The Freedom to Publish – Speed vs Truth

One of the strengths and weaknesses of the Internet in a time of crisis is its default promotion of free speech. Unless the ability to post anything that is written online without any checks (including fact checks) and balances is coded away, then anybody with access to the Internet can post anything they want online. Most of the time, it is just mundane everyday life drivel, or very special interest information that most people do not read. But in the case of a national or global news event or crisis, the speed and truth of information is vital.

In times of crisis or uncertainty, misinformation can be devastating. Rumors are especially rampant on the ground during wars, when everything is up in the air. Especially in the Arab Spring uprisings, where it is hard to tell who is a rebel, who is a thug, and who is a regime loyalist, rumors about who did what atrocity can often lead to unnecessary death and violence if they are not verified. In these situations, people depend on blogs and Twitter feeds to get the correct information, hoping that the person writing them is doing their homework, but often times, they are amateur bloggers just doing their best to help out.

In his book, Code 2.0, Lessig notes:

At their best, blogs are instances of amateur journalism – where “amateur,” again, means not second rate or inferior, but one who does what he does for the love of the work, and not the money. These journalists white about the world – some from a political perspective, some from the point of view of a particular interest. But they triangulate across a range of other writers to produce an argument, or a report, that adds something new.

You hear “just because it’s on the Internet, doesn’t mean it’s true” all the time. This mindset comes from the belief that since most content on the Internet does not go through an editor, and may not be fact checked, that there is a good chance it is not true. It is definitely something to keep in mind when reading random blogs or websites that are not associated with a big name publisher. A Yahoo! News article is more likely to be fact checked than your next door neighbor’s neighborhood gossip blog. There are obviously some examples where Internet crowd-sourcing leads (most of the time) to the truth, like Wikipedia, but even Wikipedia is subject to tampering and rumors.

So, when it comes to the truth, is print still the way to go?

Not necessarily!

This month, another fraud “memoir” was added to a disturbingly long list of similar non-fiction books found to be, well, fiction. Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson was published by a respected and time honored publishing company (Penguin), hailed on highly respected news and talk shows for years before it was found to be untrue. Surely these traditional, slower, “analog” media sources take the time to fact check, right?

But they don’t! Even after a string of fraud “memoirs” publishing companies, and Oprah have not learned their lesson. Print seems to be just a susceptible to lies and rumors at the Internet. And it can have serious consequences. The charity that Mortenson set up is now coming into question, and the real fear is that if it is found to be a fraud that people will lose faith in charities and stop giving money to worthy causes that might actually further democracy and equality, like building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I have to ask, have these type of casual, non-fact checking standards of publishing been in existence since before the digital age, or has the speed of the Internet age actually changed the norms or “code” of analog publishing? If the speed of publishing on the Internet has indeed effected “traditional” publishing, what does that mean in turn for the publishing industry’s credibility as compared to the Internet? Are they now equals? If these lower standards have always been around, but are only now being discovered, can we credit the age of the Internet for helping expose these frauds, since people are now trained to be more skeptical about what they read, and therefore are more likely to do their own research instead of just trusting what made its way to print?

In times of crisis, the freedom to publish information as soon as it comes in with out going through an editor or publisher is key, but with that freedom comes the cost of reliability. Some news outlets, bloggers, and Twitter feeds are reliable and some are not, and in times of crisis, even the best can make mistakes. Code can be created to protect a lot of things on the Internet, but instant fact-checking is just not one of them. If the information is new enough, there will be nothing to fact check against, and by the time there is the information, it may be too late to take action. Unfortunately, both time and effort are still a factor in checking facts – until there is a code for that, people need to be skeptical about what they read, both online and off.

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The Great Divide – Extreme Grouping and Crises

This week the US government avoided shut down at the literal last hour all because of silly partisan bickering on both sides of the aisle about budget cuts and family planning.  If the government had shut down, millions of government workers would have had to stay at home, or worse continue to work without pay until the Congress could come to an agreement. All of this is bad enough, but to me, the worst part is that the active military, the people out there putting their lives in danger every day would also have had to continue fighting without a paycheck. Sure, they would have eventually gotten back pay, but in the meantime, their families at home have bills to pay and would not have had a way to pay them.  This of course would have and did worry and distract the active duty military from their jobs at hand. How could the military keep on fighting unpaid without losing focus for the task at hand? A distracted and angry military could be just the crack our adversaries might need to get the upper hand at some important or unplanned battle. Talk about a crisis!

Why did it take so long for the two sides of the aisle to agree on a budget for 2011 (even a temporary one), when they knew this deadline was out there and they had a full year to come to an agreement?  Cass R. Sunstein might point to group polarization, the phenomenon that when people of similar leanings get together and discuss them, they become more extreme and firmly rooted in those leanings, and can even get to a point that no matter how well the opposition argues, they will not change their minds. In his book, 2.0, Sunstein explains:

If “people like you” support your initial inclination, you will become more confident. If your inclination is supported by “people not like you,” you might become less confident, and start to rethink your position. If your political opponents – those whom you think most confused and destructive – think your position is right, you might end up thinking that it is wrong.

Politicians are elected to be not just representatives of their home state, but also representatives of their political party, and sometimes they are more loyal to the party than the state, because they are grouped, whether physically or just ideologically, together with people of that party and can feed off of their leanings to become more and more extreme in their party’s beliefs.  This can be scary when it comes to the US government potentially shutting down because of an impasse, but it can be downright dangerous when it comes to niche groups online.

Facebook groups, as I mentioned last week, are a good place to gather and show support for a group (this is also true for blogs). Most of the time groups are innocuous, even if they have a specific goal in mind, like getting Betty White on SNL or Rock the Campus for the Cure, but they can also be scary and extreme like hate groups against certain races and religions. When people join groups they feed off of each-other ‘s ideas and beliefs and become more extreme in their own, which could spill over into action in the real world.

Obviously, part of the idea of group creation, especially idealistic group creation is to solidify and to build confidence in the the group’s ideals among group members. This can be specifically helpful when bringing together a group for revolution or any other event where confidence in your ideals is needed. But can this phenomenon be used to help spread knowledge and understanding of people who do not share your personal views to create , if not a more centrist point of view (however, I would like that, because I am the extreme centrist after all), at least compromise and cooperation between groups?

Maybe if people would look at issues rationally, and try not to get caught up in the “us versus them” mentality, a lot of extremism could be avoided, and even better, some real solutions could be made without waiting until the last hour before the government has to shut down or a crisis actually occurs. Realistically, people tend not to be rational, and in many cases cannot be swayed from their opinions, and grouping only makes things worse. As a result, society has in many ways become more segmented and unwilling to compromise, and the Internet has definitely helped, though it is not the only culprit.

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Freeing Libya via Facebook may be harder than we thought…

In his book, The Net Delusion, Morozov argues that the Internet not quite the “freedom of speech” utopia we imagine it to be. The Internet does indeed enable more people to communicate in more ways with more people than ever before. It (in theory) allows people to say whatever they want to whomever they want and broadcast it all over the world in an instant. However, this is not always a good thing. In times of political upheaval, the last thing dissidents want is for the government in power to be able to get a hold of their plans AND figure out their true identity. However, that is just what is happening.

People assume that authoritarian governments are likely to just censor and block the Internet in their countries and write it off, but in reality, these governments have become much more Internet savvy in the last few years, not only using it to spread their own ideals and propaganda, but more scarily, to monitor their citizens and any other persons they deem to be “of interest.” Of course, not all citizens are spied on equally, people who are not causing a stir or even who may be ranting to a non-existent audience may not be of enough interest to governments to waste time and effort to spy on them, but people are creating a stir can easily be found out if they are not careful.

Social Media like Facebook is definitely a great tool to find like-minded people, create groups, and communicate with each other. Groups are used to show support for alma-maters, hate for FarmVille, and plan for revolutions. Morozov argues that using Facebook to start revolutions, or to deal with any crisis is a dicey games for two reasons. First, authoritarian governments have learned to use Facebook to spy on their citizens, and even if you do not use your real name and information, they can still gain access to your network of friends, family and conspirators, and eventually you. In addition, if the group is public, which it probably is if it is trying to gain more members, they will have a list of everyone in that group – an easy target list for interrogation or worse.

As an experiment, I searched for “Free Libya” groups on Facebook, and the largest one I found had nearly 2000 members, AND even though it was a closed group, I could still see all of the members and click on their profiles. Most of them had private profiles with not much more than a picture (maybe of themselves, maybe not) that I was allowed to see without being their friend. BUT, I could see and click on their friends, and that is where I found this.

It may not seem like a lot, but with the information available on his relatively open Facebook page, there is a good chance that I could discover Faisl Libya’s true identity. Especially if I had some hacking skills and government resources behind me.

Even if you were able to somehow hide your true identity and your network, the second challenge according to Morozov, is getting your group to actually do something in the real world. It is easy to click a button and become part of a Facebook group, but when it comes to actually translating that membership into action, you will lose a lot of people. I am tempted to say it would be different in a crisis situation, but I am not sure, because even though there is a clear and immediate threat or goal that needs to be addressed, not everyone in the group will be local to that threat and may just join the group to give moral support or to make themselves feel better. This is a problem when you are counting the number of people in the group and it looks like it is huge, but in reality, only a small fraction of the group is willing and able to take real action.

Even the 2000-strong Free Libya group that I found still had to threaten its members, because they were posting false, or at least unverified information that did nothing to further the group’s goal.

Although there are some definite drawbacks, Facebook is still currently the best solution to gathering, growing, and mobilizing world-wide or local groups in times of crisis. Until the next big/safer thing comes out people, especially “Faisl Libya” just need to be aware of the dangers and drawbacks, and take action accordingly.

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Who knows what’s out there?

These days, when a crisis hits, there is some really great technology out there for people to use! In addition to staples like Twitter hashtags and Facebook groups, there is a world of social media resources for people in crises.

OpenStreet Map after Haiti Earthquake - Based on Ushahidi Platform

Ushahidi is known for creating social media for use in crises, specifically user generated maps. It’s platform allows people to create their own apps or maps that collect data from text messages, the news, and the web to create up to the minute maps of what is going on in a local or global event. The OpenStreet map above is built on Ushahidi’s platform. It now has its own check in app, specifically for reporting your location and what is going on in a disaster or crisis, but without having to be on the grid or sharing any of your private information. This may particularly useful if you have a government that likes to spy on you.

Google Person Finder
Google Personal Finder is a site that lets people report that they are either looking for someone or have found someone after a crisis. In the days and hours after an even like the Japan Earthquake it is usually on the front page of Google and can help people connect.

The Red Cross
The Red Cross has a shelters app for iPhone and the web, that lets you search for shelters near a certain location, using either your phone’s GPS or the info you enter in the web app. This can help people find a place quickly.

There are many other social media resources out there that I have not mentioned and many more that I do not even know about, which is the problem. I am actively interested in Social Media use in times of crisis, and even I am not sure that I would use all of these resources if a crisis hit my location today or in the near future. How are “normal” people like my parents or friends who are not interested in this topic supposed to know about or find out about these valuable resources in times of crisis. If could not find my parents after a natural disaster, and posted them on Google Person Finder, would they or any of their friends know to check it?

Resources and apps like Ushahidi are spectacularly helpful, but only if enough people know they exist and how to use them. The truth is, most people do not care about surviving a crisis, until it is happening, and at that point it might be too late. How do we get the word out and make people care?

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The State of the Network

Mueller’s Networks and States opened my eyes to the complicated mess that is the attempt at world governance of the Internet. Yes, I used the words mess and attempt to describe the state of the situation. Even with all of the institutes, conferences, and organizations that have been meeting for years to trying to figure it out, there is not currently a way to “run” the Internet in a way that makes everyone happy.

This isn't working...

Currently, the choice for a “safely run Internet” is between human governance and technological governance. Humans, whether as state governments, corporations, or individuals have not, and probably will never agree on what is deemed safe and appropriate for the Internet. Even on topics people do agree on, like child abuse/pornography, a consensus on what level, whether that is on a user, poster or host level, should be prosecuted cannot be decided. Even if governments got together to prosecute users and posters of illegal content, a consensus on where to charge and try them is going to be up for debate…where the content was uploaded, where it was viewed, where the server is held, etc. could all be different places all over the world with vastly different laws. So, blocking content has become the solution for many a country, company or household.

To some actors in Internet governance, blocking of child abuse images has provided both an example and rudimentary infrastructure for national Internet content regulation. More governments and censorship advocates have begun to think that blocking or “filtering” techniques could recreate the kind of control they once had over traditional territorial media (p. 197).

However, technology up to this point has proven to be a more blunt, imprecise instrument that both vastly under and over blocks content. If the Internet is to be open and free, blocking is a dangerous, slippery slope. In addition to the control/freedom of speech issues that are important ideals/values in the United States, but not as much in other parts of the world, issues of human rights can come into the picture in times of crisis and revolution.

The Egyptian government attempted to block not just parts, but ALL of the Internet during the revolution earlier this year. Luckily, the revolution had such global press coverage and attention, that big companies like Google and Twitter were able to work together and strong arm a work around, so that the revolutionaries could communicate with the outside world and each other. But what if it had been one of the smaller countries that are currently revolting? Would the world have reacted the same way if the Bahrain government had blocked the Internet? Would they even have noticed if the eyes of the world were not pointed in its direction, thanks to Egypt?

In a crisis, information flow is important in its speed, accessibility, and accuracy. Blocked content can be especially inconvenient and damaging in times of need. Obviously, governments that are in the process of being overthrown do not want the Internet to help revolutionaries attain their goals any easier, but is that what the rest of the world wants? I don’t think so. But just because it was born and raised in the US, do we have a right to inflict our values on the Internet all around the world? Do other countries have a right to abuse it or restrict it? Ironically, the filtering technology used by oppressive (mostly Eastern) governments was made in the West. Mostly, right here in the North America.

The Internet has grown at such a pace that global technology, laws, and norms cannot keep up with it. The world wants an easy, all encompassing solution to Internet governance, but like most world-wide problems, there is not one. At least, not yet.

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“What is right is not always popular…

and what is popular is not always right.” — Albert Einstein

I have often wondered why frames of mind or irrational actions are contagious, not just in a mob-mentality, but even in a group of friends, but I have come to realize that people will give up their own ideas, because they assume that if so many other people are doing something, then surely it can not be wrong! The problem is that it can be.

One of the lessons I learned from Christakis and Fowler’s Connected is that of the many things that flow on the network of people is emotions and states of mind. This is especially important in times of crisis or potential crisis. Take, for example the 2007 run on England’s Northern Rock Bank. They pointed out that people stood in line to get money out of local branches of the Northern Rock Bank, even though they knew that their finances were safe. However, since so many people were panicking even more people turned their backs on their own rationalities and waited in line with the crowd. People were freaking out, not because they really had anything to worry about, but because their friends and their friends of friends were freaking out.

China Salt Panic - No Salt Left

In a more current example, last week’s earthquake in Japan induced a salt-buying panic in China and other countries over the mistaken beliefs that a) there would be a shortage of safe salt due to radiation leakage and b) that salt would somehow protect people from radiation-induced injuries. Neither of the rumors were true, but because of the panic that quickly ran through the country, there really was a shortage of salt. Luckily, the myth has been dispelled and the panic ended almost as quickly as it began.

Although spread of these types of panics and rumors were possible, and indeed happened over and over again before the digital age, their timelines have been compressed through the speed and ease of communication via the Internet. Before the Internet, it would have taken longer for the people of China to even find out about the earthquake in Japan in the first place, and the idea that salt would help block radiation poisoning would have moved much slower and/or might have been contained in a local area of only a few hundred miles, versus the whole country and beyond. If the rumor did spread, it would have taken much longer for the truth to make it around to everyone again, before the panic could finally cease.

Of course all ideas and frames of mind that spread quickly are not bad or incorrect. The Tunisian uprising earlier this year did not just spread throughout the country, but became contagious throughout the Middle East and northern Africa to Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen, and has not stopped yet. These uprisings were contagious, not because the idea was new to each of the subsequent countries, but because the desire to rise up had been just under the surface for years, and seeing others with confidence and success in their uprisings, gave those connected through social ties through Friends, Family, Twitter, Facebook, or the combination thereof the confidence they needed to organize and begin an uprising of their own.

In fact, the spread of a good frame of mind was seen during the Egyptian protests, when despite all of Mubarak’s attempts to create anger, violence, and panic, protesters remained calm, peaceful, and organized. It certainly surprised many people watching in the West, who might have given in to violence if provoked in the same way, but the peaceful mentality was contagious and won over individuals’ personal feelings and penchants for violence.

Thoughts, ideas and norms though they have always spread through social networks now spread even faster and with greater abandon in the age of the Internet. It is easy to rely on the judgment of others and go with the flow without stepping back and taking a rational, critical look at what is going on. Contagious frames of mind can lead to salt panics or worse, so be on your guard, what is popular might not always be right; they can also lead to the overthrow of a dictatorship, so be ready, what is right is not always popular…but sometimes it is!

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Preaction to Premediation – The War on the Future

The problem with crises is that they can rarely be predicted, so it can hard to plan for them. However, in the post 9/11 era, that does not stop the media from trying. TV shows about future (im)possible disasters, like “Life After People” on the History Channel, speculate, and show through computer generated graphics what might happen if all of the people on earth suddenly disappeared. From hurricanes, to financial crises, to “the big one” that will break California off into the ocean, the media loves to premeditate future disasters!

In preparing for these future crises, Richard Grusin argues in his book Premediation: affect and mediality after 9/11, the media is not necessarily trying to prevent all future crises, although being able to stop some is ideal, but instead, the media desires to prevent the kind of shock that occurred during and after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Like the establishment of a color-coded security system or terror alert, the media’s preoccupation with premediating the future strives to maintain a low level of anxiety among the American public in order to protect them from experiencing the immediacy of another catastrophe like 9/11.

That low level of anxiety means that Americans, and possibly the western world have become obsessed with news and being prepared for the next big “thing.” We want to know all the possible scenarios that could happen if the economy takes a “double dip,” if (when) gas goes back up to $4.00 per gallon, and how the aging of the Baby Boomer generation is going to affect our Social Security income and health care benefits. As a result the mainstream media has become a place where debates about future possible issues are being argued as though they are current reality.

But what about those real, unanticipated events, like last week’s earthquake in New Zealand? Are those types of events also premediated? After the previous earthquake in September 2010, talk and speculation about what would happen in future earthquakes may have taken place. In fact, experiences with new technologies created and tested in response to past crises are used to prepare for the next crisis. Between crises, users and researchers use the data from past experiences with technology like Ushahidi to learn from the past, figure out what was successful, what failed, and what might be needed in the future. Groups like the CrisisCamps associated with Crisis Commons try to find new ways to use technology in easy, and efficient ways, to organize and aid in times of crisis.

I have to wonder, how much of this premediation, this trying to not only predict but to prepare, pre-analyze,and preact (preemptively react) to a future crisis might have still occurred if the 9/11 attacks did not. If America, and the world had not had the kind of shock that that day brought, would people still be as anxious to prepare themselves and others for the next big attack or natural disaster? It is hard to predict a parallel current/future, a la Sliding Doors, but I think that by now, we would probably be premediating on a similar level. Even if the 9/11 attack had never happened, another set of attacks might have, and even if those did not, such additional huge events like Hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis would probably have us on our toes by now. Grusin points out that culture was already on its way to premediation, which showed up in movies like Minority Report, but when it comes to disasters, I think that we have always been in some state of premediation.

During the Cold War, films premediated atomic bomb attacks, and instructed people how to live how to live in an atomic shelter after an attack.

Although we now know that films like this were neither needed nor accurate, they did premediate life after an atomic bomb attack, so that if people experienced one, they would not be shocked and would know what to do.

When specific events are premediated, and then do not happen, like the atomic bomb attacks of the Cold War, can they seem silly in retrospect, but at the time they can be huge, and important to a society. The danger comes when governments and societies overreact to premediated futures, spreading rumors and worse, creating laws and sanctions that preemptively take away freedoms in preaction. Preaction can also lead to making rash decisions based on speculation alone, and not real evidence.

Although premediation can help prevent or prepare for the next big crisis or disaster, it can also have no effect, or even worse, do harm to a community. We must be aware of these possibilities, and prepare for their outcomes.

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