Exploring Russian Cyberspace: New Internet and Democracy Publication (and more to come!)

As you’ve likely discovered from personal experience, timing is everything. And so the Internet & Democracy team is especially pleased to announce that just in time for this Sunday’s Russian presidential election, Karina Alexanyan, Vladimir Barash, Robert Faris, Urs Gasser, John Kelly, John Palfrey, Hal Roberts, and I are releasing a new paper that assesses the relationship between the Russian Internet and Russian political and social life: “Exploring Russian Cyberspace: Digitally-Mediated Collective Action and the Networked Public Sphere.” This work was made possible thanks to the generous support of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

In English and in Russian (thanks to the translation expertise of Gregory Asmolov), here is the full abstract for the paper:

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This paper summarizes the major findings of a three-year research project to investigate the Internet’s impact on Russian politics, media and society. We employed multiple methods to study online activity: the mapping and study of the structure, communities and content of the blogosphere; an analogous mapping and study of Twitter; content analysis of different media sources using automated and human-based evaluation approaches; and a survey of bloggers; augmented by infra- structure mapping, interviews and background research. We find the emergence of a vibrant and diverse networked public sphere that constitutes an independent alternative to the more tightly controlled offline media and political space, as well as the growing use of digital platforms in social mobilization and civic action. Despite various indirect efforts to shape cyberspace into an environment that is friendlier towards the government, we find that the Russian Internet remains generally open and free, although the current degree of Internet freedom is in no way a prediction of the future of this contested space.

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*Аннотация*

В данной статье представлены основные результаты трехлетнего проекта, целью которого было изучить влияние Интернета на российскую политику, средства массовой информации и общество. Для исследования общения и деятельности пользователей интернета мы использовали различные методы: отображение и исследование структуры, сообществ и содержания блогосферы и контента в Твиттере; опрос блогеров, контент-анализ различных средств массовой информации: как с помощью автоматизированных методов, так и с помощью экспертов.

Мы открыли существование живого и чрезвычайно разнообразного публичного пространства, которое представляет собой альтернативу более контролируемым официальным средствам массовой информации. Мы считаем возможным говорить об электронных платформах, на основе которых происходит социальная мобилизация гражданских действий. Несмотря на различные попытки превратить кибер-пространство в пространство, поддерживающее правительство, наше исследование показывает, что Российский Интернет все еще остается свободным и открытым. Тем не менее, несмотря на существующую свободу Рунета, очень сложно делать какие-то предсказания относительно его будущего.

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Please note that we are working to provide a full translation in the future.
In the meantime, we welcome your comments at the Internet & Democracy Blog.

If we’ve whetted your appetite for more research on all things related to the role of the Internet in Russian society, we welcome you to take a fresh look at our October 2010 Russian blog paper, Public Discourse in the Russian Blogosphere: Mapping RuNet Politics and Mobilization.

Also, please keep an eye on our paper series page for future publications over the coming months, and check out the same site for a short description of each paper we’re planning to release.

Enjoy!

Russian Media for the Week of 6/12/2011 – 6/18/2011

This week’s Russian word cloud shows some new trends and stories that differ from those of the previous week, though there have been few dramatic shifts in coverage.  The most striking new story to emerge here appears to be that of Colonel Yuri Budanov (Полковник Юрий Буданов), who was murdered while awaiting trial for the rape and murder of a young girl in Chechnya.  This story accounts for several of the increased frequency words that emerge in this week’s word cloud – a pattern also separately visible across all major media segments except for official government sources.  On closer inspection, some other stories have acquired new or renewed attention in particular media segments, with coverage of Ukraine and Mikhail Khodorkovsky featuring prominently in popular blogs and television media respectively.

Words in four prominent media segments (popular blogs, mainstream media, government, television) during the week starting 2011-06-05 (Blue) versus during the week starting 2011-06-12 (Red):

The word cloud above, comparing a combined set of main media sources from June 12th through June 18th 2011 (red) with the same set of sources over the previous week, June 5th through June 11th 2011 (blue), shows several new stories emerging (blue), but none of these are at as high a word frequency as the major words in purple (mentioned frequently both weeks) or even as the major words from the previous week (in red).  The cloud compares the combined sets of popular blogs, mainstream media sources, government media content, and television media content across the two weeks.
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in I&D Project, Media Cloud, Russia. Comments Off

New Media and Blogs in the Middle East

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For those that haven’t made it through our 70 page paper on the Arabic blogosphere, we’ve got a digestible two page version in the latest Middle East Institute Bulletin, which is focused this quarter on new media in the Middle East, an issue near and dear to our hearts. Here is one of the many interesting findings:

Blogs are an integral part of the Arabic media ecosystem. We found that bloggers link to Web 2.0 sites such as YouTube and Wikipedia (both the English and Arabic versions) more than other sources of information and news available on the Internet. Al Jazeera is the top mainstream media source, followed by the BBC and Al Arabiya, while US government-funded media outlets like Radio Sawa and Al Hurra are linked to relatively infrequently. Most national media outlets do not have much reach outside of their respective national clusters.

Returning to YouTube, we found that Arabic bloggers tend to prefer politically oriented videos to cultural ones. Videos related to the conflict in Gaza and the throwing of shoes at George W. Bush in Iraq are popular across the entire blogosphere, while clips related to domestic political issues are linked to more heavily by the various national clusters, such as Kuwaiti parliamentary campaign videos.

And I continue to be struck by what we did not find:

While much has been made of Iraqi bloggers during ongoing debates about the Iraq war, this group does not figure prominently in the Arabic blogosphere. Rather, they are deeply integrated into the English Bridge group. This may be because many Iraqi bloggers write in English and have many inbound links from US think tanks, journalists, and partisan political bloggers (“Iraq the Model” on the right, “Riverbend” on the left, for example), rather than mainly writing for a domestic public. We also did not find any cluster of bloggers dedicated to violent extremism.

Check it out (here).

Posted in I&D Project, Middle East, Publications. Comments Off

Young Muslims Look to Technology to Fight Extremism

There is no shortage of stories about how the Internet enables extremists in the Middle East, so it’s nice to see a more balanced look at how young people in the region are actually using these online tools. This excellent CNN piece by Manav Tanneeru, which is part of Christian Amanpour’s Generation Islam series, looks closely at Esra’a al Shafei of MidEastYouth, and cite her as an example of someone who:

…represents a generation of Muslims who are using technology to express themselves, connect with others, challenge traditional power structures and create an identity in an era when Islamic extremists often grab the headlines.

The article also cites your humble (er, self-promoting) blogger on some results from our recent research on the Arabic blogosphere:

It’s long been a concern that the Web is being used by extremist groups such as al Qaeda to recruit young Muslims to their cause. However, Bruce Etling, who co-authored recent studies of the Arabic and Persian blogospheres at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said he found little evidence of such activity.

“In the Arabic blogosphere we found no specific clusters related to extremism, and when it was discussed, it tended to be in negative terms,” he said. “It was a counter-narrative we were surprised to find.”

Internet and Democracy Releases Report on Arabic Blogosphere

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After much work over the past year, the Internet and Democracy Project team is proud to officially announce today the release of our study on the Arabic blogosphere, a follow-up to last year’s I&D study on the shape of the Iranian blogosphere. Our research identified a base network of approximately 35,000 blogs, and aimed to generate a baseline for understanding the state of online discourse in the region. As in our previous work, we’ve worked with John Kelly to visualize the data on over 6,000 of the most connected blogs and had researchers read over 4,000 blogs to understand who the bloggers are and the issues they care about. We’re excited to report that there’s some intriguing findings on the state of the networked public sphere in the Middle East, some highlights include:

* The Demographics of Arab Bloggers: Demographic coding indicate that Arabic bloggers are predominately young and male. The highest proportion of women is found in the Egyptian youth sub-cluster, while the Maghreb/French Bridge and Syrian clusters have the highest concentration of men.

* The Makeup of the Arab Online Media Ecosystem: Bloggers link to Web 2.0 sites such as YouTube and Wikipedia (both English and Arabic versions) more than other sources of information and news available on the Internet. Al Jazeera is the top mainstream media source, followed by the BBC and Al Arabiya, while US-government funded media outlets like Radio Sawa and Al Hurra are linked to relatively infrequently.

* The Perception of the United States: The US is not a dominant political topic in Arabic blogs; neither are the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. However, when the US is discussed, it is nearly always in critical terms.

There’s much more here — our study revealed other interesting patterns in the online discussion around extremism, and the online presence of political opposition groups, including Kefaya (Enough) and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

You can get the complete study here. Also be sure to check out our event tomorrow at USIP where John Palfrey, John Kelly, Robert Faris and Bruce Etling will present the results and get reaction from a panel of experts and bloggers from the region. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Italy as seen by the Italian blogosphere

Vittorio Zambardino writes today in La Repubblica about a recent research study carried out on the Italian blogosphere: what are Italian bloggers writing about? The article presents very interesting graphs, which show the top tags used in 2009 and the topics Italian bloggers write about.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the top tag in 2009 was Silvio Berlusconi, which is followed by two current affairs related tags: the economic crisis and the Abruzzo earthquake – which are followed by Facebook in fourth place. In the top 15 most used tags we also find two football teams, Inter Milan and AC Milan, president Obama and the Pope.

Amongst the most discussed topics we find: 1) current affairs 2) soccer 3) the Internet 4) sport 5) politics. These are followed by a rather detailed list of less discussed topics from cinema, to art, to cooking, to music and so on. Finding current affairs at first place and politics at 5th place was indeed rather reassuring, supporting the idea that the Internet is indeed used as a virtual agora for discussion or a virtual civil society, rather than merely a tool for entertainment purposes. It should be noticed, however, that Maria de Filippi (TV presenter of Mediaset reality TV shows) was the top tag in the ‘entertainment category’, where we can find blogger Beppe Grillo at 4th place, and journalists Marco Travaglio and Michele Santoro further down in the list. Finally, finding the Internet as third most discussed topic, was also unsurprising – this is a common finding from research of different country/language blogospheres, where a big proportion of bloggers is made up by IT/media enthusiasts who blog about the medium they are using for communication (see for example our research on different language blogospheres from the Berkman’s Internet and Democracy project).

While the methodology used for this study is not illustrated in this article, it certainly provides a really good snapshot of what the online community and bloggers are talking about: this is very informative of what is going on in Italian society – and should be compared to the news agenda of mainstream media, in order to establish the role of the Internet in public discourse.

[Cross-posted on Corinna di Gennaro's blog]

Roxana Saberi on Hunger Strike

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Moral Failure of Promoting Democracy

Marc Lynch, aka Abu Aardvark, has posed a depressing, if necessary question. If internet activism rarely topples an authoritarian regime (see, for example, the failure of Burma’s Saffron Revolution or Egypt’s April 6 Facebook strike, which I perhaps too cheerily praised back in Jan.), isn’t it morally problematic for Westerners to egg on activists they know will not succeed? For all our efforts to praise individual movement leaders, all we end up doing is putting those folks more squarely in the crosshairs of the secret police.

This is all in line with the appropriate caution that Evgeny Morozov outlined in his recent Boston Review piece (see also my thoughts on that piece here). Power is power, and in most of these countries, it continues to flow straight from the barrel of a gun, not any robust notion of democratic legitimacy. X Arab autocracy or Y East Asian dictatorship is likely to feel threatened from within by an independent blogging class and humiliated from without by the ridicule of Westernized democracies. When the Burmese junta could no longer take the heat, they simply downed the internet completely, convenient to do when all ISP’s are centrally licensed and controlled anyway.

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“Apps For America” Announces Winners

Back in January, I reported on an innovative new contest called Apps For America being sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation. The contest was to build easy-to-use apps with raw government API data dumps. The sprawling federal government seems (and often is) frustratingly inaccessible. Bypassing expensive IT consultants, this contest sought to increase citizen participation with iPhone-like simplicity.

The winners were announced yesterday, with hip Filibusted taking first place. It’s a brilliant little program that tracks filibuster and cloture votes, and sends updates to users via tweet. This could help your average Joe follow the arcane procedural dance also known as the U.S. Senate in an open, comprehensible way.

I encourage you to check out the other winners here, and also to use them. Transparent government depends upon an active citizenry. When the bureaucracy shields itself with paper, the web can lower the transaction cost of democratizing access.

Posted in Current Events, I&D Project, Ideas, Uncategorized. Comments Off

Connecting India: Why Elections Need The Web

With over 700 million voters, India is the world’s largest democracy. Naturally, electoral fraud is a frequent problem. But social media may be changing that bleak picture. Guarav Mishra, a current Yahoo! Fellow and co-founder of Vote Report India, has been working to ensure fair (or fairer) elections, not by relying on international observers, but by appealing to the strength of India’s “digital” civil society.

How does civil society go “digital”? By adapting social networking technology and blogs to important civic aims like transparency, clean electoral practices and democratic legitimacy. Web-savvy young Indians — jolted into democratic participation some say by the horrific Mumbai terrorists attacks (see my coverage here) — are versatile with web 2.0 media, Twitter and, of course, SMS. Mishra’s Vote Report India, for example, builds a dynamic map (a la Al-Jazeera’s Gaza coverage) based on user-submitted reports of electoral abuse. Users can upload this data in a variety of ways:

By sending a message starting with VoteReport to 5676785
By sending an email to  report at votereport.in
By sending a tweet with the hashtag #votereport
By filling a form at the website

Despite India’s bewildering diversity of languages, customs and religions, technology is building a bridge to more robust civil society. I am heartened by the cacophanous and lively blogospheric debates about the elections, which now compete with the Indian MSM and party propaganda machines for attention (see Guarav’s round-up here).

The toleration of dissent and the encouragement of debate is key to democratic functioning, and so it’s also remarkable that these discussions include the voice of India’s Muslim minority and in broader contexts the vigorous debate over Varun Ghandi’s comments. Things aren’t perfect (see this recent Atlantic piece about the BJP in Gujarat), but blogs, SMS and Twitter are strengthening India’s democratic pulse.