The Battlefield of New Media: The Online War Over Gaza

Al Jazeera has an interesting article up about the online war over Gaza. Both pro-Palestinian and Israeli forces attempted to use new media, both through official and grassroots channels.

On December 27, 2008, Israel launched ‘Operation Cast Lead’ against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip. Within minutes of the first missile landing in Gaza, global reactions appeared online.

During the first few days of the war, online discussions were restricted to war of words. Both sides engaged in heated debates and blamed each other for the fatal surge in military operations.

As the discussions grew, attempts were then made by supporters of both sides to establish a coordinated response aimed at combatting the other side’s propaganda.

With this awareness in mind, both Israel and the Palestinians resorted to a variety of media platforms to justify their positions and tactics used during the conflict.

Israeli supporters set up the Help Us Win website, and some Palestinian supporters created Gaza Talk.

Hundreds of groups were created on Facebook by Israelis and Palestinians to create an awareness of the facts as they saw them.

I have a hunch that this change supported the Palestinians more than the Israelis. Anecdotally, this conflict seemed to garner a much different tone of coverage from the mainstream media (read: not rabidly anti-Palestinian), and I wonder if the rise of new media voices in the US (especially the many critical and influential Jewish voices in the progressive blogosphere) and abroad had anything to do with it.

Clark Kent Has A New Boss

This post is a follow up to the previous post, and the first in what I hope will be a series of blogs investigating the future of political communications (the topic of my ongoing undergrad thesis).

Investigative reporting can be thought of as a public good that is undervalued by most individuals, in that most people don’t recognize the value of investigative reporting to their well being. Under the previous price regime, the supply of the public good was below the socially optimal level as a result of the high cost of information gathering by journalists and the high cost of distributing information. The result was local monopolies (newspapers, radio stations, network TV) on information gathering and distribution that supplied the surplus profits to pay for the public good.

Clark Kent Has New Boss

He Works for Pro Publica Now

Online, the economy of information functions much differently and we shouldn’t fear a new constellation of political communication. Fewer firms can produce more investigative reporting, as the price of gathering and distributing information diminish signifigantly. Local monopolies fall on the basis of diminished profits, but the level of provision of the public good actually increases as a result of increased productivity and lower barriers to entry. A citizen in Cincinnati is better off using Craigslist and relying on ProPublica to investigate public officials than it would be to pay for their local paper to maintain a DC branch, or simply pass along AP reporting.

Whether or not that citizen becomes aware of the information produced by Propublica’s investigations is a seperate, but not unrelated question that has serious implications for the future of political communication. On this front, I think the internet poses a more serious challenge to current forms of democratic practice. However, as I mentioned in a previous post on partisanship and media organization, informational cocoons entail some trade-off between deliberation and participation. Perhaps our John Doe from Cincinnati doesn’t encounter the political news as a result of his no longer buying the local paper; his neighber Jane Doe down the street is able to participate in lots of new ways using online technology and is more likely to participate as a result.

This points to an interesting and underresearched empirical question: does selective exposure to political news increase or decrease political knowledge by the median voter.

Cool Ideas I Wish I Had Thought of No. 1

Via new poster David Platzer, I came across a crazy little web platform called LittleSis. LittleSis is an interesting collaborative effort, a sort of involuntary facebook for the political and media elite. It’s like Sourcewatch combined with Wikipedia.

LittleSis = The Public's Equivalent of Big Brother

LittleSis = The Public's Equivalent of Big Brother

Not sure it’s the kind of thing I’ll use regularly (or ever), but these kinds of online resources are interesting because of how they can be used for basic research in the early stages of stories by investigative journalists and bloggers. Hypothetically, they also make for distributed reporting, although I believe such platforms are best utilized by leaders within communities. They are cool tools that work best when you have people who are going to use them. Also, such platforms make for rad mash-ups. Check out the Sunshine Foundation for more information on similar kinds of initiatives.

These kinds of nonprofit pro-transparency initiatives, along with ProPublica are broadening the definition of political journalism in the US. Frankly, such nonprofit investigative reporting institutions make me less concerned with the declining influence of the newspaper in American political communications.

Israel Defense Force Invades the the Blogosphere

From Haaretz (h/t Internet and Democracy Project):

The Immigrant Absorption Ministry announced on Sunday it was setting up an “army of bloggers,” to be made up of Israelis who speak a second language, to represent Israel in “anti-Zionist blogs” in English, French, Spanish and German.

The program’s first volunteer was Sandrine Pitousi, 31, from Kfar Maimon, situated five kilometers from Gaza. “I heard about the project over the radio and decided to join because I’m living in the middle of the conflict,” she said.

Before hanging up the phone prematurely following a Color Red rocket alert, Pitousi, who immigrated to Israel from France in 1993, said she had some experience with public relations from managing a production company.

“During the war, we looked for a way to contribute to the effort,” the ministry’s director general, Erez Halfon, told Haaretz. “We turned to this enormous reservoir of more than a million people with a second mother tongue.” Other languages in which bloggers are sought include Russian and Portuguese.

There is nothing ethically wrong with these kinds of efforts, but I think it shows the inevitable maturation of the blogosphere into a medium of mass communication as subject to the efforts of government and political spin masters as newspapers or television. Blogs put these grassroots efforts at a more equal footing to compete with these governmental and political efforts, and offer real possibilities to oppositional organizations that didn’t exist offline. However, any claims to the radical political potential of the internet need to be reformed to include the evolving ability of governments to adapt to the new informational environment.


Red Sox are Democrats and Yankees are Republicans

Henry Farrell, who over the course of my thesis has become my favorite current academic, wrote an awesome article in last week’s American Prospect outlining the trade-offs between partisanship and participation. There is a commonly held view, amongst intellectuals, politicians and the public, that civic culture is in decline and partisanship is at an all time high. Less people are involved and those who are involved are less likely to talk to each other. Farrell, of late, has been writing journal articles arguing something more sophisticated and contemporary: namely, that partisanship is a boon to participation.

Evidence suggests that people who are strongly engaged in politics and hence likely to volunteer for campaigns are strongly partisan and tightly clumped around the ideological poles (they are strongly liberal or strongly conservative). If this is right, online activists are unlikely to follow Obama if he moves toward a post-ideological politics of citizenship and may even use Obama’s own machine to organize against him (as they did within MyBarackObama.com when Obama announced his support for controversial wiretapping legislation). By rebuilding the Democratic Party around a model that is friendlier to decentralized online participation, Obama is both making it easier for Democratic activists to organize in protest against overly “moderate” decisions, and forcing Republicans to adopt similar organizing techniques in order to win elections.

This is, I think, the key lesson of online organizing for both theorist concerned about normative issues and activist concerned with mobilizing supporters. Online politics offers an extension of traditional party politics that can provide new tools and opportunities, but does not alter the structure of the electoral system.

There is a tradeoff in online participation between moderation and active participation. My girlfriend offered a useful analogy for Farrell’s argument by likening political partisans to sports fans. (An analogy that compares sports to politics: it should be obvious why I like this girl.) More engaged sports fans are more likely to know more about their team, but also, as a consequence more about the other teams, the league’s schedule, and how the game is played. Those more likely to go to a game, or buy a team hat, are those who care most about their team. Likewise, more partisan citizens are more likely to donate money or volunteer for a political organization, or talk to their friends about politics.

Theorists and media denizens who wish for active citizen interest in politics without partisanship seek to separate the reality of politics as practice from the idea of politics as a deliberative process (David Broder, I’m looking at you). Taking an active rooting interest is a crucial part of enjoying sports – and politics. Which isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be cordial relations between members of parties, or active consultations with members of the opposition. It is most fun as a sports fan to watch the game with other people who care as much as you – whatever team they might be rooting for.

In politics, as in sports, this kind of thing is unacceptable:

What is the Online Organizing Equivalent of the Hover Car?

In an ideal world, we would all have hover cars and progressive activists would have a credible plan for pursuing a progressive agenda in a Democratic trifecta. Alas, we live in a fallen world, bursting with imperfections, not the least of which is a utter lack of hover cars.

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I want his car and his moustache

So the question remains, how should progressives treat the incoming Congress and President, and how should we organize online to maximize the progressive policy outcome. I have already criticized both the President’s new organization and unaffiliated leftists who are already harping about problems with Obama policies. The trick here, as all else in politics, is to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. As our patron, Wallie Von Bismark has been known to say: politics is the art of the possible. Recognizing and maximizing what can be accomplished is the foundation of political judgement.

Progressives should recognize this moment of opportunity, but must also be savvy enough about the process to work it properly. The lack of channels for this kind of activism is why I really liked Chris Bowers idea of monitoring legislation before it reaches a committee vote, which allows for concerted pressure and media exposure prior to the calcification of voting decisions by members of congress. It is a proactive, proscription platform for action that provides progressive activists an avenue into the legislative process. I propose an expansion of this project that allows for wikified, Digg-style legislation/issue tracking platform that would channel grassroots opinion to inform elite discourse without management by party officials. This platform, lets call it Onward.org, would aggregate all the information (blogposts, news stories, issue group statements, Facebook and Myspace postings) by issue area and particular bill in a manner similar to OpenCongress. Each issue and bill node would contain links that provided ways for interested citizens to get involved and connect with organizations working on their issues. The platform would provide members with the opportunity to promote issues on the group’s agenda and promote popular knowledge and participation on issue campaigns. The wikified nature of the group would generate for peer production of content, which would greatly increasing the amount of content available on the site.

Certainly MoveOn would be the organization most capable of pulling off something like this, but from a branding perspective one way to do it would be to tie it to Obama’s stated agenda. The organization could track Obama’s progress towards achieving his campaign promises and take the necessary action to reign him in when it looked as if he was defecting from previously stated policy preferences. The group would give Obama plausible deniability by virtue of it’s independence from the party and could extend the terms of the debate leftward by bringing pressure to bare on¬† democratic and republican officials. You could also knock up a fancy tracking infographic that would allow you to visually see the progress of the liberal agenda and where it was caught up.