I’ve recently returned from a research trip to Georgia looking into how information was used and abused during the South Ossetia conflict. There have been some excellent posts discussing the engagement, or absence of citizen media during this conflict, such as Monroe Prices’ overview, Ethan Zuckerman’s analysis of citizen propaganda, Evgeny Morozov’s deflation of the notion of citizen war reporters, and Julia Ioffe’s analysis of Russian blogging. I’d like to flesh out these comments with some on-the-ground observations.

Much of the analysis of the role of citizen media in the conflict can be captured by Ethan’s summation:

The conflict in Ossetia is tailor-made for citizen propaganda. Analysts in the US – removed from the conflict both in distance and knowledge – are likely to rely on existing frames that may not represent events well or accurately. Citizens of Russia and Georgia are well aware that international opinion matters in the resolution of these events and turn to citizen media tools to make their cases. Their audiences, perceiving that professional media is biased against their interpretation, may place more credence on “eyewitness accounts” than they would if not already frustrated by mainstream accounts. Reading anything in these circumstances becomes a challenging task, navigating the stated and unstated agendas of anyone who’s speaking, discounting and revaluing all opinions based perceived biases.

An anecdote from the conflict: A Georgian soldier fleeing south from the Russian advance stops in a Georgian village. He asks an elder if any transportation is available. The elder produces an old truck with a nearly empty gas tank, and proceeds to siphon a portion of fuel from every car in the village to fill the tank. The soldier thanks him profusely, then pulls a cell phone out of his pocket and says: “I’m out of power, and I’ve lost my charger. Can you help?” The elder scours the village for chargers, finds the appropriate match, and sends the soldier on his way.

The story is possibly apocryphal, but revealing. Cellular service throughout Georgia is abundant, including in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It was available throughout the war, and both Russian and Georgian troops are reported to have relied on the services. Internet is less common in Georgia, but its lack of popularity is as much cultural as it is a question of resources.

In response to one question – why was there so little citizen reporting from the conflict zone, it helps to look beyond the technical questions of access, and focus on the political, cultural and social environment in which information comes to be recognized as valid.

Georgia’s mass media over the past four years has suffered a series of setbacks to its independence and perceived lack of bias. The most prominent opposition national station, Rustavi 2, has become a mouthpiece for government under Saakashvili, as has the public broadcaster. Regional stations, poorly resourced to begin with, experienced a massive decrease of international support, as did civil society in general. These stations have experienced significant pressure to be supportive of government positions.

International development agencies, more generally, have channeled less of their resources to media development projects and civil society, which coincides with Saakashvili’s desire that they not fund organizations offering policy positions counter to his administration’s views.

Saakashvili’s government discouraged active debate of his policies in the media, and supported broadcasters producing questionable and biased information. Many observers I met in Georgia drew a direct link between the resulting information vacuum and the possibility of war.

The last piece of this puzzle is that Georgia retains a strong culture of television as primary source of information. Radio, print, and online media barely compete against the TV broadcasters.

The Russians, presumably, know this. Russian troops selectively targeted TV and radio transmitters, stations, and local journalists attempting to cover their advance. Altogether they did significant damage to nine local TV and radio broadcasters in the conflict zone, in Gori, Zugdidi, Poti, Khashuri, and Tschorotsku. They shot up transmitters, antennas, relay links, and power sources, and looted stations of cameras, editing gear, and computers. In the process they also damaged some telecom equipment, but they do not appear to have explicitly targeted the cellular networks, or the Internet.

In an environment where primary sources of information are opaque and of uncertain reliability (and perception is key here), we encounter the phenomenon of information vertigo.

Information vertigo is the sickening feeling you get when you recognize that nothing reported can truly be verified. Mass media, ostensible eyewitness reports, images, video, documents: all blends into a mush of hearsay when root sources of information have been corrupted.

In the absence of a sense of what to trust, we develop a frantic, aggressive assertion toward what we think we know. This would be possible to puncture with facts if there were any to be found. But with a tipping point of misinformation, or disinformation, it’s difficult to judge when data is accurate. Much of the blogging and analysis I’ve read – and that Ethan and Evgeny discuss in their posts – has precisely this character. It is not just citizen propaganda, but an attempt to establish clear positions in a world void of facts.

Citizen media relies on professional journalism and access to official data, as well as online mechanisms such as comments for verification. In the absence of legitimate information sources, it’s difficult to presume that that citizen media could or should have filled the gaps.

What does this vertigo look like in practice? Take, for instance, this Eurasianet article on the possibility of Georgian soldiers in the Khodori Gorge. Officially, Georgian presence was to be limited to 500 police officers. The Abkhazians claimed there were more. Eurasianet is a reputable outlet. The reporter says:

A May 18 trip organized for foreign journalists by the Georgian government to the region, however, revealed no sign of a substantial Georgian military presence — apart from a handful of armed Interior Ministry troops guarding checkpoints at an airfield and security zone. Nor did residents mention their presence.
United Nations monitors and other Western news organizations have reached similar conclusions, but such reports have done little to stem official assumptions in Moscow and Sukhumi, the separatist-controlled Abkhaz capital.

And yet, while in Georgia, a former senior government official acknowledged to me that there were actually an additional 3000 Georgian troops stationed in Khodori in May 2008. A foreign journalist who had visited Abkhazia confirmed that he’d heard the same number, also from reputable sources. Who to believe? I get a bit woozy.

Of course, there are people who know a great deal about what occurred in South Ossetia, on all sides of the conflict. They just aren’t talking. And even if they were, it’s difficult to imagine we could believe them.

Perhaps the good folks at Wikipedia can sort it out. Though the South Ossetia war page has some 500 edits at present and it’s still a mess. Also check out Internews Georgia’s website media.ge for details on Georgian media.

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