More and more Italian politicians have been jumping on the Internet bandwagon. The Education Minister Mariarosa Gelmini has started a YouTube channel, where she announces with a video that she hopes this channel will allow her to listen to people’s opinion, in order to “implement change together”. The video has reached 260,000 views since it was posted a week ago, and 8,000 comments. A few days ago, Renato Brunetta, the Minister for Public Administration and Innovation, has opened a Facebook page, gathering around 14,000 supporters and around 1,200 wall posts/comments. He also posts a video, in which he states that this is his first effort to reach people online, so that they can contact him with their views, and he hopes in this way he will also be able to keep them posted about his initiatives and activities. Continue reading “understanding the Internet: Italian politicians go online”
[Cross-posted on Berkman’s Internet and Democracy blog]
Two events have recently shaken Italian cyberspace: the launch of the Italian version of Facebook and the comments of Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi after the election of President-elect Barack Obama. I believe that after these two events Italian social and political life may never be the same again.
I do not think I am exaggerating trends here, although empirical data for now is scarce. Being myself one of the early adopters of Facebook, at the start I only had a few Italian Facebook friends in my mainly Anglo-Saxon circle – most of my Italian friends were offline, and those already on Facebook like myself were mainly living abroad or they were back in Italy after having spent some time abroad. This was hardly surprising, given that Italy still has one of the lowest rates of Internet use in Europe (35.6% according to a 2006 Istat report). But in the past couple of months Facebook has been literally invaded by Italians, quickly helping Italy reach first place for the greatest (and fastest) exponential growth in adoption of Facebook by a country. Italians seem to have a natural affinity with Facebook – they are not only joining in huge numbers (Facebook is now the fifth most popular site in Italy) but they seem to have seamlessly integrated this technology in their everyday life: Facebook is fast becoming the new “telefonino”.
My surprise, however, did not stop here. With the election of President-elect Barack Obama and the subsequent unfortunate comments made by the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi a huge wave of protest has swept Italian cyberspace. The New York Times article, which gave the news, received 2000 comments in a couple of days. Groups to protest the Prime Minister’s words have been literally mushrooming on Facebook overnight – reaching thousands of members in a matter of days (one only needs to enter ‘Berlusconi’ in the search box to check them out). The group ‘I bet I can find 1,000,000 people who dislike Silvio Berlusconi’ has reached 70,000 members, with an increase of almost 10,000 members in less than one week subsequent to the diplomatic incident. And the protest is quickly moving beyond Facebook’s boundaries. Notspeakinginmyname.com is a new website where people can upload a photo of themselves holding a banner stating that the Italian prime minister is not speaking in their names. Clearly young Italians’ discontent (as it is young people who are mainly inhabiting Facebook) and frustration with the current political situation and with their political representatives is finding in the Web a channel to let youth voice be heard.
Italians have just discovered the power of the Internet – which will make for interesting developments for the Italian media ecology and especially for political participation, in a country where the Web is still viewed with suspicion by most political candidates, with a few exceptions. This shift in social habits is only starting and whether it will gain momentum will depend on whether it will reach a tipping point (or a critical mass) – although some of the protest groups on Facebook seem to have already gotten there.
[Cross-posted on Berkman’s Internet & Democracy blog]
A recent survey by the Wall Street Journal/NBC/MySpace of newly registered voters and lapsed voters has shown that the Internet keeps playing an important role in the current campaign, especially amongst younger people; however, the effect which online news will have on actual voter turnout remains to be seen.
Newly registered voters are those who either registered for the first time, or who skipped the 2004 election and have now registered again. The sample is thus overwhelmingly made up of young people (three quarters).
The survey shows some interesting findings on the use of new media to access and share information about the campaign by new voters compared to the population of all voters. While accessing information online was pretty similar amongst the two groups: 36% of new voters visited an official candidate’s website compared to 33% of all voters;28% of new voters watched a YouTube video on the campaign compared to 22% of all voters – active information sharing was higher amongst new voters: 25% of new voters sent an SMS message regarding the campaign compared to 16% of all voters; 21% of new voters joined an online social networking group for the campaign via either MySpace or Facebook compared to only 8% of all voters.
These data supports the idea that online social networking sites and Web 2.0 applications are facilitating or enhancing young people’s participation in politics; however, whether this will translate into offline participation is a question which remains to be tested. Offline participation in a rally or demonstration to support a candidate was very low amongst both new voters (5%) and all voters (9%). Similarly, volunteering for the campaign was also pretty low amongst both groups (6% of new voters vs. 9% of all voters). Furthermore, when asked about how interested respondents were about the upcoming election, 49% of new voters said they were very interested compared to 70% of all voters, and only 54% said they will definitely vote.
The question which remains to be asked is the following: is online campaigning and activism replacing old fashioned, face-to-face door-to-door campaigning? And if so, is it qualitatively different and what will this mean for the democratic process? Stay tuned.
Full report and commentary available here.
Half a million views in one day, and a very clever link to Google maps where you can enter your address details to check where you can register to vote in your area, if you haven’t already done so, and your deadline for you to do that.
With the primaries in full swing and the upcoming elections, one cannot but ponder what role new technologies such as the Internet are playing in facilitating citizens’ engagement in the political process. Is the Internet actually making a difference?
The Internet has certainly lowered the barriers of participation – if one wants to get involved, there are numerous arguably low cost ways to do so. Social networking sites such as Facebook allow users to join groups or become supporters of one’s favorite politician. Political satire DIY videos abound on YouTube, from the downright entertaining to the more engaged ones. Finally, there is a series of innovative websites, for example Scoop08, VoteGopher and Generation Engage, which are entirely made up of user generated content allowing (especially young) people to voice their opinions and engage in political discussion.
But does online political participation matter if it does not eventually translate into some tangible offline outcome such as for example turnout at the ballots or door to door canvassing? To put it in other words, is the online participatory culture promoted by the Internet meaningful in itself – if it does not translate into a (offline) participatory democracy? Similarly, does offline political participation which was originated online matter if it is only short term and episodic (for example taking part in a protest organized on Facebook)? Is one off participation as valuable as long term commitment to a cause? After all, some of the most successful online ventures such as MoveOn.org and MeetUp.com can ascribe a big part of their accomplishments to the fact that they are rooted in local communities and offline social networks.
It is being argued that the Internet is really making a difference for young people’s political engagement. There is some evidence that the current generation of 18-24 year olds is more civically engaged than previous generations of young people. While it can be argued that Web 2.0 tools, from social networking sites to YouTube are the domain of the young, can we safely assume that it is the Internet which is playing a major role in engaging young people in the political process? How do we isolate the impact of the Internet from other exogenous factors such as the war in Iraq, the years of the Bush administration, or the 9/11 attacks as political scientist Robert Putnam has recently claimed?
While the Dean campaign was greeted as the first Internet election, online fundraising was the main feature of the novelty. Much has changed since then, thanks to the new opportunities for involvement provided by Web 2.0 tools. Unfortunately, studying these new trends is often fraught with methodological difficulties: how can we quantify the aggregate effect of the thousands of videos uploaded on YouTube; or of the scattered conversations and strategic planning which takes place online on politicians websites, users’ blogs and Facebooks groups? Perhaps the most important question to be asked is whether and how the Internet is contributing to the empowerment of individuals – as political efficacy and political trust are necessary conditions for becoming involved in the political process.
PBS recently aired “Growing Up Online” (and posted the entire episode on their website) – an inquisitive look into the lives of so-called Digital Natives. The program presented a world of young people spending much of their lives immersed in digital media – constantly connected to friends and others via mobile phones and web sites such as MySpace and YouTube. These are the lives of young people who are the first generation to grow up online, or those “born digital”, to borrow the term from John Palfrey’s and Urs Gasser’s forthcoming book of the same title. Frontline addressed several of the key issues the Digital Natives project is investigating, including education in the age of internet, online identity play, cyber-bullying, and online sexual predators.
While the documentary hinted at the types of creative expression and activity taking place online, the focus was very much on the risks associated with socializing on the internet. Discussion of young people’s private lives, which are increasingly taking place online, touched upon the shifting notions of privacy among youth raised with a mouse in-hand, and a number of the issues regarding the wide and unknown audience they present themselves to. Hats off to Frontline for taking a fair – and realistic – stance in addressing the sexual predator issue. Despite media portrayal of sexual predators lurking behind every corner of the internet – NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” has quite a good hand in this – research is beginning to show that this is a seriously, and dangerously, overblown threat. A Cal State study by Larry Rosen mentioned in the program found that young people on MySpace are rarely approached for sexual liaisons, and those that are tend to be seeking these types of interactions. Our research on the Digital Natives project has supported these findings – the overwhelming majority of teens are very aware of sexual predator concerns and are incredibly savvy at navigating the internet and avoiding contact with creepy strangers. In fact, most youth we spoke with largely avoid online contact with anyone they don’t know personally.
The risks associated with teens socializing online were further highlighted by Davina, a high school student interviewed who took part in a lunchroom fight that ended in chair-throwing and a video that proceeded to earn her YouTube fame. Davina is now legitimately concerned that this video – and her behavior – is now permanently available for all to see – including college admissions officers. While kids socialize in online spaces they often feel are out of the realm of adults, college admission officers and prospective employers are trolling sites like MySpace and Facebook, searching for evidence of illegal or unsavory hijinks to deny offers of admission or employment. A media blitz last spring highlighting stories of employers discriminating against college grads based on unsavory Facebook photos and police officers searching for evidence of underage drinking on MySpace, appears to have affected youth behavior, to a degree. We have found that youth, particularly those attending more elite high schools and universities, are increasingly becoming wise to these issues. They are taking charge of their social networking sites’ privacy settings, or removing all together those frat-party videos that seemed so funny last Saturday night. A serious issue is the inequality of awareness we have found among the students we talked to – in more affluent schools, college counselors and teachers are adamantly warning students from the start to be careful what they post online, while students from lower performing schools were more likely to hear the warnings from after-school programs they were involved with, or else, wait for the warnings to be passed down from friends.
One issue of a life online which was completely ignored by Frontline is the digital dossier: the accumulation of personal data collected as people use digital technology. In focusing the program so heavily on social networking sites, it is surprising that there was no discussion of the repercussions of the availability and permanence of online personal data – not to sexual predators or college counselors, but in mass form, to service providers and marketers. As teens socialize online they share photos, videos, blog posts and personal musings – all of this content is hosted by sites that wield enormous power over what they do with these data, and who they share them with. As children grow up online – starting with NeoPets at 4, to MySpace at 14, to Facebook at 24 – they document everything, and leave this documentation in the hands of companies that have profit, rather than kids’ best interest, at heart. For example, Facebook collects information about users and then reserves the right to share all the amassed information with third parties. When signed in to email or blogger, Google is keeping tabs on every search the user conducts. In twenty years, marketers may know a six-year-old’s interests and habits better than he knows them himself.
Our research has shown that while many young people are disinterested about data collection issues, they are also largely unaware of what is being collected, how it is being used, and what the repercussions may be. Some who are more aware, cite the inevitability of compromising their privacy if they are going to engage in the social world, which, for the 12-24 age group, has migrated online. As one student we talked to – a particularly thoughtful high school senior – said “… anyone can have access to your stuff. [..] do you accept that because you participate in using internet and technology like that or is there a way to fight that and create ways in which you can keep stuff private and keep stuff yours? [..] People Google everything because they just think to. They don’t know where this information goes. They don’t know that [..] when you log on to certain sites [..] they keep track of [..] when you log on and what you write. [..] It’s the fact that people don’t know. ..There’s not enough transparency for young people to know and they participate very unknowledgeably. That’s what scares me because you don’t know what that will end up looking at later on.” Perhaps rather than focusing efforts on bills like DOPA that limit access to social sites in response to sexual predator fear, congress should focus on protecting the mass amounts of information service providers like MySpace and Facebook amass from the millions of young people that live their lives on these sites.
In spite of the current lack of attention among US lawmakers to these concerns, issues of privacy stemming from the use of new technologies are becoming increasingly relevant not only for digital natives, but for all citizens living online. In Europe, stricter privacy laws are bringing more attention to these issues: the Council of Europe has organized the second annual “Data Protection Day” (January 28, 2008) marked by campaigns to raise awareness amongst middle school and high school students about how and why personal information is collected, and what is done with these data. As part of this initiative, the transatlantic privacy perspective will be discussed at Duke University Center for European Studies. Education about issues of privacy must be extended beyond fears of sexual predators and trolling college admission officers or potential employers. The reality and implications of the widespread and largely unregulated collection and dissemination of private data must be taught to youth that spend so much time living and sharing online. In order to be successful, this is an effort which must be undertaken by the many stakeholders involved – parents, schools, young people themselves, and policy makers. It is not only necessary to reform current laws in order to make service providers act responsibly in the collection and sharing of user data, but also to help young people understand the online world they inhabit, so that they may engage in knowledgeable and critical ways.
Yesterday the New York Times published an article on Italy and its current political malaise and a very good video on the Beppe Grillo phenomenon – Beppe Grillo, comic, now blogger (after being banned from television for his political satire) has managed to rally together a new political movement of people who are disaffected with the current government and the social and political situation. Grillo himself states that his popularity is entirely due to the Web – his blog is the most popular blog in Italy, and it is certainly more popular than the blogs of those politicians who have an online presence (the NYT reports Grillo’s blog is the tenth most linked to blog in the entire world). The Beppe Grillo’s movement has spawned Meetup.com groups all over the world: Beppe Grillo Meetups now count 68,000 members in 27 countries with 7,000 events organised so far. While critics argue that Beppe Grillo’s political actions are more ‘destructive’ than ‘constructive’ and hence not conducive to political dialogue and reform, there is no doubt that the Beppe Grillo phenomenon is a clear testimony to the power of the Web for political mobilization. Whether this movement will lead to political change and other political outcomes is a different matter – certainly this critical mass of people would not have come together if it wasn’t for Grillo’s web presence – and this is even more significant when considering that Italy has one of the lowest rates of Internet adoption and use in Europe.
The news of Italian PM Romano Prodi’s resignation and the government crisis in Italy following yesterday’s Senate’s vote on foreign policy has had great resonance on the Web both among citizens and party officials. Thousands of angry citizens have turned to the Web to express their discontent with the two dissidents from the extreme Left whose vote has caused the resignation of Prodi’s coalition, flooding online newspapers’ discussion forums and blogs with their comments. What is perhaps more striking is that political parties have also turned to the Web to make statements to reach the wider public: Rifondazione Comunista has published on its Website a press release where the party condemns the vote of its party member who has voted against his own coalition; furthermore, it announces the opening of an online forum in the next few days as a public space for discussion and for providing party supporters with reassurances on the party’s mission and policy. Participatory democracy in action?
Italian Minister Antonio Di Pietro from the left-coalition party ‘Italia dei Valori’ is the first Italian politician to make use of YouTube as a tool for political communication. He has posted a video where he reports on this week’s Council of Ministers’ session, and announces this vlog will be followed by weekly posts “in order to achieve complete transparency on the decisions taken in each of the Council’s sessions”. Judging from the number of views (33,000 approx. in less than two days) and from the comments left, this initiative is proving to be a successful move to engage people in the political process (or at least to engage those people who are looking to be engaged — and looking online). Di Pietro is one of the few Italian politicians who has not abandoned his blog once the elections were over (for a review of the Italian political blogosphere see “Apri il Blog e Scappa” [“Open a Blog and then Run Away”], in L’Espresso 12/12/2006).