Wednesday, July 08, 2009

China, Iran, and The YouTube Effect

So as I said, the Internet is being blamed for the Chinese strife and is being shut down:

Chinese authorities blame foreign activists for inciting violent protests this week in Xinjiang, and say the Internet enabled them to do it. Uighur groups have used the Internet to rapidly get out images from what they say was a provocative government crackdown on a peaceful demonstration.

Following Sunday's violence in Xinjiang region, Chinese authorities were hasty to point fingers.

At a news conference Monday, Xinjiang's police chief Liu Yaohua blamed the World Uighur Congress, an international Uighur rights group.

Liu accused the organization of distorting China's ethnic and religious policy to stir up conflict. But he especially singled out the Internet, describing it as the main medium that foreign forces use to communicate with Uighurs in China.

Uighur activists say a peaceful demonstration Sunday in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, turned violent after police began cracking down. Chinese authorities accuse groups like the World Uighur Congress of masterminding a riot from afar, in an effort ultimately aimed at creating an independent Xinjiang.

The government has acted quickly to block access to information. Authorities acknowledge that Internet service in Urumqi has been interrupted, but they do not say how long it will be out. They say the interruption was done legally, and is necessary to maintain social stability.

Twitter disabled

In Beijing, the Twitter messaging system, which protesters in Iran recently used to report on police crackdowns there, has been disabled. And while cell phone connections in the Xinjiang capital, Urumqi, still operate, getting a call to the city, or making an international call from there, is proving difficult.

Xiao Qiang teaches journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. He also edits China Digital Times, a round-up of Chinese-language content on the Internet.

"Internet is playing a bigger role this year," Xiao noted. "Partially because what happened in Urumqi was immediately exposed by lots of cell-phone cameras, digital cameras, videos - there's a lot of witness(es), people [who] immediately wrote and sent out video images on the Internet."
The Green Uprising appears to be spreading, as is the response. They're blaming "foreign activists" just like Khamenei 'n Co, and are once again shutting down the Internet in a near-panic after videos started spreading of what was going on.

(Supposedly; the videos I've seen are a bit unclear as to what's going on. Lots of people, but no indication of the nature of the violence.)

Still, it does make me think. The biggest problem with mass protest these days is that it isn't massive enough. People tend to be either too insular or too spread out to be exposed to the site of tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands, or millions) of people making their voices heard. The newsmedia has never been really comfortable with it, and tends to retreat to their talking heads and safe, comfortable "analysts" as soon as they possibly can. Because they were the gatekeepers, viewers were exposed to the analysts, and not to the protesters.

Looks like those days are over. Video is everywhere, that much is clear. Unless you shut down the Internet entirely, you can expect that there will be video of protests. Lots of video. High angles, low angles, in-crowd angles, anything you can think of, and rest assured that it'll all end up on YouTube and the like. (But mostly YouTube.)

There were a lot of articles written about "the CNN effect"; about how newsmedia could be used to affect foreign policymaking, and about how it can be and is manipulated to serve factional ends in conflict zones. With the newsmedia declining in relevance and discarding more credibility by the day, what's striking is that individuals are stepping up.

Call it "The YouTube Effect." It's like the CNN Effect, but many-to-many. There are no gatekeepers involved, except perhaps for the video hosts, and therefore nobody for powerful agents to spin or pressure. The video tends to be raw and powerful, so viewers don't think they're being manipulated, even if they are. The timing is instantaneous: you can have a video up within minutes of taking it. And thanks to the other tools available, distribution of the links and quick expert analysis can happen almost as quickly as the footage itself.

Most importantly, it's enormously difficult to stop. Look at the lengths that China and Iran had to go to. Yes, they eventually shut things down. But it takes so much time, so much work, and such heavy repression that they're practically forced to shut the entire Internet down, since a single hole will be used to sneak more information out.

But A modern economy can't function that way. It needs communication. It needs connectivity. Repressive agents are forced to make a choice: either cripple their economy, or open the door to footage getting out. In the long run, they must choose the latter. But because they do, and because there's no "news cycle" online, they run the risk of tension flaring up after they think it's all over.

At least the CNN effect could be handled by expelling the reporters. But the YouTube effect? Nobody really knows how to "handle" that. Or if they can.

It might have an effect in the west, too. The western newsmedia—especially American news—tends to discount or downplay protests as fringe and ineffective. Part of that is because people never really see the size of the protests, and are forced to rely on inaccurate descriptions by those "experts" I mentioned earlier. That's over. Video showing just how big a protest is can be out online within minutes. If there are tens of thousands of people, rest assured that you can easily show people that there are tens of thousands of people. That may—and likely will—revive public protest in the West.

Nobody can be fully sure where this will end up. Many-to-many video distribution is a new thing, and arguably a bigger deal than many-to-many text distribution was. We're moving away from YouTube-as-harmless amusement to YouTube-as-vital service. But where it goes after that? It depends on people react.

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