From Vietnam to Arab Spring: Mediums Facilitating Revolution

Last week I very briefly touched on the concept of citizen journalism being a way of getting around traditional news media’s tendency to depict war as tame and unobtrusive for the sake of maintaining public support. Today I would like to discuss this a little further and connect it back to idea that the ability to illustrate the true nature of things is facilitated by global networks, convergent technological flows and the rise of social platforms. Not only that but social media has become a way for revolutionists to come together, organise operations and share their messages on a mass scale with little barrier to entry.

Prior to the Vietnam War all the information that everyday people could obtain about war came from mainstream media channels like newspapers and radio, there simply were no other mediums and the general public was given a highly mediated, white washed version of events. By this I mean propaganda campaigns that harboured wide spread support and a sense of patriotism.

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“By the mid-1960’s, television was considered to be the most important source of news for the American public, and, possibly, the most powerful influence on public opinion itself” Erin McLaughlin For the first time the public were seeing war first hand. The horrors entered people’s living rooms and in between school, work and dinners, anyone could watch villages being destroyed, Vietnamese children burning to death and soldiers in body bags. For obvious reasons this created mass opposition to the war and widespread protests. Fast forward to the now and you will see that news corporations, who jump through hoops for the hand that feeds, take every precaution not to make that mistake again.

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The news coverage of war today paints a story reminiscent of early propaganda campaigns, with the us versus them mentality and imagery of merry marching soldiers doing little more than hanging out in barracks and pressing buttons on fancy war machines.  Gordon Mitchel explains how the introduction of smart weaponry allows for a controlled way of marketing war to the public that is alienated from the direct reality of the battlefield. “Bombardiers wielded hand-held Nintendo-like devices that help pilots guide precision weaponry and computerized navigation aids to make their way to their targets – not real locations but map coordinates displayed on a VDU”…”there was little to distinguish the coalition pilots’ experience from training runs made in simulation machines”.

Vietnam War U.S. Casualties

 Sept 18, 1966 

 

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Today 

The problem with legacy media is “you’ve got to be silent, to be spoken to- passivity is the logic of that technology” (Richard Senett). Luckily for us we live in an age where you do not just have to rely on monolithic media for your information. We have the internet where information flows freely and citizens upload imagery of war and injustice every day, the truth is out there you just need to look. The ability to do this is a direct result of technological convergence. Convergent mediums have allowed for mobilisation, coordination and dissemination to take place which has in turn has given people, who would otherwise not have voices, the freedom to broadcast messages not in sync with the official agenda. The mobile aspect of modern technology means that people can bring their devices with them capturing things as they unfold and staying connected to the web. The coordination aspect means platforms like FB and Twitter can facilitate revolution by giving activists a place to come together and plan action at great speed and across distance. The dissemination aspect means that messages from individual nodes can be broadcasted to the masses without difficulty and the extent of the spread is massive in scale.

When all these elements come together to create a hive of connectivity the capability emerges for small individuals to enact large change. However simply having the ability to do does not guarantee it will happen, you need to have the right influencers, the right cause and circumstances where action is achievable at a local level (think globally act locally). But when this does happen it gives individuals the power to change the world, Arab Spring is a perfect example of this.

When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest over harassment from city officials, the local news media sprouted the message that he was merely a psychopath. None the less his death sparked attention all across the globe when the true story was shared across the net and began fueling outrage. The same again occurred when Khaled Mohamed Saeed was beaten to death and the Egyptian government claimed he died of chocking.

By this point protest had already begun to rage but a turning point in the series of events occurred when young blogger Asmaa Mahfouz made a video pleading people to stand up for their rights and take a stand. In this video, that went completely viral, she set a date which germinated the hashtag #Janury25. From there YouTube channels emerged such as Free Egypt where content from the protests could be catalogued and publicly shown. Facebook became a breeding ground for activist communities to form and legitimize and when the Egyptian government cut its people off from the internet, Google and Twitter joined forces giving Egyptian citizens, isolated from the rest of the world, the ability to share their stories globally.

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While this all occurred from the right combination of people and events, it is no doubt that technology played a part in shaping the outcomes. This is pure example of the power that connected technologies can bring and proof that networked systems always beat monolithic ones.

The Death of Legitimacy

If you have been following my weekly posts you will know that I last discussed the idea posed by Eric Raymond that networked systems always beat hierarchical ones because more is accomplished at a faster rate due to mass participation… “Given enough eyes all bugs are shallow”. Last week I was referring to this in terms of Apple vs Android and the concept of a single closed source entity vs a collective open sourced network. Well today I would like to revisit that concept from the angle of traditional legacy media channels vs illegitimate citizen journalism.

Traditional Legacy media channels are your television networks, radio stations and newspapers (so basically anything owned by Rupert Murdoch). This model operates on a one to many archetype where information in scarce and value comes from the production and distribution of content. In this media paradigm the News Corporations become the authority on what is considered news and the selection of content is as simple as deciding what information might be interesting. As New York Times proclaims they are “All the news that’s fit to print” and you don’t really get much say.

Axel Burns makes a point that correlates well here “while the audience retained the right to buy or not by the paper and to switch on and off the television this amounted to a choice between news as it was offered or a self-imposed news blackout”(that’s not the exact quote but it’s something along those lines).

These days the Legacy media model still exists but is arguably on the cusp of becoming obsolete. When millions of web users create content every day that can be freely accessed, the creation of content becomes valueless and instead attention turns to the aggregation of content- the sorting, tagging and packaging of information into personalised bundles of interest. This has given rise to new media model where news is collectively generated and shared by individual users over social platforms. Instead of seeing a story from one news giants perspective who is limited to time and space you are able to gain the full perspective from the hundreds of snippets of the same story from all over the web. Think of it in terms of footage, when a news team cover a story they have one camera man capturing from one angle and that is all you will see on the television but if you search the hashtag of the same story you may find hundreds of videos from countless angles filmed by people who were there on their smart phones. The value in this instance comes not from the individual videos uploaded by the users but in the platforms ability to group them under a unified tag.

“Yes they were built entirely out of 140 character messages but the sum total of those tweets added up to something truly substantial like a suspension bridge made of pebbles” (Steve Johnson).

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News giants would have you believe their dated model still holds value in the authority. They argue that citizen journalism is ‘illegitimate’ journalism and that the only shinning beacon amongst the dark depths of the information avalanche is highly produced content that guarantees quality and validity. While there is truth to this ideal (the internet is a disturbing place), it is not always the case and I don’t just mean because every week Channel Nine runs a story on why sugar is bad for you (Goddammit that’s not news!). I am talking about what I mentioned earlier when I said all bugs are shallow given enough eyeballs.

Participatory news platforms like Twitter and Reddit are always on and moving so fast through iterations that inaccuracies are weeded out by the enormous public faster than a singular news entity could even dream of. Meanwhile having such a small amount of staff working as hard as they can to pump content out as quickly as information arises results in errors slipping through the cracks. Remember the time that Danish news channel accidentally thought Assassin’s Creed was real and used it as backdrop to their news story. To illustrate conflict in present-day Syria, TV2 used an image from Assassin’s Creed digitally depicting Damascus 720 years ago. While that little mistake managed to make it all the way to air it was picked up and shared all over social media within minutes. What was that argument about legitimacy again?

 

 

On the other hand the concept of citizen journalism does bring froth a debate about privacy in the public sphere. The thing about legacy media is they are slow but by being legitimate they must go through all sorts of legal steps ensuring they have permission to film people before sharing it on television. Whereas citizens on the street record who ever, whenever and with very little regard for privacy. If we think back to the Vietnam War, that was the first time real footage of war was shown on public television and is a major contributing factor for opposition to the war. These days war is painted differently to prevent opposition, its ‘Nintendo warfare’, showing only soldiers behind computers pushing buttons. Citizen journalism gets around this being real people sharing real footage as it is, uncensored and raw.  This also means however that in delicate situations like war we are seeing videos surface the net of mothers crying over dead children, with their mutilated bodies open for public display. While this is necessarily for revealing the true nature of war and stopping people from turning a blind eye to it, it generates the question where do you draw the line between truth and respect?

Normalising The Niche

“The Internet imposes no barriers to entry, no economies of scale and no limits of supply”(Clay Shirky).

There is an abundance of information literally flooding the net and media itself has changed from an organised stream of information created by legitimate providers, to a convergent mass of shared information created by illegitimate prosumers. Traditional media channels such as television and the newspaper lose their value when new media models grant users content for free.

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Legacy media channels with their high cost of entry are being undercut by “The people formally known as audience” (Jay Rosen) as everyday amateurs are able to create and share content without cost and without risk of failure. So what this means for the global media landscape is that in an age where content is in surplus, value comes not from being a distributor who controls data access but from aggregators who control attention.

The best example I can give of this is Foxtel vs Netflix. Foxtel is a distributor, it plays shows like Game of Thrones periodically at certain times. The value of these shows is evaluated by the amount of people that watch them. Netflix is an aggregator, a digital cloud of shows that people are free to choose from. The value of these shows comes from being chosen.

Traditional forms of ratings measurement no longer have the capacity to reflect modern viewing habits. Just because no one is watching a show on television does not mean it is not being watched and as a result of this miss-reflection thousands of loyal fans almost lost what was in my opinion one of the best shows on television. Community was cancelled due to low ratings until Hulu picked it up as a web only series allowing the fandom to continue. It just so happened that the show had a following, but its followers were all binge watching pirates who liked to stream at their own convenience.

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Game Of Thrones Season Ratings SeriesMonitor.com

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Community Season Ratings SeriesMonitor.com

What allows this viewing practice to happen is something called The Long Tail Effect, where our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of mainstream products and markets toward a huge number of niches (LongTail.com).

In the traditional media paradigm the mass market always beats the niche but as Chris Anderson explains “What matters now is not where customers are or how many are seeking a particular title but only that some number of them exist anywhere”.

Think Amazon, it is not confined by the physical space of each individual store and therefore does not limit itself to only the bestselling books. The digital search and demand environment allows them to stretch their operations to the extremities of niche culture and still remain profitable. Now you have access to all the obscure books your heart desires at the click of a button and a short wait on delivery.

The benefit of this is that people get out the habit of simply following the mainstream, they freely peruse their own interests and movies such as Juno and Like Crazy get watched as well as massive blockbusters like The Avengers. The negative is that this sometimes prevents us from stumbling onto new discoverers. Have you ever watched a movie you never heard of simply because it was TV? Alternatively have you ever not known what to search for online and just ended up watching something you have already seen? The abundance of information leads to the scarcity of attention and when we are faced with choice we often stick to what we know, whereas the dictation of information can force us to take notice of things we wouldn’t of otherwise.

Jaron Lanier and Eli Pariser argue that when aggregators such as Google sort us into categories based on the niche interests we express, we run the risk of being given back to ourselves through the filtering of content. But at the same time it gives us opportunity to further ourselves beyond mainstream culture. It is important we expand our attention past our own little bubbles, after all there is so much to explore in cyberspace.

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We Are Media

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Journalism is changing. Journalist traditionally considered ‘the gatekeepers of the public sphere‘ are now forced to work within a society in which gates no longer exist. There are literally billions of internet users all over the world, who all have the ability to produce, upload and share information globally every second of everyday without any restrictions.

Citizen Journalism is rising dramatically with more and more people producing content and more and more consumers turning to amateur journalists for their primary sources of information. Thanks to citizen journalism massive caches of previously hard-to-come-by or entirely secret information can be released into the public sphere. News is now a collective of information created by a mass of individual content creators. Take the ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous for example they can be described as a community of users simultaneously existing as an anarchic, digitized global brain and together they are responsible for some of the biggest instances of information leaking ever seen on such a mass global scale.

There are some who say professional journalism and the printed media is a dying industry. Traditional media relies on the scarcity of information in order to sell it. In today’s society, however, scarcity of information is practically non-existent and consumers have the ability to pick and choose what information they want to find out about. Why would you pay for a bundle of news, when you can search the internet for niche news catered to you for free? The answer quality.

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let’s face it there is a lot of useless information floating around in cyberspace, how are we as consumers supposed to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and opinion, important information and nonsensical gibberish? This is where the future of professional journalism still stands. Everyday people still look to legitimate news producers to distinguish news from information.  As the New York Times states its “All the news that’s fit to print“, so you see professional journalism still has an important role, this role, however, has changed.

It would be crazy to think that traditional forms of journalism, such as print media and television news networks, could compete with citizen journalism today. Its faster, citizens often producing first hand content literally moments after an event has occurred, well before news reporters even have a chance to get there. It’s cheaper, at practically zero entry costs more news content can be created than newspapers or news networks could even dream of producing. It’s easier to access, citizens can upload and share information all over the world, giving citizen journalist a greater reach, when it comes to audience, than any news media could hope to extend to. And it’s free.

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The role of the journalist now is it not to produce information but rather to sort it. They have become curators not gatekeepers.  “A curator-journalist makes sense of the chaotic digital publicity for an audience that suffers from an information overload. Curators find, digest, fact-check and repackage information that thousands of others have published on blogs and social media sites”.  The future of professional journalism hasn’t died, it has merely evolved.