The Pew Internet Project’s Future of the Internet III report, released recently, had the following scenario.
Social tolerance has advanced significantly due in great part to the Internet. In 2020, people are more tolerant than they are today, thanks to wider exposure to others and their views that has been brought about by the Internet and other information and communication technologies. The greater tolerance shows up in several metrics, including declining levels of violence, lower levels of sectarian strife, and reduced incidence of overt acts of bigotry and hate crimes.
55% of those polled disagreed with this prediction. 56% of experts polled also disagreed. More details here.
The PIP Future of the Internet report is US centric. No voices from the Global South can be easily found and it is questionable how many of the general respondents and even the experts have any meaningful experience in the use, adoption and adaptation of ICTs and mobiles in less developed regions, for a plethora of socio-political, cultural, religious, economic and other communal transactions and intercourse. That being said, the report has always intrigued me because of the insights it offers into ways the Internet and the web could possibly develop over the next decade.
Two quotes from the experts polled stood out for me.
Can anybody reading this actually bet anything meaningful on declining violence, sectarian strife, bigotry, and hate? Whatever the growth of the Internet has done, it certainly hasn’t solved these age-old problems. –Howard Rheingold, Internet sociologist and author; one of the first to illuminate virtual communities; author of “Virtual Reality,” “Smart Mobs,” and “Virtual Community”
As much as I wish this scenario were true, I’m afraid that it will take a lot more than mere technology to tame human nature. The base instincts that cause violence, sectarian strife and hate crimes are based on a fundamental “fear of the other,” which is deeply rooted and will take generations to curb through widespread educational programs, reinforced by daily practice, peer pressure, and law enforcement. There may be some progress towards social tolerance by 2020, but the significant advances described by this scenario strike me as wishful thinking. At best, we may see very limited progress in highly developed and affluent societies. –Fabrice Florin, executive director, NewsTrust.net, a nonprofit social news network that allows people to rate the news on quality.
Fabrice is, as I am, a member of the first cohort of Ashoka’s News & Knowledge Fellows. He is however vastly more experienced in the field of online journalism. Fabrice’s NewsTrust.net is an Internet platform that provides dynamic news feeds, news literacy tools, and a “trust network” designed to help people think critically about the information they consume. Members rate articles from online sources on actual quality—fairness, sourcing, and context. Partner news organizations, which include Slate and the Huffington Post, embed NewsTrust’s rating tools on their sites.
Howard Rheingold has inspired many posts on this blog, most recently one on media literacy in the age of Web 2.0. Howard’s scepticism is well placed and a healthy, refreshing anti-dote to blinkered and parochial technological determinism.
However, I disagree with them both.
That the evolution of social networking, mobiles and the web in general leads to more self-referential, insular and viciously exclusive virtual communities is not an assertion that can be dismissed easily. Based on it, Fabrice and Howard are correct in eshewing the notion that the ubiquity of the Internet / web by 2020 will in and of itself lead to stronger social and political cohesion, reconciliation and democracy especially in deeply divided and / or repressive regions such as Sri Lanka. I’ve covered this in a helluva lot of posts on this blog, such as the growth of hate speech and the decline of civility on blogs, the Burmese junta’s censorship in the wake of a large humanitarian tragedy, China’s great firewall and the growing threats to independent online media in Sri Lanka.
That said, to use an example from American politics, who would have thought even as recently as two years ago that Barack Obama would become the President of the United States? In the early 90’s, would the end of apartheid by the turn of the centure have been imagined? Around the world, there are hundreds of thousands of on-going processes and initiatives to use ICTs to support and strengthen peace, even within cycles of violence. Mainstream / traditional media is forever changed with the advent of mobile phones. As this NY Times article ends by noting,
“Today every citizen is a war correspondent,” said Phillip Knightley, author of “The First Casualty,” a classic history of war reporting that starts with letters home from soldiers in Crimea in the 1850s and ends with the “living room war” in Vietnam in the 1970s, the first war that people could watch on television. “Mobile phones with video of broadcast quality have made it possible for anyone to report a war,” he said in an e-mail interview. “You just have to be there. No trouble getting a start: the broadcasters have been begging viewers to send their stuff.”
There are many examples today of ICTs and mobiles helping fragmented polity and society heal, or at the very least, bear witness to abuses of civil liberties and acts of terrorism, including those promoted by the State.
- My own small initiatives using web media to promote peace through peaceful means and interrogate war suggest that professional web based citizen journalism can strengthen progressive, civil dialogues on highly complex and inflammatory issues and topics. Groundviews, a site I created and edit, regularly publishes content that will not and cannot be published in mainstream / traditional media in Sri Lanka today. In doing so, it shows that web based citizen journalism and media can meaningfully foster vital debates on war, peace, human rights and democracy even within violent conflict. Never Again in Sri Lanka documents leading civil society voices, including those from religious leaders, decrying the anti-Tamil pogrom in July 1983. Vikalpa’s YouTube Citizen Journalism Video Channel (also see my post here about how it all started) has short videos in Sinhala and Tamil that have been watched tens of thousands of times.
- The ICT4Peace Foundation’s ICT4Peace Inventory documents nearly one hundred examples of tools and services that are used around the world today to prevent, mitigate and transform violent conflict amongst other uses.
- The example of Ushahidi (also read my interview with Ory Okolloh, one of the key brains behind Ushahidi)
- Adele Waugaman from the United Nations Foundation sent me earlier this year a fascinating new report into how mobiles are changing the way in which we advocate for political change, prevent outbreaks of communal violence, deliver food aid, help save forests, mediate effectively in human animal conflicts and other uses.
Aside from these examples, ICTs literally help people understand each other and strengthen tolerance.
Who hasn’t used Google Translate or BabelFish, even though it is not yet perfect? Armies are now using real time translation to help strengthen situational awareness. There Americans aim higher – which expert consulted in the survey I wonder knew of DARPA’s plans for machine translation, which is “is to deliver, by 2010, software that can almost instantly translate Arabic and Mandarin Chinese with 90 to 95 percent accuracy.”
I now get timely and accurate news through JasmineNewsWires on processes and events that are important in Sri Lanka via SMS. As recently as five years ago, rumours would have been quicker. Today, SMSs from repuated news services like JNW or LBO trump malicious rumours that rake up violence. There are now multi-lingual mobile based instant messaging solutions for use in disaster situations, amongst others, to strengthen understanding of needs.Ken Banks and his sterling work with FrontlineSMS is pushing the boundaries of what’s possible using mobile phones to engender a whole raft of progressive and sustainable social change.
Blogs, blogging and citizen journalism
Blogs and blogging have changed the way we bear witness and interact with (and indeed, define) newsmakers. Sites like NowPublic, Global Voices, Pro Publica show us how powerful citizen journalism can be at challenging shibboleths, received wisdom and the status quo. In addition, they showcase writing of merit on people, places, events and process that are vital to communities and readers but would be glossed over by traditional media and the economic interests that support them. Today, mobile phone help citizens respond to violence even in places as remote as Kashmir. The Pulitzer Centre encourages citizen journalism to submit short videos on issues that matter to their communities the most. YouTube itself is encouraging the submission of videos that seriously deal with vital issues such as peace and human rights. My own work in Sri Lanka used web media to commemorate an event this year that still is hugely emotive and traumatic in Sri Lanka. It has to date generated tens of thousands of readers. Short videos on the same event propelled a YouTube channel, that is Sri Lanka’s only example of such an initiative, to YouTube’s top 100 list of channels. Online media and social networking are changing social and political relations (primarily amongst youth) in many Arab and Middle Eastern countries, for the better. States can no longer easily clamp down on news and information and promote propaganda that’s uncontested and believed. Blogs are interrogating the violent history of a country such as Sri Lanka in a manner that’s not even imagined of by the State, and through such efforts, are helping a younger generation think of ethnic relations differently.
Social networking combined with mobiles helped Barack Obama become the President of the United States. If that isn’t a cogent example of how the Internet can help strengthen tolerance and celebrate diversity, I don’t know what is. Amnesty International uses some viscerally compelling web videos that are a cinch to integrate to social networks to promote advocacy against human rights abuses by the world’s most powerful countries / democracies. And while most, if not all, social networks (e.g. MySpace, Facebook) are walled gardens, initiatives that are opening up these networks to federated identity management will redefine the way we organise virtually. Yes, it’s true that social networking brings out the worst in us, but who is documenting the rise of Facebook as a serious platform for serious work?
Our work in Sri Lanka suggests that even in a country with comparatively poor internet bandwidth and high costs of Internet access, people are still extremely interested in video content on war, peace and governance.
These examples may not be on the radar of many who contributed to the Future of the Internet report, but that’s no reason to shaft them aside as unimportant markers of how the Internet can, and indeed already does help in strengthening tolerance, democracy and rights. Heck, even the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2008, President Martti Ahtisaari, concurs wholeheartedly.
And lest we forget, there’s the work of Witness and in particular its Human Rights Hub. Its recent campaign on the images that were powerful narratives on human rights resulted in the following (accurate at the time of writing this post):
350,000+ views (that includes only what we can track!)
40+ bloggers picked-up the story and had conversations on their own blogs
247,000 web pages that reference the question and conversation – at the peak of the project
1,000+ responses to the question
925+ text responses
60+ video responses
Clearly then, strengthening tolerance through online video, blogs and social networking – to name just three channels on the Internet – shows great potential. I asked Daniel Stauffacher, the Chairman of the ICT4Peace Foundation (of which I am a Special Advisor) the following question a few years back,
“Do you believe that the better use of technology can strengthen peace processes to the extent that there will be more peace 5 years hence than today?”
“Yes indeed. ICTs and in particular web 2.0 will create even more transparency and efficient tools for actors in the field of conflict prevention, mediation, conflict resolution and peace building.”
Our full interview can be downloaded as a PDF here and Amb. Stauffacher’s view strengthen my own research into how ICTs can help complex peace processes and peacebuilding. It follows that as we put more information about our lives and become, in a very real way, digital selves who lead an analog life that’s seamlessly integrated with our digital avatars and identities, the Internet needs to be leveraged as a medium through which reconciliation, peace and democracy can be strengthened.
This requires political will, something that no one in the Pew survey points to. Perhaps the new office of the CIO in the Obama administration may influence the development of the Internet in a manner more conducive to better race relations in the US. The technologies used could well be adapted and adopted in other countries and regions. Citizen themselves can inspire and engender political will, holding rulers accountable for their actions in ways, enabled by new media and the Internet, that hark back to the tenets of direct democracy.
There is no guarantee that my vision of more tolerance amongst and within communities will be engendered by the Internet. But it is important for social changemakers to use the power and reach of the Internet, particularly over mobiles, to inspire ideas, dialogues and perspectives spur reconciliation, tolerance, diversity and through these, a more vibrant democratic tradition.