Real-time information flow from the public, using social media and commonly available technological resources, is exposing the brittleness and vulnerability of those in power, both in government and in the corporate world, according to renowned BBC World News presenter Nik Gowing.
Terming those using material recorded on mobile phones and video cameras to enter the “public information space” almost in real time “information doers” who bear witness to major events, Mr. Gowing said they were now enforcing a new regime of accountability, exposing the fragility of power and sometimes leading to a “deficit of legitimacy” on the part of governments and institutions.
Mr. Gowing, who has penned a monograph, Skyful of Lies and Black Swans – The new tyranny of shifting information power in crises, on the impact of new media technologies that bring instant information on unexpected events to the public domain, had an interaction with journalists of The Hindu and The Hindu Business Line on Tuesday.
While he had formulated this theory in 2009, recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were powered by social media events. In India, Mr. Gowing said, the Anna Hazare movement had shown that the phenomenon could have a significant impact.
Going by recent examples of ‘Black Swan events' — sudden and unexpected developments for which those concerned are often unprepared —, Mr. Gowing posited that most people in positions of power tended to stay in denial about the negative impact of these developments and failed to respond in time to the output generated by the information doers and social media. “They often dismiss it as a ‘skyful of lies,” he said, using a phrase the Myanmar government used to dismiss the credibility of video footage on protests by Buddhist monks.
Citing the example of BP chief executive Tony Hayward, who was seen as slow in reacting to the enormity of the crisis set off by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the officials of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which did not appear to be on top of the situation after the Fukushima reactor disaster, Mr. Gowing said it appeared that many in key positions had difficulty in “comprehending the enormity of the social media environment.” New entrants in the public information space were creating the “new possibility of the fragility and brittleness of power. And this was something Tony Hayward didn't understand, BP didn't understand.”
A study had shown that 22 per cent of the social media content in the U.S. during the Gulf of Mexico crisis was consumed by the BP. “That drove President Obama, it drove the White House, and in the end created the weakness of the BP.”
And the initial reluctance to acknowledge the mid-air explosion on an A380 Qantas aircraft was another example. Apart from a passenger who shot the explosion on the wing of the aircraft, many people in Indonesia, where pieces of the debris fell, captured images of the bits of the plane that showed the world what had happened to the plane. “This new reality is forcing a new level of accountability,” he said. “There is,” he argued, “a disconnect between the speed at which we have information and the ability of those in power to respond, be they the government or corporates.”
Apart from an inability to understand the implications of instant information entering the public space, those in authority also displayed a reluctance to enter that space immediately for fear of being wrong or too hasty. This gave rise to what Mr. Gowing called the F3 dilemma: should one be the first to enter the information space? And how fast? And whether initial remarks could turn out to be flawed? The typical institutional reaction to this was to hesitate and thereby lose the initiative.
For journalists, this kind of user-generated information raised issues of validation and authentication. “There are four billion people out there with mobile phones and each of them is now a recorder… We are overwhelmed by information. It is a fantastic enabling tool for us. It is a new form of tip, and it is keeping journalism cleaner,” he felt.