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Two New Internet and Democracy Publications (and others worth reading)

Attention holiday shoppers! Still searching for the perfect (read: free) gift for the Internet thinker in your family? Look no further than two recent publication from the Internet & Democracy team, released just in time for solstice.

First, John Kelly, Robert Faris, John Palfrey and I adapted of our earlier Arabic blogosphere case study into a journal article, “Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics and Dissent Online,” which appears in the 2010 issue of New Media & Society. You can download the pdf (here) (available online as of December 21, 2010). In that article we focus on the political aspects of the Arabic blogosphere and evaluate whether it meets the conditions for a networked public sphere, as defined by Yochai Benkler.

We also wrote a short think piece on online organizing that was published this month in the SAIS Review of International Affairs. Here is the abstract from the paper, “Political Change in the Digital Age: The Fragility and Promise of Online Organizing:”

In this paper, we discuss the possible impact of digital technologies in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes. We conclude that policymakers and scholars that have been most optimistic about the impact of digital tools have over-emphasized the role of information, specifically access to alternative and independent sources of information and unfiltered access to the Internet. We argue, in contrast, that more attention should be paid to the means of overcoming the difficulties of online organization in the face of authoritarian governments in an increasingly digital geopolitical environment.

If that’s not enough to satisfy your loved ones’ reading habits during the darkest days of the year, my colleagues here at Berkman (Ethan Zuckerman, Hal Roberts, Ryan McGrady, Jillian York and John Palfrey) released this week an excellent study on DDOS attacks against human rights groups and independent media, and I also just discovered that Berkman Fellow Clay Shirky has a smart, balanced essay out in Foreign Affairs, “The Political Power of Social Media.”

Check ’em out. I hear several appear somewhere in print form as well.

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A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Tweets

This is a visual representation of the Moscow metro bombing discussion on Twitter. It is a word cloud of 1000 random tweets from the #moscow hashtag (which saw a five fold increase after the bombings) based on research we’re doing with the Sam Gilbert and the Web Ecology Project. We are still working through #metro29 and other hashtags that were more popular among Russian language Twitter users. Turns out it’s pretty hard to say anything too original in 140 characters.

And for comparison, here’s a word cloud representing the discussion on the bombings in the US and Russian press, drawn from the full text of 68 articles related to the bombing from Johnson’s Russia List. Both clouds were created with Wordle.

This is intended mostly as a fun experiment as we build more accurate tools to make these type of inter platform comparisons, but it is still pretty striking to see how limiting Twitter can be when trying to tell a story. In any case, it is still far better than Russian TV news.

Update: I replaced an earlier Twitter cloud to strip out the date, which I think was a cut and paste error on my part, since that doesn’t appear in the text of the Tweets.

I think Thomas Friedman vastly overstates the role of the Internet in violent extremism in his New York Times column today. He wastes no time in blaming the Internet for terror:

Let’s not fool ourselves. Whatever threat the real Afghanistan poses to U.S. national security, the “Virtual Afghanistan” now poses just as big a threat. The Virtual Afghanistan is the network of hundreds of jihadist Web sites that inspire, train, educate and recruit young Muslims to engage in jihad against America and the West. Whatever surge we do in the real Afghanistan has no chance of being a self-sustaining success, unless there is a parallel surge — by Arab and Muslim political and religious leaders — against those who promote violent jihadism on the ground in Muslim lands and online in the Virtual Afghanistan.

The inspiration for his indictment of the Web is the widely reported story that the five Muslim Americans from Northern Virginia who were picked up in Pakistan last week had used the Internet to connect with an extremist in Pakistan. He quotes the Washington Post with the emerging beltway consensus:

‘Online recruiting has exponentially increased, with Facebook, YouTube and the increasing sophistication of people online,’ a high-ranking Department of Homeland Security official said. … ‘Increasingly, recruiters are taking less prominent roles in mosques and community centers because places like that are under scrutiny. So what these guys are doing is turning to the Internet,’ said Evan Kohlmann, a senior analyst with the U.S.-based NEFA Foundation, a private group that monitors extremist Web sites.

First, the ‘Sargodha Five’ are kind of an odd group to cite as evidence since they were by all accounts a complete failure. They were not able to gain access to or acceptance into any local Al-Qaeda groups and were picked up by the Pakistani authorities relatively quickly. That said, don’t get me wrong, these extremist sites exist and extremists use the Internet just like a lot of other groups. But those sites are small in number and states, combined with civil society, have been pretty effective at getting many of them shut down or forced into the more hidden areas of the Web. The Internet is also a place where, increasingly, the type of reasoned, informed and interactive religious debate that Friedman argues for are actually taking place.

The broader point to be made here is that blaming the Internet for extremism is like blaming boats, cars or shoes, just because terrorists used them in the last attack. I think Tim Stevens at the ICSR blog captures my thoughts pretty well when he writes:

You’d have to be a fool to argue that the internet plays no role in many of the cases that come to light in the press and in the courts. It almost always does. So do cars, telephones and cheap hotels. The internet is so deeply embedded in the lives of most people residing in the West that it would be unusual were this not so. It is too easy to argue that government consistently fails to spot extremist use of the internet, and that more powers are needed to combat it. If, as liberal societies, we determine that total surveillance of interpersonal communication is undesirable, we should also understand that it is utterly impractical. It also won’t stop people turning to violence as a solution to their particular problems.

He goes on to argue, appropriately, that clamping down on the Internet will not solve the problem.

The answer is not to monitor us all to combat the actions of a few. Total security, in cyberspace or otherwise, is impossible, and attempts to create it are subject strongly to the law of diminishing returns. The only way to combat violent extremism is to tackle its causes, a banal statement in itself perhaps. Like it or not, states will decide what types of material are deemed inappropriate to view and share online, but treating all internet use as de facto potentially problematic and appropriate for regulation does no-one any favours.

I also think Friedman overstates the level of support for extremism among Muslims, and offering as proof the relative levels of Muslim outrage over the Swiss vote to ban minarets compared to the insufficient, in his view, condemnation of a recent bombing in Iraq is bizarre. The US press (including, ah hem, the New York Times) spilled a lot more ink on the Swiss vote than anything that happened in Iraq last week. Does that mean all Americans – Christian, Muslim or agnostic – now support extremism? Obviously, no.

terror justified

In fact, a number of surveys in the Muslim world and other evidence have shown decreasing support for violent extremism, including this Pew poll. Pew notes that support for suicide bombings has dropped since 2002, and that in Pakistan support plunged from 33% to 5%. And as Gary Bunt, a scholar who has studied Muslims’ use of the Internet extensively, writes in his excellent book iMuslims:

Participation in militaristic jihad is a minority issue, on- and offline. Muslim individuals and organizations have expended considerable energies – on the Internet and elsewhere – distancing themselves from such acts.

Just as it is wrong to conflate everything good with the Internet, it’s also wrong to associate it with everything pernicious. As we wrote in our paper on the Arabic blogosphere, “The Internet lays a good foundation for a battle of ideas, but it does not necessarily favor a winner.”

Despite Circulation Numbers, Neither the Sky Nor the Republic is Falling

It has been all of about 15 minutes since we last heard someone bemoan the ‘death of newspapers’ or decide to hold yet another conference blaming the Internet for their downfall, so thanks to the New York Times (Website) for adding more fuel to the fire with a report that circulation has fallen at the top 25 newspapers, with the exception of the Wall Street Journal. Andrew Sullivan captures the essence of the moment nicely:

The Boston Globe’s circulation is down 18 percent in one year; the San Francisco Chronicle’s is down 26 percent. The WSJ is actually stable. But these slides and the readerships they now represent are hard to ignore. They are not signs of an industry as we have known it in trouble. They are signs of it ending.

But these articles ignore that last year, according to Nielson, unique visitors to the top 10 newspaper Web site increased 16%, growing 34.6 million unique visitors in December 2007 to 40.1 million in December 2008. I know, I know, advertisers don’t pay nearly as much for online ads as they do for print ads, but that says more about advertisers than it does about the demand for newspaper content.

And there is another misleading finding about the rankings, which for the first time in a decade put the Wall Street Journal at the top. The Wall Street Journal took that spot, as I understand it, because it is one of the few to charge for online content, and is allowed to include its online subscribers in the circulation totals. When you combine the online NY Times audience (the leader, with 18.2 million unique visitors in December 2008) with its current print circulation of 927,851 on weekdays and 1.4 million on Sundays, they blow away the Journal in total readers (as does USA Today). (Nothing against the Journal, a fine publication, they deserve a pat on the back for getting (rich) people to pay for online content). Further, according to the Newspaper Association of America, peak weekly and Sunday subscriptions for all newspapers appeared to have peaked at around 60-62 million in the 1980s. Yet Nielson found that in August of 2009 there was a unique audience of over 75 million for newspaper Websites, more readers than hard copy newspapers have ever attracted. So why isn’t that the headline? Clearly, there is still great, and apparently growing, demand for quality journalism, if not necessarily newsprint. The advertisers will catch up with the younger demographic reading papers online and the newspaper industry will find new models, but probably not as fast as the old ones will be destroyed.

Posted in Ideas. 3 Comments »

Don’t Look to the Web for Direct Democracy

In the Times Week in Review Anand Giriharadas seems surprised that the Obama team has had more success with the Internet during the campaign than in the White House. As the article tells us, the results of the “Citizens’ Briefing Book,” an online policy proposal initiative, were less than one might have hoped for:

In the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown, the highest-ranking idea was to legalize marijuana, an idea nearly twice as popular as repealing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. Legalizing online poker topped the technology ideas, twice as popular as nationwide wi-fi. Revoking the Church of Scientology’s tax-exempt status garnered three times more votes than raising funding for childhood cancer.

I was not aware that the legalizing marijuana lobby was so well organized online, but less surprised by the popularity of online poker or anti-Scientology efforts: Both of those movements have an larger presence on the Internet than outside it, in particular the anonymous movement against Scientology.

The Internet is great at organizing campaigns and protests (in the US and abroad), but it will not, at least in the near term, have a huge impact on day to day governance in the way that some in the tech field had hoped. This is particularly true for those that believed the Internet would lead to direct democracy and fundamentally change our form of government in the US. It won’t. Most democratic societies have republican forms of government where we elect representatives to carry out the day to day affairs of state – because for all the problems its problems, this is still the best way to run things when the rest of us have full time jobs. This is more than anything an indictment of direct democracy as opposed to an indictment of the Internet. One need look no further than the mess that Californian voters have created by trying to manage a budget process at the ballot box – this has lead to a situation where nobody wants to pay higher taxes or have deficits, but everyone, especially during the economic meltdown, wants more government services. It’s impossible.

This doesn’t mean that the Internet isn’t having a huge impact on democracy, from campaigns to government transparency to allowing new voices into the process to increased fact checking of government, media and interest groups. Just don’t expect direct democracy to take hold because of technological innovation.

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Internet Opening Up Space for Religious Debate in Egypt

In today’s Times Michael Slackman highlights how the Internet has led to greater pluralism in political and religious debates in Egypt by profiling Gamal al-Banna, a liberal religious thinker who just happens to be the brother of the decidedly less liberal Muslim Brotherhood founder, Hassan al-Banna. Slackman writes that although Gamal al-Banna been sharing his ideas publicly for years:

…only now, he said, does he have the chance to be heard widely. It is not that a majority agrees with him; it is not that the tide is shifting to a more moderate interpretative view of religion; it is just that the rise of relatively independent media — like privately owned newspapers, satellite television channels and the Internet — has given him access to a broader audience.

Of course, the Internet alone isn’t responsible for the changes that take place in any society. Slackman notes:

Several factors have changed the public debate and erased some of the fear associated with challenging conventional orthodoxy, political analysts, academics and social activists said. These include a disillusionment and growing rejection of the more radical Islamic ideology associated with Al Qaeda, they said. At the same time, President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world has quieted the accusation that the United States is at war with Islam, making it easier for liberal Muslims to promote more Western secular ideas, Egyptian political analysts said.

Our research into the Arabic blogosphere found that Egypt does indeed have large, relatively open and in many ways oppositional blogosphere. The debates within the Muslim Brotherhood cluster of bloggers, where younger members challenge the old guard on the goals and future direction of the Muslim Brotherhood, are some of the most interesting in the online Middle East, because they show how the Internet has the power to change existing institutions and the way decisions are made in those previously hierarchical, top-down institutions. As we wrote in our paper:

The Muslim Brotherhood that mobilizes mindshare in the networked public sphere is no longer the same Muslim Brotherhood. As we see with advocacy organizations in the United States, or Shi’a religious students in Iran, the move to Internet modes of communication can alter the forms of organization among people committed to similar goals, ideas, and values. The Internet does not just promise (or threaten) to change the balance of power among players on the field, it changes the field and changes the players too.

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Young Muslims Look to Technology to Fight Extremism

There is no shortage of stories about how the Internet enables extremists in the Middle East, so it’s nice to see a more balanced look at how young people in the region are actually using these online tools. This excellent CNN piece by Manav Tanneeru, which is part of Christian Amanpour’s Generation Islam series, looks closely at Esra’a al Shafei of MidEastYouth, and cite her as an example of someone who:

…represents a generation of Muslims who are using technology to express themselves, connect with others, challenge traditional power structures and create an identity in an era when Islamic extremists often grab the headlines.

The article also cites your humble (er, self-promoting) blogger on some results from our recent research on the Arabic blogosphere:

It’s long been a concern that the Web is being used by extremist groups such as al Qaeda to recruit young Muslims to their cause. However, Bruce Etling, who co-authored recent studies of the Arabic and Persian blogospheres at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said he found little evidence of such activity.

“In the Arabic blogosphere we found no specific clusters related to extremism, and when it was discussed, it tended to be in negative terms,” he said. “It was a counter-narrative we were surprised to find.”

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.


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Zittrain Questions the Cloud

Always looking ahead to the future of the Internet, Berkman co-founder Jonathan Zittrain has a great op-ed in the New York Times today that questions the wisdom of moving our data from our PCs, which requires a hacker to break into your computer or network to steal your data, versus cloud computing (personal data stored and retrieved on the Internet–think Google Calender, Google docs, etc.) While storing data in the cloud might seem like a great idea, since you don’t have to worry about losing your data when you accidentally drop your laptop in the pool, Zittrain reminds us there are some real dangers, especially for those living in restrictive speech environments:

If you entrust your data to others, they can let you down or outright betray you….The cloud can be even more dangerous abroad, as it makes it much easier for authoritarian regimes to spy on their citizens. The Chinese government has used the Chinese version of Skype instant messaging software to monitor text conversations and block undesirable words and phrases. It and other authoritarian regimes routinely monitor all Internet traffic — which, except for e-commerce and banking transactions, is rarely encrypted against prying eyes.

Check it out.

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Big 3 on the Information Superhighway

With the resignation of Obama Car Czar Steven Rattner, the Big 3 –Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler– are reeling, and attention has again focused on automotive management of Federal bailout money.  E.M. Forster’s Internet “screens with a view,” could provide insights on strategic, regional brand and inventory decisions.

Regional Search Query Interest in Hybrid Cars.

Regional Google Search Query Interest in Hybrid Cars.

Within the Big 3, brand management and differentiation remains challenging.  However, Google Insights for Search indicates relative strengths, direction and amplitude of trending, and geographic hotbeds.  At Ford Motor Company, Lincoln has more than double the search volume as Mercury, and three times that of Volvo.  But while Mercury has interest in Kansas, Oregon, and California, Volvo is predominately popular in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.  In fact, seven of the top ten “Volvo” query states are in New England.

Regional Internet Interest in Pickup Trucks.

Regional Google Search Query Interest in Pickup Trucks.

Comparing common models such as Sedan, SUV, Hatchback, Hybrid, and Pickup, managers would discover relative consumer preferences, and see that online interest –arguably a leading indicator of consumer engagement– is highly regional.  Over the past 90-days, American Google search volume on “Hybrid” cars is 265 percent greater than “Sedan,” and 900 percent greater than search on “Hatchback” vehicles.  But automotive managers would also realize that consumers in the Northeast are are increasingly interested in Hybrid vehicles, while Hatchbacks have strong popularity in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest.  Despite rising oil prices, online queries about Sport Utility Vehicles (SUV) remain highly popular across the Southern United States, from Texas to Florida.

Regional Google Search Query Interest in Hatchback Cars.

Regional Google Search Query Interest in Hatchback Cars.

With SUV online popularity strong in Southern states, Ford executives might compare search volumes across their line of relevant vehicles, namely the Expedition, Explorer, Escape, and Edge.  While the Ford Expedition and Edge have comparable interest, there is 60 percent greater search volume on the Escape, and 140 percent on Ford Explorer.  However, the Ford Expedition’s limited Internet traffic comes from the region with the strongest ties to Sport Utility Vehicles.  Despite the Explorer’s popularity in Alaska, the Escape’s popularity in Michigan, and the Edge’s popularity in Iowa, the Expedition’s most interested consumers hail from Louisiana, Texas, and Florida.  By understanding regional interests in vehicle type, Ford could better target appropriate vehicles regionally.

Regional Google Search Query Interest in SUVs.

Regional Google Search Query Interest in SUVs.

As Steven Rattner makes a return to Cerberus Capital –on the shores of the Hudson, if not the River Styx– his replacement would be apt to consult Internet search as a leading indicator of consumer behavior. The Big 3 may yet become reliant on Gore’s Information Superhighway as much as they have on Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway.