Egypt

I’ve been digging into our data on the Arabic language blogosphere lately, so I was drawn immediately to Michael Slackman’s great piece in the Times today on blogging in Egypt. He writes that critics of the government are relatively free to complain about the government and even the security services in Egypt, but that taking any steps towards real world protest will quickly get you into hot water. As Egyptian writer Fahmy Howeidy says in the article, “I call it the freedom to scream. You can say what you want, but you cannot act.”

However, bloggers appear to be treated more harshly for their writing when compared to newspaper reporters. As the Times piece states, “For some reason, as yet unexplained, blogging seems to cross the line from speaking to acting.” This may in part due to self-censorship at newspapers, who know which lines can and cannot be crossed. Slackman writes that criticism of the president, for example, is something newspapers treat carefully while bloggers can attack Mubarak “head-on.”

Many Egyptian bloggers have also been jailed for their writing; over 100 bloggers are facing criminal charges according to Gamal Eid of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information in Cairo. This includes Abdul Kareem Nabeel Suleiman, around whom there is a large online movement pressing for his freedom that was started by Esra’a Al Shafei.

It may also be that the large online presence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is illegal in Egypt and whose members, including bloggers, are often arrested and tried before criminal courts, also explains why bloggers are singled out by the government for speech that is otherwise allowed. According to our research, Egypt is a a major part of the Arabic language blogosphere, and we are planning to write a piece exclusively on data around Egypt after our overview case study on the trans-national Arabic blogosphere is completed. Not surprising, the Muslim Brotherhood is a distinct and large group within the Egyptian blogoshere, where we’ve seen they often talk about the arrest of bloggers within their network, freedom of speech and the right to criticize the government. More often, it seems, than the establishment of Islamic law in Egypt. Check back here for more on the Arabic blogsphere, the countries that dominate it, and the media and linking preferences of bloggers who write in Arabic.

Internet censorship arrives in Italy

In an effort to regulate the Internet, as part of a package of laws to safeguard national security, the Italian Government has recently proposed an amendment which in practice – if approved – would oblige all Italian ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to block a site (be this a website, a blog or a social media site such as Facebook or Youtube) where material has been posted which is believed to defend or instigate a crime.

This amendment does not talk about merely deleting the material which is believed to be criminal/illegal but about filtering/blocking/blacking out/preventing access to the entire website if the manager of the site did not take down such material. For example, if Facebook did not shut down groups such as the ones which have recently come to the spotlight for praising Mafia bosses, Italian ISPs would be in fact obliged to block access to the whole of Facebook, or be fined (from 50,000 to 250,000 Euros).

The decision of whether such material is in fact illegal would not go to the Courts of Law but would be taken directly by the Minister of the Interior, with no opportunity for trial in front of Magistrates. The amendment has already been approved by the Senate and is waiting to be discussed at the Chamber of Deputies.

Commentators from blogger Beppe Grillo to Italian politician Antonio di Pietro have voiced their protests against this amendment which – if it becomes law – would in fact curtail freedom of expression — and potentially allow the shutting down of thousands of voices on the Web. According to di Pietro [English version here] the amendment is unconstitutioal and anti-democratic thereby putting Italy in the same situation of countries such as China and Burma where Internet filtering is widespread. In his blog Beppe Grillo reports an interview with Senator D’Alia [English version here] where the Senator explains how the amendment would in fact work.

A group has been created on Facebook against this amendment – where materials such as editorials and comments can be found – for more information see also:

[Cross-posted from Corinna di Gennaro’s blog]

Mapping Change in the Iranian Blogosphere

Iran Blogoshpere 2009
Iranian Blogosphere 2009

Iran Blogoshpere 2008
Iranian Blogosphere 2008

By John Kelly and Bruce Etling

A number of recent international anecdotes indicate increased online activism by governments. A perfect example of this ’state-engagement’ in cyberspace is found in Hamid Tehrani’s recent post about the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ plan to recruit 10,000 Basij bloggers. This may help explain some changes we’ve seen in the Iranian blogosphere, and is a good opportunity to share an updated Iranian blogosphere map created by John Kelly at Morningside Analytics, Berkman’s partner on our foreign language blog studies.

Above is a current map of the Iranian blogosphere as of February 2009, as well as a map from April 2008, which we released last year as part of our paper on the Iranian blogosphere. As we noted in that paper, there are four distinct poles in this social network map: 1) Secular/Reformist, 2) Conservative/Religious, 3) Persian Poetry and Literature, and 4) Mixed Networks. We are just starting to analyze the evolution of the Iranian blogosphere in this last year, and so cannot say with certainty what the changes represent, but we have a couple educated guesses.

First, it is worth mentioning that there are more blogs plotted on the 2009 map, which partly accounts for it looking more ‘crowded’ than the earlier map. However, you’ll see that the overall structure found last year remains recognizable, but that the conservative/religious pole (bottom right corner of the map) has expanded. In the past, this pole consisted of three sub-clusters of bloggers we labeled as ‘conservative politics,’ ‘twelver,’ and ‘religious youth.’ All of these clusters have grown, and the religious youth cluster appears to have diversified. Most strikingly however, the ‘twelver’ cluster, which we are tentatively relabeling ‘CyberShia,’ has grown dramatically. It is possible that the organized Basij blog effort may account for some of this change, since these blogs are rooted in that part of the network.

But there is another intriguing possible explanation. The expanding CyberShia cluster may also reflect a growing online debate around Islamic law in Iran. Hassan Rezaei at the Max Plank Institute in Germany has been following this debate closely, and argues that the Internet may be shifting the power dynamics around Sharia debate in Iran. Hassan writes, “The more Iranian cyberspace grows, the more Sharia discourse becomes public and intersubjective and reaches out to the broader world. The emergent Iranian right-based readings of Sharia in cyberspace contain new promises and aspirations, not only for the Iranian people, but also for the entire Muslim world and even for the world community.” Babak Rahimi has also written persuasively about cyberdissent in Iran, and has argued that, “…despite measures implemented by the Iranian regime to curtail the internet use, the rapidly growing and changing internet has provided creative ways for political dissidents to challenge state authority.”

Either or both of these forces, authoritarian manipulation and internal Shia ferment, may explain the changes we see in the network. Without more analysis we cannot say if these hypotheses about evolving online debate in Iran are correct. Check back with us for updates as we continue looking into this, and let us know what you think might account for these changes in the religious portion of the Iranian blogosphere.

Foggy Bottom Twitterers

I dug up this old Post piece by Collen Graffy, a deputy assistant secretary for public diplomacy at the State Department. Graffy is an avid Twitterer, and blends her tweet updates with her work as a professional diplomat. As I discussed earlier in my piece on James Glassman, public diplomacy is about to change in interesting ways in large part by employing Web 2.0 technologies and, it seems, the micro-blogging capacity of Twitter.

Graffy puts it this way:

One clear lesson that emerged from the Cold War was that winning hearts and minds required communicating in a way that “connected” with people on their terms, whether through film or jazz or jeans. To keep our public diplomacy relevant today, we have to reach out and connect with people on their terms, whether we use blogs or texts — or tweets.

What Graffy doesn’t elaborate on is how Web 2.0-friendly websites, which allow massive amounts of user input or definition, are qualitatively different from the old means of mass communication. Before, power brokers like the government or its competitor the press controlled and framed information for the public. Now that system is being re-balanced by bloggers, whose platforms are more open for continuous debate, revision and, yes, unfortunately a lot of flaming too. In a way, though, the blogosphere could be compared to a continuous Constitutional Convention.

I hope the effect this might have on public diplomacy is to encourage copious amounts of questions from foreign audiences, and substantive justifications from the official organs of the government. As citizens, this is what we owe each other in national debates. But, it strikes me, we owe it just as much to all those who may by adversely affected by our policies. If Twitter helps to bridge divides and open channels, however informal or introductory, let the twittering begin.

Posted in I&D Project, Ideas. Comments Off on Foggy Bottom Twitterers