I just read Nik Gowing’s book entitled “Skyful of Lies and Black Swans: The New Tyranny of Shifting Information Power in Crises.” The term “Black Swan” refers to sudden onset crises and the title of an excellent book on the topic by Nassim Taleb. “Skyful of Lies,” were the words used by the Burmese junta to dismiss the deluge of digital evidence of the mass pro-democracy protests that took place in 2007.
Nik packs in some very interesting content in this study, a lot of which is directly relevant to my dissertation research and consulting work. He describes the rise of new media as “having an asymmetric, negative impact on the traditional structures of power.”
Indeed, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband labeled this “shifting of power from state to citizen as the new ‘civilian surge.'” To be sure, “that ‘civilian surge’ of growing digital empowerment is forcing an enhanced level of accountability that […] is a ‘real change to democracy’.” As for authoritarian regimes, “the impact of new media technologies has been shown to be as potentially ‘subversive’ as for highly developed democratic states.”
However, Nik recognizes that “the implications for power and policy-makers is not well developed or appreciated.” He adds that “the implications of this new level of empowerment are profound but still, in many ways, unquantifiable.” Hence the purpose and focus of my dissertation.
Time Lines out of Sync
Nik notes that the time lines of media action and institutional reaction are increasingly out of sync. “The information pipelines facilitated by the new media can provide information and revelations within minutes. But the apparatus of government, the military or the corporate world remain conditioned to take hours.”
Take for example, the tube and train bombings in London, 2005. During the first three hours following the incidents, the official government line was that an accidental power surge had caused the catastrophe. Meanwhile, some 1,300 blog posts were written within just 80 minutes of the terrorist attack which pointed to explosive devices as the cause. “The content of the real-time reporting of 20,000 emails, 3,000 text messages, 1,000 digital images and 20 video clips was both dramatic and largely correct.”
New Media and Accuracy
I find the point about accuracy particularly interesting. According to Nik, the repeated warnings that new media and user-generated content (UGC) cannot be trusted “does not seem to apply in a major crisis.”
“Far from it. The accumulated evidence is that the asymmetric torrent of overwhelming ‘amateur’ inputs from the new generators of content produces largely accurate, if personalized, information in real time. It may be imperfect and incomplete as the crisis time line unfolds.
There is also the risk of exaggeration or downright misleading ‘reporting’. But the impact is profound. Internal BBC research discovered that audiences are understanding if errors or exaggerations creep in by way of such information doer material, as long as they are sourced and later corrected.
In addition, the concept of trust can ‘flex’ in a crisis. Trust does not diminish as long as the ongoing levels of doubt or lack of certainty are always made clear. It is about ‘doing your best in [a] world where speed and information are the keys’. But the research concluded that the BBC needed to do more work to analyze the implications of the UGC phenomenon for accuracy, speed, personalization, dialogue and trust. That challenge is the same for all traditional media organizations.
Low Tech Power
Nik describes the onslaught of new media as the low tech empowerment of the media space. During the Burma protests of 2007, “the ad hoc community of risk-taking information doers became empowered. Those undisputed and widely corroborated images swiftly challenged the authority and claims of the regime.”
During the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, both foreign journalists and aid agencies were forbidden from entering the country. But one producer and camera operator from a major news organization “managed to enter the country on tourist visas. Before being arrested and deported they evaded security checks and military intelligence to record vivid video that confirmed the terrible impact and human cost of the cyclone. Hiding in ditches they beamed it out of the country on a new tiny, portable Bgan satellite uplink carried in a hiker’s backpack.”
This is definitely an example of the “asymmetric, negative impact on the traditional structures of power,” that Nik refers to in his introduction. Question is, how much of a threat does this asymmetry pose to repressive regimes? That is one of the fundamental questions I pose in my dissertation research.
I’ve got to get that book. Great post, as usual.
Thanks for reading, Erik!
Surely, it is possible to add credit for the image. You will find the original here – http://www.conversationagent.com/2007/11/what-is-new-med.html
It took a bit of work to pull together. Thank you.
Hi Valeria, thanks for a great image. You’ll note that I actually link directly to the source if you click on the image itself. Let me know if you’d like me to do anything in addition.
Thanks for a great post once again. Only recently came into here, and pleasantly surprised about the quality of the blog and of the community you seem to have collected around it. Great work!
On the issue of new media favouring the population, I’m not so sure whether this this might be a time-lag in the reaction of repressive regimes though. Certainly, it’s true that – at the moment – the balance of new media seems to favour the indivdual citizens. The protests in Iran seem to confirm that the Iranian regime was not prepared for this sudden outcry of the population through new media (though some already discount the term ‘Twitter-revolution’, see http://therealnews.com/t/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=3941).
However, the picture from China is different, as they DO seem to realise what the influence (or, in Chinese perspective, ‘threat’) of new media will be. Within a few hours of the – seemingly entirely unexpected – protests in Xinjiang, the Chinese government was able to shut down cell phones, internet and texting. Give them some time to learn and they’ll be able to do it in minutes.
Secondly, the Chinese government is becoming much more skilled in spindoctoring. The day after the first riots, Chinese officials asked journalists to come and see for themselves what damage the Uighurs had done. A well-crafted official story was to fill the headlines of newspapers. Sadly, this setup was disrupted by protesting Uighur women, demanding to know where their family was. This certainly won’t happen next time.
Also, the development of the Green Dam software is very worrying. Not for what it is now (a hacked net-nanny), but for what it reveals of the intentions of the Chinese government. Do we really think that Chinese hackers can still circumvent censorship if the CCP puts its full weight in this battle?
My point being that technology is on the side of civilians fighting for freedom – at this moment. As stated above, it changes the traditional structure of power and upsets long-lived hierarchies. But this is not where the story ends. Repressive governments are starting to realise what this means for themselves, and are starting to act on it. I’m quite sure that the Iranian and Chinese examples have led to the development of ICT-branches in other regimes less in the public eye. Vietnam? Sri Lanka? Who knows. In this information age, the potential for expression is great – but the potential for repression at least just as great. With the difference that governments tend to have near-infinite money, personnel and the law on their side. And once that dust settles, I’m not so sure it will be the bloggers who will have the last laugh.
(Though I’m sure as hell going to fight for it.)
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