Why I think the world is better with bloggers and wikipedia

December 18, 2007

A recent story I heard illustrates why I think we live in an age of transparency as never before and why I think that is a very good thing. It also illustrates why millions of “citizen journalists,” bloggers, social media participants, user content providers or whatever you want to call them have made this a more open, honest and truthful world.

It was at our company Christmas party and the husband of one of our employees relayed the story of his incredible experience as a hijack victim in 1985. It was Air Egypt flight 648 from Athens to Cairo. Our subject was a young American traveling the world. The plane was hijacked by three members of the Abu Nidal Palestinian terrorist organization brandishing guns and hand grenades with pulled pins. A gun battle on board with a sky marshall killed one hijacker. The plane landed on Malta and the hijackers threatened to kill one passenger every fifteen minutes if their demands for more fuel to fly to Libya were not met. A young Israeli woman was the first–brought to the front by the door, shot in the head and dumped out of the plane. Fifteen minutes later, the second Israeli woman was brought forward and was also shot and dumped. Our friend was next, hands tied behind his back, talking to two American women who would follow him. He was called forward, tried to jump from the plane, was shot in the back of the head, but miraculously survived–not only the shot, but the 12 foot fall from the plane face forward with his hands still tied.

The hijackers had allowed 11 Egyptians to get off the plane but there were more than 70 left when our friend made his miraculous escape. It turned out he was one of the few fortunate ones, because the Egyptian commandos arrived, attacked the plane with grenades, automatic weapons, started the plane on fire, and killed anyone indiscriminately. 60 of those left on the plane died in the “rescue.” One of the few who survived it was an Englishman who ended up in the hospital next to our friend. He told the media repeatedly how the Egyptians botched the rescue and caused so many needless deaths, but it was simply not reported. The story was that the terrorists blew up the plane.
Why? Why would the international media not tell the truth? This was an era of strained relations between Egypt and the US but a need for strong cooperation in trying to get peace with Israel. Egypt had been embarrassed when the US forced an Air Egypt flight down with F-15s to capture a terrorist leader, and they needed to prove to the west they could be tough on the terrorists. So, pure speculation, but is it possible that the Reagan administration made it clear at least to US news media that telling the real story of the botched rescue would harm Mid-East peace hopes? It is possible and plausible. Which leads me to my point.

Let’s say any administration or powerful entity attempted to influence the coverage of such a volatile story today. Would they have any hope of success? No, and therefore wouldn’t even think of it. We now have so many and varied sources of information that it seems impossible the truth would escape from the great many who seek to reveal the “true” story. Sure, there is a lot of junk, garbage, misinformation, hidden and non-hidden agendas in all the blog coverage of events of the day. But the some total is, in my mind, much more likely to be true than when the power to inform the public was held by a handful who controlled the machines of mass media.

Wikipedia provides another example. Despite its early detractors who couldn’t believe a user generated information source could possibly be accurate, it is now known to be nearly as–or perhaps more–accurate than the most credible encyclopedias. And it is the sheer number of participants that helps make it so. I am writing a book on a survivor of Buchenwald and went to Wikipedia to get additional info. There I found a report that the Allied airmen who got sent to Buchenwald arrived in April, 1944. Well, I am writing the eyewitness account of one of those fighter pilots and I know for a fact that the group of 168 did not arrive until August 20, 1944 and were rescued from there on October 20, 1944. So I commented on the post and provided my source. Sure enough, my information was incorporated into the report with the citation to my source.

Now I can’t contribute much to the overall knowledge in the world, and very few people perhaps care whether or not these airmen arrived in April or August. But as an amateur historian I care a lot and so do the millions of others who have specialized knowledge and both use and contribute to wikipedia.

I am glad we live in a post-media world, where many many millions more are contributing to the information, knowledge and discussion that we all benefit from.


6 Responses to “Why I think the world is better with bloggers and wikipedia”

  1. Jimmy Jazz Says:

    It’s an exciting time, Gerald.

    I think often about the FEMA “press conference” in California a few months back. Literally two years ago, no one would have known the difference. Today, with the advent of online fact-checking, citizen journalism, and socially-aggregated knowledge (similar to wikipedia; I thought X was weird, and comment on a blog post about X, someone else sees my post and makes a connection to something that only they would know, and thus, socially-aggregated knowledge), the story broke early and hard. Days of good work were undone because of one bone-headed mistake.

    I think this will make for more honest communications, and hopefully lead to restoring folks’ belief in government and PR people. If we’re going to get caught every time we lie, it will make us (or those evil PR people who we will not name) not lie anymore.


  2. gbaron Says:

    Jimmy, I appreciate your comment. However, I have a different take on the FEMA event, especially after talking extensively to one of those involved. I wish the bloggers had picked up on it–they missed the real story here in my mind. Did you know, for example, that it was the reporters themselves who asked that the line they called in on be muted? They didn’t want the noise factor to interfere with the information provided. There was a comedy of errors in planning that was turned into something far more intentional and sinister by the time the “infotainers” got through with it. Then you add in the political types who were running for cover so fast that they didn’t care who they stumbled over or whose valued reputation they destroyed to make themselves look innocent and good. And the fault finding and name calling they engaged in made further fodder for the infotainers.

  3. Basho Says:

    Gerald, I think you have made some unrealistically broad brush strokes. First of all, what do you think is the average readership of a typical blog? Do you think that an English patient who survived a hijacking could really get his story out in a blog, and that he wouldn’t, if his story contradicted the official line, be cast as some sort of wing-nut with an agenda to push? I mean, haven’t there always been eye-witnesses who dispute official lines? How do you imagine the blog-roll would be able to counter whatever silencing methods have been effective in the past? There is, ultimately, a limit to the number of news sources any person can have, and for most people that is not going to include blogs.

    Secondly, do you think Wikipedia doesn’t have its own “official line?”

  4. Jimmy Jazz Says:

    In the absence of the whole story, apparently, I’ll take your word for it.

    But doesn’t the whole episode teach us a valuable lesson about being very, very good at communicating the entire story rather than just throwing something together. We in communications hopefully will learn a great lesson from it – be on point, or go home.

  5. Basho,

    You could certainly argue that the “English patient” would be cast as a wingnut. The difference with him posting on his own blog is that we now have the opportunity to hear from him directly. In the past, the lone dissenter’s position was exclusively reported by the very people he was contradicting — major media.

    Additionally, the wingnuts have taken to using the Internet to organize themselves more effectively. As such, he’d certainly find traction even if it were among fringe groups. And, if you want to know just how effective a fringe group can be, I have two words for you: “Swift Boat”. Sometimes all that is needed is a little bit of turmoil.

    Finally, Gerald neglects to mention two other major factor that would’ve been in play were such a hijacking to take place today: 1) The mass proliferation of cameras w/ near-instant global messaging capabilities. and 2) the ability for hijack victims to communicate w/ directly the outside world. Hijackers.

    RE: 1) In order to control the message, I’d imagine the Egyptians would’ve also had to control the imagery of the rescue. Back then, that was a lot easier. Film has to be developed and can, along with tapes, be confiscated. Digital images/video/audio on my cell phone can be distributed in an instant.

    RE: 2) While some may have learned their lesson after 9/11 and Flight 93, it’s not infeasible that one or more passengers on such a plane could communicate via SMS or even voice on their cell phone during such an event. Also, live witnesses (non-media) could easily broadcast/record their eyewitness account by calling a friend or their own voicemail. I can just see the Twitter message: “On a plane that is being hijacked”

  6. gbaron Says:

    Cameron, excellent point about the ubiquitousness of video capturing and the role that plays in transparency. I made that point a few posts ago about a news story caught on cell video. But it is an essential part of the mix today–just look at the Vancouver taser death video which contradicted what the RCMP was saying and caused them all kinds of problems.

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