Book Review: The Digital Origins of Dictatorship & Democracy

The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy
Information Technology and Political Islam
Philip N. Howard
Published 2010

As part of my participation in the MCDM course on Digital Democracy, I am providing a review of Howard’s book on the social media revolution as it relates to the Muslim world.  My review covers four high level findings and observations:  The four key takeaways that I have taken from the book.  Then I fast-forward to the events of 2011 and 2012 to see what the last two years have brought for the Muslim world and digital democracy.

The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy is a fascinating look into the complexity and evolution of the Muslim world.  It is a very complex analysis of a very complex subject.

For most Americans, the scope and lack of homogeneity of the Muslim world is a mystery.  Unfortunately, most Americans are predisposed to think of Islam with some sense of tunnel vision.   For me, I only knew the basics.

  • Islam is a huge religion (22% of the world’s population).
  • There are many sects, each with the same core understanding of the religion but with different practices and specific beliefs.
  • Governments have varying degrees of influence on the religion with their citizens (from Saudi Arabia, which is a religious state); to Malaysia (with a multicultural secular view of religion); to the United States, with many Muslims but little understanding and embrace by non-Muslims of the religion in the mainstream.



Book Review: Drew Westen’s “The Political Brain – The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of a Nation”

Republican strategists have recognized since the days of Richard Nixon that the road to victory is paved with emotional intentions.

Drew Weston is a clinical, personality and political psychologist and neuroscientist.  In his book “The Political Brain” published in 2007, he lends his expertise in psychology to address what he sees are core failures of the Democratic Party to reach the White House just 3 times in 30 years.

Even though Democrats were more aligned philosophically with the middle class, they were losing elections because they were not able to emotionally connect with their constituents.

What he terms as the “dispassionate mind” – where decisions are made by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusion  – he sees as old-school thinking that bears no real connection to how the mind and brain really work.


The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone

The Influencing Machine is a graphic nonfiction book written by Brooke Gladstone, and illustrated by Josh Neufeld. The book tackles the media through the lens of history and modern media theory, offering a dizzying (and sometimes depressing) view of our media heritage as well as her “vision” for the future.

Since Brooke Gladstone has been the host of NPR’s seminal radio Show, On the Media, for over ten years, she’s got great material from countless interviews with reporters, editors, commentators, and media luminaries to draw upon. I’ve listened to the show a lot, and it’s clear that Brooke Gladstone holds journalistic ethics and responsibilities to their highest standard- and is not afraid to ask the tough questions of her guests to make them accountable.

A panel from The Influencing Machine

I was also looking forward to reading this book because it’s a comic book….er, graphic novel, beautifully and amusingly illustrated by artist Josh Neufeld. To me, comic books and radio are a natural fit—they’re both theaters of the imagination, of sorts. The art in The Influencing Machine is rife with creative and colorful interpretations and a cast of vividly drawn historical and real life characters. Because it’s a comic book, it can take you right into a scene- from Woodward and Bernstein’s newsroom to a civil war battlefield- just like a move- but it’s a book. (radio is words and sounds that evoke pictures- a book for your mind, if you will).

The Influencing Machine takes on a wide variety of media-related issues, like freedom of information, media access and ownership, accountability and accuracy, public trust, bias, war reporting, consumption theory, and more. It’s a tough task to pull off, fraught with nuances and controversy at every turn, but Ms. Gladstone’s prodigious experience makes it seem easy to condense all of this material into a worthwhile narrative. There is a wealth of examples to make this narrative unfold.

The best of these examples place media issues in the context of history- a very useful perspective to have when lamenting the deplorable state of the media today. For instance, did you know that Julius Caesar started the first PR machine newspaper, the Acta Diurna, and disseminated it throughout the empire to control information? Good ‘ol George Washington may have never told a lie, but he did invent the ‘political leak’- inviting reporters to fancy dinners to ensure that they reported stories to his liking. And what’s so wrong with using State Department money to fund a newspaper that opposes your political rivals? Thomas Jefferson did it. Apparently, things like plagiarism, PR stunts, tabloid reporting, and unethical alliances have been happening for a long time.

I couldn’t help but be struck by a certain tone of cynicism in most of these examples. While she does justice to people like war reporter Ernie Pyle and Jacob Riis, for the most part media history seemed like a string of lies, betrayals, and misrepresentations. I could have used a couple more positive examples, not to mention some women and people of color. No mention of Nellie Bly (one of my childhood journalist heroes), whose pioneering work writing an expose of the mistreatment of patients at mental hospitals changed public health policy in the United States? Or Langston Hughes, the American poet and writer, who bravely reported on The Spanish Civil War “for the colored press”?

According to Gladstone, reporters are a sorry lot- the government will always try to control them, the public will never trust them, and they are constantly prey to editors, a hungry audience who wants their news fast, and the purse-strings that tempt them to say things that aren’t true.

Hanging over the book like the albatross of every reporter who wants to be worth their weight in salt, is the myth of objectivity. Objectivity, Gladstone insists, “is impossible.” Biases are inherent: gender biases, race biases, political biases), as several scientific studies cited in the book have proved. If you don’t believe me, try this test.

As one salient quote in the book points out, we as journalists are in fact responsible for everything we see as well as everything we do. But ‘advocacy’ journalism is relegated to the sphere of ‘deviance’, outside of the donut-hole sphere of consensus. A media consumer should watch for media biases, but a reporter can’t help but have them- no matter how much they try to make up for it.

So what’s the solution? According to Gladstone, in a time of public online identities and opinion-oriented journalism, transparency is the new objectivity. Reporters must earn people’s trust and assume that the public is savvy enough to sniff out the real truth in this age of information (re: don’t end up like this guy, duh). They should always link to their sources, open themselves to comments and criticisms, and even disclose their voting records, affiliations, and biases openly. Founder of Entertainment Weekly Jeff Jarvis does. Then, after all that disclosure, still make kick-ass quality journalism that is reliable, documented, and committed to the truth.

In the end, ‘the influencing machine’ spins its course on us, fragments us into pieces of incomplete knowledge, and challenges our identities. Technological changes ensure we’ll biologically develop into how we consume media- our brains are already changing to handle this new global universe of rapid news and information. The final panel of the book shows a group of people staring up at you, holding cell phones and microphones, as Gladstone says, ‘We get the media we deserve.” For better or worse? I guess it’s up to us to find out.


Read Brooke Gladstone’s Media Manifesto on Transom:

Watch an animated Video on The Influencing Machine:

Buy The Influencing Machine at:

What else can we predict? Seriously Considering Leetaru’s Theory.

In reading Kalev Leetaru’s article Culturomics 2.0: Forecasting large–scale human behavior using global news media tone in time and space, I couldn’t help but wanting to run a similar experiment of my own.  I found it fascinating that by measuring the tone of news coverage in a specific region, one can potentially forecast short-term national stability, or lack there of.  Understandably, perhaps conducting such analysis frequently, especially on local levels might not be cost-effective, but the possibility alone is interesting.

Leetaru’s approach could easily be used in analyzing other political events that might have been predicted by the tone set by traditional news coverage.  One of these is the 2009 Honduran coup d’etat.  In this case, President Manuel Zelaya, who was elected as a conservative, formed an alliance with the Leftist party, also joining forces with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.  The coup d’etat occurred when the army ousted Zelaya on June 28, 2009.  Months of political and economic uncertainly followed.  Could the tone of news coverage have predicted the turmoil?  Leetaru certainly has me believing so.

The methodology used in this study can certainly be challenged by scholars. For instance, why didn’t they use additional databases to compare their results?  Were two enough?  Also, some might question not incorporating social media as one of it’s news sources.

Leetaru wrote, “Given it’s importance as an early organizing tool, social media may provide an important compliment to traditional news content as an early precursor of citizen unrest, but the technical and linguistic complexities, especially the need to operate on large number of vernacular languages across the world, made it beyond the scope of this study.” (pg.5)

I especially appreciate two things in this statement.  For one, he is recognizing that social media is important enough as a tool and that it can compliment this study in the future.  After all, the rapid pace at which social media is evolving, leaves room for considering it in future studies.  Twitter, as an example, might continue to develop in such a way that it truly becomes a quantifiable news platform for the purposes of this study.

Furthermore, Leetaru continues to give traditional news outlets the importance it deserves even in these times where we are highly saturated by digital media platforms that are competing with traditional Journalism.  I think it’s important to recognize that television, print, and radio media platforms continue to be solid sources of information and that their content can solidly contribute to theories such as this one.

It’s a matter of adapting new media to the methodology.  Leetaru refers to how Radio in the 1940’s was a communications platform that served a similar role in forecasting an event.  He states, “From the founding of FBIS and SWB in the leadup to World War II, one of their primary tasks was to analyze the tone of domestic radio broadcasts around the world to determine their posture towards the West. The very first analysis report by SWB’s partner service FBIS was dated 6 December 1941, noting that Japanese radio had dropped its appeals for peace and had increased its criticism of the United States. The Japanese struck Pearl Harbor the following morning. While news monitoring will never perfectly predict the precise details of conflict, it can offer critical advanced warning that the posture of a country has changed.” (pg. 6)

As with any study, there is room for different interpretations and for many to refute it. However Leetaru presents a solid theory and perhaps most importantly, makes the reader think of the possibilities new media platforms will contribute in the future.

Want to predict a revolution? Pay attention to the news

By Jill Oviatt

With every new headline filled with angst about the end of traditional journalism, comes another powerful reason that there is still a place for it. Reading Kalev Leetaru’s article Culturomics 2.0: Forecasting large–scale human behavior using global news media tone in time and space, I kept swaying between how fascinating it was, and yet how obvious. Journalists by the nature of their job, spot trends, identify stories, and then communicate them to the public via print articles, radio broadcasts, and television reports. It seems evident that by analyzing the various news reports that one could discover increasing negativity in a community, city, or country that eventually leads to unrest.

What’s fascinating is that this is so rarely done at a local level, let alone at the international level, whether for a city, neighborhood, university, or even within a family. Signs of negativity and growing discontent are often present, yet not documented, tracked, or viewed overtime to be able to measure any increase or decrease. In that sense, using data from reports that at their essence are meant to track trends and report on sentiment is a brilliant – even if evident – way to predict public sentiment and potential crisis.

Leetaru writes, “Monitoring these qualitative aspects of news coverage provides substantial benefits over the traditional quantitative political science event database approach. An event database can only capture that a bombing took place, but a church bombing in one country might result only in condemnations, while in another it might push it over the edge to revolt. Measuring the global news tone essentially conducts a passive “poll” of the press across the world, summarizing their combined views on the likely outcome of the event, recording whether a bombing results in only a few isolated factual reports, or widespread extreme negativity.”

In an article by Noah Shachtman in Wired Magazine, he quotes a former U.S. admiral as saying “Local newspapers can give more insight into foreign politics than wiretapped calls. I spend a lot of time watching TV because — if you think about it — it’s the best intelligence network in the world.”

Leetaru’s study dealt purely with news monitoring. It would be interesting to see what happens when you add social media to the mix. With tools allowing you to track some Facebook posts and much of Twitter activity, it would be valuable to do a similar study to identify whether monitoring tone on these platforms introduced too much “noise” or in fact made trends even more clear.

One of the news monitoring sources Leetaru refers to, theForeign Broadcast Information Service, later became the Open Source Center, and is a key intelligence gathering tool for the CIA. They are reported to track social media “chatter.” In are article by Dan Rowinski in ReadWriteWeb, he claims that by monitoring Facebook and Twitter analysts at the Center “correctly predicted the Arab Spring that came to Egypt and Tunisia this year. Essentially, the CIA is using social media to predict where groundswell will turn into real action and follow breaking trends and news.”

When I went to explore the site myself, I discovered that the Open Source Center isn’t really that open. Accounts are only available to “US federal, state and local government employees and contractors” with homeland security duties. So much for “open source.”

Leetaru used content monitored through Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB) for this particular study on tone. Now, with Internet–based news displacing print and broadcast to represent 46 percent of all content monitored globally by the service last year, one can imagine that it won’t be long before the average person with access to tonality identification tools, which many companies now have, will be able to do what sophisticated intelligence services have been trying to do for years.

Book Review: Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion

100 shades of democracy, freedom and digital openness

Digital technology has become an intrinsic part of our lives, as a mean for gathering instant information at the tips of our fingers to the way we communicate and relate to others as well as to express ourselves, learn and even how we do business. Let’s face it, our lives aren’t the same if we don’t have a computer or tablet before us. We feel lost and certainly, isolated. However, the way we perceive the internet isn’t exactly what it is: there are always two sides to a story and the digital world isn’t precisely exempted. It depends how and where we look at it.

Sure, we can get almost infinite amounts of information in the blink of an eye but it doesn’t come for free.  What do we exchange besides the monthly fee for having internet service? For starters, our privacy, plain and simple.  First, once we get online –through our computers, tablets, mobiles, GPS, credit cards or any other digitally enabled device– everything we do, every place we go to, everything page we visit, talk about, and write is recorded. Yes, in our hard drives, ISPs servers, credit card databases, websites, by our cell phone companies, etc. (more…)

Slacktivism or Tactivism: Online campaigns are often just another tactic in an integrated marketing plan

The term for political participation online could just as easily be called tactivism as slacktivism. Using the internet to rally support for a cause or a candidate is simple marketing strategy. Get them from all sides and give them a call to action whether that be “buy this product” or “vote for this candidate.”

Of course to establish whether a new marketing tactic is effective, you need to measure it and that is never done in Henrik Serup Christensen’s Political activities on the Internet: Slacktivism or political participation by other means? It is an interesting reflection of the different ways society participates in the political process, but offers very little new evidence to help answer his own question posed in the article title.


What about the 30 and below group???

In Campaign Finance and the 2008 Elections, Ellen Weintraub and Jason Levine attribute three main areas to the 2008 elections fundraising success.  They discuss how the candidates made a significant impact.  At least two candidates had the potential of making history.  Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton dragged a new set of financial supporters that is unparalleled to any other election.   For instance, they outline that, “it was estimated that women in 2008 had given three times more than they gave in 2000 and almost as much as they had given in all of 2004.” (pg. 471)

They also attribute the internet to this success.  The use of digital communication to attract donations was widely used especially by the Obama campaign.  And last, they claim that the decline in the public funding system made room for candidates to pursue alternative ideas that brought in billions.

Although I agree with the authors that these three points made a significant impact on the 2008 elections, they left out the financial contributions of voters under the age of 30.  A 2008 Pews Center Research indicates that, “In addition to providing Barack Obama and other Democrats with strong support this year, young voters were unusually active in the campaign….They were less likely than older voters to contribute money to the campaign, but according to the survey nearly one-in-ten (9%) did so, compared with the overall average of 17%.”  So if Weintraub and Levine say they “small changes can really add up”, they can’t ignore th impact of this group, and they have done so in this article.  I understand that voters under thirty were included in their three main categories but they most definitely deserve to be addressed separately.

The success of internet use for fundraising purposes in 2008 is directly linked to the participation of younger voters.  Although internet isn’t exclusive to the below thirty demographic, they do help spread the message and are an easy target for campaigns. In

How Campaigns Can Use the Internet to Win in 2012, Colin Delany writes that, “Although email has proven in practice to be the most effective tool to raise money consistently, online fundraisers shouldn’t ignore Facebook and Twitter completely. It’s easy to post appeals to the campaign’s social channels at the same time that they’re sent over email.”

Response to discussion leader essay, Brazil…A Model to Follow?

Francisco Paulo Jamil Almeida Marques points out in “Government and e-participation programs: A study of the challenges faced by institutional projects” that he believes there is a set of constraints that drives the differences between how the Brazilian presidency and the Brazilian House of Representatives use digital media to improve democratic participation.   I agree with Dora that it is odd that there has been no improvement on the presidential site since his study was published over 4 years ago as demonstrated by the fact that it does not foster interaction.  Given the use of digital media has skyrocketed along with the proliferation of digital media tools such as mobile applications, is it possible that more than scarce resources are to blame?

To try to better understand the situation, I delved into the Brazilian presidency to try and learn more about Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president.  I found her political career fascinating as I read about her early roots as “Joan of Arc of subversion” and her ideological transformation from Marxism to pragmatic capitalism.  I came across one of her early influencers, Regis Debray who wrote “Revolution inside the Revolution” which introduced me to an array of militant political activism strategies until I found an essay written by Mark Rudd titled Che and Me:The Foco Theory which ends on the note of democratic nonviolence.  Just think if these revolutionaries would have had digital media at their fingertips.

After looking for clues via an ethnographic approach, and considering that, as Dora points out, the White House web page equally lacks interactivity as the Brazilian presidential web page, I think the lack of interactivity is intentional and not due to lack of financial or physical resources.  Fundamentally, I think what is at play is perceived risk.  Risk to established norms, risk to security, risk of mis-interpretation, risk of looking stupid, risk of being wrong.  The good that will come of a more interactive web site needs to overweigh the perceived risk.  Most of this I think could be handled with creating a plan that establishes objectives, sets boundaries and has commitment and follow through and also addresses how to handle mistakes and the proverbial mishap.

I think of John Maeda, president of Rhode Island School of Design, and his challenges when he tried to live via the principles of authentic leadership by being accessible, trying to employ social media to engage.  His reward was a vote of no confidence by his colleagues.  Still, he is committed to staying engaged.

Part of the issue is dealing with legacy infrastructures, both mental and physical, that are not built upon nor are geared to support open dialogue. I see it as much in political culture as in corporate culture.  I do believe it will and can change.

In the case of the presidency, whether U.S. or Brazilian, it will take a president that is willing to accept the risk as well as have the fortitude to take responsibility, set appropriate boundaries (what is the right level of interaction – is it a chat room and/or an interactive tool that allows comments on bills before congress?) and commit to it.

The use of social media proliferated from the bottom up.  I think those at the very top are still learning how best to manage it – some are still clueless.  Having a social media strategy that works takes time and its foundation is based on how you want to engage.  What is appropriate?  It’s new ground.  Politician’s, including presidents, need to plan and think through their social media strategy, not just for election, but for while they are in office and beyond.

Comments on Gladwell article.

Submitted on 2012/07/13 at 8:56 pm

I wanted to ‘way in’ on Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker. I my view, his thinking is old school and I do not follow his antiquated thought process. How can one compare the civil rights movement (a journey of decades) to the very rapid changes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt for example. Part of the problem is that Gladwell wrote his article in October of 2010, right before the Arab Spring. So the article missed the most important use of social media for political change!

The most important contribution that social media brings to political change is speed and scope. Social media is instantaneous and it gets the message out to a wide audience.

If social media would have been force in the 60s, I think the civil rights movement would have happened quicker and with less resistance.

One final thought: Before Gladwell comments on social media, he might want to think about trying social media out for himself. The guy hasn’t tweeted since April 2010!

Joe Howell
Cohort 12