Tag Archives: Citizen Journalism

ISA 2009: Digital Technologies in Kenya’s Post Election Crisis

The fourth presentation at the ISA panel that I’m chairing will feature research by Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich on the role of digital networked technologies during Kenya’s post-election violence (PDF). Blog posts on the other three presentations are available here on human rights, here on political activism and here on digital resitance.

Introduction

Josh and Juliana pose the following question: do mobile phones and the Internet promote transparency and good governance or do they promote hate speech and conflict? The authors draw on the 2007-2008 Kenyan presidential elections to assess the impact of digitally networked technologies, specifically mobile phones and the Internet, on the post-election violence.

This study is an important contribution to the scholarly research on the impact of digital technology on democracy since the majority of the existing literature is largely written through the lens of established, Western democracies. The literature thus “excludes the experience of Sub-Saharan Africa, where meaningful access to digital tools is only beginning to emerge, but where the struggle between failed state and functioning democracy are profound.”

Case Study

Josh and Juliana draw on Kenya as a case study to assess the individual impact of mobile phones and the Internet on the post-election violence. The mobile phone is the most widely used digital application in Kenya and the rest of Africa. The low cost and ease of texting explains how quickly “hate SMS” began circulating after Kenya’s election day. Some examples of the messages texted:

Fellow Kenyans, the Kikuyu’s have stolen our children’s future… we must deal with them in a way they understand… violence.

No more innocent Kikuyu blood will be shed. We will slaughter them right here in the capital city. For justice, compile a list of Luo’s you know… we will give you numbers to text this information.

The authors are concerned about the troubling trend of hate SMS in East Africa citing a violent icident in neighboring Uganda that was organized via SMS to protest the government’s sale of a forest to a company. As they note, “mass SMS tools are remarkably useful for organizing this type of explicit, systematic, and publicly organized campaign of mob violence.”

However, the authors also recognize that “since SMS, unlike radio, is a multi-directional tool, there is also hope that voices of moderation can make themselves heard.” They point to the response taken by Michael Joseph, the CEO of Kenya’s largest mobile phone provider Safaricom when he was asked by government officials to consider shutting down the SMS system:

Joseph convinced the government not to shut down the SMS system, and instead to allow SMS providers to send out messages of peace and calm, which Safaricom did to all nine million of its customers.

Josh and Juliana also note that tracking and identifying individuals that promote hate speech is relatively easy for governments and companies to do. “In the aftermath of the violence, contact information for over one thousand seven hundred individuals who allegedly promoted mob violence was forwarded to the Government of Kenya.” While Kenya didn’t have a law to prosecute hate SMS, the Parliament has begun to create such a law.

The Internet in Kenya was also used for predatory and civic speech. For example, “the leading Kenyan online community, Mashahada, became overwhelmed with divisive and hostile messages,” which prompted the moderators to “shut down the site, recognizing that civil discourse was rapidly becoming impossible.”

However, David Kobia, the administrator of Mashahada, decided to launch a new site a few days later explicitly centered on constructive dialogue. The site, “I Have No Tribe,” was successful in promoting a more constructive discourse and demonstrates “that one possible response to destructive speech online is to encourage constructive speech.”

Mobile phones and the Internet were combined by Ushahidi to crowdsource human rights violation during the post-election violence. The authors contend that the Ushahidi platform is “revolutionary for human rights campaigns in the way that Wikipedia is revolutionary for encyclopedias; they are tools that allow cooperation on a massive scale.” I have already blogged extensively about Ushahidi here and here so will not expand on this point other than to emphasize that Ushahidi was not used to promote hate speech.

Josh and Juliana also draw on the role of Kenya’s citizen journalists to highlight another peaceful application of digital technologies. As they note, Kenya has one of the richest blogging traditions in sub-Saharan Africa, which explains why,

Kenyan bloggers became a critical part of the conversation [when] the web traffic from within Kenya shot through the roof. The influence ballooned further when radio broadcasters began to read influential bloggers over the airwaves, helping them reach […] 95% of the Kenyan population.”

When the Government of Kenya declared a ban on live news coverage on December 30, 2007, Kenyan bloggers became indispensable in their role as citizen journalists. […] Blogs challenged the government’s version of events as they unfolded.

[…] Further, Blogs became a critical source of information for Kenyans in Nairobi and the diaspora. Rumors spread via SMS were dispelled via an online dialogue that took place on blogs and in the comments section of blogs.

Conclusion

When we talk about the ‘networked public sphere,’ we are usually referring to a Western public sphere; one that facilitates public discourse, increased transparency and positive cooperation. However, as the case study above demonstrates, the narrative is more involved when we talk about an African or Kenyan ‘networked public sphere.’ Indeed, the authors conclude that digital networked technologies catalyzed both “predatory behavior such as ethnic-based mob violence and civic behavior such as journalism and human rights campaigns.”

Several questions remain to be addressed in further research. Namely, how important is a vibrant blogosphere to promote positive applications of digital technologies in times of crises? Are networked digital technologies like Ushahidi more susceptible to positive uses than predatory uses? And finally, how does the Kenya case compare to others like the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine?

Patrick Philippe Meier

ISA 2009: Digital Technologies in Kenya’s Post Election Crisis

The fourth presentation at the ISA panel that I’m chairing will feature research by Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich on the role of digital networked technologies during Kenya’s post-election violence (PDF). Blog posts on the other three presentations are available here on human rights, here on political activism and here on digital resitance.

Introduction

Josh and Juliana pose the following question: do mobile phones and the Internet promote transparency and good governance or do they promote hate speech and conflict? The authors draw on the 2007-2008 Kenyan presidential elections to assess the impact of digitally networked technologies, specifically mobile phones and the Internet, on the post-election violence.

This study is an important contribution to the scholarly research on the impact of digital technology on democracy since the majority of the existing literature is largely written through the lens of established, Western democracies. The literature thus “excludes the experience of Sub-Saharan Africa, where meaningful access to digital tools is only beginning to emerge, but where the struggle between failed state and functioning democracy are profound.”

Case Study

Josh and Juliana draw on Kenya as a case study to assess the individual impact of mobile phones and the Internet on the post-election violence. The mobile phone is the most widely used digital application in Kenya and the rest of Africa. The low cost and ease of texting explains how quickly “hate SMS” began circulating after Kenya’s election day. Some examples of the messages texted:

Fellow Kenyans, the Kikuyu’s have stolen our children’s future… we must deal with them in a way they understand… violence.

No more innocent Kikuyu blood will be shed. We will slaughter them right here in the capital city. For justice, compile a list of Luo’s you know… we will give you numbers to text this information.

The authors are concerned about the troubling trend of hate SMS in East Africa citing a violent icident in neighboring Uganda that was organized via SMS to protest the government’s sale of a forest to a company. As they note, “mass SMS tools are remarkably useful for organizing this type of explicit, systematic, and publicly organized campaign of mob violence.”

However, the authors also recognize that “since SMS, unlike radio, is a multi-directional tool, there is also hope that voices of moderation can make themselves heard.” They point to the response taken by Michael Joseph, the CEO of Kenya’s largest mobile phone provider Safaricom when he was asked by government officials to consider shutting down the SMS system:

Joseph convinced the government not to shut down the SMS system, and instead to allow SMS providers to send out messages of peace and calm, which Safaricom did to all nine million of its customers.

Josh and Juliana also note that tracking and identifying individuals that promote hate speech is relatively easy for governments and companies to do. “In the aftermath of the violence, contact information for over one thousand seven hundred individuals who allegedly promoted mob violence was forwarded to the Government of Kenya.” While Kenya didn’t have a law to prosecute hate SMS, the Parliament has begun to create such a law.

The Internet in Kenya was also used for predatory and civic speech. For example, “the leading Kenyan online community, Mashahada, became overwhelmed with divisive and hostile messages,” which prompted the moderators to “shut down the site, recognizing that civil discourse was rapidly becoming impossible.”

However, David Kobia, the administrator of Mashahada, decided to launch a new site a few days later explicitly centered on constructive dialogue. The site, “I Have No Tribe,” was successful in promoting a more constructive discourse and demonstrates “that one possible response to destructive speech online is to encourage constructive speech.”

Mobile phones and the Internet were combined by Ushahidi to crowdsource human rights violation during the post-election violence. The authors contend that the Ushahidi platform is “revolutionary for human rights campaigns in the way that Wikipedia is revolutionary for encyclopedias; they are tools that allow cooperation on a massive scale.” I have already blogged extensively about Ushahidi here and here so will not expand on this point other than to emphasize that Ushahidi was not used to promote hate speech.

Josh and Juliana also draw on the role of Kenya’s citizen journalists to highlight another peaceful application of digital technologies. As they note, Kenya has one of the richest blogging traditions in sub-Saharan Africa, which explains why,

Kenyan bloggers became a critical part of the conversation [when] the web traffic from within Kenya shot through the roof. The influence ballooned further when radio broadcasters began to read influential bloggers over the airwaves, helping them reach […] 95% of the Kenyan population.”

When the Government of Kenya declared a ban on live news coverage on December 30, 2007, Kenyan bloggers became indispensable in their role as citizen journalists. […] Blogs challenged the government’s version of events as they unfolded.

[…] Further, Blogs became a critical source of information for Kenyans in Nairobi and the diaspora. Rumors spread via SMS were dispelled via an online dialogue that took place on blogs and in the comments section of blogs.

Conclusion

When we talk about the ‘networked public sphere,’ we are usually referring to a Western public sphere; one that facilitates public discourse, increased transparency and positive cooperation. However, as the case study above demonstrates, the narrative is more involved when we talk about an African or Kenyan ‘networked public sphere.’ Indeed, the authors conclude that digital networked technologies catalyzed both “predatory behavior such as ethnic-based mob violence and civic behavior such as journalism and human rights campaigns.”

Several questions remain to be addressed in further research. Namely, how important is a vibrant blogosphere to promote positive applications of digital technologies in times of crises? Are networked digital technologies like Ushahidi more susceptible to positive uses than predatory uses? And finally, how does the Kenya case compare to others like the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine?

Patrick Philippe Meier

Snap Mobs of the World Unite – A Better Taxonomy? (Udpated)

Economist3

A writer for The Economist interviewed me earlier in the week for his article entitled “Rioters of the World Unite” sparked by the recent Greek riots. In the article, the author asks whether it is possible to imagine an Anarchist International comparable to the then Communist International, “a trans-national version of the inchoate but impassioned demonstrations that have ravaged Greece this month?”

While I’m not convinced that the word “anarchist” is an appropriate label for the rioters in Athens (more on that later), the author is certainly correct that the kind of “psychological impulse behind the Greek protests […] can now be transmitted almost instantaneously, in ways that would make the Bolsheviks very jealous. These days, images (moving as well as still) spread faster than words; and images, of course, transcend language barriers.”

E-communications are now a familiar feature in pro-democracy protests against dictators. Equally fast-moving, say specialists, is the role of technology in what might be called “undemocratic protests”: violent acts in prosperous, networked societies.

Leaving aside the need to distinguish between protests and riots, I find the notion of “undemocratic protests” rather interesting although I’m not sure whether the qualifier “undemocratic” necessarily adds clarity. What is undemocratic about Hungarian youths in 2006 using “blogs to aggregate visual evidence of police brutality” and “distributing an audio recording of the prime minister admitting government corruption?”

This brings us to the issue of developing an appropriate taxonomy, as I noted in response to some excellent questions in the comments section of my blog post on the “Greek Riots, Facebook, Twitter and SMS.” (Incidentally, I should have included Second Life where a memorial was erected “giving its users a glimpse of real-life material from the riots”).

I think we need a better taxonomy for today’s new media. Individuals who find themselves in the middle of the action and send text messages or camera shots from their phones are not journalists in the conventional sense of the word. Adding “citizen” in front of journalism is perhaps too simplistic.

First of all, in repressive contexts, “citizen journalists” are not really citizens of their country; they tend to be marginalized, oppressed and persecuted. The term “civilian journalism” may be more apt. But we’ve already established that the qualifier “journalism” muddies the waters.

The Greek students rioting in the streets of Athens could not be described as a “smart mob” either. I wouldn’t use the term “dumb mobs” because I don’t find that any more accurate than describing the rioters as anarchists. Indeed, I think The Economist article gets it particularly wrong on that note:

The shooting and ensuing riots in Greece must be understood in the context of the “disenchantment of Greek students, the mistrust in and corruption of the right-wing government,”  as well as the “many acts of police brutality and incompetence through the years. This is why people wouldn’t wait for the coronary report. There were many things wrong even before the shooting and the coronary report” (see previous blog post).

In this context, then, perhaps a term like “snap mobs” might be more useful. Snap implies quick and plays on terms like “snapshot” and “snap judgment” which is a better description of the student-led riots in Greece.

As the article in The Economist suggests, what happened in Athens is bound to happen again in different forms across the world, i.e., rumors spreading and leading to chaos or worse, bloodshed. This may eventually drive the point home that text messages and Tweets should simply not be taken at face value.

I do think that as foreign reporting continues to decline, we will see the rise of  a professional class of citizen journalists and as a consequence, readers will expect the latter to operate at standards akin to that of the mainstream media today. At the same time, I suspect the mainstream media will shift towards a more investigative-journalism mode as consequence of increasing “snap mob” behavior.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Greek Riots, Facebook, Twitter and SMS (Updated)

I am particularly interested in riots since part of my doctoral research focuses on the strategic and tactical uses of digital technology to organize, mobilize and coordinate protest events in repressive contexts. On this note, Alternet just published this piece by Andrew Lam on the “Greek Riots and the News Media in the Age of Twitter,” which echoes some of the issues raised during the panel discussion I participated in last week in  DC on the decline of foreign reporting and rise of citizen journalism.

The Greek riots are a classic case of iRevolutions in the making, i.e., individuals and networks (hyper) empowered by linking technologies like Facebook, Twitter and SMS. What follows first are my thoughts on the two main points that the Andrew highlights in his piece. The second part of this post sheds light on the dynamics of riots by drawing on complexity science and Clay Shirky’s work.

greekriotmontage

Initial Conditions: The riots were sparked after a 15-year old student “died from a gunshot wound in his heart, inflicted by a policeman following an altercation between a police patrol and a small group of youths in Athens” (1). Thousands of young people took to the streets after quickly spreading the news via Facebook, Twitter and SMS.

But as Andrew points out, no one bothered to verify or investigate the police officer’s claim that he was innocent: “When the coroner’s report came out several days later, it said the bullet was dented, meaning it ricocheted before hitting the teenager, but the information changed nothing. Athens had been burning for several nights, and the people, whose rage fueled the flames, couldn’t care less for facts.”

These valid points aside, my first question is what took the coroner so long? Extracting a bullet (pardon the morbidity) is not exactly brain surgery.  If said coroner had a mobile phone, s/he could have taken a picture of the dented bullet and shared it as widely as possible hoping that it would go viral. I have no idea how effective that would have been, but it’s a thought. The second question I have is whether any investigative journalists were pressing the coroner to get on with it?

Future Conditions: Andrew notes that “professional front line reporters may very well be on the way to being redundant in a world where, according to Reuters Director of News Media Development, Chris Cramer, ‘Every key event going forward will be covered by members of the public, and not by traditional journalists.’” (I just checked the Wikipedia page on the riots and it was edited close to 200 times within 48 hours of the shooting).

However, as I mentioned during last week’s panel, the mainstream media has an increasingly more important social service to play in the Twitter Age: distinguishing fact from fiction. Andrew is thus spot on when he writes that “the role of the mature news organization […] is to filter real news from pseudo news, rather than treating all content as equal.”

Complexity Science: Power laws are a defining signature of complex systems. The Richter scale, which relates earthquake frequencies to magnitude, is probably the most well known power law. As we all know, there are many small tremors every day but only a few major earthquakes every century. As it happens, protests such as strikes also follow a power law distribution. See for example this piece by Michael Bigs in the American Journal of Sociology. Here’s the abstract:

Historians have persistently likened strike waves to wildfires, avalanches, and epidemics. These phenomena are characterized by a power-law distribution of event sizes. This kind of analysis is applied to outbreaks of class conflict in Chicago from 1881 to 1886. Events are defined as individual strikes or miniature strike waves; size is measured by the number of establishments or workers involved. In each case, events follow a power law spanning two or three orders of magnitude. A similar pattern is found for strikes in Paris from 1890 to 1899. The “forest fire” model serves to illustrate the kind of process that can generate this distribution.

One classic way to illustrate this is by using the analogy of grains of sand falling on a sand pile. Eventually, small and large avalanches begin to occur at different frequencies that follow a power law.

sandpile1

The study of complex systems is often called the study of history. The sand pile becomes increasingly unstable over time as grains of sand cause “fingers of instability” to run through the structure, like fissures running across a wine glass or cracks in the earth as an earthquake unloads the built up tension. If you want to understand the vulnerability of the sand pile of a “Richter 9″ earthquake, dissecting the falling grains will give you little insight. In other words, the answer lies in the past, in the evolution of the sand pile.

I make this point to reinforce the fact that the recent shooting and riots in Greece should be understood in context. The incident was  but one of several that befell Mount Olympus. As Katrin Verclas and others have commented (below) in response to this blog post, “the disenchantment of Greek students, the mistrust in and corruption of the right-wing government,”  as well as the “many acts of police brutality and incompetence through the years,” provides the historical context behind the shooting. “This is why people wouldn’t wait for the coronary report. There were many things wrong even before the shooting and the coronary report.”

Networks Analysis: One way to think about the impact of the information revolution on the ability of groups to mobilize and organize is to use the analogy of disease contagion, which also follows a power law distribution. As Clay Shirky writes, “The classic model for the spread of disease looks at three variables—likelihood of infection, likelihood of contact between any two people, and overall size of population. If any of those variables increases, the overall spread of disease increases as well.”

As a consequence of the information revolution, the likelihood of an individual receiving and broadcasting information is increasing significantly while the likelihood of any two people communicating is increasing exponentially; and world population is also growing at a furious pace. Since each of these three variables are increasing, the overall risk of protests increases as well.

The reason I raise this issue of power laws and epidemics of information is to address the issue of rumors. As Andrew Lam writes, “the streamlining of news [via Twitter and SMS] makes the story skeletal and thin, bordering on becoming rumor and hearsay.” Countering false rumors  in a highly connected network may require a systems approach since command-and-control is unlikely to work (short of switching the network off).

This is where the work by Malcom Gladwell, Mark Buchanan and and the Santa Fe Institute’s (SFI) research might shed some light on the viral cure for false rumors in the Twitter Age.

See also my follow up post on the Greek riots.

Patrick Philippe Meier

International News Coverage in a New Media World

I just had the pleasure of participating in a fascinating panel discussion on the decline of the foreign correspondent and the rise of citizen journalist. The event was hosted by the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communications at George Washington University (GWU) and supported by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

Jeffrey Hirschberg from BBG gave the opening remarks and GWU Professor Steve Roberts moderated the panel, which included Loren Jenkins, Senior Foreign Editor at NPR, Professor Sherry Ricchiardi, Senior Writer at the American Journalism Review (AJR) and Professor at Indian University’s School of Journalism, Bob Dietz with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and myself.

Where to begin? I was definitely the only one on the panel without a formal background in journalism, possibly the only blogger, probably the only one with a YouTube account and most likely the only panelist on Twitter. Inevitably, then, I brought a slightly different perspective, but more importantly, I had the opportunity to learn a lot from my fellow panelists and to understand their perspective on the decline of foreign reporting. It was a truly rich conversation.

Professional journalists engaged in international news are increasingly concerned about the possibility of misinformation and manipulation that may originate from citizen journalists, e.g., through blogs, Twitter, etc. In my opinion, one of the defining roles of the mainstream media is to distinguish between fact and fiction, which means that they play an even more important role in the digital age. The question of journalist standards was also raised, or the lack thereof. within citizen journalism In my opinion, as international news reporting declines and citizen journalists continue to fill the void, the public will expect and come to demand that the latter meet some of the same standards practiced by mainstream media.

Having had the opportunity to interact with numerous bloggers with Global Voices and beyond, I emphasized the fact that reputation for many bloggers is everything. Her or his readership is a function of the person’s reputation and hence credibility and accountability. Over time, as Lauren mentioned, we come to “get to know” and trust a blogger even if we never meet in person. Journalists investigate stories by interviewing sources, there is no reason to discount citizen journalists as valuable sources.

The challenge of validating sources and information is not a new one. There is a trade off between volume of information and the ability to verify that information. This trade off, or continuum, becomes even more acute in rapidly changing situations like the recent carnage in Mumbai.

What we need to keep in mind, however, is that we each have different demands or needs for validity. If you found yourself in downtown Mumbai during the terrorist attacks, you would rather know about rumors spread via Twitter than not. Why? Because at least you’d be able to take precautionary measures should the rumor prove to be true.

Watching the unfolding tragedy from thousands of miles away in the comfort of our own homes, we have less need for expediency, we just want to know what really happened, the facts. However, our demand for facts and rigorous validation should not overshadow the fact that rumors and unverified reports from unknown sources can save lives.

Steve asked Bob whether his work on the protection of journalists should be expanded to citizen journalists. In his response, Bob preempted an important point I had planned to make; namely that the line between citizen journalism and digital activism is becoming increasingly blurred. In the past, documenting human rights abuses and broadcasting this documentation was rarely done by one individual. Today, thanks to YouTube, documenting events is the same as broadcasting events, which is alot about what advocacy is.

This is why it is increasingly important for citizen journalists in repressive environments to interact with digital activists and individuals engaged in strategic nonviolence. As a a fellow blogger of mine recently remarked about her experience covering the post-election violence in Kenya, there is a distinction between being able to speak out and being heard. In most contexts, the former is far easier than the latter. However, if you start being heard, and a government or regime starts to pay attention to what you are blogging, you become a target. It’s a catch 22. Bloggers need to learn from digital activists and strategic nonviolence movements about how to stay safe and how to make maximum use technology to get their message out.

I drew on several examples to highlight the important contribution that citizen journalists are making around the world, from Global Voices to Witness.org. I also highlighted HHI‘s recent work on crisis mapping Kenya to compare mainstream media reports with citizen journalism reports and crowdsourcing reports (via Ushahidi). In the context of Mumbai, I pointed to the incredible speed with which a Wikipedia page was created and maintained fully up to date, with some 900 edits taking place within the first 21 hours of the event. No mainstream media outfit could possibly mimic this crowdsourcing approach without reaching out to citizen journalists.

On Global Voices, I highlighted the important role they are playing in translating (and analyzing) a lot of local news (and other blogs) into English. With the decline in foreign reporting, mainstream media’s role in translating news will also decline. The amount of volume produced by Global Voices during the Mumbai attacks was trully stunning.

I brought up Witness.org because much of the conversation between panelists focused on print media, and how easy it was to mislead readers. Doctoring pictures, let alone footage, is not as easy. The case of Reuters and the doctored photograph of Israeli rockets firing on Lebanon is an exception and far from the rule. It is a very isolated incident when one considers the massive number of pictures printed every day in the mainstream press. Furthermore, I argued thanks to built-in cameras in mobile phones, dozens of different individuals can each take pictures of an event, which serves as a verification mechanism. We don’t need fewer citizen witnesses armed with cameras, we need more.

Two final points, or rather open ended questions for further discussion. First, if we are moving towards a more hyper-local approach to media reports, and if this happens across the globe, then why the concern? Isn’t someone’s local media another’s foreign media? Second, having counted Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media as one of my all time favorite books, how is the media changing now that the political economy is completely changing?

Patrick Philippe Meier