Policy Making in the Digital Age: February 2010 Conference at Columbia

My biggest frustration with grad school so far has been how difficult it is to bring what’s happening in the real world of ICT and development into the classroom. With the exception of a few phenomenal professors, much of the SIPA academic world seems disconnected from the entire field. In my opinion, this is a sad mistake. It’s also why I am so excited about Policy Making in the Digital Age, a conference that The Morningside Post is sponsoring at Columbia in February.

My biggest frustration with grad school so far has been how difficult it is to bring what’s happening in the real world of ICT and development — mobile phones for health, Ushahidi, debates over what online privacy means for activists — into the classroom. With the exception of a few phenomenal professors, much of the SIPA academic world seems disconnected from the entire field. In my opinion, this is a sad mistake.

Photo from codiceinternet on Flickr.
Photo from codiceinternet on Flickr.

It’s also why I am so excited about Policy Making in the Digital Age, a conference that The Morningside Post is sponsoring at Columbia in February.

Policy Making in the Digital Age will bring together faculty and students at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs with the wider Columbia and New York City communities to explore trends and future implications in ICT and development, privacy issues, open governance, and humanitarian affairs.

We’re building a fantastic line-up of experts to discuss everything from how new media can help in crisis to the intersection of technology, business and culture in different countries. Know someone you think we should invite? Let us know at editor [at] themorningsidepost.com. Want to come? Mark your calendar for February 27, 2010, and check the conference site in late January for more details.

Twitter Revolution?

“This is it. The big one…. It’s Twitter.” For those of you who haven’t been following the media hype surrounding Iran’s is-it-or-isn’t-it-a “Twitter Revolution,” that’s Clay Shirky, speaking four days after the June 2009 presidential elections. Ouch. Awkward.

Image courtesy of TouchTheStars09 on Flickr.
Image courtesy of TouchTheStars09 on Flickr.

“This is it. The big one…. It’s Twitter.”

For those of you who haven’t been following the media hype surrounding Iran’s is-it-or-isn’t-it-a “Twitter Revolution,” that’s Clay Shirky, speaking four days after the June 2009 presidential elections.

Ouch. Awkward.

It’s not that Shirky was alone in his enthusiasm, nor was he the first to champion Twitter as a revolutionary force in Iranian politics. Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic wrote of the protests, “You cannot stop people any longer. You cannot control them any longer. They can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before,” and the New York Times chimed in with an article on how “new kinds of social media are challenging those traditional levers of state media control and allowing Iranians to find novel ways around the restrictions.”

It’s more that…well…nothing much has changed. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is still in power, and a recent study found that less than one percent of Iranians — 0.027 percent, precisely, though that number likely includes foreigners who changed their profile location last summer — are on Twitter.

Shirky shouldn’t feel too bad, though. Evgeny Morozov, who’s made quite a name for himself bashing “cyber utopians” for their uncritical love of all things social media, is responsible for the phrase “Twitter Revolution,” which he first applied to Moldova in April 2009. Boing Boing‘s Xeni Jardin appropriated the meme in GOOD magazine during Guatemala’s May 2009 political unrest. I myself am guilty of propagating it – on Twitter, no less – in Uganda after the September 2009 riots in Kampala.

Still, despite all the hype (and no matter how much we wish it were so), none of the so-called “revolutions” in Iran, Moldova, Guatemala or Uganda have lead to substantially different governments. Rather than reflecting actual politics, the Twitter Revolution seems to be largely a product of the media, both mainstream and social. “Western journalists shifted their focus from the role of Iranian people to the role of technology,” Ethan Zuckerman says of the June 2009 media coverage. In the October issue of Information Today, Morozov wondered if the emphasis on Twitter took critical focus away from the politics and history behind the event: “It certainly made an impact in how the events were covered in the West…. It probably stole from the protesters, because instead of discussing what was happening, a quarter of American media coverage was devoted to what so-and-so said on Twitter.”

I tend to agree with anthropologist Maximilian Forte, who conducted a study of the election-related tweets and related media coverage between June 13 and 17, 2009. Forte’s research led him to conclude: “This is indeed a ‘revolution’…but it’s for Twitter.”

It turns out Shirky was right. The big one is Twitter, as long as you get a little Clintonian (“it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”) in your definition of the “one.”

Was Twitter a revolutionary force in Iran? I don’t think so. Was Iran a revolutionary force in how the average American views Twitter? Definitely, unquestionably yes. The Twitter Revolution — or revolutions, if we’re being fair to Moldova, Guatemala and Uganda — is the big one. Just not the one we were hoping for.

Adapted from a paper written for “Social Impact of Mass Media,” a class taught by Andie Tucher at The Journalism School at Columbia University (download “Twitter Revolution?” as a PDF). Crossposted on The Morningside Post.

Ben Wikler: Changing the World of Changing the World

Liveblogging Ben Wikler’s presentation on Changing the World of Changing the World: Pushing the Models of Online Organizing at the Berkman Center. Please excuse misrepresentation, misinterpretation, typos and general stupidity.

Ben Wikler of Avaaz.org is at the Berkman Center today to talk about new models of online organizing.

Wikler begins by explaining net-centered vs. broadcast-centered online activism. The Internet is a little bit like the Brazilian butterfly flapping its wings, causing a thunderstorm in Belgium — except we are all butterflies, and it can be hard to tell how we can act together to (for example) bring rain to the hypothetically drought-stricken Belgium.

Netcentric Activism
One method is the “Grass Mud Horse” — a grassroots protest against Internet censorship in China. Aggregated actions of individual citizens can be channeled for strategic purposes, but’s a bit like a shotgun blast vs. a laser beam. It can be hard to focus on your target or to deliver a clear message.

Broadcast-Centered Online Activism
Avaaz.org sends specific, targeted e-mails to different groups of activists. The key to making this work is to incorporate dialogue: there’s generally a broad consensus on the need for solutions to problems like climate change, human rights abuses and political crises (even in the Israel/Palestine conflict, “most people support a two-state solution,” Wikler says). Avaaz works to “give global public opinion teeth” by building a community. They then track the numerical and qualitative responses to their campaigns throughout this community, allowing them to modify their message as necessary.

If the Internet is a series of tubes, global civil society is a series of tubs, says Wikler — each issue or campaign (Burma, climate change, Zimbabwe) has its own group of interested people. The Internet allows us to connect these tubs to tubes, channeling the water to the biggest fires.

Avaaz is intentionally multi-issue. Wikler’s found that the same people who care about what’s happening in Zimbabwe are likely to care about what’s happening in Sri Lanka. Avaaz looks for ways to channel these common interests into actionable items that can be acted on quickly by members of the larger Avaaz community.

What is Avaaz?
Lightning rod: Avaaz’s method allows the channeling of “amorphous public concern” into targeted action.

Battery: Avaaz allows you to build a movement and then tap it for future issues — people concerned about the political crackdown in Burma are more likely to care about the cyclone that came later. Avaaz stores this communal energy, making it easy to build support for campaigns without starting from scratch.

SWAT team: Avaaz operates in a very targeted way. Some of Avaaz’s partners can’t be political for fear of putting their in-country staff at risk, but Avaaz has the freedom to criticize.

Stem cell: multiple communities can build off of Avaaz.

Burma campaigns
During the fall 2007 crackdown in Burma, 850,000 people got involved through Avaaz. Avaaz presented a petition to the UN Security Council, but that was just the beginning. Its European members contacted the European Parliament; its members in Singapore asked the foreign minister to be more harsh on the junta; other groups acted in other targeted ways. Avaaz was able to work with established groups to get guidance about what would be effect, then to bring in a huge number of concerned people from around the globe who wanted to help but didn’t know how.

When the cyclone hit Burma the following spring, Avaaz was able to partner with in-country monks who were part of the relief efforts.

Because everything is mediated through the staff, there’s a limit on the number of campaigns Avaaz can run. They also have trouble tapping existing expertise. There has to be a way to open things up so Avaaz members can point Avaaz to local crises while also maintaining some sort of filter to make sure that campaigns retain a high level of quality and are relevant to members.

Wikler is afraid that opening up a dialogue may inundate Avaaz members with too many e-mails, drowning out important issues and overwhelming those who only have a small amount of time to donate to any particular cause.

Avaaz has started small but high-volume local groups to try to manage some of this, starting a small campaign and then expanding it to other members after it is established.

Another idea is to run public trainings, teaching people how to do online activism, then let them submit campaign ideas, which will then be rated by other members before being acted on by Avaaz as an organization.

Wikler believes that online activism is still in its infancy — he says there’s a global gap in the models that currently exist. He closes by saying we’re all in one big tub and asks if we have any ideas for new models of online activism.

Q: Has anyone ever attempted to use Avaaz’s tools for a purpose the organizational staff disagreed with?
A: People wanted to boycott the Olympics because of Chinese censorship, but Avaaz felt this would backfire within China. Wikler spoke with activists in Hong Kong, who said China would respond by tightening control even further.

Q from Jonathan Zittrain: How is Avaaz governed? Are governance issues a distraction? Does Avaaz aspire to become more organically governed (like, say, Wikipedia)?
A: Avaaz is a small group of people in a huge room of noisy people. Unlike a government, it’s completely voluntary. Instead of speaking on behalf of all 3.5 million members, Avaaz only speaks on behalf of those who participate in any particular campaign. It’s a “horizontal culture” — the executive director only greenlights campaigns that already have support from a random sample of members, and Avaaz is 80 percent funded by its members. Avaaz wants to avoid being directed by either the whims of the staff or the whims of a small group of members.

Q from Jonathan Zittrain: Might be interesting to use multiple approaches to issues, letting people choose multiple ways to be involved in multiple campaigns. Either that or giving people multiple ways to participate in choosing campaigns, so you can see what appeals to people with various amounts of free time.
A: Avaaz does some of this. They responded to the economic crisis with a long poll open to all members that generated options for action and let members vote these up or down. This resulted in a package of action items, some of which Avaaz staff wouldn’t have thought of, that people could pick and choose from.

Q: How do you define action? Just writing letters to politicians and sending money? What about collecting best practices that can be adapted for individual causes? We give away our power when we say that petitioning politicians is the best we can do.
A: What happens on the Internet often stays on the Internet, and using online activity to unleash offline activity is something Avaaz is working hard on. Many of the issues on which Avaaz works can’t be affected by individual actions that don’t involve government — such as carbon emissions. Avaaz is about helping people to find ways to take action together when they know that taking action alone isn’t enough — looking for the domino effect.

Q: When will Avaaz have achieved its goal? What metrics are being used to show the community the progress that has been made?
A: Avaaz exists in moments and particular campaigns. It doesn’t have a manifesto — its brand is “deployed” on behalf of the people who are taking action. In a world this complex, there aren’t any good yardsticks to measure success. The ultimate metric is communicating with your members to let them know how things turned out.

Q: It seems like you’re focusing on short-time action that can make a difference on a specific issue, rather than long-term sustained action.
A: In some senses that’s true. Each individual development (a march, a petition) is somewhat disconnected, but over time the number of people involved in a campaign (supporting democracy in Zimbabwe, for example) grows and can be remobilized — it’s like a snowball.

Q: What percentage of Avaaz’s actions is based on global public opinion, and what percentage is focused on other things? It’s easy to get “petition overload.”
A: Maybe half and half, or closer to 40 percent opinion. Avaaz does a lot of funding public opinion polls, advertising campaigns, support for Internet access — moving more towards these types of things: “activity beyond the outcry.” But more people are willing to sign a petition than to donate, at a ratio of 100:1.

Q: How did you pick your languages?
A: Political activism in multiple languages involves more than just translation — you have to shift your content into the political idioms of those languages. Avaaz is working on a Farsi language site right now. They have to figure out how to expand without becoming a translation organization.

Q: How often do members reject an idea from Avaaz?
A: Can’t think of a time when something’s gotten strong support in a test but not in the general membership. Around 30-50 percent of tested campaigns don’t pass the threshold, though. The rate has improved over time, as staff become more familiar with the work and with the members.

Question from Wikler
What’s the most convenient way for you tell Avaaz about an issue you want them to work on? Contact Ben [at] avaaz.org.

Blogging for a Cause: Global Voices Advocacy

ZemantaZemanta, a Firefox extension that automatically suggests related tags, links, photos and articles for your blog posts and e-mails, is running a competition to encourage blogging for worthwhile causes. The five blogs that get the most votes will each win $3,000.

I vote for Global Voices Advocacy because of the phenomenal work its bloggers do to protect freedom of expression and free access to information online. GV Advocacy (or Advox, as it’s also known) is connected to Global Voices Online, a project for which I’ve been writing about the blogren for two years.

Global Voices Advocacy - Defending free speech online

In addition to reporting on issues like blogger arrests and Internet censorship, Advox works on a number of projects to help bloggers and other online activists — definitely worth my vote.

Interested in supporting Advox? The deadline for the competition is June 6, 2009, and you must include the following sentence in your post:

This blog post is part of Zemanta’s “Blogging For a Cause” campaign to raise awareness and funds for worthy causes that bloggers care about.

mobile activism in african elections

A paper I wrote for Anne Nelson’s New Media in Development Communications class last semester was published this week on DigiActive and reviewed by Pambazuka News. The abstract:

The proliferation of mobile phones in Africa is transforming the political and social landscape of the developing world, empowering people to source and share their own information and to have a greater say in what comes to international attention. This paper compares the use and impact of mobile technology in three recent African elections: Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Kenya.

In Nigeria’s April 2007 presidential election, a local civil society organization used free software to collect over 10,000 text message reports from voters around the country, boosting citizen participation in a political process many Nigerians doubted. In Sierra Leone’s August-September 2007 elections, trained local monitors used mobile phones to collect data from designated polling sites, enabling the independent National Election Watch to compile and release an accurate, comprehensive analysis of the election almost two weeks before the official report. And in Kenya’s December 2007 election, a group of local digital activists developed and implemented a citizen reporting platform to allow Kenyans to report and track post-election violence during a month-long media blackout, collecting and publishing a comprehensive account of riots, displacement and human rights abuses that serves as one of the best available records of the crisis.

You can read the whole paper here.

Katrin Verclas posted a critique on MobileActive.org. Many of her comments are spot on, and she sheds valuable light on the role the December 2008 elections in Ghana play in this discussion.