Monthly Archives: July 2008

Responding to Paul Curion’s Thoughts on Global Voices

Many thanks for the reality check, Paul. As mentioned, I tried to post this as a comment directly on your blog but kept on getting the following error message:

Precondition Failed: The precondition on the request for the URL /wp-comments-post.php evaluated to false.

So I’ve posted my comments on my blog instead:

Paul: “The echo chamber effect of the internet also suggests to me that it doesn’t matter much how many “moderate” voices you present to the world – the extreme voices will still be in the headlines.”

Me:
Yes, in the mainstream news, for sure. Hence the political-economy of the mass media. And hence the basis and need for citizen media such as Global Voices. To balance out, or to present alternative perspectives to social, political and economic events. And to shed light on those events ignored by the mainstream media. This is what deliberative democracy is about. And what Global Voices is about.

Paul: “Not only is the media – including the web – skewed towards extreme positions but human cognition is also skewed towards extreme positions.”

Me: Hence my interest in transparent, accountable and democratic processes. Citizen media, investigative journalism, the use of Web 2.0 tools to document instances of human rights violations, government corruption, etc. are ways to expose extremist actions. Oversight is an important element of any democracy. See DigiActive.org, for example. This is just a first step, ie, empowering political activists using digital technology to increase their impact vis-a-vis pro-democracy initiatives.

Paul: “More to the point, the high visibility of these projects runs the risk of creating a public priority that skews towards advocacy (which is important) and away from legal action (which is more important – and is also what the advocacy should be leading towards).”

Me: Actually, the issue of legal actions was a point that repeatedly came up during the Global Voices summit.

Paul: “I can’t quite see how blogging is a “response” in any significant sense. One of Patrick’s key arguments is that current early warning systems – such as FAST, referenced here – are not sufficiently linked to policy and operational decision-making structures. With the case of the Kenyan blogging community, that charge is surely doubled – not only are they not linked to decision-making structures but there are no decision-making structures in sight. That’s not a criticism of “citizen journalism”, which is a worthwhile endeavor on its own terms – but let’s not pretend that its something it’s not.”

Me: Actually, one of my key arguments is that even if early warning systems such as FAST were linked to policy and operational response, there would still be no early response. Since they were at the front lines, I would recommend touching base with Daudi, Ory and Juliana on exactly how they used blogging to share information and respond *locally* in an informal and decentralized manner. Of course, this is not going to make the headlines; not going to be published in a peer reviewed journal, and so we all too often assume that this type of informal responses do not exist. I would highly recommend “Seeing Like a State” by James Scott in this respect. And also Bill Ury’s “The Third Side.”


Paul:
“There are several dangers here. One is that if people who get involved in projects like these don’t see a return on their investment, they are unlikely to come back again – they’ll put their energies somewhere else.”

Me: I’m not sure I follow. What do you mean?

Paul: “Another [danger] is that there’s a limited amount of resources out there, and resources placed into one project don’t go into another project.”

Me: This is true of any project, Paul. But I’m not asking for more resources or shifting sources, am I? In fact, I’m asking for a more efficient use of existing resources. One reason FAST was not sustainable was because of the expenses incurred by having to pay for 60+ informants to code events. Which is why I’m suggesting that making use of freely available trusted citizen media blogs as a source for local information makes sense. Particularly as these networks are likely to report using pictures, YouTube videos, etc. Unlike FAST’s field monitors, GV bloggers also have a vibrant and pro-active network they can tap into. Hence the possibility of Ushahidi.

Paul: “Yet another is that the power of the web skews towards those with the best access, which means that organisations that might be doing better work suffer from not being as visible.”

Me: So I guess we should not make use of the web? I think the Internet allows more individuals to be visible to a larger audience. This trend is unlikely to change.

Paul: “Yet another [danger] is that by trying to move into a new – and admittedly sexy – area, projects like GVO will start to suffer from mission creep, diluting those elements which made them useful and attractive in the first place.”

Me: Where in my blog post did I suggest that GVO should move into new projects?

Paul: “And finally the peer-based nature of this interaction – which is fantastic in and of itself – but which does not necessarily reinforce the institution-based action which is essential for human rights framework.”

Me: See my note above. I’m weary of institution-based action (an oxymoron?), which is precisely why GV appeals to me–a decentralized network of activists who seek (often at their own personal risk) to get information out to the rest of the world based on their own values, which, by the way are democratic values.

Paul: “Global Voices is not a representative body; it’s not an accountable body; it’s not even a “body” as such. We like Global Voices because it reflects our own values – but democracy is not supposed to reflect our values only, it’s supposed to reflect everybody’s values.”

Me: I like the fact that GV is not a “body” as such. GV is far more representative than FAST’s field monitors ever were. In my opinion, GV is accountable. You have taken issue with some of my arguments and have had the freedom to respond accordingly. This is exactly what I was hoping would happen, dialogue across fields. Blogs are interactive, nothing prevents you from critiquing GV directly on the blogs they post. You can get in touch with the co-founders and voice your concerns. You can respond to any errors in their reporting by posting your comments on their blogs, letting others know that you dispute their account of events. This will only make the deliberations more democratic. The issue of accountability is certainly important, but not just for GV. How many NGOs in our field are really accountable? (Just trying to add perspective).

What are GV’s values? GV’s mission? I included this in my blog post by copying and pasting directly from the GV website:

At a time when the international English-language media ignores many things that are important to large numbers of the world’s citizens, Global Voices aims to redress some of the inequities in media attention by leveraging the power of citizens’ media. We’re using a wide variety of technologies – weblogs, podcasts, photos, video, wikis, tags, aggregators and online chats – to call attention to conversations and points of view that we hope will help shed new light on the nature of our interconnected world.

See also this blog entry by Rebecca, one of GV’s cofounders.

Finally, since I know you’re also interested in complex systems, I would highly highly recommend reading this piece by Benkler on the wealth of networks. I think it provides an important roadmap vis-a-vis the implications of the information revolution for our field.

Thanks again for the reality check, Paul, which is always (as far as I’m concerned) very welcome. I do really hope this conversation leads to a dialogue with the GV group—that would make my day, and then some.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Responding to Paul Curion’s Thoughts on Global Voices

Many thanks for the reality check, Paul. As mentioned, I tried to post this as a comment directly on your blog but kept on getting the following error message:

Precondition Failed: The precondition on the request for the URL /wp-comments-post.php evaluated to false.

So I’ve posted my comments on my blog instead:

Paul: “The echo chamber effect of the internet also suggests to me that it doesn’t matter much how many “moderate” voices you present to the world – the extreme voices will still be in the headlines.”

Me:
Yes, in the mainstream news, for sure. Hence the political-economy of the mass media. And hence the basis and need for citizen media such as Global Voices. To balance out, or to present alternative perspectives to social, political and economic events. And to shed light on those events ignored by the mainstream media. This is what deliberative democracy is about. And what Global Voices is about.

Paul: “Not only is the media – including the web – skewed towards extreme positions but human cognition is also skewed towards extreme positions.”

Me: Hence my interest in transparent, accountable and democratic processes. Citizen media, investigative journalism, the use of Web 2.0 tools to document instances of human rights violations, government corruption, etc. are ways to expose extremist actions. Oversight is an important element of any democracy. See DigiActive.org, for example. This is just a first step, ie, empowering political activists using digital technology to increase their impact vis-a-vis pro-democracy initiatives.

Paul: “More to the point, the high visibility of these projects runs the risk of creating a public priority that skews towards advocacy (which is important) and away from legal action (which is more important – and is also what the advocacy should be leading towards).”

Me: Actually, the issue of legal actions was a point that repeatedly came up during the Global Voices summit.

Paul: “I can’t quite see how blogging is a “response” in any significant sense. One of Patrick’s key arguments is that current early warning systems – such as FAST, referenced here – are not sufficiently linked to policy and operational decision-making structures. With the case of the Kenyan blogging community, that charge is surely doubled – not only are they not linked to decision-making structures but there are no decision-making structures in sight. That’s not a criticism of “citizen journalism”, which is a worthwhile endeavor on its own terms – but let’s not pretend that its something it’s not.”

Me: Actually, one of my key arguments is that even if early warning systems such as FAST were linked to policy and operational response, there would still be no early response. Since they were at the front lines, I would recommend touching base with Daudi, Ory and Juliana on exactly how they used blogging to share information and respond *locally* in an informal and decentralized manner. Of course, this is not going to make the headlines; not going to be published in a peer reviewed journal, and so we all too often assume that this type of informal responses do not exist. I would highly recommend “Seeing Like a State” by James Scott in this respect. And also Bill Ury’s “The Third Side.”


Paul:
“There are several dangers here. One is that if people who get involved in projects like these don’t see a return on their investment, they are unlikely to come back again – they’ll put their energies somewhere else.”

Me: I’m not sure I follow. What do you mean?

Paul: “Another [danger] is that there’s a limited amount of resources out there, and resources placed into one project don’t go into another project.”

Me: This is true of any project, Paul. But I’m not asking for more resources or shifting sources, am I? In fact, I’m asking for a more efficient use of existing resources. One reason FAST was not sustainable was because of the expenses incurred by having to pay for 60+ informants to code events. Which is why I’m suggesting that making use of freely available trusted citizen media blogs as a source for local information makes sense. Particularly as these networks are likely to report using pictures, YouTube videos, etc. Unlike FAST’s field monitors, GV bloggers also have a vibrant and pro-active network they can tap into. Hence the possibility of Ushahidi.

Paul: “Yet another is that the power of the web skews towards those with the best access, which means that organisations that might be doing better work suffer from not being as visible.”

Me: So I guess we should not make use of the web? I think the Internet allows more individuals to be visible to a larger audience. This trend is unlikely to change.

Paul: “Yet another [danger] is that by trying to move into a new – and admittedly sexy – area, projects like GVO will start to suffer from mission creep, diluting those elements which made them useful and attractive in the first place.”

Me: Where in my blog post did I suggest that GVO should move into new projects?

Paul: “And finally the peer-based nature of this interaction – which is fantastic in and of itself – but which does not necessarily reinforce the institution-based action which is essential for human rights framework.”

Me: See my note above. I’m weary of institution-based action (an oxymoron?), which is precisely why GV appeals to me–a decentralized network of activists who seek (often at their own personal risk) to get information out to the rest of the world based on their own values, which, by the way are democratic values.

Paul: “Global Voices is not a representative body; it’s not an accountable body; it’s not even a “body” as such. We like Global Voices because it reflects our own values – but democracy is not supposed to reflect our values only, it’s supposed to reflect everybody’s values.”

Me: I like the fact that GV is not a “body” as such. GV is far more representative than FAST’s field monitors ever were. In my opinion, GV is accountable. You have taken issue with some of my arguments and have had the freedom to respond accordingly. This is exactly what I was hoping would happen, dialogue across fields. Blogs are interactive, nothing prevents you from critiquing GV directly on the blogs they post. You can get in touch with the co-founders and voice your concerns. You can respond to any errors in their reporting by posting your comments on their blogs, letting others know that you dispute their account of events. This will only make the deliberations more democratic. The issue of accountability is certainly important, but not just for GV. How many NGOs in our field are really accountable? (Just trying to add perspective).

What are GV’s values? GV’s mission? I included this in my blog post by copying and pasting directly from the GV website:

At a time when the international English-language media ignores many things that are important to large numbers of the world’s citizens, Global Voices aims to redress some of the inequities in media attention by leveraging the power of citizens’ media. We’re using a wide variety of technologies – weblogs, podcasts, photos, video, wikis, tags, aggregators and online chats – to call attention to conversations and points of view that we hope will help shed new light on the nature of our interconnected world.

See also this blog entry by Rebecca, one of GV’s cofounders.

Finally, since I know you’re also interested in complex systems, I would highly highly recommend reading this piece by Benkler on the wealth of networks. I think it provides an important roadmap vis-a-vis the implications of the information revolution for our field.

Thanks again for the reality check, Paul, which is always (as far as I’m concerned) very welcome. I do really hope this conversation leads to a dialogue with the GV group—that would make my day, and then some.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Beating the Chinese Censors: da Vinci redux (Updated)

This piece, “Chinese Bloggers Scale The ‘Great Firewall’ in Riot’s Aftermath,” published in the Wall Street Journal, got little attention in the usual suspects of blogs, so I’ve decided to flag it since it also speaks directly to the notion of iRevolution. Following recent riots earlier this month, government censors deleted all online posts that provided information related to the unrest and deactivated the accounts of those authoring the posts.

So bloggers on forums such as Tianya.cn have taken to posting in formats that China’s Internet censors, often employees of commercial Internet service providers, have a hard time automatically detecting. One recent strategy involves online software that flips sentences to read right to left instead of left to right, and vertically instead of horizontally.

China’s sophisticated censorship regime—known as the Great Firewall—can automatically track objectionable phrases. But “the country also has the most experienced and talented group of netizens who always know ways around it,” said an editor at Tianya, owned by Hainan Tianya Online Networking Technology Co., who has been responsible for deleting posts about the riot.

I find this particularly insightful vis-a-vis my dissertation research in which I basically ask: which side—state or society—is likely to win this cyber game of cat-and-mouse? Beijing can impliment all kinds of sophisticated (and expensive) censorship tools—courtesy of US companies such as Cisco—but these can so easily be circumvented by simply doing what Leonardo da Vinci did 500 years ago, i.e., writing backwards. To this end, I would argue that digital activists do have an asymmetric advantage in the information race.

Indeed, some digital activists in China also used Twitter to share information, which “delivers information more quickly than censors can block it,” to post information on the riots. There are other ways to circumvent Chinese censors:

Mr. Zhou also has posted recordings of interviews with rioters and local residents on his blog, which is hosted on a server outside China. He also hosts alternative links to his site that use technical loopholes to get around blocks placed on accessing his site inside China.

San Xiao, the online name of a reporter for a local newspaper in Guizhou, said he decided to post reports online that censors wouldn’t allow in the newspaper. On Monday, he wrote a blog post titled, “Let’s see how far the post can go before it gets censored and deleted,” which collected details about the riot from several different sources. By Tuesday, his original post on the Chinese Internet destination qq.com—plus many copies on other sites—had been removed.

“It is everyone’s responsibility to get this information out, and I will try all means,” he wrote in an email.

The Chinese government is likely to be equally resolute given the stakes. Question is, who is likely to win this digital arms race? Will the Information Revolution give way to countless mini iRevolutions the aggregate impact of which will lead to more democratic and transparent governance? I hope to have an answer when I complete my dissertation.

Update: See this follow up post by Global Voices on why the Wall Street Journal got it wrong. GV argues that traditional media has a much stronger role than an individual blogger.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Survey on Information Management & Sharing in Crisis Response Situations

On behalf of the Crisis Management Initiative, IASCI is conducting a research project related to information management and sharing in crisis response situations. IASCI is contacting fellow practitioners from key institutions and agencies to canvas their expert views and experiences regarding information systems and features of utility, and to learn about primary information gaps and constraints.

If you are professionally familiar with crisis response, either from the field or management perspectives, CMI and IASCI would very much appreciate if you could take a few moments to respond to our questions under the following link:

Online Survey

If you have any questions or suggestions, you can contact IASCI at info@iasci.info

Patrick Philippe Meier

The Burmese Cyclone, Nonviolent Action, and the Responsibility to Empower

I just got this piece published in PeaceWorks:

Repressive regimes continue to play the sovereignty card regardless of international condemnation, and the military regime in Burma is no exception. Prior to the cyclone disaster, the regime maintained an effective information blockade on the country, limiting access and communication while forcefully cracking down on the pro-democracy resistance movement.

The military regime’s decision to block humanitarian aid following the cyclone disaster should really come as no surprise. The international community clearly remains at the mercy of regimes that scoff at the Responsibility to Protect.

The Responsibility to Protect (or R2P, as endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 1674, affirming the responsibility of all to prevent or stop genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity) is a noble principle: sovereignty is contingent upon the state’s ability to protect its citizens. Burma’s military regime has shown absolutely no interest in doing so, but quite the opposite—even in the case of a “natural” disaster. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has advocated that the principle of R2P justifies overruling the Burmese military junta’s right to territorial sovereignty.

Originally, Gareth Evans, Director of the International Crisis Group, strongly disagreed, arguing that Kouchner’s approach would create a precedent to intervene in post-disaster environments, which would potentially undermine the general consensus that currently exists in the developing world vis-à-vis R2P. Many other humanitarians have also voiced their opposition to engaging in non-authorized intervention. They (mistakenly) assumed such intervention requires the use of force. The result? An international community yet again bowing down to the wishes of a repressive regime; a terribly inadequate in-country humanitarian response to save lives; and an increasingly high death toll. It is high time that alternative approaches to humanitarian intervention be considered that depend less on potentially resistant governments — approaches such as people-centered tactics and nonviolent action. In other words, what nonviolent options exist for civilian protection and non-consensual humanitarian intervention? Continued…

Patrick Philippe Meier