About Leigh Llewellyn Graham

Leigh is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Columbia University and currently an intern at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Her work examines questions of citizenship, cultural learning practices, and digital division of labor in the 21st century knowledge economy. Overarching questions about human-machine relationships push her work into the realms of cyborgization studies, ethnophysiology, and the politics of women’s bodies.

Citizen Sensing and Crisis Informatics: Twitter and Disaster Response

In a piece published in May in Smithsonian, “The World According to Twitter, in Maps,” Twitter use in the Western hemisphere was compared to electrification and lighting use. Studies reveal remarkably similar rates, such that a map illuminated by tweets looks very much like a satellite image of artificial light use. It seems ambitious to suggest Twitter will become as ubiquitous as light, but the findings are nonetheless illuminating. Growing global Internet saturation and increasing Twitter usage might tell us a great deal about the relationship of humans and technology, but how might Twitter analysis shed light on our relationships with each other and the environment?

Since it started as a platform designed for cell phone use in 2006, Twitter has had an arguably resounding presence in the world. An estimated 554 million registered users send about 9,000 tweets per second and produce 58 million tweets each day on average. In people’s everyday lives and at the level of national and regional politics in places like Egypt and Turkey, the microblogging service is redefining relationships, invigorating information sharing, and shifting power structures, both online and offline.

The vast number of tweets and other user-generated bits of content online has prompted new approaches to data analysis, including “data philanthropy,” which claims to use big data to mitigate crisis and potentially avert social, financial and environmental disasters. In April, the Skoll World Forum brought together world experts on Big Data and its application, including the  president of  non-profit technology company Benetech, who explained:

Massive amounts of data are collected on the pollution in our cities and the changes in our climate. The more we use technology in our education and health systems, the more data we collect about how people learn and what keeps us healthy or makes us sick. These information-centric areas are built for Big Data – data that if better understood could help provide a pathway to maximize our human potential, instead of maximizing profits.

More than just a microblogging service on the Internet, Twitter is a platform for peer-to-peer education, a tool for real-time technology-mediated learning, and a potential gold mine for citizen sensing, which engages citizens as sensors in generating geo-referenced information. Twitter’s open API feature means that tweets are downloadable as raw data. This enables Twitter mapping – a form of research that turns topical tags and tweets into spaciotemporal nuggets that researchers analyze and apply toward myriads of social, political, and environmental situations, including humanitarian responses to natural disasters. Researchers at the Institute of Environment and Sustainability claim ever-growing access to broadband connections and enthusiastic adoption of social media has created “the potential of up to 6 billion human sensors to monitor the state of the environment, validate global models with local knowledge, contribute to crisis situations awareness and provide information that only humans can capture.” Human-machine relationships mediated through sites like Twitter offer optimal conditions for rapid dissemination of useful information, collective thought, and social action.

Crisis Informatics is a research field that combines targeted information extraction and information management with coordination efforts and sensemaking processes. It emerged from collaboration among social media, emergency responders, and computer sciences. In the case of a disaster, such as a flood or tornado, crisis informatics provide knowledge about similar past disasters and response strategies. The clearinghouse of prior knowledge helps first responders predict and manage events as they unfold. Additionally, crisis informatics offers details about the extent of damage and number of fatalities, which enables more focused and efficient emergency medical responses. Mapping projects like GDELT and tools like Twitris enable real-time monitoring and multi-faceted analysis across space, time, populations, networks, emotions, and sentiment. Numbers and locations are important, but data may reveal more than numbers.

Along these lines, recent analysis of more than 2 million “disaster tweets” related to the May 2013 Oklahoma tornado presents an interesting case study. As Patrick Meier of iREvolution details in his blogpost “Analyzing 2 Million Disaster Tweets for Oklahoma Tornado,” research conducted by Hemant Purohit and colleagues at the Qatar Computing Research Institute further blurs the lines between computer science, social science, and humanitarian work. Purohit and his colleagues found 7% of tweets in the first 48 hours after the tornado were related to helping meet people’s immediate survival needs- donation of water, food, and clothing. Certainly, such findings reveal Twitter users’ humanitarian intentions, but they do not reveal whether the people in need actually received the supplies and services or how they fared beyond the initial 48 hours. How the individuals and communities affected by the tornado are doing today are questions for further ethnographic study that would compliment the rich statistical analysis we have and dig deeper into the relationship of Internet and society.

Learn more about Twitter analysis in a study just released by QCRT that looks at the confluence of crisis mapping, citizen sensing, and social media through the lens of citizens’ roles in coordinating crisis response.

Neuland or Nowhere Land? Reflecting on Evanescence, Immortality, and Internet Memes

In a joint press conference with President Obama last month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the Internet as “Neuland”—literally, an “uncharted territory”—in response to a question about initial reports of the US National Security Agency’s PRISM program. Specifically, she said the Internet was “new or uncharted territory for all of us.” Merkel’s words immediately became the target of a widespread meme. According to Der Spiegel, #Neuland began trending on Twitter within minutes, and images and gifs that poke fun at Merkel from different angles began circulating shortly thereafter. Some images cast Merkel as a luddite or “Internet granny,” while others depicted her as a futuristic imperialist with designs on the new world.

(Image source: Know Your Meme: Neuland)

When people hear the name Richard Dawkins, they might think of the Oxford educated evolutionary biologist, or perhaps the world’s most famous atheist, which he is. But according to Dawkins, he is also the “father of the meme.” In Dawkins’ recent Just for Hits Talk, he reminds us that he is the man who gave the world the term “meme” and claims he would rather leave behind memes than genes. In his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, he used the term to explain the non-genetic transmission of meaning and social habits among human beings. Like genes, memes are replicators, but in the cultural rather than biological sense.  Dawkins claims they spread “blog to blog” rather than “brain to brain.”

In addition to being carriers of culture, memes have a social and political function; they galvanize and mobilize people. We’ve seen this globally over time and more recently in citizen-led protests in China and Turkey, the coup in Egypt, and civil war in Syria. The Neuland meme clearly conveys the frustration that people feel when government representatives and policy makers are out of touch with their needs and everyday experiences. Younger, tech savvy generations around the world are losing patience and respect for leaders with outdated mindsets who lack real-world knowledge and skills. The Neuland meme is an expression of the collective political disenchantment of our day. Its meaning transcends race, class, gender and state boundaries to resonate with citizens around the world, not just with Germans. Seeing Merkel as an Internet granny calls to mind other images that express citizens’ lack of faith in technologically challenged world leaders.

As the population of Internet users increases, questions about how ideas are generated and spread drive communication studies and information sciences forward. More than a decade ago, philosopher Daniel Dennett stated in TED talk that “people are surprisingly resistant to applying evolutionary thinking to thinking.” Today, however, the spread of ideas online is often described in biological terms—“going viral” being one of the most prominent—and the Internet’s ecosystem is undeniably lively. Ideas meet and mix and reproduce. They spread across online landscapes remarkably like wildflowers and behave at times like wildfire. There is life on the Internet, but what influences the birth and lifespan of a single meme is still uncertain.

In his Just for Hits Talk, Dawkins argued that a meme one creates “may live on long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool.” We know the Twittersphere had a good laugh at the chancellor’s gaff last month, but it remains to be seen how long the effects of #Neuland will last. Angela Merkel is up for reelection in September, and we will find out if the Neuland meme is political terra firma or not. Chancellor Merkel is probably hoping this particular meme will not be her legacy, but that is for German citizens and global netizens to decide.

#imweekly: July 8, 2013

As of July 3, President Mohamed Morsi is out of office, but much of the Western world is still not sure about what happened in Egypt and why. Was it a coup d’état or not? Wikipedia is calling it the “2013 Egyptian coup d’état,” but whether the term fits is being contested. Foreign Policy blogger Marya Hannun breaks down the Wikipedia edit war surrounding Morsi’s ousting. So-called wiki-wars over acceptable phraseology and editing have been waged before.  Relatedly: viewing events in Egypt from a social media perspective offers valuable insight into how social media and networking sites, namely YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, factor into current political discourse and social change. For example, the opposition group, Tamarod, enlisted a range of media platforms to shape its campaign and gather more than 20 million signatures leading up to demonstration calling for Morsi’s removal.

Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is being criticized for harsh sentences recently handed down for seven cyber activists arrested in 2011 for Facebook posts. The men were accused of joining and using Facebook with the intention of starting protests. Political gatherings and public protests are prohibited in Saudi Arabia. The men were charged with crimes including illegal information gathering and “breaking allegiance with the king.” Abd al-Hamid al-Amer received 10 years in jail, the longest sentence. Other defendants—Ali Ali al-Hadlaq, Hussein Mohammed al-Bathir, Mostafa Hussein al-Mujahad, Mohammed Abd a-Hadi al-Khalifa, Hussein Yasin al-Sulayman, and Saleh Ali al-Shaya—received lesser sentences. The men also lost the right to travel freely within and outside the kingdom (rights that men are usually given freely in Saudi Arabia), and restrictions were placed on their future freedom of expression, including bans on public speaking and writing.

On July 1, the Chinese government instituted an online petitioning system intended to update its centuries-old petitioning custom. The website is intended to enable citizens to post petitions and air grievances concerning issues such as forced evictions, pollution, or corruption. However, as soon as the site was launched, it crashed. The response was great enough—beyond government expectations and the website’s capacity—to result in a shutdown that sparked excited debate about the cause. Some Weibo users suggested the crash was an act of censorship. WeiboSuite, a platform created by students at Hong Kong University interested in Internet censorship, reports the government has been monitoring and removing citizens’ posts from the petition site. The official government response is that it underestimated response rates and the website was simply overwhelmed.

A Lahore High Court has rejected an interim order to restore YouTube services across the country. Bytes for All, an NGO dedicated to ICTs for development, democracy, and social justice, filed the petition several months ago. In September 2012, the Pakistan People’s Party government banned the video-sharing site in response to widespread public outrage about the dissemination of a film deemed blasphemous for taking offensive positions against the Prophet. YouTube was banned after its parent company, Google, denied official requests to take down the film. Pakistan’s religious communities and members of the information technology sector remain deep in debate as to how the county will regulate the Internet so as to uphold Islamic values as well as citizen’s rights. Saad Rassol, a lawyer from Lahore, explains in a post for Pakistan Today, “It is not simply a question of whether YouTube should be unblocked because it serves an academic or social purpose. It is a question of whether we preserve individual freedoms, and discourse, even at the cost of being offended by the words of the speaker, from time to time. Or will we descend into becoming a society where subjective morality and religious sensitivities become a sword to silence tongues and stamp out all debate.”

#IMweekly is a weekly round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

Greek Citizen Journalists Play Prominent Role in Response to Media Blackout

On June 11, signals for the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, known as ERT, went silent. Immediately after the government-ordered blackout, Greek journalists, many of whom had just lost their jobs, staged a 24-hour strike, refused to leave ERT headquarters, and continued to report the news on the Internet through the European Broadcasting Union, which is maintaining ERT’s radio and television frequencies via live stream on the EUB website.

Stating that ERT needed to save money and restructure, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s government suspended operations at the public network (comprised of 19 regional channels, four national channels—one that broadcast abroad—six radio stations, a TV guide magazine, websites and the national audiovisual archives). Plans were announced to reopen later in 2013 under the new name Hellenic Radio, Internet, and Television (NERIT). A blogger at Troktiko said in a news report, “We registered the domain name www.nerit.gr as soon as the new name was announced.”  The blog’s name means rodent in Greek and is a popular news source in Greece with an intriguing history and a reputation for hard-hitting investigative journalism.

Screen shot from www.NERIT.gr on June 12. “It’s not just about ERT, it’s about democracy.” Photo credit: Leigh Graham

Members of the Greek blogosphere were delighted and amused with the news, suggesting the government’s failure to register the domain name before publicly announcing it showed “how pathetic they are.” Internet users visiting NERIT.gr, before it was surreptitiously taken down, received live stream news, a ghoulish meme face, and the message: “It’s not just about ERT, it’s about democracy.” They were also redirected to the blog pitsaria-pou-eskise. This blog’s name is a riff on Samaras’s suggestion in an interview last year that his business experience running a pizzeria during his college days in America had prepared him to run the country. Pitsaria pou eskise is a colloquialism and translates roughly as “the pizzeria did extremely well or was a massive hit.” Samaras’s awkward attempt to relate to the people was quickly picked up by bloggers and turned into a taunt. NERIT.gr has been taken down, but pitsaria-pou-eskise.gr is still up and doing extremely well.

The days following the shutdown may have been a score for Greek netizens; yet, citizens on the ground were shocked and suffering. More than 2,500 people lost their jobs, and many people living in rural villages and remote islands where ERT is the sole source of outside information were cut off from current news as well as cultural programming.

The blackout of a national broadcaster, massive layoffs, and the isolation of entire communities of citizens are troubling events, and both professional and citizen journalists swiftly responded with collective voice and clear demands. Internet-based citizen media has been developing in Greece for a while. Radio Bubble is a good example. Operated out of a café in Athens, it is a mixed-media network of websites, radio channels, blogs, Twitter, and other online sources that blurs boundaries between being a member of a community on the Internet, on the air and on the streets. In classic power-to-the-people style, Radio Bubble exists to report underreported news in real time through the unfiltered lenses of tech-savvy, everyday activists. Radio Bubble also runs a program called Hackademyteaching citizen journalism skills such as using smartphones to interview and document real-time events, using laptops to edit films, and using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to post real-time reporting. Hackademy also offers courses on how to verify stories and authenticate sources.

Thousands of demonstrators gather after Greece’s government announced the ERT closure. Photo credit: AFP/ Louisa Gouliamaki

In light of political corruption and economic turmoil presently crippling the country, many Greeks have lost faith in traditional media. Though many favor cuts in the public sector, including trimming within the notoriously mismanaged ERT, they are not pleased with the way things were handled. Aristides Hatzis, associate professor of law, economics and legal theory at the University of Athens told reporters “the ERT debacle illustrates the government’s lack of respect for the rule of law.” In response, Greek citizens took to the streets in protest, and unions launched a strike that throttled transportation and everyday business.  Their outrage also filled Internet channels.

In addition to galvanizing local citizens and members of the Greek diaspora, online reporters, Twitter users, and bloggers relentlessly demanded redress from Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. To this end, both citizen activists and opposition parties have achieved some gains. On June 17, ERT was ordered to reopen but has not resumed broadcasting. The EUB website reports, “The Council of State ordered the Greek government to restore the ERT signal and take all appropriate organizational measures to continue broadcasting through the ERT frequencies and Internet sites until a new public service broadcaster is established.” Ramifications from the ERT shutdown and stalled reopening are sure to play out for weeks, months, maybe even years to come. The outcome remains to be seen; however, one thing is certain: the Internet and citizen media have been irrevocably cast as lead actors in Greece’s continuing political drama.

Syrian Citizens Launch Memes and Throw Shoes in Viral Internet Campaign

Syria’s tech-savvy and socially engaged citizens are resisting the state in creative ways. Conflict is never black and white, and in today’s ever-more-connected world, attempts to address conflict are often quite colorful. This was evident earlier this month when Chinese bloggers morphed a classic photo of citizen resistance from Tiananmen Square, changing a line of government tanks into a parade of big yellow ducks. The image was powerful and provocative; thus the role of the meme in Chinese social media. 

Syrian citizens’ imaginations are also playing out colorfully on the Internet. Taking a closer look at the nuances of Syria’s resistance movement can help us complicate the oversimplified and often exoticized picture of people and events in the Middle East that is presented in popular media. In a recent article for Jadaliyya, Berkman fellow and researcher Donatella Della Ratta suggests, “As much as images of violence, civil war, and sectarian strife become prominent in the media narrative of the Syrian uprising, little gems of innovative cultural production, artistic resistance, and creative disobedience continue to sprout across the virtual alleys of the Internet.”

So what does a civil society movement on the Internet look like in a time of civil war?  In the case of the “I am with Syria” campaign, it looks much like a volley of artistic images with subtle political messages. The back and forth that started on the streets continues to play out on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

Eye-catching posters began to show up in Syria around the time the uprising began in March 2011. The first round of images was published by the al-Bashar regime and featured the phrase, “I am with the law.” Iterations included, “whether progressive or conservative, I am with the law,” “whether boy or girl, …” and “whether young or old, ….” Citizens were insulted by the campaign’s assumption that the law was the exclusive domain of the state and that anyone opposed to the regime was outside the law. They responded initially by vandalizing the posters, but soon developed a less aggressive form of resistance. They designed their own posters with their own slogans, riffing on both “I am with the law” and on an updated version of the government campaign that used “I am with Syria, my demands are your demands” as the primary text.  These user-generated designs—ranging from “I am with Syria, my demands are freedom,” to increasingly humorous and satirical statements—appealed to Syrians’ sense of humor, beauty, and creativity rather than instigating division and bloodshed.

“I am with the law” government billboard campaign in Damascus Photo credit: Donatella Della Ratta. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license

Citizen-generated versions of the posters showed up on the streets and were widely disseminated online, particularly on Facebook. In May 2011, the “I am with Syria” Facebook page was launched; it continues to post images and host comments. One of the resistance posters states, “I am with Syria, I lost my shoes,” which is a cultural reference suggesting that people have thrown their shoes at al-Bashar as an expression of their disrespect. When a man threw his shoes at George Bush in 2008, it made global headlines. Throwing your shoe at someone is a serious insult in the Arab world. “I lost my shoes” is just one of the culturally rich jokes, parodies, and satirical slogans that went viral as part of the “I am with Syria” Internet campaign..

Collage of remixed versions of the original posters. one reads “My was is your way but the tank is in the way” and another “I am with the law, but where is it?” Image courtesy of Ammar Alani via Donatella Della Ratta.

“I am with Syria” is a playing out across the Internet like a conversation in the language of memes that gets a clear message of political resistance across, without inciting further violence in a country already ravaged by civil war. The central image of the campaign has always been an upward reaching human arm that represents an alif- the first of 28 characters in the Arabic alphabet. Atop the alif is a hamza, (an Arabic marker equivalent to a vowel sound in English). A human hand stands in for the hamza. The hand is open in both government and citizen- inspired posters. That the counter campaign kept the open hand speaks to its central spirit and purpose. The hand could have been a fist- a classic symbol of resistance- fight the power so to speak- but this hand is extended and open, waiting for another hand to grab on and link up.  One of the strategies of war is to divide and fracture communities; in the case of Syria, the Internet is helping people in battle-weary communities stay connected.

“Whether Anti or Pro-Regime, You Are Still My Brother..” Photo credit: http://www.tacticalmediafiles.net/