Tag Archives: Burma

New Media, Accuracy and Balance of Power in Crises

I just read Nik Gowing’s book entitled “Skyful of Lies and Black Swans: The New Tyranny of Shifting Information Power in Crises.” The term “Black Swan” refers to sudden onset crises and the title of an excellent book on the topic by Nassim Taleb. “Skyful of Lies,” were the words used by the Burmese junta to dismiss the deluge of digital evidence of the mass pro-democracy protests  that took place in 2007.


Nik packs in some very interesting content in this study, a lot of which is directly relevant to my dissertation research and consulting work. He describes the rise of new media as “having an asymmetric, negative impact on the traditional structures of power.”

Indeed, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband labeled this “shifting of power from state to citizen as the new ‘civilian surge.’” To be sure, “that ‘civilian surge’ of growing digital empowerment is forcing an enhanced level of accountability that [...] is a ‘real change to democracy’.” As for authoritarian regimes, “the impact of new media technologies has been shown to be as potentially ‘subversive’ as for highly developed democratic states.”

However, Nik recognizes that “the implications for power and policy-makers is not well developed or appreciated.” He adds that “the implications of this new level of empowerment are profound but still, in many ways, unquantifiable.” Hence the purpose and focus of my dissertation.

Time Lines out of Sync

Nik notes that the time lines of media action and institutional reaction are increasingly out of sync. “The information pipelines facilitated by the new media can provide information and revelations within minutes. But the apparatus of government, the military or the corporate world remain conditioned to take hours.”

Take for example, the tube and train bombings in London, 2005. During the first three hours following the incidents, the official government line was that an accidental power surge had caused the catastrophe. Meanwhile, some 1,300 blog posts were written within just 80 minutes of the terrorist attack which pointed to explosive devices as the cause. “The content of the real-time reporting of 20,000 emails, 3,000 text messages, 1,000 digital images and 20 video clips was both dramatic and largely correct.”

New Media and Accuracy

I find the point about accuracy particularly interesting. According to Nik, the repeated warnings that new media and user-generated content (UGC) cannot be trusted “does not seem to apply in a major crisis.”

“Far from it. The accumulated evidence is that the asymmetric torrent of overwhelming ‘amateur’ inputs from the new generators of content produces largely accurate, if personalized, information in real time. It may be imperfect and incomplete as the crisis time line unfolds.

There is also the risk of exaggeration or downright misleading ‘reporting’. But the impact is profound. Internal BBC research discovered that audiences are understanding if errors or exaggerations creep in by way of such information doer material, as long as they are sourced and later corrected.

In addition, the concept of trust can ‘flex’ in a crisis. Trust does not diminish as long as the ongoing levels of doubt or lack of certainty are always made clear. It is about ‘doing your best in [a] world where speed and information are the keys’. But the research concluded that the BBC needed to do more work to analyze the implications of the UGC phenomenon for accuracy, speed, personalization, dialogue and trust. That challenge is the same for all traditional media organizations.

Low Tech Power

Nik describes the onslaught of new media as the low tech empowerment of the media space. During the Burma protests of 2007, “the ad hoc community of risk-taking information doers became empowered. Those undisputed and widely corroborated images swiftly challenged the authority and claims of the regime.”


During the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, both foreign journalists and aid agencies were forbidden from entering the country. But one producer and camera operator from a major news organization “managed to enter the country on tourist visas. Before being arrested and deported they evaded security checks and military intelligence to record vivid video that confirmed the terrible impact and human cost of the cyclone. Hiding in ditches they beamed it out of the country on a new tiny, portable Bgan satellite uplink carried in a hiker’s backpack.”

The Question

This is definitely an example of the “asymmetric, negative impact on the traditional structures of power,” that Nik refers to in his introduction. Question is, how much of a threat does this asymmetry pose to repressive regimes? That is one of the fundamental questions I pose in my dissertation research.

Patrick Philippe Meier

HURIDOCS09: Geospatial Technologies for Human Rights

Lars Bromley from AAAS and I just participated in a panel on “Communicating Human Rights Information Through Technology” at the HURIDOCS conference in Geneva. I’ve been following Lars’ project on the use of Geospatial Technologies for Human Rights with great interest over the past two years and have posted several blogs on the topic here, here and here. I’ll be showcasing Lars’ work in the digital democracy course next week since the topic I’ll be leading the discussion on “Human Rights 2.0.”


Lars uses satellite imagery to prove or monitor human rights violations. This includes looking for the follwoing:

  • Housing and infrastructure demolition and destruction;
  • New housing and infrastructure such as resulting from force relocation;
  • Natural resource extraction and defoliation;
  • Mass grave mapping.

There are five operational, high-resolution satellites in orbit. These typically have resolutions that range from 50 centimeters to one meter. Their positions can be tracked online via JSatTrak:


There are three types of projects that can draw on satellite imagery in human rights contexts:

  1. Concise analysis of a single location;
  2. Large area surveys over long periods of time;
  3. Active monitoring using frequently acquired imagery.


Lars shared satellite imagery from two human rights projects. The first is of a farm in Zimbabwe which was destroyed as part of a voter-intimidation campaign. The picture below was taken in 2002 and cost $250 to purchase. A total of 870 structure were manually counted.


Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

The satellite image below was taken in 2006 and cost $1,792:


Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.


The second project sought to identify burned villages in Burma. Some 70 locations of interest within Burma were compiled using information from local NGOs. The image below is of a village in Papun District taken in December 2006.


Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

The satellite image below as taken in June 2007 after the Free Burma Rangers reported an incident of village burning in April.


Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.


Lars is very upfront about the challenges of using satellite imagery to document and monitor human rights abuses. These include:

  • More recent satellite imagery is particularly expensive;
  • Images can take between 2 weeks to 6 months to order;
  • Competition between multiple clients for satellite images;
  • Satellite images tend to be range between 200 megabytes and 2 gigabytes;
  • Requires technical capacity;
  • Cloud interference is a pervasive issue;
  • Images are only snapshots in time;
  • Real time human rights violations have never been captured by satellite;
  • Satellites are owned by governments and companies which present ethical concerns.

Nevertheless, Lars is confident that real-time and rapid use of satellite imagery will be possible in the future.


Here are the key points from Lars’ presentation:

  • The field of geospatial technologies for human rights is still evolving;
  • Satellite imagery is most useful in proving destruction in remote areas;
  • Evidence from satellite imagery becomes more powerful when combined with field-data.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Democracy in Burma

My colleagues Emily Jacobi and Mark Belinsky from Digital Democracy gave an excellent guest lecture yesterday. They presented their findings from their Burma project to undergraduate students in my digital democracy course co-taught with Josh Goldstein. There excellent slides are available on Slideshare here.

Mark and Emily began their presentation with a reference George Orwell who served in Burma as a military officer. It is striking that every Burmese who has read Orwell claims the author wrote not one but three books on Burma: Burmese DaysAnimal Farm and 1984.

Here are just a few insights from the two-hour presentation that I found particularly interesting:

  • Based on 90+ surveys carried out, Mark and Emily found that young Burmese who had access to the Internet were more likely to identify themselves as activists.
  • The Bangladeshi cell phone network extends well into Burma so activists can use phones from Bangladesh to relay information.
  • Monks have access to the Internet and to mobile phones because the Junta provided them the technology as part of alms giving.

Mark and Emily shared some fascinating anecdotes on digital activism in Burma based on their field research. Some are somewhat sensitive and not blog-able but others are less so yet equally eye opening. For example, Mark recounts a visit to a Burmese refugee camp along the Bangladeshi-Burma border:

I had five minutes of idle time and so decided to check my Facebook page using my mobile phone. I was soon approached by one of the refugees who looked on curiously. Before I could explain, the person enquired, “Do you wiki?” I was stunned as he pulled out a much fancier phone and proceeded to show me his favorite Wikipedia pages which were on fancy sports cars.

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