The Effects of the Internet on Politics

by Henry on September 14, 2011

I’ve been buried in seclusion the last several days, trying to get a review article on the consequences of the Internet for politics (from a political science perspective) finished. Obviously, this is far too large an undertaking for a 12,000 word piece, so I’ve concentrated on two debates – arguments over the Internet and political polarization, and arguments over the putative role of the Internet in the Arab Spring. An initial draft is available here – comments and criticisms welcome (I’m already aware of, and planning to fix, the slightly ropy bibliography, the tendency to grossly over-use the word “plausibly” and the unexplained switch from discussion of ‘sorting’ in the opening section to ‘homophily’ in the main text). This is a topic where there are relevant literatures in political science, sociology, communications studies, and computer science that overlap without necessarily talking to each other that well. I’ve tried to gather as much as I can from across these disciplines, but am sure that there is plenty of material out there that I am unaware of.

{ 41 comments }

1

andrew 09.14.11 at 4:30 pm

gathering up as much relevant discussion on internet from across the disciplines sounds like a pretty herculean task

2

Dave 09.14.11 at 5:05 pm

arguments over the Internet and political polarization

I think those arguments SUCK.

3

J. Otto Pohl 09.14.11 at 5:26 pm

I am with Dave, the arguments are for the most part completely stupid. Although I am not sure who I find the more annoying the internet Stalinists or the internet Zionists. Both have pretty strong contingents on the internet.

4

straightwood 09.14.11 at 6:27 pm

The man deficiency of these discussions is the absence of radical novelty. There is a persistent bias toward viewing the Internet as an ancillary, rather than primary, phenomenon. It is as though, having modified a wine press to print texts, the focus of the inventors is making labels for wine bottles. Thus we see the Internet used as a tool for leveraging standard electioneering. This is profoundly myopic.

The Internet enables the radical restructuring of democratic politics by the following means:

1. Dramatic expansion of plebiscite democracy.

2. Sharply altered parliamentary representation ratios.

3. Ending fixed terms of office through ease recall.

4. Total transparency of governmental business.

5. Moving from fixed to project-oriented government structures.

6. Homogenization of global laws and practices for commerce, justice, and enviromental protection.

It is just a matter of time before the legacy constitutions of the nation states are rewritten to reflect the dramatic enhancement of human association enabled by the Internet. It is a Gutenberg-scale transformation, and its political impact will be epochal.

5

bianca steele 09.14.11 at 6:39 pm

ICAC I increasingly find Lessig’s arguments peculiar. I’ve tried to see why he says what he does, and I’m not qualified to evaluate whether his approach makes sense, but every so often I wonder whether he’s been played (there are other explanations but this always seems the most probable one).

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a bit about the online cancer support groups she found, and though it sounds like she found very much the same culture and kinds of interactions offline, her argument as she presents it in her book does lean heavily on online examples. She doesn’t provide anything in the way of theorizing or generalizations.

6

bianca steele 09.14.11 at 6:42 pm

Which doesn’t have anything to do with politics (Ehrenreich definitely attributes what she found online to a cancer-patients subculture and a positive-thinking subculture, not an online subculture that you might also find on political sites, and seems pretty certain besides that people who are involved in politics wouldn’t stoop to positive thinking), so never mind.

7

Substance McGravitas 09.14.11 at 7:10 pm

There isn’t much about email in the paper though as you mention data collection is hard. Forwarding emails remains a big deal among many older people I know, few of whom pay regular attention to blogs. Politics on the internet for them is a game of telephone and the information never gets corrected and never dies. My impressions only of course.

Maybe there is something to be said about the technological sophistication inherent in the various methods of information delivery and the consumers who are willing to partake of them. People who read blogs are often seeking out the like-minded and are a little more at ease looking for that, while people who are getting and forwarding the Obama-is-a-muslim emails are communicating with their circles of existing friends. Along that line of thought the email pitches I get for political donations seem slanted more towards easily-alarmed older folks than young professionals.

8

Henry 09.14.11 at 7:25 pm

bq. There isn’t much about email in the paper though as you mention data collection is hard. Forwarding emails remains a big deal among many older people I know, few of whom pay regular attention to blogs. Politics on the internet for them is a game of telephone and the information never gets corrected and never dies. My impressions only of course.

This is a big problem. Chris Hayes asked me some years ago which political scientists were working on this, assuming, unsurprisingly, that there were lots, while of course there are none, because there is no good way of getting at the material (short of being the NSA, or having some improbable research design and gross amounts of funding, or something). I sometimes worry that chain email is a kind of dark matter, exerting a subtle but inexorable gravitational pull that skews our entire political system away from the shape that it should have …

9

Fred 09.14.11 at 9:02 pm

To see how a blog can drive influence leader readership research the “Doctrine of Dick DeVos” and how this drove not the general reader but the campaign staff and MSM readership – they were influenced, and thus the impact on decision making within the campaign, the MSM and ultimately the voters. This has changed quite a bit do to the very profit driven effects upon software programming that run news feeds and targeted advertising.

10

Watson Ladd 09.14.11 at 9:22 pm

Straightwood, that assumes you solve security and PKI. Good luck! The fact that the smart people are running like mad in the other direction towards paper ballots and hand counting gives me pause.

11

straightwood 09.14.11 at 9:26 pm

Straightwood, that assumes you solve security and PKI

Once the public insists on secure electronic voting systems, they will be produced. Unless you have a very lumpy mattress, all of your personal wealth is recorded as digital bits, and you probably access this data electronically every day. Electronic voting is a much easier problem to solve.

12

bianca steele 09.14.11 at 9:37 pm

@8
I’m pretty sure you don’t have to be the NSA, but you do have to have NSA funding.

It’s “the Internet” that would seem to be the odd medium out, and increasingly less so, if you picture the average plugged-in professional of the past ten years, with two phones, incoming texts, e-mails, in-house discussion forums and databases, work-related and personal mailing lists, Facebook, blogs, New York Times breaking news updates, and streaming baseball box scores–most of which isn’t available to researchers, much less in a form that could be observed chronologically.

13

Watson Ladd 09.14.11 at 10:06 pm

straightwood, banking is easy! All I need to do is get the bank to know that it is me, with information the bank hands me. Any mistakes are between the bank and me. And yet we have skimmers and ATM’s with viruses, inside jobs, assumed identity fraud, etc. EMV has some options that it really shouldn’t etc. Voting is harder: we need to ensure those who count the votes count all the votes correctly, while keeping them secret and protecting the box from being stuffed. Yes, crypto can help with all of that. But when security is “there are men with guns, and volunteers checking lists” and counting correctly is “they are sitting there in front of everyone, and picked by lot” you have to work hard to do better. I just think that democracy’s inner workings should be visible to all, and introducing math is a bad way to do that.

14

bianca steele 09.14.11 at 10:32 pm

@12
Actually I don’t know that there are representative databases of e-mails (surveillance requests presumably don’t cover a representative sample of all users).

15

M 09.14.11 at 11:31 pm

@straightwood the interesting thing is right now people treat the internet as a sort of democracy, I often read the headline and then skip to the comment threads to see what people thought of a post as I believe it tells me more than reading the copy pasted press release. It doesn’t take very many people running around with sock puppets to control, stifle or promote certain ideas.

Monbiot’s recent article on this was very worrying, disorganised “organic” information control is a lot easier to work around and prevent than companies operating PR campaigns under multiple shill accounts across the web.

Happily the EU have banned it, as I understand the law, but it is hard to stamp out something as secretive as this across the internet’s borders.

16

straightwood 09.15.11 at 12:15 am

@15

Up until the Internet, every information medium could be controlled and manipulated through a variety of means. What scares TPTB is that the Internet is vast, protean, and rapidly evolving. An open information network is biased toward truth, because correct information is valued more highly than false information (by most people). Predictions of corruption and ruin for Wikipedia have proven wrong because the editors have a deep sense of custodial obligation to their subjects and articles. People who exchange false information cannot gain from such an exchange, while those who exchange true information can build upon each increment of knowledge. This is why corrupt systems collapse and honest ones proliferate. Wikipedia already dwarfs all previous encyclopedias, and equivalent phenomena will emerge in the political domain. The Internet has only begun to rock our world.

17

joel hanes 09.15.11 at 2:24 am

Once the public insists on secure electronic voting systems, they will be produced.

Perhaps they’ll be produced, but they shouldn’t be.

Electronic voting is a much easier problem to solve [ than electric banking ]

I couldn’t disagree more.
I’ve been a computer engineer for thirty years, and IMHO computers are an inappropriate technology for voting.

18

Alan White 09.15.11 at 2:47 am

The so-called military-industrial complex has leveraged the march of world history ever since WWI (and maybe really beginning with the Spanish-American War), with those influences fluctuating in power between international politics and multinational corporations (the former a complex function of the larger influence of the latter, thus the genius of Gravity’s Rainbow), and I’d say that anyone who believes that some functionally averaged rational day-to-day products of the Internets and the Google will somehow transcend those historically-placed powers must live in a fantasy of unbridled optimism. The fact that radical US conservatives now essentially control the power of politics on blogs is simply more of the same: the “free-speech” of money talks as loud as its economically amplified voice. There are no gounds to believe that unbiased reason will prevail online absent some real influx of economic power to back its potential clickable influence. And I can’t imagine who would finance that.

19

Alex 09.15.11 at 3:29 am

Actually I don’t know that there are representative databases of e-mails (surveillance requests presumably don’t cover a representative sample of all users).

Try google:

http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=corpora+emails&oq=corpora+emails

This looks relevant:

http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~einat/datasets.html

Happily the EU have banned it

It did?

20

Ellis Goldberg 09.15.11 at 5:10 am

I’m personally quite skeptical that preference falsification was an issue; certainly not in Egypt and btw not because of Kefaya. Just reading the newspapers, let alone talking to people, made it clear how widely the regime was despised. The newspapers in Tunis were, of course, ridiculous but I don’t take seriously the notion that anybody thought everybody else was pro-regime. Timur’s proposal may be true of eastern Europe but not Egypt, Tunisia or Syria. Preference falsification seems as far-fetched to me as that Syrians were ok with the regime because it was anti-Zionist. I also find the cascade model adapted from rational choice theory remarkably poorly suited to understanding events as they appeared to unfold to unsophisticated residents such as myself between January 25 and January 28.

21

tomslee 09.15.11 at 6:19 am

Ellis – I am puzzled by your dislike of cascade models. In some sense, local and otherwise small events (Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire) did spark something like a cascade, so as a purely descriptive term it seems appropriate. What kind of model would seem more reasonable to you – something with more focus on institutions and organizations perhaps?

22

M 09.15.11 at 7:49 am

@19

EU Unfair Commercial Practices Directive
http://www.out-law.com/page-9050

23

Tim Wilkinson 09.15.11 at 8:42 am

24

Henry 09.15.11 at 11:14 am

Ellis – while I don’t come to a conclusion myself on this, since I am not a region expert, the Marc Lynch piece that I lean on also argues strongly that preference falsification was not an issue in Egypt, but distinguishes this from Tunisia, where people were terrified to talk about what they actually thought about the regime. Is there any good countervailing evidence for this claim about Tunisia? Would love to see it, obviously, if there is.

25

straightwood 09.15.11 at 1:20 pm

There are no gounds to believe that unbiased reason will prevail online absent some real influx of economic power to back its potential clickable influence. And I can’t imagine who would finance that.

Dishonest and corrupt systems collapse, because they are not reliable and extensible. That is why even the most powerful corrupt enterprises fail, usually in spectacular fashion (e.g, Enron, Soviet Union). Economic power can only be built and maintained in a framework of rational integrity.

Teilhard de Chardin did not foresee the emergence of a global super-organism (for which the Internet is a precursor) because he believed people were intrinsically virtuous. He saw it as an inevitable consequence of deep principles of evolutionary organization. Sound structures proliferate and overwhelm unsound structures. Corrupt and dishonest structures are unsound.

Individuals wish to fit episodes of historic change on the narrow stage of their own lives, but the timelines of change in civilization are often very long. We are just at the start of the age of digital society, and our pitiful current attempts to foresee political transformations will be the subject of puzzlement to future historians. The Internet will be bigger than the printing press in terms of social and political impact. The fact that this has yet to be recognized in much of the scholarly community is evidence of the crippling over-specialization and risk aversion that has hobbled modern academia.

26

bianca steele 09.15.11 at 1:25 pm

Alex @ 19
You’d have to assume e-mails preserved, even under Sarbanes-Oxley, are representative (besides, you’re looking for personal e-mails and I would think they don’t have to be preserved). If all you have is Enron, you have to assume the culture at Enron was typical of everybody, and since the only reason you have to believe that is that Enron’s case was publicized in detail, I wouldn’t.

In the studies you linked, it appears not to matter since they’re used for syntax analysis, basically, not content analysis. “Finding proper names” is a different activity from “finding and counting all activity of a particular type,” much less “finding content that might refer to an impending attack.”

Now, if you worked for Google or Yahoo, and they had poor enough internal security, you could make a study of all their gmail accounts. Or if you were at a university and could get the IT department to support you. It wouldn’t necessarily be unethical, any more than looking at medical records would be (speaking from personal, experience the IT department occasionally sees individual e-mails during debugging, but tries not to, and tries hard to forget what they saw). Not sure why you would want to do that though. You still couldn’t look at their landline, mobile, FIOS, text-based, or face-to-face interactions.

27

Watson Ladd 09.15.11 at 1:55 pm

straightwood, why did feudalism last so long? Its collapse may have been inevitable, but there was nothing to indicate it would happen until it had already lasted over a millenium.

28

straightwood 09.15.11 at 1:59 pm

straightwood, why did feudalism last so long?

The tempo of technological change was slow in the Feudal era. Metallurgy and chemistry took a long time to produce cannon that could breach a castle wall. Also, the economic independence of towns and free cities was slow to develop.

Things are moving much faster now. The fact that the NATO military feels compelled to “fight” with the Taliban on Twitter is a sign of things to come.

29

OCS 09.15.11 at 3:17 pm

I agree with Straightwood that the Internet will be transformative in ways we can’t foresee. I do not, however, share his unbridled optimism. Just like any technology, it has potential for good and ill.

I’m especially skeptical that there is some inherent property of the Internet that will automatically sort the truth from the lies. Google birther, or have a look at 911truth.org, or the Fox News site. I think you could make the case that the Internet has helped to herald in the greatest flood of misinformation and propaganda in the history of the world.

Technology is transformative. But it is never transformative in a simple and straightforward way. The early promise of the Internet was that it would hook us all up, give us unfiltered access to the truth, and allow us to interact and make our voices heard in an unmediated, electronic version of the Greek forum. Straightwood, you think that future is still on its way. I’m pretty sure we’re never going to get there. The limitations aren’t on access to information, and I would argue they haven’t been in the developed world since the mid 20th century. The limitations are on our attention, our intelligence, our time, and our willingness to deal with complexity.

30

straightwood 09.15.11 at 3:36 pm

The limitations aren’t on access to information, and I would argue they haven’t been in the developed world since the mid 20th century. The limitations are on our attention, our intelligence, our time, and our willingness to deal with complexity.

Although I am not as aggessively optimistic as Kurzweil, I do not believe it is reasonable to hold human frailty constant in making predictions about the next 100 years. We are close to the threshhold of the ability to modify our own capabilties. Nobody is going to genetically engineer their children to increase stupidity and amplify destructive traits.

Wikileaks has shown us that the Internet provides enormous leverage for tiny numbers of good people to reveal mischief of the most powerful organizations. It may be a very long time before the supply of good people is increased by bio-engineering, but, until then the Internet will continue to tilt the field of discussion slowly to favor truth and discourage falsehood.

31

Ellis Goldberg 09.15.11 at 5:12 pm

FWIW, as I understand the cascade model you should notice, well, a cascade. From Jan. 25 to Jan 28 and then Feb. 11 demonstrations grew by orders of magnitude. You can call this a cascade effect if you want since it makes the analytic framework “work” but I don’t think this was how people in Cairo or the other urban cities perceived what was happening. There may have been a “network effect” at play but if so it was probably driven by conversation (sometimes but not usually over internet/cell phones). The Tunisian media was much more repressive (i.e. sterile) than the Egyptian and the levels of violence by the regime (beginning in 1978) against open political opposition were very high. Marc’s experience in Tunisia seems to be very different from mine but I certainly agree that it was a police state. People certainly feared the consequences of open political opposition but that seems different to me than preference falsification. Much as I hate to do the Tom Friedman cab driver thing I can still recall the vehemence with which a cab driver railed against the regime. One experience that may be important and that I guess could look like preference falsification (assuming that I actually understand what those words mean) was the widespread fear not just about the state but also about the chaos and anarchy that revolution would unleash–the trope of the thawrat al-ga’aan (revolt of the hungry) and a Hobbesian war of all against all.

32

EKR 09.15.11 at 8:53 pm

straightwood writes

Once the public insists on secure electronic voting systems, they will be produced. Unless you have a very lumpy mattress, all of your personal wealth is recorded as digital bits, and you probably access this data electronically every day. Electronic voting is a much easier problem to solve.

Regrettably, this is not so.

Internet voting (which I infer from the context of your message is what you mean by electronic voting, although in the voting community they mean quite different things) is actually a much harder problem than financial security. While the requirements are superficially similar, in a financial system essentially every action can and should be audited, so this allows you to (a) double check that the systems are behaving correctly and (b) go back and try to work out what happened when something goes wrong. However, a basic assumption of voting systems is that they preserve the privacy of the vote (i.e., not only can nobody tell how you voted, it’s difficult if not impossible for you to prove to someone that you voted a certain way). This makes many of our computer security techniques which are based on accountability extremely problematic. And of course even in the financial sector there is a reasonably high rate of fraud.

This is an area of very active research, mostly in the area of what’s known as “end-to-end” voting systems in which you use fancy cryptography to simultaneously demonstrate secure tabulation while hiding how individuals voted. However, I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of those in the research community (including the inventors of this kind of system) think that at the present stage of development Internet-based voting is extremely unwise and it’s not at all clear how to overcome the remaining obstacles, which center around usability and the untrustworthiness of the end-user’s computer.

33

straightwood 09.16.11 at 12:33 pm

@32

Existing voting systems have plenty of vulnerabilities and flaws (e.g., ballot stuffing, ballot destruction, hanging chads, central tabulator hacking), so holding Internet-based voting systems to a standard of flawless efficacy is a bit unfair. Electronic Voter ID verification and end-to-end integrity checking can be accomplished through a combination of biometric identification and audits by a trusted party that maintains confidentiality. For example, the transaction ID of an Internet vote can be recorded by the voter at the time it was cast. Auditors can then contact a random sample of voters and check the votes on the transaction numbers they supply, subject to guarantees of confidentiality.

To my knowledge, nobody in the research community has declared e-voting to be an permanently intractable problem. There are well-developed academic projects, such as Pret-a-Voter, that address security concerns entirely through algorithmic means. It is just a matter of time before e-democracy becomes a major political manifestation of the transformative power of the Internet.

34

EKR 09.16.11 at 2:46 pm

@33

Yes, I’m very aware of the vulnerabilities in existing voting systems, and nobody I am aware of is holding Internet-based voting systems to the standard of “flawless”. However, the general consensus among computer scientists working on voting is that Internet voting is far more dangerous than in-person voting (whether electronic or manual). Even if one ignores the difficulties of securing the central service (asHalderman et al. demonstrated vividly last year with the DC e-voting pilot), you are still left with extremely difficult problems of securing the user’s computer and auditing the results.

Terminological digression here: you’re using the term e-voting, but electronic voting in the sense that computers are involved is already very common, either in the optical scan variety (where you fill out a form and it’s scanned, either centrally or at the precinct) or in the direct recording electronic (DRE) variety (often called touchscreen) where you enter your votes directly into a computer in the polling place. DRE and often opscan are both often referred to as e-voting. So, in that sense we have e-voting. What you’re talking about is something different, voting over the Internet (it sounds like) from your own personal computer or device. While there are security problems with all these varieties, as I said the consensus is that internet voting has the worst security problems. The standard people typically use for reference here is paper ballots which are either hand-counted or optically scanned and then audited with a risk-limiting audit. Such a system already removes two of the threats you cite (hanging chads and hacking of the central scanner) and makes ballot stuffing into what’s called a “retail threat” which requires a high number of people to carry out effectively.

The specific auditing solution you propose is inadequate for a number of reasons. First, it provides a link between the voter and his vote which is readable by election officials; this is a threat to voter privacy. Second, it is not third-party verifiable, by which I mean that it is not possible for people to assure themselves that the audit functioned correctly. Third, the system as you describe it is not immune to attacks where votes are removed and their identifiers removed from the system. Fourth, this sort of post-hoc verification is problematic in that voters may not be reachable, be able to recall how they voted in down-ticket races, or simply lie, either because they have changed their minds or they want to break the audit. Perhaps something along these lines could be made to work, but this is really a very hard problem.

You mention “Pret-a-Voter”. This is one of the class of “end-to-end” voting systems that I mentioned in my previous message. Perhaps end-to-end systems will eventually become practical, but, as I said, major issues remain in terms of both usability and trust in the user’s computer (see Estehghari et al in EVT 2010 for an example of this with the Helios system. (http://www.usenix.org/events/evtwote10/tech/techAbstracts.html#Estehghari)). It’s certainly true that nobody in the research community has declared this to be a permanently intractable problem, but I also think people are a lot less sanguine than you seem to be. As an example, here’s a post from Ben Adida (the inventor of Helios):
http://benlog.com/articles/2011/05/25/online-voting-is-terrifying-and-inevitable/, where he declares that internet voting is inevitable and really hard. In my experience this is probably the most optimistic end of the range of opinion in the CS community.

35

OCS 09.16.11 at 2:54 pm

@30

I think if we’re counting on genetic engineering to give us a more perfect human being then we’re probably going to be waiting a long time. We’re not even sure what intelligence is, and we’re a long way from figuring out which genes we need to goose to improve it.

But I also think that a simple increase in intelligence isn’t going to solve our problems. The financial sector employed some of the brightest minds in the world, as did the US government, but that wasn’t enough to prevent the financial crisis. (I wonder if we wouldn’t have been better off with bankers who were too stupid to invent exotic new financial instruments). I don’t think intelligence is ever going to trump self-interest, short-term thinking, and power politics.

What I think is interesting about Wikileaks is that despite all the hooplah, it didn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know. Illegal detention, torture, killing of innocent civilians, propping up of friendly dictators — the traditional media, despite their many flaws, had been telling us that for years. Wikileaks was useful for focusing attention on specifics, but it didn’t reveal any truth that wasn’t already out there.

To repeat myself, I don’t think our problem has been that there’s not enough good information out there. The problem is getting people to pay enough attention to sort the good from the bad, and to do it in the face of orchestrated propaganda campaigns from political interests. How many people, during the height of the Iraq war, thought that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks? When a piece of information that basic, important, and widely-circulated can’t make it into someone’s head, I’m not sure that a lack of information is the problem.

36

straightwood 09.16.11 at 4:06 pm

I’m not sure that a lack of information is the problem.

The ferocity of the government response against Wikileaks is a good indication of the magnitude of the threat posed by Internet transparency toward conventional secrecy-based institutions. You can imagine how profitable Goldman Sachs would be if it could not double-cross its clients through front running and other schemes dependent on secrecy. If Wikileaks had obtained and released the tapes of the CIA torturing captives, it is very likely that the “discussion” over torture in the US would have taken a different course.

37

OCS 09.16.11 at 6:20 pm

If Wikileaks had obtained and released the tapes of the CIA torturing captives, it is very likely that the “discussion” over torture in the US would have taken a different course.

I don’t know — I would have thought the leaked helicopter shooting would have had more effect, but as far as I can tell it didn’t do much politically. I’m afraid that a video of actual torture might evoke outrage and disgust without much affecting political decisions. I’m not happy about it. I wish we lived in a world where information had more impact. But I’m getting cynical.

38

tomslee 09.16.11 at 7:33 pm

For a “ropy” bibliography Henry’s article sure has a lot of references I’ve never seen before. I like the article a lot, and the way it cuts through grand generalizations about “the Internet” and suggests that we look at mechanisms (sorting, transaction costs, preference revelation) through which digital technologies can affect politics.

Maybe there is a follow-on question about mechanisms. We could ask “what is it about the internet (or social media) that was necessary for it to play the roles it did?” So (and I’m writing from a Las Vegas hotel room just before checking out for the airport, so this may be confused) take Facebook in Egypt. What it provided – in order to lower transaction costs – was a largely unsupervised, unregulated, and easily accessible space in which young people could jointly express their beliefs. There is nothing inherent to Facebook that makes it unsupervised, of course, as all kinds of states are now learning, but there is something inherent to Facebook about the ease of access. We can then ask “are there other (potentially offline) venues where unsupervised and unregulated expression of belief was possible” and we could answer – mosques, and the football stadium, also here. Perhaps we could then compare them more than we have.

When it comes to YouTube and digital video in exposing atrocities, I think the “what is it about YouTube” is quite different – it’s largely an anonymous mechanism by which to deliver material to Al Jazeera. There are other routes, although slower and more dangerous, of achieving this, and I’m not sure whether the speed of YouTube made a big difference, but the ability to capture video on site surely did.

Other media provided secure communication among digital activists who already have an offline connection, and for those the “what is it about the tools they use” may be quite different.

Offline till tomorrow, so that’s it for now. Thanks for posting the draft though.

39

J. Otto Pohl 09.17.11 at 8:52 am

Re: 36

I imagine if an authentic tape showing the CIA or other agents of the US torturing people were released most Americans would justify it, rationalize it, and applaud it. After all look how many Americans support the torture of Arabs and Muslims by the US and Israel now without a tape. Never underestimate man’s capacity for evil. There are a lot of people that get off on the suffereing of those they perceive to be their enemies. For lots of Americans their enemies include all the world’s six billion Muslims plus the millions of Arab Christians in Palestine and elsewhere.

40

tomslee 09.17.11 at 11:38 am

#36, #39 – agreed. Lack of available information is not the bottleneck for political change in western countries, and perhaps not in others.

41

straightwood 09.17.11 at 1:59 pm

Several commentators underestimate the impact of modern media on the conduct of wars. Vietnam was a turning point, and the shocking images of the cruelty of that war, depicting massacres, summary executions, and children burned by napalm helped turn public opinion against it. The US military fully understands the power of modern media, and that is why it cleverly “embeds” reporters in military units to secure their sympathies. If Wikileaks were irrelevant to the conduct of US foreign policy, there would be no orchestrated campaign to destroy it. They would simply be ignored.

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