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YouTube, Neda and the Revolution

YouTube appeared to play a major role in yesterday’s protests in Iran. After all, it was the the horrific YouTube video of Neda’s death that led to yesterday’s public mourning and protests, and it was also the platform where, more than anywhere else, we followed events throughout the day, including the defiant chants of protest into the night. They were sometimes loud, but also powerfully silent, and far more relevant than the under 140 character tweets (although there were many of those, as well). To be sure, yesterday’s public mourning of Neda and others who have been killed following the election was significant for a number of reasons, not least because Iranians turned out in large numbers even though they had been threatened, denied a permit to protest and then beaten and tear gassed when they showed up anyway – all while recording shaky images for the rest of us ( but also, I suspect, for each other). Hamid has a nice summary of the days events here, noting as many others did, that YouTube served as important proof of what the official media in Iran barely acknowledged – that significant numbers of Iranians turned out despite their threats and occasional violence to break up even small gatherings of citizens, including those trying to return to the scene of the crime.

This seems to me an important moment for citizen journalism, for we’d surely be even more clueless about what was happening in Iran if it wasn’t for YouTube, Twitter and the Internet more generally. Yesterday, I watched LA Times reporter Borzou Daragahi (who’s reporting on Iran from Beirut) say on the Newshour:

Well, we’re not exactly sure what happened here. But from one thing that we understand, not only in terms of eyewitness accounts, but YouTube video that I’ve seen, although there were some reports of clashes between the security forces and the mourners at Behesht-e Zahra, Tehran’s greatest and largest cemetery, there were also reports that they were getting along quite amicably, the mourners and the police, at some point. (my italics).

And the Lede, which had probably the best coverage throughout the day, relied heavily on video accounts shared from trusted sources. Seeing it seems, is key to believing.

It may still be that the Internet is more important in getting the news out about what is happening in Iran than organizing protesters inside the country, but I can’t help but wonder if by recording and sharing with others video proof of peaceful protests, despite the government threats and virtual silence on government controlled media, that this medium hasn’t helped galvanize the opposition to turn out again next week, and the week after that…and the week after that. While Susan Sontag wrote critically about the desensitizing effect of images of death and suffering in the Balkan wars, it seems that in Neda’s case, the opposite happened. Hers was an unnecessary and gruesome death that is not easy to watch, but perhaps because it was not scrubbed clean of its brutality for network news, but instead seen more often than not in all its powerful reality on YouTube, that Iranians were mobilized again to turn out against the government that killed her.

Posted in Iran. Comments Off on YouTube, Neda and the Revolution

Rhetoric of fear and telecom regulation in Russia

Rhetoric has been always a very powerful tool in promoting both policy and business agendas.  Russian telcos are now putting the old-good argument of security in promoting legislation that may allow them to succeed where their European and other colleagues have failed.

It seems that all around the world the telcos feel threatened by Voice over IP (VoIP) applications that run on their infrastructure and offer free of charge voice services.  Skype is the most commonly used example in this debate and the first one to absorb the fire.  Only recently, the European telecos tried to argue for unfair competition and asked to discriminate against the use of VoIP on their networks.  The European Commission took a firm stand against it arguing for principles of net-neutrality also on mobile networks.  In the US, AT&T, together with Apple, work against VoIP applications such as Skype and Google Voice to be used on the iPhones.  It will be now up to the FCC to take a stand on that issue.  Finally, the Israeli leading mobile service provider, Cellecom, is also seeking ways of limiting its users’ access to VoIP and some other technologies, under the slogan of “quality of service.”  The Israeli Ministry of Communication actually took a pro net neutrality stand, but the argument is still going on.

In Russia, however, the local industry decided to take a shortcut.  Instead of appealing to amorphous concepts such as “fairness” in competition or “quality of service” it turned to a more basic instinct – fear.  According to this article, Russian telcos have warned the Kremlin that:

“…the foreign-made VoIP software, easily downloaded from the Internet, is a threat to national security because it is resistant to eavesdropping by Russia’s intelligence agencies.”

To make things a bit spicier, they also added some nationalism.  The lobbying group was quoted saying that:

“The majority of brands operating in Russia, such as Skype and Icq, are of foreign origin and therefore we need to ensure the defense of national producers in this sector”

While some civil rights activists are concerned with the state openly talking about spying on people, others view it a bit more pragmatically.  In a recent hearing on the subject it was estimated that in about 3 years 40% of voice traffic in Russia will be VoIP.  This creates a significant incentive for the industry to cooperate on legislation that “will bring order” to the VoIP market.  Indeed such an effort is currently underway in Russia.

There was limited, but critical reaction on this topic in the mainstream Russian media and  even the blogsphere reacted only on the margines; some expressed concerns, others healthy sarcasm, and other scepticism about the substance of the story.   While it remains to be seen what regulation of VoIP will eventualy turn out to be, the variety of arguments for such regulations is certainly interesting to watch.

(a version of this post was originally published at ThinkMacro)

Posted in Russia. 2 Comments »

Soft Power: Loved, Feared and Online

In a July 29 “Tweet,” Jared Cohen of the U.S. State Department Policy Planning staff shared an article entitled “The Next Diplomatic Cable,” echoing recent statements of Secretary of State Clinton.  On May 18, in her Barnard College commencement speech, Clinton highlighted the diplomatic potential of social networking.  In a July 15 talk at the Council of Foreign Relations, Clinton stated that she is working at the State Department “to ensure that our government is using the most innovative technologies not only to speak and listen across borders, not only to keep technologies up and going, but to widen opportunities, especially for those who are too often left on the margins.”

But as press circulates about such “21st Century State-Craft,” “Digital Diplomacy,” and “Calls to Mouse,” digital intransigence at Main State exposes a contradictory reality.  Despite employee requests to use FireFox, a free product, State Department officials dubiously cited “expense questions” as a reason to remain with Internet Explorer.

The State Department is no doubt making technological inroads by partnering with groups such as Howcast to expand the digital landscape, providing advice on “How to Protest Without Violence,” and “How to Launch a Human Rights Blog.”  And greater online presence will surely increase diplomatic transparency.  However, there are still those who doubt the value and traction of “Facebook activism.”  On July 2 a Washington Post article argued that, despite normative windfalls from group solidarity, the facility of virtuous clicks online might erode real-world action. And if Soft Power assertion is an objective of “21st Century State-Craft,” one might ask, to what extent will official State Department status updates, Tweets, and micro-broadcasts substantively change the perceptions of today’s “digital natives?”  Harvard Kennedy School Professor Joseph Nye articulates “Values, Culture, Policies and Institutions” as the “primary currencies” of Soft Power, but how much does effective Soft Power rely on nonchalance, rather than aggressive posturing in the form of “Digg” links? As Egyptians supporting Arsenal, watching the English Premier League on Al Jazeera, or Somali citizens searching on Bollywood icons such as Shahrukh Khan might attest, truly effective Soft Power might rely on more passive, and less “In Your Screen” tactics.

While greater use of the Internet to devise “21st Century State-Craft” is undoubtedly important, blogs, Tweets, and Diggs won’t likely bring Foggy Bottom to the top of all Internet results.  Then again, perhaps coordinated on- and off-line diplomacy will mitigate the duality underscored by Machiavelli: “It would be best to be both loved and feared. But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved.” Perhaps “21st Century State-Craft” can, in 140 characters or less, craft a response.

Posted in Current Events. Comments Off on Soft Power: Loved, Feared and Online

Iranians Attempt to Mourn Neda; Mousavi Turned Back

News is starting to trickle out about the planned public mourning of Neda Agha-Soltan, whose death during election protests 40 days ago was broadcast around world on YouTube, turning her into an international symbol for the protest movement and the government’s heavy-handed response. Twitter’s #iranelection tag is the top trending topic. The LA Times reports that although Mousavi was turned back by security forces at Neda’s grave, that thousands, and possibly tens of thousands, of mourners have overwhelmed security forces who initially beat and arrested mourners at the cemetery. From the LA Times:

At first mourners were confronted by the security forces, who struck them with truncheons and arrested some in an attempt to bar them from gathering at Tehran’s Behesht Zahra cemetery, the country’s largest. The tree-lined streets leading to the graves of Agha-Soltan and others were blocked by riot police, the witness said.

The witness said the mourners also identified and violently confronted several plainclothes Basiji militiamen.

“Police, police, support us,” the mourners chanted. “God is great!”

But as the numbers mourners poured out of the nearby subway station and taxis along the highway, security forces retreated. One witness said police released detainees and began cooperating with the mourners, directing them to section 257 of the cemetery, where Agha-Soltan and others were buried. Mourners have been denied a permit to hold a ceremony in the city’s Grand Mossala mosque later today, but protesters have said they will try to come together near the site of the mosque anyway, and march along nearby streets if they are prevented from entering the site.

This recently tweeted video of mourners chanting, “Oh, Hossein! Mir-Hossein,” has been posted on YouTube.

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Obviously a developing story and lots of conflicting information out there; hopefully events will become more clear throughout the morning.

Update: Andrew Sullivan is tracking events and reliable Twitterers, and the NY Times Lede blog is also routinely updating Times coverage.

Posted in Iran. 1 Comment »

Web Publicizes Torture of Iranian Protesters

Opposition Web sites are reporting on the torture and even death of hundreds of Iranian protesters arrested after last month’s election. According to the New York Times (which called the following ‘abuse’ – apparently they don’t call anything torture anymore):

Some prisoners say they watched fellow detainees being beaten to
death by guards in overcrowded, stinking holding pens. Others say they had their fingernails ripped off or were forced to lick filthy toilet bowls.

The accounts of prison abuse in Iran’s postelection crackdown — relayed by relatives and on opposition Web sites — have set off growing outrage among Iranians, including some prominent conservatives. More bruised corpses have been returned to families in recent days, and some hospital officials have told human rights workers that they have seen evidence that well over 100 protesters have died since the vote.

Rooz online and have served as platforms where relatives have come forward to describe the return of bruised bodies by the government and testimonials by those held at the Kahrizak prison, which Global Voices reported yesterday was shut down by the government. The government also released 140 prisoners as another conciliatory gesture, but the revelations have the potential to foment further outrage in the opposition movement, as well as within conservative circles since the son of a key adviser to conservative presidential candidate Mohsen Rezai was beaten to death in prison.

The Times relayed a number of postings from previously detained protesters that were posted online:

“We were all standing so close to each other that no one could move,” he wrote in a narrative posted online. “The plainclothes guards came into the room and broke all the light bulbs, and in the pitch dark started beating us, whoever they could.” By morning, at least four detainees were dead, he added.

In another account posted online, a former detainee describes being made to lie facedown on the floor of a police station bathroom, where an officer would step on his neck and force him to lick the toilet bowl as the officer cursed reformist politicians.

A woman described having her hair pulled as interrogators demanded that she confess to having sex with political figures. When she was finally released, she was forced — like many others — to sign a paper saying she had never been mistreated.

While the government has rejected the application of the opposition to publicly mourn the death of Neda that I wrote about yesterday, Mousavi apparently wants to go forward with it anyway, saying in response to the torture and death of protesters in detention:

They cannot turn this nation into a prison of 70 million people….The more people they arrest, the more widespread the movement will become.

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A Marathon, Not a Sprint In Iran

It has now been nearly seven weeks since the disputed election in Iran, and it seems clear that the opposition has settled in for a long, slow fight. This must be of serious concern for Ahmadinejad and his supporters. The opposition movement has found a major anniversary or milestone to commemorate roughly once a week since large scale protests were forcefully put down by the government. A little over a week ago it was Rafsanjani leading Friday prayers, before that the 10 year anniversary of student protests over the closing of reformist newspapers, and this week, the 40 day anniversary of the death of Neda Agah-Soltan, whose death was captured on video and shared around the world via YouTube. As the New York Times reports:

Mr. Moussavi and other opposition leaders have asked permission to hold a public mourning ceremony for the dead on Thursday. That day has great symbolic importance, because it is 40 days after the shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose death ignited widespread outrage in Iran and beyond.

Commemorating the 40th day after a person’s death is an important mourning ritual in Shiite Islam; similar anniversaries for dead protesters were essential in the demonstrations that led to the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

It would be surprised if both sides are not also priming for next week, when Ahmadinejad is expected to be formally inaugurated.

Posted in Iran. 2 Comments »

Obama’s YouTube Diplomacy Redux

Ben Smith at Politico has followed up on last week’s news that Obama’s Nowruz message to the Iranian people is one of the White House’s most popular YouTube videos. (Unfortunately for George Bush, we can’t count the clip of him serving as the target for a reporter’s loafers, which we found to be the second most popular video in the Arabic blogosphere, as an official White House video.) Smith quotes our own John Kelly who confirms the popularity of the online overture to the Iranian people:

Within a week, Obama’s Nowruz message (if you total several different versions of it – the official White House one was just one, others were posted to YouTube from different sources, with different subtitles,
etc.) was cited (linked to) by more Iranian bloggers than any other video from the entire year prior – which is a remarkably fast rise.

The timing of the video around Nowruz was also wise since any message directly before – and most certainly after – the election would have been cited by Iranian conservatives as meddling in Iranian politics. As Smith writes in his original post about the video’s popularity:

That’s a remarkable success for public diplomacy, and an end-run around state-controlled media.

You can learn more about the White House video stats here, as well as on TechPresident.

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The Cloud of War

As examined in “Orwell’s Google Search for Peace,” Google Internet search query data can provide useful insight. In observing the prevalence of proper nouns, such as electoral candidate names, linguistic variation is uncommon and need not be examined.  For example, interest in “Obama” around the world does not vary according to local language. Observing the online prevalence of nouns such as “war” and “peace,” linguistic nuance does help broaden the scope of the observation. Google Insights for Search allows for semantic nuance through the use of language, “+” or statements, and adding “-” negative queries to preclude similar, but unrelated, queries from slanting results.

Below, I focus on three Middle East geographies in particular, Iraq, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories, observing  the terms “war” and “peace” across three languages: Arabic, English, and Hebrew.   The “Fog of War” was once used to describe the level of ambiguity in situational awareness in battle.  Today, Google is allowing us to understand what should be known as the “Cloud of War” by observing conflict and reconciliation via online search interest.


"War" and "Peace" Arabic, English, and Hebrew Google Search Volume.

Iraqi Google Search Query Volume on Linguistic Variants of War & Peace.

Though search query data only goes back as far as 2004, and the initiation of the Iraq War came in March 2003, throughout the period of observation (from 2004-present) “war + מלחמה + الحرب” always outpaced “peace + שלום + سلام.” The largest spike in relative online traffic on linguistic variants of “war” came in October 2007.  A comparison with Google News volume during the same month indicates a corresponding expansion of press coverage.


Israel Google Search Query Volume on Linguistic Variants of War & Peace.

Israel Google Search Query Volume on Linguistic Variants of War & Peace.*

In Israel, despite a history of fairly evenly distributed Internet search queries on Arabic, English, and Hebrew versions of “war” and “peace,” there is a spike in search on war terms coinciding with the Israeli January 3-18, 2009 invasion of Gaza. Israeli Google search on war reached its peak between January 4-10, 2009. What is noteworthy, however, is that Israeli queries on “war” subsided, and by the week of January 25-31 –only seven days after the January 18, 2009 troop withdrawal from Gaza– they were again commensurate with “peace” queries. What appears to be a blip in Israeli Internet focus is not quite so unpronounced in the Palestinian Territories.


Palestinian Google Search Query Data on Linguistic Variants of "War" and "Peace."

Palestinian Google Search Query Data on Linguistic Variants of War and Peace.

In the Palestinian Territories, Google search query traffic spiked on variants of the term “war” corresponding with the Israeli invasion of Gaza. Despite a history –since 2006– of commensurate “war” and “peace” search volume, the January 3-18, 2009 events had a lingering effect online.  Whereas Israeli query volume on “war” fell to levels of “peace” by January 25, Palestinian query volume on “war” failed to fully subside until June 23.

What reconciliation, online, had taken one week in Israel had taken six-months in the Palestinian Territories. As one additional data point for understanding mutual grievances across conflict zones, the “Cloud of War” is useful.

*Though Israel chart lists specific categories, “All Categories” selection was held constant across comparisons.

Perceptions of the US Improve

Pew has released an updated poll on global attitudes towards the US, which finds that the election of President Obama has improved the overall opinion of the world towards the US since the Bush years, in particular in Western Europe. Perhaps most interesting, Kenyans like the US more than we like ourselves, which was actually even more true under Bush than it is today – in 2007 we gave ourselves only an 80% approval rating while the Kenyans viewed us favorably 87% of the time.


While there is a lot of interesting data in the report, the major problem I have with polls on perceptions of the US, is that it creates the impression that overseas publics spend a lot more more time thinking about the US than probably any of them do. For example, in our research into the Arabic blogosphere (see chart below), we found that the US is not a major topic of discussion among Arabic bloggers. Instead, they focus far more often on their own political leaders. Further, the war in Afghanistan, which the Pew report sites as a drag on US opinion, is barely discussed at all in the Arabic blogosphere, and neither is the war in Iraq.


It is also worth pointing out that Pew found decreasing levels of support for extremism in the Muslim world since earlier in the decade.


Posted in Ideas. Comments Off on Perceptions of the US Improve

Orwell’s Google Search for Peace

The Global Peace Index (GPI), developed by the Institute for Economics and Peace in consultation with the Economist Intelligence Unit, measures the relative peacefulness of nations. Using both internal and external data across 24 indicators, from level of domestic violence to military expenditure, the GPI has been endorsed by policymakers and academics, from Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter to Jeffrey Sachs.

Global Peace Index - Updated June 2, 2009
Global Peace Index – Updated June 2, 2009

The GPI measures the relative war and peace of nations. Internet search query data measures the extent to which people in given nations search for key terms, such as “war” and “peace.” War and Peace may be a Leo Tolstoy tome, but “War” and “Peace” online take on much more Orwellian form. While those nations deemed more “peaceful” in the GPI have a higher propensity to search for “war” on Google, less peaceful political states seem to more commonly seek online “peace.” The usual caveats apply, and conclusions drawn must consider the identity of the local Internet demographic, but the Orwellian dichotomy of War and Peace online is sufficiently provocative.

Online interest in “peace” is nationally greatest, as a proportion of domestic search volume, in Sub Saharan Africa. For example, Uganda, Lesotho, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe have the highest domestic proportion of Google search volume on the term “peace.” Related keyword terms to qualitatively contextualize ancillary interest in the term “peace” include related “peace sign,” “peace and love,” and “world peace.”

In contrast, online interest in “war” is greatest within Western culture. For example, Western powers Australia, United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Canada dominate in their domestic proportional Google search query volume on the term “war.” Related terms include “the war,” “world war,” and “civil war.” The term “Iraq war” does appear, but with 70 percent less volume than the Google query on “world war.”

GPI-determined "Peaceful" States Have Most Online Interest in War

States with a higher propensity to search on the term “war” ranked, on average, 58th out of the 144 nations tracked in the Global Peace Index. Though outliers such as the Philippines, Cambodia, and Lebanon did appear, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and Singapore –arguably four of the top-25 most peaceful nations on Earth– had the greatest domestic search volume on the term “war.”  Perhaps such fascination with war underscores a desire to preserve peace. Though we’re 25 years past 1984, wasn’t this the purview of George Orwell’s Ministry of Peace?

States with a higher propensity to search on the term “peace” ranked 85th, meaning that according to the GPI these states were less stable, and more war-prone. While states such as Canada appear in both lists, high search volume on the term “peace” also came from far more unstable places such as Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda. While “peace” could be the search query of aid workers –just as one of the top search queries in Afghanistan is for “AKO” or U.S. Army WebMail– in secluded locations such as Zimbabwe this hypothesis is more problematic.

Top Google Search Query Volume Compared with GPI Rank
Top Google Search Query Volume Compared with GPI Rank

Looking at Google query data beyond English, and across linguistic divides, can also yield very interesting conclusions. For example, by comparing War (war+guerra+Krieg+guerre+война+戦争+战争+الحرب) and Peace (peace+paz+Frieden +paix+мир+平和+和平+سلام ) one observes that Latin American nations of Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Colombia have high search volume on “guerra.” Whereas there is focus on war in Latin America, there is broad focus on peace across the former Soviet Union.  For example, the highest relative volume of search on peace comes from the Russian Federation, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Despite Orwellian contrasts in GPI classification and online action, data across cities shows greater signs of hope. Worldwide, “peace” has greatest proportional volume in Washington, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto, Atlanta, San Francisco, Sydney, and London. While perhaps broad online interest in “war” permeates Western society, an online demos from regions with significant political and economic influence point to an online desire for “peace.” Perhaps the search queries of tomorrow won’t be in Newspeak afterall.