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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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I’ve been resisting writing about Georgia, South Ossetia, and Russia for the past 10 days, even though it’s a fascinating story. Something about hanging out on the beach in August changes the urgency of it all, and also, I’ve promised myself I wouldn’t blog until I finished my USIP paper. Two weeks later, I’m still not done with the paper, and though coverage of the conflict is pretty well in hand by others, a few things are bothering me.

1) Reported casualty totals. Two days after the conflict began, reports started coming in about the number of people killed during the initial Georgian attack. First 1600, and now, the number often seen is 2000. This is a pretty high number of fatalities for two-three days of fighting, and it’s been used by Russia as part of the justification of the invasion. News organizations all over the world have repeated that number, and it’s gone out into the blogosphere as well. That’s true for blogs and organizations that pride themselves on accuracy as well as those dedicated to rumor, speculation, vitriol, and what have you. It’s quickly become part of the background story. Here, for instance, is a quote from Digital Natives, writing on cyberattacks:

Thousands have died in this war. And while DDoS attacks are more a function of propaganda than lethal violence (and Russia’s straightforward bombing of cell phone towers probably more effective, tactically), it’s worth considering the degree to which online actions and innovations by individuals and entrepreneurs can be adopted by states in support of bad actions.

See Global Voices’ special coverage of the crises for a window into Georgian and Russian blogs. The mainstream media stuck with those casualty figures for nearly a week after the conflict first flared. The first story I saw questioning the Russian tally came today, in the Washington Post, by Peter Finn. Others may be out there as well, but only in the past two-three days. Finn says:

Russian officials say 2,000 people died in Tskhinvali. That figure has been described as inflated by human rights groups. But there unquestionably was a large toll of civilian deaths and injuries, which has outraged Russia and shocked Georgia’s Western allies.

The human rights group in question is most likely Human Rights Watch. HRW published a story August 14 titled “Russia/Georgia: Investigate Civilian Deaths.” HRW says:

A doctor at Tskhinvali Regional Hospital who was on duty from the afternoon of August 7 told Human Rights Watch that between August 6 to12 the hospital treated 273 wounded, both military and civilians. She said her hospital was the only clinic treating the wounded in Tskhinvali. The doctor said there were more military personnel than civilians among the wounded and added that all of the wounded were later transferred to the Russian Ministry of Emergencies mobile hospitals in South and North Ossetia. As of August 13, there were no wounded left in the Tskhinvali hospital.

The doctor also said that 44 bodies had been brought to the hospital since the fighting began, of both military and civilians. The figure reflects only those killed in the city of Tskhinvali. But the doctor was adamant that the majority of people killed in the city had been brought to the hospital before being buried, because the city morgue was not functioning due to the lack of electricity in the city.

So the initial tally from independent observers of confirmed deaths is considerably lower than 2000. To note this is not simply to debunk Russian propaganda – there’s been plenty of spin coming from all sides. It’s also not to justify Georgian actions – bombing civilian populations is deplorable and illegal regardless of whether you believe they’re in the right in this particular conflict.

Rather, it’s to note the lack of care with which U.S. news organizations have taken with casualty figures – reporting first numbers without tackling the verification question. Maybe I’m not the only one affected by August sloth. But news organizations should know how difficult it can be to get accurate casualty figures, and not report unsubstantiated stats. HRW and others are just beginning the work of visiting morgues, hospitals, and cemeteries, and interviewing survivors for a more accurate count.

2) Lack of comparison with Chechnya. U.S. news coverage has discussed Kosovo, and even WWI and WWII as apt comparisons for what’s going on in the Caucasus. See this WaPo piece by Michael Dobbs for a summation. But the most apt point of reference is Chechnya, for two reasons:

-The Ossetian conflict was born of the same separatist impulse in the Caucasus as Chechnya, and involves the same state and non-state actors. The Russian-Georgian relationship was inflamed in the 1990s by Georgia’s refusal to allow the Russian military to enter Chechnya via the Georgian border; this refusal was in no small part due to Russia’s support for Ossetian and Abkazian separatists.

-The Chechnya comparison exposes the argument over competing principles of inviolate national sovereignty and the right of self-determination as a red herring. Russia is for territorial integrity for Russia, but not for Georgia; for self-determination for Ossetia, but not for Chechnya. The implications are clear. Russian policy in the Caucasus is about power, not principle. Buying into comparative narratives that focus on issues of principle miss the point. Which is not to say that Georgian or Ossetian policies are necessarily more principled; and realpolitik has long been a staple of U.S. foreign policy as well.

For a sober and informed view of the conflict, a good place to start is Tom de Waal’s analysis in IWPR.

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