Blog # 5 – Social Media and Social Change: Learnings from the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring led to various theories around the importance of social media in the success and failures of the revolutions that were taking place. Was it a “cute” Facebook revolution or a movement that began decades in advance? According to Basem Fathy, the truth is complicated and doesn’t lie at the extremes in Egypt. The movement did not have a significant hierarchical structure with a charismatic leader and was instead a large, loose network of young and old activists that at one point decided to gather together for common action, then at another moment to separate and spread. According to Fathy, the influence of factors (conditions, events, and timing) was much greater that the influence of actors (individual people) and the internet was one factor among many that sparked the eruption of the revolution in Egypt. It was clear that the movement offline was always preceding the movement online, and the movement online suffered when there was a wide gap between online and offline activism.

But there were multiplier effects that were generated by the use of the internet. According to David Kirkpatrick and David Sanger in this New York Times article, the use of social media led to a remarkable two-year collaboration that has given birth to a new force in the Arab world — a pan-Arab youth movement dedicated to spreading democracy in a region without it. Inspired by the Tunisian revolution, the Egyptian Youth Movement saw an opportunity to turn its annual protest on Jan. 25 into a much bigger event One of the heroes of this movement, Wael Ghonim, a 31-year-old Google marketing executive, had “little experience in politics but an intense dislike for the abusive Egyptian police, the mainstay of the government’s power. He  offered his business savvy to the cause. “I worked in marketing, and I knew that if you build a brand you can get people to trust the brand,” he said.” His Facebook site was one of the primary elements for mobilizing support.

In her article, Zeynep Tufekci, describes the global campaign that helped release activist Mona El Tahawy. She says “it was a perfect storm. A global social media campaign, institutional power, grassroots Egyptian activists, network-savvy global players and traditional media converged upon Mona El Tahawy’s case”. She explains how although social media was not the only factor it can greatly change the way a global campaign can be run today due to the following factors:

1-     Speed. Social media speeds up everything.

2-     Social media allows for complex, diverse ad hoc networks to come together:

3-     Social media is integrated in an increasingly global, networked public sphere:

4-     Social Media fosters personal interaction:

5-     Social media works for prominent people better (rich get richer):

6-     Personal networks, unsurprisingly, remain the underlying key anchors of the global social media networks (hubs matter and hubs tend to be dense and interconnected among each other):

7-     Traditional big interests remain powerful and, along with dynamics of the attention economy, social media cannot overcome all obstacles (Bahrain. Bahrain).

8-     Just like pre-social media, it remains easier to organize for “no” harder to organize complex discussions:

These articles outline how networks, connections and movements must exist already in order for social changes to take place, but that social media can be an accelator and catalyst in an unprecendented way.


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Blog # 4 – Market Research, Crowdsourcing and Consumers – Online Organizing in Political Campaigns

In 2008, the Barack Obama campaign “built an online juggernaut. With 13 million emails, nearly 4 million donors, 2 million members of the social network, and tens of thousands of engaged activists, Obama’s team broke new ground in using the internet to build a new kind of powerful political machine,” according to this note at .

What were some of the innovations and principles applied by the campaign? Three factors appear to be most important.

Data and Market Research

Understanding the voter and ensuring that this information is available to the campaign team efficiently and effectively is a process that is greatly sped up with the use of online tools. According to Seth Colter Walls, in Neighbor To Neighbor: How Obama Targets Undecideds Block By Block, “all of the information that supporters collect — such as, who is a supporter, who isn’t a supporter — syncs immediately and directly back into the master voter file. That in turn allows staff to really focus in on the people who we have identified as still being persuadable. … In the past the way this would have been done is by relying on field organizers to print out walk lists, get in cars and ferry around volunteers all across an unfamiliar area.”

Bazaars and Cathedrals 

Just as the principle of the bazaar – i.e. crowdsourcing – has been used to develop new IT products through disparate, unremunerated individuals, this concept has also been used in online organizing, with the 2008 Obama campaign allowing volunteers to organize themselves but within a certain set of broad guidelines. According to Zach Exley in “The New Organizers, What’s Really Behind Obama’s Ground Game”, the “”New Organizers” have succeeded in building what many netroots-oriented campaigners have been dreaming about for a decade. Other recent attempts have failed because they were either so “top-down” and/or poorly-managed that they choked volunteer leadership and enthusiasm; or because they were so dogmatically fixated on pure peer-to-peer or “bottom-up” organizing that they rejected basic management, accountability and planning. The architects and builders of the Obama field campaign, on the other hand, have undogmatically mixed timeless traditions and discipline of good organizing with new technologies of decentralization and self-organization.”

Reaching the “Consumer”

“Everywhere we went, we could plug in a zipcode, a list of really excited volunteers would pop up” according to one staffer in the HBS case “Barack Obama: Organizing for America 2.0”. This ability to reach the consumer – the potential voter – quickly, efficiently and in a targeted way defined the online organizing. Chris Hughes, the Obama campaign site manager and co-founder of facebook, explained that “battleground-state volunteers walking their own neighborhoods the weekend before election day could then feed back their data on the last remaining undecideds in something close to real time. According to Hughes, that “info could be re-tabulated within hours. And then volunteers in non-battleground states could receive new phone lists for follow up calls with just the remaining high-target undecideds the Monday before election day.” Additionally, one did not have to be in a battleground state to participate in the activities in a battleground state.

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Blog # 2 – Defining Corporate Responsibility in the Digital Age

Our readings for the week touch upon four areas:

  • “Filter bubbles” and their threat to the Internet’s promise to connect and expose us to a larger world view
  • Potential solutions to the “filter bubble” problem
  • The role of individuals, parents, companies and government in setting the norms for online interaction for the generation that are Digital Natives
  • The need to keep the internet itself open and free and preventing it from being exploited by repressive governments and large corporations.

What I have found most interesting across the four readings is the role of the private sector, particularly in light of the recent debate and pushback that some of the larger corporations are facing as well as the long term implications of privacy and personal data.

Over the last decades we have seen the “traditional” debate about corporate responsibility play out in several fields. Over the last century this debate played out in areas such as labour rights and safety standards while in the last two decades the dialogue around shareholder value vs a broader concept of stakeholder value centred in particular in the area of environmental conservation and long term sustainability. In the 2010s it seems we are going to see this debate played out in the area of digital rights and responsibilities.

Eli Pariser in his TED talk warns us that the filters used by Google, Facebook and other companies are creating a world where we are gated and locked further into our own narrow world views and appeals to these companies to change this structure.

Jonathan Stray suggests in his piece that companies should design better filtering algorithms that may allow us to choose to have exposure to ideas and concepts we would not normally place in our circles of interest but acknowledges that designing such algorithms could be a technical challenge.

In “Born Digital”, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser argue that for today’s youth, the Digital Natives, the concept of privacy is fundamentally different and that companies, amongst others, have a responsibility to help users understand how to better protect their privacy. They suggest that the privacy issue is the Achilles’ heel of Google, Microsoft, Facebook, MySpace and others and that they will need to “compete” based on the quality of their privacy policies. They suggest it is not up to the user to maintain multiple relationships with multiple companies about their data and that the paradigm needs to shift from a firm-centric model to a user-centric one.

Rebecca Mackinnon, in “Consent of the Networked” notes that companies act as the new sovereigns of cyberspace, form opaque relationships with repressive goverments and how their failure to take responsibility for their power over their citizen’s political lives corrodes the Internet’s democratic potential. She suggest that they should follow the same pattern of accountability that much older industries have begun to do with their workers, shareholders and broader stakeholders. She also notes that creating a more netizen-centric system may even hold lucrative business opportunities through the generation of shared value.

While each of the readings describe the need for corporate responsibility in the digital space, they do not define the scope of such responsibility and implications our future as cyberspace citizens.

Is it truly difficult to design better filtering algorithms or do companies simply not want to invest in areas that don’t allow for neat patterns of advertizing? Will companies recognize their own enlightened self-interest in being better digital citizens and take on responsibility for protecting the privacy and rights of individuals?

Should governments or international institutions help define these rights and if so, which body? Will citizen regulation work better than either self- or government-regulation? Do we need new quadruple bottomline measures that benchmark companies against economic, social, environmental and digital criteria?

What type of emerging businesses will thrive to capitalize upon as well as address these concerns? What kind of future professional branding and reputational support will be needed by Digital Natives who share every teenage experiment in cyberspace? Will personal data become the world’s most valuable new asset class?

Perhaps next week’s readings will address some of these questions. Until then, I will try to resist the urge to delete my Facebook, Skype, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google accounts.

This blog has been written for academic purposes for the course Media, Politics and Power (DPI 659) at Harvard University (fall 2012).

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Blog # 1 – Global Gender Gap Report Wikipedia Article Review

I picked the following Wikipedia article on the Global Gender Gap Report for my evaluation:

I created the Global Gender Gap Reports at the World Economic Forum starting in 2006 and have co-authored it ever since along with Professor Ricardo Hausmann, Director, Center for International Development, Harvard University and Professor Laura Tyson, University of California, Berkeley. I am currently working on the Report’s next edition, due for release on October 24, 2012.

The article provides a basic introduction to the Global Gender Gap Reports, contains a map providing a visual snapshot of country performance and several tables displaying the country rankings and scores, globally and by region. The article provides clear information on key concepts captured in each of the 4 subindexes of the Global Gender Gap Index. Some direct quotations from the Report and the accompanying press release also provide information on the overall methodology, the Report’s purpose and information on the performance of the highest and lowest ranking countries.

There are three types of weaknesses in the comprehensiveness of the article: outdated information, lack of clarity and omission of key points. The opening line mentions the 2010 Report (even though edits have been made to this article as recently as August 2012) and is hence a little dated as the latest edition of the Report was released in 2011. In terms of lack of clarity, the information on data sources is incomplete (13 hard data sources are mentioned but the 14th soft data indicator is not) and the explanation of the interpretation of the scores is written in language that could be misleading. Finally, some key points about global trends across the four subindexes that form part of the fundamental insights from the Report are missing.

The sources of the articles are the World Economic Forum website and direct links to all 5 editions of the Report between 2006 and 2010. No other sources are cited. I find this to be sufficient for the purposes of this article as the primary source is being used rather than a secondary source such as a news article on the Report. However, in the future, the article could be expanded to demonstrate the applicability of the data in the Report and its citations in others’ work, as one of the fundamental purposes of the Report is to generate awareness and catalyze new research, policy change, best practices, etc.

The article is very neutral as it refers only to the Report’s content. It does not aim to provide an opinion on the usability or quality of the Report. The article is brief and with the exception of the slightly misleading language referred to above is very readable. The article also adheres to the Wikipedia Manual of Style.

The article’s illustrations are helpful in bringing the data to life. The “heatmap” based on the world rankings helps to show in a quick, visual format where gender parity is best and worst in the world. However there are some notable errors on this map. For example Pakistan (my country!) and Sri Lanka are both incorrectly color colded with Pakistan appearing to be a more gender equal country than it is and Sri Lanka appearing to be worse than it is. The large data table displaying the global rankings is helpful in allowing for year to year comparisons. The 5 highest and 5 lowest countries by region are also an interesting analysis of the data. However some of the regional headings could be improved, for example, the section currently labelled “North America” is actually covering North America, Central America and the Caribbean, the section labelled “Africa” is only looking at Sub-Saharan Africa.

My wikipedia user page is:

This blog has been written for academic purposes for the course Media, Politics and Power (DPI 659) at Harvard University (fall 2012).

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