The Internet is shaking the foundations of many of the institutions on which contemporary society is built. Here’s a little chart I made that summarizes some of these effects (click image to view full-size).
* Lawrence Lessig
** Yochai Benkler
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.
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
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?
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.
[UPDATED] In his 1941 State of the Union address, a year before Pearl Harbor and the entry of the US into World War II, President Roosevelt presented the Four Freedoms: freedom of speech and express, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear. They expressed a worldview diametrically opposed to the fascism and tyranny that wasascendantat the time and described a world the US might soon need to fight for.
The US has again decided to join a global fight, this time to protect the internet, and it is seeking models upon which to build its policy. Hillary Clinton has used the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights in this context. In a 2011 speech at the Hague she said:
In two days…we’ll celebrate Human Rights Day, which is the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights…. as people increasingly turn to the internet to conduct important aspects of their lives, we have to make sure that human rights are as respected online as offline.
TheUniversal Declaration of Human Rights is a valuable resource for policy, but it is not tremendously actionable. The declaration includes 30 articles, some of which include two or three sub-sections. Which rights are most important in the online space? Which do not apply? Which should be defended as US policy priorities? Which should be considered secondary? These are real and difficult policy questions for the US State Department.
What is needed is a shorter list of critical needs that are specific to the internet. The Four Freedoms provides a good template for this. The State Department is in a way already leaning in this direction. They have an office of Internet Freedom programs, not Internet Rights programs. “Net freedom” is a byword for proponents anddetractorsof the US’s global internet policy.
Below is a list of the characteristics of the internet which are critical to the exercise of citizenship. They are freedoms that the world’s citizens need if they are to use the internet to assert their rights and interests:
This is the first freedom of the internet, without which none of the other freedoms can be exercised.
Though sometimes access to the internet is explicitly denied to citizens, as in North Korea, throttling bandwidth,inflatingcosts, and creatingclosed national intranetsare more subtle ways to prevent mass access to the global internet and to make that access less useful.
After the 2009 elections, the Iranian government employed throttling to make the Internet slower and less useful for media sharing by apportioning less bandwidth to its ISPs. According to Reporters Without Borders, access to the international internet costs$5 to $7 in Cuba, while the average monthly salary is just $20. Both Cuba and North Korea have also created national intranets, which allow a select few to get online, but not to access the global internet.
Information must be able to flow freely to and from every citizen.
Citizens need accurate information before they can make decisions and take action in their own best interest. In the age of social media, citizens can also gather and share their own information and opinions with their fellow citizens and use the internet to give calls to action. A citizen’s passiveaccess to information is not sufficient. The freedom to produce and broadcast information and opinion, todebate it, and to give calls to action as a result of deliberation, are also critical to a functioning democracy.
Regimes that censor speech – at point of expression, point of search, or point of access – all contravene this right. China’s weibo microblog services prevent members from posting politically sensitive words. When it first entered China, Google was famous for censoring its search results (for example, of Tiananmen Square). Many nations,particularlyin the Persian Gulf, block web pages, which means that even when the correct web address is entered in the browser, the site is not displayed.
The offline freedom tocollectively express, promote, and defend common interests must also be recognized online.
In the 1990′s it was presumed that the main function of computers and the internet would be as a source of information. Though the term “information society” was coined in the 1930′s, its popularity spiked in the 1980′s and 90′s(see graph at left). The term “information superhighway” emerged and gained popularity at the same time. As late as 2003, the eminent political scientist Bruce Bimber titled his book on technology in the evolution of political power Information and American Democracy.
Yet we don’t use these terms anymore. Use of the term “information society” peaked in 2000 (see graph above) and fell thereafter. What happened? Social media happened. The internet was longer a place exclusively for information, but also for socializing, relationships, and connections.
There is even evidence that freedom of collective action is more important to citizenship that freedom of information. The mass emergence of digital activism followed closely upon the emergence of social media, not the emergence of personal computers or the internet. According to our Global Digital Activism Data Set, grassroots digital political action existed at a low variablerate through 2005, then increased exponentially from 2006 onwards. In the data wet, which spans1,255 case studies from 144 countries, the information effects of the Internet, which one would expect to emerge in the mid-nineties, are not pronounced. During the mid-to-late 90′s, when public internet access first emerged, there are few digital activism cases. Interestingly, mass growth in digital activism also does notcoincideclosely with the emergence of blogging in the early 2000′s, which is primarily a form of peer information and opinion-sharing. What it does cooincide with is the emergence of social networks: in September of 2006, Facebook became accessible to anyone over 13 with a valid email address.
Contravening freedom of online assembly means preventing people from accessing or freely using social platforms, such as social networks (Tunisia blocked Facebook in 2008, it is currently blocked in China) or other platforms thatfacilitateonline collective action and aggregation of effort, such as e-petition sites, wikis, online message boards and forums, and listservs.
Citizens need to be able to use the internet for political purposes without fear of reprisal.
In his 1941 speech, Roosevelt defined the freedom from fear as a state of the world where “no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor.” Political action online is still liable to result in the physical aggression of the state, not aimed against another nation, but at the state’s own citizens.
Repressive governments not only censor information and expression and block access to social tools, they also watch the online activities of their citizens. Because of surveillance, unwanted online political activity is likely to result in both online and offline reprisals. Online reprisals include DDoS attacks on an activist’s website by state-sponsored (or simply patriotic) hackers. Offline reprisals are much more scary, and can result in short-term detention, longterm imprisonment, intimidation, and torture. (Global Voices Advocacy tracks these abuses.)
A citizens can have access to the full range of online platforms, at low price and high speed, but if she feels that her actions may get her in trouble with the government, fear may prevent her from acting or even speaking in favor of her political interests. Such a situation is inimical to a functioning democracy.
We’ve seen how digital campaigns have helped citizen groups upset national power dynamics from Egypt’s Arab Spring to the USA’s Tea Party and Occupy. But can digital technology affect democracy at a more fundamental level? The following line from a Wired article on A/B testingintrigued me:
Consensus, even democracy, has been replaced by pluralism—resolved by data.
Democracy currently operates most concretely through voting, by which citizens select policies either by choosing the policy directly (as in a referendum or proposition) or through a representative who has taken a stand on a number of policies (as in an election). There is a presumption that no one knows the right answer (on education, defense, health care), so the best way to arrive at the common good is to ask a large segment of the population their opinion.
Big data on public policy issues, if it is made accessible and if software is created to facilitate processing, could present us with real answers to these big questions. We could actually know what education policy is likely to increase graduation rates in poor urban schools. We could know what policies actually decrease teen pregnancy rates. We could know what strategies reduce health care cost while maintaining or increasing wellness.
The role of the citizen in a data-driven democracy would be to identify policy goals. We would not be asked to choose a candidate based on what we think a good education policy is or vote on a referendum based on what we think a good health care policy is. We would indicate our priorities – we want education for all, we want low-cost and effective health care – and then quantitative analysis of the data would identify the most successful policy.
Open data and data literacy are critical to this strategy, since vested interested could easily manipulate data. The goal would be for as many people as possible to be able to analyze data on public policy issues, and the best results would rise to the surface. Citizens would also need to become literate on data-driven conclusions in order to assess the credibility of proposals. The goal would be data pluralism.
Of course, there would still be tremendous contention. Often different groups of citizens have directly opposing priorities – environmentalists and energy companies, social conservatives and gay rights activists – but it would be harder to palm off false policy claims. There would still be a tremendous fight over policy questions, but at least we could arrive at real solutions.
I wasn’t planning on posting this slide-show presentation about the recent surge of mass movements around the world, since I prepared it for a consulting gig in Mexico, not for the Meta-Activism Project. But when I saw that the New York Times covered the exact same story on the front page… two weeks later, I felt the irrepressible childish urge to yell “I saw it first!”
We reach the same conclusions – failure of traditional political actors to respond to popular discontent with entire systems of governance – but neither I nor the Times journalist, Nicolas Kulish, know where it is going. It could mark a transformation in the definition of democracy and a recognition that annual voting is an insufficient implementation of democratic principles, or it could fizzle out. It will certainly be interesting to watch.
In the Middle East, activists have used digital tools to bring about dramatic political change under repressive regimes, so why has digital activism had such a lackluster effect in a democracy like the US? The Global Digital Activism Data Set (below) shows that the US has more instances of digital activism than any other country, yet the US is mired in some of the most toxic and unproductive politics in recent memory. I’d argue that it is precisely America’s democracy and pluralism make digital activism less effective at bringing about dramatic change. In a country where everyone is free to speak and mobilize, many will. Attention is divided and the impact of any one initiative represents only one voice among many clamoring to be heard.
Figure 1: Distribution of GDADS Digital Activism Cases by Country
The result is a cacophany in which organizations and causes compete with each other for citizen support and for the attention of lawmakers. Such intense competition for attention means that each cause is likely to gain only a small number of supporters and a small fragment of lawmaker attention, resulting in little influence and little change.
Digital technology has allowed a far greater number of non-profits and informal citizens groups to have a public voice. Anyone can start a campaign through a blog, a website, a Facebook group, or a Twitter feed. But this ease of access means that competition for attention is fierce. It is good for every non-profit to have their own Facebook group or Twitter feed because it allows organizations to extend their communicative reach, but every organization waving their own flag also means that non-profits – even in the same cause area – are competing with each other for attention from both citizen supporters and law-makers. If they joined together, they would have a greater voice and more capacity to achieve change, yet most non-profits prefer to go it alone and improve their own standing rather than joining with others and losing some autonomy and control.
Of course, there are two quite different groups in America that are very good at speaking with one voice: corporate lobbying associations and the Tea Party. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America lobbies the government on behalf of over forty pharmaceutical companies. The American Petroleum Institute does the same on behalf of over four hundred oil and gas firms. Though they have a very different structure, members of various Tea Party associations are very good at speaking and acting with one voice, putting forward clear policy priorities and mobilizing members to vote for candidates that support those priorities. Of course, both of these powerful political forces are on the right, firmly supporting the status quo or even pushing America to be more conservative than it already is, making progressive change less likely.
Why can’t the Left get together again like they did in 2008 around the Obama candidacy? Perhaps it is the Left’s values of pluralism and autonomy that make it difficult to self-mobilize in unison. Liberals and progressives believe that diversity is a strength and that people should make up their own minds, not follow marching orders from some central authority. Yet this preferences for diverse causes and autonomous action also means that the Left is inherently resistance to the unified campaigns, directive mobilizations, and clear talking points that are the currency of influence in Washington.
This is not only a demand-side problem about advocates getting together to promote their causes effectively. It’s also a supply-side attention problem on the part of politicians, who are also suffering from information overload. Politicians and their staffs have a limited amount of time to respond to citizens requests in a meaningful way. One can only assume that the barrage of emails, petitions, and the like have produced a stream that politicians are unable to deal with, and the introduction of an official petitions site from the White House supports the assertion that government is willing to listen, they just need some means of moderating requests. (Of course, these simple measures are easily gamed – the most popular petition is one supporting marijuana legalization). In this context, it is understandable that politicians listen to the loudest voices.
America is a pluralist democracy that feeds on competition, it’s in our DNA. But these qualities also make it less likely that we will come together under one banner. Tunisia and Egypt are diverse societies with complex political interest groups, yet during their revolutions people across the political spectrum came together with one voice to oust their tyrannical leaders. Americans also need to come together if they want to force real change.
Until progressive Americans start to use digital technology to collaborate and form mass movements, power will rest in the hands of conservative forces who are already pooling their resources and speaking with one strong voice. We each have the freedom to speak for ourselves, but we will have more power if we speak together.
Note: The authors’ views expressed in this article do not reflect the views of the United States Agency for International Development or the United States Government
In my last post I discussed how the U.S. Government (USG) is funding civil society organizations (CSOs) abroad to help build their capacity to use new media in the pursuit of increased democracy and governance. Essentially, this initiative is based on the assumption that increased ability to engage in new media equals increased effectiveness in democracy promotion. However, without empirical evidence to test this assumption, it leaves new media development interventions open to criticism and failure. In this post I’ll outline why research focused on this small niche of USG funded organizations is important for more than just Washington bureaucrats.
Within the fields of both civil society and digital activism, one of the most debated topics is whether increased engagement in new media is in having a positive or negative influence on actors working towards increased democracy. On one hand, they represent invaluable tools for organizing and disseminating information – on the other they’re a window for repression and detached realities of progress. In short, it’s yet to be determined whether the ICT revolution is one of liberation technology or repression technology. A main reason this debate continues is the lack of research, particularly research along methodological lines of hybridity (a problem succinctly outlined in this post by Mary Joyce). Hybridity in this case refers to the identification of objects of analysis in which online and offline activity interact. This is a way to measure not only the digital footprint of activism, but also their real world implications. A key challenge of hybridity analysis is finding ways to scale research beyond qualitative case studies in a practical, cost-effective manner while still maintaining the richness of data required to measure offline activities.
With this challenge in mind, the small sub-set of CSOs receiving USG funding to support their democracy efforts in new media represent a unique sample from which to draw data from the broader spectrum of digital activists. Foremost, an organization receiving USG funds is generally bound to complete regular systematic monitoring of inputs, outputs, and outcomes coupled with at least one evaluation of population level impacts. A common yet disparaging theme of development project reporting is characterized by field staff writing lengthy reports only to be read once and then stuffed in a drawer never to see daylight again. The limited shelf life of these reports is understandable, they represent data specific to one project working in one country within a relatively narrow focus. A method for aggregating these individual reports and making them useful for cross-country comparison was exemplified by the Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a surge of billions of dollars to combat HIV/AIDS around the world initiated by President Bush and carried on by President Obama. PEPFAR instituted a rigorous format of reporting along standardized indicators as a requirement for any organization receiving its funds. The aggregate data from thousands of organizations across dozens of countries comes together in an annual report. This report allows PEPFAR to show demonstrable evidence of success to congress (thus ensuring continued funding), guides more effective programing, and adds a trove of data to the field of HIV/AIDS research.
A similar standardized reporting system initiated for CSOs receiving USG funding for new media promotion would have similar benefits, assisting in the discovery of conditions that allow the combination of new media and democracy promotion to flourish and where it’s destined to be fruitless or too risky an endeavor. A mandatory reporting system would also go a long way in solving one of the problems of scaled hybridity analysis, in that the collection of rich offline data falls not on the researcher traveling to each organization, but on trained staff within the CSO who are responsible for submitting reports on a regular basis.
A drawback to this method is that like all research, the usefulness of the data collected is dependent on the validity of the indicators and the quality of the measurements. In the field of digital activism, both of these areas have remained elusive from shared consensus. One possible starting point is the U.S Institute for Peace (USIP) report Blogs and Bullets , which outlines five levels of analysis for finding a comparable scale of measurement in regards to impact across organizations and countries. With considerable fleshing out it could serve as a useful framework to build standardized indicators that accurately capture hybridity.
Another distinct hurdle is that unlike success in battling HIV/AIDS, organizations working in democracy promotion may be wary to share a comprehensive record of their achievements, or even make public their acceptance of USG funds. Anonymity and limited public release of certain data are possible solutions, but caution would have to take precedence.
One more factor to consider is that standardized reporting across a sector is expensive for a development agency. It takes training, time and collaboration that require additional staff and funds from project budgets already stretched thin. PEPFAR can do it because it’s one of the largest development initiatives ever undertaken. USG funding to support democracy activists abroad in the use of new media is a relatively miniscule sliver of foreign aid, but as I wrote in my last post it has the potential to grow exponentially. But if this prediction proves true, it’s going to be critically important to have data that can answer the simple question: Is it a good idea? Developing a standardized hybridity analysis is beneficial not only for the USG, but also any international donor supporting democracy through new media. The results of such an analysis would help answer whether foreign funded democracy initiatives through new media support is a good idea, but also shed new light on the continuing cyber optimist – cyber pessimist debate.
In forthcoming posts I will continue to explore methods of evaluating the effectiveness of digital media used by civil society actors.
Always nice to see when democracies learn a digital trick from autocracies.
Exhibit B: Gerdab.ir, a site set up in 2009 by The Information Center of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps which aimed to crowdsource the identification of pro-democracy demonstrators.
If there was ever an argument for the ethical neutrality of digital tools, I guess this is it. The meaning of a tool is defined by the use and affordances can serve to protect civil society (giving Zavilia the benefit of the doubt here) or target it.
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This is a response to a critique of wathiqah.com (a platform to discuss the future of Egypt’s constitution) in Meta-Activism Project. The article entitled “the revolution is not a branding opportunity” points out that the name of the commercial platform is visible prominently and takes an objection to it. She also discusses the limitations of such platforms to which I would like to respond.
The author points out that online discussions reach a very small proportion of the population, that they are not representative, and that they are easy to manipulate by well organised groups. I agree with the critique whole-heartedly, and I guess most people will do so as well. The question I wish to ask here is, given the problems, do such platforms have a democratic role at all?
If one were to examine any single dialogue process, I am sure we can find a thousand reasons to call it unrepresentative. Most active dialogues tend to involve small numbers of people. This can be said not just of a process, but also of any organisation, political party, social movement, or any forum. For that matter established electoral processes in the most advanced democracies too suffer from some of these limitations, in the strict sense of the word. For example, despite its formal representation of all US citizens, one could say that elected bodies could be hijacked by organized groups, and that the number of people who participate in electoral process is low, not to talk of effective participation.
To take a different example, social movements that have radically deepened democracy have been criticised for leaving out significant social groups. For example, the civil rights movement in the USA has been justly criticized for ignoring the voices of women; prominent women’s movements have been criticised for being unrepresentative of the voices of lower class women. The examples can go on and on.
My argument is that no single process, forum or organisation can perfectly satisfy all democratic principles. Democracy is an endless conversation that necessarily has to happen in multiple spaces. Wathiqah is one such forum that is mediating a few conversations. Its democratic role lies in the fact that it is engaging thousands of citizens in thinking about the constitution.
It enables a lot of individuals to voice their opinion about political issues. I believe that forming and articulating political positions is not an easy task, and that by making that process simple, the platform assists a lot of people to develop their political persona, which is critical for good citizenship.
Further, when a large group engages in a conversation, new ideas tend to emerge. The design of online discussion platforms help us identify some widely shared ideas. Such identification in itself is an important democratic act.
Enabling large numbers of people to engage with political issues, providing a space for people to voice their opinions, providing a forum for the exchange of ideas and the possibility of identifying a few widely shared ideas are the critical democratic functions that such a platform performs.
While these are democratic functions, we should acknowledge that online discussions are accessible only by a limited population, and that they remain vulnerable to hijacking by organized groups. Given these limitations, it would be a grievous mistake to interpret the “outcome” of the conversation as THE voice of a society.
If we understand the process with its limitations, and if online platforms are one among many other forums of conversation, then one could say that they serve an important democratic purpose. The critique at Meta Activism and others will ensure that we remember the partial nature of the conversation, and such reminders play an important democratic role as well. That said, we should not forget that partiality is the nature of any democratic conversation. Online platforms provide an avenue for large scale engagement and are especially good at reaching a lot of young people who are otherwise left out of political dialogue. I guess that is a goal that those of us committed to democracy can cherish.