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A Skyful of Lies

The recent upsurge in the streets of the Arab world has been force-multiplied by the planned (and unplanned) use of both internet and the media, Twitter, Facebook, Al-Jazeera, CNN, etc have all chipped in.  Joining the dominos Tunisia and Egypt that have fallen, Yemen, Algeria and Bahrain are tottering, Libya is now in a state of virtual civil war.  After vicious “remedial” action, the King of Bahrain decided good sense was the better part of bull-headedness in calling off his troops from the streets.  With his Eastern Region in protestor control, Muammar Gaddafi is behaving as the mad man that he is to hang on to his last bastion in Tripoli.  US and EU leaders repeatedly cautioned the authoritarian regimes they were previously not only comfortable (but virtually in bed) with against the naked use of brute force, including fighter aircraft and helicopter gunships in Libya, against largely peaceful demonstrations.   The commentators may be speaking different languages to describe the unprecedented images on TV screens, the content is the same.

How the modern revolution has been conceived, nurtured and implemented is by itself a study.  To win a battle without bloodying swords” (Tsun Tse Tzu), the media (and now the internet) can be used and/or misused. Nik Gowing’s book, “Skyful of Lies and Black Swans” qualifies as a modern day primer for today’s practitioners of political science across the divide from democracy to dictatorship to understand the “new art of war”.  Stephen Stern holds Nik Gowing’s analysis as daunting but completely dispelling, “Information now travels around the world so fast and in such quantities that all kinds of organisations – governments, businesses – are struggling to respond fast enough or effectively enough.  As a result, there is a new vulnerability, fragility and brittleness of power which weakens both the credibility and accountability of governments, the security organs and corporate institutions.  This often occurs at the height of a crisis, just when you need clarity from senior executives.  No matter that the information – noise – which is being spread may be inaccurate, or only partly true. Leaders have to respond, and faster than used to be necessary. The new core challenge is the tyranny of the timeline”.  Awash in money and resources and complacent about the expanse of their power, the Arab regimes were not geared to cope with the blinding speed that information dissemination played in the upheavals.

The Burma protests of 2007 showed how “the ad hoc community of risk-taking information doers became empowered. Those undisputed and widely corroborated images swiftly challenged the authority and claims of the regime, example of asymmetric, negative impact on the traditional structures of power,”. Nik Gowing calls “the onslaught of new media as the low tech empowerment of the media space resulting in a maddeningly complex new era of heightened accountability and increasing vulnerability.   Couple that with the rapid speed at which social media multiplies information.   As a result, civil society is beginning to act independent of the state: they gather images, edit them to their liking, and spread them via internet.  Thus, people like you and me, without the diplomatic titles, are toying with foreign affairs, crafting an image of the state that’s uncensored and difficult to regulate.  In the process, even the most authoritarian regimes are being stripped of their power”.

Commenting on Nik Gowing’s book Patrick Meier says, “This “shifting of power from state to citizen is the new “civilian surge” of growing digital empowerment forcing an enhanced level of accountability that is a ‘real change to democracy”. As for authoritarian regimes, “the impact of new media technologies has been shown to be as potentially ‘subversive’ as for highly developed democratic States. The implications for power and policy-makers is not well developed or appreciated. The implications of this new level of empowerment are profound but still, in many ways, unquantifiable. The information pipelines facilitated by the new media can provide information and revelations within minutes. But the apparatus of government, the military or the corporate world remain conditioned to take hours.”

For leaders beset by revolution in these changed circumstances, Nik Gowing’s advises, “Accept the new reality. Then from top to bottom retrain or remove the courtiers who ratchet up old means of control and like behaviour that masks the truth. Help colleagues to become more proficient operators in this new world. Those who adapt best, and quickest, will enhance their career prospects.  If we are to manage all this extra information, first we have to learn to live with it. And then take some control back over our lives, as far as is possible. Here is the news. Take control when you can. Switch off when you are able. And when confronted by a skyful of lies, move fast”, unquote. The wildfire speed caught out the besieged regimes. Conversely, their use the media to put across their own “truth”, were exposed to be a potful of lies.

Nik Gowing offers no insight into the future while thoroughly describing the status quo, “If States can’t control messages, how does this transform diplomacy?  If soldiers are producing videos from the battlefields of Afghanistan on their mobiles, does that hamper security?  Do States need to form new regulations for media to curb its effects?  Does this call for policy prescriptions?” Reviewing the book, Stephen Stern states, “The paradox at the heart of this exciting world is new technology. We crave flexibility, connectivity, and speed but we risk turning ourselves into busy fools, bamboozled by too much noise and information”. Alastair Dryburgh, who runs the “Akenhurst Management Consultancy” in London says, “You have to distinguish between being more connected, which is potentially very valuable, and just being more distracted, which isn’t. We should communicate with people who have expertise or knowledge relevant to the task in hand, and the ability to say something useful”.

In his book Nik Gowing says, “The accumulated evidence is that the asymmetric torrent of overwhelming ‘amateur’ inputs from the new generators of content produces largely accurate, if personalized, information in real time. It may be imperfect and incomplete as the crisis time line unfolds. There is also the risk of exaggeration or downright misleading ‘reporting’. But the impact is profound. Internal BBC research discovered that audiences are understanding if errors or exaggerations creep in by way of such information material, as long as they are sourced and later corrected.  The concept of trust can ‘flex’ in a crisis, trust does not diminish as long as the ongoing levels of doubt or lack of certainty are always made clear. It is about doing your best in a world where speed and information are the keys. More work is needed to analyze the implications of the new phenomenon for accuracy, speed, personalization, dialogue and trust. That challenge is the same for all traditional media organizations”.  A modicum of self-restraint by our media anchors against their tendency of sensationalizing would be very helpful.

If peace is used an instrument of continuing war by other means, a constant and unrelenting battle against one’s enemies (and friends) alike, Nik Gowing’s primer on how to handle “a skyful of lies” defines a new dimension in the “soft” projection of power.

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