Tag Archives: elections

Artificial Intelligence for Monitoring Elections (AIME)

AIME logo

I published a blog post with the same title a good while back. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Citizen-based, crowdsourced election observation initiatives are on the rise. Leading election monitoring organizations are also looking to leverage citizen-based reporting to complement their own professional election monitoring efforts. Meanwhile, the information revolution continues apace, with the number of new mobile phone subscriptions up by over 1 billion in just the past 36 months alone. The volume of election-related reports generated by “the crowd” is thus expected to grow significantly in the coming years. But international, national and local election monitoring organizations are completely unprepared to deal with the rise of Big (Election) Data.

I thus introduced a new project to “develop a free and open source platform to automatically filter relevant election reports from the crowd.” I’m pleased to report that my team and I at QCRI have just tested AIME during an actual election for the very first time—the 2015 Nigerian Elections. My QCRI Research Assistant Peter Mosur (co-author of this blog post) collaborated directly with Oludotun Babayemi from Clonehouse Nigeria and Chuks Ojidoh from the Community Life Project & Reclaim Naija to deploy and test the AIME platform.

AIME is a free and open source (experimental) solution that combines crowd-sourcing with Artificial Intelligence to automatically identify tweets of interest during major elections. As organizations engaged in election monitoring well know, there can be a lot chatter on social media as people rally behind their chosen candidates, announce this to the world, ask their friends and family who they will be voting for, and updating others when they have voted while posting about election related incidents they may have witnessed. This can make it rather challenging to find reports relevant to election monitoring groups.


Election monitors typically monitor instances of violence, election rigging, and voter issues. These incidents are monitored because they reveal problems that arise with the elections. Election monitoring initiatives such as Reclaim Naija & Uzabe also monitor several other type of incidents but for the purposes of testing the AIME platform, we selected three types of events mentioned above. In order to automatically identify tweets related to these events, one must first provide AIME with example tweets. (Of course, if there is no Twitter traffic to begin with, then there won’t be much need for AIME, which is precisely why we developed an SMS extension that can be used with AIME).

So where does the crowdsourcing comes in? Users of AIME can ask the crowd to tag tweets related to election-violence, rigging and voter issues by simply clicking on tagging tweets posted to the AIME platform with the appropriate event type. (Several quality control mechanisms are built in to ensure data quality. Also, one does not need to use crowdsourcing to tag the tweets; this can be done internally as well or instead). What AIME does next is use a technique from Artificial Intelligence (AI) called statistical machine learning to understand patterns in the human-tagged tweets. In other words, it begins to recognize which tweets belong in which category type—violence, rigging and voter issues. AIME will then auto-classify new tweets that are related to these categories (and can auto-classify around 2 millions tweets or text messages per minute).

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Before creating our automatic classifier for the Nigerian Elections, we first needed to collect examples of tweets related to election violence, rigging and voter issues in order to teach AIME. Oludotun Babayemi and Chuks Ojidoh kindly provided the expert local knowledge needed to identify the keywords we should be following on Twitter (using AIME). They graciously gave us many different keywords to use as well as a list of trusted Twitter accounts to follow for election-related messages. (Due to difficulties with AIME, we were not able to use the trusted accounts. In addition, many of the suggested keywords were unusable since words like “aggressive”, “detonate”, and “security” would have resulted in large amount of false positives).

Here is the full list of keywords used by AIME:

Nigeria elections, nigeriadecides, Nigeria decides, INEC, GEJ, Change Nigeria, Nigeria Transformation, President Jonathan, Goodluck Jonathan, Sai Buhari, saibuhari, All progressives congress, Osibanjo, Sambo, Peoples Democratic Party, boko haram, boko, area boys, nigeria2015, votenotfight, GEJwinsit, iwillvoteapc, gmb2015, revoda, thingsmustchange,  and march4buhari   

Out of this list, “NigeriaDecides” was by far the most popular keyword used in the elections. It accounted for over 28,000 Tweets of a batch of 100,000. During the week leading up to the elections, AIME collected roughly 800,000 Tweets. Over the course of the elections and the few days following, the total number of collected Tweets jumped to well over 4 million.

We sampled just a handful of these tweets and manually tagged those related to violence, rigging and other voting issues using AIME. “Violence” was described as “threats, riots, arming, attacks, rumors, lack of security, vandalism, etc.” while “Election Rigging” was described as “Ballot stuffing, issuing invalid ballot papers, voter impersonation, multiple voting, ballot boxes destroyed after counting, bribery, lack of transparency, tampered ballots etc.” Lastly, “Voting Issues” was defined as “Polling station logistics issues, technical issues, people unable to vote, media unable to enter, insufficient staff, lack of voter assistance, inadequate voting materials, underage voters, etc.”

Any tweet that did not fall into these three categories was tagged as “Other” or “Not Related”. Our Election Classifiers were trained with a total of 571 human-tagged tweets which enabled AIME to automatically classify well over 1 million tweets (1,263,654 to be precise). The results in the screenshot below show accurate AIME was at auto-classifying tweets based on the different event types define earlier. AUC is what captures the “overall accuracy” of AIME’s classifiers.


AIME was rather good at correctly tagging tweets related to “Voting Issues” (98% accuracy) but drastically poor at tagging related to “Election Rigging” (0%). This is not AIME’s fault : ) since it only had 8 examples to learn from. As for “Violence”, the accuracy score was 47%, which is actually surprising given that AIME only had 14 human-tagged examples to learn from. Lastly, AIME did fairly well at auto-classifying unrelated tweets (accuracy of 86%).

Conclusion: this was the first time we tested AIME during an actual election and we’ve learned a lot in the process. The results are not perfect but enough to press on and experiment further with the AIME platform. If you’d like to test AIME yourself (and if you fully recognize that the tool is experimental and still under development, hence not perfect), then feel free to get in touch with me here. We have 2 slots open for testing. In the meantime, big thanks to my RA Peter for spearheading both this deployment and the subsequent research.

Proof: How Crowdsourced Election Monitoring Makes a Difference

My colleagues Catie Bailard & Steven Livingston have just published the results of their empirical study on the impact of citizen-based crowdsourced election monitoring. Readers of iRevolution may recall that my doctoral dissertation analyzed the use of crowdsourcing in repressive environments and specifically during contested elections. This explains my keen interest in the results of my colleagues’ news data-driven study, which suggests that crowdsourcing does have a measurable and positive impact on voter turnout.

Reclaim Naija

Catie and Steven are “interested in digitally enabled collective action initiatives” spearheaded by “nonstate actors, especially in places where the state is incapable of meeting the expectations of democratic governance.” They are particularly interested in measuring the impact of said initiatives. “By leveraging the efficiencies found in small, incremental, digitally enabled contributions (an SMS text, phone call, email or tweet) to a public good (a more transparent election process), crowdsourced elections monitoring constitutes [an] important example of digitally-enabled collective action.” To be sure, “the successful deployment of a crowdsourced elections monitoring initiative can generate information about a specific political process—information that would otherwise be impossible to generate in nations and geographic spaces with limited organizational and administrative capacity.”

To this end, their new study tests for the effects of citizen-based crowdsourced election monitoring efforts on the 2011 Nigerian presidential elections. More specifically, they analyzed close to 30,000 citizen-generated reports of failures, abuses and successes which were publicly crowdsourced and mapped as part of the Reclaim Naija project. Controlling for a number of factors, Catie and Steven find that the number and nature of crowdsourced reports is “significantly correlated with increased voter turnout.”

Reclaim Naija 2

What explains this correlation? The authors “do not argue that this increased turnout is a result of crowdsourced reports increasing citizens’ motivation or desire to vote.” They emphasize that their data does not speak to individual citizen motivations. Instead, Catie and Steven show that “crowdsourced reports provided operationally critical information about the functionality of the elections process to government officials. Specifically, crowdsourced information led to the reallocation of resources to specific polling stations (those found to be in some way defective by information provided by crowdsourced reports) in preparation for the presidential elections.”

(As an aside, this finding is also relevant for crowdsourced crisis mapping efforts in response to natural disasters. In these situations, citizen-generated disaster reports can—and in some cases do—provide humanitarian organizations with operationally critical information on disaster damage and resulting needs).

In sum, “the electoral deficiencies revealed by crowdsourced reports […] provided actionable information to officials that enabled them to reallocate election resources in preparation for the presidential election […]. This strengthened the functionality of those polling stations, thereby increasing the number of votes that could be successfully cast and counted–an argument that is supported by both quantitative and qualitative data brought to bear in this analysis.” Another important finding is that the resulting “higher turnout in the presidential election was of particular benefit to the incumbent candidate.” As Catie and Steven rightly note, “this has important implications for how various actors may choose to utilize the information generated by new [technologies].”

In conclusion, the authors argue that “digital technologies fundamentally change information environments and, by doing so, alter the opportunities and constraints that the political actors face.” This new study is an important contribution to the literature and should be required reading for anyone interested in digitally-enabled, crowdsourced collective action. Of course, the analysis focuses on “just” one case study, which means that the effects identified in Nigeria may not occur in other crowdsourced, election monitoring efforts. But that’s another reason why this study is important—it will no doubt catalyze future research to determine just how generalizable these initial findings are.


See also:

  • Traditional Election Monitoring Versus Crowdsourced Monitoring: Which Has More Impact? [link]
  • Artificial Intelligence for Monitoring Elections (AIME) [link]
  • Automatically Classifying Crowdsourced Election Reports [link]
  • Evolution in Live Mapping: The Egyptian Elections [link]

PeaceTXT Kenya: Since Wars Begin in Minds of Men

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” – 
UNESCO Constitution, 1945

Today, in Kenya, PeaceTXT is building the defenses of peace out of text messages (SMS). As The New York Times explains, PeaceTXT is developing a “text messaging service that sends out blasts of pro-peace messages to specific areas when trouble is brewing.” Launched by PopTech in partnership with the Kenyan NGO Sisi ni Amani (We are Peace), the Kenyan implementation of PeaceTXT uses mobile advertising to market peace and change men’s behaviors.

Conflicts are often grounded in the stories and narratives that people tell them-selves and in the emotions that these stories evoke. Narratives shape identity and the social construct of reality—we interpret our lives through stories. These have the power to transform or infect relationships and communities. As US-based PeaceTXT partner CureViolence (formerly CeaseFire) has clearly shown, violence propagates in much the same way as infectious diseases do. The good news is that we already know how to treat the later: by blocking transmission and treating the infected. This is precisely the approach taken by CureViolence to successfully prevent violence on the streets of Chicago, Baghdad and elsewhere.

The challenge? CureViolence cannot be everywhere at the same time. But the “Crowd” is always there and where the crowd goes, mobile phones often follow. PeaceTXT leverages this new reality by threading a social narrative of peace using mobile messages. Empirical research in public health (and mobile adver-tising) clearly demonstrates that mobile messages & reminders can change behaviors. Given that conflicts are often grounded in the narratives that people tell themselves, we believe that mobile messaging may also influence conflict behavior and possibly prevent the widespread transmission of violent mindsets.

To test this hypothesis, PopTech partnered with Sisi ni Amani in 2011 to pilot and assess the use of mobile messaging for violence interruption and prevention since SNA-K had already been using mobile messaging for almost three years to promote peace, raise awareness about civic rights and encourage recourse to legal instruments for dispute resolution. During the twelve months leading up to today’s Presidential Elections, the Kenyan NGO Sisi ni Amani (SNA-K) has worked with PopTech and PeaceTXT partners (Medic Mobile, QCRI, Ushahidi & CureViolence) to identify the causes of peace in some of the country’s most conflict-prone communities. Since wars begin in the minds of men, SNA-K has held dozens of focus groups in many local communities to better understand the kinds of messaging that might make would-be perpetrators think twice before committing violence. Focus group participants also discussed the kinds of messaging needed to counter rumors. Working with Ogilvy, a global public relations agency with expertise in social marketing, SNA-K subsequently codified the hundreds of messages developed by the local communities to produce a set of guidelines for SNA-K staff to follow. These guidelines describe what types of messages to send to whom, where and when depending on the kinds of tensions being reported.

In addition to organizing these important focus groups, SNA-K literally went door-to-door in Kenya’s most conflict-prone communities to talk with residents about PeaceTXT and invite them to subscribe to SNA-Ks free SMS service. Today, SNA-K boasts over 60,000 SMS subscribers across the country. Thanks to Safaricom, the region’s largest mobile operator, SNA-K will be able to send out 50 million text messages completely for free, which will significantly boost the NGO’s mobile reach during today’s elections. And thanks to SNA-K’s customized mobile messaging platform built by the Praekelt Foundation, the Kenyan NGO can target specific SMS’s to individual subscribers based on their location, gender and demographics. In sum, as CNN explains, “the intervention combines targeted SMS with intensive on-the-ground work by existing peace builders and community leaders to target potential flashpoints of violence.” 

The partnership with Pop-Tech enabled SNA-K to scale thanks to the new funding and strategic partnerships provided by PopTech. Today, PeaceTXT and Sisi ni Amani have already had positive impact in the lead up to today’s important elections. For example, a volatile situation in Dandora recently led to the stabbing of several individuals, which could have resulted in a serious escalation of violence. So SNA-K sent the following SMS: 

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“Tu dumisha amani!” means “Lets keep the peace!” SNA-K’s local coordinator in Dandore spoke with a number of emotionally distraught and (initially) very angry individuals in the area who said they had been ready to mobilizing and take revenge. But, as they later explained, the SMS sent out by SNA-K made them think twice. They discussed the situation and decided that more violence wouldn’t bring their friend back and would only bring more violence. They chose to resolve the volatile situation through mediation instead.

In Sagamian, recent tensions over land issues resulted in an outbreak of violence. So SNA-K sent the following message:

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Those involved in the fighting subsequently left the area, telling SNA-K that they had decided not to fight after receiving the SMS. What’s more, they even requested that additional messages to be sent. Sisi ni Amani has collected dozens of such testimonials, which suggest that PeaceTXT is indeed having an impact. Historian Geoffrey Blainey once wrote that “for every thousand pages on the causes of war, there is less than one page directly on the causes of peace.” Today, the PeaceTXT Kenya & SNAK partnership is making sure that for every one SMS that may incite violence, a thousand messages of peace, calm and solidarity will follow to change the minds of men. Tudumishe amani!


Cross-posted on PopTech blog.

Traditional vs. Crowdsourced Election Monitoring: Which Has More Impact?

Max Grömping makes a significant contribution to the theory and discourse of crowdsourced election monitoring in his excellent study: “Many Eyes of Any Kind? Comparing Traditional and Crowdsourced Monitoring and their Contribu-tion to Democracy” (PDF). This 25-page study is definitely a must-read for anyone interested in this topic. That said, Max paints a false argument when he writes: “It is believed that this new methodology almost magically improves the quality of elections […].” Perhaps tellingly, he does not reveal who exactly believes in this false magic. Nor does he cite who subscribes to the view that  “[…] crowdsourced citizen reporting is expected to have significant added value for election observation—and by extension for democracy.”

My doctoral dissertation focused on the topic of crowdsourced election observa-tion in countries under repressive rule. At no point in my research or during interviews with activists did I come across this kind of superficial mindset or opinion. In fact, my comparative analysis of crowdsourced election observation showed that the impact of these initiatives was at best minimal vis-a-vis electoral accountability—particularly in the Sudan. That said, my conclusions do align with Max’s principle findings: “the added value of crowdsourcing lies mainly in the strengthening of civil society via a widened public sphere and the accumulation of social capital with less clear effects on vertical and horizontal accountability.”

This is huge! Traditional monitoring campaigns don’t strengthen civil society or the public sphere. Traditional monitoring teams are typically composed of inter-national observers and thus do not build social capital domestically. At times, traditional election monitoring programs may even lead to more violence, as this recent study revealed. But the point is not to polarize the debate. This is not an either/or argument but rather a both/and issue. Traditional and crowdsourced election observation efforts can absolutely complement each other precisely because they each have a different comparative advantage. Max concurs: “If the crowdsourced project is integrated with traditional monitoring from the very beginning and thus serves as an additional component within the established methodology of an Election Monitoring Organization, the effect on incentive structures of political parties and governments should be amplified. It would then include the best of both worlds: timeliness, visualization and wisdom of the crowd as well as a vetted methodology and legitimacy.”

Recall Jürgen Habermas and his treatise that “those who take on the tools of open expression become a public, and the presence of a synchronized public increasingly constrains un-democratic rulers while expanding the right of that public.” Why is this important? Because crowdsourced election observation projects can potentially bolster this public sphere and create local ownership. Furthermore, these efforts can help synchronize shared awareness, an important catalyzing factor of social movements, according to Habermas. Furthermore, my colleague Phil Howard has convincingly demonstrated that a large active online civil society is a key causal factor vis-a-vis political transitions towards more democratic rule. This is key because the use of crowdsourcing and crowd-mapping technologies often requires some technical training, which can expand the online civil society that Phil describes and render that society more active (as occurred in Egypt during the 2010 Parliamentary Elections—see  dissertation).

The problem? There is very little empirical research on crowdsourced election observation projects let alone assessments of their impact. Then again, these efforts at crowdsourcing are only a few years old and many do’ers in this space are still learning how to be more effective through trial and error. Incidentally, it is worth noting that there has also been very little empirical analysis on the impact of traditional monitoring efforts: “Further quantitative testing of the outlined mechanisms is definitely necessary to establish a convincing argument that election monitoring has positive effects on democracy.”

In the second half of his important study, Max does an excellent job articulating the advantages and disadvantages of crowdsourced election observation. For example, he observes that many crowdsourced initiatives appear to be spon-taneous rather than planned. Therein lies part of the problem. As demonstrated in my dissertation, spontaneous crowdsourced election observation projects are highly unlikely to strengthen civil society let alone build any kind of social capital. Furthermore, in order to solicit a maximum number of citizen-generated election reports, a considerable amount of upfront effort on election awareness raising and education needs to take place in addition to partnership outreach not to mention a highly effective media strategy.

All of this requires deliberate, calculated planning and preparation (key to an effective civil society), which explains why Egyptian activists were relatively more successful in their crowdsourced election observation efforts compared to their counterparts in the Sudan (see dissertation). This is why I’m particularly skeptical of Max’s language on the “spontaneous mechanism of protection against electoral fraud or other abuses.” That said, he does emphasize that “all this is of course contingent on citizens being informed about the project and also the project’s relevance in the eyes of the media.”

I don’t think that being informed is enough, however. An effective campaign not only seeks to inform but to catalyze behavior change, no small task. Still Max is right to point out that a crowdsourced election observation project can “encou-rage citizens to actively engage with this information, to either dispute it, confirm it, or at least register its existence.” To this end, recall that political change is a two-step process, with the second—social step—being where political opinions are formed (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955). “This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference” (Shirky 2010). In sum, Max argues that “the public sphere widens because this engagement, which takes place in the context of the local all over the country, is now taken to a wider audience by the means of mapping and real-time reporting.” And so, “even if crowdsourced reports are not acted upon, the very engagement of citizens in the endeavor to directly make their voices heard and hold their leaders accountable widens the public sphere considerably.”

Crowdsourcing efforts are fraught with important and very real challenges, as is already well known. Reliability of crowdsourced information, risk of hate speech spread via uncontrolled reports, limited evidence of impact, concerns over security and privacy of citizen reporters, etc. That said, it is important to note that this “field” is evolving and many in this space are actively looking for solutions to these challenges. During the 2010 Parliamentary Elections in Egypt, the U-Shahid project was able to verify over 90% of the crowdsourced reports. The “field” of information forensics is becoming more sophisticated and variants to crowdsourcing such as bounded crowdsourcing and crowdseeding are not only being proposed but actually implemented.

The concern over unconfirmed reports going viral has little to do with crowd-sourcing. Moreover, the vast majority of crowdsourced election observation initiatives I have studied moderate all content before publication. Concerns over security and privacy are issues not limited to crowdsourced election observation and speak to a broader challenge. There are already several key initiatives underway in the humanitarian and crisis mapping community to address these important challenges. And lest we forget, there are few empirical studies that demonstrate the impact of traditional monitoring efforts in the first place.

In conclusion, traditional monitors are sometimes barred from observing an election. In the past, there have been few to no alternatives to this predicament. Today, crowdsourced efforts are sure to swell up. Furthermore, in the event that traditional monitors conclude that an election was stolen, there’s little they can do to catalyze a local social movement to place pressure on the thieves. This is where crowdsourced election observation efforts could have an important contribution. To quote Max: “instead of being fearful of the ‘uncontrollable crowd’ and criticizing the drawbacks of crowdsourcing, […] governments would be well-advised to embrace new social media. Citizens […] will use new techno-logies and new channels for information-sharing anyway, whether endorsed by their governments or not. So, governments might as well engage with ICTs and crowdsourcing proactively.”

Big thanks to Max for this very valuable contribution to the discourse and to my colleague Tiago Peixoto for flagging this important study.

Evolution in Live Mapping: The 2012 Egyptian Presidential Elections

My doctoral dissertation compared the use of live mapping technology in Egypt and the Sudan during 2010. That year was the first time that Ushahidi was deployed in those two countries. So it is particularly interesting to see the technology used again in both countries in 2012. Sudanese activists are currently using the platform to map #SudanRevolts while Egyptian colleagues have just used the tool to monitor the recent elections in their country.

Analyzing the evolution of live mapping technology use in non-permissive environments ought to make for a very interesting piece of research (any takers?). In the case of Egypt, one could compare the use of the same technology and methods before and after the fall of Mubarak. In 2010, the project was called U-Shahid. This year, the initiative was branded as the “Egypt Elections Project.”

According to my colleagues in Cairo who managed the interactive map, “more than 15 trainers and 75 coordinators were trained to work in the ‘operation room’ supporting 2200 trained observers scattered all over Egypt. More than 17,000 reports, up to 25000 short messages were sent by the observers and shown on Ushahid’s interactive map. Although most reports received shown a minimum amount of serious violations, and most of them were indicating the success of the electoral process, our biggest joy was being able to monitor freely and to report the whole process with full transparency.”

Contrast this situation with how Egyptian activists struggled to keep their Ushahidi project alive under Mubarak in 2010. Last week, the team behind the current live map was actually interviewed by state television (picture above), which was formerly controlled by the old regime. Interestingly, the actual map is no longer the centerpiece of the project when compared to the U-Shahid deploy-ment. The team has included and integrated a lot more rich multimedia content in addition to data, statistics and trends analysis. Moreover, there appears to be a shift towards bounded crowdsourcing rather than open crowd-sourcing as far as election mapping projects go.

These two live mapping projects in Egypt and the Sudan are also getting relatively more traction than those in 2010. Some 17,000 reports were mapped in this year’s election project compared to 2,700 two years ago. Apparently, “millions of users logged into the [Egypt Project Elections] site to check the outcome of the electoral process,” compared to some 40,000 two years ago. Sudanese activists in Khartoum also appear to be far better organized and more agile at leverage social media channels to garner support for their movement than in 2010. Perhaps some of the hard lessons from those resistance efforts were learned.

This learning factor is key and relates to an earlier blog post I wrote on “Technology and Learning, Or Why the Wright Brothers Did Not Create the 747.” Question is: do repressive regimes learn faster or do social movements operate with more agile feedback loops? Indeed, perhaps the technology variable doesn’t matter the most. As I explained to Newsweek a while back, “It is the organiza-tional structure that will matter the most. Rigid structures are unable to adapt as quickly to a rapidly changing environment as a decentralized system. Ultimately, it is a battle of organizational theory.” In the case of Egypt and Sudan today, there’s no doubt that activists in both countries are better organized while the technologies themselves haven’t actually changed much since 2010. But better organization is a necessary, not sufficient, condition to catalyze positive social change and indirect forms of democracy.

Pierre Rosanvallon (2008) indentifies three channels whereby civil society can hold the state accountable during (and in between) elections, and independent of their results.

“The first refers to the various means whereby citizens (or, more accurately, organizations of citizens) are able to monitor and publicize the behavior of elected and appointed rulers; the second to their capacity to mobilize resistance to specific policies, either before or after they have been selected; the third to the trend toward ‘juridification’ of politics when individuals or social groups use the courts and, especially, jury trials to bring delinquent politicians to judgment.”

Live maps and crowdsourcing can be used to monitor and publicize the behavior of politicians. The capacity to mobilize resistance and bring officials to judgment may require a different set of strategies and technologies, however. Those who don’t realize this often leave behind a cemetery of dead maps.

Using Rayesna to Track the 2012 Egyptian Presidential Candidates on Twitter

My (future) colleague at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute (QCRI) have just launched a new platform that Al Jazeera is using to track the 2012 Egyptian Presidential Candidates on Twitter. Called Rayesna, which  means “our president” in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, this fully automated platform uses cutting-edge Arabic computational linguistics processing developed by the Arabic Language Technology (ALT) group at QCRI.

“Through Rayesna, you can find out how many times a candidate is mentioned, which other candidate he is likely to appear with, and the most popular tweets for a candidate, with a special category for the most retweeted jokes about the candidates. The site also has a time-series to explore and compares the mentions of the candidate day-by-day. Caveats: 1. The site reflects only the people who choose to tweet, and this group may not be representative of general society; 2. Tweets often contain foul language and we do not perform any filtering.”

I look forward to collaborating with the ALT group and exploring how their platform might also be used in the context of humanitarian response in the Arab World and beyond. There may also be important synergies with the work of the UN Global Pulse, particularly vis-a-vis their use of Twitter for real-time analysis of vulnerable communities.

Innovation and Counter-Innovation: Digital Resistance in Russia

Want to know what the future of digital activism looks like? Then follow the developments in Russia. I argued a few years back that the fields of digital activism and civil resistance were converging to a point I referred to as  “digital resistance.” The pace of tactical innovation and counter-innovation in Russia’s digital battlefield is stunning and rapidly converging to this notion of digital resistance.

“Crisis can be a fruitful time for innovation,” writes Gregory Asmolov. Contested elections are also ripe for innovation, which is why my dissertation case studies focused on elections. “In most cases,” says Asmolov, “innovations are created by the oppressed (the opposition, in Russia’s case), who try to challenge the existing balance of power by using new tools and technologies. But the state can also adapt and adopt some of these technologies to protect the status quo.” These innovations stem not only from the new technologies themselves but are embodied in the creative ways they are used. In other words, tactical innovation (and counter-innovation) is taking place alongside technological innovation. Indeed, “innovation can be seen not only in the new tools, but also in the new forms of protest enabled by the technology.”

Some of my favorite tactics from Russia include the YouTube video of Vladimir Putin arrested for fraud and corruption. The video was made to look like a real “breaking news” announcement on Russian television. The site got millions of viewers in just a few days. Another tactic is the use of DIY drones, mobile phone live-streaming and/or 360-degree 3D photo installations to more accurately relay the size of protests. A third tactic entails the use of a twitter username that resembles that of a well-known individual. Michael McFaul, the US Ambassador to Russia, has the twitter handle @McFaul. Activists set up the twitter handle @McFauI that appears identical but actually uses a capital “i” instead of a lower case “L” for the last letter in McFaul.

Asmolov lists a number of additional innovations in the Russian context in this excellent write-up. From coordination tools such as the “League of Voters” website, the “Street Art” group on Facebook and the car-based flashmob protests which attracted more than one thousand cars in one case, to the crowdsourced violations map “Karta Narusheniy“, the “SMS Golos” and “Svodny Protocol” platforms used to collect, analyze and/or map reports from trusted election observers (using bounded crowdsourcing).

One of my favorite tactics is the “solo protest.” According to Russian law, “a protest by one person does not require special permission. So activist Olesya Shmagun stood in from of Putin’s office with a poster that read “Putin, go and take part in public debates!” While she was questioned by the police and security service, she was not detained since one-person protests are not illegal. Even though she only caught the attention of several dozen people walking by at the time, she published the story of her protests and a few photos on her LiveJournal blog, which drew considerable attention after being shared on many blogs and media outlets. As Asmolov writes, “this story shows the power of what is known as Manuel Castell’s ‘mass self-communication’. Thanks to the presence of one camera, an offline one-person protest found a way to a [much wider] audience online.”

This innovative tactic lead to another challenge: how to turn a one-person protests into a massive number of one-person protests? So on top of this original innovation came yet another innovation, the Big White Circle action. The dedicated online tool Feb26.ru was developed specifically to coordinate many simultaneous one-person protests. The platform,

“[…] allowed people to check in at locations of their choice on the map of the Garden Ring circle, and showed what locations were already occupied. Unlike other protests, the Big White Circle did not have any organizational committee or a particular leader. The role of the leader was played by a website. The website suffered from DDoS attacks; as a result, it was closed and deleted by the provider; a day later, it was restored.  The practice of creating special dedicated websites for specific protest events is one of the most interesting innovations of the Russian protests. The initial idea belongs to Ilya Klishin, who launched the dec24.ru website (which doesn’t exist anymore) for the big opposition rally that took place in Moscow on December 24, 2011.”

The reason I like this tactic is because it takes a perfectly legal action and simply multiplies it, thus forcing the regime to potentially come up with a new set of laws that will clearly appear absurd and ridiculed by a larger segment of the population.

Citizen-based journalism played a pivotal role by “increasing transparency of the coverage of pro-government rallies.” As Asmolov notes, “Internet users were able to provide much content, including high quality YouTube reports that showed that many of those who took a part in these rallies had been forced or paid to participate, without really having any political stance.” This relates to my earlier blog post, “Wag the Dog, or Why Falsifying Crowdsourced Information Can be a Pain.”

Of course, there is plenty of “counter-innovation” coming from the Kremlin and friends. Take this case of pro-Kremlin activists producing an instructional YouTube video on how to manipulate a crowdsourced election-monitoring platform. In addition, Putin loyalists have adapted some of the same tactics as opposition activists, such as the car-based flash-mob protest. The Russian government also decided to create an online system of their own for election monitoring:

“Following an order from Putin, the state communication company Rostelecom developed a website webvybory2012.ru, which allowed people to follow the majority of the Russian polling stations (some 95,000) online on the day of the March 4 presidential election.  Every polling station was equipped with two cameras: one has to be focused on the ballot box and the other has to give the general picture of the polling station. Once the voting was over, one of the cameras broadcasted the counting of the votes. The cost of this project is at least 13 billion rubles (around $500 million). Many bloggers have criticized this system, claiming that it creates an imitation of transparency, when actually the most common election violations cannot be monitored through webcameras (more detailed analysis can be found here). Despite this, the cameras allowed to spot numerous violations (1, 2).”

From the perspective of digital resistance strategies, this is exactly the kind of reaction you want to provoke from a repressive regime. Force them to decen-tralize, spend hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of labor-hours to adopt similar “technologies of liberation” and in the process document voting irregularities on their own websites. In other words, leverage and integrate the regime’s technologies within the election-monitoring ecosystem being created, as this will spawn additional innovation. For example, one Russian activist proposed that this webcam network be complemented by a network of citizen mobile phones. In fact, a group of activists developed a smartphone app that could do just this. “The application Webnablyudatel has a classification of all the violations and makes it possible to instantly share video, photos and reports of violations.”

Putin supporters also made an innovative use of crowdsourcing during the recent elections. “What Putin has done is based on a map of Russia where anyone can submit information about Putin’s good deeds.” Just like pro-Kremlin activists can game pro-democracy crowdsourcing platforms, so can supporters of the opposition game a platform like this Putin map. In addition, activists could have easily created a Crowdmap and called it “What Putin Has Not Done” and crowdsource that map, which no doubt would be far more populated than the original good deed map.

One question that comes to mind is how the regime will deal with disinformation on crowdsourcing platforms they set up? Will they need to hire more supporters to vet the information submitted to said platform? Or will  they close up the reporting and use “bounded crowdsourcing” instead? If so, will they have a communications challenge on their hands in trying to convince that trusted reporters are indeed legitimate? Another question has to do with collective action. Pro-Kremlin activists are already innovating on their own but will this create a collective-action challenge for the Russian government? Take the example of the pro-regime “Putin Alarm Clock” (Budilnikputina.ru) tactic which backfired and even prompted Putin’s chief of elections staff to dismiss the initiative as “a provocation organized by the protestors.”

There has always been an interesting asymmetric dynamic in digital activism, with activists as first-movers innovating under oppression and regimes counter-innovating. How will this asymmetry change as digital activism and civil resistance tactics and strategies increasingly converge? Will repressive regimes be pushed to decentralize their digital resistance innovations in order to keep pace with the distributed pro-democracy innovations springing up? Does innovation require less coordination than counter-innovation? And as Gregory Asmolov concludes in his post-script, how will the future ubiquity of crowd-funding platforms and tools for micro-donations/payments online change digital resistance?