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Infowar and Measuring Authenticity

I had an opportunity to share my observations about “citizen propaganda” in the Russia/Georgia conflict with someone far more knowledgeable than myself – Gregory Shvedov, the editor in chief of Caucasian Knot, a leading alternative news publication focused on the Caucuses, joined the fellows at the Berkman Center for a brief discussion yesterday. Shvedov has been following the conflict closely, both through the reports of journalists associated with Caucasian Knot who are on the ground in Georgia and Ossetia, and through the panoply of blog accounts that have accompanied the war.

Shvedov confirms that there’s been deep interest in “eyewitness accounts” of events on the ground, and that the blogs he’s read seem to include people in Moscow or Tblisi misrepresenting themselves as being on the ground, usually to forward a political agenda. He worries that people are paying more attention to these bloggers – some of whom are misrepresenting themselves – than to reporters he and other publications have on the ground.

This situation presents interesting challenges for those of us who advocate for citizen media or who are involved with projects that aggregate and promote citizen media. If it becomes clear that many blogger eyewitnesses are simply amateur propagandists, it’s going to be harder and harder for journalists to reference and amplify the opinions of bloggers on the ground. It puts an interesting pressure on projects like Global Voices – in citing a blogger writing from Ossetia, are we authenticating that blogger, certifying that the person in question is really an eyewitness?

We can’t offer that authentication – that’s not what we do. We study the blogosphere closely, and we know who’s been blogging for a while, and can often offer background information on the bloggers we amplify. But we’re not a news agency, we don’t have reporters on the ground in Ossetia, and we’re discovering that there’s a real challenge presented by fast-breaking news events: news inspires people to start blogging. It’s not hard to believe that someone in Ossetia would begin blogging shortly after Georgian and then Russian troops came into the region – that blogger would be an eyewitness, and would likely have some interesting insights on the conflict. But she wouldn’t have a reputation or a track record, and it would be difficult to evaluate whether she was actually on the ground, or writing from either Tblisi or Moscow.

We all make decisions about the authenticity of information we receive, either online or offline. I tend to take a story more seriously if it comes from the New York Times than if it comes from the Montgomery County Bulletin. (Friends of mine who lean to the right may suggest that this is an error on my part.) We rely on the reputation and brand of the Times, and the fact that the paper is widely read and fact-checked by bloggers and readers. The Times gets it wrong sometimes – Jayson Blair, Judith Miller – but the reading public tends to be quite aware of those errors.

Reading blogs demands a different strategy. Reputation matters, but it’s less about brand than about longevity, links and comment threads. It’s not hard to manufacture a single, incorrect blogpost and have it survive some scrutiny – it’s harder for a blog to survive scrutiny over a long period of time. If a blog has no history, no incoming links, no active comment threads, it’s hard to value the opinions expressed there any more (or less) highly than those from a stranger on a city street. A blog that’s made controversial and questionable statements will often generate discussions, either on comment threads or on blogs linking to the blog – reading those threads often helps establish whether this blogger is viewed as reliable or with skepticism, as mainstream or fringe within a particular debate. These methods certainly don’t guarantee that a blogger is neutral or non-partisan – they simply make it easier to determine whether that person is a respected voice in an existing community of interest.

These reputation mechanisms don’t work well in the case of breaking news. We don’t check the previous blogposts or the incoming link count of the people who sent mobile phone photos from the underground during the 7/7 London bombings. Those images were believable to the recipients because they came from known contacts – they were believable in the press because the photos were consistent with other individual and professional press accounts. How do we make decisions about authenticity of observations coming from a war zone that’s not closely covered by the professional media?

My sense is that we’ve generally assumed good faith in reading citizen accounts of wars and other disasters. We may need to re-examine that assumption. As citizen media becomes a more influential and closely watched space, there’s a greater incentive to fight information wars on blogs and video-sharing sites, not just in the traditional press.

As I mentioned in my earlier post on citizen propaganda, the Ossetian conflict isn’t the first time we’re seeing propaganda efforts in digital media. We’ve seen evidence both of professional, paid posting by the “fifty cent party” and well-organized amateur efforts in the Chinese blogosphere, especially around riots in Lhasa.

We’ve covered these efforts on Global Voices because our job isn’t to report news, but to report what’s being discussed in a nation’s blogosphere. If that discussion includes amateur propaganda videos, or organized campaigns to post pro-government comments on blogs, we need to cover those posts… but we also need to provide context, helping people understand where these comments are coming from. Are these the spontaneous expression of angry individuals in China, Georgia, or Russia? Are they part of a larger, orchestrated campaigns? How do we value an opinion expressed as part of an organized campaign versus the opinion expressed by an independent individual?

My colleague Judith Donath offered a very useful framework in considering these questions. She suggests that what we’re trying to determine here is the “authenticity” of a particular voice. There are a number of factors we consider in considering authenticity… and perhaps we overvalue some and undervalue others.

In discussing the “fifty cent party” (a group of bloggers paid by Chinese authorities to publish pro-government comments on blogs and in forums), the fact that commenters are being paid makes me tend to take their contributions less seriously. It isn’t clear that we should draw this conclusion – it’s quite possible that the people who choose to work with Party authorities are generally in agreement with Party position on most matters… but somehow the presence of money causes me, personally, to consider these comments as less authentic.

Spontaneity also appears to be a characteristic that we correlate with authenticity. If I find a comment on a New York Times story comparing Vladimir Putin to Vlad the Impaler, it looks like a spontaneous, heartfelt response. If I find 100 comments all making the same analogy, it looks like an attempt to organize a campaign drawing associations between a world leader and the inspiration of vampire novels. Should I take the apparently spontaneous comment more seriously? Doesn’t the attempt to engineer a meme about Putin and vampires reflect a seriousness of sentiment that’s at least as authentic as an offhand comment?

Remember, the goal here isn’t to determine the accuracy of a statement, but the authenticity. Are people in China really angry about Jack Cafferty’s characterization of Chinese authorities as “goons and thugs” or was this simply an orchestrated campaign? Are thousands of angry Russians commenting on New York Times coverage because they were authentically pissed off? Because someone’s organizing a campaign to encourage them to do so? Does it matter if such a campaign is organized by a clever, web2.0 activist or by the Kremlin? What should we consider as we try to evaluate whether individual blogs are authentic or orchestrated? (Or both?)

Donath had another intriguing suggestion – she wonders whether large-scale text analysis could help detect blogposts that are part of orchestrated campaigns. Assume that there’s a wave of blogposts about, oh, say Sarah Palin. It might be possible to automatically identify blogposts that use similar phrases to attack or defend the VP candidate. A wave of posts all making the same three critiques or offering a similar worded defense might indicate organized campaigns to spread certain talking points. (Or they might just point to the tendency of bloggers to cut and paste arguments from people they read and like.) Even if such a tool didn’t help us figure out the authenticity of sentiment, it could help us avoid reading another half-dozen repetitive posts on the same topic.

Is authenticity the right characteristic to consider when evaluating blog accounts from conflicts? How should we evaluate authenticity when it’s difficult to verify the identity and location of an author?

7 thoughts on “Infowar and Measuring Authenticity”

  1. If someone starts blogging based on major events in their local environment such as the Russia/Georgia conflict, it does not necessarily have to benefit the rest of the people who are reading the blog over the long-term. Just like any news story, there is major coverage during the period of “heat” and then it dies down. A wave of posts describing the same event might in-and-of-itself be the source of credibility one would seek to authenticate the story. It could be a select few who are trying to influence and convert others but it could also accurately reflect the personal beliefs of a significant majority.

    Evaluating the authenticity of blogs, comments on blogs, and related influential social media will probably become more relevant and difficult as political influence gets increasingly tied into ubiquitous advances in technology.

    We might want to consider the blogger’s level of transparency. Are the posts anonymous or written by people who are verifiable. The downside of the transparency in this case is that voicing one’s opinion in many parts of the world will lead to trouble.

    Further one could consider endorsements. For example, a noted credible blogger could vouch for someone having an authentic perspective.

  2. A fascinating topic, Ethan. I guess it’s that biznes of how the study of memes can be put on as firm a scientific basis as the study of genes. I guess not even “large-scale textual analysis” is anywhere near the status of modern molecular genetics and microbiology.

    Memetics is not yet science…it’s uhmm, blogging!

  3. Pingback: serendipityoucity :: Authenticity and user generated content! :: September :: 2008

  4. Hi Ethan, On 9 September 2008, UNU-ONY is hosting a web cast (in conjunction with a live audience) on Aids and Africa. Would you be interested in please posting this to your audience?

    Registration for the event is here: http://africaserieswebcast-affiliate1.eventbrite.com/

    The one-day symposium “The Social and Economic Dimensions of HIV/AIDS in Africa” will examine the complex linkages between HIV/AIDS and reproductive and sexual behaviors, as well as the implication of HIV/AIDS on the economic well-being of communities, households and individuals in Africa. Presentation and discussion on the symposium will focus on range of topics from links and gaps in knowledge to the effectiveness of interventions and policies in Africa for HIV prevention. The symposium will also explore the scope and experiences in terms of the roll out of anti-retroviral therapies, with an emphasis on service delivery and behavioral responses among vulnerable groups, their children, and their communities to address the economic and social costs of HIV/AIDS.

  5. Very interesting Post, Ethan.

    This is not a new phenomenon, nor unexpected. For example, many pro-Israeli commenters and letter writers have been working from a shared template generated by propagandists and lobbyists for a long time, with journalists such as Robert Fisk bearing the brunt of much of this. The same is probably true to a lesser or greater extent for many communities, especially those involved in political or social conflict.

    This may yield common phrases, but we should not assume this makes then necessarily inauthentic. Influence, as well as sockpuppetry and darker arts, might explain the use of common text.

    Also, is it different for a state, for example, to “use” bloggers to push a message than for ad-hoc groupings of individuals to join together to push a message in pursuit of socially beneficial aims? The UK and US governments (as well as China, Russia and others) have long “used” journalists and media to do what the 50-cent party do, and they are probably “using” blogs too. New tools, same old battle for hegemony.

    A (wonderful!) site like GV can sit anywhere on the spectrum of editorial oversight between a neutral POV aggregator like Techmeme and a publication like the Economist. Exactly where it should sit is an interesting question, but as an amplifier of voices around the world, it should expect to carry some pieces which are wrong or perhaps even inauthentic. Better to err on the side of allowing more voices and be clear and honest about those pieces that you have doubts about, than to only carry those voices you can completely verify. There is no objectivity in media, only intersubjectivity. We can make our own minds up about what to take seriously.

    I used to be production editor on YugoFax, which became the IWPR, and this publication aggregated independent (often small) media from around the region as a counterpoint to increasingly separated media landscapes. On the whole, I think it did a good job, but even there, the line between authentic opinion, political positions and propaganda became slightly blurred sometimes, especially when some writers went on to become leaders of new states.

    In an upside-down world where one of the best examples of genuinely independent media (Al-Jazeera) is actively targeted in conflict zones by the US military, whilst at home Fox viewers ironically believe A-J to be terrorist propaganda, it is important to avoid any mechanism to judge the validity or authenticity of individual voices on blogs or in MSM. After all, who can claim to be objective enough to do that, and how do you address the fact that (for example) many people in China have legitimately different views of what constitutes “truth” from independence-minded activists or writers in Tibet.

    Intersubjectivity is the best principle we can apply here, and GV is a great example of that in action.

  6. I would like you to consider that in fact most of the people do not really scrutinize the authority of information, but just assimilate it as news and distribute it to ohters. In fact I´d rather accept a video from a war zone, that is obviously made by a private person, that is supposed not to have the money to reset the zone in a studio, as more valid than the official VTR of a news agency. The point is that professionals leastwise have the power to dictate the masses´ opinion, even if their reports seem to be disinterested. The whole media is just corrupted. On topic: It´s in the responsibility of every individuum to skim more than just one source, but to collect pieces of information in order to build an opinion. The most effective way indeed is yours, Ethan: Ryszard Kapuscinski, a polish journalist, just said: “In order to unterstand something holistically, don´t you dare to not expierene it!”

  7. Pingback: Build the Echo » Blog Archive » links for 2008-11-12

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