Monthly Archives: October 2013

Politics: Persuasion and Digital Organizing

This post assesses Get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts, digital organizing, and persuasion, as part of my work for DPI-659: Media, Politics, and Power at the Kennedy School. It draws on the following readings: Jon-David Schlough et al.’s “Persuasion Points Online: Helping Harry Reid, One Click at a Time” (2011), Kevin Wallsten’s “‘Yes We Can’: How Online Viewership, Blog Discussion, Campaign Statements, and Mainstream Media Coverage Produced a Viral Video Phenomenon” (2010), Zack Exley’s “The New Organizers, What’s really behind Obama’s ground game” (2008), Seth Colter Walls’s “Neighbor To Neighbor: How Obama Targets Undecideds Block By Block” (2008), Sasha Issenberg’s “How President Obama’s campaign used big data to rally individual voters” (2012), as well as two Harvard Business School case studies on Organizing for America and Obama versus Clinton in the Democratic primaries.

Big data has allowed political campaigns to “nano-target” voters, predicting behavior down to the individual, rather than just among particular demographics. Bolstered by significant resources, Schlough et al. used big data to their advantage in Harry Reid’s 2010 re-election campaign, and were ultimately successful. They argue that a digital strategy can be persuasive, particularly when layered with other more traditional media methods such as TV ads. Issenberg’s piece on the Obama campaign’s use of data analytics to predict voting behavior in 2008 and (especially) 2012 paints a similar picture, in which campaigns leverage data to target the long tail of voters and win.

Beyond the use of data analytics to forecast voting patterns, tech played a critical role in the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns’ efforts to mobilize volunteers in the field, register people to vote, and, on election day, get those people to the polls. My.BarackObama.com (“MyBO”), modeled after social networking sites, was critical to organizing and motivating supporters, from providing them with a point system to reward activity to allowing them to form groups (Reed’s Law in action). As Exley describes, volunteers went through a rigorous recruitment and training process, but were rewarded with real roles and responsibilities. The field campaign’s motto of “Respect. Empower. Include.” was critical to cementing relationships and a culture of professionalism on the campaign. Having the MyBO online community further reinforced supporters’ sense of purpose and shared belief in Obama. Combining the strong organizing mechanism of Obama for America with the data analytics noted above creates the phenomenon Walls describes, in which volunteers in battleground states walked throughout “their own neighborhoods the weekend before election day [and] could then feed back their data [to headquarters] on the last remaining undecideds in close to real time.”

Reflecting on both the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns’ effective use of technology to mobilize supporters, I wonder how such a strategy could effectively translate into other dimensions of the political sphere (e.g. passing a particular bill). Obama’s decision to transform Obama for America into “Organizing for America” or “OFA” (now known as “Organizing for Action“) was clearly a step in this direction. But OFA’s impact and reach are limited. It has largely failed to turn the energy of the two campaigns into support for Obama’s agenda as President.

While I originally saw OFA’s under-whelming performance as a reflection of people’s limited energy and attention for political causes (and post-campaign burnout), I now also think it is closely linked to Obama’s ability as a President to clearly and faithfully deliver to the grassroots in measurable ways–a constraint due in large part to the nature of our political system. With Shirky’s “promise, tool, bargain” framework in mind, I can imagine supporters getting behind Obama’s promise of action on a particular issue (for instance, gun violence), but then being disappointed and perhaps confused when he’s unable to deliver, that is, when the bargain breaks down and the promise suddenly feels hollow. Obama as President has to be careful in making his goals into promises, as they depend on so many other actors, particularly Congress. OFA’s web site currently features gun violence as an issue that Americans care about and are fighting for, yet it’s a promise on which Obama has not been able to deliver. The site lets visitors sign on to a petition to Congress to reduce gun violence, but is not linked to current legislation, a timeline, or a tangible outcome, weakening the bargain.

If re-mobilizing the support from Obama’s campaigns to put toward his legislative agenda has somewhat flopped, then I wonder whether it can be realistically sustained for issues that persist beyond an election cycle or beyond a country’s borders, such as global warming. While there have been major transnational efforts to urge governments to take action on climate change (including digital organizing, e.g. 350), we have only a partial (and largely insufficient) international regime to address the challenges posed by a warming planet. Digital organizing around climate change has had some major successes in terms of visibility and awareness, but it’s been unable to get us closer to a solution commensurate with the problem. The timeline for international action is also longer than that of a U.S. political campaign, potentially leading to burnout. 350’s successful organizing around one day demonstrates the power of a concrete timeline in spurring people to action (similar to an election day). However, until the promise to effectively address climate change, and the accompanying tool and bargain for doing so, are made between (and among) citizens and governments, progress on climate change will continue to stall.

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Press: Business Models & The Triangle

This post assesses Peter Daou’s “The Triangle: Limits of Blog Power” (2005), Clay Shirky’s “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” (2009), and Dean Starkman’s “Confidence Game: The Limited Vision of the News Gurus” (2011), as part of my work for DPI-659: Media, Politics, and Power at the Kennedy School.

In his 2005 piece, Daou deconstructs “the triangle,” the term he coins for the intersection of the netroots, the media, and the political establishment. Bloggers’ influence stems from their ability to tap into the triangle to make an issue relevant within mainstream media and politics. Building on Daou, I would argue that the triangle serves as the power structure that allows bloggers to gain the necessary momentum to pull a critical issue from the long tail of the blog world to the head of the media and political establishments.

In “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” Shirky argues that similar to Gutenberg’s printing press, the Internet has ushered in a period of revolution in the news industry. As the old ways of delivering information whither, we don’t yet know which of the new ones we can trust. Giving newspapers a “digital facelift” will not succeed. Instead, we need to pursue the “unthinkable,” and experiment with a variety of new models in an effort to figure out what really works. These experiments will need time to incubate before we can see their real impact. In the meantime, we’ll need to become comfortable with the chaos.

Starkman is more cautious about the impact of networked journalism and peer production. He questions the “future-of-news” (FON) consensus championed by Shirky, Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, and others. Starkman argues that the citizen-driven model of journalism runs into the “Ida Tarbell problem”: that public-interest reporting requires significant amounts of time, money, and energy to produce, and that the networked model does not support these as well as the old model did. He argues that we need to find a way to “re-empower” journalists to do the kind of critical reporting that speaks truth to power.

I think that Starkman’s point is critical: journalists need resources to do research on complex, largely hidden problems that involve powerful actors. Even if networked citizen reporters are partially able to overcome the challenge of resources, they will still face the additional hurdle of spreading news widely enough to spur change. Blogs and other small ventures will have to navigate “the triangle” adeptly. And sometimes, even though a blog may contain important investigative findings, it will get lost in the noise of the long tail.

I am particularly concerned about what this trend means for poor people in the developing world. For instance, without investigative reporting on the working conditions that many poor people face in producing goods for Western companies and consumers, there would be few mechanisms for action and accountability. Last month, The Guardian released an investigative piece on the inhumane working conditions and high number of deaths among Nepalese construction workers building facilities in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup. This past summer, almost one Nepalese worker died each day, mostly from heart attacks and heat exhaustion. The Guardian’s reporting prompted public outcry against FIFA and the government of Qatar to take action.

Investigating appalling working conditions around the world requires time and resources. Creating international momentum to demand change requires a platform with significant reach. A world in which investigative journalism is severely underfunded does not bode well for poor workers, especially informal and migrant workers. When issues are transnational, publishing them in a global outlet is also key to mobilizing disparate actors (from labor rights activists in the U.S. to Nepalese ex-pats around the world).

So what can be done to preserve public-interest reporting as the old news industry model crumbles? Carving out enclaves for investigative reporting is critical. While it’s a young publication, ProPublica is a key example of how investigative journalism can be successful in the digital age. Starkman also argues for the “Neo-Institutional Hub-and-Spoke Model,” as exemplified in The Guardian’s News Corp. coverage, where traditional investigative reporting broke the story and social media powered its rise in the public consciousness. The Guardian’s investigation into the deaths of Nepalese workers in Qatar presents yet another interesting model for consideration: the story is part of a year-long initiative on modern-day slavery that The Guardian is undertaking with funding from Humanity United, demonstrating the potential for a non-profit and media partnership in support of investigative journalism. Ultimately, I think that it will require a mix of older institutions that bring legitimacy, reach, and (some) resources, along with new and hybrid actors (Shirky’s “experiments”) that successfully bridge citizen-driven investigation with the platforms that have greater reach and/or resources.

Wikipedia’s Take on Transitional Justice

This post assesses Wikipedia’s article on transitional justice, as part of my work for DPI-659: Media, Politics, and Power in the Digital Age at the Kennedy School. You can find my Wikipedia user page here.

I chose to evaluate Wikipedia’s page on transitional justice — the term used to describe a range of processes by which societies transition out of periods of conflict, or away from repressive regimes, with the goal of addressing questions of justice, truth, and/or reconciliation. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on transitional justice, conducted research on the topic in Guatemala, and currently co-lead the transitional justice committee of the Human Rights Professional Interest Council at the Kennedy School. I was curious about how Wikipedia would cover the range of mechanisms in transitional justice, as well as how it would handle some of the historical divides in the field (e.g. truth commissions vs. courts).

Comprehensiveness: The article adequately covers the basics of transitional justice: its origins, its objectives, its primary manifestations (e.g. truth commissions, reparations), its challenges, and its future. However, the article could be improved in at least three critical areas. First, the article could better acknowledge some of the regional and country-specific differences that impacted scholars’ and practitioners’ conceptions of transitional justice. For instance, the truth commissions used in many Latin American nations in the 1980s were designed to address a very different set of issues than post-genocide transitional justice efforts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Second, the article could provide further details on the most commonly used transitional justice mechanisms. For instance, truth commissions are summed up in four sentences and inappropriately nestled under the “Prosecutions” heading. Additionally, a sub-heading for forensic anthropology could be important to add, as it forms a critical component of many truth-seeking processes’ efforts to locate and identify the “disappeared.” Lastly, the article could better acknowledge the increasing use of mixed methods in transitional justice, for instance, the hybrid courts and truth commissions used in East Timor in the 2000s.

Sourcing: The article relies heavily on material from the International Center for Transitional Justice, an international non-profit that works on transitional justice initiatives around the world. The entry could benefit from a wider range of institutional reporting (for instance, additional material from the Crisis Group or World Bank), as well as further academic literature on transitional justice from a range of fields (e.g. law, public health, political science, philosophy, etc.). For instance, the work of Naomi Roht-Arriaza or Joanna Quinn could provide further insight into the evolution of transitional justice and its current challenges.

Neutrality: The article is fairly neutral, although its coverage of prosecutorial justice seems to overshadow other forms of transitional justice (reflecting a historical bias in the discipline). Additionally, labeling the section that covers different methods of transitional justice (including non-prosecutorial methods) as “Prosecutions” adds to the perception of prosecutorial justice as the primary means of transitional justice. Including a “Major Cases” section at the end of the article also signals a legal emphasis. This potential bias could be ameliorated with additional coverage of non-prosecutorial forms of transitional justice, as well as hybrid forms, as discussed above. Additionally, some of the language in the article seems to express negative judgment on the field’s origins and focus (for instance, “It is no surprise then that initial literature on transitional justice was dominated by lawyers…” or “These origins in the human rights movement have necessarily rendered transitional justice ‘self-consciously victim-centric.’”).

Readability: The article is readable, but sections of it are poorly written. There are a number of grammatical errors, including vague pronouns and run-on sentences. The article also assumes readers’ familiarity with a number of legal and transitional justice-specific terms. Further unpacking the field’s vocabulary would enhance the article’s readability (for instance, “universal jurisdiction” could be explained in the context of the International Criminal Court).

Formatting: The article does not fully comply with the Wikipedia Manual of Style. First, the entry does not properly attribute the opening two quoted sentences of the article to an author (opting for a footnote instead of a citation in the text). Additionally, the article uses external links in the body of the text, which should be placed in the external links section instead.

Illustrations: The article does not contain any illustrations, but could be supplemented with pictures of memorials that came out of transitional justice processes (e.g. the initiatives in Uganda that the article mentions).