Global Digital Activism Data Set: Geographic Representation

Note: In the interest of open research, we are sharing infographics of our in-process project, the Global Digital Activism Data Set. We hope that this transparency will elicit original perspectives and constructive critique. A previous post is here.

Another day another GDADS infographic. This one shows the target countries of the digital activism cases in the data set. The largest by far is the USA, followed by Egypt and Iran, then China*, Russia, Brazil, and India. These seven countries have significantly more cases/country than the others in the data set, and form a nice analytical unit. Is this distribution representative? If so, what explains the distribution? If not, why is a certain country being over- or under-sampled? If accurate, what trends might this distribution reveal?

The first candidate for over-sampling is the USA. Though US cases account for only 12.6% of all GDADS cases, they do make up the largest single country block. Why might the US be over-sampled? Most coders are anglophone and many are US-based making, US cases more visible. Digital activism is also widely covered in the US media meaning that it is easier to find sources for US cases than for digital activism cases in countries without as attentive media coverage (attentive, yes, though not necessarily accurate).

However, the preponderance of American cases may be representative. Almost all the key technologies of digital activism – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, the Internet – were created in the US and were likely first adopted by Americans. The US may have the most cases because Americans were “early adopters” of digital activism, meaning not only a longer time horizon, but also time for early and late majority users to adopt digital activism practices (see graphic above). In addition, America is politically free with an active civil society and high Internet penetration rate, so digital activism could indeed be significantly higher in the US.

The next countries with the most cases – Egypt and Iran – are entirely different. They have relatively low Internet penetration rates. As of 2009, 11% of Iranians and 24% of Egyptians were Internet users, according to the International Telecommunication Union, as compared to 78% of Americans. They also have smaller populations. Today Iran has 75 million citizens and Egypt has 80 million, while the United States has 309 million. However, the greatest difference is political freedom, relatively high in the US and low in Iran and, until recently, in Egypt.

Why might we be over-sampling Egypt and Iran? Perhaps their strategic political position, particularly to the United States, meant that their digital activism got more media coverage, particularly after their respective revolutions. This may be true of Iran, since half our cases are from 2009 and after, but it is not true of Egypt. Only two Egyptian cases are from 2011. In the case of Egypt, the high number of digital activism cases may have been predictive of a coming revolt.

If this is a representative sample, then political freedom may have a complex effect on digital activism. Activism may be common both in countries where it is freely allowed and also in countries where repression incites activism even where it is dangerous. In other words, digital repression may not have a uniquely chilling effect on activism.

The last quartet of countries is also interesting because China, Russia, Brazil, and India are grouped together in other geo-political contexts. Called the BRIC countries, they are defined by their similar stage of newly advanced economic development, their large populations, and stress on “education, foreign investment, domestic consumption, and domestic entrepreneurship.”

Though they are economically similar, they are technologically and politically different. While China, Russia, and Brazil had similar numbers of Internet users (29%, 29%, and 39% in 2009, respectively), India had only 5%.

They also have very different political freedom ranking. According to Freedom House‘s 2010 report on Freedom in the World (which many people disagree with, I know) China had the lowest possible score in political rights and the second-lowest possible score on civil liberties. Russia fared only slightly better, while Brazil and India ranked well in both. Again, if the digital activism counts are representative, this would indicate a non-linear connection between political freedom and digital activism instances.

It is surprising that the most obvious commonality among the seven countries is not Internet penetration, GDP per capita, or political freedom, but population size. While the seven countries differ considerably in the first three areas, they are among the 20 largest countries by population size, the top 10% worldwide. In addition, four of the five largest countries by population – China, India, the US, Indonesia, and Brazil – are also in the GDADS top seven for digital activism cases.

These top seven countries also allow us to make a ballpark estimate of the the Internet penetration tipping point for digital activism. Though of course other factors are also at play, in six of the seven countries at least 24% of citizens were Internet users in 2009 (the exceptions being Iran and India).

We need to be more confident of the representativeness of our sample before making any of these statements definitive, but even in its unfinished state, the GDADS is leading in interesting directions.

 

* If you include the digital activism cases from the special administrative region of Hong Kong, China rises to second place with 75 cases.

 

 

Global Digital Activism Data Set: Truly Global

Note: In the interest of open research, we are sharing infographics of our in-process project, the Global Digital Activism Data Set. We hope that this transparency will elicit original perspectives and constructive critique. A previous post is here.

Last summer we at the Meta-Activism Project set out to make a list of the world’s digital activism cases. While we are still wrestling with definitions or representativeness, we can at least be confident that our data set is indeed global. Of the 193 internationally-recognized sovereign states, the Global Digital Activism Data Set records cases from over 140 of them. In the interest of open research we have decided to share this in-process data publicly though the free data visualization site Many Eyes. A larger version of the map can be found on that site at http://www-958.ibm.com/software/data/cognos/manyeyes/visualizations/case-distribution-of-the-global-di.

Why not give a more precise number for the countries represented? I gave the approximation “over 140” because some states, like Taiwan, have challenged sovereignty. In addition, the system we are using to identify countries, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) alpha-3 codes provide a code for special administrative regions like Hong Kong, which are technically not sovereign states.

In addition, some of the codes entered by our volunteers during the initial case entry phase were erroneous, such as listing Puerto Rico as a country or entering “international” or “Southeast Asia.” We expect the exact distribution of cases among countries to change as we continue to polish and refine our case study list.

As the denomination “international” connotes, assigning geographic location to digital actions is far from straightforward. Take, for example, the case of the Nada Agha Soltan assassination video. Though it was shot in Iran, it was then sent to a friend of the videographer in the Netherlands, who uploaded it to YouTube. The video was seen by millions of people around the world, and helped to inspire the global solidarity protests. Somehow labeling the case with the single country “Iran” seems to gloss over much of what make digital activism different from earlier tactical sets.

Once coded, the data set will reveal the geographic scope of each case, leaving the possibility to identify multiple initiator and target countries. In a way, identifying the country which was the target of the action is only the tip of the iceberg in understanding the geography of digital activism, where the Internet makes global the new default.

image: Flickr/Elo Vazquez

e-G8 “Leaks” Give Opportunity for Activism

This, in a nutshell, is why transparency and accountability are critical to democracy: the government, which is elected to represent the interests and welfare of its citizens, tells those citizens what it is doing so that if the government is not acting in citizens’ best interests, those citizens can take a variety of actions to pressure the government to act differently.

However, as we know, there is still a lot of government secrecy, even in advanced Western democracies. If citizens don’t know about the actions of their government, they can’t hold that government to account, short-circuiting the fundamental principle of democracy.

The Internet, with the particular dramatic example of Wikileaks, is good for transparency efforts and bad for secrecy because sharing secret information is so damned easy. Start a free blog, post your info, send out a few emails to let people know it’s there. If it really is important, there’s a good chance the mainstream media – or a heavily-read new media outlet – will find and amplify it.

This is exactly what happened when Nova Spivack, a technology futurist and serial Internet entrepreneur, got an invitation to the e-G8 Summit, a private Internet soirée that will take place tomorrow and Wednesday in Paris before the main G8 meeting in Deauville. Nova wrote on his blog:

I was recently honored to be invited by President Sarkozy of France to participate in the e-G8 Summit — a new and potentially useful summit of global Internet leaders, right before this year’s G8 Summit in Paris.

This event will bring together Internet leaders and political leaders, for two days of discussions about the Internet. The goal is to advise the G8 leaders on important issues related to the Internet.

However, when he did a search to find out more about the event, he couldn’t find much public info. “In researching and preparing for this,” he wrote, “I have found very little information about the event, who the other attendees will be, and what the real motivations for the event are.” He also noted, “for an event of this magnitude, it is somewhat surprising that there has not yet been any significant press coverage of it yet.” [emphasis his own].

So, like a good netizen, he posted on his blog the invitation, the agenda, and the guest list, “in the interest of transparency,” in what he believed was the first publication of these documents. That was on April 20th and, from the number of comments (16 as of writing) and “likes” (35 as of writing) it was likely read by the more intellectual branch of the start-up community – the people who already read his blog – but it didn’t cross over into the activists sphere and it didn’t go viral.

The Internet advocacy organization Access got wind of the story around the same time. Though they may have learned from Nova’s blog, there were other people invited to the e-G8 who had contacts with the Internet advocacy community, who also shared the details of the event, albeit privately.

Around the beginning of this month Access began working with other NGOs in this community to write a civil society letter to the e-G8 and they also set up a petition page calling for “the G8 to adopt citizen-centered internet policies.” Yesterday blogger Jillian York, who works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, posted on the case, linking to both Nova and Access and giving some interpretation on the significance of it all:

…the absence of human rights and civil liberties groups–the absence of civil society, really–means that these participants won’t be held accountable at the table for their undoubtedly pro-business (and not necessarily human rights-oriented) ideals.

So how important was Nova’s public leak? Because of their personal contacts among the invitees, the internet advocacy orgs could have started a campaign with or without it, but they didn’t make the details of the event public in their calls to action, so Nova’s leak has value in informing citizens of the details of the event.

The takeaway here is that it is near-impossible to have a secret meeting of Internet folks. Though Nova noted in his blog post that there were only a few query results for the hashtag #eg8, there are now several tweets a minute, mostly from people actually in attendance. Although the organizers tried to make the event private, it will clearly be carried out very much in public and civil society will be watching.

 

 

 

 

Trends in Nonprofit Website Design

I’ve recently been doing some research on nonprofit website trends for the Open Society Foundations’ Health Media Initiative and I thought I’d share them here:

  1. The Human Face: We engage with causes because we care about our fellow human beings. The face reminds us of that human element of the cause and reminds us to care.  The anti-poverty organization ActionAid shows vivid photos of the people they help and Housing Works homepage is composed primarily of photos and quotes of people living with HIV and AIDS that receive their services.
  2. Showing Results: Either quantitatively or through description, the site should show visitors the impact the organization is making. Avaaz has a counter on their homepage showing the number of global members of their petition site. Greenpeace USA shows the number of emails its members sent to lobby for protections from mercury poisoning and its homepage graphics highlight both successes and calls the action.
  3. Calls to Action:  The site must give the visitor an opportunity to engage with the cause beyond a simple donation.  Some actions are symbolic, like the photos of the NOH8 campaign, but others, like the The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, also tell visitors how they can become involved in clinical trials.
  4. The 50 Word Rule: As the first trend indicates, we are becoming an increasingly visual society.  This also applies to web site design.  Effective homepage are very low on text, and a limit of 50 words or less is a good goal.  Though this may seem low, the ONE campaign against extreme poverty and preventable diseases has only 26 words on its homepage “above the fold” (before one scrolls down).
  5. Getting Social:  Using social media is not new, but nonprofits are getting increasingly creative in how they incorporate social media.  ONE shows photos of their Facebook supporters on their homepage while Housing Works highlights a Twitter matching fund-drive.

Open Process/Open Product

I’ve recently been thinking and writing about digital activism research research methodologies and better ways of creating knowledge. Towards that end, here’s a simple standard for research and knowledge creation in the digital age:

  1. Open Process: crowdsourcing, resource-sharing, collaboration, publishing raw data and in-process versions of analysis, transparent methodology
  2. Open Product: publication (of data and analysis) with little or no restrictions on use

The aim of these standards is to:

    Maximize: information-sharing, data access, number of researchers working on a problem, number of insights, knowledge ultimately created
    Minimize: lag time between data collection, analysis, and publication, cost of doing research

What do you think of Open Process/Open Product as a standard for research practice?

How Censorship Backfires on Repressive Regimes

By pulling the plug on the Internet, Mubarak hastened his own demise.

As the digital elements of the Arab Spring continue to be parsed, it seems that at least one conclusion has been reached: Internet censorship can seriously backfire for repressive regimes. Turning off the Internet forces activists into the streets, while selectively filtering popular platforms like Facebook unifies even the non-political and motivates citizens to acquire anti-censorship skills.

A previous post by Alix Dunn on this site explained how the “the Internet kill switch didn’t kill Egypt’s protests” because offline and television transmission of key message was possible [UPDATE: and Movements.org just released a short case study on the topic]. However, we are now seeing that not only were activists able to mitigate the damage of significant digital censorship, it actually ended up being to their advantage.

1) Digital Service Shut-Down Forces Offline Engagement

Rather than limiting participation in the protests, turning off the Internet (the most dramatic form of digital censorship) actually increases offline participation. This conclusion has been drawn repeatedly with regards to the Egyptian Revolution, most recently by the participants at a recent Danish conference, Cyber Activism Changing the World?: A Conference on Social Media and Women in the Uprising. Courtney Radsch, a PhD candidate studying cyberactivism and Arab media, was in attendance and reports on comments by influential Egyptian digital media commentator Mona Eltahawy:

in Egypt, when Mubarak cut off the internet he effectively forced people to the street – a major tactical mistake in Mona’s perspective. By shutting down the internet activists could no longer tweet or SMS each other to see what was going on so they had to actually go into the streets to find out.

At first, forcing citizens to engage offline might sound like good news for repressive governments. Out in the open, activists are easy to identify, torment, and detain. However, when offline activism takes the form of public protests (rather than back-room meetings), the public nature of the protest creates its own cascade effects. Seeing more people on the street makes it more likely that fence-sitters will join in the protests.

2) Censorship Itself Becomes a Cause

A similar conclusion was drawn by digital activist Noha Atef at the re:publica conference in Berlin in April, with the addition that censorship not only forced people to go into the street to see what was going on, but that censorship became part of what motivated them to do so. Jillian York reports:

When Egypt turned off the Internet and scrambled mobile signals (there are 70 million mobile subscriptions in Egypt, ~80% of the population), Noha explains that it drew more people into the streets. She explains that censorship became a part of the cause, and that despite the Internet shutdown, people were taking photos and videos, knowing that at some point the Internet would be available again.

3) High-Profile Censorship Incites Circumvention Skills Acquisition

This idea of censorship as a unifying grievance and a motivation for protest was also described in the Tunisian context. In a recent event at MIT Ethan Zuckerman reports on the comments of Sami Ben Gharbia, Tunisia’s most prolific digital activist:

Facebook became central to the Tunisian media ecosystem because all other sites that allowed video sharing – YouTube, Daily Motion, Vimeo and others – were blocked by the Tunisian government, along with hundreds of blogs and dozens of key twitter accounts. This censorship, Sami argues, drove Tunisian users towards Facebook, and made it hard for the government to block it. The government tried in 2008, but the outcry was so huge, they reversed course. The main reason – usage of Facebook more than doubled during the 10 days of blockage as Tunisians found ways around the national firewall and onto the service. [emphasis added]

Here again a new element is added. It is not only that blockage of digital technologies forces people to engage with other dissidents IRL and that censorship is a unifying grievance that can motivate participation in protest, high-profile cases of censorship, especially of popular services, also motivates users to learn censorship work-arounds that will limit the government’s ability to censor in the long-term.

4) The Dictator’s Dilemma: Increased Pressure from Economic Elites

The dictator’s dilemma is a theory posited by Christopher Kedzie in 1997 that dictators risk commercial and financial repercussions by limiting the Internet and are thus less likely to do so. Though China has proved that it can selectively block cultural content without negatively affecting economic development, when the question is whether to shut down the entire Internet, the dictator’s dilemma is very much back in play. The fact that Mubarak decided to allow the ISP Noor to continue functioning for a while after the shut-down because it provided Internet access to the Egyptian stock exchange is a direct illustration of the dictator’s dilemma.

The theory of change behind the dictator’s dilemma is that the negative financial repercussions will add further motivation to protesters. But this is not specific enough. It is unlikely that the average Tunisian or Egyptian will feel a direct economic impact from loss of Internet access. However, economic elites will. Economic elites, who are often the beneficiaries of government patronage in non-democratic regimes, are most often regime supporters. That is because these elites are essentially conservative in that they benefit financially from the current regime. (If they are opponents, as in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, they are quickly dispatched).

However, economic elites are often not ideological supporters of the regime. If they see that the regime’s actions are putting their profits at risk, they are likely to put pressure on leaders – whom they often have direct access to – pushing to quickly resolve the political unrest. They may not sympathize with demonstrators – in fact, they probably do not because they do not want political change – but they are one more source of pressure on the regime: “Crush them or leave, we don’t care, just open the banks again.” You can bet that when Mubarak was forced to shut down Noor he was getting a lot of angry phone calls from wealthy investors.

Lessons for Activists

Clearly, censorship still has value to repressive governments, and it can still be effective if it does not bother most citizens. In China, most citizens don’t care about the blockage of Facebook because they have RenRen and Kaixin001. Losing Facebook was not a great loss because it had few users. This was not the case in Tunisia in 2008.

It does not even matter much if elites are circumventing censorship, so long and the information they access is not transferred onto the national internet. As Zeynep Tufekci notes:

Thus, the effect of selective filtering is not to keep out information out of the hands of a determined public, but to allow the majority of ordinary people to continue to be able to operate without confronting information that might create cognitive dissonance between their existing support for the regime and the fact that they, along with many others, also have issues. Meanwhile, the elites go about business as if there was no censorship as they all know how to use work-arounds. This creates a safety-valve as it is quite likely that it is portions of the elite groups that would be most hindered by the censorship and most unhappy with it.

From the perspective of activists who wish to challenge censorship, the best option is to create “dilemma actions” (lose/lose situations for the government) in which either:

  1. Citizens are incited to seek access to a service that is currently censored or
  2. A popular and currently accessible service is shut down.

Put another way, I suggest that Chinese activists post the next Hong Kong film star sex tape on Facebook and start posting hilarious political satire on RenRen. Censorship may not be the solid foundation of Internet control that regimes thought it was.

Fixing Peer Review, Freeing Knowledge Creation

In my last post I vented some frustration about the inefficiencies of academia: how current standards for intellectual property, peer review, and tenure are actually limiting academia’s avowed goal of creating and disseminating knowledge, not only in the field of digital activism, but in others as well.

In this post I’d like to dig into one element of that problem: peer review. As the dysfunctional cornerstone of tenure, academic publication, and the validation of truth, peer review clearly has problems. Let’s start by looking at the current process. The graphic below is from the web site UnderstandingScience.org, created by the University of California Museum of Paleontology. It shows a rational system of academic self-regulation in which ideas are filtered through a process of expert analysis before publication, ensuring that the final public product is accurate and useful:

Yet this diagram glosses over some key stages in the process in order to draw its picture of a rational system. It implies a single step between “studying something” and writing an academic article. In reality, scientists and scholars (a broader term) often start by collecting data. After they collect the data they analyze it and from that they draw conclusions. Once they have those conclusions they can choose to write an academic article about it.

Assuming the process, which can take years, goes well, the result is a single academic journal article, which can be used by other scholars studying similar problems and which can be used by the scholars who wrote it to gain the employment security of tenure.

From this perspective it is pretty easy to see areas for improvement:

  1. Scholars Collect Data: Why just two guys at a telescope? Why not hundreds of guys (and women) at hundreds of telescopes, compiling data in the cloud?
  2. Data Analysis: Why are these two guys analyzing their data alone? Why don’t they share it so other scholars can bring their unique perspective, leading not to one set of conclusion but dozens or hundreds?
  3. Writing About It: Peer-reviewed journals clearly have their place, but there are many other options. Conclusions can be easily blogged, even during the analysis process, creating linkages and dialogue between the different scholars studying the data and engaging new scholars in processes of inquiry by offering multiple opportunities for public engagement and discussion.
  4. Peer Review Process: Assuming that an article is written for peer review, this process continues uninterrupted, except that, with proper coordination, there might be multiple articles, on multiple aspects of the data, that are also in this process. In addition, peer review is not slowing publication. Much of the research has already been made public informally through blogging, open data sets, listservs, and other forms of sharing.
  5. More Than One Article: Not one but several sets of conclusions are made public. There may be a few journal articles in addition to dozens of blog posts and hundreds of discussions. In addition, the data and discussion of conclusions has been in the public domain throughout the formal peer review process, removing the delay of analysis by others.

By opening the process, data has been accessible by more people and has been processed by more minds, more quickly. The final knowledge created is greater by almost any measure, be it by total publications, awareness of the issue, or individual insights generated.

Why make these changes now? Because publication, mass collaboration, and remote coordination have never been easier or cheaper. In fact, at the moment it is much harder to keep information secret than to let it be free (just ask the State Department or Stewart Brand). Quick and broad transfer of information is the new normal. When the goal is knowledge creation, why fight it?

Why haven’t these changes been made yet? Because there are institutional disincentives to sharing. First of all, tenure largely rides on publication of books and peer reviewed journal articles. If a scholar must publish in this manner in order to secure his livelihood, he is going to ensure that it is he who publishes the analysis of the data he collected.

Secretiveness about intellectual property (in industry even more than in academia) is often based on the supposition that someone smarter, with better insight, might take the information and turn it into a consumable product more quickly that the person who made the initial investment to collect the data. In business, where each firm has an individual profit motive, this might make sense. But in academia, where the goal should be to create knowledge, preventing someone with greater insight from using available data makes no sense at all.

Does any of this matter? Peer review, tenure, the ivory tower – sounds like pretty dry stuff. I suppose in a field like art history or literary criticism, where the findings of research are of most interest to the scholarly community of that particular field, the current slow process of peer review might not have a grave effect. However, in fields like medicine, environmental science, and digital activism new insights can affect the lives of millions of people. (For a rare dramatization of how current academic processes cost lives, rent And The Band Played On, which addresses the deleterious affects of academic competition and secrecy in the race to fight AIDS.)

What is the role of organizations like the Meta-Activism-Project? One of the roles of the Meta-Activism Project and other research projects outside of academia is to test-drive these new methods of knowledge creation, showing that more open processes do work. Beyond the knowledge gained about digital activism through the Global Digital Activism Data Set, we hope that the project will have demonstration value in proving the merit of open and digital methods of knowledge creation. Humanity today is beset by a range of complex and existential challenges. We do ourselves a disservice when we throttle our own efforts to study these phenomena and find solutions.

image: http://onlinelearningtips.com/

Are Academic Institutions Limiting the Spread of Knowledge?

Last week Stanford put on a conference called Mobile Health 2011. Here’s a reflection from Craig Lefebvre, one of the organizers, which sounded very familiar:

Few of the presentations were data-driven, many were anecdotal, and perhaps more maddening were the number of academicians there who said to me “Oh, I have some data under review at a journal right now – but can’t talk about it before it is published.”

Conclusions that are not data-driven? Too many anecdotes? Data on lock-down in the ivory tower? I felt like I was reading about my own field of digital activism. He quanitifies the problem:

As was noted by more than one presenter, that’s likely 6-7 years between submitting a research idea, having it funded, conducting the study and analyzing the results, and then having it appear in a peer-reviewed publication. That process might work for people who measure their careers in decades, but in the quickly changing world of mobile health technologies [or digital activism…], that’s at least a generation or two.

Academia is designed to facilitate the creation of knowledge and insight, but its institutions – particularly current processes of peer review and the narrowness of what counts toward tenure (books not blogs) – are an impediment in the digital age.

As Clay Shirky put it in a recent talk at MIT, at one time the paper press was a means of increasing the speed with which knowledge could be transmitted. As newspapers and magazines have learned through their sagging circulation rates, print has moved from efficiency to inefficiency in the task of information transmission. Yet academia still operates in a “paper world,” embracing the onetime efficiency that is now clearly an obstacle to the goal of knowledge creation.

At the Meta-Activism Project we always try to make information free, to leverage new affordances to make information as accessible as possible. Our Global Digital Activism Data Set case study list has been available for download since its earliest days and the final coded data set will be available through a creative commons license. Our book, Digital Activism Decoded, is available for purchase through Amazon or for free download in PDF form.

Yet we do not operate in a bubble. Many of our collaborators are in academia and feel the “publish or perish” pressure, which does not encourage open digital collaboration. If academics choose to work on free-form digital projects or share data it is due to their own beliefs, not because their institutions are facilitating these choices. As long as the Meta-Activism Project is operating in a paper world, we will keep running up against the frustrations Prof. Lefebvre speaks about.

The Fallacy of Bin Laden’s Digital Isolation

Osama bin Laden, a fugitive both isolated and connected.

At the outset it may seem that the story of the capture of Osama bin Laden was patently non-digital. He was located because the CIA put more agents on the ground in Pakistan. A crack Navy SEALs team killed him in his compound, notable for its lack of Internet or landline phone connection. It was clear that bin Laden wished to keep off the digital grid and that he understood very well that any digital contact he had with the outside world could be used to locate him.

Yet, for a man still operationally connected to an international terrorist organization, total digital disconnection was impossible. He relied on human couriers, but those couriers were transporting digital content: thumb drives, CDs, and DVDs.

Bin Laden held the digital world at a remove, but only by one degree of connection. The courier whom he was living with not only transported disks and thumb drives to others in his network (a classic “sneakernet“), but also communicated by mobile phone. It was these calls that allowed investigators to learn that the courier was in Abottabad.

The raid on the Abottabad compound revealed the extent of bin Laden’s digital world. Notes The New York Times:

…American intelligence analysts are just beginning to pore over a huge trove of computer files, storage devices and cellphones that the commandos recovered from the compound, [and] they were eager to release the new videos, five in all, on Saturday.

One of the most haunting images from those videos is one of bin Laden watching himself on TV in a sparse room (above), representative both of his isolation and of his continued connection with world events. Even the world’s greatest fugitive could not completely protect himself from revelation through the digital world.

 

Will Palestinian Youth Bring the Arab Spring?

As popular calls for democracy continue to reverberate through the Middle East, transnational youth organizers attempt to bring the movement to the country with the most complex and intransigent politics in the region.

Ancient Grudge…

I was recently in the West Bank and Israel and the feeling I had upon leaving was not optimistic. The problems of the Palestinians are manifold. Many lack the rights of citizenship in the Israeli nation which controls their territory, making most forms of vote-linked lobbying and activism invalid.

The Israeli Defense Force has isolated them through a complex system of walls, border crossings, highway check-points, and fences. Many of the Palestinians I spoke to in the West Bank did not even travel within the West Bank because they found the IDF check-points so jarring.

In addition, Palestinians lack leaders that are able to effectively advocate for their interests. While I was there, Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, even threatened to quit and dissolve the PA. In addition, internecine fighting between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank has played into Israeli hands, facilitating a divide-and-conquer strategy.

…Breaks to New Mutiny

Yet I now have a bit of hope because of a nascent movement by Palestinian youth, called the March 15th Movement by Al Jazeera. I am optimistic not because there is a movement, which is not new, but because so far it has been pragmatic and effective. They recently forced action to fix the current Palestinian leadership, successfully lobbying Hamas and Fatah to enter into talks and announce a formal reconciliation. Al Jazeera reports:

According to youth leaders, reconciliation is only the first of many demands. The movement which transcends borders… has its eyes set on rehabilitating the scattered Palestinian national body by holding Palestinian National Council elections that include all Palestinians, regardless of geographic location and circumstance. Its ultimate goal: to reconstruct a Palestinian national programme based upon a comprehensive resistance platform.

The transnational character of the movement makes it ideal for the digital age. Perhaps it would not even have been possible without today’s vanishingly low cost of transnational digital communication and group formation. This new type of group formation is exactly what journalist Noura Erakat has in mind. She continues:

The movement’s horizon may render existing political parties meaningless as invigorated youth activists search for creative ways to shatter the stagnation of their domestic condition…. Well before the call for the March 15th day of action, Palestinian youth, inspired by revolutionary protests in North Africa, had begun to organise themselves in the global diaspora.

One of these new transnational networked organizations is the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS). According to Rafeef Ziadah, a doctoral candidate and one of the leading organizers of a recent sit-in action in the UK:

Where in the past, Palestinian students would belong to Palestinian political factions and organise within the structures of the General Union of Palestinian Students, these structures are nothing but empty shells today. That is why when we did hold the sit-in at the Palestinian embassy in the UK we insisted on using the name GUPS to take back those institutions meant to represent us.

Bury Their Parents’ Strife?

As is to be expected, there is tension between the traditional hierarchies of the political parties and the new youth networks. When youth activists suggested that observances of Land Day (recalling an incident in 1976 when Israeli troops shot and killed six people during protests against land confiscations) take place in areas currently the focus of Jewish settlement, the political parties refused to participate. The youth groups organized these alternative observances anyway. Independent youth organizers drew thousands of people to their events, forcing the Palestinian political parties to join them.

Wisely, youth are first focusing on reforming Palestinian institutions, over which they are able to exercise the influence of citizens. Influencing Israel, which any successful movement must eventally do, will still be tremendously difficult.

Still, these young organizers are operating at the edge of the possible, using the current facility for transnational communication and coordination to build political organizations the world has not yet seem, political organizations based on internal national identity rather than external physical location. In this way the Internet facilitates the political work of diasporas, and of exiles.

 

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