There’s very little that’s stranger than going to someone else’s conference. Every group, every profession, every occupation in our country has its periodic gatherings, usually in interchangeable hotels in interchangeable cities. When you attend lots of these, they’re comfortingly familiar. When they’re conferences for industries you’re not a member of, they’re just kinda weird.
I spoke at a gathering of elections officials and monitors in Washington DC yesterday. This is a field I know nothing about, other than that it’s important: if you want free and fair elections, someone has to run them, and someone else has to watch them. My usual speaking topic – citizen media – seems pretty far from the field of elections, but there are some good reasons why electionfolk should be watching our space closely. As citizen media becomes a new space to discuss political activity and build political movements, censorship of this medium is something election monitors need to take as seriously as censorship of the press or the broadcast media.
I spoke a bit about some of the online shenanigans that preceded the 2005 Kyrgyz elections and led to the Tulip/Lemon revolution. Reports from my colleages at the Open Net Initiative suggest that some sites were made inaccessible through denial of service attacks. Others were hacked, so the youth activist site KelKel suddenly began urging youth to “have fun while you’re still young” and avoid politics…
These sorts of attacks weren’t unfamiliar to my copanelist Fernando Agíz Bitar, a Mexican elections expert. He began his talk with the story of an opposition politician giving a speech in his hometown, to great acclaim. When the candidate mentioned the incumbent president, the audience responded with boos and jeers. The state-controlled TV station edited the footage into a story about the opposition candidate being booed and jeered in his own hometown, a narrative that was completely false and damaging to his presidential prospects. This, Bitar reminded us, happened as recently as 1994. The rise of citizen media isn’t the first time we’ve had to ask questions about the reliability of media accounts, just a new opportunity to triangulate between accounts offered in independent, state-controlled and local media.
The panel was good fun, but the rest of the conference was a little disconcerting. Like any other group, election administrators have their own acronym-studded lingo that’s utterly incomprehensible to outsiders. And they’ve got a trade show as well – a floor filled with different sizes and shapes of voting boxes and electronic voting systems. (“Clear” seems to be the recommended color for your voting box, in case you were wondering. Evidently it’s the new black.)
I’m counting this trip as part of April, a month where my intentions to travel less this year are revealed for the transparent sham that you all knew they would be. I’m giving seven talks in the next four weeks, up and down the east coast of the US, and one this weekend in Doha, Qatar. As I did last year, I’m heading to Al Jazeera’s annual forum to participate in a panel, blog the event, and catch up on the wide world of “anti-hegemonic journalism”, as the academics are calling it these days. (I hope to talk about citizen media as an alternative and complement to state aligned media, hegemonic media as well as anti-hegemonic media…) I’m very much looking forward to hearing about whether Jazeera considers Al Jazeera International a success and whether other media outlets in the region are starting to figure out how to do a better job of integrating blogs and other citizen media into their coverage, as wel as catching up with all my friends in Doha.
Alvin Snyder took me to task for my presence at the Jazeera Forum last year, pointing out that I’d accepted airfare and lodging in exchange for my talk – this is true of basically every talk I give these days. Some fraction of the talks I give include “honoraria” or speakers fees – my talk in Doha does not. For more than you probably want to know about my take on accepting reimbursement, speakers fees, etc., please see my disclosure on my blog.
Disclosures, by the way, were one of the most interesting questions raised in the questions after our panel. An Australian elections official mentioned that he’s in charge of implementing a new system where anyone paid for political speech has to disclose the payments they’ve received after they cross a certain threshhold (A$ 10,000, I believe.) The idea is to prevent me for shilling on behalf of Bill Richardson while accepting thousands of dollars from his campaign. (He hasn’t offered, and I haven’t been shilling.) The most ethical US bloggers are already very careful about this sort of disclosure – David Weinberger won’t mention John Edwards on his blog without mentioning that he’s an unpaid campaign advisor. I pointed out that bloggers who accept campaign money and don’t disclose are already taking a huge risk to their reputations – it’s become customary to “out” bloggers who are on payrolls and haven’t disclosed their financial arrangements. It would be fascinating to see Australia implement a scheme where bloggers accepting substantial payments would be required to add some sort of human and machine-readable disclosure to their sites, and where an election monitoring agency would spider those sites to ensure the proper disclosures are made.