Bloggers and Bullets: New Media in Conflict at the USIP

On Thursday morning/afternoon, I attended three panels that aimed to tackle the question journalists, activists and international policymakers have been trying to deal with since the advent of Facebook: How do we use new media to push good journalism and advocacy, and how are these tools currently being used?

Twitter exploded with discussion from the room full of media savvy, international enthusiasts. I participated in the discussion, posing a few questions for the Facebook representative and commenting on the discussion with international bloggers from primarily the Middle East.

Alec Ross, Senior Adviser for Innovation, Office of the Secretary of  State, discussed how the use of information sharing has been used throughout history to enact change in governments.

“The correlation between access to information and political power is nearly as old as time itself,” he said in reference to the 1979 Iranian Revolution when tapes were smuggled into Iran with Ayatollah Khomeini’s message against the Shah. The panel agreed that these tools are widely influential for both “good and evil,” as they put it. Terrorists groups, hate groups and authoritarian governments use the same tools the “good guys” use to push their message. The Taliban, for example, in Afghanistan is very media savvy and appeals to youth in the country through the same ways Western communication tries to reach them.

He referenced Hezbollah’s use of media to recruit people in demonizing Israel-video games that have you target Jewish people are being made and distributed to youths. Similarly, Golnaz Esfandiari did a piece on an Iranian game where the goal is to kill reformists.

Ethan Zuckerman, Senior Researcher, Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, discussed his report “Blogs and Bullets” that essentially said that the notion of a media-active community in conflict areas is a media myth.

He acknowledged its significance, however, when traditional media is blocked or expelled from areas of conflict.

“CNN got to the point where it said, “let’s read Twitter to you,” because they didn’t have anyone on the ground,” he said of the 2009 Iran protests.

Interestingly enough, he said his findings shows that not too many people INSIDE Iran–average Iranians, were Tweeting during the protests. A vast majority came from the diaspora outside the country. Golnaz echoed that point by saying only a few hundred people were Tweeting in Iran, and those that Tweet now discuss daily issues, poetry and social topics more so than revolutionary dialogue. Like youth in America, they talk about their breakfasts, funny videos and arranging social gatherings via social media.

She did a great article in Foreign Policy on the Twitter myth during the Iranian election protests that’s definitely worth reading.

A treat for me was the inclusion of blogger Hamid Tehrani, who I’ve been following for a while on Global Voices, a remarkable citizen journalism site featuring bloggers from every corner of the world. Tehrani has great reports (in English, thankfully for me) on Iran.

SLACTIVISM

One interesting topic that emerged from the discussion was the idea of “slactivism,” or when a person blabs online about various political and social ideologies, but he or she does nothing to actively contribute to those issues. Within that definition, you could argue that journalists who report on conflict areas, human rights and politics are “slactivists” because they observe these issues but they don’t actually take to the streets and do something about them. I would argue, however, that the communication itself is doing a significant amount to influence issues.

For instance–I could pick up a picket and run in the streets with protesters who are campaigning against stoning (an issue I’ve been following in recent weeks). I can also do research and write a report spreading awareness of stoning that will reach a few hundred people if posted on Radio Free Europe. Which will have a bigger impact?

“So now people who weren’t empowered before are. but activist movements need to target these people and learn how to be participatory,” said Zuckerman.

At the same time, I remember reading a report that said an Iranian blog warned Iranians against listening to Western hype about the Green Movement. It essentially said that the West was being irresponsible by urging Iranians inside the country to go out and face the Basij. It said “while they sit comfortably at home, they’re telling you to go out and get killed. They aren’t looking out for you.”

Golnaz expressed similar sentiment about the role of Tweeters outside the country. She said most Iranians use Facebook much more than Twitter, and I’ve noticed that within my own Facebook sphere. Just on Facebook, Radio Farda has about 30,000 fans while the Twitter has much fewer.

The second panel was a nice treat, with one of my favorite bloggers and my favorite experts on Iran, Golnaz Esfandiari, on the international bloggers panel, joined by

  • Mialy Andriamananjar (Madagascar)
  • Raed Jarrar (Iraq)
  • Onnik Krikorian (Armenia) (farthest right, global rights)
  • Nasseem Tarawnah (Jordan)
  • Golnaz Esfandiari (Iran)
  • Hamid Tehrani (Iran)
  • Abu Aardvark (Moderator)

I was surprised to hear the report from Iraq: It seems that Iraq isn’t as technologically connected as places like Iran and other Middle Eastern countries.

“New media is painted in a way that makes it look like the force that will liberate. It’s sobering to read that it is yet just another tool,” said Jarrar. He said something like 2-5 in 1,000 Iraqis have internet access, so bringing “liberation” through Twitter simply won’t happen.

“The situation in Iraq is still very limited (in terms of new media). it’s the same because of the deterioration of its infrastructure and the lack of English speakers,” he said.

One message rang clear in both the bloggers and Facebook/Ebay panels: Mobile is the future. In America, companies are investing in mobile news and applications as a way to make money off of web journalism. Similarly, in less wealthy countries, mobile is HUGE compared to Internet access. Foreign news media need to make more use of mobile as a form of communication (like sending news as a text message) rather than building fancy websites or social media platforms.

  • Colin Rule
    Director of Online Dispute Resolution, eBay
  • Adam Conner
    Facebook

Facebook and conflict resolution: guy from Ebay. discusses ODR.info. every political dialouge I’ve had on Facebook has been disastrous. game on. no insight from that. move political dsicussions to forums that are more positive, bu even there there are difficulties. dont think of them just in the frame of conflict zones. EBy is a huge site, combined wiht Skype and paypal. global economic democracy discussion. that utopia has been tampered by reality. who woul dsay that fb twitter youtube is the epitome of what can be achieved? no one. mobile is the future.

The biggest takeaway from the last panel was on the use of Facebook: Yes, hate groups can use it to spread hate. Bickering rivalries can use it to yell at each other as they would in person. Governments can use it to hunt down revolutionaries. NGOs and rights groups can use it to spread positive messages and connect people. And…must we forget…friends can use it to stay in touch across borders.

“We built a tool to make the world more open. By improving the tool as a whole, all of these groups will benefit,” said Adam Conner, a representative from Facebook.

For more from USIP’s event, check out the Twitter feed.

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One thought on “Bloggers and Bullets: New Media in Conflict at the USIP

  1. Pingback: Global Voices in English » Caucasus: Blogs and Bullets

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