One of the central shifts implicit in user-generated information is that in many cases the user will be closer to the subject than a reporter may have been. Journalists, like ethnographers or consultants, are separated from their subjects by factors like structures of reward (salary) and professional codes (organized skepticism, systematic disinterestedness). These factors are sometimes driven by ethical positions and sometimes are byproducts of revenue structures, but have been seen as important to the neutrality and objectivity that characterize recent ideas of journalism.
Citizen-created content falls in a different space; as I have said elsewhere, it starts to look like activism. The word activism is a site of some contention: frankly, for many it evokes “those damned hippies.” In our research on civic groups that form spontaneously in the face of adversity, we have seen how people become — often against their will — interpellated into activities like fact-finding, document digging, attending public hearings, and public story telling, activities that overlap with many of the those practiced by investigative or beat journalists. We met one software engineer who was working to protect his suburb from corporate development and pollution; he was genuinely upset because he had been written up in a local paper with the caption “activist” under his photo. He told us, “I’m not an activist, I’m a software engineer!” Unwilling or not, in many cases these activists are the ones following an issue and documenting it for the public record. There are clearly many pitfalls to this configuration, just as there are pitfalls in journalism. And certainly, the idea of activist reportage leaves a bad taste in the mouth of many journalists trained in the United States in the second half of the 20th Century.
Of course, the notion of a free press was not always synonymous with impartiality. Newspapers were critical in helping spur and organize the abolitionism movement of the 19th Century. Elijah Parish Lovejoy, a pastor, also published the Alton [Illinois] Observer, a newspaper that would now probably be described as a shrill blog, where he extolled the radical idea that slavery should be abolished and people have the same rights regardless of their appearance. For this editorial position, mobs attacked his offices and destroyed his printing presses three times. The delivery of his fourth printing press to a river-front warehouse in Alton led to a raging riot: Lovejoy was shotgunned to death at the age of 35, his still-crated press dismantled and the pieces thrown into the mighty Mississippi.
I would assert that this sort of freedom of press was at least as important to constitutional framers as the right to a stable daily with comics and movie reviews; any discussion of the future of communities and information should question, embrace, or challenge these historical examples at least as much as the examples from recent US history. We can also travel slightly outside American borders and see in stark relief, from Mexico to Korea to Zimbabwe, how activist journalism can be a critical part of the struggle for a free and just society. Our collective recollection of newspapers as stable, reputable, major limestone-and-mortar operations resembles the model of a mid-century GM or IBM far more than they do many of the contemporary institutions that are currently thriving. That isn’t to say that we should only value fast companies or that we are beyond stable enterprises, simply that such institutions will probably not look like they used to.
For better or worse, we need to accept that the people most invested in finding out what is happening to a community are often going to be the ones with a vested interest in the outcome. We need to concentrate, then, on how to ensure that the community hears from all the vested interests; not just the richest or most powerful. And we need to discover how to best match information activism with positive social change.
Call for Action Class
This semester I had the privilege of co-teaching a class titled Call for Action: Mobile Technologies and Social Change with the talented Nadav Aharony and the help of David Reed, Katrin Verclas, Ethan Zuckerman, and others. We took Jack Knight at his word, not just that “We seek to bestir the people into an awareness of their own condition” but also that we “rouse them to pursue their true interests.” Bestirring sounds quaint, like something one might do to one’s mint julep. Rousing is more active, and understanding how technology can help to rouse and support action was a major theme in the class.
Throughout the semester we looked at a variety of methodologies and texts for guidance and inspiration: In political science we looked at Charles Tilly, who made a career of understanding social conflict and change. In Sociology we looked at Manuel Castells, who argues that mobile technologies have created a space for new configurations of the citizen in public space. Closer to home we worked with David Reed, one of the creators of the Internet and a quiet but effective information activist. We worked with and tested Nadav’s comm.unity system, and ad-hoc communications platform for smart peer-to-peer networks that prevent information from being centralized and controlled. And we had visits from Katrin Verclas of MobileActive, Nick Matthewson of Tor, and others.
With an experimental class, one never know what the next week will bring. The final week, however, brought many remarkable projects, including:
•A system for Venezuelan doctors to covertly export data about the Dengue epidemic ravaging their country, despite Chavez’s recent law forbidding medical professionals from mentioning the disease
•Code that allows for SMS steganography, i.e. the hiding of messages in messages. With this unique algorithm, a few messages like “b sure 2 bring home teh milk, honey!” can be encoded to contain a shorter message like “MDC meeting at Universalist Church 2100 hrs”
•An application that scrapes government web sites for impending timber sales and clearcutting in the Pacific Northwest, mapping them and notifying activists to organize and stage demonstrations
•SMS and iPhone app protest system that allows demonstrators to crowd source their experiences and organizers to better understand what is happening on the streets
One student, who apparently never sleeps, completed two projects in May and even deployed one in the field, resulting in 1,000,000 SMS messages being sent throughout Mexico. The texts initiated a an interactive questionnaire, asking a diverse group of Mexicans about their experience with the flu. A total of 56,000 filled out their experiences, and the resulting data, while a little noisy, seems to perfectly match the rate of infection determined by other, slower, less distributed methods. Andrés argues that this may be the best technique for monitoring early outbreaks, since cellphones are far more common across location, age, and income in Mexico than other epidemiological inputs.
Andés wasn’t content with a million text messages, or the top-down nature of the swine flu project, so he also launched a project to help Mexicans report and learn about voting fraud in the elections scheduled for this July 5. By matching Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS with public (or semi-public) government geographic databases, Cuidemos El Voto allows citizens to report or be notified about voting fraud at their individual polling place. With resolution down to a few blocks in the capitol, the system also notifies journalists and accredited elections monitors, allowing them to immediately locate and document fraud.