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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

The Russian Media Ecosystem and the Arab Spring

It is no secret that the Arab Spring has shaken authoritarian governments not just in the Middle East, but around the world. China has engaged in a severe crackdown on dissent, including imprisoning well-known artist Ai Weiwei, and has also gone so far as to prohibit the sale of Jasmine. But what about Russia, which has left its Internet mostly open but is more similar to China in its repression of offline political action?

As I noted in my last post, the recent events in Egypt and Tunisia provide a great example of the appearance of an agenda in the Russian blogosphere that is almost completely absent from official Russian government information channels. The Russian government, it seems, didn’t know what to say, or how to say it.

The polar map above shows the similarity of Russian popular blogs, Russian top 25 most popular media, Russian TV, and the Russian Government feeds that use the terms ‘Egypt,’ ‘Tunisia’ or ‘Protest’ from December 25, 2010 to February 21, 2011 (Mubarak officially stepped down on February 11). The center node on this map (black) is our list of Top 25 Russian mainstream or popular media. The further a given source is from this center node, the more dissimilar it is to the collective content of the mainstream media. (I would have preferred to use the government as the center node, but the lack of data from the government on this specific query made that impossible. So what we really are looking at in the above polar map is the comparison of mainstream media to blogs, and the absence of the Russian government.)

It is clear in the above polar map that there is a large difference between the terms used by the majority of popular blogs compared to more traditional Russian media when discussing Egypt and the protests. Most popular mainstream media and TV channels are found near the center of the map along with a handful of popular blogs. The majority of popular blogs are pushed even further to the edge of the chart, and with a more clearly delineated white space between mainstream media and the outer ring of blogs than in the examples in my previous Media Cloud post.
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Posted in Media Cloud, Middle East, Russia. Comments Off on The Russian Media Ecosystem and the Arab Spring

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.

Posted in Ideas, Middle East, Organizing, Publications. Comments Off on Two New Internet and Democracy Publications (and others worth reading)

US Set to Relax Internet Restrictions Towards Iran, Syria and Cuba

This morning the New York Times quotes a ‘senior administration official’ who says that the US is set to relax sanctions against Iran, Syria and Cuba to allow US companies such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to allow downloads of personal Web-based services in those countries. Around the water cooler this morning, my colleague Jill York correctly pointed out that the article appears to conflate too many things together when it describes ‘Internet services’ that are currently banned, and that might be allowed as part of the planned waiver. My understanding is that any service that is based ‘in the cloud’ (gmail, twitter, etc.) is currently allowed to be used in Iran, Syria and Cuba because they do not require users to download software to use those services. It seems that Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is considering a blanket waiver that will permit US companies to allow users in those sanctioned countries to also use services (such as MSN chat) that require a download. It’s not clear if the type of software downloads will be limited to ‘communications’ services, or if broader downloads of services such as Google Earth or Adobe Photoshop will be allowed. It strikes me that the broader the type of downloads allowed the better, since the more services available not only allow for greater creativity in how users mash-up blogs, video, photos, email, etc., but that also makes it harder for states to block one type of service if many are available and being used together. However, given that circumvention tools will not be included in this waiver, it appears that the language may be fairly restrictive. Regardless of how the technicalities shake out, this seems like a positive step forward and I’m hopeful even smaller companies like Blue Host, that have been denying use of their Web hosting service in any country with even fairly limited US sanctions, will again make their services more widely available.

UPDATE: Here’s the official Treasury announcement and the updated rule–looks like Syria loses out on this one. From Deputy Treasury Secretary Wolin:

The new general licenses authorize exports from the United States or by U.S. persons to persons in Iran and Sudan of services and software related to the exchange of personal communications over the Internet, including web browsing, blogging, email, instant messaging, and chat; social networking; and photo and movie sharing. Today’s amendments also provide that specific licenses may be issued on a case-by-case basis for the exportation of services and software used to share information over the Internet that not covered by the general licenses.

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.”

Google’s “Broken Windows” Investment

Partnering with the U.S. Department of State, Google recently announced a plan to digitize the Iraqi National Museum’s artifacts. Google CEO Eric Schmidt made the announcement in Baghdad. In a November 24th New York Times article, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill is quoted as saying that the project is “part of an effort spearheaded by the State Department to bring technology to Iraq.” Since the outset of the Iraq War, over 15,000 artifacts have allegedly been stolen, or gone missing. The Google digitization project, already 14,000 photos underway and due for release in 2010, will provide greater transparency, and share the wonders of Mesopotamia with the online world. Google’s Iraqi National Museum digitization project, however, has even broader implications.

On the same day that Google made its announcement, the Iraqi government also announced the unveiling of its official YouTube Channel.  With 24,000 channel views, and over 400 subscribers already, the channel of the Iraqi National Media Center appears to be gaining quick traction.  It signals a forward-thinking acceptance of social media by the Iraqi government, and an aim for greater transparency and information sharing.

In a December 2 Ashoka Peace article, “What Can Social Media Do for Iraq?” author Priya Parker additionally makes a number of insightful observations about Google’s recent foray into Iraq. While this is a public-private investment partnership, it signals that creative innovation can also be compassionate, and that the ethos of investment in Iraq is undergoing tectonic shifts. Google’s announcement signals an opening salvo for business investment in Iraq, private capital investment that will have broad implications for macroeconomic stability, new infrastructure development, technology transfer, human capital capacity building, and job creation.

Moreover, as Parker explains, Google’s investment parallels the 1980s New York City Police Department’s tactic of mending broken windows to alter perceptions. Mending broken glass not only improves the neighborhood, but it changes how individuals perceive their surroundings, and in turn can alter human behavior. The Google investment is a start, and perhaps it will mend broken glass, fostering global appreciation for lost history, and creating the necessary normative change on the ground to impel peace.

Posted in Middle East, Tech Tools. Comments Off on Google’s “Broken Windows” Investment

Israeli Defense Forces Embrace Web 2.0

In a quote that could have just as easily have come out of Sarah Palin’s mouth, IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu recently told a journalism conference that the Israeli military is creating an Internet and new media unit to get past the ‘filter’ of the mainstream media. This after their self-described success with YouTube during ‘Operation Cast Lead’ last year in Gaza. Haaretz reports:

Responding to criticism of Israel’s ability to face hostile entities on the Web, Benayahu said the new program would be able to deal with the problem. He said that from each group drafted to the Army Spokesman’s Office, between eight to 10 young people who are experts in Web 2.0 – YouTube, Facebook and Twitter – to be identified before induction, would be assigned to the new department. The new recruits would be put to work in the new media unit after undergoing a general Army Spokesman’s Unit training course.

Benayahu further stated that the primary target is “mainly an international audience that is less exposed to operational processes. Foreign media do more ‘zooming-in’ and so it’s important to us to show the totality of IDF actions without a filter.” Haaretz also reports that the military is reaching out to bloggers that are known opinion leaders. I suspect they just don’t want to be outdone by the Iranians.

New Media and Blogs in the Middle East


For those that haven’t made it through our 70 page paper on the Arabic blogosphere, we’ve got a digestible two page version in the latest Middle East Institute Bulletin, which is focused this quarter on new media in the Middle East, an issue near and dear to our hearts. Here is one of the many interesting findings:

Blogs are an integral part of the Arabic media ecosystem. We found that bloggers link to Web 2.0 sites such as YouTube and Wikipedia (both the English and Arabic versions) more than other sources of information and news available on the Internet. Al Jazeera is the top mainstream media source, followed by the BBC and Al Arabiya, while US government-funded media outlets like Radio Sawa and Al Hurra are linked to relatively infrequently. Most national media outlets do not have much reach outside of their respective national clusters.

Returning to YouTube, we found that Arabic bloggers tend to prefer politically oriented videos to cultural ones. Videos related to the conflict in Gaza and the throwing of shoes at George W. Bush in Iraq are popular across the entire blogosphere, while clips related to domestic political issues are linked to more heavily by the various national clusters, such as Kuwaiti parliamentary campaign videos.

And I continue to be struck by what we did not find:

While much has been made of Iraqi bloggers during ongoing debates about the Iraq war, this group does not figure prominently in the Arabic blogosphere. Rather, they are deeply integrated into the English Bridge group. This may be because many Iraqi bloggers write in English and have many inbound links from US think tanks, journalists, and partisan political bloggers (“Iraq the Model” on the right, “Riverbend” on the left, for example), rather than mainly writing for a domestic public. We also did not find any cluster of bloggers dedicated to violent extremism.

Check it out (here).

Posted in I&D Project, Middle East, Publications. Comments Off on New Media and Blogs in the Middle East

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.

Posted in Ideas, Middle East. Comments Off on Internet Opening Up Space for Religious Debate in Egypt

Saudi Arabia Blocks Twitterers It Doesn’t Like

I’m still moving at just-back-from-vacation speed instead of blog speed, so Evgeny Morozov over at Foreign Policy is way ahead of me on this story about the Saudis blocking the Twitter accounts of two human rights activists who were saying things the Kingdom didn’t appreciate about its rights record. He cites Reporters Without Borders for the background:

Nasser, who keeps a blog called Mashi Sah (“That’s not true”) said his Twitter messages included references to the human rights situation and governance in Saudi Arabia and links to human rights sites. Abdelkhair, a human rights lawyer and head of a Saudi human rights organisation, had also referred to human rights violations in his “tweets,” the short text messages that are Twitter’s speciality. Ahmed Al-Omran, a blogger who first drew attention to the situation, said it was the first time the authorities had moved against Twitter users in Saudi Arabia

According to the OpenNet Initative’s Saudi profile in their recent report on filtering in the Middle East region, Saudi Arabia blocks political content pervasively, has one of the most restrictive media environments in the region and according to the Committee to Protect Journalists is one of the ten worst places to be a blogger. ONI concludes:

Saudi Arabia publicly acknowledges censoring morally inappropriate and religiously sensitive material, but the authorities also filter oppositional political sites and sites focused on human rights issues. In addition, the state has introduced new surveillance measures at Internet cafés and has announced plans to start a system that will require local sites to register with the authorities.

Saudi citizens have started to use the Internet for online activism, but the authorities have arrested several online writers and blocked their content. A local human rights group expressed interest in legally challenging the government’s censorship of human rights sites.

Evgeny holds Berkman’s Jonathan Zittrain’s feet to the fire on the supposed resiliency of Twitter to blocking, and although he concedes that you can still access the two blocked Twitter accounts here in the US, he’s right that that won’t matter so much to someone trying to read them in Riyad. [Still, it might be possible to access these accounts in the Kingdom using other Twitter aggregating tools, similar to how one might easily get around filtering of blogs or news sites by using an aggregator–Correction and update: This approach wouldn’t actually circumvent Twitter blocking in Riyad because it would still have to retrieve the data from Twitter, as Evgeny notes in his comment below]. In any case, I imagine that the more the media (and, ahem, bloggers) keep talking about Twitter’s use in highly censored media environments, the more it will become a target of filtering by the censors.