Comments on Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics by USIP

Blogs and Bullets

A couple of months ago, close friend and mentor Colin Rule shared with me a draft of what is now a public report produced by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) titled Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics.

It is an interesting report to read in full, if only for the graph of Page 23 which shows clearly how at a time when Sri Lanka’s war was reaching an incredibly bloody denouement, it barely registered on the web as a news story of significance.

At the time, I shared with Colin a few thoughts on the draft report but I refrained from publishing them on this blog until the report was made public. The page numbers below refer to those in the final report.

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I understand the Iran is centre and forward on the radar of the US administration and by extension a sexy country to refer to, esp. for entities like USIP which are firmly anchored to Capitol Hill’s diplomatic agenda. I do wish however that the panel recognises the diversity of new media applications around the world, and thought-leadership that is to be found outside the West, and in the Global South. Aside from my work, there are many examples from South Asia, South East Asia, South America and even Russia where new media has been leveraged to strengthen human rights, human dignity and democracy.

My own take on new media that is quite unique is that from lived experience of war and violence, it has helped me and others to bear witness to processes, places, people and events otherwise erased, marginalised and censored. I see and approach bearing witness as an act of active participation in democracy and oftentimes, in war, bordering on defiance. Being a witness is different for me to bearing witness. New media helps citizens record for posterity, advocacy and activism that which moves them to action – and the explosive growth of mobiles and web content in the swabhasha / vernacular has aided this process of debate and discussion even when regimes seek to clamp down on dissent. I see this as a good in and of itself, whether it leads to regime change or not (recognising that most often, it will in fact NOT result in regime change). The debates for me – the stories – that risk deliberate erasure or forgetting, is what’s important to generate, capture, store and disseminate. This is possible in new ways, and to a new degree, with new media.

The report notes on Page 5 that “However, mainstream media outlets may have benefited more from Twitter than ordinary citizens.” I believe this to be a false dichotomy, based on the assumption throughout the report that new media is somehow a construct, idea and content associated with citizen who aren’t trained journalists. This forgets that new media is in fact an open architecture that can be and is leveraged by mainstream media, oftentimes to greater effect than ordinary citizens. I see and believe new media use by citizens and mainstream media is at its best complementary, with context, form and analysis provided by mainstream media to narratives first generated by citizens. Occasionally, citizens themselves provide course correction to mainstream media through new media. This is a thrust and parry that hitherto existed at the discretion of the mainstream media. Now it is far more open, and rapid. But to conflate new media with citizen generated content is to devalue the myriad of ways through which journalists and mainstream media also use internet, web and mobile platforms and technologies to widen and deepen their reporting. Key examples here are the use of new media by the New York Times and in particular, The Guardian in the UK.

The report notes pn Page 6 that “If greater access to information technology makes violence less likely, then technology policy must be integrated into the standard toolkits for conflict prevention and democracy promotion.” – What if reverse holds true? How to know the difference? The report itself says that the mere introduction of technology is no guarantee of greater democracy. Many would like to believe this to be true, but without for example media literacy, consumers who know no better than to trust and believe propaganda through other media will invariably be incited to hatred and violence through content in new media. Progressive IT policies require a great understanding of socio-economic, cultural, religious and identity groups.

I am very happy that the report recognises that failure is as, if not more important to study as success in new media initiatives. This is now fashionable to say in mainstream research, though I have been saying it for years before. What many have yet to acknowledge however is the disconnect between this essential honesty and integrity and the more parochial agendas of many donors, who see failure as a reason to not support further iterations of a project, programme or platform. Donors and funders are critical to bring into this discussion on after-action review that is not just about celebrating and marketing was done. Without this, there is really little or no incentive to be honest about meaningful learning from failure.

Tools like OpenCalais from Reuters were very interesting to read about. In fact, this is an area the report would do well to underscore the importance of more systematic mapping. For example, I recently found http://140kit.com to be a very valuable tool for my research. How many more other platforms must be already out there for more rigorous content and impact analysis of new media?

The report notes on Page 16 that “It is difficult to research political affiliations on social networking services such as Facebook except in a superficial way (e.g., by comparing the size of groups affiliated with the different presidential candidates).” Yes and no. The field of media monitoring for example is not just about quantitative analysis but qualitative analysis as well. Content analysis – what is said, how often, by whom, how, to whom, about what, when and in what language etc – can be an invaluable tool in research on how different new media platforms are leveraged to spread a common message.

Importantly, this content analysis must eschew the facile assumption that a blog’s or new media platform’s impact is limited to its readership / fan base / subscribers. Content from Groundviews for example is regularly picked up by more progressive and critical newspapers. RSS feed subscriptions, unless one uses Feedburner or similar products, are impossible to ascertain. It is impossible to know how many forward press releases of key content on a platform. There is no way to know how in printed form, content online is exchanged – but I know for a fact that for example many in govt in Sri Lanka, who don’t like Groundviews at all, consume content on it as printouts, not on the web. These are problems that must be flagged in the report.

The report does not, as strongly as I would like, bring out the fact that a repressive regime can more easily control online content produced by citizens in the country by just killing and abducting a few, leading to a context of anxiety and fear and a rise in self-censorship. New media, by virtue of its technological underpinnings alone does not stand above traditional ways a govt censors media. It offers a set of alternatives, but taking them is not without risk – and at the end of the day, the success or failure of new media is really anchored to the courage of a few individuals.

Peace is a human construct.

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