Tuesday, October 30, 2007

In Burkina Faso, blogging is more than a pastime

And so a state that deprives its people their right to this form of expression should be considered a dictatorship. An obliging authoritarianism eats away at the country's democratic space. Censorship and self-censorship sap freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Journalists feel muzzled, but so do the public. They have the impression that things are being hidden from then. The underground press plays an important role, but the blog gives everyone the right to express themselves without fear and a forum for seeing their personal experiences appreciated by others.

Ramata Sore writing on the effective use of blogs as a political space at Global Voices online.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Enlisting Madison Avenue

The U.S. military should harness the influencing power of indigenous government employees and security forces by having them blog about their views regarding coalition forces and the indigenous government. The military might further consider the benefits of enhancing the Internet access of indigenous populations via distribution of cheap and durable Wi-Fi–capable laptops and by sponsoring Wi-Fi clouds around U.S. operating bases.
That from a RAND study, "Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation," prepared for Joint Forces Command and paid for under government contract. The report describes the business use of blogs and how the military can use an analogous approach to shape the conflict to its advantage: "The United States should use this tool not to create fake and deceitful voices of support, but rather to tap broader segments of an otherwise quiet society."

The authors base their recommendation on the fact that "blogs provide an alternative space in which thought and opinion can be freely, openly, and safely expressed," allowing Iraqis to write under the veil of Internet anonymity, which Devin mentioned in a previous post. Even if the Iraqi blogs are critical of the American operation it provides authenticity: "Brutal honesty and independence are key requirements for blog credibility."

This Madison Avenue approach to shaping raises some interesting questions, not the least of which is Who is the intended audience of these blogs? The military would have to hand out laptops to indigenous security and government employees to jumpstart blogging because their communities don't have access or technology or wealth. Fortunately some of these laptops have hand cranks because electricity is intermittent in places like Baghdad. Are we, the outside wired world, the target audience? Is this mostly an intelligence-gathering operation?

Also cited are IBM's employee-generated blogging principles:
--Know and follow IBM’s internal conduct guidelines.
--Be mindful of what you write. You are personally responsible for your posts.
--Use your real name and state your role at IBM when writing about IBM-related matters.
--Use a disclaimer stating that your postings do not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.
--Respect copyright, fair use, and financial disclosure laws.
--Do not leak confidential or other proprietary information.
--Do not talk about clients, partners or suppliers without their approval.
--Respect your audience. Do not use profanity or ethnic slurs.
--Find out who else is blogging about your topic and cite them.
--Do not pick fights, and correct your own mistakes.
--Try to add value. Provide worthwhile information and perspective.

[CORRECTION: The One Laptop Per Child project has abandoned the crank, though they are pursuing other human power options.]

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Ron Paul supporters banned from blog...

Saw this in the New York Times' blog that they've got going for the 2008 Elections... A Ban on Ron Paul Supporters.

How interesting! Redstate.com is one of the more prominent conservative/right-leaning blogs out there right now. A quick look at the site's top banner reads 'lefty blogs dominate the blogsophere... not anymore' more or less driving home the notion that generally speaking, leftists/liberals/Democrats/etc. tend to dominate the blogosphere (and perhaps one could go so far as other citizen-driven media? I'm thinking of the Obama girl and the Hillary response videos on YouTube).

But Ron Paul supporters are known for being very tech-savvy, as even the NYTimes author points out,

Now, avid Caucus [the NYTimes blog] readers know the Paulites are heavy-duty keyboarding fans of the Republican-libertarian candidate. They try to win every text-messaging contest out there. They complain on our site that Mr. Paul doesn’t get enough, er, the equivalent of ink on The Times’s Web site. We know many of them well.
So what are the ramifications of refusing to let Paul supporters post comments about Paul on a blog like Redstate.com? What does this do to the pool of GOP candidates and how will it (or will it at all?) affect the GOP primaries? What if this happened in the 'lefty' blogosphere? What if a prominent blog were to prohibit any comments made about Dennis Kucinich? Other questions abound, I'm sure... but I'm curious to know what other people thought of this.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Transparency for the Blogosphere?

Clearly anonymity has its place in the blogosphere and Web 2.0. In my opinion, anonymity is most justified when the author is writing in a country in which the government doesn’t represent the citizens. In other words, the politically oppressed or censored are justified in writing anonymously.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, writers who spread rumors about political candidates in democracies are much less justified in writing anonymously. Whenever possible, I sign my name to the comments I post on a blog. People, some sponsored by political money, spreading rumors about candidates is thought to be one of the most egregious ethical violations on the Internet. Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, agrees.

We launched the Ethical Blogger Project in part because we anticipated the viciousness of the political debate to increase to unprecedented levels as the 2008 U.S. Presidential elections approach. We use the word “blog” broadly to cover participatory media on the Internet. Also, if we can remind bloggers and the Web 2.0 community in general to behave decently, we can stave off government regulation of the Internet. In other words, let’s try to avoid a situation in which a few bad apples spoil the Web for everyone.

It looks like our premise was correct. Wired magazine reports that candidates are already under attack on YouTube. See “Hillary Clinton Faces a Viral-Video 'Truth-Boating'” by Sarah Lai Stirland. The article reports on a video, titled “The Shocking Video Hillary Does NOT Want You To See!” circulating around the Internet that charges that the Democratic frontrunner “underreported campaign contributions to the Federal Election Commission.” The video is complete with dark, scary music at appropriate moments and is presented in interview style—Peter Paul, the video’s creator, interviews himself.

The Wired article describes the “colorful past” of the video’s creator: “He was convicted of scamming Fidel Castro in the late 1970s, and later of traveling with a fake identity. Most recently he pleaded guilty in 2005 to manipulating the stock price of his internet company Stan Lee Media, which he co-founded with the famous comic-book king.”

Republican candidates aren’t safe from attack on the Internet either. As the article mentions, Rudolf Giuliani has been criticized by firefighters and others. Should we be looking into the political contributions made by the firefighters’ families? If there is a political agenda, does it disqualify their views?

The credibility, motive, and accountability of sources of information on the Internet are the issues here. Thanks to the Wired article, we know more about the background of the author of the Hillary video. But what about authors that remain anonymous? And to what degree should we check the background of a blogger or author on Web 2.0? What can we learn from journalism? A newspaper reader might assume that the newspaper company vets its writers, but should we worry about the motives or backgrounds of journalists?

A more credible blogger should get more traffic, thereby creating a virtuous cycle of increasing the influence of his or her blog. The Ethical Blogger Project also hopes to showcase ethical bloggers so that they might act as an example for others.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Planning notes, 10.19.07

INTRODUCTIONS: In the personal introductions, the participants explained their interest in the project and desired topics of exploration: how blogging amplifies on-the-ground narratives; tools to enhance social networks in democratic life and measuring the promises and pitfalls of Web 2.0.; the future of journalism and how blogging impacts politics; how new technologies impact journalism in Europe; the power and responsibility of blogging.

DISCUSSION: One participant asked about the project timeline under consideration. Originally there was talk of several conferences, commencing relatively soon. She sought clarification on this, and suggested that the process might benefit from a second phase of follow up for reflection. She identified her interest in the research question, "Who's blog is it anyway?" Her organization is committed to fostering accountability and transparency.

The clarified schedule was laid out. There will be three conferences, the first in spring 2008 at the Carnegie Council in New York. The second, in fall 2008, will be held at Brown University's Watson Institute in Providence, Rhode Island. The final meeting will occur in London in winter 2008, to be hosted by Demos. The goal of getting more academic ethicists involved in the project was expressed.

Questions arose as to the policy objectives of the project. A participant expressed his mild skepticism at the feasibility of establishing an enforceable code of ethics for the blogosphere. "Who should enforce it?" he asked. Also, he queried how the project agenda will relate to other, ongoing research on the subject.

A participant responded that think tanks are useful because they can influence norms. "Let's remind the public of their ethical obligations so they don't spoil it for others," he said. He reiterated that the public often needs to be reminded of exactly why they should "be good."

The topics were laid out that each contributing organization will tackle. Carnegie Council will look at the responsibilities inherent in business blogs. Watson Institute is covering the ethics of military blogging. Demos will focus on the cultural, social network, and Web 2.0 aspects. A useful output may be a signatory declaration or consolidated code of ethical blogging, to give the project gravity.

It was also noted that legal scholar Cass Sunstein has agreed to contribute. Sunstein's research has identified a tendency toward group polarization, from which blogs are not immune.

A participant sought to re-center the Demos objective by keeping the rhetoric positive (don't spoil it for others). Demos was initially attracted to the relationship with Habermas's ideal speech framework. "Can the blogosphere approximate this ideal?" she wondered. The project should aim to "co-produce" something through links and grow from within, finding a way to incorporate blog users.

Another participant concurred with an earlier claim that the blogosphere is, to some degree, ethics-free. "Ethics and blogging don't go together," he said. He compared blogging to talking with yourself or mumbling at the bus stop, and contended that society has never seen fit to apply ethical considerations to those forms of speech. "Blogging is just chatter," he said.

From that speaker's perspective, the connection between blogging and journalism is a profound mystery. The more interesting questions, he offered, are centered around the fact that journalistic institutions are dying. "Their authenticity, business plans, and ecological rationale are exhausted," he said, and the pressing issue is what will replace them. He offered a description of the media attributed to a former editor of the Los Angeles Times: "Our job is to educate the elite and pacify the masses."

Another partipant replied that, unlike the trend of dying journalism outlined above, journalism of all stripes is on the increase in India. Outlets small and large are popping up all over the place.

It was asked whether the project will look at a particular type of blog—those that deal with politics only.

Another participant asked whether the questions surrounding blogging and the blogosphere are actually new. "Is this any different than how life has always been?" he asked. Consider talk radio, where one host is far to the left and another host is far to the right. Why should we treat blogging as unique? At the heart of the matter for this speaker was the age-old phenomenon of minds gravitating to one another. When this happens, he noted, political discourse suffers.

It was suggested that we may decide that we don't have the grounds for a research agenda at all. Perhaps all we have is the basis for a meta-level critique, or a response to prior codes and legal norms.

A previous speaker stepped in to defend the blogging ethos. Military blogger Blackfive, she said, founded his blog because his friend was killed protecting a journalist. The journalist had never written about the soldier, she said, and Blackfive felt he needed to "get the truth out there." There is a truth-telling aspect to blogging, she insisted. Most are drawn to blogging initially because it provides them with a voice.

An analogy was made to the early days of hacking when hackers were hashing out an ethical code that was eventually diluted when it became a mass phenomenon. Blogging is already a mass phenomenon. We therefore may not be able to reach a single code of rules. Cultural differences also make it difficult.

Someone else spoke in support of the project, saying we cannot avoid ethical questions when looking at where journalism is going. We are producers of content. How can we advance our mission? A demonstration effect (the blog) will set an example in a meta way, bringing out the questions of ethics for other bloggers.

It was affirmed that blogs open space for other voices. But establishing new codes is difficult. The UN has tried to establish a journalistic code and met resistance from journalistic organizations. Who should we bring to the table? We are testing the idea.

The call was concluded with a reminder that blogs are mundane and therefore germane. "Blogs are just websites," asserted one speaker. He asked that the project not get carried away with attempting to broaden the definition. Furthermore, he stated, a conversation about the ethics of blogging is fair game because everything human is subject to ethical reflection.