digital citizenship

Ordering our outrage

It has been difficult to avoid succumbing to the atmosphere of anger and despair that has developed in the wake of the havoc wreaked by Typhoon Yolanda, internationally known as Typhoon Haiyan, especially when, by most accounts, relief and rescue operations led by the present administration have been and continue to be slow while thousands of people starve, sicken, suffer, and die in the devastated areas of Visayas. The frustration and resentment have been particularly pronounced among users of social media, who, prior to the current crisis, had already been up in arms for weeks on end over the Priority Assistance Development Fund (PDAF) scam involving several legislators and its most prominent—thus, most hated—face, businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, and had more recently been in anguish because of the effects of the 7.2–magnitude earthquake that had hit Bohol, Cebu, and their neighboring provinces.

Even after we had heard from our relatives in Kalibo, Aklan, which, though not as badly ravaged as other places, has certainly seen its share of death and destruction, I continue to feel weighed down by elemental helplessness, and it has been tempting to yield to the impulse to contribute to the rapidly rising tide of recriminations that I have observed among my colleagues, friends, and other contacts. There can, after all, be no denying that the response to Yolanda so far signals immense, perhaps criminal, failures on the part of the government, both at the local and national levels, in terms of disaster risk reduction, mitigation, and management, and therefore scrutiny and censure are more than called for. (In line with this, I would particularly like to know whether charges of treason would prosper against local officials who, despite being safe and sound, chose not to reach out to their constituents, but to ensconce themselves in Manila and issue statements to the press.)

The problem with social media, however, is that it can perpetuate a vicious cycle of validation rather than allow for catharsis: when we vent in Twitter, Facebook, or similar platforms, there is a distinct possibility that our fury and despondency may not drain away to create a space for clear, intelligent thought, or convert itself into energy for deliberate, effective action. Instead, it may simply go round and round and round, accumulating intensity and power while destroying our ability to ask ourselves what has so provoked our emotions and to consider if our reactions are still commensurate to the matter at hand. I do not wish to suggest that indignation cannot be productive—a cursory survey of our history as a people would prove otherwise quite easily—but any expression of such ought, I believe, to be accompanied by a strong sense of proportion, of responsibility: the best instances of criticism contain within them not only an invitation to dialogue, but also a commitment to it. Engaging in vituperation helps nothing and no one, as this reduces us to mere cogs in a mindless machine of rage.

If we are to converse on Yolanda and its aftermath in a manner that is meaningful and can lead to vastly improved disaster response in the future, I suggest that we begin with the following considerations:

First: Yolanda was one of the most powerful typhoons in the recorded history of the world—the fourth strongest, in fact, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii. While the Philippines is battered by about 15 to 20 typhoons each year, it does not seem reasonable to suggest that this has given us sufficient experience to face a monstrous weather event like Yolanda, which had one-minute sustained winds of 315 km/h, a speed that would enable one to traverse a traffic-free EDSA from end to end in less than five minutes. Prior to November 8, when it first made landfall in Guiuan, Eastern Samar, it is difficult to imagine any individual or institution being able to extrapolate from available data and set a baseline for preparations that would be good enough. How does one prepare a nation for a natural disaster of this magnitude?

The initial plans that had been made—and it must be acknowledged that plans were in place—were based on assumptions that Yolanda, precisely because it was so unprecedented, easily blasted, ripped apart and destroyed. The excruciatingly sluggish pace of the response is not necessarily a function of ineptitude, but it is definitely a function of lack of information: how can one plan when one does not know the reality on the ground? And how can one know what is out there when communication lines, roads, bridges, seaports, and airports are out of commission, wrecked, or otherwise unusable owing to safety and security concerns? Such situation has begun to be addressed, but repair and recovery work takes time. Anecdotal information may come in from several sources, but these reports still need to be collated, arranged, and made sense of from a broader perspective to facilitate the conduct of aid that is as efficient as can be, in light of prevailing constraints.

Second: Much of the rage that I have seen (hardly representative, admittedly) appears to be based on the heavily sensationalized—or, to use John Crowley‘s term, “catastrophized“—stories and images of agony that the media, especially parachute journalists like CNN celebrity anchor Anderson Cooper, can capture: as of this writing, various news entities have collectively served up seven days of post-apocalyptic poverty porn for the combination of the 24-hour news cycle and Web 2.0 that has proven so menacing to journalism and so soporific to the general public. The latter was something that cultural critic Neil Postman had warned about as early as 1985, in his book against television, Amusing Ourselves to Death:

In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action. Of course, in any communication environment, input (what one is informed about) always exceeds output (the possibilities of action based on information). But the situation created by telegraphy, then exacerbated by later technologies, made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote. For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.

Cooper et al. may not be malicious—a contentious point that I will leave on the table for now—but that does not mean they are not guilty of imperial and imperious condescension: a number of commentaries, academic and popular, have underscored the problematic, even racist, rhetoric of Western media when their reporters cover Third World events, as in the case of the 2010 earthquake that struck the Carribean nation of Haiti. Here, for instance, is Rebecca Solnit on the coverage of that specific tragedy:

The belief that people in disaster (particularly poor and nonwhite people) are cattle or animals or just crazy and untrustworthy regularly justifies spending far too much energy and far too many resources on control — the American military calls it “security” — rather than relief. A British-accented voiceover on CNN calls people sprinting to where supplies are being dumped from a helicopter a “stampede” and adds that this delivery “risks sparking chaos.” The chaos already exists, and you can’t blame it on these people desperate for food and water. Or you can, and in doing so help convince your audience that they’re unworthy and untrustworthy.

As well, it may be useful to remember that no less than the United States of America hardly seemed like the global superpower it styles itself to be following Hurricane Katrina, as evidenced by this timeline, or by this clip, in which Cooper interviews Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu:

(None of the foregoing, by the way, should not be understood as a tacit defense of broadcaster Korina Sanchez, who I understand has been pitted against Cooper in many discussions given her reaction to the coverage of CNN. As far as I am concerned, Sanchez, given that she is the wife of Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, should not be associated with any outfit that purports to report news.)

Third: Whenever we are moved to slam the government, we must remind ourselves that “government” is not a faceless, monolithic entity or an arena populated entirely by corrupt, greedy, and incompetent officials who are hell-bent on looking after their interests, preserving their prerogatives, and perpetuating their political careers at the expense of lives.

The government is also made up of the tired, hungry, overworked, and utterly courageous police officers, soldiers, doctors, nurses, drivers, pilots, clerks, technicians, engineers, and aid workers who are contributing to the relief effort. The government is also made made up of people who have lost their possessions, their homes, their relatives, and their friends to Yolanda, and yet they are out there in Eastern Visayas, sifting through the ruins of various cities, towns, and barangays, to save who and what they can. The government is also made up of people who need to know that we completely support what they are doing, and that our appreciation and gratitude for their vital work are boundless.

Finally, the government is also made up of us—we who are, in ways large and small, inextricably bound to and complicit with the system as it exists, and if said system needs to be renovated, refurbished, or razed to the ground so as to establish a better one, then this could be the moment to seize and to shape, not by way of ire-driven status updates, but by sustained, collaborative action beyond the screen, in the real world for which the digital one, for all its attractions, will always be a poor substitute.

(This has been cross-posted from Random Salt.)

On Youth and Social Media: A Deck of Practical LOLcats

Fresh Look: The Role of Youth in Nation Building
Public Relations Student Society of the Philippines
August 29, 2012, 1:00-4:00PM
NTTC-HP Auditorium
University of the Philippines Manila

On Youth and Social Media: A Deck of Practical LOLcats

[SLIDE 1] Members and officers of the Public Relations Student Society of the Philippines, fellow speakers, students, teachers, and friends, good afternoon.

I’m from The Pro Pinoy Project, and we run a commentary web site that we envision to be a kind of global community center for all things Pinoy. I’ve been asked to speak a bit about “how the youth is utilizing social media […] in nation-building and how it is used as a medium to promote nation-building in social youth”. As the title of my presentation indicates, I’ve decided to structure my talk today around a series of image macros that are called LOLcats, which ought to be familiar to you. For the benefit of those who might not be, a LOLcat [SLIDE 2] is a picture of a cat accompanied by text that is usually wrong in terms of grammar and spelling—at least in standard English. In kitty English, which has its own rules too, the caption is perfectly correct.

Lest you be tempted to not take any of this seriously, LOLcats have already become the subject of critical academic attention in the form of a dissertation submitted to the London School of Economics. Media planner Kate Miltner, who wrote the study as part of the requirements for a Master of Science degree in Media and Communications, says, “Even if LOLCats were just a collection of silly cat pictures, they would have value simply because they, as [one of my study participants] said, make life easier. [SLIDE 3] But, as this study has shown, LOLCats are much more than that. They are a venue through which people express their emotions, connect to their loved ones, and define group identity. This not only gives them value; it makes them important.”

According to Miltner, the LOLcat is widely considered to be the “archetypal Internet meme”, and its enduring appeal, if nothing else, makes it remarkable, considering how short-lived its siblings tend to be. The LOLcat has been around for nearly a decade, and its origin can be traced at least as far back to the 2005 tradition of “Caturday” that was propagated by users of the imageboard 4Chan, the source of numerous other Internet memes. The main idea that I would like to put across with my use of LOLcats today is that the Internet functions as both a condition and a limit for human ingenuity, especially when we consider the Philippine social media situation—an idea that I will build on over the course of this presentation by making six key points. I don’t imagine that any of them will be especially original or surprising, but there is value to be had in reminding ourselves from time to time about what we already know—even, perhaps especially, the patently obvious.

[SLIDE 4]

1.    The social mediascape is still a small world.

One of the more exciting and disturbing effects of social media is how it has flattened the world. Politicians, bureaucrats, civil society leaders, advocates, journalists, celebrities, and organizations are now all as easy to reach as one’s friends and relatives, if not easier. The potential significance of social media conversations lies precisely in this unprecedented level of access to highly influential and powerful people. After all, if you manage to catch the attention of enough of them, you can speed up the dissemination of crucial information to the right parties, which could then have the effect of ensuring that said information will be acted upon. An example would be the coordination of rescue and relief operations during the recent flooding brought about by the monsoon rains—the nameless weather phenomenon that brought such devastation to several parts of the country earlier this month. If you were on Twitter or Facebook during this time, then you probably noticed a sort of purposive frenzy in the sharing of hotline numbers, the use of unified hashtags, the classification of calls for help into topical databases, and the creation of specialized maps, all made possible through the efforts of both public figures and ordinary citizens.

We must not be misled, however: Internet users in the Philippines make up less than a third of the entire population, are mostly young and concentrated in urban centers, and tend to be from the middle and upper classes. A majority of these users don’t even have private access to the Internet—the Internet café is still the place from which they are able to enter cyberspace. The circumstances are evolving, of course, but there are structural limitations. The costs of electricity, of computer hardware and software, and of computer literacy, among others, mean that, insofar as social media are concerned, there are at least 63 million Filipinos whose needs and dreams, which may be vastly different from ours, are not being heard, much less considered. Philippine society in general is seamed and raddled with various inequities, and this includes what has been referred to as the digital divide.

[SLIDE 5]

2.    Social networking sites and blogs, compared to other forms of media, do not enjoy high levels of public trust.

Because few have access to the Internet, the low levels of public trust accorded to social networking sites and blogs shouldn’t be unexpected. It’s worth adding that it’s through these two channels that a lot of misleading data tends to spread. While social media may be democratized media, the absence of a central authority and the lack of a system—not to mention the will—for verification, fosters an information ecology that is particularly hospitable to misquotations, distortions, rumors, and downright false claims. For instance, during the same week or so of monsoon rains that I mentioned earlier, a number of people spread around photographs of the destruction caused by Ondoy in 2009 without identifying them as such. There are also a number of bloggers who are attempting to practice what is called “citizen journalism”, but, as with mainstream media, clear editorial guidelines and a basic sense of responsibility for the sorts of stories that are published are fundamental to credibility.

[SLIDE 6]

3.    The majority of people online are there to seek out entertainment.

Music, videos, and images are the types of content that are preferred by most Internet users—they’re not thinking so much about nation-building as about how cute, or funny, or weird, this cat is. (The sheer preponderance of pictures and clips featuring adorable animals on the Internet—I’m partial to pandas myself—sometimes makes me wish that such materials had some sort of miraculous, cancer-curing, poverty-eliminating, world-saving power.) Factor in the whole kit and caboodle of content designed chiefly to amuse, such as remixes, covers, parodies, and yes, memes, and it’s not hard to conclude that human beings have way too much time on their hands than they know how to spend productively—some of them, anyway. Further militating against the creation and popularization of serious, finely nuanced, and well-researched content are the difficulty of reading on a computer and a seeming aversion among Internet users to posts that can’t easily be skimmed over or summed up in a glance, especially long texts.

[SLIDE 7]

4.    The use of social media may tend to hamper empathy and critical thought.

Social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter can give rise to the impression that one is the center of a thoroughly customizable universe, made up of mechanisms and populated by beings that have no other purpose than to bend to one’s will. After all, it’s a ridiculously simple matter to make or unmake relationships, especially ones begun online. These same platforms also induce many to perform their lives with a degree of constancy and self-consciousness never before seen in the human story. A few psychological studies have suggested that there could be a connection between the use of social media and increased self-absorption, exhibitionism, and narcissism, and there is at least anecdotal evidence to support such a view: consider, for example, the recent outpouring of idiotic, savage, and violent hatred against Robert Blair Carabuena, the motorist who slapped MMDA traffic enforcer Saturnino Fabros over the course of a heated argument. Carabuena was clearly in the wrong, but that doesn’t justify the calls for his death that certain netizens made and, sadly, continue to make.

[SLIDE 8]

5.    A social media conversation doesn’t just need voices—it needs value.

Because social media platforms perpetually invite us to broadcast to the world at large what we’re thinking and doing, we may feel compelled or entitled—perhaps both—to crank out opinions on every possible topic and issue as quickly as we can. That doesn’t mean we should give in to the impulse. As exhilarating as rapid-fire exchanges might be, a good number of social media conversations—assuming they can even be called that—are about as useless as a floppy disk at a file-sharing party, if not more, because the participants are poorly informed or insufficiently open-minded, particularly when the discussions revolve around public affairs. Just because we enjoy freedom of expression doesn’t mean we should weigh in on absolutely everything, as doing so could merely contribute to the propagation of ignorance and the lowering of the level of discourse. The debate over the Reproductive Health Bill, for instance, is not helped by the extreme positions taken by certain factions within the groups that are for and against the controversial piece of legislation—in lots of places online, what debate there may be comes in the form of shouting matches in which the opponents regularly trade barbs and taunts.

[SLIDE 9]

6.    We cannot change a world that we do not live in.

While social media could eventually become indispensable to disaster response here at home, and have proven beneficial to diverse movements for change all over the planet, whatever information we’re able to access as a result of these tools is worthless unless we act upon it in the much larger realm beyond the screen. It is helpful to look back at the lives of our national heroes, whom we paid tribute to last Monday, or that of recently departed Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Jesse Robredo, whose tragic death we still mourn, and bear in mind that they were able to accomplish great things without the technologies that we are privileged to enjoy today.

I would also like to emphasize that we are human beings, not bits of data, and that we should strenuously resist any and all attempts to reduce our selves and our relationships to crude arrangements of bios and profiles, likes and favorites, followers and friends. “Only connect” is the famous epigraph with which the British writer E. M. Forster opens his masterful novel Howards End, but of course he did not mean “Only add friend” or “Only follow”. If we are interested in transforming lives for the better, in remaking society in the image of our highest ideals, in building a nation upon a bedrock of freedom, justice, and peace, then we must learn to connect with, which is to say live in, the world, which brims with more difficulty, complexity, and mystery than can ever be domesticated and mediated by any device, no matter how wondrous, sophisticated, or advanced.

Thank you.

Ressa’s reckless ‘rappling’

“Rappler”, a portmanteau word coined from “rap” and “ripple”, is the name of a fledgling web site that describes itself as a “a social news network where stories inspire community engagement and digitally fuelled actions for social change”, and whose team promises “uncompromised journalism that—hopefully—inspires smart conversations and ignites a thirst for change”. Such statements betoken the hand of its CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa, a veteran journalist and the former chief of the News and Current Affairs Division of ABS-CBN, where her significant contributions included the citizen journalism campaign “Boto Mo iPatrol Mo”. If Ressa’s recent behavior is any indication, however, Rappler may not so much stimulate dialogue as stifle it. Although silence, in all fairness, is certainly an example of change in our generally disorderly democracy, is this the kind of change that is warranted?

Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Blogger Katrina Stuart Santiago had earlier published “Going to the dogs“, in which she stated her opinion on the discussion generated by a heated dispute between Rappler and the University of Santo Tomas (UST)—a dispute that was caused by a controversial story written by Rappler editor-at-large Marites Dañguilan-Vitug. Over the course of the post, Santiago raised what I believe to be important questions regarding the brave new world of online media and the directions that public discourse on such media needs—and has yet—to take. When said post was brought to Ressa’s attention via a Twitter update, however, Ressa did not only take exception to Santiago’s view that Rappler revealed a pro-administration bias by featuring the recently launched, meme-friendly tourism campaign, “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” without investigating its costs, among others. In addition, Ressa pulled rank as a professional journalist and proceeded to imply that Santiago was guilty of libel: reckless moves that are utterly injurious to the digital citizenship that Ressa purports to be a passionate advocate of.

Surely someone of Ressa’s stature needs no reminding that, in these islands, libel has all too often been used as a weapon with which to harass media workers—a notorious wielder is former First Gentleman Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo, who, according to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), filed more than 50 cases against 46 journalists starting in 2003, before electing to drop all charges in 2007 as a putative gesture of peace toward the press—including her own Rappler colleague Vitug.  More to the point, surely someone of Ressa’s stature needs no reminding that it behooves one to fully comprehend a text before rapping out statements rippling with ire: Ressa was offended—misguidedly so—by Santiago’s supposed suggestion that Rappler had been paid to do a story on “It’s More Fun in the Philippines”, when in fact Santiago’s statement was, “Rappler has quietly revealed itself to be about helping out government instead of being a critical voice that at the very least asks: how much was paid [to BBDO Guerrero, the advertising agency behind] the campaign and is it worth it? I guess no questions like that for ‘uncompromised journalism’ now tagging itself as ‘citizen journalism’.”

Whether one agrees with Santiago’s attribution of bias—my own (perhaps potentially libelous) guess would be that Rappler was motivated primarily, if not exclusively, by a desire to drive up site traffic—this unfortunate episode bodes ill not only for the state of literacy in the country, but also for the future of the local mediascape. Can intelligent conversations and positive social changes possibly take place in an environment populated by denizens who, cleaving to Ressa’s inglorious example, refuse to read well, bristle at the slightest expression of disapproval, reject calls to become self-reflexive and accountable, and betray no qualms about ascribing malice to parties with whom they disagree?

The situation at hand becomes particularly interesting when one considers it vis-à-vis a recent piece by Ressa, in which she serves up the high “power-distance index” (PDI) of the Philippines as the reason that members of the intelligence community did not object to President Aquino’s initiation of countermeasures against a terrorist threat of questionable credibility. The PDI is a measure of the extent to which the less powerful in a given society accept and expect the unequal distribution of power. (It may be worth remarking that Ressa fails to contextualize the PDI within the larger theory of the dimensions of national culture formulated by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, or to acknowledge that said theory, in spite of its usefulness and influence, is hardly the last word in the study of culture.) Ressa asserts that the PDI of the country “helps explain why Filipinos have such respect for authority; why people ‘know their place;’ why true debate in an organization rarely happens if it includes the boss”.

While Ressa’s conclusion to her article seems to show that she frowns on the character of the relationships that a high PDI tends to produce—she warns those in authority that they need to “gather information and guard even more against [their] knee-jerk reactions and biases” because their subordinates “will rarely contradict [them]—even if [they’re] wrong”—Ressa herself appears to be the best illustration of the Philippine PDI, or, more accurately, what happens when heretofore unchallenged PDI assumptions are suddenly breached.

*

Note: Angela Stuart Santiago believes that a “public apology via social media is in order” but doesn’t know if Ressa is up to it. Read her take in “Calling out Ressa“.

[This post was earlier published in my blog, Random Salt.]