On 18 December Vietnam approved new blogging restrictions that aim at regulating bloggers’ content which the government deems sensitive or inappropriate. National providers are requested to report and remove posts which
- undermine national security,
- incite violence or crime,
- disclose state secrets,
- or include inaccurate information that could damage the reputation of individuals and organizations.
The booming blogosphere which is growing fast into an alternative newsroom has provided a wakeup call to the government which is resorting to drastic measures of censorship. State-controlled media in a communist state is no longer the only source of information with bloggers seizing power and spreading what is perceived as harmful. The language itself is subject to regulations which encourage bloggers to write in ‘clean and healthy Vietnamese’.
Outside Vietnam, traditional media is getting increasingly under pressure. The Financial Times titled on 22 December: ‘Plane crash geek Twitters from burning Denver aircraft, Philippe Naughton’. Real-time citizen journalism also played a significant role in the recent Mumbai attacks when users posted the events in 140 character messages into the online sphere. Twitter had come under attack for providing terrorists at the scene with information about the situation.
Giving away some of the power traditional or state-owned media used to hold is still widely perceived as inviting anarchism and social chaos. Societies and governments are going through the very challenging processes of getting used to listening to their people’s views – who’ve got a lot to say, it turns out. How to control this? When and what exactly is to be controlled? By whom? Currently, there are still far too many in control who are non-users of the new social media, those who neither blog, wiki, facebook or twitter. In short: those who actually do not have any expertise in the very field they want to regulate so desparately.
Successful ‘control’, i.e. such that is neither patronising nor does it trigger instant resistance but is adapted by users as enabling and empowering, may rather come from peers than in the traditional top-down manner. After all, bloggers and microbloggers are technically already able to remove messages and exercise self-moderation if required. Instilling a sense of responsible information-sharing while learning to produce quality content is the actual challenge at stake. Yet, with all the shifts in external control and regulation a review of internal mechanisms is to me the more realistic and sustainable approach: self-reflection and self-evaluation of one’s own contribution strengthen the sense of ownership and third party assessment. It is not just citizens who need to learn how to engage and publish with responsibility – it is also governments who need to learn to take their citizens seriously and work in collaboration with them on information-sharing in a globalised world.
This year’s AoIR conference, the IR9.0 in Copenhagen is still inspiring me – it’s been a great event with numerous encounters, plenty of food for thought thanks to the fantastic conference chair Lis Klastrup and the programme chair Brian Loader with the organising team and 430 international delegates. Here is the visual overview flickr
The keynote lecture presented by Mimi Ito focused on a large-scale project which had made use of a range of qualitative and quantitative research methods applied by 29 researchers. The descriptions of these aspects alone were fascinating and highlighted that managerial and soft skills may have played a quite significant role in the success of the venture. Mimi had resorted to currently dominant discourses around dichotomies such as the connoisseur/amateur, producer/consumer, autonomy/peer pressure in order to frame the findings of research undertaken in the area of anime/fansubbing where reciprocity of peer review is embedded in friendship-driven participation and closely intertwined with practices of status. Exploring this specific area must have been fascinating , some of her results suggest that the genres of participation – covering ID, culture, practice etc acc to her definition – might be rooted too much in traditional sociological terms, though. I thought that these categories did not seem to enable us to truly capture the complex phenomenon of capacity-building activities including the flows of social and transferrable skills which -presumably – start off in the online sphere and gain momentum and their own dynamics in the offline sphere. Mimi ‘s notions on moral panics and the scepticism as to the contrary celebrations of the no-barriers sphere remained marginal in this rather optimistic interpretation within her lecture.
The pessimistic comments were much more at the core of Stephen Graham’s keynote lecture which critically evaluated the tagging practices in the contemporary hype of securing, excluding and trajectory-tracking of mobile bodies, goods and ideas which all aim at listing of profilings including discourses of status, power, control and policing in order to make spaces governable which are perceived as prone to threats. Stephen presented a picture in stark contrast to Mimi’s: the dream of transparency in an ever more complex world chiselled into the gloomy rhetoric and practices of biometrics, militarisation and the fixing of ‘authentic’ IDs into static subjects. He raised the question how much time societies may have left at their hand before their citizens become all too accustomed to the notion of being the sum of tags. Tags defined and attached by others – also here an underlying polarity. Re-animating and re-mediating urban spaces in an attempt to un-blackbox these technocrat politics by moving away from interiorised gaming were among the ideas Stephen presented as to how to resist and appropriate at grass-root level. I felt, though that questioning the lack of questioning in these days might be the underlying issue at stake in a hybrid on/offline world where anxiety has gained true celebrity status as it actually dictates the culture of tagging in a very subtle manner – and in this sense is an even more powerful agent in a nation’s subconscious.
Censorship in the blogosphere may trigger instant associations to China, Syria etc and policing the internet. But censorship may not only occur on the national or the macro level but also on the micro level. The extent of control exercised when readers comment on postings may say more about the individual/s running the blog than any statements made by them in their profile or postings.
Under the umbrella of an individual’s anxieties, i.e. the need to feel in control in the virtual world where many perceive themselves not in command but rather controlled by the invisible audiences – and other unknown forces – , the only way to restore order and a sense of power is to censor comments to a degree that may disencourage readers to comment at all. This resulting lack of feedback and interaction in a rapidly growing universe of blogs, online social networks, and microblogging tools such as twitter may contribute to a sense that ‘those out there’ are indeed powerful invisible audiences who consume but remain emotionally unavailable. A desired outcome of the regulatory mechanisms at the micro level in the blogosphere?
Ever been to Kauhajoki or met any of its 15,000 inhabitants? Me neither. But I spent quite some time in Finland and loved the country – although it is hard to remain as anonymous as one can be in London – or Berlin. A good thing? Rather not. The social control I encountered – to varying degrees – in Helsinki, Tampere and Kuopio
a few years back was rather unsettling. Everybody seemed to know each other, less than 5.5 million people in a country as large as crowded Germany – no way to evade into individualism, except in the online sphere perhaps. But that’s escapism as we all live it in these days, nothing special about that either – and who is really listening in these multi-million user online social networks anyway?
So Matti Saari may have been bored, a psychopath or eaten up with hatred as his comment on YouTube suggested but obviously, he was very keen on getting his message – and plan – out to a large community. ‘Guns, computers, sex and beer’ as he listed them are probably the hobbies shared by millions, nothing uncommon – and horror movies as well as heavy metal music are not just most popular in Finland. Whether the shooting was inspired by the 1999 Columbine school massacre is questionable – hatred is probably less fuelled by the desire to copycat but the bloodboths may have in common the shooters’ outsider status, the perceived powerlessness and their mental states.
The symptoms of deeply felt anger, despise and the desire to change things in a most destructive manner rather than the rationale itself seem to be focus of the media coverage. This raises the question why in the age of publicly made and widely accessible –online- announcements consumed by in-/visible audiences and those being tipped off, i.e. the police, the reaction is unchanged: paralysed in learned helplessness, waiting for the fatal moves before the blame game takes its toll. New media – old practices?
The number of concerning messages is rapidly increasing, think of status updates in Twitter or Facebook which provide visible glimpses into an individual’s mind, their mental state and their expression of hate, disgust, anger and all forms of depression. Commenting, warning, advising – or ignoring, how do we respond? How do YOU deal with messages of that kind?