May 10, 2009

My hat off to Natasha Chart of MyDD and OpenLeft for pointing me to this fantastic take on the issue of Web2.0, censorship and political activism.

With web 2.0, we’ve embraced the idea that people are going to share pictures of their cats, and now we build sophisticated tools to make that easier to do. as a result, we’re creating a wealth of tech that’s extremely helpful for activists. There are twin revolutions going on - the ease of creating content and the ease of sharing it with local and global audiences.

Author Ethan Zuckerman looks at political activism in Tunisia, China and Bahrain and how the respective governments tried to shut down the activists by blocking access to various sites like Daily Motion and YouTube, only to create more activists upset at the censorship of their right to look at cute kitties. The entire essay with all its links is well worth your time.

But that's international activism. Here at home, the internet has enabled a whole new swath of citizen journalists. And they are picking up the slack for the old media:

Ari Melber, at Personal Democracy Forum, explains “Condi Rice’s Tortured Macaca Moment,” in which Stanford University students questioned the former secretary of state about her role in our nation’s torture of prisoners in recent years. To call her response inept is an understatement, as many have explained (see Scott Horton’s deconstruction).

But Melber nails the larger import of what the students did:

(T)his incident also shows the prospects for what we might call a substantive Macaca Moment - using YouTube and citizen media to scrutinize our leaders on the issues, not gaffes.

[..]We need to organize to ensure that public figures — especially politicians and business leaders — are asked key questions, and not let them off the hook the way the traditional media tend to do.

We know that the political press corps and business journalists often avoid asking hard questions, or fail to follow up on each others’ good questions when the politicians and business people duck honest answers. This has many causes, including the worry of losing access to the rich and powerful people they count on to supply quotes for their (too often stenographic) reporting. Rice’s years in Washington surely taught her, as Scott Horton noted in his posting, that journalists were all like the “Beltway punditry and the access-craving White House press corps.”

Not the Stanford students. And not the rest of us, who don’t especially care if we occasionally make the rich and powerful uncomfortable.

Slowly, the traditional media have been inviting the rest of us to come up with questions for the people they cover. NBC played at this a bit earlier this year by inviting audience questions that might or might not be asked at an Obama press conference. Other news organizations did similar things.

And smart journalist such as Josh Marshall, founder and editor of TalkingPointsMemo, have successfully persuaded their audiences to help with the journalism — including periodically getting them to ask questions leading to useful answers and results.[..]

But the press conference metaphor misses the wide potential, which was so neatly captured by the Stanford students. While a traditional press conference consists of a person in a room answering questions from the people assembled there — picking the questioners (and, in Obama’s case, most of the actual questions) — we can use the growing ubiquity of digital recording devices to turn the world into the press room.

How? By leveraging all these devices, and people willing to use them, in a wider and much more organized way — insisting, respectfully, that public figures answer the questions that matter.

The key would be to use technology — and public-spirited people’s willingness to participate — to a) aggregate unanswered questions; b) selecting ones that are most important; and c) getting participants to ask these questions of public figures when they appear in public.

The role of Citizen Journalism to hold politicians accountable will be discussed at the Personal Democracy Forum Conference this June, if you're interested.

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