Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Blogging the China Earthquake

Chinese citizens have been turning to the Internet for information on loved ones who went missing after an earthquake in Sichuan province took up to 13,000 lives. Twitter, the online tool that allows friends and family members to send short updates to one another via IM, SMS, and social networking sites like Facebook, has helped many Chinese keep each other up-to-date on their safety as well as on news related to the quake.

There's been discussion of Twitters becoming more and more popular as a "platform for serious discourse," used by citizen and professional journalists alike. Twitter apparently broke the news about the earthquake before the earthquake tracking agency, U.S. Geological Survey.

But the influx of information spread via Twitter, as well as YouTube and various blogs, in some cases may be raising more concerns than it's quelling. Many Chinese bloggers are questioning why the government wasn't able to predict the quake and help citizens prepare:

Local media in April noted water suddenly draining from a large pool in Hubei province, east of Sichuan. That report has been snapped up by bloggers looking for natural omens.

Other bloggers have unearthed a statement by a local government bureau in Sichuan, quelling rumours of an earthquake about a week before Monday's disaster.

Some "conspiracies" floating the blogosphere are that the government may have tried to ignore the earthquake out of a "desire for a peaceful Olympics." According to the UK Telegraph:

[Blogger] Shanghaiist posted 90 updates to the story, and started a rumour that the authorities had prior warning of the earthquake which provoked an official rebuke and more chatter across blogs.

The website gathered together material as diverse as reports that spy satellite images of the region were being used in the rescue operation, to the fact that Monday was Buddha's birthday, to a posting about how people killed in the earthquake were "victims of China's economic miracle.

Some have compared the situation to the handling of Hurricane Katrina by New Orleans and the US government. The situation also looks a lot like the 2003 SARS epidemic, when Chinese citizens spread exaggerated accounts of the numbers affected by the disease through SMS, sparking widespread panic and international criticism of the CCP for not better managing the crisis.

Times Online quotes "established journalist" Chang Ping's reaction to the quake:

" someone with relatives in the affected area, I could not stop myself from seeking whatever information I could ...”

He added: "The information was clearly unreliable, and it was difficult to tell what was true or false.

"Together it all spoke of a single problem, and that is the people's fierce appetite for information when faced with a public incident."

Most talk about citizen journalism revolves around whether or not it should be considered reliable or professional. On the one hand, this type of panic on the blogosphere could serve to delegitimize the Internet as a news source. But irresponsible blogging could ironically have just as much of a positive impact as the citizen journalists uncovering the truth about the
not-always-transparent Chinese government.

WSJ reports that the state-run Xinhua has "proved surprisingly aggressive at covering the earthquake in Sichuan province" to protect the country's reputation now that they have millions of competing accounts being spread through the Internet:

A regulation promoted as increasing government transparency took effect just two weeks ago. The regulation urges government officials to disclose more information to the public, including "information on the management, usage and distribution of social donations in funds and in kind for emergency and disaster relief."

At the same time, the leash has tightened on the country's news media. Just last August, the government approved a law restricting news outlets in covering natural disasters. The law says that "units and individuals are prohibited from fabricating or spreading false information regarding emergencies and government efforts to cope with emergencies," according to a Xinhua report at the time.

Though the law was aimed more at relative muckrakers, Xinhua was affected too. Yet since the earthquake, it has filed more than 200 reports and updates...

The verdict isn't clear when it comes to Xinhua's performance in covering the disaster. "Are they going to ask deeper questions about possible early warnings?" [David Bandurski, a researcher with the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong] says. "We'll wait and see."

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Israel-Palestine Wiki-Conflict

According to Electronic Intifada (EI), the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) "is orchestrating a secret, long-term campaign to infiltrate the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia to rewrite Palestinian history, pass off crude propaganda as fact, and take over Wikipedia administrative structures to ensure these changes go either undetected or unchallenged."

An EI report documents action alerts emailed by Gilead Ini, a senior research analyst for CAMERA, which explain in detail how CAMERA volunteers can promote Israel's image on Wikipedia without being perceived as having an agenda:

"So, for example, imagine that you get rid of or modify a problematic sentence in an article alleging that 'Palestinian [sic] become suicide bombers to respond to Israel's oppressive policies.' You should, in parallel leave a comment on that article's discussion page (either after or before making the change). Avoid defending the edit by arguing that 'Israel's policies aren't 'oppression,' they are defensive. And anyway Palestinians obviously become suicide bombers for other reasons for example hate education!' Instead, describe how this sentence violates Wikipedia's policies and guidelines. One of the core principles is that assertions should adhere to a Neutral Point of View, usually abbreviated NPOV. (The opposite of NPOV is POV, or Point of View, which is basically another way of saying subjective statement, or opinion.) So it would be best to note on the discussion page that 'This sentence violates Wikipedia's NPOV policy, since the description of Israel's policies as 'oppressive' is an opinion. In addition, it is often noted by Middle East experts that one of the reasons Palestinians decide to become suicide bombers is hate education and glorification of martyrdom in Palestinian society ...'"
(The EI report notes: "In fact, there have been numerous studies debunking claims about Palestinian 'hate education,' or 'glorification of martyrdom' causing suicide bombings.")

In some emails, "a veteran Wikipedia editor, known as 'Zeq,'" offers advice to CAMERA volunteers, including a how-to on how some of them can become "neutral administrators"in charge of arbitrating disputes over contested articles.

Writing for the Jerusalum Post, Andre Oboler questions why EI would expect any different from the tools of Web 2.0:
To understand why this accusation of "infiltration" is so poisonous one must understand the nature of Wikipedia. Its basic idea is that anyone can edit the on-line encyclopedia. How, then, how can anyone be said to be infiltrating it?

Some might protest, "But these people were seeking to coordinate and thereby achieve a level of control over the editing process!"

I say, "So what?" This is how Web 2.0 works. This is Web 2.0 democracy. It is not perfect, and many would argue it is not even a good idea. Yet this is the model on which Wikipedia is based.
But the JPost author does admit that CAMERA should have been more transparent. Electronic Intifada reported:
Throughout the documents EI obtained, CAMERA operatives stress the need for stealth and secrecy. In his initial action alert, Ini requests that recipients "not forward it to members of the news media." In a 17 March follow-up email sent to volunteers, Ini explains that he wants to make the orchestrated effort appear to be the work of unaffiliated individuals. Thus he advises that "There is no need to advertise the fact that we have these group discussions."
Devin Stewart previously blogged about transparency concerns on Wikipedia, particularly that it "allows anonymous editors to change or delete entries."At the end of April, an IP address traced to the US Department of Justice was blocked by Wikipedia for "vandalism" after repeated attempts to remove information related to the CAMERA controversy. CAMERA encouraged its members to create screen names (but not those that could be seen as pro-Israel) and log in before making edits so as to avoid having their IP addresses recorded.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Blogger's Publishing Responsibility: Speech at The Korea Society

Here is me talking recently at The Korea Society about a blogger's responsibility as a publisher (with a little story to illustrate):

The Empathy Economy: CSR and Web 2.0

I just got back from participating in an innovative discussion this week in Orlando at SAP’s SAPPHIRE event. The workshop covered the intersection of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and web 2.0. I am posting my initial thoughts on Fairer Globalization and the Ethical Blogger because the topics are relevant to both blogs. Here are some of the points I made and heard:

From an ethics point of view, web 2.0 has the potential of dissolving the false divisions between people—whether it is between nations and communities, producers and consumers, or labor and capital. With more ownership—both in influence and voting power—of the global economy, these divisions can fall away.

I start with the premise that companies are full of people, individuals, each of whom has an ethical duty. Naturally, some of these people are bloggers and some are stockholders. Companies can find champions outside the corporate walls to force change within a company for the benefit of society beyond the simple bottom line.

An ethics of the web is needed. Without one, we could face more government regulation, creating an excuse for governments to control information and connectivity. Some of the ethics of the web are simple: link to others, log in frequently, and share content. They are the principles that speak to the scientific origins of the web. Other principles might focus on the integrity of the information on the web; those would be transparency, honesty, and disclosure.

In the case of CSR, companies should consider the principles of sincerity, innovation, and pluralism (as Mikkel Sorensen and Nicolai Peitersen have argued in “CSR 2.0”). Companies can draw on the infinite wisdom out there (in publics). They have this great list of principles for CSR 2.0:

1. Inclusiveness – involving stakeholders directly from beginning to
2. Market driven – no longer expert driven
3. Innovation – smart companies turn market pressure into stakeholder led
4. Sincerity – you can no longer uphold an image that is not real
5. Co-ownership – a truly embedded value-based culture requires
6. Dynamics – standards and annual audits replaced by 24/7 engagement
7. Quality - CSR as immersive business strategy
8. Personal - It’s about you, not your sector! What are your own
9. Pluralism – number and nature of CSR projects will expand
10. Proximity - local impact is global

Megacommunities or multistakeholder initiatives become a reality with web 2.0, producing more sustainable solutions. Not only are the solutions drawing on more information but they also get more buy-in from increased participation. Web 2.0 has empowered civil society to do its job: producing social values and fostering the positive dynamic between companies and civil society.

The convergence of web 2.0 and CSR also occurs in the need for public goods. The web is a public good much like the environment, public health, and human rights. In this way, web 2.0 and public goods can help one another. The revolution in the relationship between corporations and society is syncing up with the IT revolution in web 2.0, democratizing corporate governance (I suggest democratic wealth funds here).

Formal compliance is giving way to informal compliance measures, making ethics more important relative to strict law. As I put it, in this new business environment, what is increasingly important is empathy, not regulation. As one panelist put it, it is democracy without rules, challenging the way companies communicate. As Booz Allen has put it, companies are now “always on.”

Does the intersection of web 2.0 and CSR bring about mutual benefit? I think so. Transparency is fostered when companies are forced to listen to their stakeholders. And privacy can actually be strengthened through transparency. Some people track themselves online to preclude further surveillance, and more information availability can eliminate the need to investigate. I have suggested blogging our emails in order to deter people from writing things that are hurtful or libelous.

Making sure web 2.0 brings about a better world will be about fostering trust. Software that can facilitate trust will be a huge business opportunity in this realm.

Finally, time is precious. I would assert that efficiency is ethical. Several people at the workshop dreamed of a day when our communications become more streamlined, eliminating the need of outdated methods like email. Remember when email was the future?

Channels for communication between the corporation and civil society were spelled out: blogs (topic specific); wikis (with a final goal); social networking such as Facebook (for awareness and promotion); crowdsourcing (to ask crowds to solve problems or prioritize goals); and the boycott and buycott.
Photo by linkerjpatrick.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

For the truth about Zimbabwe, turn to the blogs first

If you are looking for timely news and information regarding the tenuous political situation in Zimbabwe, you might want to turn to a blog.

Over the the last several weeks I have identified a troubling delay in the reporting of hard news from Zimbabwe by major Western media outlets. Part of this is of course a function of President Robert Mugabe's open disdain of foreign media. Barry Bearak, the Johannesburg bureau chief for the New York Times, and Stephen Bevan of the U.K. Sunday Telegraph, were arrested and spent several days in a Zimbabwean jail last month for the "crime" of practicising journalsim without accreditation by the regime. The Committee to Protect Journalists claims that "seven years of government intimidation and deteriorating economic conditions have prompted a steady flow of Zimbabwean journalists to leave the country."

But a significant part of this news deficit seems related to the sourcing demands of traditional media. The blog This is Zimbabwe, covered the story of a Chinese ship carrying arms to Zimbabwe about a week before the New York Times did. Then there is the case of armed Chinese soldiers spotted patrolling the streets of the city of Mutare, Zimbabwe's fourth largest city. The story was reported on the website of the Association of Zimbabwean Journalists in the UK on April 15th, but only appeared in the Times and the Independent on the 19th.

I'll be the first to admit that these stories, when read on a blog, initially carry the whiff of rumor. This is especially so for second and third person accounts of events related to a blogger via text message (SMS), as is often the case in places like Zimbabwe where internet access is rarer than cell phone service. In both cases, however, the stories turned out to be true, but the slow moving traditional media either sat on or ignored them.

About 10 days ago, I attended a lunch with Eric M. Bost, the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa. He told us he had recently dined with Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Zimbabwean opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Although projected by many to have won the presidency, Tsvangirai now lives in self-imposed exile in South Africa as chaos and despotism gain increasing traction in his country. Bost told of videos he had seen featuring Mugabe supporters entering districts supportive of the MDC, dragging people from their beds, beating them, and setting their houses on fire. As the fires burned, these thugs were heard asking the local people, "Who will you vote for now?"

All of this is getting soft play in the traditional press. In my opinion, U.S. coverage of the crisis has severely undereported the degree of violence, intimidation and brutality going on in Zimbabwe. To the average American, the situation comes across as a slightly heightened version the Florida recount of 2000 rather than state terror on par with the most despicable regimes of the 20th century.

Is this because, as the Committe to Protect Journalists notes, the foreign press has been run out of Zimbabwe? Or is their a more fundamental problem with the way in which information is processed and regurgitated by the traditional media?

Press freedom cartoons by Mick Stern are available on the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

UPDATE (5/9/08 1PM EST): The New York Times is preparing to run this report by Celia W. Dugger in the paper tomorrow. It appeared on their website ten minutes ago. Finally, someone is reporting on the brutality and intimidation in Zimbabwe. They might also have included pictures such as this, this and this documenting the torture (warning, the last one is pretty graphic). Or they might have run this photo of three-year old Samson, beaten because his parents work on a white-owned farm.

Photos taken from This is Zimbabwe, a blog published by Sokwanele, a civic action support group based in Zimbabwe. Their name translates as, Enough is Enough.