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'A Smart Mob Is Not Necessarily a Wise Mob'
Text of the OhmyNews 2008 Forum keynote by Howard Rheingold
Howard Rheingold (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2008-06-30 09:51 (KST)   


Hello this is Howard Rheingold speaking to you from northern California.

I want to take this opportunity to speak to Korean people who are involved in the very exciting street demonstrations that bring together the power of technology and self-organization and political expression.

I want to pose an important question to you because I think that Korea has the opportunity to demonstrate to the world how we can evolve better forms of democracy that involve more people through the mediation of technology.

And the question I want to pose to you is this:

How can we make sure that smart mobs become smarter rather than more mob-like?

So let me explain that. Let me start by explaining a little bit about myself. Today I teach at Stanford University and the University of California but for many years I've been a participant in online activity. And I've been an observer, I've written a number of books. I've started companies.

I've also have been a political activist going back to the 1960's when there were street demonstrations in my country in the USA, protesting the war in Vietnam. And from what I see from here I think you're at a very important stage, not only in citizen journalism but in the evolution of smart mobs in democracies.

Many of you may have read my book which was published in 2002, but I will briefly explain where that came from for those of you who have not. In 2000 and 2001, I noticed that things were happening in the world. There were the political demonstrations in Manila that were organized by people using SMS text messaging on their mobile phones and we were seeing a number of groups on the Internet doing things that groups had not done before. With Wikipedia, creating knowledge, with open-source software, creating software.

People were beginning to cooperate in ways that they weren't able to cooperate before. They were able to engage in what social scientists call collective action, doing things together, in ways they weren't able to before.

And my investigation revealed what I believe to be an important stage in human development in that every time there's a technology that enables people to communicate in new ways, whether it's speech, the alphabet, or printing or the Internet or the mobile phones, people develop literacies. They develop ways of using those technologies in communication media to do things together.

Science, technology, democracy, knowledge. Many of the aspects of the modern world really have been enabled by the literacies and collective action from the technologies that made print and the Internet possible.

Now we are seeing the merging of the Internet, the personal computer, the digital camera, the mobile telephone into some kind of new medium. We're really at the beginning of that.

I was very excited when my book was published in the Korean language as well, to hear about the demonstrations that happened in Korea around the election of President Roh. And I've cited that as an example of the last minute "get-out-the-vote" campaign that tipped the election. Since then, there were of course events in Madrid where there were terrorist bombings and the government claimed that it was by the Basque separatist groups. But Spanish citizens didn't believe what the government was telling them and they turned out in mass demonstrations and again tipped the election in favor of the eventual winner.

So these are all instances in the Philippines, in Korea, in Spain where the Head of State is the Head of State because a large number of people spontaneously self-organized because they were able to do so courtesy of the media that are now available to them.

I've been tracking events all around the world, in the USA, in Africa, in Asia, in China, in Korea, and I think that there is one common theme, I think the really powerful, mass demonstrations that we're seeing in Korea today have to do with people being very dissatisfied with their government. They believe their government is lying to them, or they believe that their government is not listening to them. And those demonstrations have had an effect.

But I think that, again to go back to my experience as an activist and from what I've observed from around the world, it's necessary to begin evolving some mechanisms beyond simply calling people together, to demonstrate, to protest.

The role of journalism is essential. And of course I cite OhmyNews, as an example of citizen journalism for the rest of the world. And I'm excited to see that this kind of long-tail payment system is allowing citizens to fund as well as to practice citizen journalism.

It's important that OhmyNews and other citizen journalists establish a way of getting out information very quickly to people of what is true and what is not true.

Let me back up a little bit and talk about the role of journalism in democracy because I know that a free press and democracy in Korea is rather younger than it is in my country, in the USA.

When I started studying online interaction, I wrote a book called "Virtual Communities" way back in the 1990's, I asked myself, what's the most important aspect of people beginning to use the Internet to communicate with each other and of course I concluded that the question of personal liberty, are individuals going to able to secure more freedom for themselves or are states going to be able to impose authoritarian or totalitarian regimes on people?

And that led me to the political theory about the public sphere which very briefly says that in order to have democracy you need to have information flowing in two directions. You need to have accurate and true information about the workings of the State, the people who make the policies that influence citizens cannot do so in secret. It is the duty of journalists to find out what the policy makers are saying.

Information has to flow in the other direction, which is known as public opinion. Citizens of a free society must be informed enough, they must have good information, and they must be free enough to communicate with each other, so that they can debate issues, so that their opinions, their informed opinions can influence policy.

One of the things that these street demonstrations is doing is that it's voicing public opinion. In the long-run though, is that opinion based on accurate information and are the strategies that people are using, are those in the long run, going to able to influence public policy.

So let me talk to the first part of that, about accuracy of information. The problem with the Internet is the same thing as the great power of the Internet. Anyone can publish. There is a huge amount of knowledge on the Internet and a great deal of untrue knowledge. A lot of rumors spread very quickly, here in the USA during the political season, people get emails saying very untrue things about candidates and many people believe it. We don't really have a central source, besides the traditional media, the mainstream media to go to find out accuracy.

What journalists should do when they hear about a story is to track down the source and find out if those sources are accurate, to find multiple sources and compare them against each other. To try to find experts. To try to do independent research. To see whether the rumor is true and should be broadcast or whether the rumor is not true and people should be told that.

In the age of citizen media where everyone is a reporter, we have even more need for that kind of fact checking mechanism to be something more people know about and that is instituted more and more quickly.

So, I am not an expert on Korean politics. I don't understand all of the aspects of what is happening now. But I understand that part of the demonstrations have to do with people's unhappiness with the government importing beef from the USA. I don't understand issues about international trade. I understand there is a great deal of unhappiness among citizens about your Korean government's policies with the USA. I'm not entirely well versed on that.

There needs to be a way for people to check these rumors and people need to understand that they need to check rumors to find out whether they're true.

All the pieces are in place.

You have activists who are ready to pay attention to OhmyNews and other sources. You have citizen reporters, you have editors, you have I think all the pieces in place to show the rest of the world how can we move from just spontaneous demonstrations, to demonstrations that can build movements and influence policy.

So again, very briefly, let me talk about my own experience.

During the 1960s, young people -- I was a young person at that time -- were very upset with our government's policies and we demonstrated -- and there were violent demonstrations -- in the streets of the USA. Particularly around the presidential election, the Democratic Party was disrupted by that and it took many, many years for young people to come back into politics.

And during that time, the people we opposed, the policies we opposed -- because they knew how to manipulate the levers of power -- they knew how to make legislation and elect presidents -- they continued to dominate political events.

It takes more than just demonstrations.

You need to organize people to elect. You need to speak to your elected officials and say, "We have a large number of votes and we're prepared to vote those votes to a candidate who will defeat you."

The demonstrations are important, but they are just the beginning.

How do you build movements? There needs to be rational, critical debate among citizens. Citizens need to use the Internet and other media to talk about issues, to use the news media -- OhmyNews citizen journalism and mainstream media -- and what kind of research can they do on the Internet to find out what's true and what's not true, and to debate policies.

Until citizen are able to do that in an informed way, and in a rational way, their demonstrations may be doomed ultimately to the kind of failure that demonstrations were doomed to in the USA.

You need to be able to influence the political apparatus in a democracy, in order to have a long-term influence.

So, let me briefly summarize.

I think it is very true that access to very advanced technology in Korea -- the vast majority of the population that understands how to use that technology -- the way people are mobilizing around street demonstrations as they did during the presidential election as they're doing now. The emergence of citizen journalism such as OhmyNews and the kind of long tail payments that are enabling citizens to pay for that journalism.

All of those are elements that make Korea really the vanguard -- the most advanced country in the world for the development of smart mobs, which is really a combination of technology, politics and social movements.

I'm urging you to think about ways to make your smart mobs smarter, rather than more mob-like. In our country, after we won our Revolution against the British and won our independence, citizens argued about what form of government we were going to take.

And there were two fears that really shaped our Constitution. One was fear of the tyrant. Of the State that dominated the individual and took away individual liberties.

But the other fear is an important one. The fear of the mob. The fear of the spontaneous -- maybe manipulated -- uncontrolled groups of people who don't really know the consequences of their actions. And who may cause more destruction that construction.

So our democracy was formulated to balance the fear of the tyrant against the fear of the mob.

The smart mob is today -- and has been demonstrated around the world -- a tool that citizens have to speak back to the State. To resist tyranny.

However, there is the danger of it becoming a mob.

In Nigeria, there were riots around the Miss World Pageant, where people died. Around the world, protests against the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Many people were summoned to those using SMS and those were destructive demonstrations.

And in Australia, white racists were able to summon others to beat up people on the beaches using the same technology.

A smart mob is not necessarily a wise mob.

The technology itself does not guarantee peace or democracy. It really requires a literacy. It requires an informed citizenry. Journalism plays a role in that. Journalism brings to the people news they need to know about the workings of the State. And it helps bring public opinion to the policy makers to know that they cannot make policy that goes against the majority of opinions of the citizens.

So, I'm hoping that many people who are involved in these very exciting expressions of democracy will understand that they are at the beginning -- not at the end -- of this process. And they have the opportunity to lead the world in making our smart mobs smarter, rather than more mob-like.

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-Transcribed by Cynthia Yoo and Todd Thacker
©2008 OhmyNews

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