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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.

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Presidential Election in Indonesia

The summer months of 2009 have already played host to game-changing elections in the world’s largest Hindu and Shiite Muslim nations, India and Iran respectively. On July 8, Indonesia – the world’s fourth-largest by-population nation, the world’s largest Muslim country as well as largest Muslim democracy– will hold its presidential elections.

On July 8, Demokrat party incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will face off against the incumbent Vice President Jusuf Kalla, now the Golkar party presidential nominee, and against 2001-2004 Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, also daughter of Indonesia’s first President Sukarno. Megawati is the leader of the opposition party known as Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan, or PDI-P. Her controversial career soldier running mate, Prabowo Subianto, is the son-in-law of Suharto and the well-heeled founder and former Presidential nominee of the Gerinda party.

30-day domestic relative data on most popular candidate terms

30-day domestic relative data on most popular candidate terms

While the perennial elite continues to vie for Indonesia’s top office, political engagement is moving from the streets to the information superhighway. Despite religious differences, the most salient non-domestic interest in the Iranian elections came from Jakarta, where –according to Google Insights for Search– Indonesian (Bahasa) trailed only Persian as the language of choice for entering Google search queries on Iranian presidential candidates. Outside of Iran and its diaspora, Indonesian interest in Iranian politics underscores religious trans-national solidarity, and an increasingly politically active youth demographic.
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Visualization Methods Good For Tracking Silly Videos and Middle East Politics


Really fun news today that Internet and Democracy’s very own John Kelly recently appeared in the Washington Post, talking about his work in mapping the blogosphere and the research happening at the Berkman Center. The article talks about the story of Brandon Hardesty, who achieved internet fame through his short, goofy Youtube videos that have attracted a vast following online — and the larger vibrant cultural and community ecosystem of which it is a part. As they describe:

Every time Brandon logged on to YouTube, which he did three or four times daily, viewership for his video had skyrocketed: thousands, then ten thousands, then millions. Brandon’s notoriety was spreading geometrically — like the spread of a cold after a single child sneezes in a classroom infecting 10 children, who each go on to infect 10 others with the virus, who all fan out across their communities to create a spiraling infection. Brandon’s video spread until, before long, more than 4.7 million people had watched Brandon all alone in his parents’ basement being silly.

Interestingly, the method that John describes is the same method that we’ve used here at the Internet and Democracy project to build visuals about the shape of discourse networks in the Iranian blogosphere. You can read more about it here.

Pope Making Moves To Spread The Catholic Message Online

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Interesting news coming out this week from Ruth Gledhill at The Times reporting that the Pope has officially announced that he is rolling ahead on getting the Roman Catholic Church online in a real way. As she reports:

The Vatican is seeking ways to embrace full online “interactivity” with all one billion members of the global Roman Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church wants to emulate and globalise President Obama’s use of the internet both during his election campaign and with more recent events, such as an online question-and-answer session at the end of March that attracted 100,000 questions and 3.6 million votes

Not surprisingly given this new strategy, the internet figures prominently in the Church’s  43rd Annual World Communications Day (this year on May 24th) — with the Pope actively urging young people to spread the religious word online. The campaign’s site comes complete with a YouTube channel, iPhone application and “WikiCath” — a collaborative text in the style of Wikipedia. A little digging also reveals plans for a papal Facebook profile, set to go live during the event.

I wonder about the long-term effects of this, particularly with regards to the way that the Catholic Church has traditionally regulated its doctrine and message from a centralized hierarchy. Will increased exposure to the internet and adoption of more collaborative, dialogue-based platforms threaten this standing order? This question somewhat emulates the question of governments and the internet: and it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the case of organized religion, and if the outcomes will be the same or quite different.

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France Passes Strict Anti-Piracy Law

While much of the world is worried about what to do about Somali pirates of the 19th century variety, France has seen fit instead to go after the 21st century type. The French parliament has passed a three strikes law which will literally prevents users from accessing the Internet once they’ve been caught downloading copyrighted content three times. Worse, they will have to continue to pay for their Internet subscriptions after they have been kicked off. Sarkozy, whose wife is a French pop star, supports the law, as do music and film industry groups. A socialist parliamentarian, however, called the bill “dangerous, useless, inefficient, and very risky for us citizens.” Meanwhile, Somali pirates have captured the crew of the Atlantis.

Internet Opens Up Malaysia’s Political Struggle


Much has been made of US politicians’ use of new media technology, including the President’s crackberry addiction and the ridiculous meme that Republican’s will be able to recapture the youth vote because some of them are on twitter. But in Malaysia, where traditional media are closely monitored and tend to follow the governing party line, the Internet, Twitter, cellphone cameras and blogs seem to have opened up a political power struggle in Perak, the largest state in the country. Unidentified plainclothes personnel who may or may not have been security officials, walked into the state legislature and literally dragged the elected speaker V. Sivakumar (from the opposition) from the room and escorted the governing party’s man to his seat. According to the New York Times:

Khalil Idham Lim, an opposition assembly member, blogged throughout the heated exchanges and posted pictures, including one of the speaker being hauled away.

Malaysia’s independent news Web sites offered minute-by-minute updates. “If this event had taken place 10 years ago, people might never have known what really transpired inside the assembly,” said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling agency.

A number of opposition members of parliament were also arrested and Web sites showed the MPs being led out in handcuffs.

This is a nice example of the Internet’s ability to empower minority parties that don’t control the press in ‘mildly authoritarian’ states and, hopefully, for Malaysians to hold the governing party accountable for what appears to be a ham-fisted response to political deadlock.

Photo from Opposition MP Khalil Idham Lim’s blog

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Fiji’s Bloggers Menaced By Junta

Facing a tighter clampdown by military authorities on traditional media like newspapers and radio, many Fijians are evading the censors with blogs. After Frank Bainimarama, the disarmingly named Fijian dictator took power in a 2006 coup, the country has been creeping toward hysterical martial law.

As in Burma (and to a lesser degree in Thailand recently), the most obvious target after the licensed mainstream media (many of whom have simply been deported) will undoubtedly be  bloggers and cyber-dissidents. Some bloggers had already been targeted back in May 2007.

In the meantime, the web may be the only source of information the islanders have, and only 10% of them have regular web access. Soon, the island could be completely isolated from world contact. As Peter Waqavonovono told VOA:

It is unfortunate that I have to say this and that is blogs have actually become one of the main mediums of getting information out there, whether it’s credible or whether it’s not. It’s just the fact that right now people are just desperate for information.

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The Pentagon’s Plan To Hack The Hackers

Following up December’s CSIS report and in anticipation of the National Research Council report due out tomorrow, the New York Times has the skinny on cyber-warfare in the 21st century.

As Estonia learned the hard way, democracies (and their infrastructures) are increasingly the target of nationalist hackers,  digital pirates, and government spooks (from China, Russia, the USA?). The alarming possibility that all these groups have or could be in cahoots is scaring the pants off the Pentagon, which is considering developing an alternate strategic command simply for cyber-related conflicts.

Up until now, most of the discussion has focused on defense, the so-called “fortress” method: secure and separate networks for critical infrastructure, virus protection and a cyber-czar to coordinate federal response. As this article illuminates, however, the Pentagon is preparing to bolster those defensive capabilities with offensive cyber-weapons. Hacking the hackers, the article suggests, is the newest form of deterrence.

But here, I think, the Cold War metaphor breaks down. Mutually assured destruction might be a functional way to deter a world war by superpowers, but will it really stop what amount to de-localized (possibly independent) digital guerrillas? There’s a certain asymmetry in favor of the hackers. You don’t have to enrich uranium in defiance of world opinion to hack Wall Street or the U.S. power grid.

In fact, you need to do surprisingly little. With millions of potentially anonymous actors, the problem is multiplied. As in the 1983 film War Games, no one knows whether you’re dealing with a real threat or just a clever punk in a Chinese basement. It’s a warzone as dangerous as it is hazy.

Roxana Saberi on Hunger Strike

Reporters without Borders reports that Iranian-American journalist, Roxana Saberi — sentenced last Saturday to 8 years in prison after a sham 1 day closed trial in Tehran — is protesting her detention with a hunger strike. (For more background on Saberi, and her dubious arrest by Iranian authorities, read this profile by her former employer, the BBC.)

Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not typically the most civil liberties friendly, had directly appealed to the Iran’s independent judiciary to process the case of Saberi with openness and transparency. Perhaps he is feeling the pressure of a potential American rapprochement. The visibility of the Saberi case could easily flare up into a full grown diplomatic feud. So far, Secretary Clinton’s language has been measured, though concerned.

Might the internet play a constructive role here in changing the diplomatic end game by raising the heat on Iranian authorities? Imagine, it was years before Solzhenitsin could get The Gulag Archipelago published in the West, much less in the Soviet Union. Now, despite all the Iranians’ best efforts at a low key and hack job political trial, anyone with Google can learn the inner workings of Saberi’s detention and moreover Iran’s infamous Evin political prison where she’s being held.

While — as AbuAardvark and NetEffect’s Evgeny Morozov have been right to point out — the internet is not radically democraticizing the world, it does raise the embarassment and diplomatic costs of political prisoners. Hard to complain you’ve been shut out of the community of nations when your injustice is plainly on display. And the web is what solves this informational assymetry, even if it can’t shake kings and autocrats.

Saberi’s partner, Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, has written an open letter appealing to Iranian authorities. The letter can be read in full here and is circulating on numerous media outlets and websites (BBC, Campaign for Human Rights in Iran to name a few).

Tweet it, RT it, blog, and howl. Roxana should be free.

Thai “Red Shirt” Unrest Spurs Censorship Dragnet

In reaction to the ongoing and violent anti-government “red shirt” protests, the ruling Democrat Party of the Thailand has ordered a broad range of media outlets connected to the pro-Thaksin United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (or UDD) shut down. This sweep delivered gag orders to radio stations, the satellite television network D Station and at least 67 political websites with links to the UDD.

The picture of what’s happening on the ground has been blurred by the barring or mistreatment of journalists by both sides. The ruling party, seized by crisis fever, is locking down any media perceived to be “inciting violence” with the unintended consequence, as Reporters without Borders put it, of increasing the “climate of fear” around Bangkok. The Thaksin demonstrators (see here for TwitPic updates and images of the unrest) have not been entirely innocent either, reportedly roughing up several TV crews and expelling reporters from the protests.

The government’s reaction is premised on a heavy handed survival impulse. It’s true, some of the protests have descended into violence, and the perception that social chaos is being spread by pro-Thaksin media probably has truth to it. On the other hand, punitive media-unfriendly martial law seems unlikely to assuage the supporters of a movement who feel wrongfully ousted by the 2006 coup and the banning of the PPP back in December 2008 (for more of the run up to this conflict, read this). Now, adding to the uncertainty of the social fabric, blue shirts, evidently supported by royalists, have joined the fray.

Nor is the unaligned portion of the Thai public likely to take kindly to the broad and hysterical censorship crack-down, which risks making the “red shirts” more powerful or bringing the military storming back in. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Thaksin himself, exiled for the past three years in Dubai, has urged aging king Bhumibol Adulyadej to intervene and encourage reconciliation. The king, revered by the Thais, has been charateristically silent.

UPDATE: Evidently MICT, the Thai telecommunications authority, has lifted the emergency decree on websites related to the “red shirt” cause. The list of formerly blocked websites is here. Freedom Against Censorship Thailand, a WordPress blog which agitates for free internet speech remains somewhat inexplicably blocked by Thai ISPs.