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Peace Times Edition 60

9 October 2006 No Comment

Editorial Note

This edition of Peace Times went into production the week of the U.S. mid-term elections. For U.S. readers, regardless of party affiliation, the run-up to the election is probably already a welcome and consciously distant memory of attack ads, endless YouTube clips of campaign speech gaffes, and an incessant drip drip of scandal and leaks. However the 2008 U.S. Presidential election is already on the horizon. And with Iraq and North Korea nowhere close to resolution, the next election’s outcome is likely to be watched worldwide with even more scrutiny than usual.

In the coming months the American voter is likely to be bombarded with ever more information that is expected to be partisan, emotive, massaged to suit vested interests, and often geared more towards the bottom line of media corporations than the greater good of public awareness. The rest of the world is increasingly subject to the glut of “infotainment” that leaves many Americans jaded and frequently misinformed. Did we mention that news now travels at hyperspeed on the Internet? So how do we separate fact from fiction in the age of the Internet? And as connectivity increases, how do we embrace technology and surf over the approaching tipping point of information for the better, rather than crash for the worse?

This edition of Peace Times talks to three people to get answers—Dr. Sarah McCue, PEACE X PEACE’s new President, Sheldon Rampton of the Center for Media and Democracy, and Fabrice Florin of NewsTrust. Their consensus: It is possible to remain well-informed amid the noise. The solution frequently begins with adapting the PEACE X PEACE Circle principle of listening without judgment, of taking a moment before refusing to engage with points of view that differ from our own.

Sarah McCue: From the Terminal to the Wiki

“I had an Aha! moment when I sent my first email in 1986,” says Dr. Sarah McCue, PEACE X PEACE’s new President. “I realized that someday this terminal, as they were calling it, would allow anyone, anywhere the chance to communicate across borders and cultures at virtually no cost.” McCue has seized every opportunity for connectivity since that first email. “From the terminal to Wikis, the Internet has allowed me to expand my horizons, reach out to people who were previously unreachable, and create economic opportunity that would have been almost impossible.”

McCue comes to PEACE X PEACE from an accomplished career that includes 10 years at the U.N. and the World Bank and nine years with an international business development organization. She brings a focus that marries women’s economic empowerment and community with technology. So it follows that McCue was a natural fit for her new job of leading PEACE X PEACE into its next phase of growth and development. In fact, she says, “It was a similar Aha! moment when I saw the position announcement for President. My heart started beating a little faster and I thought, This can’t be. This is exactly the kind of organization I want to be part of!

While McCue’s passion for connectivity and communication is a reflection of her own drive, it is also comes from lived experience. McCue was raised in a working class environment where women weren’t always encouraged to achieve or look outside their immediate surroundings. As a result she is keenly aware that women are served particularly well by connections and relationships across borders and cultures, or even within one’s own country.

McCue has convened and nurtured her own technology Circle in person and via email for nearly 10 years. She is quick to add that many moments of professional and personal mentorship have come of it. “Every time I am in my Circle it changes my life in some way, because either I’ve helped someone or someone has helped me.” Her favorite example is that of connecting two colleagues with a shared interest in cyber-security at one of her Circle meetings. “The result is a corporation that now advises central banks and corporations on how electronic systems can be protected from criminal hackers. In fact, they’re working with the U.S. State Department to create secure systems for non-governmental organizations and activists to communicate without government spying on their email.”

McCue also stresses that the sense of connection and community is crucial for women. “Connection allows women to learn from each other, communicate across cultures, and create economic opportunity. It’s so important to get to know a woman in her life, her challenges, what’s happening in her home and community. When we forge those cultural bonds through simple emails we start developing connections among women that are powerful.”

However, McCue thinks we have yet to fully explore the human capacity to connect and create change through the Internet and organizations such as PEACE X PEACE that she says are on the cutting edge of a new social paradigm. And as someone who remembers being on the outside, McCue welcomes the Internet’s acceptance of anyone with access, and its ability to keep growing the wealth of information available. She is also unfazed by its sometimes chaotic potential to accommodate all opinions, for better or for worse. If anything, a multiple blogger* herself, McCue trusts the Internet’s self-corrective ability and the power of human curiosity to demand accuracy, accountability, and increasing awareness. “It’s not just one person’s opinion. It’s a venture that allows everyone to participate. Wikis, particularly like the one PEACE X PEACE has, are a collaborative venture that bring together collective wisdom and allow for deeper communication. And the more we embrace technology to communicate across borders and cultures, the less we rely on corporations to entertain and educate us.”  

McCue is aware of the challenges that lie ahead. “Building sustainable peace takes time and commitment. And often we don’t have either,” she says. So why did she take the job? “Just think of where we were 50 years ago and how isolated we were: It is worth the effort to connect, and you get out of connection what you put into it. PEACE X PEACE is about women everywhere using the most modern technologies to connect and build peace in their homes, community, and world. We’ve been given some profound gifts and it’s our challenge to use them.” Asked what’s next for PEACE X PEACE under her leadership, McCue replies, “Currently there is no global platform for women to connect, support, collaborate, and feel part of something that is making a difference. PEACE X PEACE is set to expand programs, enhance customer service, and create that platform so women can easily find and communicate with each other based on shared interests. When people ask where I am taking PEACE X PEACE my response is ‘Join us, fasten your seatbelt, and get ready to make a difference!‘”

* McCue was an early blogger. In addition to her personal blog, she maintains one to track a book project and the professional organizations she has founded – The Remembering Site and Women with 2020 Vision.

Staying Informed: Fact, Fiction, and Everything In Between

Sheldon Rampton and Fabrice Florin echo PEACE X PEACE President Dr. McCue’s assessment that staying informed and mastering the Internet rather than being overwhelmed by it are matters of commitment: You get out of the Internet what you put into it. Specifically, you have to take the time to ask questions, suspend disbelief, and accept the challenge to step out of your comfort zone.

“You have to grow your own ability to discriminate, to ask questions, and find out if something is quality journalism or not. Because it’s a combination of media literacy with attention to what you’re reading,” says Fabrice Florin, a former journalist and founder of NewsTrust. This interactive non-profit organization engages the public in distinguishing quality journalism from spin. “I wouldn’t minimize how difficult it is because it involves time and effort,” acknowledges Rampton, Research Director at the Center for Media and Democracy and co-author of The Best War Ever.

As Florin’s NewsTrust research demonstrates, most people tend to ask themselves two questions about a story: Do I agree with the story? Do I like it? Few have the incentive, or time, to delve deeper. The result, says Rampton, is a public that is “apathetic and alarmed about the wrong things, and generally poorly informed.” Florin observes that with public relations and massaged messaging skillfully offered up as news, the public can’t always tell fact from spin and fiction. With the advent of blogs, the situation becomes more complex. On the one hand, there is no question that blogs and the resulting citizen journalism hold the media to a higher level of accountability. On the other hand, it is that much easier to get lost, stay willfully unaware, or seek opinions that confirm bias.

“I think what we need is the equivalent of a Weight Watchers for information, where we help people create the right information diet for themselves,” says Florin. “We need to tell people you’ve been gorging on entertainment shows and reading way too many opinions. You ought to balance that out with factual information. While you’re at it, read stuff that you don’t agree with and throw in some international coverage.”

So what is the public to do, and where should it start? Particularly the American public, which is increasingly expected to make informed choices and own results of decisions that can affect thousands worldwide?

Both men say that beyond applying the filter of common sense, everyone today should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Do I trust this source?
  • Is it a fair story?
  • Does it provide factual evidence?
  • Are there multiple points of view?
  • Is the language inflammatory and emotive?
  • Is it too good to be true?
  • Is it realistic?
  • Is it on an issue that I don’t know much about?

The last question is crucial, because although information is acquired and disseminated with blinding speed, the Internet also makes it possible for people to live in a bubble, hewing to points of view they already like and agree with.

Because we have so many sources of information, it is that much easier to lock out the unpleasant, inconvenient, or different perspectives that aren’t of immediate and tangible interest. The result, says Rampton, is an easier sell for misinformation, or worse. “Propaganda works best when it reaches people who are only lightly informed, hence more easily manipulated.”   

Both Rampton and Florin agree that at least one antidote to the situation is keeping an open mind, stepping out of one’s comfort zone, and doing what PEACE X PEACE refers to as listening without judgment. Rampton says that is an age old challenge for human beings. “When we encounter something contrary to our beliefs we have a tendency to dismiss it quickly,” he says. “It takes a leap of faith to suspend disbelief, look at a story on its own merits regardless of whether we agree, ask questions.” Adds Florin, “All the technology in the world won’t solve the problem. It can support your intent but first you have to be willing to make a change.”

You can listen to the complete interviews with Dr. Sarah McCue, and Sheldon Rampton and Fabrice Florin. Be sure to update Quicktime on your computer for the best results.

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About the Author

Mary Liepold is the Editor-in-Chief at Peace X Peace. To reach Dr. Liepold, email maryl@peacexpeace.org.
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