Archive | IT and politics

The Photocopy-and-Furtive-Conversation Revolution

P. took the subway to Bowling Green. On his way to the exit, he passed a line of police officers accompanied by bomb-sniffing dogs. Outside, police had surrounded the “Charging Bull” with barricades and, a few blocks north, sealed off a stretch of Wall Street around the Stock Exchange. P. tried to look nonchalant as he carried a black messenger bag that contained a first-aid kit, a bottled solution of liquid antacid and water (to remedy the effects of tear gas and pepper spray), fifteen Clif bars (carrot cake), and several hundred photocopied maps, showing seven possible locations. “We decided that low-tech communication methods would be best,” P. told me. “If we’d used a mass text message, or Twitter, it would have been easy for the police to track down who was doing this…”
…P. quickly found the two other members of the Tactical Committee, both white men in their twenties. All three were “extremely nervous,” P. says. They left to scout Location Two, three-quarters of an acre of honey-locust trees and granite benches, a few blocks to the north, called Zuccotti Park. It was almost empty, and there were few police nearby. As the Tactical Committee had learned in its research, Location Two was a privately owned public space. While the city can close public parks at dusk, or impose other curfews, zoning laws require Zuccotti’s owner to keep the park open for “passive recreation” twenty-four hours a day.
Soon, maps were distributed and people began to murmur, “Go to Location Two in thirty minutes.” The first arrivals took seats beneath the trees on the eastern side, arranged themselves in small groups, and ate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. By that afternoon, nearly a thousand people had gathered for a general-assembly meeting. Late that night, P. went home; nearly three hundred of his comrades settled in to sleep there.

From Mattathias Schwartz’s article on Occupy Wall Street in The New Yorker.  It reminded me of this study (pdf) of Tahrir Square protestors, which found that 93% named live conversation as a medium used in protest activities, while 46% named text messaging and only 13% named Twitter.

Of course, no one is claiming that the Internet or new media or social media was irrelevant to either OWS or the Arab Spring.  But, given the apparent relevance of various media for actually getting people to protest sites, it seems like we need fewer articles about “Twitter Revolutions” and more on the ingenious capabilities of Xerox machines and word-of-mouth.

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Occupy Online: Facebook and the Spread of Occupy Wall Street

This is a guest post from sociologists Neal Caren and Sarah Gaby of UNC-Chapel Hill.  The paper they are discussing is available here.

While Occupy Wall Street has received most of its attention for its sustained public displays of numbers and commitment in New York City and many other locations, the movement also has an impressive online infrastructure. In addition to individual websites, multiple Twitter hashtags and dozens of Livestreams, more than 400 Facebook pages have been established in support of various US Occupy mobilizations. In order to begin to understand how activists and their supporters are using Facebook, we have been creating an archive of all the posts and comments shared on these pages since the movement began. In our working paper, we detail the data we have collected, including trends by location and major categories of posts; here we highlight some of the basic trends we have identified. The data here includes information collected up until October 17th.

A total of 911,822 posts or comments had been contributed to occupy related Facebook pages. Daily Occupy activity on Facebook peaked on October 11th with 64,410 posts. On the day when 129 people associated with Occupy Boston were arrested, 20,912 people contributed to 64,410 posts or comments on 352 Occupy related pages.

More than 400 US Occupation related Facebook pages have been established. The largest of these is the page associated with the original Wall Street Occupation. More than 40,000 individuals have contributed over 200,000 posts or comments to this page. Of the 50 largest Facebook pages in terms of users, 43 of them are associated with specific local occupations. The largest of the local Occupy Facebook is Occupy Boston, with almost 8,000 users.

Most Occupation pages were started between September 23th and October 5th. Only a handful of pages were created in the first few days of the Wall Street Occupation. This number jumped on September 23rd, a date that doubled the total number of Occupation pages. The increase in the number of pages during this time period was likely a combination of the efforts of Occupy Together and Occupy Colleges to facilitate local occupations, combined with the increased media attention that the movement received. Most of the pages starting during this time were designed to spur a local occupation,

A total of 153,056 people have been active on Occupation related Facebook sites. This number counts only those who have contributed to a page, either by posting or through a comment, and does not count those who have only “liked” or “shared” a page or post. This includes 55,150 individuals active on Occupy Wall Street related pages; 23,641 on national pages; 5,989 on state or regional pages, and 99,664 on local pages.

Before September 28th, a majority of new users posted on the Occupy Wall Street page. Since then, two-thirds have been first observed active on local pages. There isn’t much overlap between the Wall Street and the non-Wall street folk, as 90% of individuals who became interested enough in a local Occupation to comment on it first became involved in their local sites.

Facebook pages may play less of a role as the movement develops its own online and offline structures, but it has been a mechanism for a large number of people to encounter and interact with other potential supporters in a familiar setting.

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The dynamics of Twitter cascades

Matt Yglesias writing about how the now famous protest sign went viral, argues that it’s not the quantity but the quality of your followers that matters.

herein lies one of the secrets of the faux-meritocracy of the internet. Furnas may appear to be a mild-mannered law student with only 325 Twitter followers. But in an earlier life he was a key player in a ton of CAPAF’s policy products and he’s extremely well socially and professionally connected to the younger cohort of political media people. So that 325 includes reporters and editors from The Washington Post, Politico, Slate, Good, ThinkProgress, Mother Jones, and the Nation and think tank folks from CAP, Third Way, New America, and the Manhattan Institute. Given that particular nexus of people, it’s hardly a long and winding path to wide exposure for something interesting. This, I think, is an illustration of something important. People sometimes talk about the Internet as if it somehow supplants or replaces personal relationships. But in practice, it often acts as a force multiplier for them.

We actually have social science on Twitter cascades . Eytan Bakshy, Jake Hofman, Winter Mason and Duncan Watts test a model based on (a) the Twitter followers that a particular Twitter user has, and (b) the previous ‘success’ that the relevant user has had in influencing and others and finds that:

In fact, the model fit without averaging predicted and actual values at the leaf nodes is relatively poor (R2 = 0.34), reflecting that although large cascades tend to be driven by previously successful individuals with many followers, the extreme scarcity of such cascades means that most individuals with these attributes are not successful either. Thus, while large follower count and past success are likely necessary features for future success, they are far from sufficient. These results place the usual intuition about influencers in perspective: individuals who have been influential in the past and who have many followers are indeed more likely to be influential in the future; however, this intuition is correct only on average.

What this suggests is that better connected people (insofar as one can infer this through their past success) and people with more Twitter followers, are on average those who will start cascades. Nonetheless, very few posts actually do start cascades, and it is going to be extremely hard to predict in advance which posts will start cascades and which will not. Bakshy et al. furthermore argue that if you are a direct marketer or other person seeking to influence Twitter debate, it may be more cost effective to focus on the ‘non-influentials’ than the influentials. This also has implications for debates about the role of networks in international relations theory – which I hope to return to one of these days …

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The Role of Social Media in Conflict

Sean Aday, Henry, Marc Lynch, and I have helped to organize a day-long conference on social media and conflict, which is sponsored and hosted by the United States Institute of Peace.  This follows on our previous report and conferences, which are part of USIP’s “Blogs and Bullets” initiative.  A second report is forthcoming, but in the meantime more details about tomorrow’s conference are here.  You can watch a webcast of the conference here beginning at 9 am, EDT.

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The Effects of the Internet on Politics

I’ve been buried in seclusion the last several days, trying to get a review article on the consequences of the Internet for politics (from a political science perspective) finished. Obviously, this is far too large an undertaking for a 12,000 word piece, so I’ve concentrated on two debates – arguments over the Internet and political polarization, and arguments over the putative role of the Internet in the Arab Spring. An initial draft is available here – comments and criticisms welcome (I’m already aware of, and planning to fix, the slightly ropy bibliography, the tendency to grossly over-use the word “plausibly” and the unexplained switch from discussion of ‘sorting’ in the opening section to ‘homophily’ in the main text). This is an area where there are a lot of literatures in political science, sociology, communications studies, and computer science that overlap without necessarily talking to each other that well. I’ve tried to gather as much as I can from across these disciplines, but am sure that there is plenty of material out there that I am unaware of.

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Is Twitter Politically Polarized?

Yes, according to a new paper by M. D. Conover, J. Ratkiewicz, M. Francisco, B. Goncalves, A. Flammini, and F. Menczer (computer scientists are apparently big on the idea of not letting the world know what their first names are). But there still is some interesting interaction between Twitter users from different political perspectives.

The authors use an algorithm to identify 250,000 Twitter messages (from a database of 355 million tweets gathered over a six week period) with politically relevant hashtags, coming from about 45,000 users. What’s interesting is that they identify quite different dynamics as operating within two different communication networks. One network is composed of retweets – where one user simply retweets another’s message. Here, they find that this network is densely clustered, so that left-leaning people retweet messages from other leftwingers, and right-leaning people retweet messages from other rightwingers. However, there is a second network, composed of ‘mentions’ – where one Twitter user mentions another’s user name in order to communicate with him or her. This network is far more heterogenous, as can be seen from the figure below (the retweet network is linkmapped on the left, the mention network on the right). This can be interpreted with a positive or negative normative slant, depending.

Linkmaps of Twitter and Political Polarization

mentions and replies may serve as a conduit through which users are exposed to information and opinions they might not choose in advance. Despite this promising finding, the work of Yardi and boyd (2010) suggests that cross-ideological interactions may reinforce pre-existing in-group/out-group identities, exacerbating the problem of political polarization.

The authors lean towards the latter interpretation. They also generously provide their dataset (located at ) for others interested in exploring the “role of technologically-mediated political inter- action in deliberative democracy.”

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Tuxedos and Support for Obama

Google Correlate is a fascinating new web-tool that allows you not only to compare what web-search terms are correlated with each other temporally and geographically (see here for a nice example) but also to examine whether search terms correlate with your own data. The inspiration is the well-documented application created by Google that accurately forecasts flu outbreaks. The people at Google rightfully thought that the general idea ought to be applicable to other areas, so they created a new web-tool. This comic book explains the ideas well.

One obvious thought was to see what search terms correlate with public opinion trends. John Sides sent me some data on support for Obama from the 2008 presidential race and it took me about 1 minute to feed it into Google Correlate. So far so good. Now the results (note: I updated the picture):

Oh well. There are so many obvious jokes here that it is hard to know where to begin (my favorite involves, of course, “Prince Eric”). Now, it could be that you would find more reasonable things with a longer time series or that it works better with more substantive public opinion trends. For example, I tried some data I had on support for the war in Iraq (from this article) and I got “Saddam cartoons” as the first and only correlated search term (although the correlation was modest (r=0.61)). That is at least related but it does not help if we were interested in, say, predicting whether there are signs that a public is getting fed up with a war. If you have better experiences with different data, please report.

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