Wednesday 4 July 2012

Press Ethics in the Brave New World

Sam Storr

The CrowdMap Syria Tracker.
The prominence of the vocal, online crowd in so much of our news has rapidly been accepted into our common reality. So rapidly that this reality is much more mature than the debate over its implications.
The popular view of crowdsourcing is very much in its adolescence. Talk abounds of revolutions driven by the social use of simple Western technological innovations, an ideology of open self-expression that can cut across the old restraints and unite all on some shared plane of human diversity.
It is surely true that the opportunities for journalism are great. It has been proven that technology can enable people to speak out in places where the threat of violence or repression would previously have led to this information being suppressed. Rather than having to mine for information, in some places the gems appear to shoot straight from the ground.
Outside of the famous crisis areas, crowdsourcing widens the scope for participation, such as in the recent collaboration between Al Jazeera and the open-source software group Ushahidi, intended to harvest the opinions of ordinary Somalis.
Ushahidi itself was a project that coalesced on the blog of Kenyan journalist Ory Okkoloh, now Google’s Policy Manager for Africa, in response to the violence and lack of information following the Kenyan elections in December 2007, before the famous Green Revolution in Iran. Now providing a versatile open software in use the world over, Ushahidi provides a platform for anybody to contribute in media ranging from text messages to Twitter, to a map of events in space and time. Even in places where violence overshadows a free press, certain Twitter feeds and blogs enable people to take control of the information environment.
Yet all exuberance results in hangover. Evgeny Morozov, amongst others, has already written convincingly of how social media can also offer unique opportunities for dissent to be tracked and crushed. The dangers are insidious and can come in surprising forms, from the sophistication of Middle Easter security regimes to the murderous reaction of Mexican drug cartels to those that spoke ill of them on Facebook.
It is natural to accept the bravery of the activist, journalist, or war correspondent for what it is, if less so for those innocents who without meaning fall afoul of the violent on social media. But admiration should not lead to apathy. When tragedies strike activists, they are lamented, but sometimes consolation is found in the fact that at least their voice was heard. Yet all good journalists take the proper precautions, so that what they do can fully be considered worth the sacrifices they make. 
Although the relationship between journalists and their sources may be changing, its nature should remain the same, and all steps taken to inform and enable activists to deal with the risks. Despite the open chaos and unseen dangers of the internet, Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation is adamant that it remains ‘incumbent on journalists to insist on secure communications.’
Often, the proper precautions require that both journalists and their sources become experts in online security themselves. Galperin reports that the Syrian regime’s use of digital surveillance, hacking and malware has created an ‘unusually difficult situation.’ It should be noted here that responsibility for the capabilities of many repressive regimes lies partly with the Western companies that create bespoke software explicitly for their use.
One major precaution is to avoid the use of all kinds of phones; though their accessibility makes them popular, they are insecure and can give away the user’s location. The Committee believes that many, especially the unsung locals who may account for nine of every ten journalistic deaths worldwide, are insufficiently aware of these risks.
Beyond this, all must take care of their internet security, using only encrypted communications (and even encrypted Skype calls can be listened in on with 50-90% accuracy), browsing using software such as TOR, avoiding malware, deleting all sensitive information, and being prepared for viruses that their software may not detect.
Luckily, the internet also provides a great deal of free support and guidance – Ushahidi, SaferMobile and the Standby Task Force being good examples. In addition to expertise, the best organisations provide ethics guides. With open-source software being what it is though, not all using it can be depended on to stick to them. Few deployments of the Ushahidi platform were run by the Ushahidi team itself. Very little on the internet can truly be trusted, even powerful hacker collectives are plagued to the extent that police forces can infiltrate and turn their ranks; in Syria, even revolutionary documents and programs purporting to encrypt Skype turned out to be Trojan attacks likely to have emanated from the regime.
Without doubt it is the duty of journalists to ensure that their sources are aware of and prepared for the dangers. It cannot be happily assumed that reporters are fully aware of and accept the risks. No doubt most professional news organisations attempt to do so as best they can. Yet there is a danger that the technologically driven spread and democratisation of journalism that accompanies the declining fortunes of mainstream reporting, amidst the growing pressures of the 24-hour news cycle, threaten a decline in professionalism. Neither is the proper two-way flow of information guaranteed when news is simply gathered from YouTube and Twitter. 
Though new-style journalism and the techniques of the crowd come hand-in-hand, they may not necessarily be the best partners. Indeed, it is important not to over-emphasise novelty. ‘Hazrid’, a Syrian tech activist, told Demotix, somewhat fatalistically, the he expects most of his co-rebels to be caught ‘old style’, due to arrests, torture, and informing. Many of both the dangers and the precautions pre-date their digital forms, though they may now be amplified.
It is also certain that crowdsourced journalism, in its disruptiveness, raises broader ethical questions. For example, while someone posting information publicly might appear to knowingly accept the risks of doing so, they might only be targeted if other users or the mainstream news make their contribution famous. This information can also put others at risk; the ability of the Syrian government to arrest activists has led to the realisation that protests must be filmed so as not to show faces. Even the most careful relinquish control over their fate and that of others when posting to the internet, so that it might be asked, whither goes the responsibility for their risk?
Despite the opportunities and the passive participation enabled by technological change, those who put themselves at risk through their participation in the online crowd are owed more than respect and the propagation of their message.