11 may 2009

Digital information technology weakens institutional power in a crisis

Policy

Nik Gowing is a Visiting Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

In a moment of major, unexpected crisis the institutions of power – whether political, governmental, military or corporate – face a new, acute vulnerability of both their influence and effectiveness, according to a study published today (11 May) by Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ).

In Skyful of Lies and Black Swans, the award winning TV news presenter and Visiting Fellow at the RISJ, Nik Gowing, highlights the ‘new fragility and brittleness’ of those institutions in a crisis.

Gowing’s study is a warning to those institutions about the policy impact of what he describes as the ‘fast proliferating and ubiquitous breed of “information-doers”’. He argues that the unprecedented mass ability to record dramatic, unfolding events on cheap, lightweight technologies is defining a new, broader, almost infinite media matrix. Routinely it wrong foots and catches the institutions of power off guard in a crisis, leaving them open to accusations and the appearance of failure.

In the study he says: ‘This global electronic reach catches institutions unaware… Technological changes are redefining, broadening and fragmenting the media landscape in dramatic ways… Even in the most remote and hostile location, hundreds of millions of electronic eyes and ears are creating a capacity for scrutiny and new demands for accountability. It is way beyond the assumed power and influence of the traditional media.’

Gowing warns that in this new, almost unlimited new media matrix, the unfolding events revealed rapidly by ‘information doers’ create new public expectations for almost immediate real-time accountability from the institutions of power. Yet in so doing, they routinely expose policy weaknesses and institutional shortcomings in the handling of crises. He concludes that most institutions of power are still in denial about the new media realities. 

Even in the most remote and hostile location, hundreds of millions of electronic eyes and ears are creating a capacity for scrutiny and new demands for accountability

Nik Gowing

The two-year study draws on candid revelations by politicians, officials and corporate executives during extensive interviews. It analyses examples where the public positions of institutions have been undermined by the new ‘information doer’ matrix of social media. These include major crises involving NATO and the US military in Afghanistan, the British military in Iraq, and the Metropolitan Police over the handling of the 7/7 bombings and shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.

This trend of ‘institutional vulnerability’ was demonstrated by events just before the study’s publication. Video taken by a New York banker in the City of London during the G20 protests in April first exposed the questionable nature of police actions in the moments before newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson died. This video challenged the police account of what led to his death and encouraged other ‘information doers’ to come forward with more video coverage - prompting damaging reputational questions about the behaviour of officers. 

A key finding is that such real-time information flows in a crisis produce real-time insight into a developing crisis, which is far more rapid and comprehensive than the institutions of power are primed to embrace or respond to.

The study concludes that to maintain credibility in a crisis the institutions must assert themselves as swiftly and self confidently as the media. Yet, Gowing says far too often institutions succumb to weaknesses of what he labels the ‘F3 dilemma’. ‘Should they be first to enter the information space? How fast should they do it? But how flawed might the first position they take turn out to be?’ His view is that the working assumption for institutions must be that they need to act to fill that space even if much remains uncertain.

He says: ‘The new real-time media realities are harsh. But once understood, embraced and acted upon the proposed solutions are compelling. They represent a path to institutional effectiveness and credibility when these are currently lacking.’