Blog

Bankrolling Ethics: Do Tech Investors Have a Responsibility to Protect Democracy?

Are fake news and the misuse of personal data just unintended consequences of a new technology? Scholars Sandra Goh and Jack Loveridge believe tech investors have an ethical imperative to head off potential harms to democracy early on.

Image of a sign with the words "we are not fake news" written on the back

By Sandra Goh and Jack Loveridge

New startups are launching innovative technologies with the potential to transform democracies around the world, often in foreseeable ways. Always looking toward the future, early investors in new tech should work to infuse a startup’s business model with an ethical outlook that upholds democratic values. For a case in point, look no further than the recent history of a humble dorm room startup that attained a remarkable global reach: Facebook. 

It’s now been over a year since CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivered his much-publicized testimony before the US Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary Committees. Since then, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal—in which data from 87 million user profiles were made available to third party developers seeking to influence the 2016 US presidential election and the UK’s Brexit referendum—his company has struggled to reassure the world of its good intentions. 

At first glance, Facebook’s effort to revitalize its global reputation appeared to be paying off with a reported $16.9 billion in second quarter earnings. Last month, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined the company $5 billion for privacy violations—the largest penalty levied in its history, but a modest sum for a company with a market capitalization of over half a trillion dollars. Still, significant questions remain regarding the platform's monetization of user data and potential amplification of disinformation.
 
So many of these current concerns derive from specific choices made by Facebook’s founders and investors early in the company’s life that determined what might be called its ethical trajectory. They also rest upon popular assumptions regarding investor responsibility and the relationship between technological change and democratic governance. During his testimony, Zuckerberg reflected, “The history of how we got here [to the Cambridge Analytica scandal] is we started off in my dorm room with not a lot of resources and not having the AI technology to proactively identify this stuff.”

 By “this stuff,” Zuckerberg meant the harvesting of the personal data of millions of users without their consent by third party companies who used it to deploy targeted political advertising. While it is difficult to believe that no one at Facebook could have foreseen such abuses, Zuckerberg hit the mark in describing a popularly held conception of how technology and policy interact over time. Historically, the negative consequences of new technologies would appear to be addressed after the fact, by policy initiatives and popular movements. Regulation and restraint, it is assumed, do not emerge as preventive measures, but instead come in due time in response to innovation’s unavoidable excesses.
 
The First Industrial Revolution, for instance, famously enriched factory owners and fueled Britain's imperial expansion across Asia and Africa, prompting a popular reaction that would champion sweeping labor reforms at home and an end to colonialism abroad. In the United States, the Progressive Movement of the early 1900s rode a wave of public outcry regarding abuses in the food processing, manufacturing, and mining sectors. It championed a host of legislation designed to protect and empower the public, including the Pure Food and Drug Act that led to the establishment of the FDA and made unhygienic, adulterated, and mislabeled consumer goods rare. What if the assumption that restraint and ethical evaluation must come only after technological misuse and abuse is incorrect? What if what’s needed now isn’t AI to mop up the mess, but rather human insight to assess first assumptions?... Read more about Bankrolling Ethics: Do Tech Investors Have a Responsibility to Protect Democracy?

From Deluge to Drought: The Inescapable Role of Water in the History of South Asia

In his latest book, historian Sunil Amrith describes the ageless link between water and prosperity in South Asia and examines the new challenges of climate change.

Image of water droplets on a taxi window.

By Michelle Nicholasen

The monsoon is often referred to as India’s “finance minister,” writes Faculty Associate Sunil Amrith, because the economy of South Asia is deeply tied to the amount of rainfall the monsoon brings each year—to fill aquifers, irrigate agriculture, and drive hydroelectricity. But climate change is threatening to shift the patterns of the monsoon, making it more erratic, with the potential to destabilize livelihoods throughout the region. 

In his latest book, Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas Have Shaped Asia’s History, Amrith describes the intricate role water plays in the interconnected economic and social structures of South Asia, and tells the stories of people and institutions that have undertaken massive efforts to harness water and control its distribution. 

Q: How would you describe the summer (or Southwest) monsoon to someone who has never experienced it?
 

A: It feels like the world is dissolving. Both the intensity and the pervasiveness of water during those months of the year are what characterize them. And if you're in a big city like Mumbai, you are certainly in this “floating city” to some extent. 

I think one of the defining features of the monsoon climate is its period of waiting, which is culturally very resonant in South Asia. Going back to the great Indian epic poems, you have this account of waiting for the rains to come, and of course they come after the heat has built and built and built through April and May. The phrase often used is "the burst of the monsoon."... Read more about From Deluge to Drought: The Inescapable Role of Water in the History of South Asia

We Can Do It! (Or Can We?) Angela Merkel’s Immigration Politics

Germany faces the political and social challenges of migration.

Image of "Wir schaffen das" written on a cracked German flag

In 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced she would open borders to refugees, especially to those fleeing the war in Syria. This act immediately created a new reputation for Germany as being Europe’s most welcoming country. But sometimes well-meaning policies collide with realities on the ground. WCFIA Visiting Scholar Gökce Yurdakul and coauthor Hartmut Koenitz examine the political pressures that have challenged—and even warped—Merkel’s progressive goals toward migrants. 

By Gökce Yurdakul and Hartmut Koenitz

The immigration politics of Angela Merkel is a sensitive issue in our household. I told my partner Hartmut that we should write about Angela Merkel’s immigration and gender politics in time for her commencement speech at Harvard, and his reply was a curt “have fun.”

I, Gökce, came to Germany as a Turkish immigrant a decade ago, and for immigrants like me, Merkel has been a symbol of encouragement. Her famous words “Wir schaffen das!” or “We can do it!” (similar to Obama’s “Yes, we can!”) illustrated the legacy of Merkel’s political office in one message: “Welcome to Germany; we will accommodate you.” Her statements felt like a green light for many of us immigrants, and showed more acceptance than migrants to Germany had seen in the last fifty-five years, ever since Germany’s guest worker agreements with Turkey and other southern European and North African countries1 sparked a wave of migration to Germany after World War II.

My partner, Hartmut, on the other hand, takes an entirely different view. Whenever Angela Merkel’s politics is the topic of discussion in our home, he explains how for many Germans of his generation—people who were born in the 1970s in Germany—Merkel mostly represents a standstill, an extension of her mentor Helmut Kohl’s quest to keeping the status quo. In German media and politics, Merkel has been notoriously criticized in the past for her politics of Aussitzen (meaning “sitting out,” or stoically waiting for challenges to pass) as opposed to making fundamental changes, such as in the reform years of the Social Democratic and Green Party coalition (1998–2005) before her term. 

But I don’t see stagnation in Merkel’s migration policy; I believe she has steered Germany in a more progressive direction. How do we explain our vastly different interpretations of Merkel’s politics?... Read more about We Can Do It! (Or Can We?) Angela Merkel’s Immigration Politics

Cross-Border Cosmopolitans

Historian Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey tells the story of the African migrants who circulated between the Caribbean and the North America in the twentieth century, and how a subset of them built a transnational life, and racial solidarity, along the US-Canadian border.

Photo of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Paradise marquee

As a worldwide movement to unite people of African descent, Pan-Africanism may have found its ideal reflected in a community that resided between Canada and the US in the early twentieth century. With fluid borders to aid their mobility, migrant blacks in the Great Lakes region forged a thriving community with arts, sports, intellectualism, and political consciousness at the center of social life. It was a brief yet remarkable piece of black diasporic history that calls into question the utility of rigid national borders and identities.
 
By Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey

The international refugee crisis—the result of internal strife and wars, poverty, climate change, and unstable governments—threatens the global order. In the Americas, this calamity is forcing migrants to seek safety and opportunity in the United States and Canada. From the turn of the twentieth century to the Great Depression, agricultural downturn, low standard of living, and natural disasters and epidemics compelled roughly 100,000 immigrants from the Caribbean and Central America to seek opportunity in the United States. Canada’s strict policies prohibiting black immigrants meant that fewer than three thousand entered the Dominion in the same period.

From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, black bodies often circulated around the Caribbean and Central and North America, driven by plantation economies and imperial rivalries. In North America, in fact, cross-border migration specifically between the United States and Canada represented self-determination. For example, the Underground Railroad, a network of clandestine safe houses and passageways, facilitated the escape of tens of thousands of enslaved persons to northern US states or into British North America (Canada) during the antebellum period in the early 1800s. After Congress enacted the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, a law that allowed the capture and return of runaways, upwards of thirty thousand fugitives and free persons crossed the border into Canada. Some of these refugees returned to fight in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Many more returned to the US in the promising Reconstruction years.... Read more about Cross-Border Cosmopolitans

In the Crosshairs of an Academic Crackdown

Even when her colleagues at the American University in Cairo were getting arrested and sentenced to death, sociologist Amy Austin Holmes thought she had kept herself safely under the radar. She was wrong.

Holmes with members of the Syrian Democratic Forces

By Michelle Nicholasen

It was a straightforward proposal and seemingly benign research topic. In 2016, as a newly tenured professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Amy Austin Holmes was thrilled to receive a grant to analyze the impact of the new, restrictive NGO law on civil society across Egypt—whose government had become increasingly autocratic under the rule of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. At the time, she had no reason to believe her work was being tracked by state intelligence.

Each of her five associates would study a different group or region of the country, with her own focus being the Nubians in the southern part of the country. She was drawn to the culture and history of the Nubians of Upper Egypt because they reminded her of the Kurds, another group that was central to her scholarship.

Descendants from an ancient civilization in the Sudan, Nubians have lived in the border area between Egypt and Sudan for thousands of years. Dam construction along the Nile forced their relocation several times in the twentieth century. Holmes knew that as an African ethnic group, the Nubians had been “Arabized” or forced to relinquish their language and indigenous identity, like some of the Kurdish groups she had studied.

Two major political developments affecting the Nubians had occurred in recent years, and she wanted to study the impact these changes had on the community.

In 2013—after a military coup removed the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi, and appointed an interim president—a new version of the constitution included an article promising Nubians the right to return to some of their traditional homeland in Egypt within ten years. It was a surprising and unprecedented gesture that hinted at a possible new period of liberalization.

And in 2016, under the presidency of military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a new law was drafted forbidding NGOs to accept foreign support, a move that would hamper civil organizations—including those that served the Nubians.

By the time Holmes embarked on her Nubian research, the climate was already fraught, since a protest law had been put into place even before the NGO law. “They made it illegal to protest…and all of these horrible things started happening. Disappearances, and the mass death sentences,” she says.... Read more about In the Crosshairs of an Academic Crackdown

The Lasting Power of Nonviolent Resistance—Part 2

Political scientist Erica Chenoweth discusses recent trends in nonviolent resistance, the flip side of social media, and how successful terrorism really is.

Image of graffiti with the message the revolution will not be tweeted

By Michelle Nicholasen

This is the second of a three-part series with Erica Chenoweth about her work on nonviolent resistance. Read the first part here

When she started her predoctoral fellowship at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in 2006, Erica Chenoweth believed in the strategic logic of armed resistance. She had studied terrorism, civil war, and major revolutions—Russian, French, Algerian, and American—and suspected that only violent force had achieved major social and political change. So, when a workshop challenged her to prove that violent resistance was more successful than nonviolent resistance, she thought: of course. The question had never been addressed systematically, so she and her colleague Maria J. Stephan turned it into a research project.

For the next two years, Chenoweth and Stephan collected data on all violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006 that resulted in the overthrow of a government or territorial liberation. They created a dataset of 323 mass actions, and, leaving no angle unexamined, Chenoweth analyzed and regressed nearly 160 different variables related to success criteria, categories of participants, state capacity, and more. The results turned Chenoweth’s long-held paradigm on its head—in the aggregate, nonviolent civil resistance campaigns were far more successful in effecting change than violent ones. 

Q: The main argument of Why Civil Resistance Works is that nonviolent campaigns have a higher rate of success than violent ones. The data in your book start in 1900 and end in the early 2000s. Is this trend still holding up?
 

A: I have some preliminary data that run through 2017, and it's still the case that nonviolent resistance campaigns of a maximalist nature like the ones in the book are lots more successful than violent ones. However, they're not as absolutely successful as they were in the period that we looked at in our book. The average rate of success over that century was about 50 percent. And in the past eight years it's dropped down to 33 percent. However, the average success rate for violent campaigns dropped from 27 to 10 percent. It’s actually surprising because in absolute terms both types of resistance have become less effective this decade, but nonviolent resistance is now three times more effective than violent resistance. Therefore, the relative gap between effectiveness has increased.... Read more about The Lasting Power of Nonviolent Resistance—Part 2

History's Hatred: China’s War on Drugs and the Power of Past Violence

Once part and parcel of Asia’s political economy during the age of imperialism, the opium trade wreaked social havoc in China and provoked an international movement toward drug control that endures to the present day. 

Drawing of woman and child turning away from opium smoker

By Steffen Rimner

For more than one hundred years, China has been waging a War on Drugs. For most of that century, its commitment to fight drug distribution and consumption was ironclad. 

The same is true today; China’s most recent public diplomacy has left little doubt that its anti-drug zeal has not abated. In spring 2009, the National Narcotics Commission of China joined hands with the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to host seventeen member states of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB).1 Combining public fanfare with diplomatic finesse, the centennial highlighted the International Opium Commission (wanguo jinyan hui) of 1909 in Shanghai as the first-ever anti-drug summit in human history. The one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of global drug control, supported equally by Beijing and the international community, offered ready material for an intrinsically global politics of history, almost like a bait to fish.2
    
By 2019, only the centennial itself has been relegated to history. The screens announcing an “existing spirit of shared responsibilities and mutual trust”3 have disappeared. So has the carefully choreographed exhibit featuring global drug control as China’s brainchild. Likewise, the Shanghai Declaration, proclaiming Chinese and international cooperation in global drug control, is now gathering dust, devolved into a historical document.4 Most dramatically, even the luster of high office in Chinese drug control did not shield officials from sudden state scrutiny. At the commemoration of 2009, Meng Hongwei gave one of the major speeches as acting vice minister of public security. In 2018, he resigned as chief of Interpol after being arrested by his own government on charges of corruption.... Read more about History's Hatred: China’s War on Drugs and the Power of Past Violence

The Lasting Power of Nonviolent Resistance—Part 1

A Harvard professor challenges a long-held assumption about political revolution.

Graffiti graphic of a red fist with a heart in the middle

By Michelle Nicholasen

This is the first of a three-part series with Erica Chenoweth about her work on nonviolent resistance. 

When she started her predoctoral fellowship at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in 2006, Erica Chenoweth believed in the strategic logic of armed resistance. She had studied terrorism, civil war, and major revolutions—Russian, French, Algerian, and American—and suspected that only violent force had achieved major social and political change. So, when a workshop challenged her to prove that violent resistance was more successful than nonviolent resistance, she thought: of course. The question had never been addressed systematically, so she and her colleague Maria J. Stephan turned it into a research project.

For the next two years, Chenoweth and Stephan collected data on all violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006 that resulted in the overthrow of a government or territorial liberation. They created a dataset of 323 mass actions, and, leaving no angle unexamined, Chenoweth analyzed and regressed nearly 160 different variables related to success criteria, categories of participants, state capacity, and more. The results turned Chenoweth’s long-held paradigm on its head—in the aggregate, nonviolent civil resistance campaigns were far more successful in effecting change than violent ones. 

The Weatherhead Center sat down with Chenoweth, a new Faculty Associate who recently returned to Harvard Kennedy School this year as a professor of public policy, and asked her to explain her findings and share her goals for future research.... Read more about The Lasting Power of Nonviolent Resistance—Part 1

Trump’s Impact on the World: Timothy J. Colton on Russia

Harvard Professor of Government and Russian Studies Timothy Colton discusses the fraught relationship between the US and Russia under the Trump administration.

Image of Tim Colton and Melani Cammett at the orientation panel

This is the third blog post in a series of edited transcripts from a panel on Trump's presidency held during our orientation in August 28, 2018. Our three panelists were Christina L. Davis, Melani Cammett, and Timothy Colton. 

Since the panel took place, the following events have occurred. The investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election has intensified, with more indictments and sentences handed down to President Trump’s associates, bringing the total number of indictments and guilty pleas in the investigation to thirty-three.

In October, the Justice Department filed criminal charges against several Russian operatives, accusing them of conducting “information warfare” during the US midterm elections. In a constitutionally questionable move the day after the midterms, President Trump replaced Attorney General Jeff Sessions with Matthew Whitaker, who is serving as acting attorney general overseeing the investigation until an official replacement is confirmed.

Further, Trump’s abrupt announcement in December that he would be withdrawing American troops from Syria prompted the sudden resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The troop withdrawal was praised by Vladimir Putin, who analysts say can now work more strategically with Assad to form a dominant power alliance in the region.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Talk delivered by Timothy Colton:

So let's talk about Trump and Russia. 

This is a tangled tale. I sat down last night to try and update my sense of this. I've written a few op-ed pieces, but I think it's very hard to do scholarly work that comes to the point of publishing really scholarly papers, let alone books, on this subject because it changes almost from week to week. 

Once we have some distance in time, we may be able to make better sense of it than we can just for the moment. It is a tangled tale, and it also has been rendered. You [Melani Cammett] mentioned cable television. So cable television, of course, is on this story, but often in a rather simple-minded way, it seems to me. And it would be nice to improve on the media interpretation, but it's hard to come up with an alternative one that's more grounded in normal scholarly frames.... Read more about Trump’s Impact on the World: Timothy J. Colton on Russia

Trump’s Impact on the World: Melani Cammett on the Middle East

Harvard Professor of International Affairs Melani Cammett reviews the range of US policy stances in the Middle East and asks us to examine the difference between concrete policy shifts and skillful rhetoric.

Image of Melani Cammett and Michele Lamont

This is the second blog post in a series of edited transcripts from a panel on Trump's presidency held during our orientation in August 28, 2018. Our three panelists were Christina L. Davis, Melani Cammett, and Timothy Colton

Since the panel took place, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey. President Trump’s failure to condemn Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman or to hold Saudi Arabia responsible has been widely viewed as a moral failing and an extreme act of favoritism. Some believe the incident has upset the dynamics of US relations with its Gulf allies, underscoring US permissiveness and bias toward Saudi Arabia.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Talk delivered by Melani Cammett:

Trump's impact on the Middle East is both radical and minimal. There are elements of it that I would say could be interpreted as really radical and new, and a lot of it is really not that new, but just dressed up in a lot of rhetoric and incendiary language and so forth. 

I'll start with the radical side. And maybe radical is too strong of a word, but I'll just use it to be provocative. 

There are several pillars of American foreign policy toward this region that I'll address. And I think in each one, you could interpret some of his [Trump’s] moves as new and destabilizing and radical. So I'll focus on the relationship with Israel, the relationship with the conservative Gulf Arab monarchies, and the war on terrorism. And there's always oil percolating in there in one way or another.... Read more about Trump’s Impact on the World: Melani Cammett on the Middle East