New media: The pros and cons

Texts Without Context on the NY Times is an excellent round up and review of books on the qualitative nature, reach and growth of new media, and its implications for the way we produce, consume and understand news. From the infidelity of Tiger Woods to the death of Michael Jackson, the highest peaks of traffic on the web in recent years have been driven by the reportage of events, the authors of the books included in the article would argue, that are essentially trivial.

As the article notes,

Now, with the ubiquity of instant messaging and e-mail, the growing popularity of Twitter and YouTube, and even newer services like Google Wave, velocity and efficiency have become even more important. Although new media can help build big TV audiences for events like the Super Bowl, it also tends to make people treat those events as fodder for digital chatter. More people are impatient to cut to the chase, and they’re increasingly willing to take the imperfect but immediately available product over a more thoughtfully analyzed, carefully created one. Instead of reading an entire news article, watching an entire television show or listening to an entire speech, growing numbers of people are happy to jump to the summary, the video clip, the sound bite — never mind if context and nuance are lost in the process; never mind if it’s our emotions, more than our sense of reason, that are engaged; never mind if statements haven’t been properly vetted and sourced.

The article goes on to note that,

“Given the constant bombardment of trivia and data that we’re subjected to in today’s mediascape, it’s little wonder that noisy, Manichean arguments tend to get more attention than subtle, policy-heavy ones; that funny, snarky or willfully provocative assertions often gain more traction than earnest, measured ones; and that loud, entertaining or controversial personalities tend to get the most ink and airtime. This is why Sarah Palin’s every move and pronouncement is followed by television news, talk-show hosts and pundits of every political persuasion. This is why Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh on the right and Michael Moore on the left are repeatedly quoted by followers and opponents. This is why a gathering of 600 people for last month’s national Tea Party convention in Nashville received a disproportionate amount of coverage from both the mainstream news media and the blogosphere.”

Read it in full here. Or true to form, I guess you can just tweet about it.

Intercepting mobile communications: A cogent case for truth-seeking and slow news?

Even if most of us are powerless to completely evade it completely, the pitfalls of mobile phone intercepts are well documented and known. However, two articles recently published on the web can be read as somewhat justifying the use of material thus collected for truth seeking after an act of terrorism. Whether such use justifies ab initio the clandestine harvesting of voice and data from consumers is a debatable point, particularly in regimes significantly less democratic than the US and India.

England’s Guardian newspaper reports on its blog an experiment by Wikileaks to place on public record more than 500,000 intercepted pager messages, many from US officials, at the time of the World Trade Centre attacks in New York on 9th September 2001.

The experiment by whistleblowing website Wikileaks includes pager messages sent on the day by officials in the Pentagon, the New York police and witnesses to the collapse of the twin towers. Wikileaks said the messages would show a “completely objective record of the defining moment of our time”.

Emphasis mine. In a similar vein, the Lede of the New York Times reports almost a year after the horrific terrorist attacks in Mumbai that,

… Channel 4 News in Britain had obtained and broadcast excerpts from those intercepted phone calls, between the attackers and people apparently directing them. This audio was also used in a documentary produced by Channel 4 and HBO, which was broadcast last summer in Britain is airing in the United States this week.

The Channel 4 video is chilling, demonstrating clearly how mobile phone communications were central to the terrorist attacks.

Distracted by wide screen monitors?

Implications for advocacy against mobile phone and communications monitoring
We know that the terrorists in Mumbai used Blackberry’s to communicate with home base and monitor news reports. Does this knowledge justify the Indian government’s threat to hack into Blackberry communications a few months before the attacks last year?

Both examples above point to extremely sophisticated, wide ranging signals and communications intelligence regimes in both countries, able to access the communications of specific mobile devices and numbers post facto. As noted in the Lede,

Wikileaks would not reveal the source for the leak, but hinted: “It is clear that the information comes from an organisation which has been intercepting and archiving US national telecommunciations since prior to 9/11.

This strongly suggests that both data and voice of a wide range of numbers (maybe even of all consumers?) are being recorded either by the telcos themselves and / or by government intelligence agencies.

Given the increasing sophisticated and ubiquity of signals and communications intelligence, it is reasonable to expect that every terrorist act today gives cause for more encroachment into private communications. For example, this is clear even in the United Kingdom, when in 2008 it was brought to light that it was the intention of the British Government to create a database to record every phone call, e-mail and time spent on the internet by all citizens.

A common argument will be that these measures are necessary to protect the public in a context where terrorism relies on the same public infrastructure and communications channels to plans its attacks as ordinary citizens.

Will then a mark of democracy in the future be the open knowledge and contestation of these signals and communication intelligence regimes in the media by civil society, such as we find in the UK and US? If not, how can we discern between the ostensibly pro bono publico monitoring of communications in more robust democracies and the more sinister, parochial monitoring of communications in regimes like Iran, Saudi Arabia and China?

A case for slow-news?
Finally, I go back to the justification of Wikileaks to publish the records of pager messages sent after the World Trade Centre attacks. What it refers to as an objective record is actually a plethora of hugely subjective, partial and inaccurate messages. Any real time analysis of these messages could not have in any meaningful way contributed to situational awareness or policy decisions. As the Guardian notes, the messages “…show how panic and rumour began to spread on the day, and are likely to fuel conspiracy theories about the attacks.”

Dan Gillmor, using the more recent example of the shootings in America’s Fort Hood, writes about the need for a ‘slow news’ movement. As he notes,

I rely in large part on gut instincts when I make big decisions, but my gut only gives me good advice when I’ve immersed myself in the facts about things that are important. This applies, more than ever, to news, where we need to be skeptical of just about everything we read, listen to and watch, though not equally skeptical. A corollary to that is increasingly clear: to wait a bit, for evidence that is persuasive, before deciding what’s true and what’s not.

It comes down to this: The faster the news accelerates, the slower I’m inclined to believe anything I hear — and the harder I look for the coverage that pulls together the most facts with the most clarity about what’s known and what’s speculation. Call it slow news. Call it critical thinking. Call it anything you want. Give some thought to adopting it for at least some of your media consumption, and creation.

Dan’s full blog post, which refers to the work of Ethan Zuckerman as well, is linked to national security, in that policy decisions to counter terrorism taken on the basis of communications intelligence may be based on information that’s inaccurate, partial and in some cases, deliberately misleading. This is especially the case in a context where with a shocked and enraged citizenry, a government is forced to act upon, and rate more highly, intelligence it knows is suspect. There is also the flip side, where in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack known to have been coordinated using public telecoms infrastructure and channels, an unscrupulous government can more easily justify and embed communications monitoring for its own ends.

As Dan notes, the answer could lie in media literacy. But media literacy is pegged to the freedom of expression, sufficient literacy, education and access to alternative media. Fabrice Florin’s NewsTrust.net offers one compelling model of news reporting that fosters critical appreciation of online content. There are others. Coupled with an education in critical thinking, they can be a solid defense against mobs and riots instigated by disinformation, misinformation and misguided government policies that exacerbate conflict and act as a force-multiplier to terrorism.

From community radio to Internet radio, mobiles and narrow-casting: New models for enduring needs

DSC_0144
Saru Praja Radio production studio

For more images of Saru Praja radio and the training we conducted, click here.

In May this year, a colleague and I went to Nissankamallapura, Pollonnaruwa to strengthen online journalism capacities of a group trained in community radio production and had a decent production studio conveniently adjacent to an ICTA Nenasala. This groups was very interested in using the computers and internet access literally next door to their studio to publish and promote their productions on the web.

They called their station Saru Praja Radio and told us they were the first community in Sri Lanka to ask for a FM radio frequency to air their productions across a footprint of 48 villages in the Pollonnaruwa district.

Continue reading

IGP now wants to “suspend licenses” of porn websites in Sri Lanka

An order by the Inspector General of Police in Sri Lanka, the same chowderhead who once said women could record themselves getting raped through mobile phones, now wants to the Director General of Telecommunication Regulatory Commission to suspend the licenses of 12 websites which were exhibiting nude photographs.

Firstly, none of the websites the IGP has got all hot and bothered about are registered in Sri Lanka, but a simple whois search would be as alien to the Police in Sri Lanka as peacebuilding is to the incumbent government.

Secondly, why this sudden love for the rule of law? Websites in Sri Lanka are arbitrarily banned and blocked without warning or any due process, despite flat denials by government when asked about their censorship regime in place for web media. Tamilnet remains blocked on all ISPs in Sri Lanka. Recently, another website was blocked in Sri Lanka for showing images of the President’s son, which was very conveniently on the same day the site reported the egregious public statement of a highly placed goon in government and close friend of the President. Subsequent reports circulated over email that these photos were doctored and the report on the President’s son was false is reason to hold the journalists accountable for libel or conduct investigations into their false reporting, not shutdown an entire site.

The Island notes the CID started the investigation into the pornographic sites following a written complaint lodged by the IGP Jayantha Wickramaratne. While it’s heartening the IGP is concerned about our morals, I would much rather judge for myself the content I view on the web. There’s a real danger here of setting a precedent of blocking and banning website for website defined and seen as unsuitable by the incumbent regime’s set of puritan values, as noted by Foreign Policy with examples from China and Bahrain. In August 2008, there were news reports of an even wider, more intrusive net filtering regime proposed by the President. A the time, it was reported that the TRC had gone to the extent of demanding ISPs to ”filter the websites featuring Obscene/phonographic (sic) /sexually explicit materials”.

As Lirneasia notes tongue in the cheek,

Criminal Investigation Department, working on a complaint by the IGP revealed these sites contain pornographic images and video clips of men and women, possibly Sri Lankan. They also suspected an international conspiracy to tarnish the image of the country, reported, Divaina. One may term the act anti-protectionist, because while the local production is blocked the vast majority of international porn sites still remain open.

Post-war Sri Lanka needs to worry more, at the very least, about the abysmal freedom of expression in the country than strengthening, widening and worsening existing informal and formal censorship of media. Honestly, shouldn’t the Police be far more concerned about the dozens of dormant investigations into acts of murderous violence against journalists since this President took office?

But if the IGP really is serious about eradicating pornography on the web like dengue, he should ban Google too. A simple search brings up over 800,000 pages and a couple of hundred sites in addition to those above that if the Divaina is to be believed, is are all part of an international conspiracy to tarnish the image of the country.

Sunday Times in Sri Lanka “hosts” Twitter!

Not satisfied with such pathbreaking initiatives in the “professional” print media industry in Sri Lanka such as using Wikipedia to defame and plagiarising content from Flickr, the Sunday Times in Sri Lanka proudly announces today that it has “linked up” with Twitter and will be “hosting” the service to boot!

Journalist Surekha, understandably a little light headed at her epiphanic discovery of Twitter notes that, “by simply following the right people and publication on Twitter, users can find the finest information available on the Internet catered to their tastes all in one place.” After such a gushy verdict, one shudders to contemplate what Surekha might write after she discovers RSS aggregation. But not stopping at the banal, the article ventures into nonsense, noting that “as more people join Twitter, its ability to measure what issues garner the most attention will increase in accuracy”.

Tellingly though, anyone keen to follow Twitter “hosted” by the Sunday Times were greeted with this message.

ST on Twitter - Small

Unsurprising under an Editor who cannot even begin to comprehend proper online sourcing or citizen journalism (see responses by bloggers here and here), its fascinating to watch these bungling attempts of traditional print media in Sri Lanka to leverage social networking, mobiles and the web.

Groundviews, progressive youth initiatives like Beyond Borders along with others on Facebook and a range of independent, compelling voices on the web have used new media for years to publish and disseminate critical content and engage local and international audiences, even at the height of war.

One hopes that wiser counsel prevails and the Sunday Times only asks journalists of a higher calibre like Smriti Daniel to cover their forays into new media in the future.

Guerilla Techniques for Online Activism

FreeVoice has an interesting blog post up on using the Internet and web for online activism.

The Invisible Ghost Writer: Using this strategy the person who has the “dangerous” information will build an alliance with another prominent blogger or writer in another country. The collaborator will then publish his article as if he is the one writing it. Prior to that, the ghost writer will conduct an analysis of his collaborator’s writing style, and adjust his writing styles. The collaborator will also do some editing to make it looks convincing that he is the actual writer. The Ghost writer will sometimes collaborate with another person who writes in a different language he is unfamiliar with.
The Trojan Horse Writer: In this strategy the writer will pretend as if he is supporting the government or the respective individual but will slowly discredit himself or shooting himself on the foot, thus discrediting the individual he is supporting.  For an example the government may want to keep silent on a certain issue. However, the Trojan horse writer will continue to harp on an issue by defending it rigorously so that it will open more questions and scrutiny. The writers needs to be very delicate and not to be carried away with certain issues, as it may drives away readers who feels suspicious of his writing agenda.
The Multi-Platform Advocates: The champion of an agenda will use several delivery platforms concurrently to further support the points or assertion that he is making. The most popular support platforms that he can use are Wikipedia, Youtube and Flickr. For example he can ask a friend to write an article in Wikipedia and make a reference to that article. With respect to this he can actually use his actual name, but can make a reference to a source that is anonymous. When he is making a reference to a source he needs to do it concurrently with other bloggers so that he won’t be seen as the first person to make certain claims. Photographs and Youtube are important media to create satire and “poke fun” at politicians. It creates a lasting impression and people can remember it well. In Malaysia Today blog for example, photographs and youtube are being used by either the commentators or the bloggers to supplement the writing process.

The Invisible Ghost Writer: Using this strategy the person who has the “dangerous” information will build an alliance with another prominent blogger or writer in another country. The collaborator will then publish his article as if he is the one writing it. Prior to that, the ghost writer will conduct an analysis of his collaborator’s writing style, and adjust his writing styles. The collaborator will also do some editing to make it looks convincing that he is the actual writer. The Ghost writer will sometimes collaborate with another person who writes in a different language he is unfamiliar with.

The Trojan Horse Writer: In this strategy the writer will pretend as if he is supporting the government or the respective individual but will slowly discredit himself or shooting himself on the foot, thus discrediting the individual he is supporting.  For an example the government may want to keep silent on a certain issue. However, the Trojan horse writer will continue to harp on an issue by defending it rigorously so that it will open more questions and scrutiny. The writers needs to be very delicate and not to be carried away with certain issues, as it may drives away readers who feels suspicious of his writing agenda.

The Multi-Platform Advocates: The champion of an agenda will use several delivery platforms concurrently to further support the points or assertion that he is making. The most popular support platforms that he can use are Wikipedia, Youtube and Flickr. For example he can ask a friend to write an article in Wikipedia and make a reference to that article. With respect to this he can actually use his actual name, but can make a reference to a source that is anonymous. When he is making a reference to a source he needs to do it concurrently with other bloggers so that he won’t be seen as the first person to make certain claims. Photographs and Youtube are important media to create satire and “poke fun” at politicians. It creates a lasting impression and people can remember it well. In Malaysia Today blog for example, photographs and youtube are being used by either the commentators or the bloggers to supplement the writing process.

As the blog post notes,

Even you think you could protect yourself from government detection, the government could simply ban the access to the website or content indefinitely. Then all your efforts will be futile and useless. As such, you need to assume that one day the government will block access to your website. The most logical thing for you to do is to collect the emails of your readers.

From the experience of creating and running Groundviews, there is actually much more you can do if the website you create risks being shut down, blocked or hacked.

I’ll cover these in detail in a subsequent post.