TAG | politics
A few days ago I was congratulating Graca Machel (current wife of Nelson Mandela) for being the only woman ever to have been the First Lady of two different states. I then realised that a) the bus was moving very slowly, and b) I didn’t know much about her first husband, the socialist post-independence President of Mozambique. Enter Wikipedia, pursued by a bear. After reaching the climax (death by plane crash – at the hands of either inebriated soviet pilots or merciless Apartheid agents), I noticed that the article could be read in *31* alternative languages. Alongside the major ‘international’ languages (by which I mean, widely spoken as second languages or studied outside their regions of origin, the article is also available (albeit in greater brevity) in Belarusian (7.6m native speakers), Breton (206k), Catalan (11.5m), Estonian (1m), Georgian (7m), Latin (0), Lithuanian (3.2m), Mongol (5.7m), Occitan (2m), Venetan (2m).
On scanning the list, my initial sentiment was one of embarrassment – embarrassment that I didn’t know that Belorussia or Venice even had their own tongues, or that Occitan was even a thing anymore (it appears to have more native speakers than than all six Celtic languages combined).
Emerging from this introspective shock, I noticed that the article only appeared in one language of African ‘origin’ (not the sturdiest of criteria, but here I’m excluding French, Portuguese, English and Arabic) – Ido. This I found bemusing, as I was pretty sure that Ido was West African (ergo, pretty far from Mozambique). Once again smacked down by Wikipedia, I soon discovered that I was thinking of Igbo (spoken by 24m in Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea); Ido actually appears to be a descendant of Esperanto, and has a paltry 100-200 ‘users’.
And so, I was kind of stunned that an article about one of sub-Saharan Africa’s great independence leaders is available in a range of languages demographically-minor European languages (almost all speakers of which are multilingual), but not a single non-European language of Mozambique, or indeed of sub-Saharan Africa. According to a 2007 survey, Emakhuwa is the mother tongue of around a quarter of the Mozambican population, while only 10% claim Portuguese as their first language (although it is the second language of a further 40%).
Wikipedia handily details all 286 languages in which the page on Samora Machel is available, ordering them by the number of articles for which they are used. Incredibly, only seven ‘African’ languages are in the top 200: Yoruba (75th, with ca. 30k pages); Afrikaans (82nd, 26k); Swahili (84th, 25k); Amharic (112th, 12k); Somali (179th, 2.5k). ; Lingala (194th, 2k); and Kinyarwanda (200th, 1.8k). A further 31 African languages have a ‘wiki-presence’.
It makes sense; if you need to use the web to publicise a product, service or opinion, using Tswana, Kikuyu or Ewe makes little sense. It goes without saying that the global reach of the internet forces suppliers to market their wares/thoughts to a wider audience than they would in previously more localised markets. Uganda alone has over forty languages; although many within the same linguistic group may be mutually intelligible to a degree, the much wider comprehension of English makes it a much more dependable choice for anyone looking to use the web for intranational purposes (let alone international).
It’s not feasible to hope that individuals and businesses in African countries devote time to the creation and maintenance of web resources in languages other than (and possibly in addition to) those which will allow them to achieve their key economic or philosophical goals. It would actually be pretty paternalistic. But it is pertinent to ask if, as the web becomes an increasingly important mode of communication in ‘developing’ countries, can indigenous languages survive as means of verbal communication while being relegated to digital redundancy? UNESCO estimates that 90% of individuals in developing areas have no access to broadband, but a raft of initiatives (e.g. Inveneo’s BB4G) employing new business models and cheap technologies are changing the connectivity landscape at pace. Avanti’s HYLAS 2 satellite, launched in August 2012, has reduced dependence for millions in eastern and southern Africa on unreliable undersea cables. While cost may still be prohibitive to many, there’s an expectation this will decrease over time. As societies in Africa become increasing engaged in digital communications, how will the position of indigenous languages in the non-digital sphere develop?
It may even be possible to correlate the rise of the internet with the recently declining status of indigenous languages. Between the 1997 and 2007 Mozambican censuses, there was (apparently) a significant increase in the number of people claiming portuguese as their mother tongue to 10%. 42.9% of the inhabitants of the capital Maputo held the post-colonial language as their first language in 2007, although I couldn’t find out what this rose from. It would be interesting to see if it’s possible to plot sociolinguistic identity against the growth in internet access, although undoubtedly other factors must have major roles to play (tourism, demographic shift, increased literacy). If anyone knows of any relevant literature, forward it on!
Since the first links between smoking and lung cancer were published by Richard Doll in 1950, legislation has been passed to try to control tobacco consumption. In addition to counter campaigns such as anti smoking adverts and specialist NHS services the Government restrict and regulate the tobacco industry in an unprecedented way. We’ve seen limits on smoking in public places, a ban on vending machines, compulsory warning messages on packets, excise taxes and unparalleled restrictions on advertising. This year the government are stepping up their game with more graphic campaigns and grotesque imagery.
Today most advertising campaigns are run online with a complementary social media campaign and since regulations began as early as the 1960s some of the most successful corporations, in one of the world’s largest industries, are unable to fully utilise any digital marketing. Furthermore, anti-smoking groups have been able to take full advantage of digital resources in the form of help quit websites, mobile apps, online adverts, infographics and web apps. So why do 157,000 children aged 11-15 start smoking every year in the UK? Why is smoking still a desirable thing to do? And why is brand loyalty still so strong – the highest of all consumer products?
The Government can ban tobacco firms from promoting smoking but they cannot ban the public from doing so. The tobacco industry invented marketing as we now know it. The first known advert for a cigarette brand was in 1789. The industry has a substantial legacy with strong, historically established brands to which few others can compare and this is not a market that is open to new entrants. These brand titans have been putting in the marketing ground work for the past 200 years.
As a result they are in a unique position; a comprehensive social media campaign is run – inadvertently – by smokers themselves. Whilst the only official smoking advertisements online are anti-smoking, there are ‘unofficial’ or implicit adverts for smoking all over the internet. Social media is full of indirect materials promoting smoking – photos, tweets, pinterest boards, discussions, polls, tumblrs, videos - all posted solely by consumers which perpetuate the brand message and cannot be regulated easily by the Government.
The Government have to be very carefully when justifying the regulation the tobacco industry for fear of appearing paternalistic. It cannot look like it thinks it knows better and needs to protect us from ourselves or from the big bad tobacco firms. As a result bans and restrictions are enforced with a focus on protecting children. Therefore, the focus of many campaigns is passive smoking and the messages are ‘I’m worried about mum/dad’, ‘you’re killing your children’ and ‘only way to protect your family’ is to quit.
Tobacco firms have been equally ingenious in response – their apparent aims are not to attract non-smokers only to try to get existing smokers to switch brands – but they’ve got into trouble. With the cartoon character ‘Joe Camel’ R.J. Reynolds were accused of intentionally targeting children. Internal documents emerged claiming that children were the ‘future’s smokers’, detailing that brand allegiance is formed before age 18 and instructions for campaign materials to be distributed near schools. R.J. Reynolds denies this but voluntarily ended the campaign in 1997. A study into the accusations famously found that that at one point more 6 year old children could recognise Joe Camel than Mickey Mouse.
So branding is important. It is powerful and the Government are worried. Branding is what gives your company an identity through slogans, name, colour, music etc. and advertising promotes this. Branding is what makes smoking ‘look cool’. It is renowned that teenagers are keen to ‘look cool’ and are more easily swayed by peer pressure – this has historically been sited as the main reason for teen smokers.
But whilst brand image is traditionally formed physically through packaging, labels and adverts, today brand image is predominantly created digitally. The brand ‘voice’ speaks through twitter, is showcased on the company website, interacts with consumers on Facebook and networks through LinkedIn. Therefore, every time someone tweets ‘need a ciggie #addicted’ or a picture is posted of someone smoking at a party, brand image is re-enforced. Smoking advertising has gone viral. It is shared, liked and retweeted constantly.
Due to past decades of years of truly extensive marketing – and a highly addictive ingredient – the tobacco industry have a product that people want to share and promote of their own accord. Studies have noted for years how smokers tend to use their cigarettes as a ‘badge’, a ‘prop’, a ‘symbol’ and as long as they continue to do so – and post it on social media – they use their cigarettes to reflect and promote the brand image.
The irony is that this kind of promotion is so much more powerful than commercial, official, paid-for adverts. Consumers are much more likely to be swayed by what their best friend is posting or what Kate Moss is papped doing rather than a banner at the top of the page or an ad word on google. This is why businesses today work hard to create ‘share-able’ content on social media sites. This kind of marketing is self-perpetuating and there is not much the Government can do about it.
This week we lament the loss of Ceefax. The information service has been running on televisions since the 1970s but is now outdated and underused. The digital communication of information has evolved and Teletext has died out. Ceefax is replaced by the BBC’s Red Button but ultimately the internet is winning in the digital communication jungle: it is more visually appealing, faster and contains far more information. But obviously this isn’t the end of the evolutionary line, so what does the future hold?
Several factors can influence the future of the internet – government intervention, corporate behaviour and us, the public. Government policy and business decisions shape internet supply, availability and functionality but we drive usage and demand. In response to unwelcome changes by the former, websites have been set up to complain or monitor effects, books have been written and large scale protests have taken place.
Tension is increasing between two opposing views of the internet – as a haven for freedom of speech and expression or as something within the jurisdiction of legal and moral rules. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive; offline we normally consider ourselves to have a right to freedom of speech whilst at the same time culpable for illegal offenses. Yet in the case of the internet, either side seems to believe that to make even the slightest concession to the other is to open the floodgates to a worst case scenario – be that a heavily censored internet under complete government control or a hive of illegal and immoral activity.
The argument is between pragmatism and idealism- do we accept that the internet must be regulated in some respects or do we maintain an ideology of the internet as free, universal and limitless? There is a huge debate surrounding the issue with influential supporters on both sides and the way in which resolution – if possible – occurs will dictate the future of the internet. Modern technology is ‘completely out of control‘ according to Lord chief justice, Lord Judge – but is this in practice or in principle? Sarkozy argues that the internet ‘isn’t a parallel universe’ – why should we allow anything online that we legitimately do not permit offline? Meanwhile, Neelie Kroes, the vice-president of the European commission, calls for the removal of ‘digital handcuffs’ in agreement with Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s belief that the internet is ‘for everyone’.
But this is not just a verbal dispute – this year we have seen action on both sides. In the UK we have seen the removal of videos featuring and promoting gang culture from youtube, a crack down on illegal downloads and the proposal of an ‘opt-in’ system devised to protect children from online pornography. There have even been multiple arrests over offensive tweets in cases of racism and other types of abuse prompting questions over whether this type of action is too ‘heavy handed’. From the other side, we saw websites such as google and wikipedia take part in a blackout protest against US government anti-piracy proposals in the allegation that they would lead to government censorship.
The issue with individual governments exerting control over the internet is that the internet, in that it consists of the world wide web, is intended to be world wide. Sir Tim Berners-Lee claims that ‘This is a question of principle, it’s a right to be able to access [the web] anywhere‘. Government controls introduce localised differences raising worries that the future could bring a series of fragmented, independent internets. This is already noticeable on a small scale – the internet looks different depending on where you are in the world. Many countries ban specific websites containing political or religious content and social media sites completely. This year we have seen Twitter introduce and implement a new ‘Country Withheld Content’ feature, allowing the removal of specific content from one country only. It was recently used to remove neo-nazi content in Germany and France but not the rest of the world.
Perhaps protestors are too idealistic in regarding the internet as something ‘universal’ because this is merely a concept and not the reality of the internet as we know it. The internet did not begin freely open to all and is now being restricted- perhaps as an idea but as an actual entity it is limited by hardware and physical infrastructure which are not equally freely available. A digital divide has existed between developed and developing countries preventing equal access to the web. In view of this, maybe the recent government interventions we have witnessed seem less like a drastic and sudden attempt at control.
So is the internet out of control, uncontrollable or beyond control? Which side is right, or perhaps more importantly, which side wins will shape the future of the internet. We can’t predict the future of the internet as clearly as these children from the 90s but one thing is clear – hyperbolic slippery slope arguments are not what we need, because if we remain at a standoff then we miss opportunities for mutual benefit.
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are running for president in what has widely been said to be the first true social media election. The Democrats’ superior use of social media is claimed to be one of the factors behind Obama’s victory in 2008 and four years later the Republicans are determined to keep up. When 94% of social media users of voting-age are likely to watch an entire political message online the opportunity to be heard is unmissable.
Much of the debate surrounding this issue focuses on what social media means for politics and future political campaigns. Will facebook friends, followers and retweets become marks on a ballot form? Will events such as Obama’s ‘Twitter Town Hall’ replace more traditional grassroots political activities? Social media might be reshaping the political landscape, but what does all this political interfering mean for social media?
Politicians need to spread their message as far and as wide as possible and social media provides a platform to communicate with a vast network of users. We’ve seen businesses do the same and use social media sites to spread their brand message. But are they ‘taking advantage of’ or ‘manipulating’ social media? No, because social media can facilitate communication between politicians and citizens; on a broad scale as well as a personal one but most importantly it allows citizens to communicate back.
There is something about harnessing social media to aid political campaigns that makes me feel uneasy. But I think the reason for this is because campaigners’ approaches feel measured and calculated in a way that is in opposition to the free and easy flow of information that I associate with Web 2.0. There are teams of people who run the social media side of political campaigns and this can make them feel orchestrated or fake. Facebook even have their own Political Outreach Manager to advise political officials on how to use facebook most to their advantage in campaigns. However, social media can also facilitate interaction on a more genuine and personal level; Obama took part in an ‘Ask Me Anything’ on reddit and Romney is running a competition to win a ride in his private jet. In these instances both candidates are trying to engage with individuals rather than a whole population; a task made much easier by social media websites.
The wonderful thing about Web 2.0 is the control it gives to users. Politicians can try to use social media to spread their political messages but ultimately they have little control over that message once it is released and as a result their attempts can backfire. Web 2.0 is a two-way street and if you communicate through social media you become involved in a dialogue. Therefore, politicians can’t carelessly throw out propaganda on social media sites because it will inevitably be thrown back and normally in a much more amusing format.
The fact that social media facilitates a dialogue means that it also allows citizens the opportunity to express political opinions. Social media is reported as playing a role- the size of which is disputed- in the recent political revolutions in Egypt and Libya. Twitter provided a fast way to spread information of protests with hash tags detailing times and dates. Facebook pages with times and dates of protests were created. But it is not true to say that social media provides a universal platform for communication free from the confines of geographical and political boarders. Mark Zuckerberg may intend Facebook to “bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people” but the ways in which politics and social media interact differ vastly between cultures with some political regimes ban social media sites completely. In comparison to this, politicians engaging with social media and using it to increase interaction with citizens looks like a very good thing.
UK politicians have made tentative steps into social media but it will be interesting to see if the recent trends observed in the US are mirrored over here. If the run up to the 2015 UK election has a strong social media focus, we may have more than just the return of WebCameron to look forward to. Is politics reshaping the landscape of social media? Yes, but social media is a constantly changing entity. The beliefs and actions of politicians shape every aspect of our lives – a lot more than a tweet about someone’s breakfast or a youtube video of a surprised kitten.
The standout moment at last month’s eG8 summit in Paris saw Nicolas Sarkozy offer a foreboding warning that the internet must not become a ‘parallel universe without rules’ – only days before David Cameron had been at pains to distance himself from the idea of state regulation of the internet. But why is it that the same morality and rules of law that we defend culturally are seemingly so inapplicable to human interaction over the net? The question is one which is rapidly forcing internet moguls like Mark Zuckerberg, who also addressed the eG8 summit, straight into the ring with political leaders.
It’s clearly an issue for governments and the internet industry to consider. Responsibility for regulating the web has for too long seemed a question impossibly gargantuan, perhaps too hopelessly multifaceted to be properly addressed by heads of state. A more accessible dialogue on what law is needed in cyberspace might have prevented the abuse of its liberal merits by tabloid newspapers in privacy scandals such as the failure of Ryan Giggs’ gagging order, whereby papers stake claim to a better representation of our rights as net-users than law courts do. As with the Space Race and contested rights to Deep Sea Oil Reserves in the antarctic before it, the internet seems to lack the clear geographical or institutional boundaries which would validate an open discussion on its regulation in national or global fora.
Interestingly, Rupert Murdoch was amongst the crowd who received Sarkozy’s assertion that governments must not allow the internet to remain unchecked. Looking at British politics (almost unavoidably through the window of a Murdoch-owned medium), it is hard to argue against any regulation of the internet. Just as parliament and the English courts are sometimes made to look irrelevant by the power of Murdoch’s media and the twitterati masses, Mark Zuckberg also presented the case for an entirely unregulated global space.
Zuckerberg said: “I’m happy to play any role they [the people] ask me to play… the internet is really a powerful force for giving people a voice.” In fact Zuckerberg openly undermined Sarkozy’s opinion througout the eG8, adding: “People tell me: ‘It’s great you played such a big role in the Arab spring, but it’s also kind of scary because you enable all this sharing and collect information on people…But it’s hard to have one without the other. You can’t isolate some things you like about the internet, and control other things you don’t.”
It seems the gap between politicians and the public has never been wider. A lack of trust in our representatives – in their motives, spending habits, and fundamental ability to lead has damaged the reputation of MPs and British politics as a whole. The public feel disenfranchised, ignored and, worst of all, completely disconnected from the democratic process. The recent parliamentary expenses scandal has only reinforced this.
And yet, we live in a world in which, in other ways, we feel very connected. The Internet, and specifically, Web 2.0 technology, smoothly connects us to our friends, family, and those with similar interests, tastes and beliefs. The Internet has moved from a centralized source of information into a collaborative space in which we can create online communities, debate and discuss ideas, and build partnerships with people on the other side of the world. And though these interactions may be virtual, they are fortified by all kinds of innovative and powerful tools – from webcasts to wikis to online games.
In comparison, new modes of political participation lag behind. As much as the Internet promises a free, open, democratic space for people from all backgrounds to express their political viewpoints – politicians, the government and lawmakers are failing to connect. Traditional modes of political participation seem old-fashioned and stiff and, there is little conversation between the represented and the representatives. While the web is full of political expression and debate, there are very few sites that represent or collect these viewpoints into a coherent whole. People may be talking, but the people with real power aren’t listening.
Across the Atlantic, the potential of web 2.0 within politics was aptly demonstrated by President Obama’s election campaign and current presidency. Not only does Obama use social networking to connect with supporters, he has also created a website – my.barackobama.com – which allows users to create their own profile complete with a customized description, friends list and personal blog. They can join groups, participate in fund raising, and arrange events all from an interface that is both easy-to-use and familiar to any Facebook or MySpace user. This harnessing of web 2.0 is more than just a way of harnessing support – it actually allows people to a have a political voice, in a way that feels familiar and comfortable to them. The key to its success is that it puts power in the hands of people to shape their own lives and communities to, as Obama puts it himself: “bring about real change in Washington”.
In the UK, there seems to be a real lack of faith in that potential for change – a fact the government is starting to clock on to. They have started several initiatives based around the number10.gov.uk hub – the central government website specifically targeted toward the general public. Matt wrote about it last year following its launch in August 2008. Apart from the weekly (and slightly embarrassing) Gordon Brown webcasts, a plethora of well-presented information about the functions and purpose of the government, there are a number of web 2.0 initiatives. For example, sites like No.10 petitions in partnership with mysociety.org, allow users to start and gain support for their own petitions. But as Stephen Coleman puts it “inviting people to sign e-petitions to No 10 and then await an email from the government telling them why they were wrong is hardly digital democracy”. And within the number10.gov.uk website as a whole, there is precious little opportunity for real ‘e-democracy’, what Jay Blumler describes as “online civic commons: a trusted public space where the dispersed energies, self-articulations and aspirations of citizens can be rehearsed, in public, within a process of ongoing feedback to the various levels and centres of governance”.
As the Obama administration establishes the Office of Public Engagement, designed to bring more citizen engagement through the Web, it is time we use the potential of web 2.0 technologies to create a much closer and accountable relationship between the needs of citizens and the actions of politicians, in which the public’s ideas and beliefs are taken seriously and acted upon. Any future government must embrace this new form of democracy, if it is to have any chance of regaining the trust and support of its electorate.
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