POLITICS: WEB 2.0 INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE
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On April 17th and 18th 2008 the department of Politics and International Relations at the Royal Holloway University of London (RHUL) organized Politics: Web 2.0: an international conference. The conference was large and diverse, with six distinguished keynotes, 120 papers organized into 41 panels, and over 180 participants drawn from over 30 countries. The big star of the conference was…. You!
Of course we all remember winning the TIME’s Person of the year award in 2006 for seizing the reins of the global media and, whilst working for nothing, founding the new digital democracy. TIME rightly observed a new trend in the Web – a shift that allows for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter. We call it Web 2.0.
Web 2.0, coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2004, is the idea of mutually maximizing collective intelligence and added value for each participant by dynamic information sharing and creation. Web 2.0 includes all those Internet utilities and services which can be modified by users whether in its content (adding, changing or deleting- information or associating metadates with the existing information), or how to display them, or in content and external aspect simultaneously. The user generated online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the million-channel people’s network YouTube and online social network conurbations such as Facebook and MySpace are a mere few examples of the new web direction.
Though it may not be obvious, the road marks in Web 2.0 are political: grassroots participation, forging new connections, and empowering from the ground up. The ideal democratic process is participatory and Web 2.0 is about democratizing digital technology. It may therefore be relevant to ask if there has been a shift in political use of the internet and digital new media – a new Web 2.0 politics based on participatory values. Moreover, how do broader social, cultural, and economic shift towards Web 2.0 impact, if at all, on the contexts, the organizational structures, and the communication of politics and policy? Essentially, does Web 2.0 hinder or help democratic citizenship?
After an hour travel from London I arrived in Egham, a small town in the Runnymede borough of Surrey, in the south-east of England. The picturesque houses of Egham are home for a population of six thousand people. Just outside Egham is the Royal Holloway University of London which caters eight thousand students. The campus, which is set in 55 hectares of parkland, is dominated by its original building, known as the “Founder’s Building”, designed by William Henry Crossland and inspired by the Château de Chambord in the Loire Valley, France.
The department of Politics and International relations, Andrew Chadwick (Director) explains in the opening speech of the conference, was created to study the ‘new’ in new media technologies, such as the Internet, mobile technologies, and global TV. The main issue with new media phenomena is that they get over estimated in the short term and drastically underestimated in the long term. It is therefore essential to analyze and research changes in the Web without delay. The current accent of the web seems to be on social networking and sharing. Its success hints at possibilities for a working political and social system based on mutual respect for each other’s cultures, free of prejudice.
This article is divided in two sections: firstly I will discuss the keynote speakers; then in the second half I will discuss six case-studies. The article will be wrapped up with a short conclusion including comments on the overall event.
The keynote presentations include:
• Professor Rachel Gibson – Trickle-up Politics? The Impact of Web 2.0 technologies on citizen participation.
• Micah Sifry – The Revolution will be Networked: How Open Source Politics is Emerging in America.
• Professor Robin Mansell – The Light and the Dark Sides of Web 2.0
• Professor Helen Margetts – Digital-era Governance: Peer production, Co- creation and the Future of Government.
The case-studies include:
• Severine Arsene – Web 2.0 in China: the collaborative development of citizen’s rational discussion and its limits.
• Cuiming Pang – Self-censorship and the rise of cyber-organizations: an anthropological study of Chinese online community.
• Maura Conway & Lisa McInerney – Broadcast Yourself: A History & Categorization of Terrorist Video Propaganda.
• Kostas Zafiropoulos and Vasiliki Vrana – An exploration of political blogging in Greece
• Paul Zube – VulnerableSpace: A comparison of 2008 Official Campaign Websites and MySpace.
• Rebecca Hayes – Reaching out on their own turf: Social networking sites and Campaign 2008.
PART 1 – KEYNOTE SPEAKERS
BLURRING AND EMERGING TRENDS
Professor Rachel Gibson’s presentation ‘Trickle-up politics?’ concerned the impact of Web 2.0 technologies on political communication and citizen participation. ‘Trickle-up politics’ in fact refers to Reagan/Bush’s ‘trickle-down’ economic policy – which is used in political rhetoric to classify economic policies perceived to primarily benefit the wealthy and then ‘trickle-down’ to the middle and lower classes. What Rachel means with trickle-up is a bottom-up tactic, referring to the deregulated, decentralized political space that is the web. Rachel’s talk was particularly interesting because she set-out a concise historical trajectory to define the present-day web/politics.
Politics before the web – early 20th century through to WWII – can be characterized as being direct, localized and face-to-face. The town meeting, for instance, used to be an effective intermediate. In fact, Rachel continues, politics at this time had a ‘live’ quality, the emphasis was on an ‘in the flesh’ confrontation. Politics gradually became more mediated and indirect between WWII and the turn of the century. With advancement in electronic mass media, the position of the mediator increasingly became independent and subjective, as well as a critical factor in the election outcome. Hence, personality driven candidates have become vital in persuading publics to vote for a party, consequently parties lost their supremacy. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats in the 1930’s and the first televised presidential debate in 1960 – John F. Kennedy versus Richard Nixon – are two defining moments, or as Rachel calls them, seeds of change.
In the period between 1990 and 2004 the Internet progressively became a consumer friendly domestic commodity, and with it political communication found a new medium, one with a potential to evade sound-bites and negative ads. Of course the Internet had a long history prior to the emergence of the WWW. It is debatable when exactly the WWW was invented, however, one common date is 1990 when TBL published ‘Proposal for a hypertext project’. The immediate consequence for political communication was an increase in speed, volume, and individual user control over consumption and production. Moreover, it provided a new way of targeting and allowed for ‘narrowcasting’. The internet opened a decentralized control structure and offered the user new forms of interactivity, putting an accent on multi-media formats.
The expectations were high; in ‘The Virtual Community’ (1993) Howard Rheingold wrote that “the future of the Net is connected to the future of community, democracy, education, science and intellectual life… The political significance of CMC lies in its capacity to challenge the existing political hierarchy’s monopoly on powerful commercial media, and perhaps thus revitalize citizen-based democracy.” Nicholas Negroponte wrote in ‘Being Digital’ (1995) that “as we interconnect ourselves, many of the values of a nation state will give way to those of both larger and smaller electronic communities. [there is] …A decentralized mindset growing in our society, driven by young citizenry in the digital world. The traditional centralist view of life will become a thing of the past.”
And in 1998 Esther Dyson wrote in ‘Release 2.1: a design for living in the digital age’ that for her “the great hope of the Net is that more and more people will be led to get involved with it, and that using it will change their overall experience of life… The Internet is a powerful lever for people to use to accomplish their own goals in collaboration with other people. Its more than a source of information, it’s a way for people to organize themselves. It gives them power for themselves. Rather than over others.”
But, then, what did all this buoyancy bring forth? Rachel answers by showing slides of Tony Blair’s incredibly meager home page from 1995, plus some other laugh-raising political campaign sites familiar to British voters. Obviously it takes time to master technological innovation, Rachel notes. Then, in 2004, came web 2.0. The technological definition of Web 2.0 is that the web functions as a platform, supplanting the desktop and PC. The browser is now the key tool to access a suite of new increasingly interoperable applications that work behind the scenes to link up a wide range of online functionalities – i.e. manage a home page.
At its core, this frame refers to social and participatory elements of the web: communicate with friends, share/publish pictures, and receive news. Web 2.0 is based around social networking activities as it relies on and is built trough ‘social or participatory’ software. Typical applications are blogs, wiki’s, social networking and file sharing sites, such as Myspace, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr. Hallmark of these applications is the way in which they devolve creative and classificatory power to ‘ordinary’ users. In a nutshell Web 2.0, as defined by blogger Nicholas Carr, concerns “the distribution of production into the hands of the many”.
But what does it mean for politics? It is more and more difficult to identify media ‘effects’ at the individual and collective/societal level. We therefore need new methods and data to capture how and why people are using the technology. The Web is becoming an ‘environment’ and a context. Where it is probably having most effect is in changing the culture of participation particularly among younger people. However, Rachel argues, we are not at the stage yet where we can definitively point to changes in citizen participation. Yet, there are significant signs of a shift taking place coming from recent elections in the US, France, Australia and beyond.
Emergent trends include the blurring of boundaries between users and producers, causing what Rachel calls an ‘amateurization’ of politics. On the other hand politics is speeded up; Rachel observes a ‘quickening’ of coordinating citizen demands and responses, fostered by tools like MySociety and Central Desktop, hopefully leading to a more open form of decision making. In addition, the boundaries between public and private are blurring, which causes an ‘informalizing’ of politics. Furthermore, Rachel notes a pluralizing and disaggregating of choices, hinting at a long tail of politics. In politics the long tail has been talked about in terms of tapping small donors, but she argues that it also applies to people’s discrete interests and the opportunity to respond to more than the top four survey items in a poll.
In this sense, Rachel’s ‘trickle-up politics’ refers to diffused and decentralized individualistic micro-networks that are continuous, citizen-based in a non-institutional setting, and characterized by niche audiences. So, where do we go from here? While we ponder the nature of politics associated with the Web 2.0 era it is interesting to think about what the next shift might be. Web 3.0? If Web 1.0 relates to a receive/read mode and Web 2.0 includes a send/write mode (user generated content), then Web 3.0 could very well be, Rachel reasons, a more immersive mode, for instance create/speak/act. So, does this mean we will all be having avatar-to-avatar fire-side chats with upcoming politicians in Second/Third Life?
POLITICS 2.0 – OPEN SOURCE CAMPAIGNING
Since the 2004 United States elections, the internet has become much more participatory and interactive with the popularization of Web 2.0. This participation, the idea goes, lends new currency to the notion that these technologies can be employed to allow citizens to ‘reprogram’ politics. One of the earliest examples is the way that the Macaca video spread virally through the internet on YouTube and contributed to the electoral defeat of Senator George Allen of Virginia during the 2006 U.S. midterm elections. The old ethics of politics allowed candidates to get away with making ad lib comments if journalists did not pick up on them, but services such as YouTube have changed that, and now politicians must be more careful not to say things that will come back to haunt them.
Various Internet prophecies involve a new wave of fashionable democracy as fundraisers meet on MySpace, YouTubers crank out attack ads, bloggers do opponent research, and cell-phone-activated flash mobs hold mini conventions in Second Life. Open source political campaigns, Open source politics, or Politics 2.0 are about the idea that social networking and e-participation technologies will revolutionize our ability to follow, support, and influence political campaigns.
In The Nation (2004) Micah Sifry wrote open source politics means “opening up participation in planning and implementation to the community, letting competing actors evaluate the value of your plans and actions, being able to shift resources away from bad plans and bad planners and toward better ones, and expecting more of participants in return. It would mean moving away from egocentric organizations and toward network-centric organizing.” Since Micah’s article, the term has appeared on numerous blogs and print articles. Micah was invited to talk about open source politics and how it relates to this years US presidential election.
Micah’s perspective on politics and the revolutionizing authority assigned to the network, provided for some fascinating insights. According to Micah political communications must move from being egocentric to network centric; less about individuals and more about loosely connected networks of supporters that unite and self-organize around specific issues, allowing voters to become co-creators of the political campaign and outcome. Micah’s presentation was named ‘the revolution will be networked’ and concerned voter-generated content, donations, and a potential retreat from sound bites (or the even shorter sound ‘barks’).
Because of the interactive quality of modern campaign sites (comments, polls, upload options), users currently are co-creators of campaigns. This network of users, Micah argues, makes modern campaigns not solely about getting donations or votes; issues can be discussed in depth. Obama’s top 10 YouTube clips are on average 13 minutes long (with approximately 900 videos posted). These videos get millions of hits, which is unique because YouTube only registers a hit when the video is watched completely. The Race Video has had over four million views, demonstrating that there are a lot of people interested in in-depth content that without the Internet cannot be obtained.
The Internet opens up meaningful spaces and changes traditional processes. For instance funding is done in new ways; Ron Paul opened up his funds by putting all his campaign donations online. The database of donations was entirely searchable. Supporters started expanding the site with useful tools, for instance, graphs that displayed funding from specific places, organizations or persons – they then set-up the website ronpaulgraphs.com; the result can be considered a form of open source donors in real-time. With micro-economics emerging on the web, big money doesn’t go away – but now there is a counter force. The mobilizing force of the internet allows for a long tail of donations, potentially assigning power to the people. Those who are only able to donate a small amount and thus generally have little or no authority, can mobilize via network technologies and have a say at what direction a candidate’s party should take, as an alternative to the established domination of the corporation.
The voter generated content, Micah emphasizes, is not solely about raising funds; the contributions extend to full scale voluntary operations. Great examples are “Vote Different” video from Obama supporters and the new “VoterVoter” site, where citizens can develop their own ad and pay to have it placed on TV. Micah believes there is a shift in centrality; the focus is on the user. This shift is evident in the importance of MySociety.org and its toolset for citizens to monitor and exert pressure on government. Obama seems to understand the network power better than the other candidates before him and still in the race; his campaign site is all about providing a channel or a portal to other users and sites, not necessarily trying to control them. The heart is the user.
To get to a position of open source politics we need to give supporters authority. To what extent is this achievable and smart? Ron Paul supporters were given full authority to shape his campaign, but then they raised money to spend on a branded blimp – as it turned out not the most efficient course. A more interesting question is what happens to the network and peer production after the candidate is placed in office? And where will the balance of power lie? Once you have given supporters/voters a sense of power, they probably won’t let it go so easily. The speeding up of politics: this quickening of coordinated citizen demands and responses, fostered by tools like MySociety or Central Desktop, will this lead to more open decision making? What about collaborative government?
ROAD TO ENLIGHTMENT OR CONFUSION?
According to Professor Robin Mansell (New Media – London School of Economics) we are on our way to collective intelligence. The Web 2.0 ideology demonstrates a new narrative and an end of hierarchies. The new narrative, which is put forth from end-to-end networks, is an astonishing emphasis on cooperation ascendant over competition. Information wants to be free.
When thinking about technology from a bureaucratic or a scientific perspective, it is important to ask if convergent and divergent interests in capitalism and democratization are characterized by superficial or fundamental change. Robin notes that historically, shifts in power have been partial and often local, in their consequences we should expect the same in the Web 2.0 age. In order to study ongoing transitions and affect Robin sets out the ‘light’ and ‘dark’ side of Web 2.0. Her presentation was not so much an attempt to close things down and determine all facets of the Web 2.0 phenomenon; but instead aimed to stimulate speculation, further empirical research and a call for governmental involvement.
The success and achievability of Web 2.0 can be explained by steady increases in information connections and social connections over the past decades. Historically the web can be grouped in the PC Era (1980-’90), Web 1.0 (1990-2000), and Web 2.0 (2000-’10). The PC Era commenced as PC’s and in particular the desktop became a household commodity, however, the stand alone character of the PC made it lack information and social connections. Web 1.0 is identifiable by the World Wide Web and although there is an increase in social and information connections, the web is still, at this stage, focused on databases, static websites and one-way communication. Web 2.0, on the other hand, does have a strong focus on user-generated content and social media sharing. Assuming this trend will continue, the upcoming Web 3.0 (2010-’20) is thought to focus on semantic databases and distributed search and Web 4.0 (2020-’30) characterized by intelligent personal agents.
Today, being profitable on the Internet means reliance on user-generated content. Large multi-nationals have come to understand the power of the mass; by winning them over with innovative interactive tools and integrating their creative and immaterial input. Successful businesses respect the small contributions of the multitude and adjust the communication and production structure accordingly; slowly businesses are implementing a horizontal, bottom-up organization. Web 2.0 embodies this change and in this respect stands for the emancipation and an end to repression; everyone’s contributions matter, everyone is listened to and – this is different in a traditional disciplinary organization – you are stimulated to actively participate/volunteer in fine-tuning the social/corporate order.
At first glance Web 2.0 primarily seems to be about upbeat, optimistic and emancipatory qualities. However, there are a lot of negative aspects to be considered in the same way. It is for instance an addiction that consents to collective intelligence; mass collaboration is achieved by encouraging people to get addicted to new media practices. Children, adults and the elderly need to be active in order to belong to the ‘new society’. Those that do not contribute and participate are automatically excluded. All our daily practices slowly seem to be reliant on new media technologies. Being part means to be addicted.
Currently active audiences are participating in television shows via sms, speaking out their every day frustrations on blogs and tweaking their profiles on social networks. What this brings, however, are new forms of competition. Companies are competing in who has the most people working voluntarily for them. This obviously raises juridical questions concerning labor and compensation. In addition, Robin continues, mass collaboration mostly occurs within a circle of friends. This means that the focus is inward looking and therefore not as open as many optimists proclaim. Furthermore, Robin notes, adverts increasingly get mixed with editorials. Trust is devaluated by an overload of information. The gatekeepers of information, the editors, moderators and monitors are ‘you’; hence it is increasingly difficult to dependent on one source. Mass collaboration might be a way to collective intelligence, it is predictably also a road to mass confusion.
In the end the scarce resource is data/info management capabilities and time for servicing ourselves. What we need, Robin asserts, is more speculation and empirical research; a turn to governance of communicative spaces in ways that encourage active passivity; a turn to achieve control over data/info management – the driver of the economy, Web X.0 and political outcomes. Bottom line is to understand that network effects are not neutral for the economy or for democratization.
DIGITAL ERA GOVERNANCE
In the public administration debate about new public management (NPM), Professor Helen Margetts (Society and Internet, OLL, UK) claims traditional themes of disaggregation, competition, and incentivization are worn out. Although its effects are still working through in countries new to NPM, this wave has now largely stalled or been reversed. Helen sets out the case that a range of connected and information technology-centered changes will be critical for the current and coming wave of change. The overall movement incorporating these new shifts is toward “digital-era governance” (DEG), which involves reintegrating functions into the governmental sphere, adopting holistic and needs-oriented structures, and progressing digitalization of administrative processes.
DEG has three key elements – reintegration (reversing fragmentation, joining up, re-governmentalization, new central processes, squeezing process costs, simplification, bringing issues back into government control, like US airport security after 9/11); needs-based holism (client-focused structures, end-to-end redesign, one-stop processes, co-production, agile government, reorganizing government around distinct client groups); and digitalization (electronic delivery, centralized procurement, new automation, disintermediation, open-book governance, web2.0 for government, fully exploiting the potential of digital storage and Internet communications to transform governance). DEG offers a perhaps unique opportunity to create self-sustaining change, in a broad range of closely connected technological, organizational, cultural, and social effects.
The backlash, however, is a move to a digital super state, in which information and organization is chaotic and lagged. Research concerning UK government representation and recognition on the internet shows that users rate government websites reasonably well but quality has improved little since 2002, design is text heavy, public sector sites lack innovation (particularly Web 2.0) and popular features of good private sector sites. Furthermore, Central government websites cost 208m pounds annually (estimated) – but some deparments/agencies still have weak information on costs/usage of online provision and many lack channel strategies. UK government has embarked on a high risk ‘supersite’ strategy, Helen continues, to centralize e-government provision in two sites – Directgov and Businesslink – which have low brand recognition and problems competing with other information sources.
Helen states management culture for digital-era governance should include the use of pervasive information; it needs to de-couple information analysis from control (contrast to targets-based culture); be customer orientation and segmentation, with attention to channel strategy; and use pro active and experimental tools. A citizen culture for digital-era governance could entail an ‘isocratic’ government which helps citizens do it themselves; stimulate co-production and peer production. Essentially Web 2.0 should run for government.
The only problem with a potential Web 2.0 candidacy is that the cultural vibe in government is that only ‘old-fashioned’ Web is easy to use, and the “government doesn’t do cool”, in fact, “it’s only working if it’s boring” (i.e. all on-line communication is text-based). Governments avoid part-authenticated information and para-state involvement – “we stand alone; we don’t integrate into society’s networks”. The general idea is that people will come to the government site and can be directed to government sources of information.
The risk of Web 1.0 in government is that it ignores young people at peril – internet change is lead by them. Planning for text-only communication, Helen argues, leads to disastrous under-investment. Moreover, people go where they want to go, with increases in competition, a focus on Web 1.0 will bring forth a net loss of visibility for government – loss of ‘nodality’ (information dissemination) as policy tool.
Web 2.0 could provide the government with rich information and content (not just text) – video, pictures, audio, podcasts, high-intensity graphics (e.g. video games). Conventional information asymmetries can be reversed with a highly specific ‘deep’ search. Also, Web 2.0 allows users to play back information about what they do and how they feel. It can offer part-finished products (e.g. part-authenticated information) to leave for e.g. experts outside the government, allowing for co-production, leading to co-creation, and ultimately making users enter the front office. Web 2.0, Helen adds, offers strong customer segmentation – opening space for social networking (peer production) – possibly involving a wide range of organizations – 3rd sector and private firms.
A 2.0 approach in the health sector, for instance, will permit performance data to be freely available, not only leading to peer-production amongst health-experts, but also offering a direct voice for the patient. This may socialize the manager to be customer orientated. So, the patient input replaces controls.
PART 2 CASE STUDIES
In between the theoretical lectures of the keynote speakers, the conference covered 120 case-studies organized into 41 parallel sessions. Naturally it was not viable to attend all 41 panels within the restricted occasion. Still I was able to attend an especially exciting selection. Such as Severine Arsene’s and Cuiming Pang’s talk on collaborative development of citizen’s discussions and self-censorship in China – outlined in the next section.
What’s more I will discuss Maura Conway and Lisa McInerney’s research concerning terrorist video broadcasts. After that I will discuss Kostas Zafiropoulos and Vasiliki Vrana’s study of political blogging in Greece. Followed by two sections about social networking sites and its usage in the U.S. 2008 Presidential campaigns; I will write about Paul Zube’s study of what he calls ‘vulnerable spaces’ and Rebecca Hayes’ research results regarding social networking sites. In the last part I will wrap up the article and give commentary on the overall conference.
WEB 2.0 IN CHINA
According to Severine Arsene (Science-Pro/Orange Labs, Paris) 210 million Chinese internet users share and tag videos and make use of Web 2.0 applications. Moreover, with the rise of an urban and connected “middle class”, there are more and more discussions taking place online. The content is mostly concerning cars, flats, salary and dogs – in other words lifestyle and values. More interesting are Severine’s observations from fieldwork and interviews with internet users in Beijing.
Apparently there is a wide range of popular debates on morality issues, corruption and other social scandals, making one wonder how China’s strict censorship rules will adopt. Severine states that between harsh nationalism and moral indignation, self-regulation and responsibility, moderators as well as users are collectively elaborating formal and informal rules of politeness, and setting new criteria of objectivity. Censorship and control might be self-regulating at the time, the question is, to what extent is it an effect of to the top-down decision-making norm that is China?
Closely related to Severine’s talk was Cuiming Pang’s (University of Oslo, Norway) presentation concerning self-censorship and the rise of cyber-organizations. Cuiming’s results were based on an anthropological study of a Chinese online community: Houxi Street. According to Cuiming the broad use of Web 2.0 applications in Chinese cyberspace, has provided a platform for individual exhibition and open communication, created a new type of social participation, and facilitated the proliferation of cyber collectives in recent years. It is evident that collective action is more influential in spreading public opinion and organizing public activities than is separated and unorganized individual action. However, Cuiming adds, when faced with the threat of a more powerful authority, a grassroots collective would possibly become more fragile than the individual, and is liable to compromise in order to avoid complete annihilation
Cuiming’s observation of the Chinese online community and in-depth interviews with informants both on- and offline, tell a story about internet users and internet service providers’ perception of and reactions to the Chinese government’s censorship, especially regarding how they learn, perceive, and practice self-censorship. Cuiming argues that many Chinese cyber collectives organized in the format of online communities tend to withdraw collective rather than fight for free speech when they encounter the government’s censorship. Even though there is a wide range of criticism towards the government’s political suppression, the community managers still learn and practice self-censorship, rather then taking risk to challenge the government authority, for fear of penalties.
In addition, because technical censorship is complicated and expensive, the focus is on soft-censorship. Cuiming calls this social moderation; community managers tend to establish a friendly relationship with ordinary users, and adopt strategies of negotiation and dialogue rather than restrictions and sanctions, to remind users to be cautious of their own behavior. What this brings is users spontaneously helping managers, and collectively maintaining and protecting the community, ultimately making it easier for the government to practice internet censorship (and more difficult to become more democratic). Well, let’s put it this way, Cuiming had to go to Oslo to study Chinese censorship…
A HISTORY & CATEGORIZATION OF TERRORIST VIDEO PROPAGANDA
An interesting approach of the history and categorization of terrorist video propaganda was set out by Maura Conway and Lisa McInerney (Dublin City University, Ireland). Maura and Lisa have observed a trend of violent jihadis and their supporters worldwide that are exploiting internet technology to pursue an extensive and cutting-edge media campaign. Jihadi media outlets are influencing perceptions of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere among large chunks of the Arab population and, increasingly, also further a field. Video products arising out of the Iraq conflict in particular, Maura and Lisa add, are a key asset for jihadist media worldwide, which employ materials produced in/about Iraq to underline their broader message.
Their presentation traced the ‘history’ of video technology and its use by terrorist organizations: from Hezbollah’s use of ‘camera crews’ to record their attacks on IDF troops in South Lebanon in the 1980’s to the ‘martyrdom videos’ produced by Hamas and other organizations in the 1990s, and from the establishment of al-Qaeda’s al-Saha productions to the ‘do-it-yourself’ contributions widely available on YouTube today. Particular attention was given to the types of jihadist video currently being produced and attempt to broadly categorize these.
Maura started by saying there is a relation between the emergence of new technologies and terrorism. For instance the print set off further forms of terrorism, mobilization and propaganda. The television satellite in 1968 enlarged this process. Imagery, a central aspect of television, is far more persuasive. Hezbollah immediately began to use its power, but, and this is an important fact, the power of the press is limited to who owns it, and because Hezbollah could not own its own television station (before Al-Manar, 1991), its power was limited to who showed their actions. Consequently Hezbollah began broadcasting themselves in the 1980s using ‘camera crews’ to record their attacks on IDF troops in South Lebanon. It was the first form of self-broadcasting.
In the late 60s and 70s hijacking attention became an effective means to draw the attention of television stations – i.e. Black September (PLO). The hijacking genre, Maura states, is the central means to propagate awareness within the television medium. Hijacking videos currently, like its medium, stands for the traditional, the old and the past. Hezbollah’s self-broadcasting activities in fact paved the way to its broad application currently on the internet. There is a wide variety of propaganda videos now residing on such channels as YouTube and LiveLeak. Juba Baghdad Sniper, for instance, is a famous example.
Juba is an Iraqi sniper who has his actions filmed. The videos show unaware American soldiers being shot from a large distance. The videos that contain soldiers falling to the ground are the most popular; some of them have been viewed more than 300,000 times. What makes contemporary propaganda videos different from those broadcast via satellite/television is the co-creative value. Many of the Juba videos have been edited by other users in order to enhance the essence, for example by putting a red circle around the victim prior to the shot, or adding a slow motion filter and repeating the moment the bullet hits the soldier. Another common user generated add-on is subtitles (in English), or a written overview of an up to date body count. The Juba videos are modern propaganda videos aimed to convince viewers around the world that Iraq’s people will not give up and in fact are winning the war.
Juba is just one example of an effective Web 2.0 propaganda video. Maura and Lisa have established seven different propaganda video types on the Internet: political statements, beheadings, attack footage, living wills, instructional, memorials, and the music video. The beheading videos popped up since 2004 and are considered new. In the past videos containing such gruesome aspects as stabbing and detaching body parts would not be broadcast via satellite. The global and ostensibly anonymous character of the Internet makes it a medium to rapidly reproduce virtually any type of content. Beheading videos primarily are intended to provoke shock and demonstrate devotion to both local and Western viewers. Similarly the living wills characterize a global aspect; they are meant for an international audience and speak to non-Muslims.
On the other hand instructional videos are mostly Muslim-oriented. The genre can be divided in theological and operational instructions, such as for bomb making and transport systems. The latter category are not always accurate, they often miss vital information. There are videos circulating the internet with directions in how to make an IED, however they will regularly be ineffective when used in combat. Possibly these incorrect videos are placed on the Internet by Americans/Europeans to cause confusion (produced or re-edited in the West), or are spread by people who lack fundamental understanding, but pretend/believe they do.
Also the memorial videos are mainly distributed amongst Muslims. The content acts as a virtual tombstone and is considered to hail the victim. Lastly there is the jihad music video. The style is rap. Some popular videos get more then 125000 hits. The music video, Maura and Lisa assert, is aimed to target the youth in many countries. Not only are users of the Internet commonly younger generations, rap music in general has an international and youth appeal; it acts as a universal fashion.
Maura and Lisa observed that production is becoming more professional and is vastly multiplying. This has to do with advancements in technology and the global participatory quality of the Internet. There are now even dedicated media production units: Al Saha/As Sahas and Islamic state of Iraq (ISI). In addition there is the do-it-yourself amateur on YouTube who collaboratively create videos, branding, mimic each other, and cause rivalry (leading to snipers similar to Juba going into the streets with more successful kills on their name).
Lisa and Maura conclude that there is a diffusion of power downward. Video are integral to Web 2.0, easier to access, highlight targeting of younger generation, and make use of the persuasiveness factor of the image. Web 2.0 makes it that you do not need your own website, now you have multiple platforms at your disposal. Finally, Lisa and Maura note, there has been a big shift these past 40 years; print had little persuasive value and could only reach literate people, satellite television (1968) had far more power but lacked distribution (airing of videos depended on who owns the station) and grassrooted control, this evolved in a period of 40 years to co-created easy accessible videos in seven established genres.
POLITICS OF BLOGGING IN GREECE
Kostas Zafiropoulos and Vasiliki Vrana (both University of Macedonia) presented an exploration of political blogging in Greece. Their research was based on a sample of 1367 Greek bloggers.
Blogs have the advantage of speedy publication and in socially constructing interpretive frames for understanding current events. Blogs appear to play an increasingly important role as forum of public debate, with knock-on consequences for the media and for politics. In Greece where the ratio of internet users is relatively small there is however an expanding portion of bloggers who comment regularly and have the power to a certain degree and in certain circumstances to trigger off political movements. Based on the relative literature, Kostas and Vasiliki use Technorati.com in order to track Greek political blogs and provide indicators of their popularity and interconnections. Additionally the aim of the case-study was to test whether the hypothesis of Drezner and Farell (2004) – Skewedness of incoming distribution and formations of core blogs – apply for Greek political blogging.
Drezner and Farell argue that blogs with large number of incoming links offer both a means of filtering interesting blog posts from less interesting ones, and a focal point at which bloggers with interesting posts, and potential readers of these posts can coordinate. When less prominent bloggers have an interesting piece of information or point of view that is relevant to a political controversy, they will usually post this on their own blogs. However, they will also often have an incentive to contact one of the large ‘focal point’ blogs, to publicize their posts. The latter may post on the issue with a hyperlink back to the original blog, if the story or point of view is interesting enough, so that the originator of the piece of information receives more readers. In this manner, bloggers with fewer links function as ‘fire alarms’ for focal point blogs, providing new information and links’.
Currently 40% of the Greek population uses Internet (with percentages being higher among young people and men). According to Karampasis (2007 http:ereuna.wordpress.com) blogging started to expand during 2002-2003 in Greece. There are currently 9610 blogs written in Greek, but only 4639 of them are active. The content includes multiple subjects – with an emphasis on personal interests, art and culture, and entertainment (news and political subjects are rarer). The majority receives less than 100 visits daily, and perhaps as a consequence, do not have any advertisements. The typical Greek blogger is a male (64%) with a college education around the age of 30, and lives in Athens (53.1%) , Thessaloniki (12.4%), or resides abroad (11%). Mostly bloggers tend to use the medium for the purpose of keeping a diary, experimenting, taking action while being anonymous, or creating of a community. 38% of the bloggers consider blogging to be a form of journalism, while 51 does not.
The case-study examines the posts of blogs that were about George Papandreou (the former and current President) and Evaggelos Venizelos (contender) during the period prior to the general elections – from September 16 to November 13. The blogs that were examined contained posts linking to the two candidates sites/blogs. Blogs connectivity, closeness and variations over time were the main characteristics of this investigation. In addition, the research discusses skewedness of the blog incoming links distribution and how this is affecting the formation of central or core blog groups, which serve as focal point blogs. Central in the methodology was recording blogs (from friends and followers, party members, dedicated blogs, non political commenting), link from blog rolls, and affiliation of blogs.
The results, Kostas and Vasiliki argue, demonstrate that political blogging in Greece although limited, conforms to the characteristics described in the literature regarding political blogging. Blogs may frame political debates and create focal points for the new media as a whole. In this way, blogs sometimes have real political consequences, given the relatively low number of blog readers in the overall population. Skewedness of incoming links distribution and the formation of core blogs have on the provision of information and discussion. Empirical evidence from Drezner and Farell is also reproduced in the present analysis. Greek political blogs act within a social network of blogs, which form authority core groups where the discussion is taking place. Political affiliation is partly reflected on the formation of blog core groups. Because of this, it is easier for citizens that need information to coordinate and find where the interesting debate is taking place.
MESSAGE AND IMAGE CONTROL ON MYSPACE
Each election provides researchers studying politics with rewarding material, especially in the last decade; in each election political candidates have made use of new web technologies to reach out to voters. With the 2008 U.S. presidential election looming, Paul Zube states, it appears that social networking sites (SNS) will be the newest web tool utilized by candidates.
Paul’s research examines the ways in which campaigns are making use of one particular SNS, MySpace. MySpace is a popular SNS in the U.S. with a relatively young population of users. This represents an interesting strategic move by U.S. candidates as they have traditionally put little effort into courting young voters, especially as young voters are infrequent visitors of the polls. To study how candidates are using MySpace, two approaches were used. First, the 14 candidates that had active MySpace accounts in the spring of 2007 were “friended” by the researcher to allow full access to the candidates’ spaces. The MySpace and official website spaces of these 14 candidates were then frequently observed during a one month period. Particular attention was paid to differences in content and useable site features. In addition to this comparison, the comments posted on cadidates’ MySpace pages were analyzed. This, Paul adds, provides a glimpse into the potential interactivity promise of SNSs.
The results of these methods found that there are significant differences between the official website presence and the MySpace presence of candidates. The use of MySpace seems to represent a relinquishing of control by campaigns. Although this may be encouraging for those interested in the deals of democratic governance, it is a counterintuitive strategy for the candidates. Candidates have historically sought the maximum electoral benefit from the minimum image/message risk; whereas, SNSs seem to represent a great risk with potentially very little electoral benefit.
Paul start by explaining how the candidates website traditionally acts as a surfacing stage, allowing the candidate to become visible, create a name recognition, establish a personalized image, spread the core message, and ultimately call for funds and votes. At the same time the level of control allows the website to avoid early miscues and build the moment.
Paul believes there are plausible reasons to assume that SNS might be different from previous web campaign tools. Namely, campaigns are not directly in control of structure, moreover, SNS acts as a 3rd party management. Also, the Web 2.0 character makes it difficult to control content supplied by users, meaning that also the interaction with candidates is not filtered. So, is message control compromised in MySpace? Paul asks.
There are several differences between website and MySpace to be considered. Websites are business as usual, Paul says. They are about informing, mobilizing and engaging. Websites are polished and professional. MySpace on the other hand is near uniformity in layout, it contains sporadic content and is non-informing. MySpace is similar but more image focused and the information is personal.
Commenting is an essential part of MySpace and SNSs alike. Paul has established five types of contents: gratitude alone (thanking for accepting ‘friendship’), support (“I am glad you are running), intention to act (“I will vote for you”, challenge (explain such and so – which is never answered by candidate or other users), and spam. The latter actually has initiated some embarrassing situations for candidates; for instance spam adverts concerning illegal drugs are out of place on the site of a candidate who is running a strong anti-drug policy. This and the unfiltered user generated content place candidates at significant risk, making Paul wonder why candidates draw on MySpace.
Candidates jump from one medium to another constantly, yet the challenge of spreading the candidate’s message and image seems minimally rewarded. Not all “friends” on SNSs can vote and MySpace especially has demographics skew very young. History says, Paul adds, they will not vote nor contribute. Candidates seem to use the SNS medium, Paul concludes, to “stay trendy”, it is what is expected of the constituents. Accordingly there seems no motivation by candidates to use the medium for grass-rooted decision making or augmenting democracy, they are simply in it for the votes.
SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES AND U.S. CAMPAIGN 2008
Following Paul’s presentation, Rebecca Hayes (Michigan State University) talked about social networking sites and its usage to reach out to younger audiences. Internet social networking sites are becoming an active forum for participation in politics in the United States, with nearly every candidate in the 2008 presidential primary having a profile on the major SNSs of Facebook and MySpace. One of the main demographics of these sites, individuals aged 18-24, is known to be largely apathetic towards the political process and has previously demonstrated a low level of engagement in politics. While candidates are obviously expending significant resources to reach out to these young voters online, through both SNSs and Web Sites, little is known about the attitudes of this group towards these attempts and how they may impact intention to vote.
Voters are most likely to establish political attitudes and habits, Rebecca continues, by the end of their college careers. For an attitude to form and internalize towards voting or a candidate, the source of the information the attitude is based on must be credible. Additionally, to promote civic participation, an individual must possess political information efficacy, the belief that one has the knowledge to participate. In order to determine the attitudes of young voters (18-24) toward presidential candidate presence on social networking sites and to take the first steps toward determining whether exposure to candidate SNSs can increase participation of young voters, she (together with Paul Zube and Thomas Isaacson) studied the Facebook and MySpace profiles and Web sites of six candidates.
Before explaining how the study was conducted, Rebecca shortly explains that U.S. publics are historically inactive voters. In fact 21-51% of eligible voters actually vote. This mainly originates from constituents to be uniformed; for instance, age relevant information is lacking in campaigns. Other reasons, Rebecca adds, are apathy and voters being too online centric. This might shift as campaigns are more focused on social networking sites, consequently reaching out to young voters, web users becoming more likely to vote and be informed. The web is becoming more interactive per election; in 1996 websites were brochure-like, now they are very interactive and socially networked sites (i.e. John McCain’s site is surprisingly interactive). So, will this translate into greater participation by young voters?
The research followed two theoretical models: the Elaboration Likelihood Model – which describes how attitudes are formed and changed along an elaboration continuum (low-high) – and Political Information Efficacy (PIE) – which asserts that one possesses the knowledge to effectively engage in politics; those with low political information efficacy are much likely to vote; younger voters have much lower PIE than older voters; and exposure to, and interaction with, interactive web campaign material can increase PIE.
Therefore, possible hypothesis include that politically uninvolved young people will find candidate social networking profiles more credible sources of information than will politically involved young people. That heavy users of social networking sites will consider them a more credible source of candidate information. That exposure to candidate social networking profiles will increase intention to vote among politically uninvolved young people. And that exposure to candidate social networking profiles will increase political information efficacy among young people.
The researchers designed an online post-test experiment with control, which measures of the SNS use, the intention to Vote, and the exposure to Face Book, MySpace, Websites, or the control. Additionally experimental groups were asked about impressions of treatment in closed-ended questions and using validated scales of interest/involvement, credibility and PIE. Furthermore, the research included a content analysis by means of open-ended questions to seek initial impressions of exposures. The sample consisted of 411 undergraduate students across four majors (all from the same institute). The results were meant to determine the attitudes of young people (18-24) toward candidate social networking profiles.
The actual results showed websites and Facebook to be more credible than MySpace. Between websites and Facebook there was no significant difference, but this is only moderately credible; usually colleges and universities belong to one SNS – there are Facebook oriented colleges and MySpace oriented ones (depending on where most classmates are). The open-ended responses were overwhelmingly negative; 50% didn’t like candidates on SNSs, and 30% explicitly noted they wouldn’t base their vote on candidate presence. Non of the formulated hypothesis were entirely established – however there was a trend in the hypothesized direction. Results indicate that SNSs may be credible sources of information, but that the information available may not be fully utilized.
I have written – with great enthusiasm I must add – about Web 2.0’s history, positive and negative sides of collective intelligence, open source politics, social networking sites, Juba the Baghdad Sniper, digital era governance in the UK, Campaign 2008 in the US, trickle-up politics, blogging in Greece and self-censorship in China, still there is so much more to add. There are so many presentations I have left out, such as Stephen Schifferes presentation on citizen journalism, in which he remarked how young people get their political news from such programs as The Daily Show and that the visual material watched on the BBC website rarely is about politics (hence, if content is really up to the users then we soon will only be able to watch news on celebrities and nothing about the Middle East). Excellent points were also made by Mike Thelwall about reevaluating notions of blogging and the creation of Habermas’s free discussion Public Sphere, as all user-generated content was banned during the South Korea elections.
The conference truly presented a great deal of theoretical insight and exciting new cases, but unfortunately was too large to attain clear-cut in-depth conclusions. The attention seemed to be on the international character of the conference, therefore many of the parallel sessions were about cases in ‘restricted’ places such as Denmark, Istanbul, or Macedonia. Of course it is great to have a platform for a long tail of political case-studies, yet it makes it difficult to draw up unquestionable statements. Take for instance the topic of Political Blogs (I reviewed one presentation on this topic, there were several more – all concerning local politics), none of the talks really outlined what a political blog is. What makes a blog with political content different from editorials?
What I was hoping for were panels of experts debating a single topic (i.e. on blogging, surveillance, journalism, etc.), instead of having them one after another presenting their research results. I was hoping for lively discussions and active audiences. In fact Michael Turk says it best: “The speaker began by requesting that his presentation not be quoted without his prior approval. This reflects a larger trend that Micah [Sifry] and I have discussed here. This is a conference about web 2.0, that attempts to explore web 2.0 use by political actors, but completely fails to recognize the encroachment of the Internet and Web 2.0 on its own world. Almost none of the participants here are blogging. Before the first session Micah asked if anyone present knew of a tag being used for blogging the conference. To a person, everyone in the room stared at him as if a third arm had suddenly sprung from his forehead. For a web 2.0 conference, the participants are remarkably web 1.0 (perhaps even web 0.5).”