Tag Archives: Web 2.0

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

Economist3

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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

Web 2.0 Tracks Attacks on Mumbai (Updated)

Twitter, Flickr, Wikipedia, YouTube – a few of the Web 2.0 & mobile applications tracking the Mumbai attacks in quasi real time along with the aftermath. Twitter was apparently faster than CNN in reporting the initial events, according to TechCrunch:

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From TechMacro: “the local authority advised TV channels to stop broadcasting sensitive information which may help terrorists tracking army’s movements. It is much less likely that the terrorists are now using Twitter to find way to escape.”

For live, crowdsourcing updates, see the following links on Twitter, Flickr, Wikipedia. The Wikipedia entry already includes a picture (probably taken with mobile phone) of one of the terrorists.

Wired also writes that “local bloggers at Metblogs Mumbai have new updates every couple of minutes. So do the folks at GroundReport. Dozens of videos have been uploaded to YouTube. But the most remarkable citizen journalism may be coming from “Vinu,” who is posting a stream of harrowing post-attack pictures to Flickr.”

Patrick Philippe Meier

SMS and Web 2.0 for Mumbai Early Warning/Response Project

I’m on my way back from a particularly fruitful and productive mission to Mumbai. As noted in my earlier blog, the purpose of the mission was to explore possibilities for partnership and collaboration vis-a-vis “upgrading” Mumbai city’s disaster early warning/response system. We chose to focus first on the Monsoons (which necessarily includes an important public health component).

Thanks to our fellow HHI colleague, the legendary Dr. Satchit Balsari, we met with all the key stakeholders in a whirlwind tour that included heavy rains, seemingly suicidal drivers, the amazing Ganesh festival and countless hours of near infinite traffic. All a very low price to pay for the energy and proactive engagement that emerged in our meetings, which ranged from high level political officials to leading professors based in Mumbai. Our presentations on crisis mapping platforms were also very well received, with comments including: “That’s exactly what we need.” Equally importantly, we saw numerous slums (picture below) along with the depressing conditions that slum dwellers have to live in. Naturally, they are the most vulnerable populations in Mumbai city, and our project will only be successful if it makes a difference in their lives.

Below is a picture of the control room headquarters for Mumbai city’s disaster early warning and response center. Note the red phones, each with a direct link to a government agency. It was interesting to note that apart from Autocad, the control room was not making any use of mapping software; all maps appearing in hardcopy. The center recently carried out a major vulnerability analysis of the entire city, which now comprises over fifty pages of very rich, albeit dense, structural data. This data has not been mapped.

Our proposal was rather simple: develop a web-based interface using Google Maps that allows for easy mapping of structural and dynamic (event-data). In addition to manual mapping, allow live, automated (meteorological) feeds from the control room’s computers, to be visualized within Google Maps in real time. Integrate SMS broadcasting directly within the Google Maps interface; thereby encouraging us to think of dynamic maps as communication tools in addition to tools for situational awareness. This follows Ushahidi’s approach of crowdsourcing crisis information.

The importance of two-way SMS broadcasting for this project cannot be overemphasized. Some 75% of Mumbai’s residents own a mobile phone (note that 55% of Mumbai is composed of slums). By some measures, Mumbai is the fourth largest city in the world, with a population of some 16 million. With this size comes some obvious challenges. I had pitched FrontlineSMS as a potential solution during my presentations, but I don’t know how scalable the software is. Can the platform handle millions of text messages in a matter of days? Ken Banks is kindly looking into this for us (thanks again, Ken). Another challenge is whether the bandwidth of Mumbai city will be able to handle such high traffic.

We will be following up on these questions and conversations shortly, and will be scheduling another mission to Mumbai in the next few months to formalize our partnerships and finalize the operational framework. As always, I welcome any and all (constructive) feedback.

Patrick Philippe Meier

US Army Falling Behind in Digital Communication

Senior Army officials are increasingly concerned that they are missing out on the iRevolution, i.e., “the breakneck development of cheap digital communications including cell phones, digital cameras and Web 2.0 Internet sites such as blogs and Facebook,” according to Wired.

That helps explain how “just one man in a cave that’s hooked up to the Internet has been able to out-communicate the greatest communications society in the history of the world—the United States,” says the US Army Secretary Pete Geren.

One solution: “Find a blog to be a part of,” Geren said.

But embracing that high-tech, second language could be hard for the Army, just as it poses challenges for the defense industry.”I was talking to a senior executive this week, one of our major defense contractors,” Geren recounted. “And he said that they’ve assigned a young person to every senior executive to be like his or her translator and connect with the new information technologies.”

At the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, a tiny office of Web-savvy mavericks is creating Army-specific Web 2.0 tools (blogs, forums, social networks) for soldiers. Meanwhile, the Air Force, the Pentagon’s main agency for “cyberwarfare,” continues to  view the Internet primarily as a battlefield to be “dominated.”

Patrick Philippe Meier

Citizen Communications In Crisis

I recently spoke with Professor Leysia Palen at the University of Colorado, Boulder, about her Crisis Informatics research project and followed up by reading her co-authored paper entitled: “Citizen Communications in Crisis: Anticipating a Future of ICT-Supported Public Participation” published in 2007. The focus of Leysia’s publication overlaps with my previous blog entry on the intersection of citizen journalism (Global Voices) and conflict early warning/response.

Leysia provides a valuable and insightful sociological perspective that is often lacking in our own field.  Indeed, the sociology of disaster includes a public with its own impetus for participation that conventional conflict early warning/response systems rarely consider. Following are some excerpts from her paper that I found pertinent and interesting:

  • ICT in disaster contexts will give further rise to improvised activities and temporary organizations with which formal response organizations need to align.
  • The role held by members of the public in disaster—a role that has always been characterized as one of high involvement by disaster sociologists throughout the nearly century-long history of disaster research—is becoming more visible, active, and in possession of greater reach than ever seen before.
  • Our stance is that the old, linear model for information dissemination of authorities-to-public relations-to-media is outmoded, and will be replaced—at least in practice—by one that is much more complex. Peer communications technologies are a critical piece of these emergent information pathways.
  • Disaster social scientists have long documented the nature of post-disaster public participation as active and largely altruistic. “First responders” are not, in practice, the trained professionals who are deployed to a scene in spite of the common use of that term for them; they are instead people from the local and surrounding communities.
  • People are natural information seekers, and will seek information from multiple sources, relying primarily on their own social networks—friends and family—to validate and interpret information coming from formal sources, and then to calculate their own response measures.
  • The possibilities for public participation are expanding with increased access to the Internet and the wide diffusion of mobile technology—mobile phones, text  and multimedia messaging, and global positioning devices. This technology in the hands of the people further pushes on boundaries between informal and formal rescue and response efforts, and has enabled new media forms that are broadly known as citizen journalism.
  • For example, wikis enable broad participation in the creation and dissemination of information. Some visual wikis use mapping technology for linking textual or photographic information to representations of physical locations, thereby documenting, for example, the extent of damage to a specific neighborhood. Recent disasters show how people, whom we already know will seek information from multiple sources during uncertain conditions, have fueled the proliferation and utility of these sites. In this way, the public is able to take not only a more active part in seeking information, but also in providing information to each other, as well as to formal response efforts.
  • Emerging ICT-supported communications in crisis will result in changing conditions that need to be addressed by the formal response. ICT-supported citizen communications can spawn, often opportunistically, information useful to the formal response effort. Citizen communications can also create new opportunities for the creation of new, temporary organizations that help with the informal response effort. The idea of emergent or ephemeral organizations that arise following disaster is not at all new; in fact, it is one of the hallmarks of disaster sociology, and supports the need for communities to be able to improvise response under uncertain and dynamic conditions. ICT-supported communications, however, add another powerful means by which this kind of organization can occur. No longer do people need the benefit of physical proximity to coordinate and serendipitously discover each other.
  • Implications for Relief Efforts: As the reach of response extends to a broader audience with ICT, how will the formal response effort align with, support and leverage wider community response? Relief work—the provision of food, shelter and basic necessities—already largely arises out of volunteerism through either grassroots efforts or managed through official channels.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Politics 2.0 Conference: Bringing the Tech Back In

During one of today’s panel Q & A sessions at the Politics 2.0 conference, I suggested that coercive states were becoming increasingly savvy in their ability to monitor, control and censor information. I added that the technology for Internet filtering, to cite one example, was becoming more effective and widely used as confirmed by the Berkman Center‘s recent empirical study on internet filtering. The response from the panel: technology is not as important as the underlying motivation behind the uses of technology.

I understand the point, but am nevertheless concerned that technology is being swept under the Web 2.0 rug so easily, just like the role of the coercive state has not made a strong appearance at the conference as per my previous blog. Again, participants at this conference are necessarily a self-selected group. Few of us, however, have a background in software engineering and computer science. This may be why we all too easily dismiss the significance of technology in our presentations.

The Berkman book entitled “Access Denied” includes a chapter on “Tools and Technology of Internet Filtering” by Steven Murdoch and Ross Anderson. In this chapter, the authors identify the following techniques:

  • TCP/IP Header Filtering
  • TCP/IP Content Filtering
  • DNS Tampering
  • HTTP Proxy Filtering
  • Hybrid TCP/IP and HTTP Proxy
  • Denial of Service (DNS)
  • Domain Deregistration
  • Server Takedown
  • Surveillance

This should give us pause before we minimize the impact of technology on state-society relations. What is also lacking from the panel presentations is the perspective of the private sector and the profit-motivated interests in the technologies that implement techniques listed above. Cisco and other companies are catering to increasing demand for data security. As long as there is a market, the tools will be enhanced accordingly.

Of course, there is also a market for technology and software to counter monitoring and censorship. However, this only goes to show that technology in and of itself does matter. This in no way implies technological determinism, it simply suggests that scholars of Politics 2.0 should become more familiar with existing techniques and technologies if they are going to make sweeping statements about technology.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Politics 2.0 Conference: Bringing the State Back In

Finally a panel at the Politics 2.0 conference that brings the state back in: “Surveillance, Censorship and Democracy.” The panel included three papers, two on Singapore and one on Russia. This was for me the best panel of the conference thus far as it was more balanced. The presenters were also very well informed about the ability of the state to control the social web. In addition, the arguments presented by the respective panelists were intellectually satisfying as they were not limited to simply scratching the surface of Web 2.0.

Sarah Oates from the University of Glasgow presented her paper on the Internet and Democracy in Russia. Sarah is an expert scholar on Russia and speaks the language fluently. Her wealth of knowledge about the country was readily apparent in the quality of her presentation. Sarah was very clear that the Russian state is using the blogosphere as another method of media influence, control and co option. In fact, in the run up to the most recent elections, a widespread number of pro-government messages appeared on numerous blogs. She concluded her presentation with the following comment:

The Internet is not changing Russian politics; rather, Russian politicians are subverting the Web for their own interests, which parallels the state’s influence on traditional media in Russia. The Web is not colonizing Russian politics but rather the other way around.

The two presentations on Singapore were also superb, critical and well-informed. Cherian George of Nanyang Technological University made compelling arguments to demonstrate that governments like Singapore were more effective in their control of information by using calibrated coercion. By that, Cherian means employing a strategic self-restrained use of force, which is a crucial factor in consolidating authoritarian rule. He noted that the means of state coercion vis-a-vis the control of information has become less visible over time.

While physical force and state control of the media have been the traditional means by which repressive regimes have sought to maintain a grip on the information revolution, today’s tactics are predominantly focuses on technological fixes such as filtering and also on economic incentives. Cherian gave a fascinating example of the latter tactic as used in Singapore. The government has demonstrated that a state does not necessarily need to own, or directly control, the media. Instead, the government of Singapore simply ensured that media companies were publicly listed and had a large number of shareholders. This in effect forces company directors or CEOs to focus on profits as opposed to editorial content. “A newspaper that focuses on profit is by definition a conservative newspaper,” Cherian argued. His paper is available here.

The third presentation was on the blogosphere in Singapore. As I have already blogged on the application of social network analysis by internet and democracy scholars here and here, I’ll leave it at that.

Patrick Philippe Meier