Tag Archives: Social Media

Is Journalism Just Failed Crowdsourcing?

This provocative question materialized during a recent conversation I had with a Professor of Political Science whilst in New York in this week. Major news companies like CNN have started to crowdsource citizen generated news on the basis that “looking at the news from different angles gives us a deeper understanding of what’s going on.” CNN’s iReporter thus invites citizens to help shape the news “in order to paint a more complete picture of the news.”

This would imply that traditional journalism has provided a relatively incomplete picture of global events. So the question is, if crowdsourcing platforms had been available to journalists one hundred years ago, would they view these platforms as an exciting opportunity to get early leads on breaking stories? The common counter argument is: but crowdsourcing “opens the floodgates” of information and we simply can’t follow up on everything. Yes, but whoever said that every lead requires follow up?

Journalists are not always interested in following up on every lead that comes their way. They’ll select a few sources, interview them and then write up the story. What crowdsourcing citizen generated news does, however, is to provide them with many more leads to choose from. Isn’t this an ideal set up for a journalist? Instead of having to chase down leads across town, the leads come directly to them with names, phone numbers and email addresses.

Imagine that the field of journalism had started out using crowdsourcing platforms combined with investigative journalism. If these platforms were then outlawed for whatever reason, would investigative journalists be hindered in their ability to cover the news from different angles? Or would they still be able to paint an equally complete picture of the news?

Granted, one common criticism of citizen journalism is the lack of context they provide especially when using Twitter given the 140 characters restriction. But surely 140 characters are plenty for the purposes of a potential lead. And if a mountain of Tweets started to point to the same lead story, then a professional journalist could take advantage of this information when deciding whether or not to follow up.

Source: CoolThing

I also find the criticism against Twitter interesting coming from traditional journalists. In the early 1900s, large newspapers started hiring war correspondents “who used the new telegraph and expanding railways to move news faster to their newspapers.” However, the cost of sending telegrams forced reporters to develop a “new concise or ‘tight’ style of writing which became the standard for journalism through the next century.”

Today, the costs of hiring professional journalists means that a newspaper like the Herald (at the time),  is not going to send any modern Henry Stanley to find a certain Dr. Livingstone in Africa. And besides, if the Herald had global crowdsourcing platforms back in the 1870s, they may have instead used Twitter to crowdsource the coordinates of Dr. Livingstone.

This may imply that traditional journalism was primarily shaped by the constraint of technology at the time. In a teleological sense, then, crowdsourcing may simply by the next phase in the future of journalism.

Patrick Philippe Meier

The Prospects for Cyberocracy

David Ronfeldt at RAND just sent me his new (co-authored) piece on “The Prospects for Cyberacrocy” which I found particularly interesting given the contrast to his original paper of the same name in 1992. David’s timing is impeccable since I am co-teaching a course on Digital Democracy with my colleague Joshua Goldstein. The course is being offered this Spring semester as part of the interdisciplinary Media and Commincation Studies Program at Tufts University.

Since David’s paper is 70 pages long, what follows is a concise 5-page summary with  references to additional contemporary works (e.g., by Clay Shirky, Yochai Benkler, Antony Loewenstein, etc.), and current examples written specifically for our Digital Democracy students.

In 1992, David Ronfeldt wrote that a “precise definition of cyberocracy was not possible at present.” In a general sense, then, he identified two ways in which cyberocracy may manifest itself:

  1. Narrowly, as a form of organization that supplants traditional forms of bureaucracy and technocracy;
  2. Broadly, as a form of government that may redefine relations between state and society, and between the public sector and the private sector.

Ronfeldt cautions that optimism about the information revolution should be tempered by an anticipation of it’s potential dark side. He contrasts term cyberocracy with aristocracy and theocracy—under which the high-born and high priests ruled respectively. The author argues that cyberocracy, a product of the information revolution, may slowly but radically affect who rules, how and why. That is, “information and its control will become a dominant source of power, as a natural next step in political evolution.”

Clay Shirky would certainly agree. “When we change the way we communicate, we change society.   The tools that a society uses to create and maintain itself are as central to human life as a hive is to bee life.” However, “the mere tools aren’t enough. The tools are simply a way of channeling existing motivation.”

Citing earlier research, David suggests that consequences of new technology can be usefully thought of as first-order and second-order effects. The first-order effect can be  framed as gains in efficiency. “The history of previous technologies demonstrates that early in the life of a new technology, people are likely to emphasize the efficiency effects and underestimate or overlook potential social system effects.”

The second-order effects bring about behavioral and organizational change which affect how people think and work together. New systems of thought are thus generated by second-order effects. “The major impact will probably be felt in terms of the organization and behavior of the modern bureaucratic state.” Take the printing press, for example, “it created conditions that favored, first, new combinations of old ideas and, then, the creation of entirely new systems of thought.”

In “Seeing Like a State,” James Scott explains why certain state-centered schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Scott writes that “no administrative system is capable of representing [or monitoring] every existing social community except through a heroic and greatly schematized process of abstraction and simplification.” David Ronfeldt provides additional insight: “the hierarchical structuring of bureaucracies into offices, departments, and lines of authority may confound the flow of information that may be needed to deal with complex issues in today’s increasingly interconnected world.”

Would a cyberocracy provide a more effective political template to improve the human condition? Ronfeldt might be tempted to answer in the affirmative. Clay Shirky [2008] and Yochai Benkler [2006] would not hesitate to reply with a resounding yes.

Ronfeldt writes that “bureaucracy depends on going through channels and keeping information in bounds; in contrast, cyberocracy may place a premium on gaining information from any source, public or private. Technocracy emphasizes ‘hard’ quantitative and econometric skills, like programming and budgeting methodologies; in contrast, a cyberocracy may bring a new emphasis on ‘soft’ symbolic, cultural, and psychological dimensions of policymaking and public opinion.”

As Clay Shirky notes, “if you want to organize the work of even dozens of individuals, you have to manage them.  As organizations grow into the hundreds or thousands, you also have to manage the managers, and eventually to manage the managers’ managers.  Simply to exist at that size, an organization has to take on the costs of all that management.” This template is hardly likely to improve today’s interconnected challenges.

In “Wealth of Networks“, Benkler writes that the “actual practice of freedom that we see emerging from the networked environment allows people to reach across national or social boundaries, across space and political division. It allows people to solve problems together in new associations that are outside the boundaries of formal, legal-political association.”

Writing in the early 1990s, pioneer computer technologist Alan Kay anticipates the rise of blogs which are in effect new types of associations that stand outside of traditional boundaries (cited in Ronfeldt):  “The retrieval systems of the future are not going to retrieve facts but points of view.  The weakness of databases is that they let you retrieve facts, while the strength of our culture over the past several hundred years has been our ability to take on multiple points of view.”

However, authoritarian regimes (and some democratic ones according to Noam Chomsky), typically crack down on the ability of individuals to express multiple points of view. Writing in 1992, Ronfeldt states that “some of today’s trendier points—e.g., the information revolution empowers individuals, favors open societies, and portends a worldwide triumph for democracy—may not hold up as times change.”

Ronfeldt suggests that the information revolution will foster more open and closed systems; more decentralization and centralization; more inclusionary and exclusionary communities; more privacy and surveillance; more freedom and authority; more democracy and new forms of totalitarianism.

Ronfeldt provides a superb critque of those who maintain that decentralization and networks explain and ensure the success in the new business environment. However, “complex organizations depend on some kind of hierarchy.  Hierarchy does not end because work teams include people from different levels and branches.  The structure may be more open, the process more fluid, and the conventions redefined; but a hierarchy still exists.”

The consequence of the information revolution may thus mean “greater decentralization for highly centralized organizations, and greater centralization for decentralized ones.” On the other hand, if new technology does foster decentralization, “it may also provide greater ‘topsight‘—a central understanding of the big picture that enhances the management of complexity.” The pursuit of topsight is thus the pursuit to understand the big picture, “the most precious intellectual commodity known to man.”

A question of interest to me given my dissertation research is whether repressive regimes will/do have the ability to retain the upper hand in using new technology to maintain information supremacy within their borders. Ronfeldt touched on this question in 1992. “As cyberocracy develops, will governments become flatter, less hierarchical, more decentralized, with different kinds of middle-level officials and offices?  Some may, but many may not.  Governments [particularly repressive regimes] may not have the organizational flexibility and options that corporations have.”

Along these lines, former US Secretary of State George Shultz argued in 1985 that information and communication flows can be used as a powerful instrument for compelling closed societies to open up. At the time, Schulz wrote that communist states fear the information revolution perhaps more than they fear Western military strength. “The revolution in global communications thus forces all nations to reconsider traditional ways of thinking about national sovereignty.”

Ronfeldt summarizes Shulz’s take on the “dictator’s dilemma“: if the Soviet regime risked adopting new technologies, it’s leaders would have to liberalize the Soviet economic and political systems, which is arguably what happened. Ronfeldt thus writes that as “long as the aim in the West is the demise of communist and other traditional hard-line authoritarian systems, policymakers in the United States and Europe are well advised to expect that the diffusion of the new technologies will speed the collapse of closed societies and favor the spread of open ones.”

This is (still) the current US policy towards Cuba, for example. In his recent book, “The Blogging Revolution,” Antony Loewenstein notes that,

“Cuba’s official Communist organ Gramma International reported in June 2008 that a meeting in Washington in May discussed using USAID to ‘promote the clandestine dispatch of electronic materials to the island via European and Latin American intermediaries’.  The aim of the US$45 million was to distribute ‘propaganda pamphlets, cell phones and modern communications equipment’ and ‘train Cubans resident in third countries.’

George W Bush has publicly stated that he wanted to use the Internet to destabilize the Cuban Government. In May 2001, Bush gave a speech in which he advocated the Internet as just one tool to weaken Castro, and the 2006 Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba Report state that US$24 million was being spent on ‘efforts to break the Cuban government’s information blockade and expand access to independent information, including through the Internet’.”

As Ronfeldt noted in 1992, however, “the fact that the new technology can help sweep aside old types of closed regimes does not necessarily mean that it will also make democratic societies more democratic, or totalitarian ones impossible.” Indeed, “a longer view of history provides little assurance that the new technology favors democracy.”

As Ronfeldt wrote, “the printing press and later technologies, like the telephone and radio, did not prevent new and ever worse forms of autocracy from arising.” While these technologies undermined the power base of old monarchies, these same technologies were subsequently “turned into tools of propaganda, surveillance, and subjugation that enabled dictators to seize power and develop totalitarian regimes.”

Ronfeldt maintains that technology is not neutral or apolitical but it does “widen the range of possibilities within a particular context.” But as Clay Shirky notes, “arguments about whether new forms of sharing or collaboration are, on balance, good or bad reveal more about the speaker than the subject.”

In any case, the effect of technology depends on context. Ronfeldt cites Daniel Bell (1979) to explain that “the new revolution in communications makes possible both an intense degree of centralization of power, if the society decides to use it in that way, and large decentralization because of the multiplicity, diversity, and cheapness of the modes of communication.”

Ronfeldt adds that “the existence of democracy does not assure that the new technology will strengthen democratic tendencies and be used as a force for good rather than evil. The new technology may be a double-edged sword even in a democracy.” To this end, “far from favoring democracy or totalitarianism, cyberocracy may facilitate more advanced forms of both. It seems as likely to foster further divergence as convergence, and divergence has been as much the historical rule as convergence.”

Furthermore, Ronfeldt argues that while “in the past the divergence principle was most evident between countries,” a future possibility “is that the principle may increasingly apply within countries. The information revolution may enable hybrid systems to take form that do not fit standard distinctions between democracy and totalitarianism.  In these systems, part of the populace may be empowered to act more democratically than ever, but other parts may be subjected to new techniques of surveillance and control.”

A question that naturally follows is whether cyberocracy will spell the obsolescence and transformation of standard Marxist theses. While Marxism claimed that “capital accummulation” faciliated political exploitation, would Marx not focus instead on “information” if he were to reappear today? Ronfeldt suggests that information may very well come to “succeed capital as a central theoretical concept for political and social philosophy” in the post-industrial age.

According to Marxism, the capitalist accumulation of “surplus labor” and labor’s exploitation by “monopoly capital” account for a society’s structure and its ills and inclinations.  That structure is composed of socioeconomic “classes” that are defined by the “relation to the means of production of capital.”

But the post-industrial age may instead raise a new concern about “surplus information” or “monopoly information” that is concentrated, guarded, and exploited for privileged economic and political purposes.  Moreover, a society may become structured into new kinds of classes depending on one’s relation to the means of production of information.

The above summarizes Ronfeldt’s Cyberocracy paper from 1992. The following is a summary of his 2008 postscript co-authored with Danielle Varda.

Ronfeldt and Varda conclude that “influence in the information age is indeed proving to revolve around symbolic politics and media savvy — the ‘soft power’ aspects of influence.” Based on the evidence of the past 18 years, the authors also conclude that “the information revolution continues to enable both democratic and totalitarian tendencies. […] The information age is indeed leading to new hybrid amalgams of democratic and authoritarian tendencies, often in the same country.” The authors also conclude that “governments are still straining to adapt.  Bureaucracy remains the rule, cyberocracy a speculation.”

In terms of next steps for further research, Ronfeldt and Varda outline four speculations about future trends:

  1. The advanced societies are developing new sensory apparatuses that people have barely begun to understand and use;
  2. A network-based social sector is emerging, distinct from the traditional public and private sectors.  Consisting largely of NGOs and NPOs, its rise is leading to a re-balancing of state, market, and civil-society forces;
  3. New modes of multiorganizational collaboration are taking shape, and progress toward networked governance is occurring;
  4. This may lead to the emergence of the nexus-state as a successor to the nation-state.

The authors argue that people and organizations in “advanced societies” are “building vast new sensory apparatuses for watching what is happening in their own societies and around the world. Of all the uses to which the new technologies are being put, this may become one of the most important for the future of the state and its relationship to society.” The rise of citizen journalism is certainly a significant consequence of the information revolution.

Ronfeld and Varda point out that “many of the new apparatuses reflect the perception of perils.  Crime and terrorism are impelling new installations for watching cityscapes, monitoring communications, and mapping potential hotspots.  But sensor networks are also being deployed for early warning and rapid response regarding many other concerns — disease outbreaks, forest protection, [etc.].”

In addition, the authors argue that “environmental, human-rights, and other social activists continue to develop new media to keep watch and speed mobilization in case of a challenge or abuse somewhere […].” Examples include DigiActive, Digital Democracy 2.0, Witness, Ushahidi, and Global Voices. Indeed, Ronfeldt and Varda suggest that citizens’ concerns about top-down surveillance may be countered by bottom-up “sousveillance” (or inverse surveillance), particularly if individuals wear personal devices for detecting and recording what is occurring in their vicinity.”

Ronfeldt and Vera maintain that new sensory apparatuses will accelerate the “rise of civil-society actors, by providing networked [actors] with new tools not only for checking on the behavior of government and corporate actors, but also for participating in collaborative governance schemes with them.  New mechanisms for attracting and combining diverse viewpoints under the rubric of ‘collective intelligence’ could help foster this. So could the continued advance of principles favoring freedom of information, the right to communicate, and open access.”

While networks are as old as hierarchies and markets, the authors argue that they are “only now coming into their own as a major societal organizing principle.  To function well on a large scale, multiorganizational networks require complex information and communications systems—even more than do hierarchies and markets—and those systems are finally afforded by the Internet and other new digital technologies.”

Clay Shirky would certainly agree with this conclusion. He writes that “we now have communications tools that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of coordination action that take advantage of that change.”

Ronfeld and Varda argue that civil society stands to gain the most from the rise of networks since “policy problems have become so complex and intractable, crossing so many jurisdictions and involving so many actors, that governments should evolve beyond the traditional bureaucratic model of the state.”

To this end, “a less hierarchical, more decentralized, pro-partnership model is needed, one that relies more on outsourced market measures and collaborative network designs.  Metaphorically, this means a state that is less about (vertical) stovepipes and silos, and more about (horizontal) webs, bridges, and pools—a state where issues are deliberated less in channels and more on platforms.”

Ronfeldt and Varda forsee that “the evolution of network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies, and technologies will attract government policymakers, business leaders, and civil-society actors to create myriad new mechanisms for communication, coordination, and collaboration spanning all levels of governance.  Aging contentions that ‘the government’ or ‘the market’ is the solution to particular public-policy issues will give way to inspired new ideas that, in some areas, ‘the network” [or, in my opinion, ‘the ecosystem’] is the solution.'”

Returning to the question of hierarchies versus networks, Ronfeldt and Varda maintain that “states, not to mention societies as a whole, cannot endure without hierarchies. Familial tribes and clans were the first major form of organization to arise centuries ago; hierarchical institutions were second—and the state remains the home realm of this form. Information-age government may well undergo ‘reinventing’ and be made flatter, more networked, decentralized, etc.—but it will still have hierarchy at its core.”

In conclusion, Ronfeldt and Varda argue that the rise of the “Nexus-State” does not imply the weakening of the “traditional state.” To be sure, “the rise of the market system had those effects on the state, beginning a few centuries ago.  As the state relinquished the control of commercial activities to private companies, both the nation and the state became stronger.  Likewise, as the social sector expands and activities are transferred to it, the state should again emerge with a new kind of strength, even though it loses some scope in some areas.”

Only time will tell. I look forward to David’s update in 2020!

Patrick Philippe Meier

Snap Mobs of the World Unite – A Better Taxonomy? (Udpated)


A writer for The Economist interviewed me earlier in the week for his article entitled “Rioters of the World Unite” sparked by the recent Greek riots. In the article, the author asks whether it is possible to imagine an Anarchist International comparable to the then Communist International, “a trans-national version of the inchoate but impassioned demonstrations that have ravaged Greece this month?”

While I’m not convinced that the word “anarchist” is an appropriate label for the rioters in Athens (more on that later), the author is certainly correct that the kind of “psychological impulse behind the Greek protests […] can now be transmitted almost instantaneously, in ways that would make the Bolsheviks very jealous. These days, images (moving as well as still) spread faster than words; and images, of course, transcend language barriers.”

E-communications are now a familiar feature in pro-democracy protests against dictators. Equally fast-moving, say specialists, is the role of technology in what might be called “undemocratic protests”: violent acts in prosperous, networked societies.

Leaving aside the need to distinguish between protests and riots, I find the notion of “undemocratic protests” rather interesting although I’m not sure whether the qualifier “undemocratic” necessarily adds clarity. What is undemocratic about Hungarian youths in 2006 using “blogs to aggregate visual evidence of police brutality” and “distributing an audio recording of the prime minister admitting government corruption?”

This brings us to the issue of developing an appropriate taxonomy, as I noted in response to some excellent questions in the comments section of my blog post on the “Greek Riots, Facebook, Twitter and SMS.” (Incidentally, I should have included Second Life where a memorial was erected “giving its users a glimpse of real-life material from the riots”).

I think we need a better taxonomy for today’s new media. Individuals who find themselves in the middle of the action and send text messages or camera shots from their phones are not journalists in the conventional sense of the word. Adding “citizen” in front of journalism is perhaps too simplistic.

First of all, in repressive contexts, “citizen journalists” are not really citizens of their country; they tend to be marginalized, oppressed and persecuted. The term “civilian journalism” may be more apt. But we’ve already established that the qualifier “journalism” muddies the waters.

The Greek students rioting in the streets of Athens could not be described as a “smart mob” either. I wouldn’t use the term “dumb mobs” because I don’t find that any more accurate than describing the rioters as anarchists. Indeed, I think The Economist article gets it particularly wrong on that note:

The shooting and ensuing riots in Greece must be understood in the context of the “disenchantment of Greek students, the mistrust in and corruption of the right-wing government,”  as well as the “many acts of police brutality and incompetence through the years. This is why people wouldn’t wait for the coronary report. There were many things wrong even before the shooting and the coronary report” (see previous blog post).

In this context, then, perhaps a term like “snap mobs” might be more useful. Snap implies quick and plays on terms like “snapshot” and “snap judgment” which is a better description of the student-led riots in Greece.

As the article in The Economist suggests, what happened in Athens is bound to happen again in different forms across the world, i.e., rumors spreading and leading to chaos or worse, bloodshed. This may eventually drive the point home that text messages and Tweets should simply not be taken at face value.

I do think that as foreign reporting continues to decline, we will see the rise of  a professional class of citizen journalists and as a consequence, readers will expect the latter to operate at standards akin to that of the mainstream media today. At the same time, I suspect the mainstream media will shift towards a more investigative-journalism mode as consequence of increasing “snap mob” behavior.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Greek Riots, Facebook, Twitter and SMS (Updated)

I am particularly interested in riots since part of my doctoral research focuses on the strategic and tactical uses of digital technology to organize, mobilize and coordinate protest events in repressive contexts. On this note, Alternet just published this piece by Andrew Lam on the “Greek Riots and the News Media in the Age of Twitter,” which echoes some of the issues raised during the panel discussion I participated in last week in  DC on the decline of foreign reporting and rise of citizen journalism.

The Greek riots are a classic case of iRevolutions in the making, i.e., individuals and networks (hyper) empowered by linking technologies like Facebook, Twitter and SMS. What follows first are my thoughts on the two main points that the Andrew highlights in his piece. The second part of this post sheds light on the dynamics of riots by drawing on complexity science and Clay Shirky’s work.


Initial Conditions: The riots were sparked after a 15-year old student “died from a gunshot wound in his heart, inflicted by a policeman following an altercation between a police patrol and a small group of youths in Athens” (1). Thousands of young people took to the streets after quickly spreading the news via Facebook, Twitter and SMS.

But as Andrew points out, no one bothered to verify or investigate the police officer’s claim that he was innocent: “When the coroner’s report came out several days later, it said the bullet was dented, meaning it ricocheted before hitting the teenager, but the information changed nothing. Athens had been burning for several nights, and the people, whose rage fueled the flames, couldn’t care less for facts.”

These valid points aside, my first question is what took the coroner so long? Extracting a bullet (pardon the morbidity) is not exactly brain surgery.  If said coroner had a mobile phone, s/he could have taken a picture of the dented bullet and shared it as widely as possible hoping that it would go viral. I have no idea how effective that would have been, but it’s a thought. The second question I have is whether any investigative journalists were pressing the coroner to get on with it?

Future Conditions: Andrew notes that “professional front line reporters may very well be on the way to being redundant in a world where, according to Reuters Director of News Media Development, Chris Cramer, ‘Every key event going forward will be covered by members of the public, and not by traditional journalists.’” (I just checked the Wikipedia page on the riots and it was edited close to 200 times within 48 hours of the shooting).

However, as I mentioned during last week’s panel, the mainstream media has an increasingly more important social service to play in the Twitter Age: distinguishing fact from fiction. Andrew is thus spot on when he writes that “the role of the mature news organization […] is to filter real news from pseudo news, rather than treating all content as equal.”

Complexity Science: Power laws are a defining signature of complex systems. The Richter scale, which relates earthquake frequencies to magnitude, is probably the most well known power law. As we all know, there are many small tremors every day but only a few major earthquakes every century. As it happens, protests such as strikes also follow a power law distribution. See for example this piece by Michael Bigs in the American Journal of Sociology. Here’s the abstract:

Historians have persistently likened strike waves to wildfires, avalanches, and epidemics. These phenomena are characterized by a power-law distribution of event sizes. This kind of analysis is applied to outbreaks of class conflict in Chicago from 1881 to 1886. Events are defined as individual strikes or miniature strike waves; size is measured by the number of establishments or workers involved. In each case, events follow a power law spanning two or three orders of magnitude. A similar pattern is found for strikes in Paris from 1890 to 1899. The “forest fire” model serves to illustrate the kind of process that can generate this distribution.

One classic way to illustrate this is by using the analogy of grains of sand falling on a sand pile. Eventually, small and large avalanches begin to occur at different frequencies that follow a power law.


The study of complex systems is often called the study of history. The sand pile becomes increasingly unstable over time as grains of sand cause “fingers of instability” to run through the structure, like fissures running across a wine glass or cracks in the earth as an earthquake unloads the built up tension. If you want to understand the vulnerability of the sand pile of a “Richter 9” earthquake, dissecting the falling grains will give you little insight. In other words, the answer lies in the past, in the evolution of the sand pile.

I make this point to reinforce the fact that the recent shooting and riots in Greece should be understood in context. The incident was  but one of several that befell Mount Olympus. As Katrin Verclas and others have commented (below) in response to this blog post, “the disenchantment of Greek students, the mistrust in and corruption of the right-wing government,”  as well as the “many acts of police brutality and incompetence through the years,” provides the historical context behind the shooting. “This is why people wouldn’t wait for the coronary report. There were many things wrong even before the shooting and the coronary report.”

Networks Analysis: One way to think about the impact of the information revolution on the ability of groups to mobilize and organize is to use the analogy of disease contagion, which also follows a power law distribution. As Clay Shirky writes, “The classic model for the spread of disease looks at three variables—likelihood of infection, likelihood of contact between any two people, and overall size of population. If any of those variables increases, the overall spread of disease increases as well.”

As a consequence of the information revolution, the likelihood of an individual receiving and broadcasting information is increasing significantly while the likelihood of any two people communicating is increasing exponentially; and world population is also growing at a furious pace. Since each of these three variables are increasing, the overall risk of protests increases as well.

The reason I raise this issue of power laws and epidemics of information is to address the issue of rumors. As Andrew Lam writes, “the streamlining of news [via Twitter and SMS] makes the story skeletal and thin, bordering on becoming rumor and hearsay.” Countering false rumors  in a highly connected network may require a systems approach since command-and-control is unlikely to work (short of switching the network off).

This is where the work by Malcom Gladwell, Mark Buchanan and and the Santa Fe Institute’s (SFI) research might shed some light on the viral cure for false rumors in the Twitter Age.

See also my follow up post on the Greek riots.

Patrick Philippe Meier

International News Coverage in a New Media World

I just had the pleasure of participating in a fascinating panel discussion on the decline of the foreign correspondent and the rise of citizen journalist. The event was hosted by the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communications at George Washington University (GWU) and supported by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

Jeffrey Hirschberg from BBG gave the opening remarks and GWU Professor Steve Roberts moderated the panel, which included Loren Jenkins, Senior Foreign Editor at NPR, Professor Sherry Ricchiardi, Senior Writer at the American Journalism Review (AJR) and Professor at Indian University’s School of Journalism, Bob Dietz with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and myself.

Where to begin? I was definitely the only one on the panel without a formal background in journalism, possibly the only blogger, probably the only one with a YouTube account and most likely the only panelist on Twitter. Inevitably, then, I brought a slightly different perspective, but more importantly, I had the opportunity to learn a lot from my fellow panelists and to understand their perspective on the decline of foreign reporting. It was a truly rich conversation.

Professional journalists engaged in international news are increasingly concerned about the possibility of misinformation and manipulation that may originate from citizen journalists, e.g., through blogs, Twitter, etc. In my opinion, one of the defining roles of the mainstream media is to distinguish between fact and fiction, which means that they play an even more important role in the digital age. The question of journalist standards was also raised, or the lack thereof. within citizen journalism In my opinion, as international news reporting declines and citizen journalists continue to fill the void, the public will expect and come to demand that the latter meet some of the same standards practiced by mainstream media.

Having had the opportunity to interact with numerous bloggers with Global Voices and beyond, I emphasized the fact that reputation for many bloggers is everything. Her or his readership is a function of the person’s reputation and hence credibility and accountability. Over time, as Lauren mentioned, we come to “get to know” and trust a blogger even if we never meet in person. Journalists investigate stories by interviewing sources, there is no reason to discount citizen journalists as valuable sources.

The challenge of validating sources and information is not a new one. There is a trade off between volume of information and the ability to verify that information. This trade off, or continuum, becomes even more acute in rapidly changing situations like the recent carnage in Mumbai.

What we need to keep in mind, however, is that we each have different demands or needs for validity. If you found yourself in downtown Mumbai during the terrorist attacks, you would rather know about rumors spread via Twitter than not. Why? Because at least you’d be able to take precautionary measures should the rumor prove to be true.

Watching the unfolding tragedy from thousands of miles away in the comfort of our own homes, we have less need for expediency, we just want to know what really happened, the facts. However, our demand for facts and rigorous validation should not overshadow the fact that rumors and unverified reports from unknown sources can save lives.

Steve asked Bob whether his work on the protection of journalists should be expanded to citizen journalists. In his response, Bob preempted an important point I had planned to make; namely that the line between citizen journalism and digital activism is becoming increasingly blurred. In the past, documenting human rights abuses and broadcasting this documentation was rarely done by one individual. Today, thanks to YouTube, documenting events is the same as broadcasting events, which is alot about what advocacy is.

This is why it is increasingly important for citizen journalists in repressive environments to interact with digital activists and individuals engaged in strategic nonviolence. As a a fellow blogger of mine recently remarked about her experience covering the post-election violence in Kenya, there is a distinction between being able to speak out and being heard. In most contexts, the former is far easier than the latter. However, if you start being heard, and a government or regime starts to pay attention to what you are blogging, you become a target. It’s a catch 22. Bloggers need to learn from digital activists and strategic nonviolence movements about how to stay safe and how to make maximum use technology to get their message out.

I drew on several examples to highlight the important contribution that citizen journalists are making around the world, from Global Voices to Witness.org. I also highlighted HHI‘s recent work on crisis mapping Kenya to compare mainstream media reports with citizen journalism reports and crowdsourcing reports (via Ushahidi). In the context of Mumbai, I pointed to the incredible speed with which a Wikipedia page was created and maintained fully up to date, with some 900 edits taking place within the first 21 hours of the event. No mainstream media outfit could possibly mimic this crowdsourcing approach without reaching out to citizen journalists.

On Global Voices, I highlighted the important role they are playing in translating (and analyzing) a lot of local news (and other blogs) into English. With the decline in foreign reporting, mainstream media’s role in translating news will also decline. The amount of volume produced by Global Voices during the Mumbai attacks was trully stunning.

I brought up Witness.org because much of the conversation between panelists focused on print media, and how easy it was to mislead readers. Doctoring pictures, let alone footage, is not as easy. The case of Reuters and the doctored photograph of Israeli rockets firing on Lebanon is an exception and far from the rule. It is a very isolated incident when one considers the massive number of pictures printed every day in the mainstream press. Furthermore, I argued thanks to built-in cameras in mobile phones, dozens of different individuals can each take pictures of an event, which serves as a verification mechanism. We don’t need fewer citizen witnesses armed with cameras, we need more.

Two final points, or rather open ended questions for further discussion. First, if we are moving towards a more hyper-local approach to media reports, and if this happens across the globe, then why the concern? Isn’t someone’s local media another’s foreign media? Second, having counted Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media as one of my all time favorite books, how is the media changing now that the political economy is completely changing?

Patrick Philippe Meier

Event: International News Coverage in a New Media World

I’ve been invited by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and George Washington University’s (GWU) Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communications to give a panel presentation on “International News Coverage in a New Media World: The Decline of the Foreign Correspondent and the Rise of the Citizen Journalist.”


The event will take place on December 10th to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Experts will examine the dramatic shift of traditional media away from foreign reporting, the growth of web-based citizen journalists, and their effects on coverage of international news and human rights issues.

I was originally planning to focus the bulk of my presentation on the role of new media in covering Kenya’s post-election violence but given the (still) current carnage in Mumbai and the unprecedented response of citizen journalists in covering the attacks, I’d like to present a comparative analysis of both events. To this end, I welcome any links/tips/suggestions you might have on what you consider to be the most striking (less obvious) issues worth highlighting.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Media & Repressive Regimes: Reshaping Public Spheres

Andrew Puddephatt from Global Partners gave the first panel presentation here at the conference on digital media and repressive regimes. He focused on the issue of shaping digital media for human rights. The basic premise of Andrew’s talk is that access to information is a human right. The problem is how we get there.


What I took from his talk was that:

  • We should steer away from talking about the media, since there’s no longer such a think. While he didn’t use the following language, I think he would agree: instead of the media, we now have a digital/communication ecosystem, which displays nonlinear dynamics and is by definition more complex;
  • While digital media enthusiasts see digital technologies as a great liberating force, and while these technologies can certainly be disruptive, it’s a two-way street: censorship of content and surveillance are both on the rise;
  • It is meaningless to talk about right to communication if people don’t have access to communication technologies. We have to think about infrastructure;
  • Google shape protocols for search; protocols are commercial secrets, shaped by forces that anything but transparent;
  • We need a digital/communication infrastructure that foster creativity and innovation;
  • All evidence points to the suggestion that the mobile phone will be the key communication tool of our century. The most exciting technology development is being made in this area;
  • New media undermine repressive structures, they are transgressive. However, democratic governments are also worried about the potential impact in the West;
  • Extremists have been empowered thanks to new media;
  • The main challenge is persuading democratic governments that while there are people out there who wish to use new media for ill, the digital media revolution nevertheless has for the first time the potential to create a genuine public sphere.


Robert Guerra of Freedom House gave the second talk of the day, which focused on Internet freedom, online activism and emerging threats. Robert argues that we should expect to see threats to internet freedom emerging as a response to the ground gained by digital activists. Just as we may be moving towards Democracy 2.0, we’re about to be introduced (if we haven’t already) to Repression 2.0.

In Egypt freedom of association is only allowed for groups of 5 or less, otherwise larger gatherings are illegal by law. Online activism allows activists to get around this and to do so by the thousand and new media in repressive regimes can promote nonviolent confrontation. So in one regard, online activism presents fewer risks.


The framing of Democracy 2.0 versus Repression 2.0 was a useful springboard for my presentation as third speaker of the day. My talk focused on the idea of “digital resistance” which I define as the intersection between digital activism and strategic nonviolent action against repressive regimes. The question I pose is whether digital resistance poses a threat to repressive rule, or vice versa? Why or why not?

There are more and more anecdotes and qualitative case studies available that describe successful instances of digital activism; see those documented on DigiActive, for example. What do all these examples add up to? Can we start measuring the aggregate impact of digital activism on repressive rule? How might we analyze quantitatively the qualitative, anecdotal impact of digital resistance, or lack thereof?  In other words, are we likely to see the fall of Repression 2.0 like we did of Communism? See this previous blog entry for some preliminary thoughts on the question.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Media in Repressive Regimes – Intro

I’m now in Copenhagen to participate in what is bound to be a fascinating conference on the role and use of digital media in repressive regimes. On the way to the venue, I was greeted by a dozen familiar faces in the conference hotel, all of them from Global Voices 2008.

Ole Brun from the Institute for Society and Globalization at Roskilde University gave the opening talk to place the two-day conference into context. Ole pointed out that the social sciences have been rather sluggish in the study of new digital media in repressive contexts.


We have sought to study the impact of information communication technologies on democracy. Perhaps this question is too ambitious. Can we instead start understanding what impact new media has on political structures, transparence and accountability, new ties between disparate groups.

Patrick Philippe Meier