Monthly Archives: April 2011

Thoughts on the Internet as a Medium – Analyzing the Bradley Manning story

Regardless of your opinion concerning the Wikileaks cablegate debacle and Bradley Manning’s imprisonment after allegedly leaking top secret government documents, it’s hard to argue that the media has given the public adequate information instead of sensationalism and the “he said”/”she said” treatment.  While television has been a popular medium, more and more people are starting to rely on the internet as medium. According to a study completed by the Pew Research Center in 2008, the internet has overtaken newspapers as the second most used news source, rivaling television. The same research indicates that most younger people prefer the internet as a medium for news, which seems to make sense.

Due to its democratic mutidirectional flow of information and loose regulations, the internet been referred to by many as a contemporary ‘wild west’. The ability for the internet to be used by just about anyone with a computer or phone and a stable connection in order to spread information is perhaps its strongest attribute. But this is also its greatest weakness as a medium. Despite the difference in structure and dissemination of information used by the internet, it does share many parallels with television as a medium. The way the information is commonly coded by both mediums is one that can be presentational, more so with television.

One of the more interesting things both television and the internet did in regards to the Bradley Manning story was their broadcast/publishing of his pictures. In terms of television, there was one specific picture that was practically forced upon the audience in every major broadcast featuring his name

The infamous Bradley Manning 'beret' photo.

There was very little use of other images in television broadcast, mostly the one of Manning in his beret and military attire. On the internet, things work a little different; detailed information is so much easier to access, and that also includes a wide array of pictures. But while stories on the internet concerning Bradley Manning have had the opportunity to showcase several other pictures than the infamous beret one, many have taken the lazy route and went with the picture everyone else was using. An even greater problem with the internet’s use of Manning related images is lack of checking the facts.

Featured in several stories on the internet was a supposed photograph of Bradley Manning taken sometime after he had been sent to solitary confinement in a military base in Quantico. The picture featured the face of a bruised, bloated, and pale looking man who had little resemblance to the Bradley Manning we all saw in the beret pictures.

The other Bradley Manning.

The reason for this lack of resemblance did not lie in the fact that Manning was reduced to a shell of a human being in solitary confinement (although that may be true), but instead because the picture was not of Private Manning of all. It was in fact a mugshot of a man named Kenneth Bradley Manning (no relation to the other Manning) taken in Portland. The internet managed to circulate a false image of Private manning, and it began to plague popular news blogs.

But perhaps the most important thing to understand in regards to the internet is this: The fact that a presentationally structured medium like the web does little to encourage critiquing and reason-based information. While the internet features a much larger amount of information than television, it’s full of mistakes and lacking in thorough research on a broad scale. With the internet, i believe it comes mostly from the ability (and encouragement) to be multitasking through visiting different webpages at the same time. The use of popular search engines to keep track of common searches made is an example of a common distraction for the user. As of now, if you Google ‘Bradley Manning’, the next word that appears with Google’s instant search system (used to show the most common next words after the one’s you’ve already put in used in their searches) is ‘gay’

The results from Google's instant search system after typing 'Bradley Manning'.

The popular search leads to all sorts of websites that have little to do with the cablegate story and instead useless and pointless skepticism concerning Manning’s sexual preferences.

So what does this have to do with activism? The fact is that the internet is the most fluid and dynamic medium we have available as of now. People are able to get out information t the public in a much more in depth manner. Activists rely on both the conveying and intake of specific information as a reason for change, which is why the internet has become so popular;. It’s the outlet with the most flexibility. The problem is that many times publications and individuals on the internet choose to distort information or take faulty info from other sources without checking it’s credibility. How can someone formulate a critical idea about a situation when he/she is being presented with one overwhelming argument and very little actual information?  Therein lies the problem. While the internet is now the most capable medium in terms of providing activists for a place to both gain and pass on information, it also harbors the most arbitrary stories, the most factually void information, and the least critical perspectives of situation’s like the Bradley Manning story.


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The Digital Divide, Net Neutrality, and Internet Activism – Those Unheard

In the mid 1990s, analysts began to realize while there was an increase in internet users in general, those more impoverished had very little or no access. With the new-found realization that the internet could be used as an outlet for those less powerful to voice themselves, a clear problem had become apparent with this understanding, one that weighed heavy on the idea of activism.

The International Telecommunication Union has created a graph that shows just how the gap between the developed world and developing world has increased exponentially (image from Wikipedia)

What we can gather from this graph alone is while there is an exponential increase in the amount of internet users in both the developed and undeveloped world, there is too large of a gap between the two. Those who need their voices to be heard the most aren’t able to do so.

Kate Brodock, author of the book Digital Activism Decoded, expresses the effects of the digital divide in a chapter in said book called “Economic and Social Factors: The Digital (Activism) Divide”. A segment from the chapter reads as follows:

Research Indicated that economic differences limit not only access to technology but also the likelihood of an individual to take part in political activism. The 2009 Digital Activism Survey conducted by DigiActive, an organization dedicated to helping grassroots activists around the world use digital technology, found that digital activists, particularly in developing countries, are more likely then the population at large to be paying a monthly fee for home internet access, to be able to afford a high-speed connection, and to work in a white-collar job with access to the internet in the workplace.

In short, digital activists are likely to be prosperous, with their economic resources offering them a significant digital advantage. These initial findings indicate that the digital divide strongly influences digital activism because it tends to limit participation to the economic elite.

This research was collaborated by a report of the internet and American Life Project of the Pew  Research Center. A September 2009 Pew report – Civic Engagement Online: Politics as Usual, by Aaron Smith – stated that “whether they take place on the internet or off, traditional political activities remain the domain of those with high levels of income and education.” Smith continues, “Contrary to the hopes of some advocates, the internet is not changing the socio-economic character of civic engagement in the United States. Just as in offline civic life, the well-to-do and well-educated are more likely than those less well off to participate in online political activities.”

The digital divide is also made wider by the fact that not only do lower-income populations have less access to digital technologies, they sometimes must pay more for them. For example, the 2007 ITU-UNCTAD World Information Society report stated that the cost of broadband as a percentage of broadband costs in low-income countries were more than 900 percent of the average monthly per capita wage. Higher income populations are not only likely to receive the higher-quality products of modern communications technology and in greater supply, they often are able to purchase them at a significantly lower relative cost.

The fact is in regards to internet activism, there is little questioning done in terms of who is being excluded. Some people tend to have a misconception that those who are currently involved with types of internet activism are people who hold less power and economic status, but the statistics reveal the contrary.That’s not to say that those well off should be shunned for being politically active, everyone should have that option. The problem is not everyone has the means to the technology that enables us to be heard on a global level.

With net neutrality recently being threatened in the states,  the gap could be even more widened. David Sutphen, co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance , recently published a substantial list at EbonyJet Online, providing ten reasons why the new proposed internet regulations  would obscure the common goals of connecting all Americans and closing the gap in the irksome digital divide:

1. Considerable progress has been made in our first broadband decade – progress that has only been achieved because of the FCC’s longstanding, deregulatory approach to the Internet. In roughly ten years we have gone from practically zero broadband deployment to more than 95 percent availability and 63 percent adoption, according to the FCC and Pew.

2. The open Internet exists today. We have been living with ‘net neutrality’ since 2004, when it was established that companies cannot control the content and applications that people are able to access online.

3. The net neutrality debate, which only concerns those already online, is a distraction from creating an effective National Broadband Plan. The people who have the most to lose from this balancing act are the socially and economically disenfranchised – members of rural, low-income, urban, tribal, minority, non-English speaking, unserved and underserved populations.

4. The Commission’s recent request for an extension of time to deliver a National Broadband Plan underscores the need for the agency to devote more – not less – attention and resources to completing a national strategy.

5. Experts on the digital divide have not cited “lack of net neutrality regulations” as either a cause or a cure for race or income-based differences in broadband adoption. The current net neutrality war that has erupted in Washington, DC has very little to do with the interests of the unserved and underserved.

6. It is impossible to know for sure how new Internet regulations would impact private investment, and a decline in capital investments in broadband could have a harmful effect on jobs and the US economy. In fact, a reduction by five percent would reduce employment by 47,073 according to research from the ITIF or 78,455 according to former FCC commissioner and economist Harold Furchtgott-Roth.

7. Today’s open Internet is making possible huge innovation. We reduce the possibilities and raise barriers if we don’t give everyone access to smart networks.

8. Lack of net neutrality regulations cannot be reduced to “charging more fees and extracting more money from wealthier customers.” On the contrary, the FCC has laid out six principles of net neutrality, which have the potential to impact Americans at every level of income.

9. In a 2009 poll of 900 African Americans and Hispanics conducted by Brilliant Corners Research, led by Obama Presidential Campaign and Democratic Pollster Cornell Belcher, 43 percent of these minorities cited either not knowing how to use the Internet or not seeing the need for the Internet as the reason why they are not online; however, 44 percent of these same respondents said they would be more likely to subscribe to Internet services if they were provided free lessons on how to use the technology and 30 percent would be more likely to adopt if they had more information about how they could benefit from going online.

10. There are more significant policy challenges and opportunities demanding FCC attention and cooperation with industry, such as reforming the universal service fund, expanding spectrum availability for commercial use, and improving digital literacy.

We need to understand that while the internet has been around as great a tool for activism, it can also encourage the injustices that many of these activists speak out against. If we truly believe in an even playing field where everyone’s ideas, opinions, and concerns can be heard, then the internet is the most likely candidate. We need to help ensure its availability to the people who have so little.

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A Short History of Activism on the Internet – Pre Millenium

With social media playing such a large part in the exchange of information, activists worldwide have been introduced new tools that serve in a much more global sense. More and more often the photographs of ‘facebook’ and ‘twitter’ being spray-painted in Egypt and other newsworthy areas around the Middle East and North Africa bombard us through the media. In light of the recent revolutions, it’s easy to forget that social media isn’t nearly the root of  activism’s technological evolution.

– The earliest known major activism that utilized the internet took place around 21 years ago. On April 10, 1990, a software by the name of Lotus Marketplace (developed by the Lotus Developmental Corporation) began a direct-mail marketing database product that was to contain name, address, and information on purchasing habits of hundreds of millions of people in the United States. Even if a lot of this data was already available for  companies and individuals to view, privacy advocates worried about the availability of this specific data within one database. Another issue was the fact that all of this data was to be contained on a data CD-ROM. This didn’t bode well with the general public, especially to those being mentioned in the data that was made public. Many personal websites began to spread the word about the acts committed by Locus, including steps to take to contact Locus. A little less than a year later in January, 30,000 individuals sent letters of complaint via email and the company was forced to disband the entire business venture.

– A few years later in the U.K., the first known acts of flooding a server with emails (see DDoS) occurred. Parliament’s servers were overloaded by several internet gatherings opposed to a new criminal justice bill that would deem outdoor rave festivals playing “music with a repetitive beat” illegal.

– In 1998,  an activist from New Jersey and Gabon-born scholar by the name of Daniel Mengara created (later redirected to The French tile ‘Bongo Doit Partir’ directly translated to ‘Bongo Must Go’. The title alone did well enough to portray the page’s initial purpose and mission statement; a revolution against Gabon’s President, Omar Bongo, and his long-winded regime full of corruption and allegations of pocketing government money.  In his creating of this website, Mengara had successfully brought to light the new idea of a politically-motivated active blog community. What those who were aware of Mengara’s website saw was essentially what we are seeing now in terms of the blogging done in Egypt during the revolutions, getting information out into the rest of the world and more importantly exposing the wrongdoings of their government to fellow Egyptians who are plagued with propaganda-ridden state television broadcasting. The ‘Bongo Must Go’ domain is still up, but from what I can gather it is no longer active, likely due to Bongo’s death in the summer of 2009.

– In a political effort focused more towards the United States, was launched shortly after the Lewinsky Scandal, calling out against President Clinton’s impeachment. Although it was only a sentence in length, the petition drew together over 500,000 digital signatures. went on to become a large Democratic outlet for fundraising and campaigning.

These are only the most well known beginnings of a step towards technology-aided activism, there surely could have been others that were obscured in one way or another, never gaining the following they desired. The point is, although social media sites like twitter have become an extremely convenient way to make information and opinion flow in a multi-directional manner, they are nothing new in the terms of using the internet as an outlet for activism.

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