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The Global Voices Footprint

Full image available (here)

Here’s another cool blog map from our friend and research partner John Kelly (with whom we’ve studied the Persian, Arabic and Russian blogospheres–but this map is part of his work at Morningside Analytics). The above image is a visualization of bloggers that link to Global Voices created for GV’s leadership, including friends Ivan Sigal, Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon.

I was interested to read that he thinks GV has an especially big role in online discourse in, and about, the Arab world. This was my intuition as well from the research we’ve done with John over the years, but I’ve never gotten around to asking him if that was actually the case. As John writes:

If we include English language blogs, there are at least three additional clusters that focus on the Arab world. It is fair to say that while GV has a hand in conversations around the globe, it plays an especially strong role connecting Arab discourse.

I am also interested to learn more about Russian bloggers linking to GV. It appears that this group is a bit less deeply enmeshed in the larger conversation, given their position at the bottom of the map. I’m also curious about the Echo Mosckvyi (Echo of Moscow) cluster. This is important because, as Ethan often says, citizen media punch above their weight when they are linked to, interviewed and their messages rebroadcast through traditional electronic media. The fact that there is a cluster of bloggers from an important outlet like Echo Moskvyi linking to GV may say a lot about their influence in Russia, which might not be so obvious at first glance. (A while back, David Remnick did a great New Yorker piece on the station if you want to learn more.)

While I’m excited to see this research on GV, I have to say I’m even more excited to see that John has finally started a blog, which promises to be a must read.

Posted in blogging, Citizen Journalism, Middle East, Russia. Comments Off on The Global Voices Footprint

China and Iran Lead Way in Detention of Journalists

According to a new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, China and Iran are the leading jailers of journalists in the world, with those two states accounting for more than a third of all journalists held behind bars today. Increased arrests by Iran following post-election protests helped make 2009 even worse than 2008, with 11 more arrested worldwide this year than last. In its annual census, the CPJ also found that freelancers (who often write online) are more likely to be jailed than their counterparts at traditional news outlets. Last year was the first time ever that online journalists were more likely to be jailed than traditional ones.

If Iran had thrown just one more journalist in jail on December 1, it would have tied China (which has 24 journalists behind bars), as the leading jailer, a title China has held for the last 11 years. As Joel Simon writes in Slate, as opposed to 10 years ago when most of those Chinese journalists wrote for traditional media outlets, today they are primarily online authors, and this impacts how they are handled by the government:

[O]nline journalists can’t be fired, blacklisted, or, in most cases, bought off precisely because most work independently. They don’t have employers who can be pressured. Chinese authorities have few options when it comes to reining in online critics—censor them, intimidate them, or throw them in jail. This explains why 18 of the 24 journalists imprisoned in China worked online.

In Iran, there’s a similar dynamic. The 23 reporters jailed there fall roughly into two camps—those who worked for print media outlets allied with opposition candidates and those who worked independently online.

Twitter: Eye of the Beholder

Late last week Foreign Policy‘s Evgeny Morozov authored a piece entitled “Twitter: Think Again” in which he highlights a series of Twitter statements such as “Authoritarian regimes should fear Twitter,” Twitter was the best source of news about the post-election protests in Iran,” and “Twitter is a great organizing tool.” While he certainly underscores salient deficiencies in micro-blogging, many of his points target the platform, rather than the provider.  As explained by Harvard researcher Tim Hwang, innovator behind the Web Ecology Project:

“I think Morozov’s basic insight is right — there were gems of information popping up on Twitter throughout the #iranelection explosion, though it was quickly swamped out by noise, spam, and disinformation. However, this is only true if people take a naive view of Twitter as “just” the data stream. Simple methods like filtering the list of users with the highest number of RT’s or @’s give a much higher signal-to-noise in using Twitter as an information source. So while this time around and for most users Twitter may have been a fuzzy news source at best, this is a problem of platform design and available tools, rather than something inherent to the structure of Twitter or its users.”

While Twitter offers search, Facebook offers Lexicon to track wall-post trends, and Google offers Insights for Search, the value such services provide will increasingly become reliant on the ability to sift through, and determine what is truly important. Understanding trends may require deeper probing than is currently available through public interfaces, but such probing will likely invoke privacy concerns, impeding the facility of such analysis.  This science of “Web Ecology” will become increasingly relevant. The Internet ecosystem is only growing in its complexity. Platforms that empower citizen journalists can also enable opportunistic marketers. Faster content syndication can help broaden access to information, but it also facilitates spam.  Relevance is being conflated with noise, and dissection is intensive. As Google economist Hal Varian stated last week:

“…The sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians.  And I’m not kidding.”

And as Morozov concludes, the Twitter is in the eye of the beholder, and in the understanding of Web Ecology:

“Figuring out how to sift through all the noise and actually get hold of signal can be a challenging task… But ultimately it pays off. A carefully maintained Twitter feed can deliver you information that is far more diverse and interesting than it was in the pre-Twitter day.”

The Moral Failure of Promoting Democracy

Marc Lynch, aka Abu Aardvark, has posed a depressing, if necessary question. If internet activism rarely topples an authoritarian regime (see, for example, the failure of Burma’s Saffron Revolution or Egypt’s April 6 Facebook strike, which I perhaps too cheerily praised back in Jan.), isn’t it morally problematic for Westerners to egg on activists they know will not succeed? For all our efforts to praise individual movement leaders, all we end up doing is putting those folks more squarely in the crosshairs of the secret police.

This is all in line with the appropriate caution that Evgeny Morozov outlined in his recent Boston Review piece (see also my thoughts on that piece here). Power is power, and in most of these countries, it continues to flow straight from the barrel of a gun, not any robust notion of democratic legitimacy. X Arab autocracy or Y East Asian dictatorship is likely to feel threatened from within by an independent blogging class and humiliated from without by the ridicule of Westernized democracies. When the Burmese junta could no longer take the heat, they simply downed the internet completely, convenient to do when all ISP’s are centrally licensed and controlled anyway.

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Whistleblowing, Bloggers Need Not Apply

A new Texas “shield” law, designed to protect journalists from being forced to yield up confidential sources, will reportedly not include bloggers. Of course, the line between the two is rapidly blurring as established journalists (Mark Ambinder, for example) begin quasi-blogging full-time. Yet, because those journalists are paid to blog, they may be included under the shield. Rather, this is a blow for citizen journalists, whose un-paid status somehow makes them ineligible to report on corruption or malfeasance. Disappointing, to say the least…

Posted in blogging, Citizen Journalism. Comments Off on Whistleblowing, Bloggers Need Not Apply

Moldovan Youth Organize Protests With Twitter

NetEffect has some preliminary thoughts on the role of Twitter in the on-going Moldovan youth protests. I think Morozov’s right to see them as a tech protest movement a la the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine (for full background, read Berkman’s study here). Both of these social movements were stoked, organized and facilitated by technology.

Twitter has not only helped rally protesters, though, it has also given us — as during the Mumbai bombings or the war in Gaza — a glimpse of reality on the ground. Visceral, real micro-news before the MSM or anyone else can write up a narrative of what’s happening. If you want to follow the action, start reading this tweet aggregator or search for tweets with the hashtag #pman.

One more point should be raised. Cell phones, Facebook and Twitter are morally neutral. Although they can be positive tools of peaceful protest and democratic engagement, they can’t prevent flashmobs become real mobs which break windows and destroy property, or worse. G-20 activists in London used Twitter to elude police and stage more coordinated (and sometimes violent) anti-globalization protests.

I don’t know if the Black Bloc anarchists who set the Strasbourg hotel on fire used Twitter to organize, but I wouldn’t be in the least surprised. It’s important not to forget this darker side of mass coordination. At least in a traditional social opposition movement, the supposed leader can call off violence. By contrast, a de-centralized twitter mob may not have enough allegiance or restraint to prevent destructive mayhem from breaking out.

Morozov: The Internet No Democratic Cure

I’ve had some time to pour over Evgeny Morozov’s thoughtful and sobering piece on cyber-utopianism. He’s dead on in diagnosing Western academics and activists with quixotic belief in the Internet’s power to democratize. The web is no panacea for totalitarianism, Morozov warns, and to fervently hope otherwise is hopeful blindness.

In at least two respects, I agree with Morozov. First, simply increasing access to the internet has not taken down the world’s notorious human rights offenders. “Logistics,” as Morozov points out, “are not the only determinant of civic engagement.” The web may have amplified the efforts of democracy activists (in the Ukraine, Burma or China), but this fact has not necessarily swelled the ranks of freedom fighters.

Connected to this is a corollary point, and one which I previously discussed in connection to a paper Morozov wrote for the Open Society Institute. The Web contains as much distraction as dissidence; it’s a hall of mirrors, often a projection of active fantasy, not political activism. In the BR piece, Morozov nails this:

Once they get online unsupervised, do we expect Chinese Internet users, many of them young, to rush to download the latest report from Amnesty International or read up on Falun Gong on Wikipedia? Or will they opt for The Sopranos or the newest James Bond flick? Why assume that they will suddenly demand more political rights, rather than the Friends or Sex in the City lifestyles they observe on the Internet?

Returning to my first point, Chinese and Burmese cyber-dissidence has simply been met with heavier repression and authoritarian backlash. In direct proportion to the expansion of internet access, Chinese users have seen the creation of a behemoth Great Firewall, monitoring all traffic, even Skype conversations, for subversive keywords. Those bloggers and netizens caught red-handed are shut down or arrested — in chilling 1984-esque slang, they are “harmonized.”

In Burma, by contrast, the Saffron Revolution of Buddhist monks was defeated by a complete take down of the internet and brutal military repression, despite well publicized and shocking photographs from citizen journalists and bloggers. Indeed, one of the motivating questions in our study of the Saffron Revolution was why democratic reform did not materialize in Burma despite the pro-democratic catalyst of internet activists.

However warranted Morozov’s cyber-pessimism may be, there is some room for counter-argument. Cyber-utopians may falsely subscribe to technological determinism, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility that the web’s influence on democratic reform is subtle and slow, almost Burkean in quality.

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Posted in blogging, China, Citizen Journalism, Developing world, Free Speech, I&D Project, Ideas, Iran, Middle East. Comments Off on Morozov: The Internet No Democratic Cure

Internet Wrecks Due Process

Increasingly, mistrials are being called because jurors are improperly accessing the internet to do research on a case. The biggest issue is the possibility that jurors would discover prejudicial evidence that had previously been excluded as inadmissible by a trial judge. A juror might discover for instance that John Doe has a prior record for x crime, biasing him toward conviction. The NYT sums it up:

They are required to reach a verdict based on only the facts the judge has decided are admissible, and they are not supposed to see evidence that has been excluded as prejudicial. But now, using their cellphones, they can look up the name of a defendant on the Web or examine an intersection using Google Maps, violating the legal system’s complex rules of evidence.

One can see how deeply ingrained our collective trust in Internet fact-gathering is. Trial by jury — and the highly complex rules of Anglo-American evidence law that accompany it — is itself a means of information seeking, but one which attempts to exclude unfair or unfairly obtained evidence (as determined by a judge).  By contrast, the sheer openness of the web is naturally more democratic, but also less judicious in what is available for consumption. When it comes to deciding on a high profile case, the potential for outside distortion is much higher, and amplified by an internet bursting with news and speculation. I think defense lawyers have a lot to worry about here.

The only positive thing I liked about this story was that jurors also used smart phones and the internet to look up complicated legal definitions. That kind of fact finding, into the complex procedural rules of our system, strikes me as healthy for an active citizenry. A google search for “legal terms” pulls up results a lot of sources more reputable than Wikipedia and tailored to American law. Why shouldn’t jurors find this?

Seattle P-I Goes Down (That Is, Digital)

I know this sounds like flip-flopping (see my last piece on post-paper journalism), but after 145 years the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has ceased to be a print newspaper today, and that’s not necessarily good news. From the NYT:

But The P-I, as it is called, will resemble a local Huffington Post more than a traditional newspaper, with a news staff of about 20 people rather than the 165 it had, and a site with mostly commentary, advice and links to other news sites, along with some original reporting.

Is it a race to the bottom? We can’t all be HuffPo. If the digital commentariat wants anything to analyze (or spin), someone must produce the reporting, vet stories and attempt to be neutral. Volunteer investigative reporting and citizen journalism are interesting phenomena, but I have some misgivings about how they compare in output and training to paid reporters. Does anyone know how much of that staff reduction is editorial?

It just seems as though the mechanisms by which news abroad and local have been professionally produced are being dismantled by a web medium against which there is no possible competition. I hate to sound like a scriptorium monk whining about the printing press, but maybe there is something to fear in the collapse of the MSM, however problematic and elliptical their coverage may be. They form a base layer of information in a world of information technology increasingly impenetrable and filled with subterfuge (witness HuffPo’s embarrassment over FoxNews hoax) and ignorant ideology (Barack Obama is a secret Muslim!).

One by one the giants fall. Readers, am I playing Chicken Little?

Posted in blogging, Citizen Journalism, Current Events, I&D Project, Ideas. Comments Off on Seattle P-I Goes Down (That Is, Digital)

Post-Paper Journalism

Everyone these days is penning jeremiads on the death of newspapers. See Michael Hirschorn’s piece in the Jan/Feb Atlantic, as well as my post about a NYT endowment. So it was refreshing to read blogger Clay Shirky speculate about a future to journalism that isn’t so dark. Money quote:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

Shirky doesn’t claim to know the path forward. Maybe it’s in blogs, voluntary investigative work or endowments like universities. Regardless, just as the transition from manuscript to printed book turned out well in the end, so will declining printed sources — facing down an internet as lethal as any dinosaur-killing meteor — eventually make peace with our digital age.