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Veronica Alfaro Responds to the Internet and Democracy Burma Case Study

Berkman friend and New School Doctoral Candidate Veronica Alfaro responds to our Burma case study, and encourages a broader view. Veronica writes:

The article seems to express a certain disappointment in that the Saffron Revolution, while engaging activists around the globe, “did not lead to tangible political change.” While the remarks made by the text are sharp, they tend to emphasize the difficulties of acknowledging “the efficacy of Internet-based activism.” I would suggest a different perspective to understand the digital activism that took place around the conflict in Burma. It is my contention that digital activism has to be understood as more than just a series of cases of successful (or unsuccessful) citizen journalism. It has to be seen as among the class of new social movements that no longer struggle only over physical outcomes, but also over the symbolic grounds and resources of cultural production – and thus, over information.

She continues:

As seen in the Burma case, throughout the I&D research paper, cyberspace constitutes a new model of political connection and contestation for the networks of civil society: But old theory does not grasp completely the complexities of current reality. In this perspective, democracy is no longer limited to debate, deliberation, and the ideal subsequent formation of state policies: the terrain of politics has to be understood also as a site of ongoing struggles and contestations carried out by unequal partners under unequal conditions. The norms of universal inclusion, equality, and “effective results” that structure traditional politics do not apply to cyberspace. Here, questions of effectiveness have to be posed in specific situations of space, time and purpose.

Read the full text of Veronica’s comments after the jump, and please keep letting us know your thoughts on our recent publications here on the blog!

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I&D Project Releases Case Study of Post-Election Crisis In Kenya

We’re following up yesterday’s release of our Burma case study with a look at Africa and the role of technology in Kenya’s post-election violence. This case study builds off of the work of Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich, examining how last year’s post-election domestic conflict in Kenya was both exacerbated and mitigated by the networked public sphere.

In doing so, their effort is to broaden the existing scope of research on how technology is making its impact felt in political action even within the developing world. They write:

Written largely through the lens of rich nations, scholars have developed theories about how digital technology affects democracy. However, largely due to a paucity of evidence, these theories have excluded the experience of Sub-Saharan Africa, where meaningful access to digital tools is only beginning to emerge, but where the struggles between failed state and functioning democracy are profound.

The entire report is available on our site here.

It’s a great piece: Joshua and Juliana have put together a very nuanced examination of the situation, and it goes a long way in bringing out the complexities of the ways in which networked technologies function in times of turmoil.

I&D Releases New Case Study on Burma’s Saffron Revolution

Over the past few months, the Internet and Democracy team has been hard at work producing a new set of case studies that take a closer look at the complex role of technology in the creation, progress, and outcomes of domestic crisis. This follows up from our previous case study work earlier this spring into the makeup of the Iranian blogosphere, and from last December into the role of networked technologies in Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution.

To coincide with the first anniversary of the internet blackout in Burma, we’re announcing today the official release of our study of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, available here.

Chowdhury’s research challenges long-held assumptions about the capacity for widely adopted information technologies to subvert authoritarian regimes and promote useful societal discourse. In practice, the relationship of technology to politics seems to be far more intricate than these broad notions would suggest, and indicate many possibilities for further research. As he writes in the abstract:

The 2007 Saffron Revolution in Burma was in many ways an unprecedented event in the intersection between politics and technology. There is, of course, the obvious: the event marks a rare instance in which a government leveraged control of nationalized ISPs to entirely black out Internet access in an attempt to prevent images and information about the protests from reaching the outside world. At another level, it is an example of an Internet driven protest which did not lead to tangible political change.

Looking forward to seeing what you guys think about it!

Update: You can read Veronica Alfaro’s response to the Burma case study here.

(photo courtesy racoles, CC BY)

Burmese Web Sites Attacked on Eve of Saffron Revolution

As we near the one year anniversary of Burma’s Saffron Revolution and the total shut down of the Internet in that country, a number of dissident Web sites have come under Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks since September 17. The sites include a number of those that have provided critical news and information on events inside Burma that are run by exiled dissidents, including Irrawaddy, Democratic Voice of Burma, and New Era Journal. Most have set up mirror sites to get around the attacks.

It would seem odd that anyone besides Burma’s military government would want to carry out such an attack, and many dissident groups suspect as much. As the mirror site for Irrawaddy claims:

Many in the Burmese community—both inside and outside Burma—believe that the military authorities are behind the cyber attack. Our Web hosting companies have been assisting us day and night tracing IP addresses to identify the cyber criminals.

However, as we’ve seen from similar attacks last month on official Georgian Web sites, we may never be able to prove who was behind the attacks.

An I&D case study which investigates the Internet’s impact on the Saffron revolution will be released in the coming weeks. Look for it here on the I&D blog, as well as the Berkman Web site.

Madison and the Smart Mob: The Promise and Limitations of the Internet for Democracy

Updated with Conclusions Below:

Kicking off the release of a number of Internet and democracy publications this fall is the recently published paper by Robert Faris and Bruce Etling: “Madison and the Smart Mob: The Promise and Limitations of the Internet for Democracy.” From the Fletcher Forum summary:

“Color revolutions” in countries as disparate as Burma and the Ukraine demonstrate the potential of the Internet and text messaging for disseminating democratic ideals. These new technologies have no doubt revolutionized peer-to-peer relationships, but they remain limited in improving processes among government institutions.

This piece builds off our thinking about the Internet and democracy over the last year, and is informed by the ideas and work of many here at the Berkman Center including Faculty Directors John Palfrey (Born Digital), Yochai Benkler (Wealth of Networks) and Jonathan Zittrain (The Future of the Internet), among many other staff and fellows.

Check it out, and let us know what you think about it here on the blog.

A reader asks that we post our conclusions. Here they are:

There is a growing number of anecdotes that suggest that the Internet and cell phones are having a significant impact on democracy. These tools seem to be changing public life substantially across social, economic, and political domains. This is a paradox, given that there is little evidence that these tools are having a systematic influence on political structures and processes. In this paper, we draw upon two distinct literatures to describe where the digital network technology is most likely to positively influence the transition to and persistence of democracy, and where the disruptive nature of digital networks is less likely to promote lasting democratic reform. We argue that the Internet is most effective in supporting political processes that draw upon widespread participation of citizens, such as elections, grassroots movements, and participatory media. This naturally follows from the sharp drop in the costs of disseminating information and online organizing.

However, consolidated democracies are composed of much more than effective involvement of citizens. The Internet does not have an obvious or significant impact on critical attributes such as civilian control of the military, a supreme constitution, protection of minorities, and freedom of religion. These intra-governmental processes—exactly what is most needed in many countries around the world—appear to be immune to the transformative power of digital tools.

There are linkages between vertical and horizontal processes that leave room for a degree of guarded optimism. Vertical accountability mechanisms have been shown to be powerful tools that can be leveraged to enhance governance and democracy. Moreover, digital tools that promote the development of strong civic organizations capable of improving governmental decision making could provide critically needed support for democracies around the world. Although we are witnessing a profusion of new online communities and organizations, it is unclear whether they can fill this crucial role.

Ultimately, vertical and horizontal governance are complementary approaches. As the example of Rodrigues and his Politicos do Brasil website demonstrates, the Internet allows citizens low-cost ways to collect, aggregate, index, and disseminate meaningful information due to preexisting horizontal institutional processes. For the Internet to reach its true potential, governments need to redouble their efforts to make information about horizontal processes publicly available. This includes public disclosures on a range of issues, from decisions about government spending to background documents related to the creation of law and policy.

We will continue to see headlines about the Internet’s impact on political transitions and future color revolutions. However, if the goal is lasting and meaningful improvements to the quality of democracy around the world—with all its benefits for decreased violence and improved economic, political, and social benefits for citizens—we need to ensure that the Internet can move democracies from “thin” electoral democracies to “thick” consolidated ones. Otherwise, we will continue to be disappointed with the failure of new democracies to grow the roots necessary to prevent backsliding into illiberal democracy and autocracy.

Persian Translation of Iranian Blog Study Now Available

We are pleased to release the full Persian translation of our case study: Mapping Iran’s Online Public: Politics and Culture in the Persian Blogosphere. In this study we used social network analysis to map the online network combined with human coding of hundreds of Persian language blogs to reveal the issues that are most important to different parts of the network, as well as basic data on the bloggers in each pole. Please help us share it with Iranian bloggers and Web sites, who are an important audience for our work. Comments on our research are always welcome on the blog.