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From compassion to action, from action to knowledge

I’ve opened a lot of lectures lately – presentations about our Media Cloud research at Berkman – by complaining about the New York Times’s Africa coverage. I cite the fact that Japan tends to average roughly 8-10 times as many mentions in the paper of record than Nigeria in any given year, which is odd, given their comparable population size and importance. (I also mention that the Times is not alone – all US media outlets I’ve studied closely show this pattern – and that the Africa stories the Times runs are frequently excellent.)

If the Times is undercovering Nigeria, the same can’t be said for their recent coverage of Equatorial Guinea. One of the most fascinating and dysfunctional corners of the African continent, Equatorial Guinea is a couple of tiny islands and stretch of coastline between Gabon and Cameroon slightly smaller than the state of Maryland. The country is occupied by roughly half a million people, most of them extremely poor and a small number who are obscenely wealthy, as the islands of Equatorial Guinea sit atop massive oil fields. Much of Equatorial Guinea’s oil output is exported to the US – 132,000 barrels a day – making Equatorial Guinea the third-largest sub-Saharan exporter of oil to the US (behind Nigeria and Angola).

While oil wealth may help explain the Times’s interest in Equatorial Guinea (six stories this year, as compared to two this year on its vastly larger neighbor, Cameroon) – I’ve made the case in the past that American media attention tracks national GDP more closely than population – the Times’s focus may have more to do with another natural resource: absurdity.

Equatorial Guinea is, simply put, one of the most absurd nations on the planet. It’s not just a kleptocratic dictatorship run by a man who is arguably Africa’s worst ruler – it’s a staggeringly wealthy kleptocratic dictatorship. The CIA’s world factbook estimates per capita income for 2008 at $37,300, making the average Equatorial Guinean wealthier than the average Dane.

Picture 1

This wealth doesn’t seem to make the lives of the nation’s citizens much better. The image above is from Hans Rosling’s amazing Gapminder, and it shows the “development” of the country over the past two decades. The nation’s gotten dramatically wealthier in those years – the GDP per capita has increased by a factor of ten – and infant mortality has increased. Generally speaking, this doesn’t happen – infant mortality is much lower in wealthy nations than in poor nations. But Equatorial Guinea isn’t rich – it’s a nation where most citizens are desperately poor and a very small number are staggeringly rich.

Because there’s so much oil money in Equatorial Guinea, people periodically have the clever idea of overthrowing the government and installing a new one that would, gratefully, share future oil profits. Frederick Forsyth wrote a gripping novel that reads, more or less, as a blueprint for overthrowing Equatorial Guinea with a small force of professional mercenaries. Some have alleged that Forsyth’s book was the result of his involvement in planning an attempted coup in 1973 – Forsyth admits he knew the coup plotters and that he passed money to them, but claims that his involvement with the plans were merely “research”. A more recent coup – The Wonga Coup in 2004 – allegedly used Forsyth’s novel as a planning document. The Wonga Coup involved South African mercenaries, Zimbabwean arms dealers and Mark Thatcher, the son of Britain’s former prime minister. It was one of the more absurd stories of the past decade, and it’s possible that we’ll finally get the complete story of the coup attempt now that the organizer, Simon Mann, was released from an Equatorial Guinean jail. (Not all the coups are quite this literary in nature. There’s no evidence that the 16 coup plotters arrested earlier this year were Forsyth fans – more likely, they were members of the Niger Delta resistance movement, MEND.)

A rich country with radical underdevelopment, a country so ripe for plunder that people read novels to plan coups? Not absurd enough for you? Okay, so here’s this – Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue is Britney Spears’s neighbor. Mr. Obiang is the son of the aforementioned kleptocratic dictator, and his shrewd management of his $4000 a month salary as Equatorial Guinea’s minister of agriculture and forests has allowed him to purchase a $35 million estate in Malibu, California, a Gulfstream V jet and a fleet of luxury cars and speedboats. The US Justice department reports that Obiang the younger pilfered an estimated $73 million from the EG treasury between 2005 and 2006 and moved it into the US.

As the New York Times reported this weekend, the strong evidence that Obiang is systematically looting his nation’s treasury hasn’t prevented him from getting US visas and visiting his estate several times a year. So why does Obiang get to play in Malibu while Robert Mugabe is forced to live it up in Hong Kong? According to the US State Department officials quoted in Ian Urbina’s New York Times story, the answer is simple: Zimbabwe doesn’t have oil, while Equatorial Guinea does.

Urbina’s story is an example of advocacy journalism at its best. Armed with research conducted by Global Witness, a leading pressure group focused on increasing transparency in resource-rich countries, Urbina points to rules bent or ignored by two US government departments, the possible complicity of two US oil companies and the role played by a prominent Washington PR firm as the EG government’s paid apologists.

So what?

When I started working with Open Society Institute, I was introduced to the phrase “theory of change” by a colleague who persistently (and, usually, very helpfully) insisted we unpack the logic behind any project we were considering funding. What did we want to accomplish, in the long run, and how would this project advance those goals?

So what’s the theory of change behind Urbina’s story? There may not be one – Urbina saw a fascinating and provocative story and used the platform provided by the New York Times to share the tale. Even if that’s true, the folks at Global Witness who provided Urbina with the documents to make this case had a theory of change – a belief that a story in a prominent newspaper would lead towards a policy change in the US government, or increased support for their campaigns for transparency in resource-extracting nations.

Perhaps the US State Department will be sufficiently embarrassed by the Times story to change their visa issuing practices. Perhaps some of the readers of the Times story will be grateful for Global Witness’s research and support their work. (You should – they’re an extremely responsible and credible organization doing important work.) I’m interested in the question of how a New York Times reader, agitated and motivated by Urbina’s story, would take the information she received in the story and move towards constructive action.

Global Witness doesn’t make it especially easy for individuals to involve themselves with campaigns, except as donors. Their webpages on corruption in oil, gas and mining and on banks and corruption include lists of the organization’s laudable achievements, their publications and their partners in advocacy. They don’t include a call or action or participation beyond encouragement to donate.

Would Global Witness benefit from a Facebook group dedicated to convincing Secretary Clinton to deny Obiang a visa? A petition demanding that Equatorial Guinea hold free and open elections? Probably not. They’re making a bet that the way to influence a government like Obiang’s is to operate at intergovernmental levels, providing actors within the State department with information and impetus to act.

Here’s the rub: information alone is insufficient to provoke action. In “A Problem from Hell“, Samantha Power unpacks the history of genocides in the 20th century and the reaction of governments to these systematic mass killings. Pointing out that Clinton administration wasn’t unaware of the genocide taking place in Rwanda, just unwilling to act, Power argues that governments only act to prevent genocide in reaction to consistent, relentless citizen pressure. Given the reasons not to act against Equatorial Guinea (the fear of driving EG to oust US oil companies and invite in Chinese ones, for instance), it’s reasonable to believe that merely informing and embarrassing the State Department won’t accomplish anything, without building accompanying citizen pressure.

So let’s reexamine the idea of the anti-Obieng Facebook group. My friend Evgeny Morozov argues that a great deal of online activism can be best characterized as “slacktivism” – it’s a symbolic gesture, a fashion statement, not an action that could lead towards real change. The examples he offered at a talk at Ars Electronica were, to me, compelling ones – a Facebook group dedicated to “saving the children of Africa” with 1.5 million members and a total of $8,449 in donations; a psychology experiment in Denmark that demonstrated people’s willingness to sign onto an online protest against an imaginary injustice. Evgeny worries that such online activism isn’t just ineffective – it leads to social loafing, where people get less involved with actually saving the children of Africa because they see a group of likeminded individuals and assume the collective effort will solve the problem.

While I find Evgeny’s argument compelling, I’m starting to wonder whether there’s countervailing dynamic at work. During the June 2009 protests over the Iranian elections, there was a burst of online activity as people moved by accounts of the protests looked for ways to offer solidarity and support for the activists on the ground. Twitter users turned their avatars green and changed their location information and time zone to suggest that they were in Tehran. They joined Facebook groups, shared links to the Neda Agha-Soltan video, donated USB keys to load with censorship circumvention software and send to activists, and opened proxy servers to offer Iranians an uncensored path to the internet.

These efforts weren’t effective in overturning the Iranian election results or leading to a popular revolution in the country. That might reflect their ineffectiveness – it’s unclear that the greening of Twitter would strike fear into Ahmedinejad’s heart – or the fact that the current Iranian state is powerful, well-organized, controls an experienced security apparatus, and has support from many Iranian citizens. I’m wondering if they were effective in another way – they allowed people with no personal connection to Iran to feel like they were part of the events. This feeling, in turn, may have encouraged individuals to pay closer attention to the news in Iran than if they’d been non-participants.

I’ve got no data to support this theory, just an anecdote or two about friends who compulsively aggregated Iran information on twitter, and a quote from Susan Sontag’s recent book, Regarding the Pain of Others:

Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing “we” can do – but who is that “we”? – and nothing “they” can do either – and who are “they” – then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.

If the inability to act makes us bored, cynical and apathetic, is it possible that doing something – even something that’s ultimately ineffective – could keep us engaged and compassionate? If so, is there an interplay between action and information-gathering that could turn a story into a movement that builds public will?

I read Urbina’s story. I get pissed off, and start researching other articles on Equatorial Guinea, which I post to Twitter and Facebook under the #eqguin tag. I encourage others to do likewise and to propose actions we might take to persuade the State Department to ban senior Obiang regime officials from traveling to the US. We start online petitions, a postcard campaign to the State Department and keep twittering links to the #eqguin tag… which becomes a trending topic, prompting journalists to declare a Twitter revolution in Equatorial Guinea. Witnessing our vast public will, Secretary Clinton declares that the State Department will enforce anti-corruption legislation and stop issuing visas to Obiang’s family. We promptly start a campaign to pressure CNOOC not to take over the leases that Obiang cancels with Exxon and Marathon in response to Clinton’s decisions.

A blueprint for turning knowledge into action and into will, or a fantasy? I’m not sure. (I am sure that it’s a blueprint that smart advocacy organizations are starting to try to implement, which makes the efficacy of the strategy an important topic to study.) I’m watching a debate between Evgeny and academic/activist Patrick Philippe Meier on this topic, centering around Evgeny’s recent article in Prospect magazine, “How dictators watch us on the web“. Evgeny makes the case that the rise of participatory web technologies has benefitted repressive governments as much as activists, who often aren’t able to use these technologies effectively; Patrick respondsby repeatedly asking “so what?”, arguing that Evgeny doesn’t have the data to prove that online activism is effective or ineffective. (Evgeny’s response to Patrick seems to agree on only one point – no one’s got the data to answer these questions effectively.)

Here’s my question: does it matter if action is effective or ineffective if we can demonstrate that action leads to more interest in a topic and more knowledge acquisition? I’ve been making the case for years that Americans (and likely people in many developed nations) don’t get enough information about the developing world, and that this lack of attention has consequences for developed and developing nations. If Americans don’t hear about an economic boom in Ghana, they don’t invest… which slows the boom, costing Ghanaians growth and costing Americans business opportunities in a growing economy. Similar dynamics apply around aid, humanitarian and security intervention, export of physical and cultural products.

A couple of years back, I realized that this was a demand problem, as much as a supply problem – journalists want to write about the developing world, but they and their publications have little evidence that their audience wants to hear these stories. Without evidence of reader interest in the developing world, it’s hard for most publications to support the research and travel that goes into creating these stories. If action (useful or otherwise) and newsseeking behaviors are linked, starting a movement may be a way to aggregate demand for a story, and encourage more reporting like Urbina’s story.

So get pissed off and start a Facebook group. Launch a Twitter hashtag. Translate compassion into action. But realize that the most effective action probably involves aggregating and disseminating information, building knowledge and awareness that’s an asset even if it doesn’t lead directly to political change.

And help us – me, Evgeny, Patrick, the Berkman Center, and everyone else studying this phenomenon – think about how we can bring data to the table and test some of these questions. Is online activism effective in bringing about political change? What mechanisms and tools are effective? Does the ability to take action increase and sustain interest in a topic? Does action need to have political effect to sustain interest? Does increased interest lead to increased media attention, and does that attention lead to real-world change? What sort of data and experiments do we need to move these questions beyond anecdote and theory and into testable propositions?

16 thoughts on “From compassion to action, from action to knowledge”

  1. Letters to the editor, phonecalls to your Members of Congress and Senators are going to be much more effective.

    I’d say 100 phonecalls in a month will do more than 100,000 members of a group, or #eqguinea trending for three days.

    This is because things are still about interpersonal interactions. People work that way. If something is directly put to you (preferably in a face-to-face interaction) you’ll take care of it in some way.

  2. The group 350.org is one of the best examples of using internet organization to disseminate an idea–that policymakers need to use 350 ppm when determining limits to CO2–and gather a vast and diverse collection of people all over the world to demand action. Starting from basically nowhere, a group of 6 recent college graduates essentially organized the world: 5200+ actions in 181 countries on the same day, countries that included the Congo, Iraq, Pakistan, China and other places where concerted environmental activism is basically unheard of. If you go to the 350.org website you can see the 21,000 photos they produced, documenting their efforts. While, obviously, the 350 ppm position hasn’t been adopted yet, these efforts inspired entire governments to participate and sanction events, the Secretary General of the UN to applaud the effort, and people in the poorest places to have their voices heard in a large international arena–all good things. And with the 350 ppm concept now out in the world, it has become a measure against which the treaty writers’ work will be judged.

  3. “does it matter if action is effective or ineffective if we can demonstrate that action leads to more interest in a topic and more knowledge acquisition?”

    Of course it does, unless the person is a marketer crafting a better sales-pitch (“interest”), or an academic valuing learning for its own sake (“knowledge”). In fact, taken to the limit, this is a justification for a bad kind of self-indulgence – talk endlessly about a topic, then vigorously pat on back for having generated interest and knowledge among the talkers and their audience.

    “And help us – me, Evgeny, Patrick, the Berkman Center, and everyone else studying this phenomenon – think about how we can bring data to the table and test some of these questions.”

    Well, one problem is that much (granted not all, not you) of the Berkman Center is caught up in what’s been called “the liberation theology of the Net”, with too many people basing their career advancement and financial success on spinning appealing tales which fit with what others want to hear. They are completely impervious to contrary data, having developed a whole line of hucksterism to wall-off reality – doing two-steps between hype and triviality, blather about early days, much rhetorical sophistry, etc. This time it’s different!

    I mean, it’s not like these questions have never been studied before. The problem is that you’re likely to come up with an answer that’s not profitable, and hence money and power is going to provide incentives to get the wrong answer. Yes, I know, there’s a lot of complexity in the process, but disclaimer, this is a blog comment, not a book.

  4. “Here’s my question: does it matter if action is effective or ineffective if we can demonstrate that action leads to more interest in a topic and more knowledge acquisition?”

    I don’t think those people with green avatars or Facebook group membership are actually expecting to overthrow Ahmedinejad or ban Obieng from traveling. More often, it is the media and pundits that assign a transformative expectation to digital activism. The practitioners, especially the masses (not the organizers), are often more interested in doing simply what you say: raising awareness and knowledge.

    Take, for example, the comment from the green avatar guy on a recent post of mine; he wanted to raise awareness: http://blurringborders.com/2009/10/19/not-every-digitally-mediated-act-is-a-political-one/#disqus_thread

  5. Kevin, that’s indeed a very interesting article. I was struck by this part:

    “It isn’t, as Evgeny writes, that “our digital efforts make us feel very useful and important but have zero social impact.” Instead, it is that the digital acts are innately social that they have impact, but for important personal social interests, not necessarily wider societal goals.”

    The writer did a rhetorical twist on the phrase “social impact”, fogging it between the political/civic meaning and the personal/chat meaning. He might just as well have as “Sure they have a social benefit, people feeling like they did something is beneficial to them”.

    That is, he didn’t refute what Evgeny meant, but rather substituted a different meaning associated with the same string of words, which then gives the impression he refuted it.

    Ethan – See the sophistry problem?

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  8. “…you’re likely to come up with an answer that’s not profitable….”

    King Leopold’s Congo Free State of a hundred years ago was an arguable similar kleptocracy. Its end came about in part because the European and American press climbed on what turned out to be a profitable band wagon of shocking stories about an absurdist regime.

    Despite prior knowledge, the scandal effectively began because of a British consular official’s report, so the question remains, what starts the bandwagon rolling?

  9. Actually, the huge moral concern forced the Belgians to incorporate Congo as a colony, but abhorrent human rights abuses continued through the 20th C.

  10. Great post, Ethan: very thought-provoking. I have little else than anecdotal evidence to support the following, but I’ll ramble a bit anyway…

    With regards to the idea that certain forms of “slacktivism” are valuable because they construct a social connection and make you feel like you are part of something–we can dissect a little what makes certain forms of slacktivism better than others for this. For example: signing a petition, joining a Facebook group, or even buying a (Red) product seem to be not so good, whereas Twitter hashtags and mailing lists might be slightly better.

    – Continuous participation (mailing list) is better than one-time opt-in (joining Facebook group)
    – Creating a personal social connection to people within a movement (friending prominent activists in a movement on Twitter) is better than creating a connection between the slacktivist and the brand of the movement itself (Project RED)–this is kind of derived from the first rule, since having a social connection to someone who really cares ensures future news about the topic.
    – An activity where people must engage creatively (finding facts and tweeting them or even responding to a tweet) is better than one where people can participate passively.

    Those are just some of my off-the-cuff thoughts: I’d be interested to see a more in-depth analysis of what it is that makes certain slacktivist movements more engaging and capable of producing eventual action than others!

  11. “If the inability to act makes us bored, cynical and apathetic, is it possible that doing something – even something that’s ultimately ineffective – could keep us engaged and compassionate?”

    I’d answer this question with a resounding yes. I just came across a fascinating series of TED talks related to the Charter of Compassion initiative launched by Karen Armstrong.

    Several of the scholars and religious leaders in the talks point out that there is a need to rescue a basic rule that underlies many of the millenary spiritual traditions of the world, but that seems to be lost in contemporary religious authority: compassion is something you learn only through action, through acting in a compassionate way.

    The psychological logic of compassion seems also to go in the opposite direction to the one you point out in the title of your post: from action to compassion :)

    So I think that digital or any other kind of activism can have a profound transformative effect on people for the better. And the more people is changed for the better, the more likely it is that it will lead to effective action at some point.

    I blogged on these issues and many others addressed during the talks in a recent blog post: http://alanfurth.com/on-becoming-more-compassionate-practical-guidelines

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