Political Protest and the Digital Message

An article published in the NY Times last week that has been garnering a good deal of chatter and attention pulls together disparate incidents of public protest and revolt from around the world, and paints a global picture of discontent with politics and democracy. Followers of NDN’s work won’t be surprised by the argument: the world is changing rapidly, and precious few governments, political parties or elected officials are adapting adequately to the evolving conditions. Today’s youth make up the largest generation in history, and yet they feel woefully unrepresented by their governments. The world’s middle class has been growing, and yet they have suffered and regressed since the 2008 financial crisis. From New York to New Delhi, Berlin to Tel Aviv, in Spain, Greece, Egypt and Tunisia, people are turning out to protest their respective governments.

All these protests seem targeted less at the principles of democracy than at the institutions we have– the parties, unions, trade associations and other bodies that dominate politics in most democratic countries. In Berlin just a few weeks ago, the Pirate Party— yes, that same party founded in Sweden on a platform of radical copyright reform– surprised everyone (including themselves) by winning 15 seats in the city-state’s parliament. While it was tempting to cite the results as an indication that an increasingly young and tech-savvy electorate put data privacy, copyright reform, and internet policy at the top of their personal agendas, that probably wasn’t what was actually going on.  Rather, a vote for the Pirate Party was a protest vote, a ballot cast against Germany’s traditionally dominant parties, and in support of a burgeoning if inchoate faction that voiced a shared discontent with politics as it has been.

The policy demands of this growing global cohort may not be tech-focused (the impetus for revolt is the same as ever: high unemployment, low wages, prohibitive costs for food, housing, education, and everything in between…), but the mindset of the protesters– the way they think the world should be– is deeply informed by our internet age. Societies are increasingly networked through mobile phones and the internet in ways that are non-hierarchical and user-defined, and as a result, people around the world increasingly expect their government, party, and other representative institutions to be equally responsive to their demands. Needless to say, the current situation is frustrating, whether you’re a liberal in America, a working class family in Europe, or an activist in India. Continue reading “Political Protest and the Digital Message”

NYT on Internet Freedom

The New York Times has lately been doing an admirable job wrestling with the impact of social media, mobile phones and the internet on democracy movements and activism around the world.  Perhaps partly thanks to a certain ambivalence about social media among the paper’s top brass, the NYT has managed to avoid getting too caught up in the “Twitter Revolution!” zeitgeist, and has managed to present both the positive and the negative effects these new tools are having on the global prospects for democracy.

On Wednesday, Neil MacFarquhar had a piece on how activists in Saudi Arabia are taking to the public sphere of the internet for lack of the ability to convene in any real, physical space. Money quote:

Social media, which helped drive protests across the Arab world, seems tailor-made for Saudi Arabia, where public gatherings are illegal, women are strictly forbidden to mix with unrelated men and people seldom mingle outside their family.

Virtually any issue that contradicts official Saudi policy now pops up online, including the status of prisoners being held without trial or a call to boycott municipal elections this September.

Louai A. Koufiah, a Twitter enthusiast, quipped: “Saudis cannot go out to demonstrate, so they retweet!”

And last weekend, James Glanz and John Markoff covered the State Department’s growing and increasingly broad approach to supporting democracy activists using new technology, with a particular focus on constructing mobile networks in places like Afghanistan and North Africa that are entirely separate from the state-run apparatus and thus more (but, note, not entirely) secure.  From that story:

The Obama administration’s initiative is in one sense a new front in a longstanding diplomatic push to defend free speech and nurture democracy. For decades, the United States has sent radio broadcasts into autocratic countries through Voice of America and other means. More recently, Washington has supported the development of software that preserves the anonymity of users in places like China, and training for citizens who want to pass information along the government-owned Internet without getting caught.

But the latest initiative depends on creating entirely separate pathways for communication. It has brought together an improbable alliance of diplomats and military engineers, young programmers and dissidents from at least a dozen countries, many of whom variously describe the new approach as more audacious and clever and, yes, cooler.

Particularly glad to see them put in that historical context.  We’ve always supported democracy. The “internet freedom” push is simply an effort to defend our values in a modern context.

Social Media in Egypt: A Second Public Sphere

I’ve been mostly silent on the “social media revolution in Egypt” meme because, frankly, I didn’t want to join an already crowded chorus until enough information had emerged for the beginning of an actual analysis.  Justly or not, the idea of the uprising in Egypt being a “Twitter revolution” or “Facebook revolt” has become one of the major narratives in the American media.  This shouldn’t be surprising, given the way the same narrative caught on during Iran’s uprising in 2009. And, as Luke Allnutt argued well, there’s an element of the “Twitter revolution” story that’s appealing to Americans because, in some vaguely imperialistic yet satisfyingly altruistic way, it gives us a bit of the credit for the empowerment of the disenfranchised people of Egypt, Tunisia and wherever else.

But it’s becoming more and more clear that in Tunisia and especially in Egypt, social media really have played pivotal roles in driving the uprising. “We are All Khaled Said,” the Facebook group originally created to commemorate the brutal death of a young businessman at the hands of the Egyptian policy, was created last June by Wael Ghonim, the Google executive and activist blogger who has become a reluctant face of the movement since his release from prison and an emotional interview on Egyptian television this week. The group is widely credited with helping catalyze the initial protests last month. The “April 6 Youth Movement,” another Facebook-based, youth-led democracy movement, also helped turn people out to protest, while Twitter has been a constant source of Egypt news for people around the world. Continue reading “Social Media in Egypt: A Second Public Sphere”

Paper Release & Webinar: ICT in Mexican Civil Society

Today, I’m proud to release a new paper entitled “Information and Communication Technology in Mexican Civil Society.” It’s based on the research Ana and I did in Oaxaca and Mexico City back in the fall, and is an overview of how the people, movements and organizations that make up civil society in Mexico have adopted new technologies including mobile phones and social media to facilitate and improve the effectiveness of their work.

The best part is a series of case studies represending the most effective tech-based initiatives of the past several years. The paper is available in both English and Spanish. If you’re interested, I will host a webinar tomorrow, Friday, January 21, at 12:30pm EST to offer an overview of the paper’s findings and answer questions. Please RSVP to receive webinar instructions.

As a taste, here’s an excerpt from one of the fascinating projects I profile in the report: a blogging platform for women called “Mujeres Construyendo.” While not strictly “civil society,” as it’s set up as a for-profit endeavor, MC lives in the space of social entrepreneurship, somewhere between the business world and the nonprofit/civil society world. It’s a great example of a project that leverages the power of the global network to address a specific gap in civil discourse:

“Mujeres Construyendo” is a blogging platform for Spanish-speaking women, created by Claudia Calvin Venero to address a “digital glass ceiling” she observed in Mexico. Venero has recruited over 350 contributors from all over the Spanish-speaking world, encouraging them to engage online, and teaching them the necessary skills; now, their writing covers issues ranging from international politics to the trials of being a mother. Over 4,000 women around the world are in the network of Mujeres Construyendo, many of whom have taken courses taught by Venero. Her courses touch on a range of women’s issues, but the message to her students is always the same: they must overcome the “culture of silence” that keeps many Latin women from engaging in public dialogue, and recognize that the internet is a powerful space to raise their voices about the issues that affect their lives. Next year, she’ll be offering a course exclusively for female legislators in Mexico, making them more aware of the “self-marginalization” of women, and encouraging them to raise their own voices online and in government.

Mujeres Construyendo is one of a handful of emerging online platforms for engaged citizens to share their ideas and experiences, and participate in public dialogue. “Revolución con Letras” is another: without the specific focus on women and women’s issues, the site welcomes posts from citizens about social issues, and allows readers to identify the best, most useful articles. Sites like these are an important development for the engagement of Mexican civil society online, as they give platforms for even those people unaffiliated with any organization and without sophisticated technological skills to engage in public dialogue online. For the internet to successfully become a “second public sphere” in Mexico, sites like these will be essential.

I hope you enjoy the report!

No “Twitter Revolution,” But a Connected Revolution in Tunisia

When Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in front of a government building after being robbed and slapped around by the local police, his desperate and tragic act sparked a tinderbox of anger and resentment against the Tunisian state. As news of Bouazizi’s self-immolation spread, so too did a nationwide wave of protests, and on Friday, longtime dictator Ben Ali fled the country.

With most Western media looking elsewhere, and journalists in Tunisia sharply censored, Twitter became one of the only sources of information about what has come to be called the “Jasmine Revolution.” Among the protesters, Facebook and YouTube allowed them to share stories, videos, and encouragement, while e-mail, text messaging, and other social media were among the ways that Tunisians communicated, rallied, and coordinated their movement. Continue reading “No “Twitter Revolution,” But a Connected Revolution in Tunisia”

Internet Necesario and the Mexican Netroots

On Tuesday, the Mexican Senate unanimously passed a resolution urging President Felipe Calderon to withdraw from negotiations over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The grounds of their opposition? Concern about the treaty’s restrictions on privacy on the internet and free access to information.

If that sounds like an uncommon concern of the Mexican Senate, you would be right. So how did we get here? Come back with me to October 2009…

A year ago, the Mexican Senate proposed a new excise tax of 4% on all telecommunications. After a minor outcry, they revised the rate down to 3%, but it was hardly the cost that rankled Mexico’s netroots– the tax would add just a few pesos to their monthly bill. Rather, the devil lay in the scheme of the tax, which put telecommunications– including internet access– in a category typically reserved for tobacco, liquor, and luxury items.

It’s hard to imagine an opportunity more ripe for web-based protest, and the Twitter users of Mexico coalesced around the hashtag #internetnecesario (“the internet is a necessity”).  In a week in late October, thousands of irate Mexicans pushed the phrase into Twitter’s trending topics– one of the first times a Spanish phrase had made the cut– and brought the proposed tax to the attention of the media and the Senate itself.

By week’s end– the last day of the legislative session– “Internet Necessario” had surpassed negotiations over the federal budget as the country’s top political story, and Mexican Senators were getting crash courses in the internet age. With many of the capital’s Twitterati sitting in the room for negotiations over the tax, the proceedings were broadcast live across the internet, and the Senators’ words were subject to instantaneous scrutiny, ridicule, or praise: an unusual circumstance for policymakers who typically operated at a distance from their constituents.

In the end, the tax was voted down unanimously, and the idea of the internet as a “luxury” was cast out of the discourse with derision. The lesson for the Senators was clear: don’t mess with the internet, because people are paying attention, and can make their voices heard in ways previously unimaginable.

Senator Francisco Javier Castellón Fonseca, Chair of the Senate’s Science and Technology Commission, was a leader in the fight against the telecommunications tax. He was also a leader in social media– a year ago, he was the only member of the Senate on Twitter; now over 40 Senators are tweeting madly. By all accounts, Senators are engaging with citizens over Twitter to an extent that has never been seen before in Mexican democracy.

The end of this story (for now) is of course that ACTA suffered a harsh blow from the Mexican Senate this week. A year since this country’s netroots first made their voices heard, they have enjoyed ever more direct contact with their government, and were able to successfully mobilize for a cause once again. The Calderon government is likely to continue negotiations over the treaty, despite the unanimous resolution against it.  Still, a treaty like this would require ratification from the Senate, so its chances of passing into law here seem far dimmer since the Mexican netroots made their voices heard.

A Tale of Two Twitters

Ok, two stories from Mexico City.


In July, four Mexican journalists were kidnapped in Durango.  The kidnappers, connected to a drug cartel, sought to force the TV news media to air segments sending the message that Los Zetas, a rival drug gang, was doing business with corrupt officials.  The journalists’ respective employers– most notably Televisa, the biggest media company in Latin America– negotiated for their freedom, but walked away from the table.

losqueremosvivosFor many Mexican journalists, the situation was too familiar– caught between vicious thugs who have killed 64 journalists in the past decade, a complicit government that fails to protect the freedoms of press and information, and media companies that fail to protect their reporters. And so a group of them took to Twitter, uniting around the hashtag #losqueremosvivos (we want them alive).

Within a week, the journalists’ simple demand had spread like wildfire on Twitter, migrated to Facebook, and morphed into a full-fledged movement. The reporters planned a march in Mexico City for August 7, invited journalists from around Mexico to join in the capital or host their own marches, and introduced colleagues around the world to their grievances.  Over 2,000 journalists showed up to march in Mexico City, and 14 other groups held their own rallies around the country.

The journalists were beaten, starved, and threatened, but were ultimately freed shortly after the rally, and the kidnappers arrested.  Nonetheless, all four reporters are seeking asylum in the U.S., on the grounds that, as journalists, they are persecuted by a government that “can’t and won’t protect them.”


In February, Mexico City was shaken by news of a double murder.  Twitter user @atorreta and her boyfriend were both shot walking home from dinner, and her brother reported the whole episode from the hospital with tweet after tragic tweet.  The Mexico City Twitter community erupted in a fury of rage, angst, and calls for justice.  Online news sources published the story on their front pages.  And hours later, everyone learned that the entire story was false, made up.

It’s not clear who made it up.  What is clear is that Mexican cartels have grown ever more sophisticated in their own use of social media, executing a well-thought through media strategy, using all the tools in their toolbox. This episode is characteristic of the sort of manipulation and misinformation that bad actors can use to their advantage on a frenzied network like Twitter.


So what do we have here? A case study in how social media can be used for organizing and sharing ideas, and a cautionary tale against taking Twitter at its word. Beyond that, two arguments for the necessity of good reporters, and good journalism.

If we take seriously the right to information, we must also take seriously the right to inform. Even in this technology-dense world– perhaps even more so than before– we rely on good journalism to give us a platform for intelligent debate. Here in Mexico, where journalists are shot dead for reporting on corruption, or threatened and silenced for calling out the cartels, there is a dearth of good information about these issues, and not enough informed debate. New media and technologies will be a part of bridging that gap. And so will good reporters.