Monthly Archives: October 2008

Can Facebook topple Egyptian authoritarianism?

Torturing Ahmen Maher

Newest Egyptian Way to Learn Your Facebook Password: Torturing Ahmed Maher (by blogger Wael Abbas)

[see also See “Twitter, Facebook and YouTube’s Role in Middle East Uprisings” (Social Capital Blog, 1/26/11, updated 2/3/11)]

David Wolman has an interesting article in the current WIRED magazine chronicling the rise of Ahmed Maher and other activists in Cairo trying to use Facebook to organize student protest.  It describes all the cat-and-mouse intrigue and the government’s effort to arrest the ringleaders, torture them into submission or steal their passwords.

At one level it is a paean to technology: how the nimble, viral Facebook can out-organize the old brick-and-mortar state security force of the repressive Mubarak regime.  At another level, it raises all the risks of organizing over the Internet:  while one can build “movements” with amazing viral rapidity, will these “activists” (or slacktivists) with fewer real social ties actually come to the protests; or how without all the verbal cues and formal vetting through real networks, it is much easier for government agents to “infiltrate” the Facebook space and monitor what is going on.

The article ends on a possibly optimistic note: Ahmed Maher is not tortured in his most recent arrest by the Egyptian police, perhaps because they have no explicit orders of what to do with him, or perhaps he has reached the level of fame where harming him, fans the flames of the opposition.

[See my related post on the rise of trivial Twitter for social mobilization in developing countries.]

Anyway, “Cairo Activists Use Facebook to Rattle Regime” (WIRED, 10/20/08) is an interesting read on both the promise and peril of e-activism.

See updated post on TechPresident “Egyptian Activists Challenge Facebook-Enabled Diplomacy 2.0” (12/5/08)


Barack’s as Muslim as Sarah Palin

McCain/Palin’s slanderous attempt to portray Christian candidate Barack Obama as Muslim, by repeatedly having surrogates refer in nasty tones to Barack Obama by his full name “Barack Hussein Obama”, has spurred some impressive and inspiring reactions to seize a higher moral ground than McCain and Palin.

A lot of Facebook page owners (who also are not Muslim) have changed their middle names in sympathy to Hussein.  So I would post as Thomas Hussein Sander.  See this thread of Hussein is My Middle Name.

It’s reminiscent of the 1993 Billings, Montana story where a Jewish family’s window was shattered for lighting a menorah.

When a brick was thrown through the bedroom window of a Jewish child whose window bore a menorah, the community response was extraordinary. An organized alliance of citizens, churches, unions and the media banded together. The local paper printed a full-page, color picture of a menorah, so that others could hang it in their windows in solidarity. With the help of merchants, by late December nearly 10,000 people in Billings, Montana had this symbol of Jews overcoming persecution displayed in their windows.  PBS made a movie of this called Not In Our Town. (Thanks to Forgotten Fires for the specifics.)

And now this Massachusetts Observer page has claimed Barack O’Bama as Irish with a humorous rhyme.  What’s next?  Japanese Obama-san?

The moral roots of liberals and conservatives

Jonathan Haidt has an interesting talk on TED on where differences from liberals and conservatives originate from.

He notes that “being open to new experiences” is a key predictor of these divisions.  Liberals crave novelty, new ideas, travel. Conservatives like dependability, routine, order and are low on openness to new experiences.  (This was captured by Robert McCrae in “The Social consequences of Experiential Openness”, 1996).

He notes that we are trapped in our own way of thinking, much like The Matrix, such that when liberals “lose” the 2000 election they think that all the Red States must form a country called *Dumb@$#$istan*.

In any effort to help liberals and conservatives see the world from the other’s perspective he notes that nature provides an initial draft for our mind which experience then revises (Gary Marcus, 2004).  He shows fascinating graphs from 23,000 people who indicated their ideology and answered some questions on THe Morality Foundations Questionnaire at concerning their beliefs.  He categorizes individuals along 5 fundamental moral dimensions, the first three of which are heavily entwined with social capital.  He says the 5 core dimensions for the moral mind (abstracting from anthropology, neurology, psychology, etc.) are:

1. Harm/care – as a species care a lot about others

2. Fairness/reciprocity

3. In group/out group – only among humans are there large groups that are united together for common purposes, and as a species we self-consciously produce or reinforce tribes (for wars, sports team loyalty, etc.)

4. Authority/respect – often based out of love

5. Purity/sanctity (either with regard to things like sex, or the foods we put in our body)

What’s fascinating is that if you chart individuals across parts of the world you find that in all societies, conservatives treat all these five factors as moderately important; liberals however focus almost exclusively on the harm/caring or fairness/reciprocity principles. In most societies, the increase in attention given by Conservatives to factors like Respect, Authority, Order, Purity rises much more sharply than the attention to Caring and Reciprocity falls. Haidt describes conservatives as having a 5-channel moral equalizer.

Haidt notes that Liberals speak for weak and oppressed; they want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos. Conservatives speak for institutions and traditions; they want order even at cost to those at the bottom. Haidt thinks Edmund Burke had it right when he said in the wake of the French Revolution: “the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.”

He notes that liberals take for granted that order will always be there, but describes an interesting experiment by Fehr and Gachter written up in Nature in 2002. People in the experiment played a game in which they could cooperate or defect and like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the pot grew larger through collaboration. At the end of the game, the pot was split equally among the players. Although all shared in the gains of the group, an individual could often make out more on any given turn by not cooperating. When they played the game with no forms of punishment allowed (a liberal’s paradise), cooperation started at a moderate level and declined each round. Cooperators got angry at others’ defections and decided to reciprocate, creating a race to the bottom. Starting in the 7th round, the experimenters allowed the participants to punish through the remainder of the game. Cooperation rates immediately jumped to 70% and then increased in every following round.  The authors talk about how altruistic punishment is essential to cooperation.

Haidt says our most remarkable wonder of the world is not the Grand Canyon (erosion writ large) but our ability to cooperate and live together in hostile environments (the Alaska tundra or the Arizona desert) and in big cities. He notes that this takes full use of all of our moral toolkit and requires sub-groups, organizational tools, moral incentives to rise to our best and say no our worst voices (in which Haidt thinks religion plays a key role).

In our Saguaro Seminar, participant Liz Lerman asked “why aren’t our minds large enough to encompass “both-and” rather than “either-or.”  Haidt sings a similar tune when he notices how many Eastern Religions realize that both halves are essential: like Ying/Yang or Vishnu the preserve and Shiva the destroyer working together; or a quote from a Buddhist leader “The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worst disease.  Haidt notes that our Righteous Minds were ‘designed” by evolution to: 1) Unite us in teams; 2) Divide Us against other teams; and 3) Blind us to the truth.  He says we don’t have to adopt moral relativism, but we can’t charge in to a situation saying “I’m right”, “You’re wrong”.  We need to first understand who we are and who they are; what are the reasons why others are doing what they are doing.  This will help us develop moral humility and ultimately be more effective in changing the world into what we want it to be.

Watch Haidt’s TED talk here.

Voter-gauged election fairness

(photo by danostuporstar)

(photo by danostuporstar)

My colleague Archon Fung has a new web-based project (in conjunction with ABC News) called My Fair Election to enable voters to rate how fair their voting experience was.

I’ve blogged before about how citizens could be on the front-lines in monitoring global warming or bird patterns or even improving GPS systems.  (See related post here.)  Now citizens can be at the forefront of helping to monitor our election process.

The My Fair Election website says “Rate your polling place and your experience of voting here. Was it easy to vote? Were there long lines, closed polling places, or broken machines? Your rating and those of thousands of other voters will produce a real-time map of voting conditions throughout the country on November 4, 2008. Sign up now, and you will receive an email message with instructions for submitting your own rating after you vote.”

My Fair Election enables American citizens or journalists or politicians to see where there are concentrations of voting unfairness or irregularity and enables high level of citizen-observed unfairness in the election process to trigger investigations into asserted irregularities.  One could also see the day after the election from the “Weather Map of Election Fairness” we collectively create whether concentrations of voting unfairness occurred in certain states or traditionally Blue vs. Red areas.

So don’t only vote on November 4, but sign up at My Fair Election and get your friends (in lots of different places) to sign up as well.  Together we can all hold the voting system accountable and we can add a layer of transparency to our voting process.

Note: other parallel efforts (although not enabling one to map the infractions) are a service which Twitter offered called Vote Report and Video Your Vote (a YouTube) effort enabling voters to upload a video of their voting experience.

Is early or weekend voting desirable?

Is this how YOU get to the polls? (photo by glesgagirl59)

Is this how YOU get to the polls? (photo by glesgagirl59)

An Op-ed in the NYT “Everybody’s Voting for the Weekend” (Steve Israel/Norman Ornstein, 10/24/08) makes clear that the fact that we vote on Tuesdays is a historical anomaly, born of the days when we had to vote at the county seat and it took a day to travel in both directions.  As the title suggests, Israel/Ornstein favor weekend voting.

A thought piece in the Washington Post by Marc Fisher makes clear that there is more at stake than simply trying to increase voter turnout.  He deplores early voting laws that spread the vote out over weeks.  Citing my colleague Bob Putnam, Fisher notes that voting is a collective act, a chance to affirm one’s commitment in front of one’s neighbors:

Voting is a proud expression of who we are and of our belief in our system and our future. It is an individual act but a communal experience. It is a statement we make about ourselves, to ourselves, but also to each other. It is how we say, “I am part of something larger, and my voice matters, and so does yours.” When we chip away at that communal experience, we diminish democracy.”

Voting alone could be worse than bowling alone,” says Dennis Thompson, a political philosopher at Harvard University, referring to Robert Putnam’s book arguing that as Americans have withdrawn from community and civic activities, our sense of trust and political engagement has declined. Early voting, Thompson says, “divides people, and in elections, we’re all supposed to be equal. The meaning of an election is that all of us come together to make decisions based on our common experience.” Take away the chance to vote together and you take away some of that meaning.

And while in Obama’s case, it looks like early voting favors disaffected African-American voters drawn to the polls for the first time in decades, who might otherwise not vote amidst the long lines and delays on Election Day or have their right to vote questioned, history shows otherwise.

“Early voting is a strongly biased opportunity,” Thompson argues. “Some people have more information than others.” In local and state races, voters might not hear much about candidates until the final week. That’s when less well-funded candidates might make their big push, and it’s when newspapers and other media produce voter guides.

More disturbing, early voters tend to be “older, better educated and more cognitively engaged in the campaign and in politics,” Gronke says.

“Early voting encourages a campaign strategy that divides the electorate and conceives of early voters as a different group,” Thompson says. Last week, Obama spent a big chunk of time in Florida just as early voting began there….

Either way, early voting shouldn’t be a partisan issue. The real debate should be about whether convenience is more important than the unique power of Election Day to pull us out of our atomized lives and put us in one room with our neighbors so that we see, if only briefly, just what we are voting about.

It may be that weekend voting is the best compromise: enabling more people to vote, easing the hunt for poll workers (whose average age is now usually in their 70s or 80s), delaying early voting until more of the electorate is well informed, and increasing the communal aspect of voting, even if spread out over two days.

See Marc Fisher’s “In Early Voting Trend, Democracy is the Biggest Loser” (Washington Post, 10/24/08).

Priming people to vote

Priming you to vote for Obama? (Obama mosaic of people image by tsevis)

Priming you to vote for Obama? (Obama mosaic of people image by tsevis)

Priming is the influencing of an outcome by exposing people to some stimulus in advance (a picture, a concept, an advertisement) that then influences their subsequent outcome in systematic ways.  Nobelist Daniel Kahneman and others talk about the pervasiveness of this effect and how it can influence voting…

KAHNEMAN: “…We are all aware that our behavior and our thoughts and feelings are highly context-dependent: none of us is quite the same person at home and in the office, in bed or in the subway. We are used to the context-dependency of our behavior and we have stories that make sense of it—social pressure, norms etc. What we are learning from the priming-anchoring effects is that context-dependency is mediated in part by multiple subtle cues of which we are not necessarily aware. ”

The effects according to Kahneman are systematic and pervasive (with a HOST of examples).  The magnitude of the effect is not negligible but not overpowering.  And the effect doesn’t always persist.  It happens without us being aware of the prime (and even consciously explaining that the priming influence did NOT influence our behavior), but it affects us nonetheless, unless on issues on which we have irrevocably made up our mind.

This dialogue is taken from a fascinating conversation on Edge 262 with W. Daniel Hillis, Kahneman, Nathan Myhrvold, Richard Thaler, Elon Musk, France LeClerc, Salar Kamangar, Anne Treisman, Sendhil Mullainathan, Jeff Bezos, and Sean Parker.

MYHRVOLD: You can make Democrats and Republicans by threatening them with death? That’s fascinating!

KAHNEMAN: Those effects would be small at the margin, but there are those effects that are small at the margin that can change election results.

You call and ask people ahead of time, “Will you vote?”. That’s all. “Do you intend to vote?”. That increases voting participation substantially, and you can measure it. It’s a completely trivial manipulation, but saying ‘Yes’ to a stranger, “I will vote” …

MYHRVOLD: But…suppose you had the choice of calling up and saying, “Are you going to vote?”, so you prime them to vote, versus exhorting them to vote.

KAHNEMAN: The prime could very well work better than the exhortation because exhortation is going to induce resistance, whereas the prime ‚the mild embarrassment causes you to make what feels like a commitment, and the commitment, if it’s sufficiently precise, is going to have an effect on behavior.

THALER: If you ask them when they’re going to vote, and how they’re going to get there, that increases voting.

KAHNEMAN: And where….Here is a study, this one will demonstrate that those effects are not so weak. You look for support for school bonds, and what you look for is where were the polling stations. When the polling station is in a school, you get measurable effects on the support for school bonds. They increase. That is non-trivial, it’s in the real world, except that you have something that is focused, you know what the direction is. You expose a lot of people to the prime, and you observe the behavior, and it’s quite measurable.

THALER: And to answer your question, on that one, my recollection is the magnitude is something like 2 or 3 percent. It’s not a huge effect, but a noticeable effect.

KAHNEMAN: Yes, that’s what you would expect.

MULLAINATHAN: There is another response to this question. And I’ve struggled a lot with this question. If these effects are so big, how can it be, right?

There is another more controversial response to that, which is, let’s say that the two phenomena that are opposing each other is that people are relatively consistent and stable, but these effects suggest a lot of instability. One resolution to that is that, in fact, people are not consistent and stable …… and, the bias is that we think ourselves and others are consistent and stable when we’re not. There is good evidence that if you take even something as simple as stated preference for Democrat, Republican, test-retest validity on these things is tiny, risk aversion measures have tiny test-retest validity. One possible resolution control of this is that the mistake is on our end in presuming stable interpersonal characteristics.

KAHNEMAN: That’s a beautiful way of putting it, because one of the things that psychologists have been exercising over and over for decades is the relative impact of personality, if you will, or character or temperament—internal factors as against environmental factors in the control of behavior. We have a hugely powerful bias against the environment as a determinant of behavior. We tend to believe that somebody is behaving that way because he wants to behave that way, because he tends to behave that way, because that’s his nature. It turns out that the environmental effects on behavior are a lot stronger than most people expect.

KAHNEMAN: …Another condition is a pile of Monopoly money on a neighboring table. What would you guess, by the way? Those of you who have read it shouldn’t guess, but can you guess? I was stunned by the result, which I wouldn’t have predicted. But can you guess what priming people with money will do? They don’t want help. They’re on their own. They also don’t want to give help. You’ve got very clever ways of manipulating that, of observing that, but my favorite is the experimenter that comes in clutching a batch of pencils, and the pencils drop on the floor. The dependent variable of the study, the number of pencils the person picks up, is fewer if there is money on that screen saver.

MYHRVOLD: [On effect of playing Monopoly in advance]…Makes them Democrats?

HILLIS: Republican.

KAHNEMAN: It’s closer to making them Republican. It makes them individualists. And it’s quite deep, and very unexpected. It doesn’t make them good or bad, it just makes them different.

Here is the whole conversation on Edge 262.

Note: in another recent priming example relevant to social capital, scientists found that you feel warmer to someone you just met if you are holding a hot cup of coffee rather than a cold beverage. Not kidding…See study by Lawrence Williams (Univ. of Colorado) and John Bargh of Yale here in Science magazine.

For an interesting post not on priming, but on getting individuals to make commitments to voting, see the Freakonomics blog post on how to improve efficiency and effectiveness in the voting process through enforcable commitments to vote in Ian Ayres’ “A Political Do Not Call List“.