Friday, 18 December 2009

Leverage change with social media

There are lots of ways in which the tools of Web 2.0 have enabled the public to get involved in political issues or take part in public pressure groups. The readily available free content hosting offered by YouTube, AudioBoo, Blogger, Flickr, etc, to name a few, has given anyone with an issue they want to talk about the ability and the platform to do that with a geographically dispersed public. This is often talked of as the 'democratisation' of the media - anyone can be a content producer and distributor these days.

I have some reservations about embracing that kind of rhetoric wholeheartedly - not everyone finds themselves with the same power and reach as a well-established transnational media business - but there is no doubt that web has opened up debate to include more vocal players than in previous eras of broadcasting. Not everything published across these kinds of sites is going to be of interest to everyone, but I dare say that much the same could have been said of legacy media and its output.

The easily shareable nature of the new platforms has brought with it significant benefits (a broader public sphere) as well as dangers (the sacrifice of privacy). I presented a short paper (slides below) to a bunch of colleagues recently about the use of social media tools to remediate the #IranElection of 2009 in which I pointed out that the state ran broadcast media was heavily censored and activists took to the web to organise their protests. Twitter was used heavily in this campaign - the Iran Election was the highest trending topic last year. One of the points I made in the presentation was that Iranians using the service, who found their message being retweeted, may have had some unwanted attention directed thier way (security forces were monitering the service, hence the high porfile campaign to change the location of Twitter users to Tehran, to try and fool them).

It's the dangers or problems of mediation that I want to focus on in this post, and I'd like to do that by turning to an example drawn from digital activism ('hacktivism'?).

I was listening to this week's edition of Digital Planet from BBC World Service that featured an interesting segment on informational activism. You can listen to the section by clicking this link here (the BBC is testing the use of chapters in its audio content, which is a great idea). This comes about on the back of a new documentary movie entitled '10 Tactics For Turning Information Into Action' from the international NGO Tactical Technology Collective.

The film advocates a number of ways in which human rights advocates can leverage change via social media tools. The film makers are keen to emphasise that new media opens up new opportunities for spreading messages about rights violation but they also open up new potential dangers:
Just as each new technology has the potential to bring new opportunities and freedoms, they also present new challenges, difficulties and forms of suppression – from new forms of censorship to threats to privacy. This issue is extremely important for advocates who handle sensitive information in hostile environments and for marginalised communities for whom technology can be a 'double-edged sword' as it carries the potential to both liberate and further marginalise.
Once information is disseminated via the web it may be hard to guarantee what will happen to those people involved in the process. It may seem like one of the best ways to combat persecution is by making your voice heard, but video interviews with people who have suffered at the hands of others may draw attention to those people who may then be subject to more abuse by virtue of their newly acquired visibility.

Advocates have a responsibility to protect their sources - the Tactical Technology Collective are keen to stress this issue and have some useful advice to offer. I'm looking forward to seeing the film. In the mean time, if you are interested in using the web to affect change you could do worse than check out the TTC guide here. You can find related resources at the DigiActive and Global Voices sites.

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