Monday, December 01, 2008

What governments could learn from Mumbai - citizens now control the flow of information

Like many other Australians I have a direct link to the recent attacks in Mumbai.

One of my family's friends was trapped in the Taj Mahal hotel. She managed to avoid being taken hostage - or worse. Her husband was out of the hotel at the time and found shelter elsewhere.

Fortunately both of them remain safe. My thoughts go out to all who lost their lives, were injured or who lost loved ones in the attacks.

During the siege it was difficult to get accurate and timely information about what was occurring from Australia's traditional mainstream media. This was repeated in many other countries around the world. Events unfolded too fast for television crews or print reporters to get onto the scene or file stories. When they did they were not able to access people at the heart of the crisis, their access was controlled by Indian authorities.

Due to this many people around the world turned to the online channel for information, finding a wealth of eye-witness reports, videos, photos and maps, with many citizens self-organising to support those in Mumbai and the people who care for them.

Commentators have called it the first crisis where the internet completely dominated other media channels.

Where were governments? They were left waiting for official updates, providing limited information in pre-packaged messages via traditional media, while citizens took control online.

If the communications experience of Mumbai can be learnt from, I believe it teaches governments that they must become more nimble and open to use of public online channels, or lose control, influence and relevance.

Mumbai is a wake-up call - in many ways.

People used many online channels to self-organise and share current information and personal accounts as events unfolded. This included sites such as blogs, Youtube, NowPublic, Wikipedia, Flickr, Google Maps, Google docs (a complete list of dead and wounded) and Twitter.

This frequently involved live updates from people in Mumbai directly experiencing the events, or repeating local news reports that did not get picked up outside India.

There was so much information that, on Twitter alone, CNN Online reported that at peak there were an estimated 80 messages (or tweets) sent to Twitter via SMS every five seconds providing eyewitness accounts and updates.

Traditional mainstream media relied heavily on citizen journalism to understand what was occurring, contacting Indian bloggers, using on-the-scene photos from Flickr and amateur video published on the web. Several traditional media players were able to tap directly into citizen journalism, such as the BBC and CNN.

However most mainstream media played catch-up, particularly in Australia where online commentators quite vocally criticised the slow reactions and poor coverage by local outlets.

It appears that even the terrorists involved in the attacks made use of the internet, using Blackberries to monitor world public opinion during the attacks.

With all this online activity, how were most governments communicating to the community?

Via traditional mainstream media outlets.

This highlights to me the disconnect rapidly emerging between how citizens choose to communicate and how comfortable and skilled governments are in using new media channels.

More and more citizens are seeking timely, relevant, plain english and personalised information. Whereas governments remain focused on traditional methods to assure accuracy and message management.

By the time a government assesses events, writes appropriate messages, gets approvals and distributes their views via traditional media channels (hoping they get a 15 second grab), the public has moved on, relying on personal, on-the-spot accounts.

Traditionally this approach has served government well. It maintains their appearance of authority, dignity and accuracy, preventing disturbing rumours or information from spreading in an uncontrolled way.

However the world has changed. Many eyewitnesses can publish their personal accounts directly without going through 'official' channels.

Using traditional approaches governments can appear slow to respond or even painfully out of date, particularly where events progress rapidly.

Similarly in organising a response and support for people, while governments do an invaluable job behind the scenes (organising counseling and transport), publicly the self-organising online citizen groups are more nimble and responsive.

The perceived slow response from governments can reduce the trust and faith of citizens. Over time this leads more people to seek more responsive channels and, though receiving timely eyewitness accounts, reduces citizen satisfaction with the language and messages of government. Governments become less relevant.

People who relied on traditional media or official reports to stay informed during the Mumbai seige probably find it hard to believe the impact the online channel had on global communications.

Fortunately no-one has to rely on my opinion.

The failure of traditional media has become a topic of much debate, by the media itself, such as in Wall Street Journal's Live Mint and Yahoo News, as well as by well-known bloggers including David Henderson (Emmy award winning former CBS news correspondent) and Laurel Papworth (one of Australia's top experts on social media).

To finish with a quote from Laurel's post (link above),
As someone who doesn't have Cable TV I can - hand on heart - swear that I learnt nothing about #Mumbai from Australian MSM [Mainstream Media].

I relied totally on Twitter. Not because I wanted to, but because TV wouldn't interrupt Kerri Anne Kennerly or children's morning TV with real news.

Twitter filtered to me websites, and tidbits I couldn't get elsewhere. ALL news was broken to me by Twitter and the links they sent.

In amongst retweeting MSM were the REAL stories. Someone hearing the bombing while lying bed. Someone else driving past a hotel as it was attacked. A guy worried about his friend. I realised this: who on earth ever said that social commentary is not News? O.o

For me, MSM doesn't make the news, they simply report OUR stories. Just another filter. After people-in-crisis are interviewed on CNN India (I watched online, thanks to link sent by Twitter) they tell a friend, who puts it on Facebook or Twitter or MySpace. More links to real stories.

Australian Media is dead. It failed to meet my needs (I channel hopped from 9:30am until about 4pm hoping for new News) and by the time the 6 O'clock News came on, MSM was simply retweeting what I had already seen and heard through Twitter links.

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