A Skyful of Lies

October 28, 2009 at 1:48 pm 3 comments

By Sarah Gillinson

…is what the Burmese junta called the grass-roots chatter about what was really going on during the pro-democracy uprising in late 2007.

Nick Gowing (main presenter of BBC World News) has been examining the real impact of this and other examples of new media, used to shine a light on moments of crisis across the globe.  The examples he draws on are shocking and hugely powerful – unsurprisingly. From the 17-year-old girl who witnessed and recorded the shooting by Israeli solders of an already-captured Palestinian man to the now infamous mobile phone footage of Ian Tomlinson being pushed from behind by police at the G20 protests, all draw back the veil between the sanistised official story – and stark reality.

But what does this all amount to?

Drawing on in-depth conversations with senior policy makers and media figures, Gowing’s thesis is that this amazing proliferation of real-time information has created an extraordinary new vulnerability for states and state actors. Not a shocking finding. But what did shock me was the ‘so what’ bit.

In some of the most high-profile – and powerful – revelations of state oppression (Burma and Iran for example), states may be vulnerable, but they’re not necessarily changing. What’s more, many of the state responses to this vulnerability weren’t about improving their actions, but improving their stories. China’s new media strategy – getting the state’s story out by social media in the same way as commentators on the ground are – and McChrystal’s efforts to stay ahead of the story in Afghanistan were the cutting edge responses to the real-time challenge of information. Not a change in policy.

Is this about the inherent vulnerability of the information itself? Lots is flawed and images are notoriously easy to doctor – does this make it weak enough for governments to sideline? Or is it that we haven’t found ways of linking the old world (where power still lies) with the new? What if grass-roots information was part of shaping the system (on whatever scale) not just challenging it?

I hate to bring everything back to radical efficiency…but I just can’t help it. We’re thinking about how powerful new ideas that represent, in microcosm, the core elements of a whole new world can start to shape the mainstream (if in the slightly less arresting world of public services). This feels like the very same question.  What should the UN’s strategy be on listening to and responding to commentary on the ground? What should the Met’s policy be? That’s what it’s going to take to turn ‘vulnerability’ into ‘accountability’.


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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alecpatton  |  October 28, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    You’ve got me thinking – what are the big success stories of grassroots social media among oppressed peoples? You mention Burma, occupied Palestine, and China, I’ll add Iran – and as you say, there’s no evidence of relaxation/crumbling among the ruling regimes in any of these (well, the London Met possibly – which is your point, I suppose). Still though, there must be success stories of social media in the fight against tyranny, right?

  • 2. Jo  |  October 31, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    I don’t think there’s any evidence that grassroots journalism has “created an extraordinary new vulnerability for states”. Facts alone have never ended a dictatorship.

    These techniques have only provoked a reaction against individuals and organisations within functioning states and even then they have not produced cultural change. The paradox of this type of reporting is that you need a functioning mainstream media and public sphere to react to it and press for change. Where this is absent (e.g. Burma) or impaired (e.g. Italy) these revelations simply provoke more hand wringing.

  • 3. thirup  |  November 11, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    I just read this blog http://ow.ly/BhGl, and remembered your blog Sarah. So yeah Alec, i think the answer might be that grass root journalism has to some extend had an influence.


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