Retrospective: The UK General Election 2010 in the Political Blogosphere

With the UK general election 2015 only a few weeks away (May 7th), the major parties’ campaigns have become hot topics across British political online platforms, which in turn caused the formation of a nationally oriented web sphere that is not only moulded by the classic Tory-Labour fault line but has extended to the (former) political fringes, especially on the right with the growing importance of the Eurosceptic UKIP . To promote their framings for current issues in UK politics in the public sphere all major political players, media observers, and commentators disperse polarising problem definitions, causal interpretations, ethical judgements, and – most importantly for the election context – recommendations for actions (Entman 1993) based on seemingly irreconcilable values.

I think it is in this respect appropriate to take a look back at the last general election in 2010, for which each political party invested considerable efforts into online campaigning. Back then I conducted a comparative content analysis of British political web blogs with a focus on the general election for my MA thesis at Coventry University.

The main research question were: how open are political online platforms in terms of a pluralism of attitudes/opinions? How do sub-genres of political blogs differ in regards to their discourse potential? Who does actually partake in online debates via commenting and how do they express their opinions? The sample included online articles and their comment sections from twelve popular British political online platforms and news media sites published between April 6th and May 5th 2010:

The platforms were separated into three larger categories, which are political party blogs, “independent” but politically-affiliated A-List bloggers, and news media sites. Altogether the selected weblogs/websites produced 3150 articles with 105293 comments left by readers who engaged in relatively few but partly quite intensive follow-up discussions. Due to certain practical limitations (this was a only an MA thesis), the enormous amount of potential research subjects had to be reduced; otherwise the study would have remained unfeasible to accomplish with the given temporal and human resources at my disposal (less than three months, one graduate student).

The empirical sample eventually included 120 articles and 2286 comments; this is less than ten percent of the total population and all claims must be interpreted with clear limitations to the overall representability of the final analysis.

However, since it was a pilot study that analysed an equal amount of articles per platform in considerable detail,  I think its results are still interesting for the assessment of current modes of political online communication in the UK election context. The most important findings concern the limited levels of dialogue, tendencies towards fragmentation, verbal/textual violence, and the digital transformation of public discourse. It became quickly apparent that online media indeed played a central role in the election campaigns across the British political landscape – with ambivalent implications for trends in political online communication and public debates.

“No Response” – Limited Levels of Dialogue

There was considerable activity on part of the different communicators, i.e. operators of the sampled websites, who produced large amounts of content on a daily basis (over 3500 in four weeks). These articles also stimulated on-site communication in form of commenting in even larger quantities (over 105000).

However, it seemed that this high-frequency level of online communication seldom transformed into genuine dialogues or deliberation-based discussions. For example, less than half of all comments in the sample were directly connected to each other; readers did express their opinions in various forms but only in a few instances longer exchanges of arguments took place.

comments in political blogosphere UK election
Table 1: Direct responses to comments per platform type

A lot of people posted their comments but most never stimulated any responses from neither the post’s author(s) nor other readers. In fact, most bloggers and journalists hardly engaged in the comment sections at all and left the field entirely to their site visitors.

commenting on UK political blogs
Table 2: Sources of responses to comments per blog type

Only  a few bloggers – e.g. Hopi Sen or Charlotte Gore – engaged on the comment level with their audiences in mentionable frequencies, if compared to the other websites in the sample. However, only a fraction of these responses dealt with actual political issues; most were mere expressions of gratitude, approval, or non-political messages in irrelevant, de-contextualised side debates.

To sum up, the different online platform hardly became integrative-democratic stages for the reasoned exchanged of arguments but rather resembled transmitters for unidirectional communication flows and collections of mostly isolated messages that did not condense into meaningful conversation.

Fragmenting Tendencies

Though the majority of commenting users did not express any distinct ideological affiliation, many platforms still showed tendencies towards political fragmentation or balkanisation (Sunstein 2007).

Table 3: Comments that express party affiliation per party blog
Table 3: Comments that express party affiliation per party blog

Quite unsurprisingly, it were party blogs in particular that seemed to attract like-mined people in the respective comment sections.

Table 4: Comments with partisanship info per platform type
Table 4: Comments with partisanship info per platform type

The findings implied that back in 2010 users with similar political attitudes tended to “flock” on the same online platforms. This does not mean that there were no comments that expressed diverging opinions at all, but it happened only occasionally that a staunch conservative left a message on a Labour blog and vice versa. This probably limited the chances for real on-site contestation between site visitors on party- and A-list blogs. However, in these particular contexts forms of in-group deliberation sometimes materialised:

Example 1: In-group deliberation on LabourList (http://www.labourlist.org/the-super-size- election-why-this-campaign-is-w hetting-my-appetit 10/09/10)
Example 1: In-group deliberation on LabourList (http://www.labourlist.org/the-super-size- election-why-this-campaign-is-w hetting-my-appetit 10/09/10)

On news media sites, due to their broader scope, the situation looked a bit different and a polarising attitudes beyond the context of intra-party micro-politics met in higher frequencies. Quite interestingly, over half of all posted comments on party- and A list blogs were not directly related to the actual article but dealt with some form of side issue or sub-topic; these were not always “political” in a strict sense but focused on “soft issues” (jokes, socialising between users etc.). The analysis showed that conservatives were especially “talkative” on their respective websites/blogs:

Table 5: Comments per party- and affiliated A list blogs
Table 5: Comments per party- and affiliated A list blogs

The UK’s political right appeared extremely active on the Web and aggressively campaigned against the then-ruling Labour government.

Exclusion and Verbal/Textual Transgression

The analysis further showed that  only a small group of highly engaged users produced the majority of comments, who probably presented a mere fraction of the UK’s entire population. This observation tends to support the argument that political discourses on the Web are often limited to a handful (relatively speaking) of interested and invested users. It seems that mainly “hardcore” politics nerds and professionals in the field felt compelled to actively participate in online debates.

This leaves an ambiguous impression: on one hand, this appears as a considerable shortcoming in terms of pluralism (many political attitudes, especially different nuances, are not really represented); on the other, even if limited in their ideological scope, these on-site debates still tend to expand the informative content of each blog/website in a technical sense: potentially critical, different, or new perspective are added to the the original article. However, the ‘tone’ of debate reached partly extremely toxic levels and, depending on the context, could became downright aggressive.

Manifestations of verbal violence not unlike discursive forms that one normally associates with extreme forms of racism and dehumanisation frequently emerged in the sample. Especially politicians and other public figures became targets for offensive, hostile and vulgar comments:

Example 2: Verbal violence in political blog comment (http://order-order.com/2010/04/25/labour-say-now-want-serious-policy- focus/ 01/08/10)
Example 2: Verbal violence in political blog comment (http://order-order.com/2010/04/25/labour-say-now-want-serious-policy- focus/ 01/08/10)

It is indeed difficult to assess in how far these comments were genuine political positions or mere “trolling”. In any case, individual seemed to take advantage of their online anonymity to express their personal, sometimes very emotional positions in a rather uncivilised, practically violent manner that displayed features of hate speech.

Example 3: Verbal violence in political blog comments (http://order-order.com/2010/04/25/labour-say-now-want-serious-policy- focus/ 01/08/10)
Example 3: Verbal violence in political blog comments (http://order-order.com/2010/04/25/labour-say-now-want-serious-policy- focus/ 01/08/10)

Depending on the blog and audience, such provocative statements could find wider approval and initiate “rants” against the person or group in focus, who mostly happened to have a different political position. In this regard, party and A-List blogs in particular seemed to foster the rifts between political camps and hardened the fronts.

The Digital Transformation of Public Discourse

To sum up, in 2010 online media, especially political blogs, played an increasingly relevant role as information sources on different campaign programs; they also extended the spectrum of publicly communicated positions and attitudes, though different social filters determined the scope of actively partaking audiences. Party- and A list blogs tended to attract people who shared a certain set of political values, which diminished the potential for contestation and deliberation across ideological “silos”; at the same time, they occasionally served for intra-party discussions that could display the democratic-integrative features of consensus-seeking, deliberative discourse. However, forms of verbal violence, mostly addressed at the respective political opponent, were also part of political online debates and could reach extremely aggressive levels in some cases.

From a normative perspective, this leaves an altogether ambivalent impression and raises the question of whether this trend leads to a better informed, more transparent society – or whether it rather causes an increased fragmentation of our socio-economic lifeworld.

A significant different between the today and the last general election is the rise of the Eurosceptic-nationalist UKIP and the question about a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, which has gained  in relevance over the past few years (the Eurozone crisis and systemic inconsistencies in the EU’s political framework may have contributed to this situation). The transnational developments on the European level are therefore potentially more relevant factors than in the previous election. In this respect, the entailed battles over national identity, sovereignty, transnational realities but also austerity measures may cause (or already have caused) extremely polarising, toxic online debates.

It is hardly disputable that the modes in which political stakeholders organised and executed their communication campaigns was accompanied by an increasingly relevant digital element, which only grew in importance in the past five years; more than ever, our current digitalised communication environment illustrates on a daily basis how media-based public discourse roots in a complex network of communication flows that are not confined to some separated “online” or “offline” space; both are intrinsically linked to each other and mutually affective.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.com

Addendum

Election campaigns tend to focus on ideals of justice/rightfulness, fairness, and morality. The current austerity debate and questions about immigration as well as nationalism are prime examples for this year’s general election. What is actually perceived as morality in politics is alway a question of framing.

George Lakoff’s work as a cognitive linguist is in this regard invaluable, since he shows the complex yet strong links between language, perception, values, morality and politics – all very important aspects that researchers in political communication need to consider:

Publication Project I: The Transnational Blogosphere in Africa and Europe

Within the three years of a PhD programme, a student should publish at least one to two articles and present an equal amount of papers at conferences. Hence, I started to plan a number of smaller research projects that will hopefully be published in one of the many renowned academic journals next year. The first of these articles deals with transnational communication on blogs – a topic I have recently discussed in my German MA thesis. However, this time I will cooperate with my former classmate Tomi Oladepo who is a PhD student at Warwick University. She also works on digital public spheres, political communication, and participation (she wrote a brilliant MA thesis on similar issues at Coventry university). We can therefore easily and productively exploit the synergies of the work on our PhD dissertations to produce some high quality side projects.

In the planned publication we will provide a theoretical approach on the digital public sphere and political communication online – developing our thoughts by critically summarizing the respective academic discourses in communication science, media studies, sociology, and political science. We will then expand the discussion by taking a closer look on forms of transnationalism online – and empirically prove to what extent blogs offer a platform for political discourse beyond national borders. One of our main interests deals thereby with the question on who defines him/herself as an ‘African’ or ‘European’, respectively, and how they communicate such an transnational identity: When, where and why do individuals (users) of different national backgrounds come together online and discuss what kind of political issues? Can we detect hints to a common ground or a transnational identity (as “Africans” rather than Nigerians  or Congolese for instance, or “Europeans” instead of Germans or British). Who participates? What do they say? What networks can we identify? By contrasting Africa and Europe, we will hopefully be able to point to some substantial differences but also similarities between both geographical spaces and their digital extensions (mainly due to historical and, most importantly, economic aspects):

  • in the manner of utilizing digital media for political purposes,
  • in the composition of public online discourses and the role of the ‘national’,
  • in the structure on networks of political blogs focusing transnational issues,
  • in the patterns of communicative interaction, referencing, linking etc.,
  • in the reflection on the state as well as progress of cultural and political integration.

You can take a look at  some examples for our prospective subject-matters-of-consideration here and here. We still have to define our methodological approach but we`ll probably apply a form of content analysis in order to collect sufficient data for proving our theses, considering both qualitative and quantitative aspects. Nevertheless, we are still in the very early stages of planning and we might come up with a totally different epistemological perspective and instrument. At the moment, we’re aiming for publication in the second half of 2012. Until then we’ll provide updates on the project on this and Tomi’s blog, find the link above.

Please feel free to share your thoughts.

The PhD Proposal

UPDATE: This PhD proposal secured me a full scholarship – stipend and fees – at the University of Hull, where I completed my doctoral degree in March 2015. Though much of the methodology and empirical part changed over the course of the past three years, the basic research motivation(s) remained largely the same (but it was of course further refined to more precise research goals). Read the original below.


I’m pretty busy applying for PhD programmes these days and I have already sent some applications to universities throughout Europe. Though it still takes a few weeks before I get official responses, I have already received unofficial feedback – which has been quite positive. At the moment, my personal favorite is the City of London University (it offers great funding opportunities).  Read my proposal, i.e. the research project I would like to work on in the next three years:

Proposal for a Ph.D. Research Project

Area of Studies: Media and Communications

Europe Online: Towards a Digital Transnational Sphere or Isolated Web Spaces?

 A Comparative Study on the Structure, Function, and Scope of Contemporary Online Discourses in regards to Participation and Segmentation in the European Union

1. Introduction and Research Motivation

In 2011, the European Union faces substantial social, economic, cultural, and political challenges: The continuing economic crisis, increasing migration problems, environmental issues, and a shift towards the political right in various member states are only the most prominent ones. The EU is forced to communicate each political decision carefully to the continent’s population, particularly in such times of crisis; it actually needs to address a European public. Assessing the chances and limits of transnational public spheres within the geographical, political, and cultural spaces of the European Union is a recurring topic in academic discourses – most notably in communication and media studies (Bee/Bezoni et al. 2010; de Vreese 2010; Triandafyllidou et al. 2009). Various articles, case studies, and research projects on the issue exist. However, the majority of these approaches mainly focus the role of conventional mass media in ‘European’ public discourses (e.g. Balcytiene/Vinciuniene 2010; Berkel 2006; de Vreese 2002). Only a few academic contributions pay attention to online media and their relevance to processes of cultural, political, and social convergence in the EU (e.g. Jankowski/van Os 2004; Koopmanns/Zimmermann 2003). In fact, no larger empirical study has focused the Internet and its actual impact on European self-perception and public discourses beyond national frames yet (Risse 2003: 2).

As the distribution of the WWW continues to spread on the continent, examining online phenomena could yield important insights on tendencies towards ‘trans-nationality’ and a common ‘European’ identity. After all, citizens, the media, and political institutions have access to unprecedented technologies for communicative interaction that theoretically facilitate public debate and cultural exchange.

My research project will bridge this gap by analysing participatory online media and their potential for open transnational discourses, i.e. public spheres, in four stages:

I. The development of an elaborated theoretical framework for analysing and understanding transnational public spheres in the age of digital globalisation; this includes an in-depth revision and discussion of already existing notions of the public sphere (e.g. Habermas 1962, Noelle-Neumann 1998, Luhmann 1992, Sunstein 2007, Dahlberg 2007). By comparing and combining theoretical approaches from different academic cultures1, I will try to examine the subject-matter-of-consideration from a pluralistic perspective. Integrating theories on political communication, information societies (Webster 1995), digital democracy (Dean 2005; Lovink 2008), media convergences (Jenkins 2006; 2003), media audiences, and the formation of (transnational-)identities through discourse (Hall 2004) is crucial for achieving this. It is indispensable to include an analysis of the dominant discursive formations that determine the structure and outcome of online debates on and in the EU, i.e. the politics of in- and exclusion as regards participation in web-based discourses.

II. An extensive, comparative content analysis of EU-related online media and -debates in both quantitative and qualitative respect; this requires the development of a complementary methodological approach and the compilation of an appropriate text corpus.

III. Interviews with a selection of professional content providers in EU-related contexts (e.g. online journalists, EU-PR writers, popular bloggers), which I will conduct either off- or online (e.g. Skype); this allows me to evaluate the utilization of web technologies to ‘communicate’ Europe .

IV. Based on the findings of the previous steps, the establishment of a detailed taxonomy of EU-related online media, a characterisation of European ‘netizens’, and a map of transnational online networks of public spaces within the Union. Finally, I will be able to give substantiated answers to the question whether the Internet stimulates the emergence of transnational spheres or it rather promotes the demarcation of (nationally) isolated web-spaces – an important aspect in regards to the future course and success of the “European project” (Tisdall 2010). Ideally, the outcome of my research will also provide a methodological model that might be used to analyse similar phenomena in other web-based contexts.

2. Research Questions

In order to assess the structure, scope, and function of online content regarding the EU, I will approach and answer the following  research questions, which are divided into three categories:

I. On the Potential of Transnational Public Spheres in European Information Societies: What online content on the European Union is available and does it add up to networked, digitalised public spheres across national borders, i.e. does the Internet actually facilitate the emergence of transnational, ‘European’ public debates? Where do they occur, what does their structure look like and what function do they have? What are the differences between the various online platforms (e.g. blogs, websites, Twitter, social media) as regards their potential for public debate in EU-contexts?

II. On the ‘Providers’ of Public Forums Online: What issues do professional content providers perceive to be ‘European’? What differences in identifying and evaluating ‘European’ issues do exist (e.g. national vs. transnational interests)? Where do the providers of content allocate themselves within Europe and its web- based environment? How does the EU communicate to the populations of its member states online?

III. On the Recipients/Users (and therefore possible ‘Europeans’): Who is participating in online discourses? Do the discussants reflect a certain ‘European’ self-conception? Who regards him-/herself to be European and where does this transnational self-perception collide with national identities? Do multilateral, deliberative-democratic discussions on controversial issues – such as climate change, migration, economy etc. – occur? Where do crucial short-comings in terms of openness and inclusion become apparent?

3. Data and Methodology

The core of this research project is an elaborate content analysis of online media platforms that focus the European Union and relevant trans- or international issues:

  • Websites and forums provided by the institutions of the EU (e.g. European Commission 2010)
  • Decidedly transnational, European news media online (e.g. European Voice 2010)
  • A selection of ‘Europe sections’ from popular news media online, located in three important member states: the UK (e.g. Guardian.co.uk), Germany (e.g. faz.de), and France (e.g. lemonde.fr)
  • A selection of blogs, Twitter-accounts, homepages etc. provided by decidedly ‘pan- European’ groups and organisations The text corpus will mainly consist of articles and posts, i.e. discourses, on websites, blogs, forums, and social networking sites.

To delimit the sample, I will set a temporal frame covering the years of ‘European crisis’ 2008 to 2010. The analysis aims for two levels: The “content-level”, i.e. the articles, blog-posts, Facebook-messages, Tweets etc. and the “comment level”, i.e. the direct responses from users/readers. The instruments for the data survey are a detailed codebook and data entry forms. Since it is not possible to gain satisfactory insights from a quantitative examination only, I will also analyse a sample of texts qualitatively by applying an adjusted form of critical discourse analysis (Richardson 2006). The second part of the data collection consists of interviews which will provide additional information for a deeper understanding of the intentions for utilising online media to address a public audience.

4. Conclusive Remarks

Ideally, my research project will develop an applicable theory to understand and analyse the structure, scope, and function of (transnational-)public spheres in contemporary, digitalised information societies and provide a complementary methodological approach to assess such phenomena both qualitatively and empirically. It could become a model to analyse similar phenomena in other web-based context.

By establishing a detailed taxonomy of EU- related online media and analysing the Web’s potential for transnational discourse, I will be able to highlight aspects in ‘communication on Europe’ that need further improvement on the side of professional content providers (e.g. EU-PR writers and online journalists focusing the EU). Moreover, it can bridge the gap between different academic cultures, i.e. connect and combine theoretical and methodological concepts from German Communication Sciences and Anglophone Communication- and Media Studies. Since I had the chance to study in both systems (and to receive both degrees), I am well aware of the different perspectives and approaches on one and the same field of study. Especially in regards to research on the public sphere, public opinion, and political communication, there is good potential for a productive exchange of findings and experiences.

 

5. List of References

Balcytiene, Aukse/Vinciuniene, Ausra (2010) ‘Assessing Conditions for the Homogenisation of the European Public Sphere: How Journalists Report, and Could Report, on Europe’, in: Bee, Christiano/ Bozzini, Emanuela (eds.): Mapping the European Public Sphere. Institutions, Media, and Civil Society. Farnham/Surrey: Ashgate: pp141-159.

Bee, Christiano/ Bozzini, Emanuela, eds. (2010): Mapping the European Public Sphere. Institutions, Media, and Civil Society. Farnham/Surrey: Ashgate: pp83-99.

Berkel, Barbara (2006) Conflict as a Catalyser for a European Public Sphere. A Content Analysis of Newspapers in Germany, France, Great Britain, and Austria. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag.

Dahlberg, Lincoln (2007) ‘The Internet, Deliberative Democracy and Power: Radicalizing the Public Sphere’, International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics. Vol. 3 (1): pp.47- 64.

Dean, Jodi (2005) ‘Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics’, Cultural Politics 1 (1).

De Vreese, Claes (2010) The EU as a Public Sphere. http://europeangovernance.livingreviews.org/Articles/lreg-2007-3/ (21/01/2011)

De Vreese, Claes (2002) Framing Europe: Television news and European integration. Amsterdam: Aksant Academic Publishers.

Erbe, Jessica, (2005) “’What Do the Papers Say? How Press Reviews Link National Media Arenas in Europe”, in Javnost – The Public, 12(2): pp75–92. European Commission (2010), http://blogs.ec.europa.eu/ (21/01/2011)

European Voice (2010), http://www.europeanvoice.com/ (21/01/2011)

FAZ (2010), http://www.faz.net/s/Rub99C3EECA60D84C08AD6B3E 60C4EA807F/Tpl~Ecommon~SThemenseite.html (21/01/2011)

Guardian (2010), http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/europe/roundup (21/01/2011)

Habermas, Jürgen (1996) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. An Inquiry into a Category of Burgeois Society. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Hall, Stuart (2000) ‚Who needs identity’? in J. Evans / P. Redman eds. Identity: a Reader. London: Sage.

Jankowski, Nicholas/van Os, Renée (2004) “The 2004 European parliament election and the internet: contribution to a European public sphere?”, Conference on internet communication in intelligent societies, Hong Kong, conference paper.

Jenkins, Henry (2006) Convergence Culture. New York and London: New York University Press.

Jenkins, Henry / Thorburn, David (2003) ‘Introduction: The Digital Revolution, the Informed Citizen, and the Culture of Democracy’, in Jenkins, Henry / Thorburn, David, eds. Democracy and New Media. Cambridge/London: MIT Press.

Koopmans, Ruud/Zimmerman, Ann (2003) “Internet: A new potential for European political communication?”, WZB Discussion Paper, SP IV 2003-402, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung, Berlin Le Monde (2010), http://www.lemonde.fr/europe/ (21/01/2011)

Lovink, Gert (2008): Zero Comments. Blogging and Critical Internet Culture. New York/London: Routledge.

Luhmann, Niklas (1992) “Observing the Observers in the Political System: On the Theory of Public Opinion”, in: Wilke, Jürgen (Hrsg.): Öffentliche Meinung, Theorie, Methoden, Befunde, Beiträge zu Ehren von Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. Freiburg: pp77-86.

Noelle-Neumann, Elisabeth (1998) Public Opinion, in: Jarren,Otfried/Sarcinelli/Saxer(Hrsg.): Politische Kommunikation in der demokratischen Gesellschaft, Wiesbaden: pp81-93.

Risse, Thomas (2003) An Emerging European Public Sphere? Theoretical Clarifications and Empirical Indicators. Nashville: Paper presented to the Annual Meeting of the European Union Studies Association (EUSA).

Sunstein, Cass R. (2007) Republic.com. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press.

Tisdall, Simon (2010) Has the Whole European Project Peaked? http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/11/european-union-euro-reform (21/01/2011)

Triandafyllido, Anna/ Wodak, Ruth/ Krzyżanowski, Michal, eds. (2009) The European Public Sphere and the Media. Europe in Crisis. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Webster, Frank (1995) Theories of the Information Society. London: Routledge.

IMPORTANT NOTE: It is not allowed to copy the contents – also in extracts – of this post/proposal. This text is, like any other content on this weblog, property of the author.

Wikileaks and the (alleged) “Diplomacy-Crisis”

Though I should actually be working on an oral presentation on Maoism, I cannot restrain myself from commenting on the latest “Wikileaks-Coup”. Once more, the (allegedly) “subversive” website attracted an incredibly intense media coverage. I will spare you an elaborate recap of what has happened – you can read, watch or listen to the story on each and every media channel.  All major newspapers, news websites, and broadcasters have put the story on the publication of 250.000 “sensitive” diplomatic documents on the top of their agendas; you can find background information on the issue almost everywhere. Sensational headlines  speak of a “real” diplomacy crisis. Another catchy term is “cablegate”, an allegory to the infamous Watergate-scandal of the Nixon administration in the 1970s. Well, I have my doubts here.

Especially the last comparison seems to be far from being appropriate. In the original scandal, the then government was directly involved in illegal surveillance and monitoring activities; of course, similar things happen today all the time (in partly much more sophisticated manner), too. However, today’s “cablegate” documents have not shown yet, that the US administration did anything particularly “deceptive” or “evil”. Even if some notes on certain politicians are rather embarrassing. But are they really that surprising? Would secret, diplomatic notes from other countries look any different? Let’s see: Arabia has a problem with a possible Iranian hegemony – tell me something new. Putin is Batman, Medwedew resembles his sidekick Robin and Ahmadinedschad reminds people of Hitler – well, I kinda knew that before Wikileaks told us. And to realise that Berlusconi loves parties you do not have to be a diplomat. Moreover, when I read what the US diplomats think of Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle, I literally had to laugh out loud – because the characterizations are simply true (well, at least from my political perspective); nothing “sensitive” here. As regards spying on the UN, history has shown that diplomats had always been involved in rather shady forms of information gathering. That’s scandalous to very naive people only.

The whole issue appears to be a bit overblown and serious consequences for the diplomatic relationships between the involved nations remain to be seen. This has already been proven all day, when the different involved statesmen and -women downplayed the impact of this “revealment”. There is no real diplomacy crisis, just a few blushing faces (and some flattery damage containment). However, I am only mocking about today’s “over-emotional” coverage of the issue – I am not thinking that there is nothing truly surprising or maybe even shocking in this 250.000 documents. All I am saying is: It’s a bit too early to draw any hasty conclusions. We have to wait – and contemplate advantages over disadvantages of a force like Wikileaks in our current information environment. This applies to various dimensions of the issue:

1. The most basic question is of course: When does the monopoly on information of a (democratic) state end – and when do activities of organizations like Wikileaks violate  a government’s right on secrecy? I am far from being an enemy of a “free” information flow and I do not believe that contemporary democracies are the most perfect political system to live in (though, and here I agree with Churchill, all others are still much worse). But I am also convinced that too much transparency can be harmful for a collective, i.e. a nation-state in certain truly sensitive respects.

2. Wikileaks fulfills an important function by keeping debates on information, censorship, the media and the role of the Internet alive. In the case of the Afghan and Iraq War Logs, it confirmed what critical observers already assumed: That there is a another, far more complex and difficult reality to both wars. It has also shown that online media can truly circumvent and stimulate traditional media. Hence, there is a moral and political justification for a platform like Wikileaks  – to break established hegemonies. However, in the very moment an “independent” organisation accumulates the strength to challenge the establishment, it is not far from becoming a hegemonic factor within a certain power discourse itself. It is today the no. 1 source for classified information; there are no other notable Wikis for political leaks. In order to hold its position, it actually needs to “produce” constantly new breaking stories. It needs the media and vice versa. This encompasses certain demerits. Therefore, I sometimes doubt that Wikileaks always remembers its enormous responsibility every time it publishes masses of governmental documents – I simply cannot believe that its staff reads and evaluates every single piece appropriately before pushing it over to the media and the public, respectively. So how does who in Wikileaks actually decide which information goes out? I am not the first who questions the organization’s inner and outer transparency. One should never trust 100% in what a government is announcing – the same applies to its antagonists.

3. There is also the question of the actual political impact – I have already touched the problem above. For instance, though there had been a loud and vital discussion on the war logs, the number of anti-war protests did not really increase. As so often, the “scandal” arose broad attention for a relatively brief moment. The new media, the mass media, governments and the public – all factors influence each other, but the actual outcome of each debate needs to be evaluated and scrutinized anew. However, some rather unwelcomed effects of this one are already tangible: Restrictive governments can misuse the whole issue to justify their strict information policies, less restrictive ones will revise their information security policies.

To make one thing clear: Being critical towards Wikileaks here does not mean that I am fully supporting the different official governments’ stands in this debate; I would define my position as a neutral, extremely sceptical one. What I wanted to point out is: It is important that such events are accompanied  by sober, balanced discussions which consider all positive and negative factors; and that it is not enough to throw out a stack of controversial documents and then see what happens.

11 Rules for a more livable WWW

The (in-)famous German Chaos Computer Club (‘CCC’) postulates in one of its recent website updates eleven theses to improve a ‘livable’ world wide web. They deal with structural inequalities, the digital divide, freedom of information, and anonymity.

As the original text is in German, I provide here a digested translation of their advice to achieve a more liberal and fair Internet:

1. Internet access is a fundamental right and a requirement for participation in cultural and political life.

2. The benefits of the Internet can only fully develope if ‘net-neutrality’ is guranteed.

3. Major IT-projects in the public sector should be assigned after reasonable criteria.

4. Keep public data transparent.

5. Clear rejection of patented software.

6. Modernisation of copyright.

7. Internet providers have no responsibility for the data of their customers

8. Improved protection of private data.

9. Establish the right on anonymity.

10. Prohibition of profiling users.

11. Improve Whistleblower-Protection.

The CCC, founded 1981 in Berlin by hackers, explains its motivation to enter once more the discourse on freedom and the Internet as follows:

since its beginnings [the CCC] realized and propagated the chances and possibilities of a networked life. Many of the original – in the past quite futuristic seeming – visions turned not only into reality but became natural for our society. Indeed, the advent of the Internet into everyday life of almost everyone lead to problems concerning data privacy but also catalyzed democratization, and brought an enrichment from a scientific, social, and artistic perspective. The self-regulating forces of the Internet thereby prohibited various feared dystopia, without further governmental interventions. From our point of view, the current discussion bases on a misjudgment where a need for regulation is detectable and where not.

These points focus numerous important issues concerning contemporary life in cyberspace. Most of the suggestions are very reasonable though it is quite disputable if they can be realized against the interests of major economic players.

Find further information on the Chaos Computer Club here.

Open Government UK

At end of January UK´s government opened its data base for the public. “Unlocking innovation” is the projects headline, which stands for approaching a more transparent government. Find the official website here. People can now access freely  information and data of administrative and governmental institutions – and observers from outside the UK are glancing jealously across the channel. Especially some “net-democrats” see a lot of potential in the free access of this data, for instance:

  • Governmental actions could become transparent and “open”,
  • Administration could become interactive, more efficient and adjusted to the needs of the citizens,
  • The project can provide complete primary sources
  • Information / data is easy accessible for a broad audience

The UK is in Europe one of the first countries providing such an open access to its data base(s).

What do you think about this development? Could you define a concrete merit for you personally?

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