Sunday, September 1, 2013

"Images can't be verified": The limits of social media?

In previous posts, I have illustrated how information integrity concepts, and assurance more broadly, have played a role in media reporting. In the post, I noted the following as way way to act as a check on the media:

"Another probably more plausible approach is to leverage crowd sourcing and organize it to enable people comment or blow the whistle on information that is produced in a manner that is inaccurate, incomplete or invalid. The Guardian actually did this for the MPs expenses: they built an app that allowed ordinary users to analyze MPs expenses (if interested check out the Google Docs Spreadsheet with this info). As noted in the article, there was another attempt to build such an app (see here for the alternative). This is both good and bad. It's good in the sense that no one organization has the ability to monopolize such initiatives. However, it is bad in the sense that the efforts of the crowd are effectively divided. Regardless, it does illustrate that the potential for "crowd sourced audits"."

However, the events in Egypt, Syria, and the coverage of  the Occupy Wallstreet Movement, illustrate the limits of social media on its ability to act as a check as a means to counter "official sources".  As noted in the following excerpt in the WSJ, there is a significant discrepancy in the death toll in the recent events in Egypt:

"The Associated Press cited the Ministry of Health as saying 525 people were killed across the country, with 3,717 injured. Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said 43 policemen died in the assault, the Associated Press reported.

The Brotherhood placed the number of fatalities far higher—saying 2,200 people had been killed and more than 10,000 wounded."

To put the number of dead into perspective, the number killed (if the Brotherhood numbers are accurate) is the same scale as the number that died in September 11, 2001, which was 2,977.

What is interesting is that the Egyptian military actually targeted camera men to prevent images of the massacre from leaking out. For example, Mick Deane, a cameraman from Sky News was shot and killed by the Egyptian army. Also, as you can see in the video below, Ahmed Asem  (an Egyptian photojournalist) was killed while filming the Egyptian army kills others:

In Syria, even after horrifying images of chemical attacks were available from YouTube (no link was provided due to the gruesome nature of the attacks; however they can easily be found by putting "Syria Chemical Attacks" in YouTube), the mainstream continues to refer to them as "alleged".

With respect to the Occupy Movement, almost 8,000 people have been arrested. However, the mainstream media does not cover this and so a major crackdown on a significant social movement is effectively invisible to the mainstream society.

So what does this have to do with information integrity?

I have been fascinated with the portability of information integrity concepts to any information system, including the mass media system. For example, if one reads Manufacturing Consent, it is essentially a book that evaluates how the media is able to apply concepts, such as decision-usefulness, completeness, validity, etc to the way information is published or broadcast.

And this is the link to the social media.

One may think that with official media being unable to compete with social media, that the it will be replaced by social media. However, this is only from a business perspective. the real question is whether social media does actually alter the ability of the mass media to set the parameters of debate. In other words, can you or I can get on a blog expose the truth about something and create change society, based on the blog post?

As illustrated by the examples above, when the official media does not actually corroborate the social media, it effectively prevents social media from having an impact on society. I had mentioned in this in one of my earlier posts, the official media is still seen as a source of trust and verification, whereas social media is not. This ultimately prevents social media from ever truly supplanting old media, as people in a society ultimate rely on collective institutions to bind them together in a cohesive. So despite social media giving people the ability to contribute to the landscape ideas, it has not fundamentally altered the essence of power structures in society.

In other words, the "information system" that is within the society still remains where it always has.  And when the citizenry make decisions about societal matters, they ultimate rely on this information system for their opinions and beliefs, simply because the other sources can be doctored and faked, i.e. there are no official "information integrity" controls around social media. Consequently,  countries - be they dictatorial or democratic - can crackdown on their citizens and social media will not "materially" affect society's opinions or belief about the plight about that group or their cause.

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