The Harry Potter Alliance: Networked Causes, Mobilizing Structures, and Chinese Censorship

A volunteer wizard army powered by love: that’s one way to describe the Harry Potter Alliance, a global network of Harry Potter fans committed to doing good in the real world. Founded in 2005 to bring attention to the crisis in Darfur, the group started out with book donations and has since moved on to campaigns that are increasingly activist and progressive, includingbattles for worker’s rights at WalMart, immigration reform, and a campaign against Proposition 8 in California.

They are currently attempting (and quickly succeeding) in raising $50,000 for “equality” broadly-writ, which is frankly more progressive and inclusive than many human rights campaigns,which tend to focus on one cause or vulnerable group. Their fundraising page on indiegogo reads:

We hold these truths to be self evident that all men (and women, and undocumented Americans, and children, and…) are created equal. Regardless of where you’re from, who you love, or how much money you have, we believe that we all deserve the same rights and opportunities.

Is it any surprise that millennials, born in the networked age, see causes as being networked as well? In a 2009 blog post, Henry Jenkins wrote,

The HP Alliance has adopted an unconventional approach to civic engagement — mobilizing J.K. Rowling’s best-sellingHarry Potterfantasy novels as a platform for political transformation, linking together traditional activist groups with new style social networks and with fan communities…. One can’t argue with the success of this group which has deployed podcasts and Facebook to capture the attention of more than 100,000 people [now 1 million]….

HPA is also an interesting case study in mobilizing structures, which Patrick Meier defines as “the mechanisms that facilitate organization and collective action.” The classic example is the black church in the civil rights movement. Though the church was areligiousinstitution, in became a locus for collective action againstinstitutionalizedracism.

In the age of the internet, the age of “ridiculously easy group formation,” often all you need to create an organization is a “social object,” a topic of focus that is of interest to two or more people and thus brings them together. In the case of HPA, that’s the Harry Potter novels.

According to Hugh MacLeod, one of the first to write about the topic, social objects go a long way to explaining group formation online:

Human beings are social ani­mals. We like to socia­lize. But if [you] think about it, there needs to be a rea­son for it to hap­pen in the first place. That rea­son, that “node” in the social net­work, is what we call the Social Object.

In the absence of financial or logistical obstacles to group formation, the only reason a group doesn’t form online is if no one wants to create it. The only reason a group of interested people (ie, people with a common social object) do not form a group online is if they are actively prevented from doing so. In fact, one way to think about China’stopic-agnostic anti-collective action censorship policy, is that they are trying to prevent social objects from emerging online.The Harry Potter Alliance demonstrates that the Chinese are right in so far as any social object – no matter how seemingly apolitical – can seed an activism organization.

It also shows that there are many new types of organizations made possible by the internet. Though we are most aware of Anonymous and its politically-motivated spin-offs and operations, this is likely just the tip of the iceberg. As the technology of online large-group collective action becomes better known and easier to implement, durable online groups will be composed not only of hackers and techies but also of teen book-lovers.

The capacity for collective action is the capacity for political power, and a world where this capacity is more evenly distributed is a more just and democratic one.


2012 As The Morning After: Citizen Movements Lose Momentum

A world of mass protest in 2011: What happened?

[UPDATED] In India the once mighty anti-corruption movement of Anna Hazare has fizzled out. Following national elections, the energy of Mexico‘s #YoSoy132 student movement has also lost momentum. Many have written about the challenge of Egypt‘s people power movement in shifting from disrupting a dictatorial state to nudging a semi-democratic one. The Wikipedia timeline of the 15M protests of the indignados in Spain is thick with events throughout the summer of 2011, yet there is only one event in 2012: an attempt to revive the movement on its anniversary. In the US, Occupy in out of the spotlight and plans for a major protest at the Republican Conventionnext weekwill be litmus test of their continuing ability to mobilize.

All these movements experienced dramatic early moments of success demonstrated through unexpected mass street protests. All of these movements have so far been unable to continue that energy to achieve their (admittedly, extremely ambitious) goals of improving democracy and decreasing various form of corruption and elite misbehavior in their respective countries.

2011 was a tremendous year for global mass movements, but in 2012 these movements are abating. While the hard core of Occupy, Mexican student activists, and Egyptian democracy activists are still hard at work, the citizens that temporarily joined them appear to have returned to their daily lives.

Are new, digitally-enabled movements having greater difficulty maintaining momentum that past activist organizations? Or are we simply more aware of this problem because of improved coverage of these movements by citizen journalists and organizers themselves?

I tend to think it’s the latter, though I’d welcome alternative arguments. In the past, who would have reported on a citizen movement that wasn’t making news? Now citizen journalists fill the void and organizers can self-broadcast about their movements, even when not much is happening on the public stage.

The important point here is that thewax and wain of a movement’s ability to mobilize is normal. As Doug McAdam of Stanford University has explained in his theory of opportunity structures, factors outside the movement, like the political party in power, national economic stability, and even international relations, can affect the ability of a movement to make headway.

In the case of the American Civil Rights Movement, which even skeptics like Malcolm Gladwell hold up as a model of a successful movement, there were many periods of ebb and flow. The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution abolished slavery and enshrined the rights of citizenship for former slaves after the Civil War. This historic progress was followed by many brutal decades of voter intimidation, economic marginalization, lynching, and legalsegregation. 1875 was the year of both the federalCivil Rights Act of 1875and theMississippi Planto intimidate blacks and suppress black voter registration and voting.

While elite activism continued (the NAACP was founded in 1909, a number of favorable Supreme Court decisions were made in the early 1950’s), it was not until the lynching of young Emmett Till in 1955 that the civil rights movement became a mass movement again. The brutal and racially-motivated murder of a black child inspired an outrage greater than the fear that had been carefully instilled in black Americans over the preceding decades. The Montgomery bus boycott, which most American schoolchildren are taught was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, began a few months later.

So let me preempt suggestions that this loss of momentum proves that digital movements are weaker than their pre-digital brethren. They may be, but we don’t know yet. Let’s wait and watch without prejudice.

Note: The images of the US and Mexico above show the Tea Party and Javier Sicilia, respectively, not Occupy and #YoSoy132.

A Snapshot of Civic Innovation in America

Today the White House announced their first class ofPresidential Innovation Fellows. The 18 fellows will be working on a range of government technology projects that will allow citizens tosecurely download their own health information, do business with tech companies, access federal services and information,convert foreign assistance from cash to electronic transfer, and spur open data. They have a range of skills, from web design and software engineering to robotics, open data, and entrepreneurship.

Micah Sifry’s tweet alerted me to to this program, and he mentioned that the program seemed light on women. That got me thinking: If this is the best of American civic innovation, what does American civic innovation look like?

One can assume that whoever was selecting the fellows intended to select the most skilled people to work on their projects, but that they would also want to get a good geographic, ethnic, and gender representation, since the group would represent the country’s best in public interest innovation.

States of Residence of 2012 Presidential Innovation Fellows

If this is the face of American innovation, it is highly concentrated geographically. This is what you get when you pop the states of origin of the fellows into ManyEyes. However, this map is misleading. It doesn’t tell you that there is only one fellow from Seattle, while there are six from the Bay Area.

So here’s another visualization of the metro areas that the fellows come from. From this visualization you can see that just over 75% of the fellows come from three urban areas: the Bay Area (Marin County to San Jose, with San Francisco at its center), the DC area (northern VA, MD, DC proper), and New York City

Metropolitan Areas of Residence of 2012 Presidential Innovation Fellows

This is good news for DC and New York. Judging from fellow counts, DC now matches Silicon Valley as a civic innovation hub and New York’s Silicon Alley is not far behind. This indicates that DC has succeeded in growing its own tech sector capable of nurturing highly skilled technologists to work on government projects.

New York can also be proud of its Silicon Alley. Two of the three NYC-based fellows are experts in open government, a sign the city is developing a specialty in the area, nurtured by institutions like Personal Democracy MediaandtheInstitute for Information Law and Policy at New York Law School, events likeOpenGov Camp, Personal Democracy Forum,Participation Camp,and a large number of NYC-based civic projects and apps supported by Code for America.

Other than showing that New York, DC, and the Bay Area are the centers of civic tech it also shows that there’s very little going on in these ares in the rest of the country. In fact, 94% of fellows are from the East and West Coasts. In the world of civic innovation, in the flyover joke true?

Genders of 2012 Presidential Innovation Fellows

What about gender? As Micah pointed out, only two of the fellows are women. That’s 11%, which is pretty pathetic. Are there really so few women in civic innovation or did the selection committee do a bad job picking talented women? Eleven percent seems extremely low, so I’ll go with the latter explanation.

Ethnicity is much trickier. The White House did not release information on ethnicity and, unlike gender, it is much trickier to determine from a name and a picture (even a name and a picture can lead one astray in determining gender self-identification). For this reason I am not going to embarrass myself by creating a graphic on ethnicity, suffice it to say that the majority of fellows are white men.

If the fellows are a snapshot of civic innovation in America, I am really excited to see the projects and skills sets America has been able to nurture. I am also excited that the federal government is embracing these innovators and activists. In the future I hope that this kind of work will be carried out by a wider range of Americans, not just white men on the coasts.


Dilemma Collective Action: How to (Strategically) Piss off the Chinese Government

Because of a recent study, we now know that Chinese censors aim at stopping collective action, regardless of content, rather than limiting political speech per se. What are the implications for Chinese activists?

One answer is to carry out dilemma collective actions: collective actions that also pose response dilemmas for the government. “Dilemma actions” have long been a part of the nonviolent repertoire. They benefit the activist whether or not they are brought to completion, usually by making the oppressor look ridiculous or unjust if they stop the action. (For anexample from Serbia, see the video below.)

Source:Waging Nonviolence and Narco News

Ai Weiwei has already adopted the strategy of dilemma collective action. In the new documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, hecarries out two of them. First, he uses Twitter to invite supporters in Chengdu to eat local pig trotter soup with him at a simple restaurant with sidewalk seating. The act of eating the broth, a local specialty, is normal. The act of eating at a sidewalk restaurant is normal. What makes it political is that is a collective action organized by Ai Weiwei (again, regardless of content). In the documentary the police politely ask him when he will be finished instead of dragging him away. To do so would have make them look like thugs. As it is, they merely look ridiculous.

a dilemma collective action organized by Ai Weiwei

In a similar dilemma action, when Weiwei hears his Shanghai studio will be torn down he decides to have a celebration instead of a protest and invites supporters to come dine on “river crab” in the studio courtyard before the demolition. While river crab has associations with anti-censorship activism, the event itself is a joyous and goofy picnic. Wei himself does not attend, but his supports take and share digital photos of the event. Again, if the government broke up a picnic, they would look repressive and ridiculous.

Social media enhances the impact of dilemma collective action by giving it a greater audience. The meal in Chengduwas recorded by Weiwei’s team as a self-released Chinese-language documentary calledLao MaTi Hua(the name of the soup), it was live-tweeted by Weiwei as it occurred, and it is also in the documentary made for anglophone audiences which I saw. While Weiwei did not attend the river crab banquet, his supporters created and shared their own images, which was encouraged. Because dilemma actions often involve humor, which decrease fear, and thus increase participation, they are also a sneaky way of creating more political activists.

By revealing through their online censorship practice that they seek tohaltcollective action, the Chinese government has also revealed avulnerabilityto the kinds of dilemma collective actions Weiwei is carrying out. If they intervene they look despotic. If not, they appear foolish and impotent. Either is a win for Chinese activists.

New Study on Chinese Censorship: OK to Criticize Government, Just Do It Alone

In the largest study yet of Chinese internet censorship (PDF), scholars at Harvard University have learned that China’s censorship program targets incitements to collective action, not criticism of the government, as previously supposed. Notes the abstract:

Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content. Censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future — and, as such, seem to clearly expose government intent….

The scholars -Gary King,Jennifer Pan, andMargaret Roberts – used a scraper to collect content from 1,382 Chinese social media services in early 2011. They then used computer-assisted text analytic methodsto compare content that was censored (removed from the Internet) to content that wasn’t. As the scholars point out, China’s censorship program, though “designed to limit freedom of speech ofChinese people, paradoxically also exposes an extraordinarily rich source of information about the Chinese government’s interests, intentions, and goals.”

China’s censorship ecology is formidable and at times surprising. Some of the paper’s best background observations:

Unlike in the U.S., where social media is centralized through a few providers, in Chinait is fractured across hundreds of local sites, with each individual site employing up to1,000 censors. Additionally, approximately 20,000–50,000 Internet police and an estimated 250,000–300,000 “50 cent party members” (wumao dang) are employed by thecentral government

….The vast majority of censorshipactivity [on high-sensitivity topics] occurs within 24 hours of the original posting, although a few deletions occurlonger than ?ve days later. This is a stunning organizational accomplishment, requiringlarge scale military-like precision:The many leaders at different levels of government?rst need to come to a decision (by agreement, direct order, or compromise) about whatto censor in each situation; they need to communicate it to tens of thousands of individuals; and then they must all complete execution of the plan within about 24 hours.

….Overall, approximately 13% of all social media posts [in our study of high, moderate, and low-sensitivity topics] were censored.

….An oddly “inappropriate” behavior of the censors: They offer freedomto the Chinese people to criticize every political leader except for the censors, every policyexcept the one they implement, and every program except the one they run.

Previous to this study, what the authors call thestate critique theory of censorship dominated. This theory posits that “the goal of the Chinese leadership is supress [sic.] dissent, and to prune human expression that ?nds fault with elements of the Chinese state, its policies, or its leaders.” The theory and is supported by evidence, presented by Rebecca MacKinnon and others, of particular sensitive words, like “democracy” or “Bo Xilai” being blocked or immediately removed from Chinese weibo microblog services once posted.

The second theory of censorship is that of collective action potential:collective expressions — many people communicating on social media on the same subject — regarding actual collective actions, such as protests.” Whether or not the speech is critical of the governmentis irrelevant. In fact, “the government censorsviews that are both supportive and critical of the state” if they are related to collective action.An example of this kind of apolitical censoring of speech about collective action is the rather strange anecdote from 2011 of the government censoring the word “to stroll” after the word was used to organize protests inspired by the Arab Spring.

While these two theories were debated by experts or thought to be jointly valid, the authors argue that they have found a winner:

State critique theory is incorrect and the theory of collection action potential iscorrect…. censorship is primarily aimed at restricting the spread of information that may lead tocollective action, regardless of whether or not the expression is in direct opposition to thestate….

Thus, observations like MacKinnon’s of individual words being censored can be reinterpreted. The government was not reacting to the critical meaning of the word, but to the volume of use of the word. If one person says “stroll” in China, it is not censored. If one million people do, it is. Thus, the government does not have a problem with people talking about democracy or freedom, except when they believe that it is likely to lead to collective action.

According to the theory of the paper, this is why these and similar words are either added to a list of machine-blocked keywords or are manual censored by human reviewers. Theimplication is that the Chinese government is usingonline collective expression as a predictorofoffline collective action.

The study itself focuses on content that is censored (removed) by human reviewers. This is because content containing machine-censored words would not be posted in the first place. The methodology of the paper compares published content on the 1,382 sites to the sub-set of that content that is later removed. As such, the scholars required that the content be first published on the public net so it could be collected by their scraper.

By using automated data collection they actual had an advantage over censors. As the authors state, “the reason we are ableto accomplish this is because our data collection methods are highly automated whereasChinese censorship is a massive effort accomplished in large part by hand.”

What first clued them in to the fact that content had little relevance to what was and was not censorship was that there was a “surprisingly low correlation between our ex ante measure of political sensitivity and censorship.”At the beginning of their study they selected 85 topics on which to collect content, divided into three level of political sensitivity”High” (such as Ai Weiwei), “Medium” (such as the one childpolicy), and “Low” (such as a popular online video game). They defined each topic by keywords and them collected all posts on those topics from the selected platforms for six months.

When they began analyzing their data, they found that “censorshipbehavior in the Low and Medium categories was essentially the same (16% and 17% respectively) and only marginally lower than the High category (24%).” That is, a post about the one child policy had about the same chance of being censored as a post about an online game.

In another instance, a health scare (a run on iodized salt to protect against radiation following the Japanese earthquake), which incited apolitical collective action, was also highly censored, while supposedly political news about education and a rise in food prices was not.

A diagram of high an low-censored topics is at left and shows the surprising lack of correlation between a topic’s political sensitivity and its likelihood of being censored. Political topics appear in both histograms, but it is the topics that involve protest or crowd formation offline (hence the salt run’s inclusion) that are most censored.

Some topics that one might think would cause offline collective action, like the rise in food prices, were not highly censored. According to the analysis of the researchers, this was because the topic did not fall into one of three types of content which have collective action potential.

Is this the checklist used by Chinese censors? It is likely something similar.

  1. Current Inciter ofCollective Action: The discussant calls for offline collective action (“we should…”).
  2. Past Inciterof Collective Action: The discussant previously called for offline collective action on another subject (past offender).
  3. Past Subjectof Collective Action:The topic itself was previously the subject of offline collective action,particularlynationalism.

A post could thus be categorized as having collective action potential without actually containing an incitement to collective action. For example, the translated post below supports the government’s position in the case of Ran Jianxin, a local legislator who died in police custody.

According to news from the Badong county propaganda department website, when Ran Jianxinwas party secretary in Lichuan, he exploitedhis position for personal gain in land requisition, building demolition, capital constructionprojects, etc. He accepted bribes, and is suspected of other criminal acts.

The post does not incite collective action orcriticizethe government, but it references Ran Jianxin, who was thesubject of past protests, making the post an example of the third type of collective action content and was thus censored.

At the end of the paper, the author provide a juicy treat: their censorship analysis software is predictive of actions taken by the Chinese government. This is because censorship policies are determined and implemented in advance of public government actions. If you can find an up-tick in censorship activity (not explained by chance or other factors), it is likely to pre-sage public government action on that topic.

For example, the authors found that censorship of Ai Weiwei’s name increased in the days ahead of his April 3rd arrest (the gray area in the diagram at left) and censorship discussion of Wang Lijun, who exposed the corruption of Bo Xilai, was censored in advance of Wang’s demotion on February 2nd.

The paper concludes with the wise dictum that “with respect to speech, the Chinese people are individually free but collectively in chains.” It is the collective nature of speech, rather than its content, that merits censorship in the eyes of the Chinese government.

This also supports the hypothesis that the Chinese government uses social media as a barometer of public opinion, thus allowing it to respond to certain public demands while remaining an autocracy. This policy of freedom of speech (so long as it is individual) ironically allows China to maintain its legitimacy and improve governance as measured byresponsivenessto citizens’ needs. As the article’s authors point out:

Dimitrov (2008) argues that regimes collapse when its people stopbringing grievances to the state, since it is an indicator that the state is no longer regardedas legitimate. By extension, this suggests that allowing criticism, as we found the Chineseleadership does, may legitimize the state and help the regime maintain power.

Personally, this makes me never want to use human coders again (except to train a machine to code). It seems like the machine readable content and mind-boggling scale of the subject matter of digital activism require the adoption of methods best suited to this new medium.

Thank toJay Ulfelder and Patrick Meier for alerting me to this article.

Interview with an Occupy Technologist

Dana Skallman: “creating networks of trust is at the core”

How did you first get involved in Occupy?

I got on the OWS Tech list to see what was going on and how I could help. I quickly realized they were so unorganized, so I thought maybe I can help organize tech in some way.

What role do you currently play in Occupy?

I am helping setup and coordinate technology infrastructure for the Occupy Movement using Free/Libre/Open technology. The bulk of the platforms can be seen we are coordinating the usage

What are your challenges as an Occupy technologist?

Trying to bridge the needs of activist users and technologists. There are many tools available that provide alternatives to widely used proprietary or commercial tools, however they need to be setup and easy to use for anyone, much like the alternatives. The other aspect is being able to provide tools & ongoing support on a purely volunteer basis. We are searching for ways to make it sustainable. One way we are looking to do this is through cooperatives, which is a part of the conversation in the work we are doing on a daily basis.

How do these challenges relate to the greater challenges of the Occupy movement?

It’s hard to say from an activist on the ground, as I am more behind the scenes. However, much of the communication across the movement involves technology, so creating networks of trust is at the core. This involves more human interaction, through technology. So it’s more about how we connect person to person across the movement using technology, and not so much what technology is being used. That being said, the technology used is important in regards to data privacy and control, which is why using the tools onoccupy.netmakes a difference.

Occupy is currently out of the mass media spotlight. What are you all up to that the world should know about?

The next few months will focus on campaigns around theAnniversary on September 17thand the election. The best place to keep up-to-date would be through theInteroccupy Newswire. All campaigns and actions havecreated Hubsto help coordinate more effectively across the movement. TheInterOccupy Calendaralso provides a ton of information for ways for folks to get involved.

A Network of One’s Own: Repressive Governments on the Intranet

Kim Jong Il died the same day Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself. Internet control helped ensure that only one death would lead to a revolution.

During the Arab Spring, the Egyptian government shut off the internet and mobile networks, causing ordinary citizens to go out into the streets just to see what was going on, and thus also increasing protest turn-out. When activists in San Francisco made plans to protest a police shooting at a metro station last summer,transitofficials also shut down mobile networks, causing greater furor and press coverage of the shooting and protest. Now Iran is moving key ministries and state bodies offline and building a national intranet that is expected to go online within the next 18 months.

Will the change backfire on Iran as it did in Egypt and the United States? Unfortunately, that’s unlikely. There is a big difference between shutting off communication entirely and simply reducing it. History shows that creating national intranets is an effective way for repressive governments to ride the razor’s edge of connectivity: give citizens enough connection for business, socialization, and entertainment, but not enough to expose them to foreign critical ideas about the regime or to share their own.

Because national governments completely control their intranets, these systems limit not only citizen’s ability to access information, but also to produce it. On China’s intranet, the oldest, government directs private platform operators (all based in China and subject to Chinese law) to take down user-generated content that the government finds dangerous.

Two other national intranets are North Korea’s and Cuba’s. North Korea’s intranet, called the Kwangmyong, contains only a few dozen web sites related to research and industry and, according to the Open Net Initiative, only a handful of ministries, businesses, and individuals have computers and connections needed to access the intranet. North Korea recently underwent a successful transition after the death of Kim Jong Il on December 17th, the same day that Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself in Tunisia, setting off the Arab Spring. The Kwanmyong successfully insulated North Korea from the information cascade of the Arab Spring, which resulted in new protest movements in the freer communication environments of Europe and the United States.

Even having an intranet is a compromise for repressive governments. Doubtless they would far prefer no connectivity at all. With any amount of connectivity, repressive governments run the risk that they will lose control as China did, when the sacking a party official Bo Xilai spread throughout the country on weibo microblog services regardless of the government’s attempts to keep the embarrassing story quiet.


Real Digital Power: Gilad Lotan

I was a panelist for Newsweek/Daily Beast’s recentDigital Power Index. Though the Revolutionaries group was more representative of nationality, ethnicity, and gender than the rest of the list, I’d like to share my original list of 10 nominees, and also take an opportunity to highlight some of the world’s best digital activists.

– – – – – – –

6) Gilad Lotan

Gilad Lotanis passionate about big data visualization. He’s also extremely good at it. He leads the data science team at SocialFlow, a firm whose software creates beautiful visualizations from online data. Gilad loves data, but he also loves politics and social justice.

His data visualizations have helped digital activists understand their own work in a new and powerful way. From the 2009 Iranian protests to the Arab Spring to Kony2012 video to Occupy Wall Street, Gilad has created free public visualizations of how information flows online, particularly on Twitter. Gilad’s work demonstrates has geeks can use their skills to support and explain digital activism in a way that is not only empirical but also artful.

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