Mar 122014

YANGON (March 10, 2014) — Defending strongly his belief that civic media is a powerful force in society, MIT Center for Civic Media Director Ethan Zuckerman spoke about the challenges and opportunities of public discourse media in a keynote speech at the 2014 East-West Center International Media Conference in Yangon, Myanmar. (Watch the video of the speech.)

Ethan Zuckerman

Photo: Ninh Pham, Missouri School of Journalism

Starting with a discussion on the Internet, Zuckerman said that Myanmar is going through 20 years worth of changes, conversations and debates about it in two years. “There is a concern that the Internet could lead to hate speech, ethnic violence and conflict. But I think it is wonderful to have the chance to wrestle with these questions,” he said.

Zuckerman defined civic media as digital media used for constructive public dialogue, “and it is about trying to work with others for social change.” He said he thinks the Internet opens a space for debate and participation that is more inclusive than offline spaces.

He admitted, however, that extreme speech is a challenge of civic media. Shyamal Dutta, a Bangladeshi journalist, also brought up this concern during the question-and-answer session. “Social media will be used by people to promote extremism,” Zuckerman said. “We have to get smart and creative in our social media use to counter that kind of speech.”

An example he offered was 2013 Kenyan elections. Zuckerman and a team created a project called “Umati” (Swahili for crowd), which documented every instance of hate speech and shared the findings with the public. People were asked if they were comfortable with that kind of speech in their community.

“The response was incredible,” Zuckerman said. “People were unfriending one another on Facebook. People didn’t want to be engaged with people engaging in hate speech.”

Aidan White, director of the Ethical Journalism Network, questioned Zuckerman on when to stop hate speech. “It’s a paradox. The more you try to squelch it, the more power it has,” Zuckerman said. “I draw the line when there is a clear and present danger.”

He emphasized that there is a firm line between disagreement and incitement to violence, with hate speech being the latter.

In an emerging society like Myanmar’s, civic media can be used effectively, Zuckerman said, and shared some lessons he had learned:

  • While everybody can speak online, it is hard to be heard outside one’s own circle. He said understanding what gets seen by how many people is important, a trend he calls the “long tail.”
  • Although it is hard being heard online, getting censored is one way to get an audience. “There’s nothing more exciting than a secret,” he said.
  • The power and scope of the Internet is its capacity for mobilization. He used as an example the Obama administration’s promise to respond to any White House website petition that receives 100,000 signatures, although he pointed out that of 150,000 petitions filed, only 162 have reached the threshold for a response. “On average, the petitions get about 65 signatures,” he said.
  • The bottom line is that social media gives no guarantees on building an audience, but mobilizations via social media tend to be more  successful when people find a way to be clever and funny. His example was a local movement in Myanmar to get the cost of SIM cards reduced to 5,000 kyat (US$5) that used cartoons for its online campaign. “It worked because the cartoon demanded political change in a humorous way and people found it easy to share,” he said.

Zuckerman concluded by offering two ways that people could use civic media: to monitor institutions of power and to listen to the voices of people with whom we don’t agree.

Glenn van Zutphen, president of the VanMedia Group in Singapore, raised the question of what Myanmar could do to get into the civic-media frame of mind. Zuckerman said it came down to modeling behavior. He explained that if two or three dailies figured out how to incorporate citizen opinion and journalism in their coverage, that model could be used by the rest of the country.

Reporting by Lakshna Mehta, Missouri School of Journalism

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