The Hungarian internet tax protests: freedom, modernity and the political power of technology

Elisabetta Ferrari, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania

It is night time and the sky over central Hong Kong is dark. Thousands of people are gathering in one of Hong Kong’s central areas, in front of the headquarters of the Hong Kong Government. They are holding their cell phones towards the dark sky, illuminating the night with their screen lights. It is September 2014 and protesters are occupying this central square in opposition to the Chinese government’s proposed reforms to Hong Kong’s political system. These images were immediately picked up and circulated by both mainstream media and social network sites. CNN described the image, saying: “Photographed from above, the glowing screens of mobile phones held aloft by the sea of protesters have created an enduring image of the demonstrators’ solidarity” (Hume & Park, 2014). Quartzechoed this sentiment: “It was an image that fascinated the world—a sea of lights coming from thousands of Hong Kong protesters waving their lit up mobile phones in the darkness” (Lih, 2014). The iconic image of protesters raising their phones to the sky survived the demise of the Umbrella Revolution and travelled far away.

When thousands of people, led by student activists, started mobilizing in Hong Kong, footage and images from these pro-democracy protests spread across the world in mainstream media and online.  It seemed to many as though the revolts, uprisings, and occupations that shook the Middle East, Europe and United States in 2010-2011 were about to make a forceful come-back – and in such an unlikely place as Hong Kong. The police’s decision to use tear gas on the occupation backfired, as powerful images – of protesters trying to protect themselves with umbrellas (Lee, 2015) –, circulated online. These images gave the movement its name: the Umbrella Movement. And yet, as iconic as the umbrellas became, it was another image – of phones lifted to the sky – that would be taken up by other social movements in very different countries in the following years.

This image first reappeared in Hungary, a month after the Hong Kong protests, when thousands of people mobilized to publicly protest a tax on internet consumption that was proposed by the conservative government. Lit phones were raised in the first demonstration that drew around 10,000 people to the center of Budapest, Hungary’s capital. However, it was the second demonstration in which protesters staged the most impactful version of the iconic image: this photograph captured 100,000 people crossing the Danube River on the massive Elizabeth Bridge in an aerial shot, as they lifted their illuminated phones towards the night. These protests and images of thousands made it clear to the world that there was great public support for the movement, and eventually the government withdrew the tax proposal. To read the full post, click here.

Periodismo de Barrio estrena especial sobre Internet en Cuba

Periodismo de Barrio has edited a collection of 13 articles on the Cuban Internet in collaboration with the Internet Policy Observatory at the University of Pennsylvania. The articles cover the history of the Cuban Internet, the legal framework, services, communities, and projects. Here are thumbnail summaries of each article:

¿Puede Estados Unidos conectar a Internet a los cubanos? – Elaine Díaz Rodríguez
A critical look at US efforts to enhance Cuban connectivity, from the Clinton administration through the recent formation of the Cuban Internet Task Force by Trump
La ruta de Internet en Cuba – Anidelys Rodríguez Brito
A survey of Cuban networking from the pre-Internet days through today’s 3G, home DSL, and public access points
Internet en Cuba: ¿limitada por la política o la economía? – Eloy Viera Cañive
A survey of the political and economic factors that curb Cuban access and content
¿Quién eres, ETECSA? – Mabel Olalde Azpiri
A history of ETECSA and its role in serving Infomed and other networks as well as the general public
Variaciones sobre la wifi – Lianet Fleites
A portrait of WiFi hotspot users and uses
Te quiero, mi sangre – Geisy Guia Delis
People connecting with expatriate family members
Nauta Hogar: nueva herramienta para emprendedores cubanos – Julio Batista Rodríguez
Nauta Hogar: a new tool for Cuban entrepreneurs
El color verde en la palabra Sígueme – Jesús Jank Curbelo
A look at Sígueme, the SNET “Facebook” application
Se venden héroes a diez pesos – Carlos Melián
Kids playing multiplayer online games
Tecnología y cambio social en Cuba: en busca de hipervínculos – Mónica Baró Sánchez
An interview of Yohana Lezcano Lavandera, who advocates computer literacy education
El Callejón de los Milagros – Rogelio Serrano
An interview with professor and researcher Juan Antonio García Borrero about his project The Alley of the Mircales
Ocho aplicaciones contra la desconexión – Mónica Baró Sánchez
Descriptions of eight mobile phone apps that can be used offline
¿Qué podría hacer el gobierno cubano en el escenario virtual? – Jessica Domínguez Delgado
Potential e-government applications in Cuba

Elite influence or Computational Propaganda: a case study of political discussion networks on Polish Twitter

Pawel Popiel and Emad Khazraee

In democratic theory, public opinion plays a key role in state governance, determining the problems and issues for the state to address within its policy agenda and providing feedback on existing policies. Yet, one of the enduring problems of public opinion is its vulnerability to manipulation by elites (Price, 1992), and other domestic and foreign actors. The development and diffusion of information and communication technologies (ICTs) add new layers of complexity to how such processes occur. Political voices that form public opinion are expressed not just in offline settings, but online on social media. These increasingly popular digital platforms provide additional, and potentially alternative channels for political communication. However, they also serve as sites for both state and non-state actors deploying new tools and strategies to spread propaganda and manipulate public opinion.

Instances of often highly-automated and coordinated efforts by political elites and foreign actors to disrupt and manipulate online political debate have been the subject of growing international attention. Against the backdrop of politically-charged elections and referenda in the West, accompanied by several prominent right-wing populist victories, news reports circulated about foreign attempts to influence electoral outcomes by manipulating online political debates during the Brexit referendum, the 2016 United States federal election, and the 2017 French presidential election, among others. Such “computational propaganda” (Woolley & Howard, 2016) includes the propagation of false news, amplification or disruption of political messages on Twitter by bots, and trolling political actors on social media. Yet, the effects of these activities on online political discourse remain unclear. Moreover, much of the research on the subject focuses on online publics in the United States and Western Europe. This raises the question of how the effectiveness of such efforts varies based on political and media contexts. To address this, we focus on Poland, where the only previous study found a prevalence of computational propaganda, including highly-active political bot accounts on Twitter engaged in spreading both left- and right-wing content (Gorwa, 2017). These observations raise questions about the content these actors circulate and its effects on online political debate.

Building on this, we ask the following research questions: 1) Who are the most influential actors in the political debate on Polish Twitter? 2) Are political bots and trolls among them? 3) What are the key features of the discourses these actors promote? 4) Do these discourses dominate the Twitter communities in which these actors operate? To address these questions, we examine the political information propagation processes via the analysis of retweet networks on Polish Twitter between September 1 and October 22, 2017. We apply a community detection algorithm to these networks to identify political divisions on Polish Twitter. We also conduct topic modeling to provide an account of the political debates that occur within them and the degree to which these debates are influenced by political elites, trolls, and other actors. We use a bot detection algorithm to examine the presence of political bots in these communities.

Our study suggests… To read more, click here

Global Internet Policy Round-up: August 2017

This month, we’ve summarized relevant occurrences from around the world related to internet policymaking in the IPO’s ‘Internet Policy Roundup’. In  our August roundup, read about journalists and politicians in Thailand who have been charged for facebook comments, a new popular app in Saudi Arabia that is providing a controversial space for anonymous feedback, China’s new cyber courts,  internet shutdowns in Ethiopia, and a court case against Google in Canada that could have significant effects of freedom of information around the world. These and other story summaries in the roundup here.


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