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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.

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