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This is part two of my notes from a presentation at the USIP event “Passing the Baton.” Conference documents here and panel summary and video here. Part one here.

For the presentation, I was asked to discuss how people use digital media information in and around conflict, who they are, and what motivates them. This post focuses on recommendations and examples of citizen media in conflict.

In many conflicts, complex emergencies, and significant political upheavals in the past few years, citizen media have played substantial roles in producing information, as well as for activist ends, to mobilize constituents, and argue positions.

In conflicts such as Lebanon (2006), Pakistan (2007), Burma (2007), Kenya (2008), Kashmir (summer 2008), Sri Lanka (2007-08), and Zimbabwe (2008), citizen media in the form of blogs, social media, user-generated content on media-sharing sites, wikis, SMS messaging, twitter, and other applications have provided differing and new perspectives into the impact of conflict on communities.

This comes at a time of diminishment in traditional international journalism coverage, and fewer resources for mainstream media production.

Citizen media and mainstream media have a complicated relationship today – merging, symbiotic. Together, they form an active online public sphere.

Recommendations: what do citizen media need to flourish?

  • Support open networks and keep generativity in media and computer technology – if we want to build a world that includes mass participation in media creation, then we need technology and regulatory environments that encourage it.
  • Support the principles of free speech in general, and concentrate on listening to diverse perspectives rather than attempt to control or shape opinion. Providing access to diverse perspectives is more important than shutting out divisive viewpoints.
  • Theories of mass media based on scarcity of information and communications don’t take the networked public sphere into account. Different technology calls for different approaches. Re-examine continuing relevance of mass media solutions such as international broadcasting, attempting to restrict information and speech, and public diplomacy based on messaging and strategic communications.
  • Focus on supporting projects that organize and validate good information produced by diverse sources.
  • Focus on ensuring that people are heard. Design projects that amplify diverse, varied, and underrepresented perspectives.

Recommendations for project design.

  • Support local media to adapt and use digital media tools as well as citizen media initiatives, and note the convergence between them.
  • Focus on local innovation, practice and sharing best practices among citizen media groups.
  • Consider the growing role of humanitarian, human rights, and policy/advocacy organizations as information providers.

Citizen media include many, diverse perspectives that may be counterpoints to mainstream media perspectives that often focus on conflict and difference. Citizen media may be spaces for free expression in face of censored, controlled, or corrupt mainstream media. Citizen journalism in conflict zones is likely to include activists, public intellectuals, and others who are not well represented in mainstream media.

What forms do citizen media take in conflict zones? Examples:

1. Incidental use. People witness and record events around them, upload them into networks where they are shared and amplified.

  • Example: The U.S. military bombs insurgents in Azizabad, in Afghanistan. A resident documents civilian deaths on his cell phone and shares it with the journalists. The resulting furor sparks a UN investigation, a U.S. military investigation, and calls for NATO to change its tactics to minimize civilian deaths.

2. Networked communications use. People create their own blogs and content – commenting, sharing, and linking. Tools include blogs, social networks, microblogging platforms such as twitter, mobile telephony applications, SMS.

Some are authors who switch focus of content, much the way that incidental reporting does. Others focus specifically on issues. We find these projects in almost every country with significant political or violent conflict. Examples:

  • Don’t Block the Blog. A Pakistani blog that supports online freedom of speech, created in the time of the 2007 PK political crisis.
  • Freedom for Burma. A Burmese freedom collective blog that links to blogs, news, interviews, videos in support of Burmese political opposition.

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3. Initiatives and Projects. Efforts to understand, analyze, contextualize information, and create metadata, including databases and mapping, specifically for the purpose of communicating or acting upon conflict. These are often citizen-led initiatives, coming from individuals, activists, nonprofits, rather than governments, large commercial enterprises, international organizations. Examples:

  • Groundviews. Sri Lankan citizen journalism initiative with a focus on peace and reconciliation issues and ICTs in development.

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  • CMEV: Centre for Monitoring Election Violence. A project that uses cell phone/SMS reporting to map infractions during elections.
  • Ushahidi. Original page of African-led project to monitor and map violence after the Kenyan elections in December 2007.

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  • Harvard Humanitarian Initiative study comparing Ushahid, citizen journalism, and MSM reporting on Kenya.
  • Ushahidi home page – global development.
  • War on Gaza page. Al Jazeera use of locally developed initiative.

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I spent a day last week at a conference sponsored by the US Institute of Peace called “Passing the Baton, ” for the DC foreign policy community on the occasion of the transition to a new administraion. Content from the event is here.

I presented on a panel called Bullets and Blogs, together with Linton Wells, Duncan MacInnes, and John Kelly. I was asked to address the question of how people use digital media in conflict zones. A report and videos of the panel and presentations is available here.

The discussion revolved around the role of digital media and its relationship to modern conflict, with the presumption that conflict plays out in the public sphere as well as on battlefields.

The presentation prompted me to pull together some observations on the changing relationship between media and conflict. In this post, I’ll address a number of paradigm shifts that change the way people are able to interact through digital media, and specifically do so in and around conflict. A second post will look at examples and provide recommendations. First, structural issues:

1) From media scarcity to media abundance.

The first answer to the question, “who are the citizens in citizen media,” is, in short, potentially everybody.

  • 1.5 billion Internet users
  • 3 billion cell phone users
  • Growth of upwards of 10% for Internet, 30-50% for cell phones  annually in developing world

This is true for countries and territories that suffer from endemic conflict and political unrest as well. A glance through 60+ fragile and weak states on indices such as the Foreign Policy Failed States Index and the Brookings Index of State Weakness in the Developing World shows that communications and ICT access is growing almost everywhere. For example, Somalia has five cell phone networks and Internet access but no government. Afghanistan currently has over 400,000 people with access to the Internet.

The lesson: future conflict will occur in the context of information and communications abundance.

2) Network effects in the networked public sphere.

Access to communications and media technology doesn’t guarantee information creation. There are many barriers to creating good information; at Global Voices we call it the participation gap. It’s defined by a lack of:

  • Literacy
  • Education
  • Connectivity and material resources
  • Community and culture for content creation

Regardless, it takes a surprisingly small amount of connectivity to have an effect on conflict. For example, access to Internet is rare in Burma, and cell phone access prohibitively expensive, but even a little bit of connectivity transformed people’s ability to document and transmit information about the monk’s protests in 2007. The networked public sphere facilitates information to move from local to global levels in only a few hops.

3) Convergence.

Citizen media and citizen insurgents are potentially the same people. Citizen media activities in and around conflict are used to both organize and inform, frequently with blurred lines. Use includes:

  • Information production and amplification – documentation of events
  • Support for political activism – nonviolent protest, democracy advocacy, social movements and other political and socially oriented movements
  • Organizational support for riots and other unplanned violence. Planned violence – also riots, protests, up to terror
  • Operational use in insurgencies, civil war, and intrastate conflict

There are typically disparities in use and access to information around conflicts, just as there are often disparities in force capacity.

  • States have more power and information than citizen movements as well as insurgencies
  • Non-extremists seeking non-violent solutions have a disadvantage over extremists willing to use violence

Conflict may even increase information flows. Anecdotally, we know that diaspora communities drive information networks; empirically, we see spikes in information and communication use around times of conflict.

4) Media as a ground – information environment is constitutive of the public sphere, not a function of it.

Information in conflict is both a tool and the field upon which conflict plays out. This is important because wars are almost never total – they require support – public opinion, other governments, citizen pressure all have effects because sovereignty is not simply determined by coercion, but also by persuasion.

Digital networked media increases awareness of rights and expectations that others have, and that we may expect from our governments. In Gaza, for instance, the conflict seems unjust to many simply because of the clear disparity between the respective rights and expectations of Palestinians and Israelis.

Fighting and conflict increasingly takes place amidst populations, by people who may not be full-time soldiers. Non-state actors. The gap between actor and observer has shrunk in a world in which soldiers may film and record every act, militaries monitor their own people to control and focus violence, and bystanders and incidentals are able to record what occurs in their midst.

In future conflict we should think of the recording and dissemination of events with digital media as a norm, and note the absence of it as a directed effort. We see this playing out in Gaza today, with Israel working hard to keep out journalists, closing media outlets, and restricting access to the conflict. Regardless, people living in Gaza are sharing images recorded on consumer-level cameras and cell phones via the Internet and cell phone networks, as exemplified on this Al Jazeera labs site, War on Gaza.

I’ve been following debates on Global Voices Online and early warning systems, between Paul Currier and Patrick Meier. Some comments on that dialague.

Paul and Patrick,

Interesting dialogue you’ve got going. I’d like to throw in a few points. I watched Ushahidi’s work with a great deal of interest and considerable admiration throughout the post-election crisis. I was especially interested in their verification claims, and hence was a bit surprised, at the GV Summit, to hear Ory Okolloh and Daudi Ware acknowledge that their verification methods were almost entirely ad hoc. I wouldn’t, in this case, expect a project like Ushahidi to be able to create verification standards that could hold up in a courtroom, but I would have liked to see evidence of some system at work.

Ad hoc data collection, together with a lack of clarity on Ushahidi’s site about how they verify, shifts the project from a usable data set for researchers to a starting point requiring more evidence about how the conflict played out. It may turn out that their data are largely accurate – it would be a really interesting study for someone to do, to see what the ad hoc approach netted, what worked, and what didn’t.

This isn’t a reason to dismiss Ushahidi, but to acknowledge where they are. Even thinking of it as a pilot project, it teaches us a great deal about what can work at an entirely ad hoc level, and what it might become with a bit more preparation and experience. The key, I think, is that Ushahidi and similar projects have incredible potential, and should be evaluated from that perspective.

For a participatory media project focused on mob violence, it’s difficult to expect a citizen’s monitoring group to attain standards that could hold up in court – at least at this stage in Ushahidi’s development. It is reasonable, however, to shoot for the equivalent of journalistic standards of evidence. And journalism/media may be the more apt point of comparison in the early warning context.

I say equivalent, because participatory media attain verification through a different process than traditional journalism. Traditional journalism relies on trusted, known researchers working within a rigid, closed hierarchy, with verification of facts along each level of that chain. Its hallmark is a brand – a shortcut for the audience to know that there is an epistemology behind any given claim. At its best, traditional journalism’s authority can be very strong.

Participatory journalism uses a different set of values – values that are part of GVO, but extend well beyond that, because GVO is permeable and elastic. Participatory media values include: transparency, congruence, accuracy, passion, and community. Such values allow for vetting of data to the degree possible in any given situation, and a space for gray areas regarding verification. An epistemology based on them can handle multiple interpretations of events because of its transparency function.

That said, there is room for improvement. I’m very interested to see how Ushahidi and like-minded projects approach the following:

Anonymity v. transparency. In covering conflict, security should always be the first consideration. Both journalism and humanitarian early warning approaches have established methods for anonymous reporting – what’s the trusted equivalent in the participatory media context?

How to encourage learning with the journalism and humanitarian communities. In the Kenya example, both those communities were having similar challenges and discussions. From Ory’s and Daudi’s remarks, it became evident that they weren’t completely aware of them, and vice versa. For instance, the community radio community in Kenya was generally unaware of Ushahidi – see this post for details. Daudi likewise, in his comments at GV Summit, claimed the media failed to cover the conflict because of self-interest. But the media community has another interpretation: they pin their failure on lack of resources, lack of security, and lack of experience. See IMS and BBC reports for a window into that perspective.

How will participatory media projects approach different kinds of problems? It’s one thing to cover mob violence, another to monitor an election, a third to track disappeared people, etc. CMEV’s project in Sri Lanka, which Sanjana Hattottuwa was very involved with, recently tackled the election monitoring challenge using digital media tools; it would be interesting to hear what worked and what could be better, from their perspective.

Finally, a comment about mission creep and GVO. It seems to me that thinking about GVO as an organization with a set mission misconstrues how they work and grow. GVO is very driven by the interests and passions of its community. It hasn’t developed on the basis of a top-down, institutionally driven strategy. If its community members find citizen activism, early warning monitoring, and election monitoring compelling, then it will be up to them to define whether and how it’s part of GVO’s world.

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This is one of several posts that deal with India’s numerous political conflicts and their relation to the digital media sphere. India plays host to numerous violent conflicts and separatist movements. It responds to challenges to its sovereignty through military repression, paramilitaries, local militias, intelligence operations, and propaganda and psyops, including censorship and blocking of websites.

India has a growing population of internet users, many of whom use broadband connections at home. The 6 million broadband users are dwarfed by India’s 200 million cell-phone users, with the largest number of new users of any country. India also has large and robust conventional media, with a growing newspaper readership in the world despite global trends to the contrary, wide-ranging access to local and international satellite news.

We are looking at trends in political conflicts in Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland, Punjab, and the growing Naxalite movement. These conflicts vary in cause and current levels of intensity. In the digital sphere, we’re interested in at how violence is reported, how various actors use digital media, how states react within the digital sphere, and the clarity of information coming out of those conflict zones.

Naxalite-related violence as is the most visible political conflict reported on the internet in terms of local and international coverage, the robustness of blogging and digital media use by relevant actors, and the state’s reaction.

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In terms of current media focus, the Naxalite attacks are probably the most significant political conflict in India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh commented that Naxalite-led violence is the “single biggest security challenge ever faced by our country.” The central government has provided some paramilitary and technical support; but the bulk of the offensive against the Naxalites is conducted by the state-supported militia, the Salwa Judum. State officials claim that the group is a “spontaneous” response to Naxalite atrocities. However, a study conducted by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), has reached three main conclusions: (1) the movement is far from spontaneous, but is instead organized by the state, (2) in an effort to undermine support for the Maoists in isolated villages, the state has taken to clearing these villages, creating tens of thousands of IDPs, (3) the ‘peace mission’ has only increased the levels of violence.

There has been considerable criticism of these moves by bloggers and mainstream media. But these critics have also been accused of naivete by other mainstream media, as noted Indian journalist Swapan Dasgupta comments on the news website www.sify.com. The debate about the Salwa Judum in the mainstream media, and their online versions, acts as a surrogate for the larger conflict and fuels claims and counter-claims of partisanship. Human Rights Watch called the Chhatisgarh government’s response to the Naxalite threat “draconian.” Overall, related violence seems to be covered frequently, with up-to-date reports by both local and international news media.

A search for pro-Naxalite websites reveals that the Naxalites have a significant presence on the internet. Numerous pro-Naxalite blogs exist, including Naxal Resistance, Revolutionary Path, and Bengal Resistance. Naxalites are using the internet and digital media in interesting ways. World Politics Review reports that they are using websites to recruit urban youth, as well as to set up urban intelligence units. India Daily also reports that Naxalites in Chhattisgarh are using high-tech telescopes and Google Earth to locate army targets. A blog, India’s Naxalite Rage by Shlok Vaidya discusses the security implications of the movement. Naxalite Rage also reports efforts to use SMS networks to create confusion within village populations by “Spreading disinformation by spoofing sender data to senior government officials as well as threats to life and property.”

We came across two interesting trends during the course of this mapping.

1) The Naxalites’ ideological class-based struggle creates a link between digital activists and real world groups. The bloggers write from the perspective of the wider, older Marxist/Maoist/Communist movement in India. This movement has an active tradition within parliamentary politics, especially in Kerala and West Bengal. For instance, People’s March, currently blocked by the Indian government, operates from Kerala, far removed from the center of Naxalite power. Yet it is identified by India’s cyber police team as a pro-Naxalite website. It’s difficult to parse the Naxalite websites from the numerous left-leaning websites in the blogosphere, which speaks to the muddying of Naxalite propaganda in the digital sphere.

2) The Indian state’s actively seeks to discredit and block pro-Naxalite internet efforts. See World Politics Review and the pro-left blogs Naxal Resistance for examples. Naxal Resistance has created a mirror site Resistance in order to avoid attacks by unknown hackers. Here’s the author Bimal’s letter to his readers:

Friends,

We lost our ownership of this blog…somebody hacked our bloggger password..i am doing this post from my old mail id bimalck@gmail.com as a moderater..It is possible till the hacker allows. And it’s too difficult to manage a blog with out ownership status…so we decided to move to another blog.. please cooperate with us..

Remember, please don’t sent any mails to resistanceindia@gmail and If anybody mails you from this hacked mail account claiming to be Bimal please do not respond…….you may contact me trough resistanceindia@hushmail.com ….

With Revolutionary regards

Bimal then went on to create Maoist Resistance. Bimal’s email bounces. – although he is using Hushmail, which provides email encryption service for users worried about civil liberties and digital eavesdropping.

The Naxal Revolutionary Archives have created a mirror site at Naxal Naxalite Maoist India in case of government crackdown. They state that “pro-Naxal bloggers scare the living daylights out of the Government.” Clampdowns on the website have also come from the Communist establishment in India, according to the website. They state that exposes by the website of ‘criminal activities’ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had instigated this online offensive. Singur apologized to its readers for a lack of updates. It was hampered by “very limited access to internet due to unavoidable circumstances.” While creating mirror websites is one response, Naxal Resistence instead prefers to give the following disclaimer:

This blog is purely for educational and informational purposes and is not connected to, nor does it support or condone any particular organisation or movement. Information published on this blog is reproduced from various public domain media and academic sources and any material that readers may email us.

While its contents belie its ideological leanings, the disclaimer is an interesting touch.

To conclude, we ask whether digital media are having an effect on the Naxalite conflict. It’s difficult to map such effects directly, but it is clear that the state is taking the threat of the Naxalite web presence seriously. Naxal Terror Watch, an anti-Naxal website has been created by the Andhra Pradesh police to monitor the activities of Naxalitse. The government is also taking threats of internet recruitment seriously. It seems to think that there is an educated, though small, urban population that is responding to these overtures.

– guest post by Anand Varghese

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