Politics & Government

The Russian language blogosphere counts about 85 million blogs—an amount far beyond the capacities of any government to control—and is thereby able to function as a mass medium of “public opinion” and also to exercise influence.

Widely reported as fraudulent, the 2011 Russian Parliamentary elections provoked mass street protest action by tens of thousands of people in Moscow and cities and towns across Russia. Image by Nikolai Vassiliev.

Blogs are becoming increasingly important for agenda setting and formation of collective public opinion on a wide range of issues. In countries like Russia where the Internet is not technically filtered, but where the traditional media is tightly controlled by the state, they may be particularly important. The Russian language blogosphere counts about 85 million blogs—an amount far beyond the capacities of any government to control—and the Russian search engine Yandex, with its blog rating service, serves as an important reference point for Russia’s educated public in its search of authoritative and independent sources of information. The blogosphere is thereby able to function as a mass medium of “public opinion” and also to exercise influence. One topic that was particularly salient over the period we studied concerned the Russian Parliamentary elections of December 2011. Widely reported as fraudulent, they provoked immediate and mass street protest action by tens of thousands of people in Moscow and cities and towns across Russia, as well as corresponding activity in the blogosphere. Protesters made effective use of the Internet to organise a movement that demanded cancellation of the parliamentary election results, and the holding of new and fair elections. These protests continued until the following summer, gaining widespread national and international attention. Most of the political and social discussion blogged in Russia is hosted on the blog platform LiveJournal. Some of these bloggers can claim a certain amount of influence; the top thirty bloggers have over 20,000 “friends” each, representing a good circulation for the average Russian newspaper. Part of the blogosphere may thereby resemble the traditional media; the deeper into the long tail of average bloggers, however, the more it functions as more as pure public opinion. This “top list” effect may be particularly important in societies (like Russia’s) where popularity lists exert a visible influence on bloggers’ competitive behaviour and on public perceptions of their significance. Given the influence of these top…

The World Economic Forum engages business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.

The World Economic Forum engages business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas. Image by World Economic Forum.

Last week, I was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the first time that the Oxford Internet Institute has been represented there. Being closeted in a Swiss ski resort with 2,500 of the great, the good and the super-rich provided me with a good chance to see what the global elite are thinking about technological change and its role in ‘The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business’, the stated focus of the WEF Annual Meeting in 2014. What follows are those impressions that relate to public policy and the internet, and reflect only my own experience there. Outside the official programme there are whole hierarchies of breakfasts, lunches, dinners and other events, most of which a newcomer to Davos finds it difficult to discover and some of which require one to be at least a president of a small to medium-sized state—or Matt Damon. There was much talk of hyperconnectivity, spirals of innovation, S-curves and exponential growth of technological diffusion, digitalisation and disruption. As you might expect, the pace of these was emphasised most by those participants from the technology industry. The future of work in the face of leaps forward in robotics was a key theme, drawing on the new book by Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, which is just out in the US. There were several sessions on digital health and the eventual fruition of decades of pilots in telehealth (a banned term now, apparently), as applications based on mobile technologies start to be used more widely. Indeed, all delegates were presented with a ‘Jawbone’ bracelet which tracks the wearer’s exercise and sleep patterns (7,801 steps so far today). And of course there was much talk about the possibilities afforded by big data, if not quite as much as I expected. The University of Oxford was represented in an…

How can social scientists help policy-makers in this changed environment, ensuring that social science research remains relevant?

As I discussed in a previous post on the promises and threats of big data for public policy-making, public policy making has entered a period of dramatic change. Widespread use of digital technologies, the Internet and social media means citizens and governments leave digital traces that can be harvested to generate big data. This increasingly rich data environment poses both promises and threats to policy-makers. So how can social scientists help policy-makers in this changed environment, ensuring that social science research remains relevant? Social scientists have a good record on having policy influence, indeed in the UK better than other academic fields, including medicine, as recent research from the LSE Public Policy group has shown. Big data hold major promise for social science, which should enable us to further extend our record in policy research. We have access to a cornucopia of data of a kind which is more like that traditionally associated with so-called ‘hard’ science. Rather than being dependent on surveys, the traditional data staple of empirical social science, social media such as Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook, and Google Search present us with the opportunity to scrape, generate, analyse and archive comparative data of unprecedented quantity. For example, at the OII over the last four years we have been generating a dataset of all petition signing in the UK and US, which contains the joining rate (updated every hour) for the 30,000 petitions created in the last three years. As a political scientist, I am very excited by this kind of data (up to now, we have had big data like this only for voting, and that only at election time), which will allow us to create a complete ecology of petition signing, one of the more popular acts of political participation in the UK. Likewise, we can look at the entire transaction history of online organisations like Wikipedia, or map the link structure of government’s online presence. But…

Widespread use of digital technologies, the Internet and social media means both citizens and governments leave digital traces that can be harvested to generate big data.

The environment in which public policy is made has entered a period of dramatic change. Widespread use of digital technologies, the Internet and social media means both citizens and governments leave digital traces that can be harvested to generate big data. Policy-making takes place in an increasingly rich data environment, which poses both promises and threats to policy-makers. On the promise side, such data offers a chance for policy-making and implementation to be more citizen-focused, taking account of citizens’ needs, preferences and actual experience of public services, as recorded on social media platforms. As citizens express policy opinions on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook; rate or rank services or agencies on government applications such as NHS Choices; or enter discussions on the burgeoning range of social enterprise and NGO sites, such as Mumsnet, 38 degrees and patientopinion.org, they generate a whole range of data that government agencies might harvest to good use. Policy-makers also have access to a huge range of data on citizens’ actual behaviour, as recorded digitally whenever citizens interact with government administration or undertake some act of civic engagement, such as signing a petition. Data mined from social media or administrative operations in this way also provide a range of new data which can enable government agencies to monitor—and improve—their own performance, for example through log usage data of their own electronic presence or transactions recorded on internal information systems, which are increasingly interlinked. And they can use data from social media for self-improvement, by understanding what people are saying about government, and which policies, services or providers are attracting negative opinions and complaints, enabling identification of a failing school, hospital or contractor, for example. They can solicit such data via their own sites, or those of social enterprises. And they can find out what people are concerned about or looking for, from the Google Search API or Google trends, which record the search…

There has been a major shift in the policies of governments concerning participatory governance—that is, engaged, collaborative, and community-focused public policy.

Policy makers today must contend with two inescapable phenomena. On the one hand, there has been a major shift in the policies of governments concerning participatory governance—that is, engaged, collaborative, and community-focused public policy. At the same time, a significant proportion of government activities have now moved online, bringing about “a change to the whole information environment within which government operates” (Margetts 2009, 6). Indeed, the Internet has become the main medium of interaction between government and citizens, and numerous websites offer opportunities for online democratic participation. The Hansard Society, for instance, regularly runs e-consultations on behalf of UK parliamentary select committees. For examples, e-consultations have been run on the Climate Change Bill (2007), the Human Tissue and Embryo Bill (2007), and on domestic violence and forced marriage (2008). Councils and boroughs also regularly invite citizens to take part in online consultations on issues affecting their area. The London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, for example, recently asked its residents for thier views on Sex Entertainment Venues and Sex Establishment Licensing policy. However, citizen participation poses certain challenges for the design and analysis of public policy. In particular, governments and organisations must demonstrate that all opinions expressed through participatory exercises have been duly considered and carefully weighted before decisions are reached. One method for partly automating the interpretation of large quantities of online content typically produced by public consultations is text mining. Software products currently available range from those primarily used in qualitative research (integrating functions like tagging, indexing, and classification), to those integrating more quantitative and statistical tools, such as word frequency and cluster analysis (more information on text mining tools can be found at the National Centre for Text Mining). While these methods have certainly attracted criticism and skepticism in terms of the interpretability of the output, they offer four important advantages for the analyst: namely categorisation, data reduction, visualisation, and speed. 1. Categorisation. When analysing the results…

Bringing together leading social science academics with senior government agency staff to discuss its public policy potential.

Last week the OII went to Harvard. Against the backdrop of a gathering storm of interest around the potential of computational social science to contribute to the public good, we sought to bring together leading social science academics with senior government agency staff to discuss its public policy potential. Supported by the OII-edited journal Policy and Internet and its owners, the Washington-based Policy Studies Organization (PSO), this one-day workshop facilitated a thought-provoking conversation between leading big data researchers such as David Lazer, Brooke Foucault-Welles and Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon, e-government experts such as Cary Coglianese, Helen Margetts and Jane Fountain, and senior agency staff from US federal bureaus including Labor Statistics, Census, and the Office for the Management of the Budget. It’s often difficult to appreciate the impact of research beyond the ivory tower, but what this productive workshop demonstrated is that policy-makers and academics share many similar hopes and challenges in relation to the exploitation of ‘big data’. Our motivations and approaches may differ, but insofar as the youth of the ‘big data’ concept explains the lack of common language and understanding, there is value in mutual exploration of the issues. Although it’s impossible to do justice to the richness of the day’s interactions, some of the most pertinent and interesting conversations arose around the following four issues. Managing a diversity of data sources. In a world where our capacity to ask important questions often exceeds the availability of data to answer them, many participants spoke of the difficulties of managing a diversity of data sources. For agency staff this issue comes into sharp focus when available administrative data that is supposed to inform policy formulation is either incomplete or inadequate. Consider, for example, the challenge of regulating an economy in a situation of fundamental data asymmetry, where private sector institutions track, record and analyse every transaction, whilst the state only has access to far more basic performance metrics and accounts.…

Concerns have been expressed about the detrimental role China may play in African media sectors, by increasing authoritarianism and undermining Western efforts to promote openness and freedom of expression.

CAPE TOWNSOUTH AFRICA, 06MAY11 - The Panel during the Future of China-Africa Relations session held at World Economic Forum on Africa 2011 held in Cape Town, South Africa, 4-6 May 2011. Copyright (cc-by-sa) © World Economic Forum (www.weforum.org/Photo Eric Miller emiller@iafrica.com

Ed: Concerns have been expressed (e.g. by Hillary Clinton and David Cameron) about the detrimental role China may play in African media sectors, by increasing authoritarianism and undermining Western efforts to promote openness and freedom of expression. Are these concerns fair? Iginio: China’s initiatives in the communication sector abroad are burdened by the negative record of its domestic media. For the Chinese authorities this is a challenge that does not have an easy solution as they can’t really use their international broadcasters to tell a different story about Chinese media and Chinese engagement with foreign media, because they won’t be trusted. As the linguist George Lakoff has explained, if someone is told “Don’t think of an elephant!” he will likely start “summoning the bulkiness, the grayness, the trunkiness of an elephant”. That is to say, “when we negate a frame, we evoke a frame.” Saying that “Chinese interventions are not increasing authoritarianism” won’t help much. The only path China can undertake is to develop projects and use its media in ways that fall outside the realm of what is expected, creating new associations between China and the media, rather than trying to redress existing ones. In part this is already happening. For example, CCTV Africa, the new initiative of state-owned China’s Central Television (CCTV) and China’s flagship effort to win African hearts and minds, has developed a strategy aimed not at directly offering an alternative image of China, but at advancing new ways of looking at Africa, offering unprecedented resources to African journalists to report from the continent and tapping into the narrative of a “rising Africa,” as a continent of opportunities rather than of hunger, wars and underdevelopment. Ed: Ideology has disappeared from the language of China-Africa cooperation, largely replaced by admissions of China’s interest in Africa’s resources and untapped potential. Does politics (e.g. China wanting to increase its international support and influence) nevertheless still inform the relationship? China’s…

Is censorship of domestic news more geared towards “avoiding panics and maintaining social order”, or just avoiding political embarrassment?

Ed: How much work has been done on censorship of online news in China? What are the methodological challenges and important questions associated with this line of enquiry? Sonya: Recent research is paying much attention to social media and aiming to quantify their censorial practices and to discern common patterns in them. Among these empirical studies, Bamman et al.’s (2012) work claimed to be “the first large-scale analysis of political content censorship” that investigates messages deleted from Sina Weibo, a Chinese equivalent to Twitter. On an even larger scale, King et al. (2013) collected data from nearly 1,400 Chinese social media platforms and analysed the deleted messages. Most studies on news censorship, however, are devoted to narratives of special cases, such as the closure of Freeing Point, an outspoken news and opinion journal, and the blocking of the New York Times after it disclosed the wealth possessed by the family of Chinese former premier Wen Jiabao. The shortage of news censorship research could be attributed to several methodological challenges. First, it is tricky to detect censorship to begin with, given the word ‘censorship’ is one of the first to be censored. Also, news websites will not simply let their readers hit a glaring “404 page not found”. Instead, they will use a “soft 404”, which returns a “success” code for a request of a deleted web page and takes readers to a (different) existing web page. While humans may be able to detect these soft 404s, it will be harder for computer programs (eg run by researchers) to do so. Moreover, because different websites employ varying soft 404 techniques, much labor is required to survey them and to incorporate the acquired knowledge into a generic monitoring tool. Second, high computing power and bandwidth are required to handle the large amount of news publications and the slow network access to Chinese websites. For instance, NetEase alone publishes 8,000 – 10,000 news…

Social media monitoring, which in theory can extract information from tweets and Facebook posts and quantify positive and negative public reactions to people, policies and events has an obvious utility for politicians seeking office.

GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, centre, waving to crowd, after delivering his acceptance speech on the final night of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Image by NewsHour.

Recently, there has been a lot of interest in the potential of social media as a means to understand public opinion. Driven by an interest in the potential of so-called “big data”, this development has been fuelled by a number of trends. Governments have been keen to create techniques for what they term “horizon scanning”, which broadly means searching for the indications of emerging crises (such as runs on banks or emerging natural disasters) online, and reacting before the problem really develops. Governments around the world are already committing massive resources to developing these techniques. In the private sector, big companies’ interest in brand management has fitted neatly with the potential of social media monitoring. A number of specialised consultancies now claim to be able to monitor and quantify reactions to products, interactions or bad publicity in real time. It should therefore come as little surprise that, like other research methods before, these new techniques are now crossing over into the competitive political space. Social media monitoring, which in theory can extract information from tweets and Facebook posts and quantify positive and negative public reactions to people, policies and events has an obvious utility for politicians seeking office. Broadly, the process works like this: vast datasets relating to an election, often running into millions of items, are gathered from social media sites such as Twitter. These data are then analysed using natural language processing software, which automatically identifies qualities relating to candidates or policies and attributes a positive or negative sentiment to each item. Finally, these sentiments and other properties mined from the text are totalised, to produce an overall figure for public reaction on social media. These techniques have already been employed by the mainstream media to report on the 2010 British general election (when the country had its first leaders debate, an event ripe for this kind of research) and also in the 2012 US presidential election. This…

Chinese citizens are being encouraged by the government to engage and complain online. Is the Internet just a space to blow off steam, or is it really capable of ‘changing’ Chinese society, as many have assumed?

David: For our research, we surveyed postgraduate students from all over China who had come to Shanghai to study. We asked them five questions to which they provided mostly rather lengthy answers. Despite them being young university students and being very active online, their answers managed to surprise us. Notably, the young Chinese who took part in our research felt very ambiguous about the Internet and its supposed benefits for individual people in China. They appreciated the greater freedom the Internet offered when compared to offline China, but were very wary of others abusing this freedom to their detriment. Ed: In your paper you note that the opinions of many young people closely mirrored those of the government’s statements about the Internet—in what way? David: In 2010 the government published a White Paper on the Internet in China in which they argued that the main uses of the Internet were for obtaining information, and for communicating with others. In contrast to Euro-American discourses around the Internet as a ‘force for democracy,’ the students’ answers to our questions agreed with the evaluation of the government and did not see the Internet as a place to begin organising politically. The main reason for this—in my opinion—is that young Chinese are not used to discussing ‘politics’, and are mostly focused on pursuing the ‘Chinese dream’: good job, large flat or house, nice car, suitable spouse; usually in that order. Ed: The Chinese Internet has usually been discussed in the West as a ‘force for democracy’—leading to the inevitable relinquishing of control by the Chinese Communist Party. Is this viewpoint hopelessly naive? David: Not naive as such, but both deterministic and limited, as it assumes that the introduction of technology can only have one ‘built-in’ outcome, thus ignoring human agency, and as it pretends that the Chinese Communist Party does not use technology at all. Given the intense involvement of Party and government offices,…