The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT, pronounced “wicket”) opened Monday in Dubai. If you’re heard about the conference, it’s likely because many articulate and smart proponents of an open internet have been waving arms and warning of the potential dangers that may come from this meeting. Fight For the Future, an organization focused on mobilizing individuals to the defense of a free and open internet, have switched the Internet Defense League’s vaunted “cat signal“, urging supporters to stop an internet coup by the International Telecommunications Union, the UN agency responsible for communication technologies.
There are reasons to be concerned about WCIT and about the ITU asserting more control over Internet governance. But there’s also a great deal of exaggeration and fear-mongering that’s making it hard to see the issues clearly. And one of the reasons offered for defending against an ITU “takeover” is a disturbing one, the idea that the Internet works well enough as it is, and that we should be opposed to any changes that would alter how it functions and is governed.
It’s possible to oppose increased ITU involvement in internet governance without demonizing the organization. It’s possible to believe this is the wrong venue and wrong mechanism without concluding that the Internet works as well as it ever will and ever could. I’m interested in trying to pull some of these arguments apart because I worry some opponents of WCIT are accepting these arguments as a whole package, not considering their individual merits, and may be swallowing some unhealthy presumptions that hinder future debate about internet governance going forward.
I”m far from expert on the topic of WCIT, so I’m going to point to some of the better arguments I’ve heard in the past few weeks. (My friend Sunil Abraham tweeted many helpful links earlier today, and I recommend his Twitter feed for WCIT links from various perspectives.) For general background, I’d recommend Jack Goldsmith’s “opinionated primer” on the topic. To summarize, Goldsmith (who knows a thing or two about internet governance):
- Because WCIT is about amending international rules through a treaty process, it’s a slow, consensus-seeking process that nations can opt out of. In other words, we shouldn’t expect US net regulations to change because of it.
- It’s relevant not because lasting changes will come out of these meetings, but mostly because it gives us a window into what some nations would like in terms of internet governance, and may seek to accomplish through their own national telecoms laws.
In effect, Goldsmith argues that impact isn’t a good reason to pay attention to WCIT, as the gathering is likely to have little direct impact. In that spirit, I want to consider some better and worse reasons to be concerned about the ITU, the WCIT meeting and the broader question of how internet governance is and is not changing.
Good reasons to be concerned about WCIT include:
WCIT is open to member governments and to hundreds of corporate and organization members, but their proposals and deliberations are secret. This makes it very difficult for civil society and the general public to be aware of what’s going on in the meeting and to influence the process. As with other international policymaking organizations that work in secret, like the WTO, there’s a good case to be made that these organizations need to be pushed to greater transparency before they are given public trust. WCITleaks, a project from Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado, both researchers at George Mason University, is a laudable effort to increase transparency by inviting WCIT participants to share documents in a public repository.
Many of the anti-WCIT arguments begin by asserting that China and Russia would like to take over internet governance and manage the global internet in ways that would restrict speech. Those are valid concerns, and both countries will likely negotiate for an internet governance structure that increases state control over net content. That nations attempt to control the internet isn’t new, nor is the argument that states should have more influence over net governance – as Milton Mueller points out in this helpful piece, states have been seeking increased roles in internet governance since 1996 and have been thwarted. Their response has been to restrict internet usage within their own countries.
Yes, it would be dreadful if China’s internet regulations applied to the whole world. But the current situation isn’t great either: countries create their own regulations to control the internet in part because they can’t get what they want in international fora. The battle over “internet freedom” has devolved into building expensive and unwieldy tools to invite a small set of Chinese and Iranian users to use the American and European internets, instead of the Chinese internet… a solution that won’t and can’t scale. The challenge of Chinese censorship is a helpful reminder that we don’t have binding international internet regulation, and probably never will. WCIT is worrisome because proposals to control the internet through widespread filtering and corporate regulation (China’s approach) or through legal and extralegal intimidation (Russia’s approach) may gain adherents and allies, and because nations that haven’t taken major steps to regulate the internet may look at these nations as examples to follow. But this is an argument for the US to engage in multinational processes like the ITU, to influence nations still on the fence, not to contest the legitimacy of the process.
The substance of proposals Even if we discount Jack Goldsmith’s suggestion that little is likely to come out of WCIT, it’s worth considering what potential impact proposals that have been put forth might have on Internet governance, if only to see what rival visions are competing with the status quo. Michael Geist argues that the most significant proposals on the table are not about who controls the internet, but who pays for it. He references a proposal from ETNO, an organization of European telecoms, that would start charging large content providers a carriage fee for delivering content – i.e., YouTube would pay a European network operator to reach European viewers. (Large internet content providers, predictably, hate this proposal. The one defender I’ve found of the proposal is Jean-Christope Nohias, who offers this stem-winder of a piece, accusing Google and other internet giants of hypocrisy in advocating for a system in which the poor pay money to access wealthy country’s networks.)
Dwayne Winseck sees concerns about the ETNO proposal, and other attempts to change internet billing, as overblown, but offers a long list of proposals to worry about, affecting the militarization of the internet, threats to privacy, anonymity and government control. In some cases, the proposals try to solve legitimate threats (like spam) and over-reach in terms of implementation, while at other times, they are simply trying to assert more government control, and bear opposition on principal. But we’d have a more intelligent debate about the future of the internet if we could address proposals individually, rather than attacking the process and the institution of the ITU as a whole.
Here are three reasons I’ve seen for opposing WCIT and the ITU that I think are unjustified, and may cause long-term harm to our conversations about internet governance.
Fear of multilateralism:
Steven Strauss argues we should oppose WCIT because it has UN sponsorship, and pulls out a laundry list of anti-UN complaints to justify his opposition. He offers faint praise to distinguish the ITU from the UN’s “standard meaningless international boondoggles”, suggesting that it has real power and might lead to substantial rule changes. But his argument centers on the strong representation of repressive governments on the UN’s Human Rights Council.
Yes, the presence of the UAE, Pakistan and Ethiopia on the UNHRC is an embarrassment. But the ITU and the UNHRC are two of dozens of institutions within the UN, and even most critics of the UN don’t want to see institutions like UNICEF, the World Food Program or the High Commission on Refugees disappear. Defenders of human rights on the internet often point to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a UN document, as a broadly adopted document that protects freedom of expression. Frank LaRue, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has been a powerful advocate for protecting online speech. It would be a shame to disrespect the work a figure like LaRue is trying to do by dismissing UN institutions as a whole.
The reason so many controversial issues are being brought up in multilateral venues like the ITU is that existing “multisectoral” internet institutions like ICANN, IANA, IETF and others have had a hard time ensuring broad international representation. Some of the frustration other countries feel about internet governance comes from the slow pace these institutions have taken towards supporting global concerns, like providing full support for non-English domain names and suffixes. My friend Rebecca MacKinnon has an excellent essay on this topic in Foreign Policy, pointing out that there’s very little developing world participation in these groups and that they are very slowly finding ways to change their culture to be more welcoming to participants who don’t have years of experience in the internet engineering community.
The solution to these problems is not a retreat from multilateralism – it’s to find ways that existing internet institutions can better represent voices and perspectives from around the world. The good news is that many of the folks within the IETF, ICANN and other institutions understand this challenge, even if some people attacking the ITU don’t.
Because governments should never regulate
FCC commissioner Robert McDowell attributes the success of the Internet to the ITU’s failure to oversee it in 1988: “This insulated the Internet from economic and technical regulation and quickly became the greatest deregulatory success story of all time.” Only a regulator for an agency as broken and corrupted by corporate influence as the FCC would dare to suggest that the role of a regulator is not to regulate.
How’s the FCC’s lassez faire policy working out in the US? We’ve got internet access that’s almost four times as expensive as it is in France and roughly one tenth the speed. Why? Largely because the FCC has failed to ensure that markets remain competitive, that open access policies allow small players to build competitive businesses, and that broadband services reach rural areas. Yes, it’s fantastic that the internet now reaches over 2 billion people. But we’ve got more than five billion more people who can’t access the internet, which is becoming increasingly important as a space for political discussions, a channel for delivery of government services and a pathway towards education. If regulators want to take seriously the challenge of ensuring universal access, as American regulators did with telephony and electricity in generations past, that’s something to be lauded, not dismissed.
Because the Internet is perfect.
This argument is rarely stated outright, though this piece by Mike Masnick in TechDirt does us the favor of making it explicit: “The internet works just fine. The only reason to ‘fix’ it, is to ‘break’ it in exactly the way the ITU wants, which is to favor a few players who have done nothing innovative to actually deserve it.”
I can think of several ways in which the internet doesn’t work just fine. It’s too expensive for too many people. In the developing world, it’s largely spreading through mobile operators whose pricing makes it unlikely that citizens of these nations will become content creators. The process of peering and interconnection creates a great competitive advantage for large network operators and leaves developing nations with very high charges for access. The current configuration of the Internet neither does a great job of protecting anonymity for those who want and need it, or authenticating identity when it’s critical. It’s surprisingly fragile to malicious attack like DDoS or accidental misconfiguration.
Do I think the ITU is likely to propose helpful solutions to these problems? No. Do I have good solutions to these complex problems? Not especially. But we have no hope of solving these problems if we declare that the Internet functions perfectly and needs no improvement.
There’s a tendency for people who love the Internet to become conservative, almost reactionary, about its governance. We’ve seen so many good intentioned attempts to improve the Internet fail and know of so many ill-intentioned plans to break the Internet that we may have raised the ad-hoc and improvisational methods of governance that have worked well into natural laws. Breaking the Internet – as some proposals in front of the ITU might well do – would be a bad thing. Concluding that we can never change the Internet for the better would be almost as bad.
It’s a good time to be PSY. The Korean rapper has become an international celebrity with the unexpected success of Gangnam Style, the absurdly catchy song that’s introduced much of the world to K-Pop, while simultaneously critiquing and subverting the genre. The star recently met with UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, who politely relinquished his status as the world’s most famous South Korean, and suggested that PSY was so cool, he might singlehandedly be able to help mitigate global warming. In perhaps the most astounding development, Gangnam Style has surfaced in North Korea, remixed into a parody making fun of a South Korean political candidate, a development that calls into question some commonly-held assumptions about North Korea’s insulation from global media dialogs.
As Max Fisher points out, the success of Gangnam Style has everything to do with PSY’s colorful and energetic video, and less to do with the tune itself. The lyrics are incomprehensible to most of the song’s fans (and require significant contextualization for those who understand Korean), but it’s got a memorable hook, an amusing dance and an easily parodied video. Earlier songs that meet these criteria – “Dragonstea Din Tea” by Moldovan band O-Zone comes to mind – have spread by becoming internet memes. Like a cute cat photo that begs for a satirical caption, the Gangnam Style video is made for remix. It’s clear that PSY is poking fun at his own unhipness, which gives permission to anyone parodying the video to make fools of themselves. And it’s not hard to parallel the (lightweight) narrative of PSY’s video by mimicking a few dance moves and paralleling the locations PSY chose for his antics: a beach, a stable, a parking garage, an elevator.
And so we’ve seen goofy remakes of the video from the US Naval Academy and from Filipino prisoners, to full remixes, celebrating subcultures as diverse as Star Trek fans (you MUST turn on subtitles to fully appreciate Gangnam Klingon Style), to Minecraft players.
And now, a version from Ai Wei Wei.
The dissident Chinese artist’s version of Gangnam style combines clips from the PSY video – though only clips where PSY is not present – with scenes of a raucous dance party in the courtyard of Ai Wei Wei’s Beijing studio. Like PSY, Ai Wei Wei is dressed in bright colors, a pink shirt complementing a black suit, and like the rapper, he’s an energetic and goofy dancer. As Gangnam Style parodies go, it’s not an especially compelling version – it gets repetitive very quickly, with the same group performing the same few dance moves in scene after scene.
Is this the embattled artist blowing off a little steam? Having some fun on a sunny afternoon? Ai Wei Wei’s sense of humor is one of the great halmarks of his work, but it’s unwise to dismiss anything he does as purely humorous. As James Panero observed in an article in The New Criterion, Ai Wei Wei is intensely aware of popular culture and, in the past, has taken inspiration from the New York City punk rock scene. Perhaps PSY’s subversive rethinking of K-Pop has inspired a subversive response?
There are two clear signs that Ai Wei Wei’s Gangnam Style is meant to challenge Chinese authorities. About a minute into the video, Ai Wei Wei pulls out a pair of handcuffs and spins them, which is hard not to read this as a comment on the Chinese government’s tendency to arrest and detain the artist for any number of arbitrary reasons. And his version is titled “Grass Mud Horse Style”, a reference to Chinese censorship that’s immediately understandable to viewers in the know. “Grass mud horse” – “cao ni ma” – is a homonym for a rude and graphic Chinese insult, one of the many terms censored on the Chinese internet. Chinese netizens subvert automated censorship, using homonyms, and “cao ni ma” was introduced into the lexicon by an activist who created a viral video where children sang a rousing song about the victory of the grass mud horse over the evil “river crab”, another homonym animal that symbolizes the Chinese censors. But if the video is a commentary on Chinese censorship, why is it so… lame?
My friend Molly Sauter solved the mystery for me this morning, observing that this is the first Gangnam style remix that reads as sad, not joyful. Ai Wei Wei and friends dance frenetically, but they never leave his walled garden, while in PSY’s original, and most of the parodies, a wide range of backdrops frame the dancing. PSY’s tour of the Gangnam neighborhood is an idiosynratic one, focused more on parking garages than lavish megamalls, but it’s a tour of the physical world. Ai Wei Wei is confined in his garden, dancing defiantly, but he’s dancing grass mud horse style, constrained by censorship.
An Xiao Mina, who coordinates translation of Ai Wei Wei’s twitter feed into English, is an astute scholar of Chinese internet memes. Reacting to my observation that platforms used mostly for playful speech (cute cats) are powerful tools for activists, she’s postulated that memes are the dominant form of political expression on the Chinese internet. In a talk at ROFLCon at MIT, she offered a tour of politically subversive memes: Ai Wei Wei and friends posing nude as a commentary on his arrest on trumped up pornography charges, pictures of sunflower seeds standing in for Ai Wei Wei in reference to his famous Tate Modern exhibition, people posing in sunglasses to evoke blind activist Chen Guancheng. Because the memes are images, not text, they’re difficult for authorities to censor, as well as being great fun to make. Given the emergence of Gangnam Style as this year’s remixable meme, how could Ai Wei Wei sit on the sidelines?
Not everyone is a fan. Anthony Tao observes that Ai Wei Wei’s video is posted on YouTube, which is blocked in China, rather than on a domestic service like Youku. As such, it’s less of a middle finger to the Chinese government, Tao argues, than the artist “refilling his cache of cool with the Western World.”
Subversive defiance, or an attempt to stay relevant? Or just some harmless fun? As Freud once said, sometimes a grown man doing a horsie dance is just a grown man doing a horsie dance.
I am telling you that I do not speak Mandarin, I do not speak Cantonese, I have only a passing familiarity with Chinese culture and to call what I have a passing familiarity is an insult to Chinese culture—I don’t know fuck-all about Chinese culture.
But I do know that in my first two hours of my first day at that gate, I met workers who were fourteen years old, I met workers who were thirteen years old, I met workers who were twelve.
Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?
In a company obsessed with the details, with the aluminum being milled just so, with the glass being fitted perfectly into the case, do you really think it’s credible that they don’t know?
Or are they just doing what we’re all doing?
From part four, “The Gates of Foxconn” from “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” by Mike Daisey
Since 1997, Mike Daisey has written and performed monologues, exploring topics that include travel, genius, megalomania and the nature of truth and fiction. In September 2010, he began performing “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”, a monologue that explored the history of the Apple corporation, Steve Jobs’s peculiar wizardy, and the labor conditions in the Chinese factories where Apple devices are assembled. The monologue ends with a challenge to the audience: we are to understand the dark side of Apple’s greatness, the human toll of the goods we carry.
You will carry it to your homes, and when you sit down in front of your laptops, when you open them up, you will see the blood welling up between the keys. You will know that those were made by human hands. You will always know that. When you take your phones out outside to check the time, and the light falls across your face, you will know that it may have been made by children’s hands. You will know that.
From part nine, “A Virus of the Mind”, from “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs“
At some point in 2011, Ira Glass, creator and host of public radio program This American Life, saw Daisey’s stage performance and was fascinated by the story he heard. It’s hard to know precisely what Glass heard, as Daisey improvises from a script when performing the monologue, but he has published the script online, and the excerpts I’ve quoted above come from that document.
Glass invited Daisey to appear on This American Life, where he offered an abridged version of the monologue, focusing on his travels in China and his visits to the factories of Foxconn and other Apple suppliers. Daisey’s story was the first act of a two act show. The second act included an attempt to fact-check Daisey’s account, a discussion of Apple’s attempts at labor transparency, and a discussion of corporate ethics and outsourced labor. The show aired on January 6, 2012, and rapidly became one of This American Life’s most popular episodes.
On March 16, 2012, Marketplace – another prominent US public radio show – ran a story by journalist Rob Schmitz which challenged the authenticity of Daisey’s story. Schmitz had reported extensively on electronics factories in China, and details of Daisey’s story rang false to him. So he did some fairly simple fact-checking of his own: he called Daisey’s translator, who he found through a simple Google search, looking for translators named “Cathy” in Shenzen. Cathy Lee, Daisey’s translator, contradicted many of the details of Daisey’s account, making it clear that Daisey had embroidered some details and fabricated others.
That same day, This American Life retracted the story they’d aired ten weeks earlier, devoting an episode to correcting their errors and confronting Daisey. The episode, “Retraction“, has now become one of the most listened-to episodes of This American Life.
I was one of the 900,000 people who downloaded and listened to “Retraction” the week it was released. I drove home from MIT on the 16th, poured myself a stiff drink and listened to the piece, exchanging reactions over Twitter with other friends who were listening. The collective sentiment of my friends who spent their Friday night listening to a journalistic retraction on public radio: it was agonizing.
Glass is angry and hurt, and is seeking a confession from Daisey that isn’t forthcoming. He tells Daisey, “I have such a weird mix of feelings about this. Because I simultaneously feel terrible for you, and also, I feel lied to. And also, I stuck my neck out for you. I feel like I vouched for you with our audience based on your word.” What we hear from Daisey is, most strikingly, silence. Ira’s questions are met with five, ten, fifteen seconds of dead air before Daisey responds, explaining his decisions. Rob Schmitz, confronting Daisey alongside Glass, describes the experience as “exhausting”. With exchanges like this one about meeting workers injured by neurotoxin n-hexane, it’s not hard to understand why:
Rob Schmitz: So you lied about that? That wasn’t what you saw?
Mike Daisey: I wouldn’t express it that way.
Rob Schmitz: How would you express it?
Mike Daisey: I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip. And so when I was building the scene of that meeting, I wanted to have the voice of this thing that had been happening, that everyone had been talking about.
Ira Glass: So you didn’t actually meet an actual worker who had been poisoned by n-hexane?
Mike Daisey: That’s correct.
I listened to the Retraction show again yesterday morning, without the benefit of a glass of rye in my hand, and came away with another set of impressions. The first time through, I’d been struck by the sheer discomfort of the conversation. Listening yesterday, I found myself drawn to Daisey’s certainty that his work had been sound, and that his mistake was allowing it to be taken from the stage and put onto Glass’s show. I kept thinking about this short exchange:
Ira Glass: I’m saying, since then, did you worry that somebody would talk to Cathy (Daisey’s translator), and she would contradict you?
Mike Daisey: No, I worried about it all the time. I don’t know if this is a wise thing to be doing, telling you into this microphone, and this conversation. But yeah. I mean, I was kind of sick about it. Because I know that so much of the story is the best work I’ve ever made.
I don’t think Daisey is being disingenuous or evasive in declaring “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” to be some his best work. I’m going to argue that we need to consider that idea carefully, that Daisey’s story is both a success and a failure. His story is one of a handful of recent stories that have drawn attention to the tensions between journalism, storytelling and advocacy, and posed an intriguing set of questions for people interested in the future of news. What Mike Daisey’s story brings into focus is the tension between journalism as “a discipline of verification” and the power of – and need for – compelling narratives.
In early June 2011, the blog, “A Gay Girl in Damascus”, announced that the blog’s author, Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, the gay girl in question, had been kidnapped, presumably by Syrian authorities. While some internet activists mobilized to demand her release, others began questioning the authenticity of her identity. Through a long and detailed investigation, online and traditional journalists unmasked Amina Araf as Tom MacMaster, a married, middle-aged American man who’d adopted an online persona as a Syrian activist to draw attention to events in Syria. MacMaster argued that he’d had to create Amina so that people would pay attention to the crisis in Syria. Journalists responded that they’d taken the Amina character at face value because they understood the importance of attaching human faces to complex narratives, and because they were having such a difficult time getting on-the-ground accounts from Damascus.
On March 5, 2012, Invisible Children, an activist organization dedicated to raising awareness of international war criminal Joseph Kony, and the plight of children in northern Uganda, released a video titled Kony 2012. It rapidly became the most “viral” video of all time on YouTube, achieving 100 million views in six days. The video attracted criticism on at least three fronts. Some questioned Invisible Children’s financial motives, observing that the organization focuses primarily on awareness-raising and filmmaking, not on direct service on the ground in Northern Uganda. Others criticized the filmmaker’s decision to speak on behalf of Ugandans, rather than amplifying the voices of people affected directly by Kony and the violence in northern Uganda. Others, myself included, argued that the video oversimplified a complex situation and misrepresented the current situation in Uganda in order to attract more attention to their cause.
I don’t mean to suggest that these two incidents, plus Mike Daisey’s case, represent an emergent trend. I am certain that someone better versed in media history than I will find ample evidence of debates in the past about the borders between journalism and storytelling and between reporting and advocacy. But I’m intrigued by these conversations because the conversations about MacMaster, Kony and Daisey are some of the most passionate and inflamed I’ve participated in. If I judge from my comment threads, my post on Kony is the most controversial piece I’ve ever written, and my writeup of MacMaster follows close behind.
I had expected my Kony post to generate criticisms from supporters of Invisible Children, and I was not disappointed. I was somewhat more surprised by a set of critics – one who corresponded through a series of emails sent via anonymous remailer – who accused me of lying because my criticisms of Invisible Children focused on the content of their video and not their connections to evangelical churches and to right-wing donors.
The most interesting and challenging critiques came from friends who work in philanthropy, who argued that I was too quick to dismiss Invisible Children’s accomplishments. The organization quickly achieved something that’s often seen as impossible – getting American youth to pay attention to an international human rights issue. When I argued that Invisible Children was pointing to a crisis that was acute six years ago, but perhaps worth less attention currently than the Syrian government’s abuse of their citizens, a dear friend challenged me: if I really cared about Syria, I should learn from Invisible Children and launch my own campaign to generate attention. After all, isn’t Global Voices all about calling attention to forgotten parts of the world? Wasn’t my anger at Invisible Children really angry at my own failure to build the sort of audience for Global Voices that Invisible Children was able to command?
I spent a sleepless night thinking about my friend’s critique. I ended up concluding that the goals of a project like Global Voices are pretty different from those of Invisible Children. Global Voices is dedicated to amplifying the voices of people using social media in the developing world. It’s closer to a journalistic paradigm than to an advocacy one – indeed, the reason we have an advocacy arm is so we can separate that function, advocating for freedom of speech online and the release of imprisoned online writers, from our reporting functions. The conversation was a challenging one for me, because that line between advocacy and reporting is a very blurry one. When you call attention to events in a country like Madagascar, which receives very little media attention, you’re engaged in a form of advocacy, demanding more attention to a set of issues you believe are under-reported. And it’s possible to make the case that Kony2012 was a similar attempt to call attention to an under-reported situation.
I think the Daisey story is so fascinating and complex because his story occupies the blurry areas both between advocacy and journalism, and between journalism and storytelling.
One way to understand this second space of tension – between reporting news and constructing compelling narrative – is to look at a fascinating new book, “Lifespan of a Fact”. The book is
essentially a long email exchange a long exchange, partially reproduced from their emails, partially reconstructed, partially fictionalized, between essayist John D’Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal, over a 15 page essay Agata wrote about a boy named Levi Presley, who jumped to his death from the observation deck of a Las Vegas hotel.
An excerpt, published in Harpers (which rejected D’Agata’s essay for factual inaccuracies, leading him to submit it to The Believer, where Fingal worked) gives a sense for the flavor of the conversation. Jim finds a fact he’s unable to verify – the number of strip clubs in the city – and D’Agata explains that he changed the number because it better fits the rhythm of the sentence.
It quickly becomes clear that they’re at cross purposes. Fingal notes that D’Agata’s account is likely to become the definitive account of Presley’s death, and wants to ensure the facts in that account are correct. D’Agata makes clear that he’s committed to the larger “truth” of Las Vegas, artifice and the stories we tell ourselves. Jennifer McDonald, evaluating the book on the front page of the New York Times book review makes clear she thinks D’Agata’s argument is crap:
This book review would be so much easier to write were we to play by John D’Agata’s rules. So let’s try it. (1) This is not a book review; it’s an essay. (2) I’m not a critic; I’m an artist. (3) Nothing I say can be used against me by the subjects of this essay, nor may anyone hold me to account re facts, truth or any contract I have supposedly entered into with you, the reader.
D’Agata’s view of the essay as telling a larger truth than the individual facts represent seems similar, to me, to the stance Daisey is taking with his piece. The abuses factory workers in China face are all real, he argues. That he didn’t personally meet them all is something he needs to gloss over to make his narrative work as a dramatic monologue. Were he to tell some stories as his encounters, others as accounts that he read, the monologue would lose much of the dramatic impact it has. It would work better as journalism, but less well as storytelling and as art.
A simpler narrative is a more effective one. That’s one of the core arguments made by Jason Mogus in an excellent evaluation of the Kony 2012 campaign, titled “Why your non-profit won’t make a KONY 2012“. Mogus argues, “This is of course the #1 criticism of IC’s work, that they over-simplified (or manipulated) the issue, lacking nuance on the complexity of the situation. But the fact that they made this video for their audiences, not for their policy specialists, is the secret of their success.” He is probably right. Advocacy to a broad audience almost certainly requires simplifying complex narratives.
And this is what Daisey argues he’s doing, in dialog with Glass in the Retraction episode:
And everything I have done in making this monologue for the theater was bent toward that end, to make people care. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work.
My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism. And it’s not journalism. It’s theater. It uses the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc.
And of that arc and that work I’m very proud. Because I think it made you care, Ira. And I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is it has made other people delve. And my hope is it has made other people delve.
Daisey references two important concepts in that statement: the caring problem, and the ladder of engagement. My friend (and boss) Joi Ito offered the first term to explain the challenges he’s had paying attention to news from parts of the world he knows little about. Knowing you should care about a civil war in Syria or ongoing conflict in Somalia isn’t the same thing as caring. Daisey recognizes that you may not care about labor conditions in Shenzen and that he may need to “make you care” through the power of storytelling, in the same way that Kony 2012 worked to make you care through talented filmmaking and the endorsement of celebrities who saw and were effected by the film.
Once you care, Daisey hopes you’ll go further, climbing “the ladder of engagement”, a term widely used by advocates and activists. A savvy political campaign manager will ask someone who’s come to a political rally to put up a yard sign, and someone who’s put up a yard sign to host a campaign event for a candidate. Some fraction of supporters will “climb the ladder”, becoming more involved and knowledgeable, until they become one of the leaders of the campaign, planning new creative actions for others to participate in.
In responding to criticism of the Kony 2012 video, The Resolve, an organization that
describes itself as a partner of Invisible Children works on many of the same issues as Invisible Children, but was not involved with producing the Kony 2012 video, invokes this theory to explain their support of the Kony 2012 video why they think the video was worthwhile:
We created a “ladder” of engagement, offering activists a range of options to go deeper on the issue. For most of the people who watched Kony 2012, the video was the first time they had heard of the LRA. This means that there is a vast new pool of people who could be part of that critical mass needed to influence U.S. and international policy towards the conflict. To make them effective activists, Resolve offers them resources to get better informed about the conflict, ranging from our blog posts to in-depth policy reports based on our field research.
Even if an initial message is simplified, some percentage of the people who watch the video will become engaged and learn more about the situation, expanding from a black and white picture to a more complex and nuanced one. Given the challenges of getting people to care about a situation like child soldiers in Central Africa, or dangerous labor practices in China, perhaps the best we can do is offer a simplified explanation and hope others will delve deeper.
This idea came up at Center for Civic Media a few weeks back when Judy Richardson, one of the producers of the acclaimed Eyes on the Prize documentary series about the American Civil Rights movement visited Center for Civic Media. Eyes on the Prize took a number of radical steps as a documentary – rather than putting historians on camera to talk about events in the past, the people who participated in protests, marches and meetings talk about their experiences and narrate those events. This complicated the challenge of telling a compelling story, Richardson argued, but it was the right thing to do, as the message of Eyes on the Prize was that the movement was a vast, complicated thing, not just the work of Martin Luther King Jr.
She noted her disappointment that films like Mississippi Burning, which was loosely based on the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964, have reached far larger audiences than her documentary. She understands the need to simplify the story, she says, but Mississippi Burning goes too far, turning the FBI into the heroes of the story. “You don’t take dramatic license that far. It would be like making a film about World War II, and honoring the Vichy government collaborators, not the French Resistance.”
The Richardson line – when villans are transformed into heroes – is one line we might consider in evaluating when a simplified narrative becomes too simple. What triggered my reaction to Kony 2012 was the sense that it was treading very close to that line in talking about the LRA without talking about the Ugandan government’s role in herding Acholi people into camps for their ostensible safety and the human rights abuses committed by the Ugandan army. Joseph Kony is certainly a villan, but it’s far from clear that Museveni’s government – which has systematically squelched democratic dissent, or his army – whose incompetency and corruption have much to do with Kony’s continued freedom – should be the heroes we end up supporting.
Sam Gregory, Program Director at WITNESS, an organization that helps people affected by human rights abuses produce videos to advocate for their rights, suggests a more strenuous set of rules:
Simple is too simple when oversimplifying the problem leads to modeling the wrong solutions or to counter-productive impacts for the people who are directly affected.
Simple is too simple if the initial action participants are asked to take is not followed by a next step in a ladder of engagement (and I would note that Invisible Children explicitly notes the video is a ‘first entry point’ to engagement).
Simple is too simple when it models a solution that misdirects an audience’s understanding of the systemic causes of an issue (two analyses here of this in the context of Kony 2012 are presented by Ethan again, and Conor Cavanagh).
Simple is too simple when a simple entry point does not allow viewers/participants to easily drill down and engage with more complexity (see Lana Swartz’s working paper on this potential for ‘drillability’ in transmedia campaigns)
Simple is too simple when it perpetuates stereotypes (for example, a ‘rescue’ approach) or reinforces the lack of agency in situations where agency has already been assaulted by the human rights violations themselves. At the root of human rights work is human dignity.
Simple is too simple for a single human rights video when it misstates facts, uses footage or interviews out of context, or when it breaches ethical ideas on representation, particularly when that compromises people’s dignity and safety.
Are these the right places to draw the lines? Am I being fair in putting Kony 2012 on the wrong side of some – not all – of these lines? I don’t know. I can tell you why I think the video is on the wrong side of some lines, but I don’t get to draw the line for you. And I’m writing this essay in part because I don’t know how to draw the line (for myself, not for you) with Mike Daisey. I’m sympathetic to his assertion that there’s a different line for advocacy than for journalism… which forces me to acknowledge that the controversy over the Kony 2012 video stems, in part, from what rules we use to evaluate it. In other words, I think it’s possible to admire that Invisible Children used social media brilliantly and made an evocative and affecting film while being angry that the film was manipulative and upset about the lack of Ugandan voices. Invisible Children were doing their job in advocating for their cause, and it’s possible that I’ve been doing my job in critiquing their work and trying to amplify Ugandan voices who are responding.
I think it’s possible to understand Ira Glass’s anger in part through this lens of oversimplification. What This American Life has done so brilliantly over its 17-year run is tell complex stories using real people’s voices. Stories like “The Giant Pool of Money” take on intricate and complex narratives – the mortgage crisis – by interviewing individuals involved with different aspects of the housing industry. We hear their voices, not the voices of the reporters. It would be far easier to have a reporter or an expert navigate this complex territory, but part of the genius of the storytelling is that we come to realize that the mortgage crisis wasn’t the act of a small group of sinister, shadowy bankers crashing the global economy, but the rational decisions of hundreds of thousands of people doing what made sense to them at the time.
But This American Life has also championed other methods of storytelling. As their “About Our Radio Show” page attests:
We think of the show as journalism. One of the people who helped start the program, Paul Tough, says that what we’re doing is applying the tools of journalism to everyday lives, personal lives. Which is true. It’s also true that the journalism we do tends to use a lot of the techniques of fiction: scenes and characters and narrative threads.
Meanwhile, the fiction we have on the show functions like journalism: it’s fiction that describes what it’s like to be here, now, in America. What we like are stories that are both funny and sad. Personal and sort of epic at the same time.
If there’s a place on the radio for the sort of narrative Daisey puts forward, we might think it would be This American Life. But Daisey’s work isn’t cleanly journalism or fiction. It might be “civic fiction”, a term coined by my colleague Molly Sauter to try to explain narratives like that told by Tom MacMaster, a narrative that’s not factual, but designed to address important stories that are hard to tell any other way. Ben Walker, on his radio show Too Much Information, may be the best practitioner of the genre at present, blending hard news, interviews, and fictional storytelling without warning labels, leaving listeners wondering what, if any, of his remarkable narrative, Occupy Siberia – where Ben travels to rural Russia to offer a workshop on social media and ends up starting a revolution – is true.
As much as Glass admires Daisey’s storytelling, it’s clear from how he frames Daisey’s monologue on This American Life that he’s not ready to blur the journalism and fiction lines: “When I saw Mike Daisey perform this story on stage, when I left the theater I had a lot of questions. I mean, he’s not a reporter, and I wondered, did he get it right? And so we’ve actually spent a few weeks checking everything that he says in his show.”
That factchecking in the original episode obviously left something to be desired. But once Glass moves from checking individual details (TAL reveals that Foxconn’s cafeteria may seat 4,000, not the 10,000 Daisey asserted!) to considering larger issues, it opens up a fascinating dialog. Glass interviews Ian Spaulding of INFACT Global Partners, an organization that’s worked with many hundreds of Chinese factories to bring their labor practices up to international standards. He questions Daisey’s assertions about child labor, arguing that it happens, but very rarely at international electronics manufacturers. But he acknowledges that Chinese workplace conditions are brutal, by western standards. At the same time, he argues that these situations are changing rapidly from bottom-up pressure – the labor market in China is very tight, and factories like Foxconn experience 10% monthly turnover, leading them to improve working and living conditions.
The “fact-check” turns into a discussion about whether it’s fair for the US to outsource labor to other countries without sending western labor standards abroad as well. This leads to the odd experience of Nicholas Kristof discussing an essay he wrote with his wife, Sherryl WuDunn – who’s from a part of China near Foxconn’s factory – that offers “Two Cheers for Sweatshops“. Kristof and WuDunn argue that the sweatshop era is a relatively brief one in a country’s economic development, and that the working conditions are significantly better than the alternative – rural poverty.
For me, this postscript was the most helpful part of the show. Mike’s story puts productively uncomfortable questions on the table: How much should we care about the people who make the devices we use? When we export jobs, do we have a responsibility to export our labor protections as well? What’s the balance between development and considerations of worker safety? Daisey’s story from Shenzen falls well short of journalistic standards for reporting. But in terms of provoking an interesting conversation on rich topics, it’s massively successful. Unfortunately, those rich conversations get eclipsed once the conversation turns into a question of whether Daisey falsified a story.
Again, it’s fair to ask whether the Kony 2012 video and the ensuing critique had a similar effect. I’m tempted to dismiss this possibility by arguing that Kony 2012 leaves fewer open questions than Daisey’s piece. But the fact remains that the video, the backlash and the ensuing conversation brought some unfamliar voices to the fore, like journalist and blogger Rosebell Kagumire, whose YouTube response to the Kony2012 video has received more than half a million views. It’s certainly possible that there’s been more mainstream media attention to Central Africa this past month than in an average year.
But this can’t be our preferred working method. For one thing, it’s brutal for the people who tell these provocative stories. Jason Russell’s tragic public breakdown has been attributed to stress from criticism of the Kony video. Chicago Theatre has cancelled a Daisey performance and other places he’s scheduled to deliver his piece are fielding questions about whether tickets will be refunded. Chicago Public Radio has announced that they’ll be investigating the fact-checking behind the original Daisey story. There has to be a better way to start complex, multilayered discussion than offering a simplified, compelling narrative, then battering it to pieces… right?
Why is this conversation about journalism and advocacy, simplification and complexity happening now?
We’ve seen a rise in the ability to create media and advocate for your cause and your viewpoint over the past decade. And there’s been a massive rise in content available to all of us – and an accompanying rise in ability to choose what we pay attention to – over the past two decades. The result is an increasingly fierce battle for attention. We may be able to find and publish information much more easily, but we’ve still got a limited number of hours in the day to pay attention to different topics, and advertisers, advocates, journalists and every cranky academic with a blog (and yes, I’m pointing to myself here) is demanding that scarce attention.
These questions about attention are what led me onto the odd academic/critic/activist path I find myself on today. It began with an activist question: “How do we get people to invest in technology businesses in sub-Saharan Africa?” That led to an academic question: “Why is so much news from Africa about conflict and so little about positive developments?” That led back to activism with Global Voices and back to academe with questions about how Global Voices could be more effective in amplifying voices and changing media narratives.
I’m wondering if stories like Mike Daisey’s mark a shift in this conversation about attention. The conversation has involved web publishers, advertisers and activists all asking how we compete successfully for small slices of attention. With stories like Daisey’s and Kony 2012, the conversation switches from the practical question of seizing attention to the ethical questions of attention. What’s fair play in demanding attention for a story or for a cause? How far can you simplify a story to gain attention? How much can you speak on someone else’s behalf? Perhaps the reason these conversations get so passionate is that they’re not just about the rules of different professions but about the basic question, “What can someone demand I pay attention to?”
I’ve been gratified by responses to this post, in comments and elsewhere, especially as many responses have pointed me to other interesting articles on these topics. Here are some of the pieces I’ve enjoyed that are engaging with some of the same topics I tried to address.
A great piece from Rebecca Hamilton, author, journalist and Darfur activist, on the limits of volunteer-based engagement and change. Very, very smart on questions of simplification, and offers the key insight that the frame you use to explain a situation to a broad audience may not be as useful in trying to solve the problem you’re addressing.
A thoughtful essay on the nature of fact-checking from former Atlantic fact-checker Atossa Araxia Abrahamian. It’s particularly helpful on the subject of “vigilante” fact checking, and posits the helpful theory that “we fact-check because we hate liars.”
Craig Silverman, cited in the previous Abrahamian essay as a “patron saint” of the contemporary fact-checking movement, points out that the book, “The Lifespan of a Fact”, is also not strictly factual, but a blend of correspondence and recreation of that correspondence. I’ve changed my post to reflect that fact… though I’m now wondering whether I need to start putting the word fact in quotes when in a dialog as complex and multilayered as this.
Alexandra Bradbury argues that there’s a need for fact – and ideology – checking not just in stories like Mike Daisey’s, but in more traditional This American Life shows, like a recent show on taxation and public goods, which she sees as uncritically anti-labor.
Alisa Solomon, writing in The Nation, offers some of the historical background I’d been hoping for, both looking at New Journalism and performance art.
Finally, I should have known better than to post on this topic without checking my friend Mike Annany’s blog. His post, “Doubting the Impossible: Mike Daisey, the Pragmatists, and Networked Ways of Knowing”, is a wonderful exploration of the nature of truth and of epistemology.
Two important reads on Invisible Children and the #Kony2012 campaign:
Gilad Lotan of SocialFlow has been crunching the data on the spread of Kony2012 on Twitter and has some very interesting preliminary results. (He’s also been at SXSW this past week, so this is an impressive effort, as he’s been doing analysis while appearing on panels, including a panel on the Kony campaign.) I’m hoping to work with Gilad on some further data-crunching, but his initial findings are fascinating.
Gilad’s visualization of the first 5000 users to tweet about Kony2012
Some takeaways from Gilad’s analysis:
- The Kony campaign was really, really big. Not only did the video reach 100 million views on YouTube faster than any other video in history, it thoroughly dwarfed traffic on #sxsw hashtags, which generally dominate Twitter during the interactive week of that conference.
- A core of highly connected users seem to have been key in launching the social media campaign. Gilad sees evidence that these users were clustered in a couple of communities, notably in Birmingham, Alabama, and sees evidence that many of these users identify strongly with their Christian faith. This aligns with explanations of the viral spread of the video, which point out that Invisible Children has done great work organizing a core of supporters who they were able to mobilize to support this campaign.
- The Invisible Children strategy of influencing celebrities appears to have worked, both in involving actress Kristen Bell (who has half a million Twitter followers) in the early campaign, and in influencing other celebrities like Ryan Seacrest and Ellen DeGeneres.
Gilad concludes by observing that, whatever we think of the Invisible Children campaign, this level of mobilization is literally unprecedented, and extremely worthy of our attention and study. Following along the same lines is this excellent analysis from from communications professional Jason Mogus, titled, “Why Your Non-Profit Won’t Make a Kony 2012“.
Mogus notes that he’s less critical of the Invisible Children campaign than some have been, and goes on to argue that even if you’re a critic, you should pay attention to what the campaign did well. He offers six keys to success, phrasing them as critiques of other advocacy organizations. Those organizations, he warns:
- Haven’t met their supporters
- Don’t have a “twitter army”
- Speak to too many audiences
- Are too influenced by their policy staff – and present too nuanced a message
- Have too many campaigns and calls to action
- Aren’t aligned towards the social web
Mogus makes a compelling case that Invisible Children is the opposite of all these critiques – deeply knowledgeable about the group they want to influence, knowledgeable about the medium they’re using and focused on a single, simple goal. I see Mogus as answering my questions about the campaign and oversimplification by arguing that too much policy nuance and too many campaigns and goals will inevitably dilute the power of a social media campaign.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I think organizations will be unpacking the Kony campaign for months to come to understand what Invisible Children got right. To summarize from Gilad and from Mogus:
- A viral campaign starts from a group of committed activists who you can reach and ask to represent you. These networks often have an offline component as well as an online one.
- Influencing celebrities – “attention philanthropy”, as I’ve been calling it – seems to work
- Simple messages tend to sell. It’s still an open question for me just how much you need to simplfy and just how much nuance can still go viral.
I’d add another quick observation – giving people something they can do, online, seems to be a key component to a movement. This isn’t just Evgeny Morozov’s slacktivism observation, though I think some of his critiques may apply. People are moved by a video or another prompt and they want to do something. Giving them a chance to assert their influence through social media is a way they can feel involved. In this case, it seems to have been a part of the pathway to generating major media attention to a story. I suspect that this takeaway – give people something they can do once you’ve aroused their emotions – is going to be a very useful takeaway from the Kony campaign.
A little more than a year ago, the world changed in a sudden and dramatic way. The long-time leader of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted after a month of largely peaceful street protests demanding an end to authoritarian rule. A few weeks later, the world changed again, when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians occupied Tahrir Square and forced the ouster of their autocratic leader, Hosni Mubarak.
And then things got complicated.
As the Arab Spring spread beyond Egypt and Tunisia throughout the Arab world and into sub-Saharan Africa, leaders began defending their positions more aggressively. A popular movement to oust Muammar Gaddafi became a bloody civil war as Gaddafi mobilized his troops against protesters. Bahrain’s government responded to unrest with a brutal crackdown and by leveling the monument that served as a rallying point for protesters. Mass protests in Damascus, Syria have turned into an ongoing siege of Hama, Homs and other cities where protesters and government forces have become combatants.
And while Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans can celebrate the ouster of dictators, it is unclear that removing a dictator leads inexorably towards representative government. Egypt remains under the confines of “Emergency Laws”, and the military government has tried 12,000 civilians – many of them protesters – in military tribunals. It’s a long road from dictatorship to democratic rule.
For much of the world, the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were broadcast first and foremost by Al Jazeera. Once dismissed by American officials as providing a platform for Osama bin Laden – and fired on by American aircraft during the 2003 Iraq war! – Al Jazeera became a preferred source of news in Washington circles, with Hillary Clinton praising the “real news” the network brought its viewers.
Al Jazeera didn’t just document these popular uprisings – it may have helped bring them about. In a conversation at MIT, sociologist Zeynep Tufekçi and Tunisian activist Sami ben Gharbia explained that Al Jazeera’s coverage allowed Tunisians to witness the protests in the village of Sidi Bouzid despite a Tunisian media blackout – this may have helped the protests spread from one town into a nationwide movement. And Al Jazeera’s heavy coverage of the Tunisian protests was likely a key factor in the spread of protest movements from Tunisia throughout the region.
The man in charge of Al Jazeera during most of the Arab Spring was Wadah Khanfar, a Palestinian activist and journalist who built his reputation reporting for Al Jazeera from Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2003, he became managing director of Al Jazeera, and in 2006, director general. His TED talk, delivered shortly after the ouster of Mubarak, remains one of the most moving portraits of the aspirations and hopes of people who lived for too long under repressive dictatorships.
Now Khanfar has moved on from Al Jazeera, and heads the Sharq Forum, an international think tank focused on political and economic development in the Arab world. Like the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, his focus moves from exposing the failings of autocratic governments to the challenge of building fair and representative societies.
Khanfar will be speaking at MIT a week from today, at 6pm on Friday, February 24, at the MIT Media Lab. His talk, “One Year After Mubarak: The Past and Future of the ‘Arab Spring’” offers the chance to reflect on the moment of hope a year ago and the challenges the Arab world faces today. After the talk, he’ll be in conversation with Media Lab director Joi Ito, Head of Online for Al Jazeera English Mohamed Nanabhay and me. I’m always anxious to hear what Wadah has to say, and I’ll urge him to take some tough questions about how a movement that’s succeeded in ousting illegitimate power can succeed in building representative power. I hope you’ll join us if you can. And yes, we’ll be both recording and streaming the event.