Monthly Archives: April 2008

Politics 2.0 Conference: Misplaced Optimism?

In all the panels I have thus far attended at the Politics 2.0 conference in London, the majority of presenters have expressed their optimism regarding the democratizing and liberalizing impact of the information revolution. I’m still uncomfortable with this position. Panelists at this conference are scholars, not state officials from repressive regimes. This necessarily means there is only of side of the debate being represented at the conference.

I have noted my concern regarding this unchallenged optimism at several Q & A sessions, referring to the increasing ability of governments to monitor and censor information on the Web. To this end, I have repeatedly cited the Berkman Center‘s excellent empirical study on internet filtering: “Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering.” For some reason, many scholars at the conference assume that civil society and social networks are the only beneficiaries of the information revolution.

This is simply not the case. Governments also benefit from the dramatic decline in communication and associated technologies that the information revolution has spurred. The costs of monitoring and the technical difficulty of censorship are declining, not increasing. Again, I would refer any optimists to read the Berkman’s study.

In conclusion, I am concerned about the widespread interchangeable use of the terms Web 2.0 and Social Web. Using the latter, which seems to be the more popular term among panelists at this conference, implies a Web free of government influence; the Social Web is too easily perceived as the “People’s Web”, which is particularly misleading. Web 2.0 is also referred to the “Read/Write Web”; this is an improvement vis-a-vis terminology since it doesn’t imply social ownership over government ownership. At the same time, however, I would modify the term as follows: Read/Write/Edit/Delete/Censor Web.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Politics 2.0 Conference: Waiting for Rheingold?

I am blogging live from the Politics 2.0 conference in London where Joss Hands just gave a talk on “Mobil(e)ising the Multitude: The Political Significance of Mobility in Contemporary Protest and Resistance Movements.” A long title for a long talk that could have been labeled as “A Critique of Rheingold’s Smart Mobs“. I was disappointed in not hearing a talk based on the first title. In any case, it was still interesting to listen to a review of Smart Mobs.

One of the interesting points made by Joss was in relation to reputation and reputations systems discussed by Rheingold. While the latter sees these as self-organized, Joss suggests they are not dissimilar to surveillance systems and profiling, a point that had not occurred to me before. The presenter put forward solidarity as an alternative means of reputation, which resonates with my study of social resistance and nonviolent movements. At the same time, however, reputation systems of the likes of eBay and Amazon are not exactly panopticons in the strict sense that Joss articulates. Individuals register in order to gain profit. In that sense, participation is self-motivated.

Joss also argues that Rheingold’s description of Smart Mobs as emergent behavior does not reflect reality. He describes the behavior observed in the Philippine SMS revolution, for example, as a series of cascades, i.e., not instantaneous. Joss notes that it was the official opposition party in the Philippines that started the text messaging, which then spread out in waves. Here Joss is a little off. Emergent behavior does not imply instantaneous action. Furthermore, Smart Mob behavior is no less emergent if government communication mobilizes the multitude. So while Joss argues that we have yet to see actual Smart Mob behavior, I’m not convinced we’re still waiting for Rheingold (see waiting for Godot).

In conclusion, there is a problem with academics drawing on popular science concepts such as emergence without understanding the science behind emergence. Joss used the word at least a dozen times to discredit some of Rheingold’s arguments but he never provided an appropriate definition let alone any definition.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Politics 2.0 Conference: Politics of Cyberconflicts

Athina Karatzogianni is Lecturer in Media, Culture and Society at the University of Hull. I recently read her very interesting book on The Politics of Cyberconflict: Security, Ethnoreligious and Sociopolitical conflicts. She gave a presentation on her book at the Politics 2.0 conference here in London. The topic of her book and presentation is closely aligned with my dissertation research. She focuses on the impact of the Internet on dissident and protest activity.

I very much agree with Dr. Karatzogianni’s comment that file-trading networks like Kazaa and Gnutella increasingly facilitate communication between dissidents since they have no central source and would be harder to turn off. Indeed, some scholars assert that the rise in peer-to-peer (P2P) communication networks threaten authoritarian rule. She also emphasizes the significance of “technologically enhanced tactics” which I find to be an important factor that may play in favor of social resistant groups. Because these groups are decentralized and mobile, their organizational structures may allow them to better capitalize on distributed and mobile ICTs.

Dr. Karatzogianni and I are also on the same page vis-a-vis the outcome of the Internet’s impact of state-society relations. As she argues, it remains to be seen whether it will develop into a powerful engine for democratization, or will fall under the pressure and regulation of authoritarian regimes. I recently blogged about this specific issue here.

Dr. Karatzogianni concluded her presentation with the interesting notion that the Internet may be leading states in the direction of more networked organizational structures while enabling dissidents to become more efficient in their capacity to organize. In other words, the two actors are becoming more similar in their organizational topologies. This is not an entirely new notion, however, as the same argument has been made in the netcentric warfare literature. In contrast, network theory suggests that as a hierarchical organization takes on a networked organization, the latter becomes more decentralized and the former more centralized.

During the Q & A session, I asked Dr. Karatzogianni whether two years on since writing her book she still feels that she has changed her mind about which side, state or society, will gain the upper hand thanks to the Internet. She replied yes, she’s more inclined to believe that as the periphery becomes increasingly connected, we may very well see “dissidents of the world unite” since the core will be less effective in providing ideologies of interest to the periphery in response to globalization’s increasing challenges and divides. This certainly echoes some of the research on the rise of fundamentalism such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. While I would like to think she is right, I think it still remains to be seen which side will make more effective use of ICTs, as I blogged about here.

I had coffee with Athina after the talk and had a great chat with her about our shared interests.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Politics 2.0 Conference: Social Network Analysis

“The Politics of Blogging” is the first panel I am bloggling live from at the Politics 2.0 conference in London. In what reflects an increasing interest in applying social network analysis (SNA) to blogosphere dynamics, two of the three papers applied SNA to political blogs in South Korea and Greece. See my previous blog on mapping the persion blogosphere here.

The first presentation was entitled “Social Network Analysis of Ideological Landscapes from the Political Blogosphere: The Case of South Korea.” The presenter argued that South Korea provides an ideal case study for network analysis. The country has seen important grassroots activities prior to the arrival of the Internet; there have been periods of demonstrations, student and worker revolutions/protests. South Korea also has the highest proportion of broadband users in the world. The analysis drew on the 115 blogs of the country’s 219 assembly members and their blog rolls.

The result of the analysis presented an interesting contrast to the results of SNA studies carried out on Republicans and Democrats in the US. South Korea’s political blogosphere was far less polarized. In fact, a substantial number of blogs linked to both the political-right and center parties. The main drawback of the study is the lack of statistical analysis applied to the network map, let alone any statistical analysis of dynamics and trends over time.

The presentation on the Greek political blogosphere applied standard SNA metrics to teethe out some of the underlying structures of the network. The case study focused specifically on the recent debate that took place on the Web with respect to the presidential elections for the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK).

What I appreciate about this paper is the application of statistical analysis to the network map. Indeed,one reason for using mathematical and graphical techniques in social network analysis is to represent the descriptions of networks compactly and systematically. A related reason for using formal methods for representing social networks is that mathematical representations allow us to use software programs to analyze the network data. The third, and final reason for using mathematics and graphs for representing social network data is that the techniques of graphing and the rules of mathematics themselves suggest properties that we might look for in our networked data—features that might not have occurred to us if we presented our data using descriptions in words. These reasons are articulated by Hanneman and Riddle here.

Another reason I liked the paper is that the authors tied their analysis to the existing literature, e.g., Drezner and Farrel’s paper on the power and politics of blogs. Disclaimer: Professor Daniel Drezner is the chair of my dissertation committee. One of the interesting points that came out of the Q & A was the suggestion of studying negative links, i.e., those bloggers who tell others not to look at certain blogs. I had the last comment of the Q & A session in which I relayed to the panelists Berkman’s recent study on the Iranian blogosphere. My recommendations to the panelists were the same I gave to a colleague of mine at Berkman. These are included in my previous blog on Berkman’s work.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Politics 2.0 Conference: Keynote Speakers

I am in London this week blogging live from Politics 2.0: An International Conference.

The conference kicked off with two Keynote speakers:

  • Robin Mansell: Head of Department of Media and Communications at LSE and co-Director of PhD program;
  • Helen Margetts: Professor of Society and Internet at the Oll.

Looking at the other keynote speakers lined up for the rest of the conference, it’s really refreshing to have panels that are far more gender balanced than the majority of conferences I’ve been to.

Professor Mansell introduce her presentation on “The Light and Dark Side of Web 2.0″ but asking what Marx would say about the social web. User-generated contend means that the user/citizen is now co-producer, and co-owner of the means of production. The flip side, however, is that the information generated is less trustworthy and risk avoidance more prevalent among participants.

Professor Mansell also noted that historically, shifts in power have been partial and often local, in their consequences; we should expect the same in the Web 2.0 age. Scarce resources in this age include data/information management capabilities and time. In other words, actors seek control of difficult to replicate assets. In conclusion, Professor Mansell emphasized the need for further empirical. When asked what areas needed the most intention, she replied that the impact of Web 2.0 on human rights had the most pressing need for empirical study. To this send, see my blog entries on Human Rights 2.0 here and here.

I need to run to the next panel on social network analysis of blogospheres but just wanted to note one of Professor Margetts concluding points: “Ignore young people at your own peril.” This point is worth emphasizing since those adopting the latest distributed, decentralized and mobile ICTs are young people. Given that quantitative studies in the political science literature on civil wars argue that youth bulges potentially increase both opportunities and motives for political violence. Will the increasingly rapid diffusion of ICTs dampen this potentiality? Will the ICTs mediate tensions towards more nonviolent action?

Patrick Philippe Meier

The Economist and NYT on Mobile Phones

The New York Times asks “Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?” while The Economist asks what happens “When Everybody Becomes a Nomadic Monitor”? The two articles provide interesting insights into future iRevolutions.

The trend towards “human-centered design” as identified in the NYT article has important implications for iRevolutions (see my previous blog on people-centered conflict early warning). Technology companies initially catered their designs to large firms and organizations. Indeed, the name IBM says it all: International Business Machines. The information communication technologies (ICTs) of the time necessarily took on “institution-centered designs” since they sought to enhance existing institutional processes.

Today, however, the final frontier for mobile companies is the 3 billion people who don’t own mobile phones, yet. The profit potential is astronomical. Indeed, “people in the mobile-handset business talk about adding customers not by the millions but by the billions.” (NYT).

According to statistics from the market database Wireless Intelligence, it took about 20 years for the first billion mobile phones to sell worldwide. The second billion sold in four years, and the third billion sold in two. Eighty percent of the world’s population now lives within range of a cellular network, which is double the level in 2000 (NYT).

One of the last barriers remains that of price. Not to worry though, where there is profit to be made, competition oft follows. Nokia, Vodafone and the new kid on the block, Spice Limited, are entangled in a tight race to tap into the multi-billion dollar potential. Spice Limited recently announced plans to roll out a $20 mobile phone and there’s even talk of a $5 phone on the horizon. Meanwhile, a new study cited by the NYT found that “even very poor families invested a significant amount of money in the I.C.T. category.”

So what are the implications for future iRevolutions? Are we likely to see more spontaneous organization and just-in-time mobilization of political protests and social resistance? Or will repressive regimes gain the upper hand? In her interview with The Economist, Katrin Verclas of MobileActive sums up her views:

Like every other technology human beings have ever invented [...] the tools of nomadism arm both sides in the eternal tug-of-war between good and evil. But there is room for optimism, she thinks, because the side with good intentions is more numerous and—so far, at least—has proved more imaginative.

Is this indeed the case? That is the question and subject of my dissertation—and I don’t have an answer yet. Whether these ICTs are made for activism and whether that’s just what they’ll do remains for now an open-ended question. As Karl Popper noted in “The Poverty of Historicism”, we can’t predict the future precisely because technological breakthroughs are inherently unpredictable.

At the moment, the latest empirical study on state censorship by the Berkman Center suggests repressive regimes remain in control of the information revolution. On the other hand, The Economist suggests that mobile phones lend themselves to more mobile activisim since “nomadic technology can expose human-rights abuses as honest citizens use technology to monitor and expose crimes and co-ordinate the response.” To be sure, ICTs today are increasingly distributed, decentralized and mobile—three characteristics that certainly do not describe repressive regimes.

(Incidentally, the use of the term nomadic is particularly apt. I was in the Western Sahara some five years ago doing field research on the conflict between the POLISARIO and the Moroccan Monarchy. I happened upon a Sahraoui Sheikh, who would delight in telling me, repeatedly, that mobile phones were made especially for nomads).

At the same time, however, repressive regimes have shown guile and aptitude in their ability to monitor and censor information. They continue to mount “information blockades” rendering “data smuggling” at times more challenging. So how significant is it that those with good intentions are more numerous? How important is imagination and tactical innovation? What other factors might determine the winner of the tug-of-war? Stay tuned, I’ll be frequently blogging about my findings as I pursue my dissertation over the next two years.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Escape from Fallujah: Survival and Technology

Who are the most targeted Iraqis? Who among the millions of displaced Iraqis are actively sought out for assassination? They are none other than those who served as interpreters for the US armed forces, as civil society experts for the State Department and USAID, or those employed with the many US companies and NGOs contracted to rebuild the country. They are the most hunted class of Iraqis in the war-torn country. So what is the US government doing to thank them for their services? Nothing.

In December 2006, Kirk Johnson received an email from a former Iraqi colleague he had worked with on a USAID project in Fallujah the previous year. His colleague had just received this death threat:

He had found the note on his front steps pinned to the severed head of a dog. The note reads: “Your head will be next.” When the Iraqi employee reported this to USAID, the Agency simply gave him one month of paid leave and then hired someone else, effectively firing him. Thanks Uncle Sam. So he and his wife packed what they could and fled Iraq, and this after years of service to the US.

I Just had dinner with Kirk Johnson who was recounting the story. He gravely feared for his colleague’s life and was at a loss about how to help. In desperation, he submitted an Op-Ed to the LA Times in the hopes of raising awareness about his colleague’s fate. Soon thereafter, Kirk began hearing from many other Iraqis enduring similar ordeals. His Op-Ed had been widely circulated by these Iraqis and they began to seek his help. His phone started ringing several times a day, and soon several times an hour. He also received numerous text messages from Iraqis fearing for their lives. Indeed, his phone rang several times during our dinner.

Again, he was at a loss about what to do. So he just started a spreadsheet and kept updating the list of Iraqis who made contact with him. Having been one of the only Arabic speaking employees on the USAID project, Kirk had made many Iraqi friends. So he searched for them, using email, phone and SMS. Several weeks later, the list had grown significantly and he had accounted for all his former colleagues. He then took the list to the State Department. His efforts were not well received by State but they nevertheless committed to referring the list to UNHCR for priority processing. When other Iraqis learned of Kirk’s list, he received even more emails and text messages. His efforts were recently featured on Anderson Cooper 360

What I find stunning is that this Youtube video has only been viewed 155 times (!)

Kirk Johnson‘s list grew by the hundreds and he now has some 1,000 individuals on his list. Each person on this list continues to fear for their life on a daily basis. Kirk wanted to find a way to expedite the refugee asylum process, which often takes up to a year for any given individual. So he set up the The List Project.

This initiative partners with law firms in an unprecedented effort to provide pro bono legal services for hundreds of Iraqis who worked with allies now seeking refuge in the US. The law firms involved, Holland & Knight LLP and Proskauer Rose LLP, are also using ICTs to their advantage. They set up an Intranet between the two firms so that the 100 attorneys working on The List Project can share information on effective strategies and communicate their lessons learned. A DVD has also been made to train attorneys who seek to volunteer their time to saving Iraqi lives.

Together, the firms have committed thousands of hours of pro bono work to help US-affiliated Iraqis navigate the labyrinthine resettlement process. To date, they have successfully represented the cases of more than 80 Iraqis and their families who now live in peace in America. This number includes Kirk’s colleague who had first contacted him. He and his wife are now safe.

Kirk has received funding from several anonymous donors which has enabled him to hire three of the Iraqis he helped resettle to the US. The team continues to use email, phone, SMS and also instant messaging to communicate with hundreds of Iraqis who remain the main target for insurgents. The List Project is now seeking funds to support Iraqis who do make it to the US. Until recently, all the US government provided was a measly $200 for the first two month. Even more upsetting is the fact that each refugee is required to pay back the full fare of their flight ticket to the US. So much for the symbolism represented by the Statue of Liberty.

The Iraqi refugees are given low-wage jobs in factories and warehouses. At least they’re alive, right? Sure, but these refugees are well educated, they are doctors, interpreters etc., which is why Kirk and his colleagues are looking for funds specifically geared towards resettlement once they do arrive in the land of the free. It may come as a surprise that two of the Iraqis who made it to the US, subsequently returned to the region some two weeks later given the lack of support they received from the US government when they arrived.

Kirk is as humble as his story is extraordinary. While more than 80 Iraqis have been successfully resettled to the US, he is hesitant to call this success: “There are still one thousand names on that list, and the list keeps growing.” Kirk’s story will be featured on 60 Minutes in two weeks. He hopes this will raise more awareness about the plight of US-affiliated Iraqis. The feature will only be aired once since it includes interviews with Iraqis still waiting to be resettled. I highly recommend watching the piece.

In the meantime, please think about joining The List Project’s Facebook group. It is worth emphasizing that all Kirk had back in December 2006 was a mobile phone and a laptop. Technology can make the difference when used by extraordinary individuals.

Patrick Philippe Meier