Sudan and the Second Superpower

Alex Steffen at WorldChanging.com wrote a great summary of an essay I wrote a few months back, called “Making Room for the Third World in the Second Superpower”. The last line of his review is one I wish I’d written: “A Second Superpower without the developing world is really just a small group of us making a lot of noise.”

The essay was written in reaction to Jim Moore’s visionary, optimistic and very smart essay: “The Second Superpower Rears Its Beautiful Head”. In it, Jim makes a persuasive case that a global movement of highly wired, socially conscious citizen activists can act as a counterbalance to the US, the alleged “sole remaining superpower”. While I share much of Jim’s hope, I’m concerned that, without a conscious effort by current members of the technorati, the Second Superpower will only include certain people and perspectives. (The essay was also written for the book “Extreme Democracy”, which is being published on the web over the next few weeks.)

Jim and I have both been following the situation in Darfur closely, trying to understand the role of the Second Superpower in pressuring Khartoum and other world governments. Jim has taken his own words to heart and is working hard to mobilize the Second Superpower through his work with Passion of the Present, one of the leading online resources on the crisis. While I’ve been trying to share stories about Darfur with my (half dozen) readers, I’ve been looking at the situation from an academic perspective as well, trying to figure out whether the stuff I wrote in the aformentioned essay is true or not.

One of the contentions I make is that webloggers are an amplifier – they pick up certain stories from the media and reinforce them. When the media doesn’t cover a part of the globe, bloggers are helpless as they’ve got no signal to amplify. My theory, at that point, put most of the blame global media companies – bloggers don’t talk about Africa because Africa doesn’t make headlines, and therefore we have no signal to reinforce.

Darfur has challenged that theory for me. The truth is, the media’s done an excellent job in the last two months of reporting the story, as I noted a few weeks back. But while the blogosphere has picked up the story, they haven’t massively amplified it – Blogpulse shows about 0.03% of blog entries mentioning Darfur and 0.07% mentioning Sudan. While this number has risen substantially in the last couple of months (from a near-whisper), it still is an order of magnitude smaller than the number of blog entries (roughly 0.9%) mentioning Iraq.

All of which leads me to think that the amplifier analogy needs a slight bit of tuning. Weblogs are a selective amplifier. They’re amplifiers with filters – their authors. We pick up certain data from the outside world and reinforce what we think is most relevant, discarding the rest. So when we want to look at the spread of a story like the genocide in Darfur, we need to look at two parts of the system – the signal coming in (media) and the filters it passes through before being reinforced (bloggers).

In the case of Darfur, the signal is pretty strong – not nearly as strong as that of Israel or Iraq, but reasonably strong. Some bloggers were predisposed to reinforce the signal – folks who consistently blog about Africa, religion or human rights, for instance; others have been encouraged by Jim and others to reinforce it.

But most people haven’t. This may be because they blog topically and they’re more likely to talk about technology or US politics than international issues. It may be because they don’t know much about the situation and feel they have little to add. Or it may be that they felt little personal connection to the situation and the stories have never registered for them.

John Prendergast from International Crisis Group thinks that the stories won’t register for most people until they’re tied to images. Unfortunately, he further worries that the refugees from Darfur aren’t sufficiently telegenic – people may not be dying quickly enough to motivate people to pay attention to this story.

FaithfulAmerica.org is trying hard to ensure that Americans do see the story of Darfur, not just in the hard news media and the blogosphere, but also on daytime television. They’re working to raise $45,000 to send a TV crew to the refugee camps on the border of Chad and Sudan where many of the displaced people from Darfur are staying. Their goal: to ensure that “the people of Darfur will have an opportunity to appear directly on America’s news shows and talk shows.”

Will that make American bloggers better amplifiers for the stories coming out of Sudan? Or are blogs good for talking tech and less good for talking human rights, genocide and the future of humanitarian intervention? In other words, Sudan may help us figure out whether the Second Superpower works the way we hope it does.

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