The Internet Insurgent’s Buzz versus the Incumbent’s Fizzle

December 6, 2008

The Internet is a natural ally of insurgents rather than incumbents. That’s because an insurgent has the built-in incentive to widen his political base and broaden his legitimacy, sometimes starting from scratch. Incumbents, however, have been in their position for several years and thus their vision statements and inconsistencies are already well known. The messages they sent out fall on the already converted or the inconvertible. Either way, messages from incumbents tend to fizzle out, while those from insurgents tend to create a buzz. And if the insurgent knows how to harness social networking power of the Internet, the buzz can become a conversation.

Throughout history, there is a clear pattern that the devolution of power has been associated with the democratization of knowledge. Insurgents thrive on creating and disseminating knowledge, which explains why they are feared by ruling elites. As insurgents mobilize the citizenry to demand more transparency and accountability, more elite power erodes and devolves. For millenia, this demoratization process spanned decades if not a whole century, often entailing tremendous violence.

Not anymore with the Internet. If we believe that history repeats itself, insurgents will continue to arise and democratize knowledge, with the Internet as their peaceful ally. But history’s joke is that today’s insurgent cannot play that role indefinitely. Who will be the new insurgent in 2012 and how will he/she harness the Internet in ways that will make the 2008 presidential campaign look like … the fizzle of an incumbent?


More Concerns About Obama on Energy and the Environment

December 4, 2008

With Obama’s selection of Clinton for Secretary of State, Gates for Secretary of Defense, and Volcker as Head of the new Economic Recovery Advisory Board, many are asking: “Where’s the change?” 


The next big appointments to watch are for energy and environment. Will Obama take risks and push for radical measures on climate change?  Tom Blumer of Pajamas Media doubts it.


With an economy in official recession, Obama and Team will not be in a position to raise Social Security and other taxes on the wealthiest Americans, restore bans on offshore drilling that Bush just removed, and establish a cap-and-trade system targeted partly to delay or prevent the construction of new coal-based power plants.


Green policies could mean less money in people’s pockets, and actions which the public perceives as crippling to the economy are simply not the things to do while calling for expansion to pull it out of a downward spiral.


And Europe may be giving Obama his best excuse to backtrack.  The European Union, so far the most vociferous proponent for the global environment, seems to be muting its some of its extreme positions on the climate change agenda. The Czech Republic is assuming EU presidency in 2009, and Vaclav Klaus will most likely use the position to object loudly and frequently to Kyoto Protocol-type targets and agreements to markedly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. No wonder the expectation is that the ongoing climate change talks in Poland will probably yield few if any concrete results.


And the promised millions of green jobs?


Based on the long experience of the British wind power industry, Michael Liebreich, the Chief Executive of New Energy Finance (a consultancy specializing in renewable energy), warns that “… expectations are being set unrealistically high by politicians who are making promises inconsistent with economic fundamentals.”


Despite the strong commitment and support of the UK Government, there is still a big gap for the UK to reach its target of 30 gigawatts from renewable energy by 2020. How many jobs will be created still remains to be seen.


And Obama has not even begun yet.


We wish the President-Elect a lot of luck and we will give him our support. But it is going to be a very tough local and international setting to be pushing for meaningful actions on climate change.




Blogging Ethics

December 3, 2008

Surprisingly, despite the recent, exponential growth of the blogosphere and Internet-based organizing—of which the most recent evidence is Obama’s highly successful online campaign—there is very little analysis available related to ethical principles that could govern new social media.  I am struggling with developing my own set of blogging ethics, since I will need it for my planned work related to using new media tools to promote good governance and anti-corruption in development countries.

It will take time, practice and some mistakes to develop my own set of principles that are specifically adapted to my socio-cultural context and working conditions in the Philippines and Asia. But, as a start, a good set of proposed blogging ethics is presented below. (This was taken from: Kuhn, Martin. C.O.B.E: A Proposed Code of Blogging Ethics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Law School. Presented at the Blogging, Journalism and Credibility Conference, January 21 and 22, 2005) Its core features seem very consistent with the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists.



Promote Free Expression by posting on your blog on a regular basis as well as visiting and posting on other sites in the blogosphere. Avoid restricting access to your blog by certain individuals and groups and never remove posts or comments once they have been published.


Be as transparent as possible by revealing any personal affiliations that might effect the opinions you express on your blog.


Emphasize the “human” elements in blogging by revealing and maintaining as much of

your identity as is deemed safe; promote equality by not restricting specific users or groups of users form your blog; minimize harm to others by never knowingly hurting or injuring someone with information you make available on your blog; and build community by linking your blog to others, maintaining a blogroll to encourage visitors to your blog to visit others, and by facilitating relationships between you and your readers.


Strive for factual truth and never intentionally deceive readers. Make yourself accountable for information you post online. Cite and link to all sources referenced in each blog post, and secure permission before linking to other blogs or web content.


Promote interactivity by posting regularly to your blog, honoring such etiquette and

protocol policies that are posted on blogs you visit, and make an effort to be entertaining enough to inspire return visits to your site.



The Best of the 2008 Presidential Campaign: Crowd-Organizing as Crowd-Sourcing

December 3, 2008


Looking back at the 2008 campaigns, I think its most significant achievement was to harness the Internet as an organizing tool.


I always thought that the Internet had the opposite effect, which is disorganize thought and people, because the fun act of clicking away led to so many disparate and unrelated sites.


But the 2008 presidential Internet campaigns—particularly the one waged by Obama—showed that when used strategically, the Internet can be a powerful organizer of crowds. It can help form coalitions and lead people toward a common goal.


The most ground-breaking achievement was fund-raising. A question must to be asked, however.  Did the Internet create first the interest in and commitment to the candidate, which then led to crowd to a single-minded mobilization of massive amounts of money to elect him?  Or did other forms of media or communications (not the Internet) create the commitment to the candidate first, and the Internet merely served as a tool for collecting contributions?


It is more likely the former. As Garrett reflected in class a few weeks ago, the Internet was there from the start, serving to create a small base of adherents to Obama, which started to legitimize him as a possibly credible leader. The Obama campaign then used the Internet once again to deliver new campaign messages while exploiting the Internet’s networking potential, which then created progressively larger political bases and a stronger legitimizing environment for Obama.


This happened as a snowball effect, with the Internet playing a bigger and bigger role. Serious fund-raising came in at some point and by that time, the snowball effect was so exponential that the amounts raised become phenomenal. The analogy to a ripple effect is inaccurate. No one threw a rock, no rock sank to the bottom. And Obama’s campaign certainly cannot be characterized by ripples that do not reinforce themselves but instead dissipate outwards and become nothing.


In other words, the Internet’s crowd-organizing power is at the same time a crowd-sourcing tool—to reinforce the candidate’s legitimacy, and to mobilize money.


This has important implications for campaigns and fund-raising other than for presidential elections. It seems doubtful that an abstract cause per se can directly rally large masses to make financial contributions. Much more effective, it seems, is a determined individual who starts with a small base, obtains legitimacy from them, and then uses the Internet to broadcast that incipient, legitimate platform. Then he goes back out again through the Internet and through networking, he invites more people (or he “sources the crowds”) to help amplify that vision, that mandate, in a participatory way (e.g., through blogs, wikis, Facebook, MySpace, etc.). Repeating this process enlarges the sphere of his legitimacy and carries progressively greater masses of people around an evolving political vision. It crosses a certain line where the periodic burst of messages becomes a constant buzz. This is the point where asking for financial donations can take off exponentially.


This is what I think I have learned, but it remains to be tested. Perhaps this social development and organization theory around Internet use can be useful to what I want to do eventually regarding participatory journalism for promoting good governance and anti-corruption in developing countries.


But for now, it all starts with someone who believes in something important.


January 2009: Backsliding on Energy and the Global Environment?

November 28, 2008

Energy and climate change. Come January 2009, those issues are what I like to see the Obama White House take on. I will be on a citizen watch to see if he will follow through on his campaign promise to make America a global energy leader.





America’s addiction to foreign oil has grown by over 20 percent between 1992 and 2005 and now costs up to $1.5 billion a day. An ever-growing portion of the national wealth is being transferred continuously to oil-producing regimes, some of them volatile, despotic and unfriendly to the US like Venezuela.


US carbon dioxide emissions from energy use also increased 15 percent between 1993 and 2005. The effects of global warming are real, and presents serious threats like ever-stronger hurricanes and the sea-level rise that threatens to cause massive damages in US coastal areas.


Energy dependence and climate change are threats to US national security. But can the US afford to worry only about itself?


In the chapter on “Powering a Twenty-First-Century Economy” of his book, The First Campaign, Garrett Graff proposes that “the US must be a strong international leader on the environment to encourage other nations to follow our lead.”  Promoting environmental stewardship and clean energy, Graff asserts that “”inaction will bring about the end of civilization.”


Is that an exaggeration? Probably not.


Graff argues that greater energy security on a global scale—including countries like China and India—would lead to more political stability, stronger democratic institutions, and less pressures on the US to send troops “on around-the-world tours to secure oil fields.”  The US can forge that global energy security by leading the development of “clean, renewable, and sustainable sources of energy for the world community.”


Less competition, less conflict.


Are we all really that interconnected? What if the US abdicated from that role, as it has done during the past decades?  We need not look too far to see the consequences. We are still living through a global financial crisis attributed to the failure of mortgage securities, the banking system and financial market regulation in the US. (And within the next 50 years, we may be heading toward global water wars. Not to mention wars for global fisheries. How will those conflicts embroil the US? As the world’s superpower, it is also the world’s global policeman, like it or not.)


Drawing lessons from the success of Obama’s Internet campaign, and given the large number of often-conflictive stakeholders in the energy debate, the Obama White House should launch a national conversation on sustainable energy and climate change using new media and social engagement techniques. 


But will it happen?


Let us hope so. The current economic slump may be imposing limits to the promotion of clean energy. With people worried about preserving their incomes today, protecting the environment may continue to be considered as a luxury.


To watch: how long Obama’s economic team will keep the development and deployment of climate-friendly energy technologies—and the resulting creation of million of new jobs—as cornerstones of the stimulus plan for the US economy.


Micro-Targeting: Resisting and Buying the Obama Brand

November 12, 2008


            In my job as an evaluator at the World Bank, I do quite a bit of tailored data-mining through social database research and stratified interviews. Thus, in principle, I should not have anything against micro-targeting because I am in some sense a practitioner of it. But it does bother me, especially when the data being mined is about me.


            They Have Your Number” writes Garrett Graff in his October 2008 article in The Washingtonian about micro-targeting in political campaigning. “The Catalist database (a political data-mining firm) …contains some 280 million individual records.” In this YouTube video, chief technology officer Vijay Ravindran explains Catalist’s data architecture:





The totalitarian specter of Big Brother/Huge Business invading each individual citizen’s privacy is worrisome enough. But it gets downright scary when they use the database to take action with a view to producing a specific result, such as in the 2002 Texas Senate and Colorado Congressional races, when GOP micro-targeters “…even studied the roads Republicans drove as they commuted to work, which allowed the party to put billboards where they would do the most good.”


Not only does this smack of commercial opportunism.  There is also something immoral and unethical about manipulating people’s behavior to elicit a self-serving outcome, by obtaining information that people have held in the private sphere precisely because those are areas where they feel vulnerable.


And despite the euphemisms, the bottom line is behavioral manipulation. Jeff Navin, managing director of the research and strategy firm American Environics, says that if one can define the “psychological drivers that will help understand the values behind the behavior, you can speak to those values and persuade voters.”  Micro-targeting shares much of the same goals and strategies as marketing and product branding. Navin’s firm, for example, found out in an ongoing survey that Hillary Clinton scored high among voters who also looked favorably on McDonalds, Wal-Mart and Starbucks – all national chains. They therefore concluded that the name Clinton was the most popular national Democratic brand.


            But is this invasion really new?  From that first time we ever ventured into the World Wide Web, without which we can no longer survive, we have turned ourselves into prey. Where we go can be researched and our steps can be traced. Besides, most surveys show that people actually like to be discovered and talk about themselves. We may feign intrusion, but we do want to be found. Even if it’s just for 15 minutes.


So what do I think about micro-targeting?


            I accept, because it’s already here and I do reap some benefits from it. But I resist, because the micro-targeters simply invited themselves in (“Here Comes Everybody!”), it was not my free choice, and I know I am being manipulated.


            I resent the fact that, for what should be a noble personal act as electing a President, political campaigning now shares the same ethos as market research and product targeting, branding, packaging, and delivery. But then I just bought the Obama brand.




New Media on Election Night

November 6, 2008


Political campaigning will never be the same again. The highly successful Obama campaign has rewritten the strategy and conduct of presidential campaigns for the foreseeable future.


Obama’s new media team used several platforms in very innovative ways. The use of text messaging and YouTube was only the beginning. Other forms of social networking through the Internet were also harnessed—including Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and many others—to research, reach and organize volunteers and voters. Blogging proved to be a very effective way in mobilizing public participation and maintaining active interest in the political process.


The use of new media was most effective in raising campaign finance. The Obama campaign’s use of the Internet enabled a huge network of contributors to be built up. Obama’s phenomenal fund-raising success alone should lead any future candidate to think differently.


The use of new media was in full display during election night. I listened to NPR radio and surfed several TV channels at the same time. I was also on the Internet tracking several conservative and liberal blogs.


NPR Radio periodically announced that it had a Twitter feed where voting problems can be reported. As recent as 2004, this was a much slower process through traditional media. Content from blogs was also being quoted, although I may have missed actual interviews with bloggers since I was surfing continuously through various media sources.


Huffington Post carried a Live Blog on election results, where you can enter your name and send questions or comments. It also had links to the Election Maps of MSNBC, Daily Kos, and Google, among others. There were also Live Video Streams of CNN Live and MSNBC, as well as Electoral College Widgets. It was very exciting to have so much information in one place, and be able to contribute content at the same time.


Politico.com constantly updated its Election Central. Firedoglake hosted a thread on Presidential results. RealClearPolitics provided an easy-to-read tabulation of projected electoral college results by the half hour.


TV graphics also showed a quantum leap compared to only 4 years ago. TV reporters were clearly using Web-based databases to provide touch screen visuals to viewers that drove home very clear messages in short succession. The use of graphs and color-coding for the various states were stunning in their ability to predict how various states may be leaning. The classroom is now in the living room juggling alternative hypotheses for election outcomes. 


It was a historic night for me, in terms of Obama’s victory, and discovering the primacy of new media in presidential elections to come.