I just gave a TEDx talk and my presentation played off a recent blog post of mine entitled “Wag The Dog, or How Falsifying Crowdsourced Information can be a Pain.” I introduced some new ideas and angles to the topic so here is basically a blog post version of the presentation.
We all know that open crowdsourcing platforms are susceptible to information vandalism, i.e., false information deliberately used to mislead. For example, if an Ushahidi platform were used in Iran, the government there could start reporting events to Ushahidi that never happened; perhaps events that suggest protesters attacked first and that riot police were just acting in self defense. But, I’m going to argue that falsifying crowdsourced information can actually be a pain. And I’m going to use the analogy of “Wag the Dog” to explain why. If you haven’t watched the movie, the story is based on a White House Administration that pretends a war has broken out in Albania to divert public opinion and hopefully increase the President’s ratings prior to re-election.
Here’s a 30 second highlight on how they created a fake war:
In a way, Wag the Dog already happened for real. Except the story was called “The War of the Worlds” and it was played as a radio broadcast in 1938. “War of the Worlds” is drama about a Martian invasion of Earth. What was particularly fun about this radio broadcast was that the first 2/3 of the 1-hr long story was just a series of simulated news bulletins. And the story ran uninterrupted, ie, without commercials. So many radio listeners in the US freaked out, thinking a real invasion was taking place!
The panic this caused even made it on the front page of the New York Times! Clearly, pulling of a Wag-the-Dog in the 1930s was a piece of cake!
And that’s because the information ecosystem looked something like this in the 1930s. Largely disconnected and broadcast only, ie, one-to-many. Can anyone point out an important node that should be included in this ecosystem? That’s right, the newspaper. But the paper would not have been printed at the speed that the radio broadcast was taking place to help counter fears; unlike today, of course, thanks to online news.
Today’s information ecosystem obviously looks little different. Many-to-many, peer-to-peer, 2-way, real-time information and communication technologies. Now, we might argue that this kind of ecosystem makes it easier for repressive regimes to game since the system is closely integrated and interoperable, which means information can propagate very quickly. Secretary Clinton recently called our information ecosystem the new nervous system of the planet. But then again, these diverse sources of user-generated content could also make it easier to triangulate and filter out false information.
For example, in the case of Iran, the high volume of pictures and videos posted on Flickr and YouTube made it rather difficult for the government to claim nothing was happening. Information blockades are likely to join the Berlin Walls of history. Today, you can get pictures of the same incident from three different camera phones, in addition to tweets and text messages, etc.
This is what Ushahidi is about, aggregating crisis information across different media and mapping that information in near real time to improve transparency, accountability and coordination.
Take the Ushahidi-Haiti map, for example. Crowdsourcing crisis information on Haiti allowed us to map several thousand incidents over just a few weeks, which actually saved lives on the ground. The incidents we mapped came from a myriad of sources: thousands of text messages directly from Haiti, hundreds of Tweets, information from Facebook Groups, online media, live Skype chats with the Search and Rescue Teams in Port-au-Prince, list serves, radio, you name it. Volunteers at The Fletcher School mapped this information in near real-time for several weeks and first responders used the map to save lives.
Check out this animation of the events unfolding from just a few hours after the quake.
What you see are events “overlapping” and clustering, ie, on several occasions we get two or more text messages from different numbers reporting the same event. And then a Tweet with similar information, for example. The crowdsourcing of crisis information allows us to triangulate and validate information thanks to the reporting coming from a myriad of sources in near real-time. This would hardly have been possible in the 1930s, which is what prompted my colleague Anand at the New York Times to write an article on our work and ask,
They say that history is written by the winners, will future history be written by the crowd?
Ushahidi’s crowded map of Haiti reminded me of Photosynth. Taking hundreds crowdsourced pictures and “stitching” them together to reproduce historical monuments. In 3D no less!
Here’s a quick 20 second video demo:
So the question is, can Ushahidi become the “ALLsynth” by stitching together crowdsourced crisis information across many different types of media? Ushahidi platforms have been deployed hundreds of times across the world. Here are just four examples.
From mapping the Swine Flu outbreak to reporting on the war in Gaza, to citizen-powered election monitoring in India and disaster response in the Philippines. Would stitching together these hundreds of platforms amount to creating an ALLsynth? What would it take to game an ALLsynth?
As I mentioned in my Wag the Dog post, perhaps some of the following:
- Dozens of pictures from as many different camera phones of an event that never happened.
- Text messages using different wording to describe an event that never happened.
- Tweets (not retweets!).
- Fake blog posts, Facebook groups and Wikipedia entries.
- Fake video footage. Heck, you’d probably want to hack the international media and plant a fake article in the New York Times home page.
- If you really want to go all out, you’d want to get hundreds of (paid?) actors like in The Truman Show.
- You’d likely want to cordon off an entire area of the city or city outskirts.
- Then you’d want to choreograph a few fight scenes with these actors.
- A few rehearsals would probably be in order too.
- Oh and of course props, plus lots of ketchup if you want things to look like they went badly.
In other words, you’d probably want to move to Hollywood to fabricate all this… That said, there’s another way that repressive regimes could deal with an unwanted Ushahidi platform, like this one being used by Sudanese civil society groups in the Sudan to monitor the elections currently taking place. We found out yesterday from our Sudanese colleagues that the site was no longer accessible in the Sudan (see official press release here in PDF). Blocking and censoring websites is really easy for governments to do, and we expected that Sudan would be no different.
So our Sudanese colleagues have been working with their tech-savvy friends to circumvent the censorship and continue mapping election irregularities—this is my applied dissertation research in action, I just never thought that my own actions would influence the data. They set up a mirror site under an different domain name. This may become a cyber-game-of-cat-and-mouse, there is plenty of precedents for this: civil society finds a loophole, which is then blocked by the state, which prompts the search for another loophole, etc, etc. I expect that repressive regimes may eventually give up on blocking websites given the likely futility. Instead, they may try to game the platforms by falsifying crowdsourced information.
But as I have just argued, falsifying crowdsourced information can be a pain. So if repressive regimes start pouring money into their domestic film industries, particularly in blue screen technology, you’ll know why, and this is what you can expect to happen next:
Patrick Philippe Meier