P&I Special Issue 2023 Call for Paper – Datafication. Platformisation. Metaverse. Global Internet Policy or a Fractured Communication Future?

Datafication. Platformisation. Metaverse. Global Internet Policy or a Fractured Communication Future?

Special Issue Call for Papers, Volume 15, Issue 4

Datafication. Platformization. Metaverse. What is the state of global internet policy? Within our current online and hyper-connected lives, is it possible to have such a thing as global internet policy? Building off the 2022 Policy & Internet Conference, this special issue addresses the complex and multiple perspectives of internet policy from around the globe.

As we evolve through the Anthropocene and attempt to navigate the significant challenges humanity currently faces, we are consistently reminded of the most pressing critical issues of our epoch. Economic systems are the point of breaking, industrial action mobilised by unions is at an all-time high, inflation is rising, workers’ pay continues to fall, and the stability of our political systems has come into question. Our health systems are under unfathomable stress, refugee numbers are increasing through displacement, and the war in Ukraine continues, all of which adds to the growing global societal, economic and political pressures. And yet, concurrently, our connectivity through digital media and its surrounding environments is at an all-time high, arguably from the rise of technology players providing suites of social media platforms and its supporting infrastructures that enable a seamless and convenient, always-on lifestyle. The same app that enables us to chat with our friends and family can also book our rideshares, order our food, pay for our purchases and tempt us to become internet celebrities. What was once framed as user generated content activity has now become a normalised cultural pastime, as TikTok influencers feed the demotic turn that sees ordinary folk become internet superstars in rather small timeframes.

At the same time, policymakers are reforming legislation to address the incomprehensible imbalance of power that is generated by technology giants. One of the immediate issues concerning users is their online privacy. In many instances, governments continue to struggle with bringing large-scale social media platforms to account, and seeking mutually beneficial outcomes. TikTok especially has raised concerns with user privacy as many cybersecurity agencies who advise governments have no clear answers on how to maintain its use while not knowing what will happen to user data. Alongside user data issues, in some countries the relationship between technology providers and governments is blurred, where regulation is becoming a weaponized approach to citizen control. To counter these sorts of power imbalances, advocacy groups are consistently calling for safe, inclusive, affordable and reliable internet connectivity, as the digital divide continues to increase. The urgency for healthy online civic spaces has been highlighted as a key focus for advocacy groups, while ensuring the safety of its users has also been highlighted.

This special issue asks for responses to these contemporary issues and seeks to understand if a global internet policy is possible. How might we incorporate co-design, open dialogues, increased governance, interoperability and user-centred discussions into policy discussions? What are the immediate issues for policymakers?

We welcome research that addresses the following areas of interest (but not limited to):

  • Takedowns, shadowbanning, throttling
  • Non-western approaches towards internet policy
  • Internet governance and infrastructures
  • Content moderation
  • Regulatory responses that address the growing digital divide 
  • Communication and technology for positive economic development
  • Building strong communication systems during times of high societal pressure
  • Social media and labour concerns
  • Emerging digital communication for marginalised groups and individuals
  • Digital communication that bridges regional legislation
  • Communication and technology through comparative media systems 
  • Regulation for diversity across media systems
  • Media automation for the next 10 years and beyond
  • Young people and social media
  • Innovative empirical examples of positive digital communication and/or technology development

Please send through your title and 150-200 word abstract to Jonathon Hutchinson [jonathon.hutchinson@sydney.edu.au] and Milly Stilinovic [milica.stilinovic@sydney.edu.au] with the subject line: Policy & Internet Special Issue by October 31 2022.

Timeline

October 31 – Abstracts due

November 18 – Notification of Accepted Papers

January 31 (2023) – Full Papers Due

March 31 (2023) – Final Revisions Due

Photo by Risto Kokkonen on Unsplash

Policy & Internet Conference 2022

Datafication. Platformization. Metaverse. The state of global internet policy

University of Sydney, Australia (28-29 September, 2022).

Through a series of keynote presentations and plenary panels, the 2022 Policy & Internet Conference will set the trajectory for the next 12 months of scholarship in this space.

For event details, address and information on keynote speakers and panelists, please see our Conference page.

For the Conference itinerary, please see below.

Special Issue Call for Papers – The Regulation Turn?

Policy & Internet Journal: CFP Special Issue – Issue 1, 2022

Special Issue Editors: Jonathon Hutchinson, University of Sydney & Milica Stilinovic, University of Sydney

The Internet Regulation Turn? Policy, internet and technology

With the recent media focus on the regulation of social media platforms within our society, users, citizens, human rights advocacy groups, policymakers and content producers have all questioned the validity of these communication technologies. Do these technologies offer ease of connectivity, or do they have the potential to be weaponised and misappropriated to further political agendas, disrupt democratic processes, and abuse an individual’s right to (or assumption of) privacy? Recently, we have observed governments calling on platforms to account for their misalignment with local media markets. Regulators are asking platform providers for increased transparency into their distribution processes. Advocacy groups are asking for increased visibility. The custodians of the internet (Gillespie, 2018) are asking for better tools to manage their communities. At the same time, users are questioning the uses of their data.

Nonetheless, our societies are enjoying the benefits of our contemporary communication technologies for a variety of reasons. We see new markets emerging based on platform economic models, increased connectivity in times of physical isolation, new trends and connections are emerging, new cultural conventions are being forged between disparate individuals, and friends and families enjoy the increased ease and connectivity of communicating with their loved ones.

To say ‘if you do not pay for the product, you are the product’ (Orlowski, 2020) grossly misrepresents the entirety of the social dilemma we have found ourselves in – a hyper- commercialised and politicised internet of the 2020s. To combat this, we are observing several versions of a ‘Balkinized splinternet’ (Lemley, 2020) emerging, where nations and users are designing and creating their own version of what was conceived as a way to share and enjoy information across a connected and networked infrastructure. These new internet formations are accompanied by a variety of emerging economic models, such as cryptocurrency for example, to signify a moment of change has arrived (Swartz, 2020). By looking backwards, we are sometimes able to understand how we will move forward.

This special issue of Policy & Internet calls on scholars, practitioners, policymakers and students of the internet to rethink our internet, its policy and the surrounding communication technology of our contemporary society. We are looking for papers that examine the current social and communication dilemmas of the internet, and that map out the trajectory of Policy & Internet for the next five years. What will internet researchers be examining in three years? Has the idea of the ‘nation state’ returned within the debates surrounding ‘big tech’ giants? What will the civil society look like in five years? What does effective policy consider for the future of ourselves and our data in the several emerging versions of the internet?

Topics can be related, but not limited, to:

  • Internet studies
  • Platformisation
  • Everyday social media
  • Algorithmic media 
  • Internet governance
  • The ‘regulation turn’ of the internet 
  • News distribution
  • Platform accountability
  • Critical race studies
  • Civil unrest and the internet
  • Queer internet
  • The Internet of Things (IoT)
  • Smart Devices/Smart Cities
  • Robots and/or automation
  • E-surveillance and e-governance
  • Design, coding and development of the internet and its protocols

Please send through your title and 150-200 word abstract to Jonathon Hutchinson [jonathon.hutchinson@sydney.edu.au] and Milly Stilinovic [milica.stilinovic@sydney.edu.au] with the subject line: Policy & Internet Special Issue by May 15 2021.

Timeline

May 15 – Abstracts due

May 31 – Notification of Accepted Papers

September 30 – Full Papers Due

November 30 – Final Revisions Due

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Five reasons ‘technological solutions’ are a distraction from the Irish border problem

In this post, Helen Margetts, Cosmina Dorobantu, Florian Ostmann, and Christina Hitrova discuss the focus on ‘technological solutions’ in the context of the Irish border debate — arguing that it is becoming a red herring and a distraction from the political choices ahead. They write:

 

Technology is increasingly touted as an alternative to the Irish backstop, especially in light of the government’s difficulty to find a Brexit strategy that can command a majority in the House of Commons. As academics, we have been following the debate around the role of technology in monitoring the border with interest, but also scepticism and frustration. Technology can foster government innovation in countless ways and digital technologies, in particular, have the potential transform the way in which government makes policy and designs public services. Yet, in the context of the Irish border debate, the focus on ‘technological solutions’ is becoming a red herring and distracts from the political choices ahead. Technology cannot solve the Irish border problem and it is time to face the facts.

1: Technology cannot ensure a ‘frictionless border’

Any legal or regulatory restrictions on the movement of goods or people between the UK and the Republic of Ireland post-Brexit will make border-related friction inevitable. Setting the restrictions is a matter of political agreements. Technology can help enforce the legal or regulatory restrictions, but it cannot prevent the introduction of friction compared to the status quo. For example, technology may speed up documentation, processing, and inspections, but it cannot eliminate the need for these procedures, whose existence will mean new burdens on those undergoing them.

2:  There will be a need for new infrastructure at or near the border

Technology may make it possible for some checks to be carried out away from the border. For example, machine learning algorithms can assist in identifying suspicious vehicles and police forces can stop and inspect them away from the border. Regardless of where the relevant inspections are carried out, however, there will be a need for new infrastructure at or near the border, such as camera systems that record the identity of the vehicles crossing the frontier. The amount of new infrastructure needed will depend on how strict the UK and the EU decide to be in enforcing restrictions on the movement of goods and people. At a minimum, cameras will have to be installed at the border. Stricter enforcement regimes will require additional infrastructure such as sensors, scanners, boom barriers or gates.

3: ‘Frictionless’ solutions are in direct conflict with the Brexit goal to ‘take back control’ over borders

There is a fundamental conflict between the goals of minimising friction and enforcing compliance. For example, friction for Irish and UK citizens traveling across the Irish border could be reduced by a system that allows passenger vehicles registered within the Common Travel Area to cross the border freely. This approach, however, would make it difficult to monitor whether registered vehicles are used to facilitate unauthorised movements of people or goods across the border. More generally, the more effective the border management system is in detecting and preventing non-compliant movements of goods or people across the border, the more friction there will be.

4: Technology has known imperfections

Many of the ‘technological solutions’ that have been proposed as ways to minimise friction have blind spots when it comes to monitoring and enforcing compliance – a fact quietly acknowledged through comments about the solutions’ ‘dependence on trust’. Automated licence plate recognition systems, for example, can easily be tricked by using stolen or falsified number plates. Probabilistic algorithmic tools to identify the ‘high risk’ vehicles selected for inspections will fail to identify some cases of non-compliance. Technological tools may lead to improvements over risk-based approaches that rely on human judgment alone, but they cannot, on their own, monitor the border safely.

5: Government will struggle to develop the relevant technological tools

Suggestions that the border controversy may find a last-minute solution by relying on technology seem dangerously detached from the realities of large-scale technology projects, especially in the public sector. In addition to considerable expertise and financial investments, such projects need time, a resource that is quickly running out as March 29 draws closer. The history of government technology projects is littered with examples of failures to meet expectations, enormous cost overruns, and troubled relationships with computer services providers.

A recent example is the mobile phone app meant to facilitate the registration of the 3.7 million EU nationals living in the UK that cannot work on iPhones. Private companies will be keen to sell technological solutions to the backstop problem, with firms like Fujitsu and GSM already signalling their interest in addressing this technological challenge. Under time pressure, government will struggle to evaluate the feasibility of the technological solutions proposed by these private providers, negotiate a favourable contract, and ensure that the resulting technology is fit for purpose.

Technological tools can help implement customs rules, but they cannot fill the current political vacuum. The design, development, and implementation of border management tools require regulatory clarity—prior knowledge of the rules whose monitoring and enforcement the technical tools are meant to support. What these rules will be for the UK-Ireland border following Brexit is a political question. The recent focus on ‘technological solutions’, rather than informing the debate around this question, seems to have served as a strategy for avoiding substantive engagement with it. It is time for government to accept that technology cannot solve the Irish border problem and move on to find real, feasible alternatives.

Authors:

Professor Helen Margetts, Professor of Society and the Internet, Oxford Internet institute, University of Oxford;  Director of the Public Policy Programme, The Alan Turing Institute

Dr Cosmina Dorobantu, Research Associate, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford; Deputy Director of the Public Policy Programme, The Alan Turing Institute

Dr Florian Ostmann, Policy Fellow, Public Policy Programme, The Alan Turing Institute

Christina Hitrova, Digital Ethics Research Assistant, Public Policy Programme, The Alan Turing Institute

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the listed members of The Alan Turing Institute’s Public Policy Programme in their individual academic capacities, and do not represent a formal view of the Institute.

Can “We the People” really help draft a national constitution? (sort of..)

As innovations like social media and open government initiatives have become an integral part of the politics in the twenty-first century, there is increasing interest in the possibility of citizens directly participating in the drafting of legislation. Indeed, there is a clear trend of greater public participation in the process of constitution making, and with the growth of e-democracy tools, this trend is likely to continue. However, this view is certainly not universally held, and a number of recent studies have been much more skeptical about the value of public participation, questioning whether it has any real impact on the text of a constitution.

Following the banking crisis, and a groundswell of popular opposition to the existing political system in 2009, the people of Iceland embarked on a unique process of constitutional reform. Having opened the entire drafting process to public input and scrutiny, these efforts culminated in Iceland’s 2011 draft crowdsourced constitution: reputedly the world’s first. In his Policy & Internet article “When Does Public Participation Make a Difference? Evidence From Iceland’s Crowdsourced Constitution”, Alexander Hudson examines the impact that the Icelandic public had on the development of the draft constitution. He finds that almost 10 percent of the written proposals submitted generated a change in the draft text, particularly in the area of rights.

This remarkably high number is likely explained by the isolation of the drafters from both political parties and special interests, making them more reliant on and open to input from the public. However, although this would appear to be an example of successful public crowdsourcing, the new constitution was ultimately rejected by parliament. Iceland’s experiment with participatory drafting therefore demonstrates the possibility of successful online public engagement — but also the need to connect the masses with the political elites. It was the disconnect between these groups that triggered the initial protests and constitutional reform, but also that led to its ultimate failure.

We caught up with Alexander to discuss his findings.

Ed: We know from Wikipedia (and other studies) that group decisions are better, and crowds can be trusted. However, I guess (re US, UK) I also feel increasingly nervous about the idea of “the public” having a say over anything important and binding. How do we distribute power and consultation, while avoiding populist chaos?  

Alexander: That’s a large and important question, which I can probably answer only in part. One thing we need to be careful of is what kind of public we are talking about. In many cases, we view self-selection as a bad thing — it can’t be representative. However, in cases like Wikipedia, we see self-selected individuals with specialized knowledge and an uncommon level of interest collaborating. I would suggest that there is an important difference between the kind of decisions that are made by careful and informed participants in citizens’ juries, deliberative polls, or Wikipedia editing, and the oversimplified binary choices that we make in elections or referendums.

So, while there is research to suggest that large numbers of ordinary people can make better decisions, there are some conditions in terms of prior knowledge and careful consideration attached to that. I have high hopes for these more deliberative forms of public participation, but we are right to be cautious about referendums. The Icelandic constitutional reform process actually involved several forms of public participation, including two randomly selected deliberative fora, self-selected online participation, and a popular referendum with several questions.

Ed: A constitution is a very technical piece of text: how much could non-experts realistically contribute to its development — or was there also contribution from specialised interest groups? Presumably there was a team of lawyers and drafters managing the process? 

Alexander: All of these things were going on in Iceland’s drafting process. In my research here and on a few other constitution-making processes in other countries, I’ve been impressed by the ability of citizens to engage at a high level with fundamental questions about the nature of the state, constitutional rights, and legal theory. Assuming a reasonable level of literacy, people are fully capable of reading some literature on constitutional law and political philosophy, and writing very well-informed submissions that express what they would like to see in the constitutional text. A small, self-selected set of the public in many countries seeks to engage in spirited and for the most part respectful debate on these issues. In the Icelandic case, these debates have continued from 2009 to the present.

I would also add that public interest is not distributed uniformly across all the topics that constitutions cover. Members of the public show much more interest in discussing issues of human rights, and have more success in seeing proposals on that theme included in the draft constitution. Some NGOs were involved in submitting proposals to the Icelandic Constitutional Council, but interest groups do not appear to have been a major factor in the process. Unlike some constitution-making processes, the Icelandic Constitutional Council had a limited staff, and the drafters themselves were very engaged with the public on social media.

Ed: I guess Iceland is fairly small, but also unusually homogeneous. That helps, presumably, in creating a general consensus across a society? Or will party / political leaning always tend to trump any sense of common purpose and destiny, when defining the form and identity of the nation?

Alexander: You are certainly right that Iceland is unusual in these respects, and this raises important questions of what this is a case of, and how the findings here can inform us about what might happen in other contexts. I would not say that the Icelandic people reached any sort of broad, national-level consensus about how the constitution should change. During the early part of the drafting process, it seems that those who had strong disagreements with what was taking place absented themselves from the proceedings. They did turn up later to some extent (especially after the 2012 referendum), and sought to prevent this draft from becoming law.

Where the small size and homogeneous population really came into play in Iceland is through the level of knowledge that those who participated had of one another before entering into the constitution-making process. While this has been over emphasized in some discussions of Iceland, there are communities of shared interests where people all seem to know each other, or at least know of each other. This makes forming new societies, NGOs, or interest groups easier, and probably helped to launch the constitution-making project in the first place. 

Ed: How many people were involved in the process — and how were bad suggestions rejected, discussed, or improved? I imagine there must have been divisive issues, that someone would have had to arbitrate? 

Alexander: The number of people who interacted with the process in some way, either by attending one of the public forums that took place early in the process, voting in the election for the Constitutional Council, or engaging with the process on social media, is certainly in the tens of thousands. In fact, one of the striking things about this case is that 522 people stood for election to the 25 member Constitutional Council which drafted the new constitution. So there was certainly a high level of interest in participating in this process.

My research here focused on the written proposals that were posted to the Constitutional Council’s website. 204 individuals participated in that more intensive way. As the members of the Constitutional Council tell it, they would read some of the comments on social media, and the formal submissions on their website during their committee meetings, and discuss amongst themselves which ideas should be carried forward into the draft. The vast majority of the submissions were well-informed, on topic, and conveyed a collegial tone. In this case at least, there was very little of the kind of abusive participation that we observe in some online networks. 

Ed: You say that despite the success in creating a crowd-sourced constitution (that passed a public referendum), it was never ratified by parliament — why is that? And what lessons can we learn from this?

Alexander: Yes, this is one of the most interesting aspects of the whole thing for scholars, and certainly a source of some outrage for those Icelanders who are still active in trying to see this draft constitution become law. Some of this relates to the specifics of Iceland’s constitutional amendment process (which disincentives parliament from approving changes in between elections), but I think that there are also a couple of broadly applicable things going on here. First, the constitution-making process arose as a response to the way that the Icelandic government was perceived to have failed in governing the financial system in the late 2000s. By the time a last-ditch attempt to bring the draft constitution up for a vote in parliament occurred right before the 2013 election, almost five years had passed since the crisis that began this whole saga, and the economic situation had begun to improve. So legislators were not feeling pressure to address those issues any more.

Second, since political parties were not active in the drafting process, too few members of parliament had a stake in the issue. If one of the larger parties had taken ownership of this draft constitution, we might have seen a different outcome. I think this is one of the most important lessons from this case: if the success of the project depends on action by elite political actors, they should be involved in the earlier stages of the process. For various reasons, the Icelanders chose to exclude professional politicians from the process, but that meant that the Constitutional Council had too few friends in parliament to ratify the draft.

Read the full article: Hudson, A. (2018) When Does Public Participation Make a Difference? Evidence From Iceland’s Crowdsourced Constitution. Policy & Internet 10 (2) 185-217. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/poi3.167

Alexander Hudson was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Bursting the bubbles of the Arab Spring: the brokers who bridge ideology on Twitter

Online activism has become increasingly visible, with social media platforms being used to express protest and dissent from the Arab Spring to #MeToo. Scholarly interest in online activism has grown with its use, together with disagreement about its impact. Do social media really challenge traditional politics? Some claim that social media have had a profound and positive effect on modern protest — the speed of information sharing making online networks highly effective in building revolutionary movements. Others argue that this activity is merely symbolic: online activism has little or no impact, dilutes offline activism, and weakens social movements. Given online activity doesn’t involve the degree of risk, trust, or effort required on the ground, they argue that it can’t be considered to be “real” activism. In this view, the Arab Spring wasn’t simply a series of “Twitter revolutions”.

Despite much work on offline social movements and coalition building, few studies have used social network analysis to examine the influence of brokers of online activists (i.e. those who act as a bridge between different ideological groups), or their role in information diffusion across a network. In her Policy & Internet article “Brokerage Roles and Strategic Positions in Twitter Networks of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution”, Deena Abul-Fottouh tests whether social movements theory of networks and coalition building — developed to explain brokerage roles in offline networks, between established parties and organisations — can also be used to explain what happens online.

Social movements theory suggests that actors who occupy an intermediary structural position between different ideological groups are more influential than those embedded only in their own faction. That is, the “bridging ties” that link across political ideologies have a greater impact on mobilization than the bonding ties within a faction. Indeed, examining the Egyptian revolution and ensuing crisis, Deena finds that these online brokers were more evident during the first phase of movement solidarity between liberals, islamists, and socialists than in the period of schism and crisis (2011-2014) that followed the initial protests. However, she also found that the online brokers didn’t match the brokers on the ground: they played different roles, complementing rather than mirroring each other in advancing the revolutionary movement.

We caught up with Deena to discuss her findings:

Ed: Firstly: is the “Arab Spring” a useful term? Does it help to think of the events that took place across parts of the Middle East and North Africa under this umbrella term — which I suppose implies some common cause or mechanism?

Deena: Well, I believe it’s useful to an extent. It helps describe some positive common features that existed in the region such as dissatisfaction with the existing regimes, a dissatisfaction that was transformed from the domain of advocacy to the domain of high-risk activism, a common feeling among the people that they can make a difference, even though it did not last long, and the evidence that there are young people in the region who are willing to sacrifice for their freedom. On the other hand, structural forces in the region such as the power of deep states and the forces of counter-revolution were capable of halting this Arab Spring before it burgeoned or bore fruit, so may be the term “Spring” is no longer relevant.

Ed: Revolutions have been happening for centuries, i.e. they obviously don’t need Twitter or Facebook to happen. How significant do you think social media were in this case, either in sparking or sustaining the protests? And how useful are these new social media data as a means to examine the mechanisms of protest?

Deena: Social media platforms have proven to be useful in facilitating protests such as by sharing information in a speedy manner and on a broad range across borders. People in Egypt and other places in the region were influenced by Tunisia, and protest tactics were shared online. In other words, social media platforms definitely facilitate diffusion of protests. They are also hubs to create a common identity and culture among activists, which is crucial for the success of social movements. I also believe that social media present activists with various ways to circumvent policing of activism (e.g. using pseudonyms to hide the identity of the activists, sharing information about places to avoid in times of protests, many platforms offer the possibility for activists to form closed groups where they have high privacy to discuss non-public matters, etc.).

However, social media ties are weak ties. These platforms are not necessarily efficient in building the trust needed to bond social movements, especially in times of schism and at the level of high-risk activism. That is why, as I discuss in my article, we can see that the type of brokerage that is formed online is brokerage that is built on weak ties, not necessarily the same as offline brokerage that usually requires high trust.

Ed: It’s interesting that you could detect bridging between groups. Given schism seems to be fairly standard in society (Cf filter bubbles etc.) .. has enough attention been paid to this process of temporary shifting alignments, to advance a common cause? And are these incidental, or intentional acts of brokerage?

Deena: I believe further studies need to be made on the concepts of solidarity, schism and brokerage within social movements both online and offline. Little attention has been given to how movements come together or break apart online. The Egyptian revolution is a rich case to study these concepts as the many changes that happened in the path of the revolution in its first five years and the intervention of different forces have led to multiple shifts of alliances that deserve study. Acts of brokerage do not necessarily have to be intentional. In social movements studies, researchers have studied incidental acts that could eventually lead to formation of alliances, such as considering co-members of various social movements organizations as brokers between these organizations.

I believe that the same happens online. Brokerage could start with incidental acts such as activists following each other on Twitter for example, which could develop into stronger ties through mentioning each other. This could also build up to coordinating activities online and offline. In the case of the Egyptian revolution, many activists who met in protests on the ground were also friends online. The same happened in Moldova where activists coordinated tactics online and met on the ground. Thus, incidental acts that start with following each other online could develop into intentional coordinated activism offline. I believe further qualitative interviews need to be conducted with activists to study how they coordinate between online and offline activism, as there are certain mechanisms that cannot be observed through just studying the public profiles of activists or their structural networks.

Ed: The “Arab Spring” has had a mixed outcome across the region — and is also now perhaps a bit forgotten in the West. There have been various network studies of the 2011 protests: but what about the time between visible protests .. isn’t that in a way more important? What would a social network study of the current situation in Egypt look like, do you think?

Deena: Yes, the in-between times of waves of protests are as important to study as the waves themselves as they reveal a lot about what could happen, and we usually study them retroactively after the big shocks happen. A social network of the current situation in Egypt would probably include many “isolates” and tiny “components”, if I would use social network analysis terms. This started showing in 2014 as the effects of schism in the movement. I believe this became aggravated over time as the military coup d’état got a stronger grip over the country, suppressing all opposition. Many activists are either detained or have left the country. A quick look at their online profiles does not reveal strong communication between them. Yet, this is what apparently shows from public profiles. One of the levers that social media platforms offer is the ability to create private or “closed” groups online.

I believe these groups might include rich data about activists’ communication. However, it is very difficult, almost impossible to study these groups, unless you are a member or they give you permission. In other words, there might be some sort of communication occurring between activists but at a level that researchers unfortunately cannot access. I think we might call it the “underground of online activism”, which I believe is potentially a very rich area of study.

Ed: A standard criticism of “Twitter network studies” is that they aren’t very rich — they may show who’s following whom, but not necessarily why, or with what effect. Have there been any larger, more detailed studies of the Arab Spring that take in all sides: networks, politics, ethnography, history — both online and offline?

Deena: To my knowledge, there haven’t been studies that have included all these aspects together. Yet there are many studies that covered each of them separately, especially the politics, ethnography, and history of the Arab Spring (see for example: Egypt’s Tahrir Revolution 2013, edited by D. Tschirgi, W. Kazziha and S. F. McMahon). Similarly, very few studies have tried to compare the online and offline repertoires (see for example: Weber, Garimella and Batayneh 2013, Abul-Fottouh and Fetner 2018). In my doctoral dissertation (2018 from McMaster University), I tried to include many of these elements.

Read the full article: Abul-Fottouh, D. (2018) Brokerage Roles and Strategic Positions in Twitter Networks of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Policy & Internet 10: 218-240. doi:10.1002/poi3.169

Deena Abul-Fottouh was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Call for Papers: Government, Industry, Civil Society Responses to Online Extremism

We are calling for articles for a Special Issue of the journal Policy & Internet on “Online Extremism: Government, Private Sector, and Civil Society Responses”, edited by Jonathan Bright and Bharath Ganesh, to be published in 2019. The submission deadline is October 30, 2018.

Issue Outline

Governments, the private sector, and civil society are beginning to work together to challenge extremist exploitation of digital communications. Both Islamic and right-wing extremists use websites, blogs, social media, encrypted messaging, and filesharing websites to spread narratives and propaganda, influence mainstream public spheres, recruit members, and advise audiences on undertaking attacks.

Across the world, public-private partnerships have emerged to counter this problem. For example, the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) organized by the UN Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate has organized a “shared hash database” that provides “digital fingerprints” of ISIS visual content to help platforms quickly take down content. In another case, the UK government funded ASI Data Science to build a tool to accurately detect jihadist content. Elsewhere, Jigsaw (a Google-owned company) has developed techniques to use content recommendations on YouTube to “redirect” viewers of extremist content to content that might challenge their views.

While these are important and admirable efforts, their impacts and effectiveness is unclear. The purpose of this special issue is to map and evaluate emerging public-private partnerships, technologies, and responses to online extremism. There are three main areas of concern that the issue will address:

(1) the changing role of content moderation, including taking down content and user accounts, as well as the use of AI techniques to assist;

(2) the increasing focus on “counter-narrative” campaigns and strategic communication; and

(3) the inclusion of global civil society in this agenda.

This mapping will contribute to understanding how power is distributed across these actors, the ways in which technology is expected to address the problem, and the design of the measures currently being undertaken.

Topics of Interest

Papers exploring one or more of the following areas are invited for consideration:

Content moderation

  • Efficacy of user and content takedown (and effects it has on extremist audiences);
  • Navigating the politics of freedom of speech in light of the proliferation of hateful and extreme speech online;
  • Development of content and community guidelines on social media platforms;
  • Effect of government policy, recent inquiries, and civil society on content moderation practices by the private sector (e.g. recent laws in Germany, Parliamentary inquiries in the UK);
  • Role and efficacy of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning in countering extremism.

Counter-narrative Campaigns and Strategic Communication

  • Effectiveness of counter-narrative campaigns in dissuading potential extremists;
  • Formal and informal approaches to counter narratives;
  • Emerging governmental or parastatal bodies to produce and disseminate counter-narratives;
  • Involvement of media and third sector in counter-narrative programming;
  • Research on counter-narrative practitioners;
  • Use of technology in supporting counter-narrative production and dissemination.

Inclusion of Global Civil Society

  • Concentration of decision making power between government, private sector, and civil society actors;
  • Diversity of global civil society actors involved in informing content moderation and counter-narrative campaigns;
  • Extent to which inclusion of diverse civil society/third sector actors improves content moderation and counter-narrative campaigns;
  • Challenges and opportunities faced by global civil society in informing agendas to respond to online extremism.

Submitting your Paper

We encourage interested scholars to submit 6,000 to 8,000 word papers that address one or more of the issues raised in the call. Submissions should be made through Policy & Internet’s manuscript submission system. Interested authors are encouraged to contact Jonathan Bright (jonathan.bright@oii.ox.ac.uk) and Bharath Ganesh (bharath.ganesh@oii.ox.ac.uk) to check the suitability of their paper.

Special Issue Schedule

The special issue will proceed according to the following timeline:

Paper submission: 30 October 2018

First round of reviews: January 2019

Revisions received: March 2019

Final review and decision: May 2019

Publication (estimated): December 2019

The special issue as a whole will be published at some time in late 2019, though individual papers will be published online in EarlyView as soon as they are accepted.

Call for Papers: Government, Industry, Civil Society Responses to Online Extremism

We are calling for articles for a Special Issue of the journal Policy & Internet on “Online Extremism: Government, Private Sector, and Civil Society Responses”, edited by Jonathan Bright and Bharath Ganesh, to be published in 2019. The submission deadline is October 30, 2018.

Issue Outline

Governments, the private sector, and civil society are beginning to work together to challenge extremist exploitation of digital communications. Both Islamic and right-wing extremists use websites, blogs, social media, encrypted messaging, and filesharing websites to spread narratives and propaganda, influence mainstream public spheres, recruit members, and advise audiences on undertaking attacks.

Across the world, public-private partnerships have emerged to counter this problem. For example, the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) organized by the UN Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate has organized a “shared hash database” that provides “digital fingerprints” of ISIS visual content to help platforms quickly take down content. In another case, the UK government funded ASI Data Science to build a tool to accurately detect jihadist content. Elsewhere, Jigsaw (a Google-owned company) has developed techniques to use content recommendations on YouTube to “redirect” viewers of extremist content to content that might challenge their views.

While these are important and admirable efforts, their impacts and effectiveness is unclear. The purpose of this special issue is to map and evaluate emerging public-private partnerships, technologies, and responses to online extremism. There are three main areas of concern that the issue will address:

(1) the changing role of content moderation, including taking down content and user accounts, as well as the use of AI techniques to assist;

(2) the increasing focus on “counter-narrative” campaigns and strategic communication; and

(3) the inclusion of global civil society in this agenda.

This mapping will contribute to understanding how power is distributed across these actors, the ways in which technology is expected to address the problem, and the design of the measures currently being undertaken.

Topics of Interest

Papers exploring one or more of the following areas are invited for consideration:

Content moderation

  • Efficacy of user and content takedown (and effects it has on extremist audiences);
  • Navigating the politics of freedom of speech in light of the proliferation of hateful and extreme speech online;
  • Development of content and community guidelines on social media platforms;
  • Effect of government policy, recent inquiries, and civil society on content moderation practices by the private sector (e.g. recent laws in Germany, Parliamentary inquiries in the UK);
  • Role and efficacy of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning in countering extremism.

Counter-narrative Campaigns and Strategic Communication

  • Effectiveness of counter-narrative campaigns in dissuading potential extremists;
  • Formal and informal approaches to counter narratives;
  • Emerging governmental or parastatal bodies to produce and disseminate counter-narratives;
  • Involvement of media and third sector in counter-narrative programming;
  • Research on counter-narrative practitioners;
  • Use of technology in supporting counter-narrative production and dissemination.

Inclusion of Global Civil Society

  • Concentration of decision making power between government, private sector, and civil society actors;
  • Diversity of global civil society actors involved in informing content moderation and counter-narrative campaigns;
  • Extent to which inclusion of diverse civil society/third sector actors improves content moderation and counter-narrative campaigns;
  • Challenges and opportunities faced by global civil society in informing agendas to respond to online extremism.

Submitting your Paper

We encourage interested scholars to submit 6,000 to 8,000 word papers that address one or more of the issues raised in the call. Submissions should be made through Policy & Internet’s manuscript submission system. Interested authors are encouraged to contact Jonathan Bright (jonathan.bright@oii.ox.ac.uk) and Bharath Ganesh (bharath.ganesh@oii.ox.ac.uk) to check the suitability of their paper.

Special Issue Schedule

The special issue will proceed according to the following timeline:

Paper submission: 30 October 2018

First round of reviews: January 2019

Revisions received: March 2019

Final review and decision: May 2019

Publication (estimated): December 2019

The special issue as a whole will be published at some time in late 2019, though individual papers will be published online in EarlyView as soon as they are accepted.

How can we encourage participation in online political deliberation?

Political parties have been criticized for failing to link citizen preferences to political decision-making. But in an attempt to enhance policy representation, many political parties have established online platforms to allow discussion of policy issues and proposals, and to open up their decision-making processes. The Internet — and particularly the social web — seems to provide an obvious opportunity to strengthen intra-party democracy and mobilize passive party members. However, these mobilizing capacities are limited, and in most instances, participation has been low.

In their Policy & Internet article “Does the Internet Encourage Political Participation? Use of an Online Platform by Members of a German Political Party,” Katharina Gerl, Stefan Marschall, and Nadja Wilker examine the German Greens’ online collaboration platform to ask why only some party members and supporters use it. The platform aims improve the inclusion of party supporters and members in the party’s opinion-formation and decision-making process, but it has failed to reach inactive members. Instead, those who have already been active in the party also use the online platform. It also seems that classical resources such as education and employment status do not (directly) explain differences in participation; instead, participation is motivated by process-related and ideological incentives.

We caught up with the authors to discuss their findings:

Ed.: You say “When it comes to explaining political online participation within parties, we face a conceptual and empirical void” .. can you explain briefly what the offline models are, and why they don’t work for the Internet age?

Katharina / Stefan / Nadja: According to Verba et al. (1995) the reasons for political non-participation can be boiled down to three factors: (1) citizens do not want to participate, (2) they cannot, (3) nobody asked them to. Speaking model-wise we can distinguish three perspectives: Citizens need certain resources like education, information, time and civic skills to participate (resource model and civic voluntarism model). The social psychological model looks at the role of attitudes and political interest that are supposed to increase participation. In addition to resources and attitudes, the general incentives model analyses how motives, costs and benefits influence participation.

These models can be applied to online participation as well, but findings for the online context indicate that the mechanisms do not always work like in the offline context. For example, age plays out differently for online participation. Generally, the models have to be specified for each participation context. This especially applies for the online context as forms of online participation sometimes demand different resources, skills or motivational factors. Therefore, we have to adapt and supplemented the models with additional online factors like internet skills and internet sophistication.

Ed.: What’s the value to a political party of involving its members in policy discussion? (i.e. why go through the bother?)

Katharina / Stefan / Nadja: Broadly speaking, there are normative and rational reasons for that. At least for the German parties, intra-party democracy plays a crucial role. The involvement of members in policy discussion can serve as a means to strengthen the integration and legitimation power of a party. Additionally, the involvement of members can have a mobilizing effect for the party on the ground. This can positively influence the linkage between the party in central office, the party on the ground, and the societal base. Furthermore, member participation can be a way to react on dissatisfaction within a party.

Ed.: Are there any examples of successful “public deliberation” — i.e. is this maybe just a problem of getting disparate voices to usefully engage online, rather than a failure of political parties per se?

Katharina / Stefan / Nadja: This is definitely not unique to political parties. The problems we observe regarding online public deliberation in political parties also apply to other online participation platforms: political participation and especially public deliberation require time and effort for participants, so they will only be willing to engage if they feel they benefit from it. But the benefits of participation may remain unclear as public deliberation – by parties or other initiators – often takes place without a clear goal or a real say in decision-making for the participants. Initiators of public deliberation often fail to integrate processes of public deliberation into formal and meaningful decision-making procedures. This leads to disappointment for potential participants who might have different expectations concerning their role and scope of influence. There is a risk of a vicious circle and disappointed expectations on both sides.

Ed.: Based on your findings, what would you suggest that the Greens do in order to increase participation by their members on their platform?

Katharina / Stefan / Nadja: Our study shows that the members of the Greens are generally willing to participate online and appreciate this opportunity. However, the survey also revealed that the most important incentive for them is to have an influence on the party’s decision-making. We would suggest that the Greens create an actual cause for participation, meaning to set clear goals and to integrate it into specific and relevant decisions. Participation should not be an end in itself!

Ed.: How far do political parties try to harness deliberation where it happens in the wild e.g. on social media, rather than trying to get people to use bespoke party channels? Or might social media users see this as takeover by the very “establishment politics” they might have abandoned, or be reacting against?

Katharina / Stefan / Nadja: Parties do not constrain their online activities to their own official platforms and channels but also try to develop strategies for influencing discourses in the wild. However, this works much better and has much more authenticity as well as credibility if it isn’t parties as abstract organizations but rather individual politicians such as members of parliament who engage in person on social media, for example by using Twitter.

Ed.: How far have political scientists understood the reasons behind the so-called “crisis of democracy”, and how to address it? And even if academics came up with “the answer” — what is the process for getting academic work and knowledge put into practice by political parties?

Katharina / Stefan / Nadja: The alleged “crisis of democracy” is in first line seen as a crisis of representation in which the gap between political elites and the citizens has widened drastically within the last years, giving room to populist movements and parties in many democracies. Our impression is that facing the rise of populism in many countries, politicians have become more and more attentive towards discussions and findings in political science which have been addressing the linkage problems for years. But perhaps this is like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Read the full article: Gerl, K., Marschall, S., and Wilker, N. (2016) Does the Internet Encourage Political Participation? Use of an Online Platform by Members of a German Political Party. Policy & Internet doi:10.1002/poi3.149

Katharina Gerl, Stefan Marschall, and Nadja Wilker were talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.