September 14, 2012 5:07 pm

Free for all, read by none

It remains unclear whether information flows via the internet or mobile phones are really becoming more democratic
An illustration by Shonagh Rae©Shonagh Rae

This autumn Ethan Zuckerman, director of the center for civic media at MIT, is fretting about the western news coverage of Syria. However, his concern is not the usual one, namely that there is a paucity of images of that tragedy. On the contrary, as Zuckerman explains, the proliferation of mobile phones in the modern world has created a veritable tsunami of tragic pictures and videos. Never before in human history has it been so easy to get documentary evidence of war, and spread it around the world.

The real question is who is watching that harrowing flood? For while mobile phones are snapping away, most of these shots have little impact: they simply sit, buried, in a corner of cyberspace. As the tragedy piles up, this begs two questions: is there any point in collecting all those pictures if they are never going to be seen? And who actually decides what gets into the public domain – and what remains ignored? “I am saying to students: we have people taking incredible risks to shoot video in places such as Syria that no one is watching!” Zuckerman argues. “We don’t need to create more media – we need more tools to filter it.”

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Gillian Tett

It is a point that almost anybody involved in human rights work might echo. But the issues go far wider than war. A couple of decades ago, when the internet exploded, there were hopes that this would usher in a new era of “citizen journalism”, which would connect the world more effectively and democratically than ever before. And in some respects this has happened: cyberspace is now filled with endless blogs and tweets, which are hard for censors to block. Yet in spite of this flood – or because of it – it remains critically unclear whether information flows are truly becoming more democratic and interconnected. After all, as lobbyist Ryan Holiday notes in a recent book, Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, corporate and political interests are becoming increasingly adept at manipulating the social media. Individuals are clustering into tribes in cyberspace, only reading information that reaffirms their pre-existing social and political world view; or operating in “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles”, as the commentators Cass Sunstein and Eli Pariser have respectively described it.

While the internet has in some senses promoted globalisation, the irony is that there is actually less – not more – focus on international news in the American media. Blogs from Ghana or Afghanistan might be floating around in cyberspace, but most Americans do not know where to find them, let alone want to read them. And while Americans used to collide with non-American news on general evening television shows, or the pages of the mainstream newspapers, many are now bypassing those in favour of “bespoke” sources instead. “If I walk into a store in the United States, it’s very, very easy for me to buy water that’s bottled in Fiji, shipped at great expense to the United States,” Zuckerman explains. “It’s surprisingly hard for me to see a Fijian feature film.”

Is there any solution? Some academics are trying to fight back in various ways. Zuckerman, for example, is currently working with other campaigners to establish a web platform that collects blog posts from people in poor countries around the world – sometimes collected via tweets on cheap mobile phones – and distributes them in an accessible form in the west. He is also working with academics such as Hal Roberts and Yochai Benkler, to develop complex algorithms to map how news moves across cyberspace. The idea behind this is that if you can monitor how key words and issues spread, you can understand the level of diversity in the media – and thus the degree to which it is controlled by powerful social, political or corporate groups.

Some of the preliminary conclusions are fascinating. This number crunching has shown, for example, that whereas the American media coverage of non-American countries is closely correlated to gross domestic product (ie only wealthy countries are covered), this pattern does not play out in Europe. British media coverage of the world, for example, is shaped by past colonial history, not current GDP.

Another fascinating finding by Bruce Etling is that there is greater diversity of media debate in the Russian blogosphere than there is in America. For while the Russian blogs cover different issues from the official media – with stark extremes of right and leftwing views – American blogs cover similar themes to the official media. The “discourse” in America, as an anthropologist might say, is more unified. That might make it easier to shape public opinion, but it can also occasionally help promote popular action. When Congress tried to pass the so-called “Sopa” law last year, this was overturned as a result of widespread protest – expressed via that diffuse internet.

But, as Zuckerman himself admits, this work is still at a preliminary stage: because crucial players such as Facebook refuse to release their raw data to academics, it remains difficult to track in a scientific way how ideas and images are “spreading.” Or, in the case of Syria, not spreading. It is a sobering point to remember, especially in a US election year, when there appears to be more “news” afoot than ever before.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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