28 August 2008, 18:39

Blogger "failures" in the Georgian war, and the rise of citizen propaganda

Ethan Zuckerman
August 28, 2008

As Russia slowly pulls out of Georgia and the world of foreign policy wonks contemplates how the Olympics War will change the geopolitical map of the Caucasus, the world of citizen media is busily evaluating its (our?) own performance.

Two good friends have taken the blogosphere to task for its failures during the conflict. Rather than rise to the defense of Georgian, Russian, Ossetian and global bloggers, I wanted to take a look at their critiques and at the phenomenon of citizen media during the conflict and at the emergence of one of the interesting epiphenomena of citizen media: citizen propaganda.

Joshua Foust, a Central Asia analyst who covers Afghan blogs for Global Voices, takes US political blogs to task for, basically, not being very interesting. He notes that "bloggers who normally provide worthwhile insight into conflict provided curiously generic analysis or links to the same". Most blogs, even those that consistently offer useful analysis, "were still linking to the same narrow set of news sources - sources that offered little more than thin quotes from government officials." He's particularly concerned that US bloggers weren't linking to Georgian and Russian blogs, even though some bloggers were writing in English, and Global Voices was working to round up posts from the region.

I thought of Foust's critique while listening to journalist David Remnick's conversation with Bob Garfield on On the Media. Remnick drew a distinction between reporting on the Ossetian war, which he thought was generally good, and commentary, which he thought was pretty poor. His worry was that commentators who don't know the region well ended up reaching for analogies that might not be applicable: "When you have people who have never been to that region, who've probably maybe been to Moscow once in their life, who, God knows, have never been to Georgia or South Ossetia or North Ossetia, never have experienced this and never studied the history of these conflicts. And so, they reach for the first set of adjectives in the thesaurus, 'thundering tanks' and all the rest, and the first set of historical analogies that they can possibly reach."

This problem with analogies is one that occurs in both mainstream and citizen media, in my experience. Early analysis of post-election violence in Kenya made inappropriate analogies to genocide in Rwanda, anticipating uncontrolled, systemic violence that (thankfully) didn't come to pass in Kenya. It's probably fair to wag fingers at both bloggers and commentators for comparing Ossetia to the end of the Prague Spring in 1968, but it's also understandable that bloggers who don't know the situation well would reach for what appeared to be an appropriate analogy. But Foust's criticism is on the mark - it only makes sense to look for bloggers in the region and get their perspectives as well.

(Not that I always get this right either. My friend Dumisani Nyoni does a good job of keeping up with my Zimbabwe analysis and tries to balance my conclusions with his perspectives as a ZANU-PF supporter. Looking forward to him extending the arguments he makes in comments on my blog to a longer post sometime soon.)

Evgeny Morozov, a Belarussian journalist who's fascinated with both citizen media and the different faces of cyberwar, is frustrated by a different form of blogger shortcomings: the absence of citizen war reporting in Ossetia. Morozov acknowledges that Ossetia is pretty far off the beaten path and that it may not be fair to expect there to be many bloggers in the region: "It would be sublimely naive - and condescending - to expect South Ossetians or Georgians to respond to intense shellfire by taking a crash-course in podcasting, even if they did have electricity and an internet connection." I'd add that South Ossetia is a region with a very small population - less than 100,000 people in total - and that the population skews high in age, as many young people have left the region, seeking opportunity elsewhere.

Besides the scarcity of blog accounts from the ground, Morozov is concerned with their veracity and reliability: "Most were of poor quality, and many appeared on blogs with no reputation, no previous blogging history (some had been registered only a few days before the war), and carried no identification of a real person with a real name who could claim responsibility for or ownership of them." On the one hand, one could dismiss Morozov's expectations as unrealistic... as I did in an email to him, where I pointed out that if tanks rolled into my hometown of Pittsfield, MA (with a population similar to that of Tskhinvali) there wouldn't be very many local bloggers with established reputations to follow, despite a significantly less serious digital divide.

On the other hand, Morozov is pointing to a very real problem with blogs focused on Ossetia. There's a wealth of blogs that claim to give eyewitness reports of the conflict, and these eyewitness reports tend to strongly favor one interpretation of events over another. My friend and colleague Ivan Sigal pointed me to OSRadio, a blog that promotes Ossetian independence in English, and features reports from television cameraman Algis Mikulskis. His accounts are profoundly anti-Georgian and include a blurry mess of first person observation, second-hand recounting of journalist's war stories, and the repetition of rumor... all legitimated by the fact that the correspondent is on the ground in the warzone. How reliable is Mikulskis? How biased towards one interpretation or another of events on the ground is he? These are questions that have to come into play when considering interpretation of events on the ground. Morozov tells us, "the few blogging accounts I did find enlightening were almost exclusively those written by people I had met on earlier trips to Georgia - and whom I trusted. "

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Julia Ioffe finds Russian journalists writing on their LiveJournals, offering opinions and perspectives that are far more extreme than what they'd offer on air or in print. She cites Russian journalist Dmitry Steshin, blogging as "Krig42", pledging to stay up all night posting his videos of Tskhinvali as "a personal response to the base claims of Human Rights Watch. These fuckers thought there weren't enough casualties in Tskhinvali." These accounts, she tells us, are desperately sought out by Russian readers: "Combine a culture already suspicious of all things political with the natural, magnifying outlet of the free-for-all blogosphere, and you get Russian bloggers searching desperately for the necessarily elusive key to the riddle of this war."

Part of the reason this war is such a riddle is that we've entered a new phase in contemporary conflict: the world of citizen propaganda. We expect - or should expect - that the governments of Russia, Georgia and Ossetia would all be seeking rhetorical advantage in the conflict. Remnick, speaking on On the Media, observes that Sakashvili's proficiency in English gives him a decisive advantage in the US media over his Russian-speaking rivals; the framing of the conflict in Cold War terms in western media further this advantage as well. What may be less expected is that citizen media accounts - blogs of eyewitnesses, journalists writing in a personal capacity, the writings of people who know and are passionate about the region - are actively engaged in rhetorical warfare as well. Georgian, Russian and Ossetian bloggers - whether off-duty journalists or ordinary citizens - all want the suffering of their group acknowledged on a global stage and are all presenting the conflict from their personal perspectives. These perspectives sometimes include troubling eyewitness accounts, and sometimes include amplification of rumors, usually ones that support that author's interpretive frame.

It's probably naive to expect citizen accounts of a war zone to be less politically biased than those from professional media, but in a situation where one believes professional media to be part of a propaganda strategy, it's understandable that readers would turn to bloggers for an "unfiltered view" of events on the ground. Interpreting these views - as Morozov observed - involves making judgement calls about trust, reliability and bias... much as reading professional media does, when one suspects that analysis is biased and not neutrally framed.

What's most interesting to me is the ways in which citizens have become actively involved in these propaganda battles. The "cyberwar" so breathlessly described by many professional journalists is little more than one set of propagandists trying to make the other side's propaganda inaccessible. Unlike in the Russian/Estonian "cyberwar", where denial of service attacks made key government services inaccessible, most of the attacks in this conflict are oriented more at defacing Georgian or Russian websites and discussion boards, or simply making them unreachable. (See "Misunderstanding Cyberwar".)

These rhetorical battles are springing up in a variety of online spaces, not just blogs and message boards. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Morozov reports about a controversy brewing over a segment on Fox News, posted on YouTube. Shepard Smith interviewed an Ossetian woman and her aunt, who blamed the violence squarely on Georgian forces, thanking Russian forces for their intervention. (Morozov implies that Smith is attempting to silence the women - I disagree with that characterization, and invite you to watch the video and draw your own conclusions.) On YouTube, the video has generated passionate comment threads, and as Morozov reports, has launched speculation that YouTube has been supressing traffic statistics on the video to diminish its visibility.

Russians aren't the first to turn to YouTube to make their case for their nation's actions. During the Lhasa riots, a number of Chinese videographers produced montages explaining their view that Tibet was an inseperable part of China, or challenging what they perceived as Western media bias in coverage of the riots. These videos were in English, intended to persuade a non-Chinese audience to either change their views or acknowledge another point of view. It's easy to dismiss the presence of such user-generated propaganda as the result of government initiatives like the "fifty cent party" (wumaodang), a team of online commentators paid to put forth pro-Party views on the Chinese internet. But while David Bandurski's done a great job documenting Chinese-language commenting that appears to be organized by the Chinese Cultural Ministry, there's no indication that efforts like anti-cnn.com or the web videos referenced above are anything other than citizen propaganda. (Imagethief has an excellent piece looking at "angry Chinese youth" and reminding us that there's a difference between being passionate and nationalistic and being brainwashed.)

Even more than the Lhasa riots, the conflict in Ossetia is tailor-made for citizen propaganda. Analysts in the US - removed from the conflict both in distance and knowledge - are likely to rely on existing frames that may not represent events well or accurately. Citizens of Russia and Georgia are well aware that international opinion matters in the resolution of these events and turn to citizen media tools to make their cases. Their audiences, perceiving that professional media is biased against their interpretation, may place more credence on "eyewitness accounts" than they would if not already frustrated by mainstream accounts. Reading anything in these circumstances becomes a challenging task, navigating the stated and unstated agendas of anyone who's speaking, discounting and revaluing all opinions based perceived biases.

Source: http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/08/28/blogger-failures-in-the-georgian-war-and-the-rise-of-citizen-propoganda/

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