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Activist media and selective amplifiers

Those of us interested in social media and political organizing have had a lot to pay attention to in recent weeks. Demonstrations in the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities have apparently been squelched, but #IranElection still remains a popular tag on Twitter (roughly a tenth as popular as during peak days of the protests.) Riots in Urumqi were briefly broadcast via citizen media, and then authorities cut off Internet and phone lines, leading to a situation where apparently everyone is guessing what actually transpired. And the increasingly surreal situation in Honduras is being argued out in citizen and mainstream media, with both sides making passionate cases in tweets, blogs and op-eds. And, as I’ve mentioned, there’s no shortage of tense political situations that we’re simply not hearing about, like the institutional coup in Niger.

As some of the dust settles in Iran, we’re starting to see some sharp analysis of the use of social media during times of national upheaval. Colin Delany has one of the best analyses on TechPresident. He points out information and physical force are related, but not evenly opposed. The guys with the guns win, though information can help change the point of view of the guys with the guns. And he correctly analyzes social media in Iran as being selectively amplified – it’s made it possible for some views within Iran to gain international media attention, making it clear that there’s a substantial population who are dissatisfied with aspects of the current system.

But these aren’t the only voices in Iran, Delany reminds us. There are some people – possibly lots of people – who support Ahmedinejad and believe election (rightly or wrongly). It’s a mistake to oversimplify a story into a unified, oppressed people and a repressive government – the situation is more complicated. We face at least three filters in the voices we hear – access, language and bias. Not everyone has access to the internet, and we’re more likely to hear Iranian voices from large cities, especially educated, wealthier voices. It’s much easier for us to hear voices writing in English than in Persian, so we’re likely to amplify those voices… and English speakers are likely to be better educated, better travelled, etc. And we’re more likely to amplify the voices of people whose opinions we agree with – much of the retweeting of Iranian reports was an attempt to favor some voices over others.

This wasn’t one of the more popular posts on Global Voices, but I think it’s one of the most important ones – voices from Islamist bloggers in Iran reacting to the elections and ensuing protests. All the posts were translated from Persian, and they reflect a very different perspective and sensibility than the opinions I saw on Twitter, amplified many times via citizen and mainstream media. You don’t have to agree with the perspectives here – I certainly don’t – but it’s important to understand that the perspectives being amplified by bloggers and twitterers aren’t the only ones held in Iran or even the only ones being expressed. Delaney points to a study by my colleagues at Morningside Analytics which reminds us that the Persian-language blogosphere is large and complex with a large number of religious bloggers, few of whom were likely amplified by the recent Iran Election twittering.

The Chinese government turned off internet access and most international phone lines from Urumqi shortly after violence broke out, so it’s hard to know what either Han or Uighur residents of that city are thinking. But a roundup of Chinese perspectives on the riots on Global Voices is helpful to get a sense for just what the tensions between Uighir and Han Chinese look like. Han blogger Drunken Pig offers an interpretation (translated from Chinese by Oiwan Lam) of Uighir as a privleged class: “Most mass incidents in the past few years were generated by hatred towards the privilege class supported by the State. The ethnic policy of the Chinese government has turned the Uyghur in Han regions into privileged social group, while at the same time, the Uyghur is deprived of their religious freedom and autonomy back home in the northwest region.”

Needless to say, bloggers like Uighur Online disagreed with this interpretation (again, translated from Chinese): “Thousands of Uyghur kids were kidnapped and beaten to become thieves in Han Chinese region. Can we say that Uyghur people are natural born thieves? Has the government done anything to help them? The fact that so many Uyghur kids have become thieves indicates that Uyghur people are at the lower strata of the society.” Again, I don’t suggest that one of these perspectives is more accurate than another – just that to understand what’s going on, we need to understand Han, Uighur and other opinions.

For me, this has been some of what’s so exciting about the situation in Honduras is that there hasn’t been a shortage of opinions on both sides as to whether Zelaya’s ouster was or was not constitutional. A roundup on Global Voices by Leonidas Mejia gives a flavor for some of these arguments… and you’ll see the arguments spill over into the comment thread. Dean Graber, writing on the Knight Center at UTexas’s blog, observes that citizen video has become popular because domestic television stations have been broadcasting in support of Zelaya’s ouster, and those who consider recent events to be a coup don’t feel represented in this media.

To get a sense for the discourse, I recommend these videos. The first, in English, offers an explanation for why Zelaya’s outster was necessary, proper and constitutional – it compares Zelaya to Richard Nixon and explains that, since impeachment isn’t possible in Honduran law, it was constitutional to remove him. (It doesn’t address whether arresting him in his pajamas and immediately spiriting him out of the country was appropriate.) The second, in Spanish, showcases the violence and repression that’s followed Zelaya’s ouster and urges people to fight repression and defend the rule of law (though it doesn’t address any of the constitutional arguments offered in the first video.) Juliana Rincón Parra offers a translation of the second video, as well as background information on both videos on Global Voices.

Who’s right? Well, that’s the problem with multiple perspectives. Either you have to listen to lots of voices, analyze and understand their political agendas and try to determine the facts on the ground… or you can go with the advice of someone you trust. Yesterday, I tweeted a link to an op-ed by Octavio Sánchez, a former Honduran presidential advisor, which offered constitutional justification for removing the president.

I saw a response almost immediately from Rosental Alves, which continued through three tweets:

“Article argues there was no coup in #Hounduras (http://bit.ly/3D9Cp via @EthanZ) shows me how stupid, unnecessary the coup was11:49 AM Jul 6th from TweetDeck

Even legal adviser of #Honduras military recognizes (http://bit.ly/13h0fW, via DHoliday) they had no legal basis to deport president12:24 PM Jul 6th from TweetDeck

No doubts. Military taking a president at gun point frm bed, transporting him by force in pajamas to exile IS a coup d’etat #honduras12:09 PM Jul 6th from TweetDeck”

Now, for those of you who don’t know Rosental, he’s a celebrated Brazilian journalist, chair of the journalism department at UT Austin and pretty much the smartest guy I know about Latin American journalism. (That’s why I asked him to sit on the Global Voices board.) I agree with him on a lot of matters, and I’m inclined to give his words more weight than those of other online commentators. But this, too, is a form of triangulation. In the past, I might look to a publication I considered authoritative, like the New York Times, for my prefered interpretation. Now I look to people I trust and who are smarter than I am on specific issues and let them shape my thinking. But I’m very unlikely to trust an interpretation when I can get only one side of a story.

I’m thrilled that citizen media is letting more voices into the dialog. I worry that we often amplify only a few of them. And I worry a great deal that we forget that all amplifiers are selective and have biases. But the contrast between Honduras and Urumqi is a reminder that we benefit when we can hear a variety of voices and do the hard work of sorting through them… and that governments that silence voices to get their stories across will look less believable over time.

For a voice you’re almost certainly not hearing in your ordinary life, take a look at World Wants to Know. It’s a collection of questions asked by Ugandan farmers using a tool called “The Question Box“, which allows people who are illiterate and don’t speak English to gain access to information online, using a voice interface and human operators.

Like everyone else listening to the news this week, I’d heard that the Uighurs were a Turkic people with more in common with Central Asian and Eastern European Muslims than with Han Chinese. I hadn’t really gotten this fact before I followed a @wayneandwax tweet and found myself listening to this collection of Uighur pop. I heartily recommend it, especially the first track (Dutarim, which you can preview on the page.) If I’d been listening to those tracks without information, I would have guessed Turkey, not Central Asia. For whatever reason, it’s helping make the stories I’m reading about Urumqi more real to me.

3 thoughts on “Activist media and selective amplifiers”

  1. Pingback: Michael Nielsen » Biweekly links for 07/10/2009

  2. Thanks for pointing out Delany’s analysis, Ethan, I hadn’t actually seen that yet (could it have to do with selective amplification of voices, hmm?). This sentence reminds me of the same sentiment often applied to Arabic-language bloggers (which Antony Loewenstein has done a good job of dispelling): “But amplifying a sound usually distorts it, and Westerners watching from afar can easily get the impression that reformers are the only Iranians active online.”

    Anyway, thanks!

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