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Citizens: The New Fourth Estate

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Citizens are taking to the streets in cities across the world to demand greater accountability from their leaders in a surge not seen since the end of World War I. The issues differ from country to country -- against graft, violations of the rights of women, exploitation of the environment or the abuse of privilege -- but they all demonstrate a hunger for good governance and the power of the new media. These citizen uprisings represent a new force on the world stage that serves as a counterweight to the excesses of our current political order, whether democratic or authoritarian. The grass-roots are stirring and politicians everywhere must pay attention.

As these pages themselves testify, the news media have traditionally played an essential role as our watchdog over government, a "fourth estate" that guards against abuse of power. From Watergate to today's exposures of the NSA's surveillance activities, the news media shed light on the workings of government and provide a public forum for the debate of our laws and policies. But with the decline of traditional news outlets, particularly on the local level, there are concerns that the power of the press has been compromised and that our freedoms have been curtailed.

Not so. Citizens are the new Fourth Estate. As the new media disrupt the industrial model of information, citizens have become empowered to oversee the doings of their elected representatives. A more direct form of democracy is emerging. The availability of information and, more importantly, the ability to communicate and self-organize has created a diverse "citizens movement" that serves as a check and balance on the prerogatives of government. It is a worldwide phenomenon. Millions of citizens have taken to the streets of Sao Paulo, Tel Aviv, Manila, Madrid and Bangkok demanding good governance and an end to corruption. Demonstrators have swept away autocratic governments in scores of countries. Citizens in India demand protection from rape. In China tens of millions of bloggers have become a virtual citizens lobby pushing for environmental change, blocking huge new dams and petrochemical plants. In Italy and other European countries new citizen parties have emerged to challenge established political powers.

The new media enhance rather than compete with traditional journalism in defending the public trust. Citizen journalists have expanded the reach and the scope of established news organizations. Whistleblowers or traitors, depending on your political orientation, are piercing the veils of government secrecy. Social media activists have ignited revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Iran and Syria. Although attention has focused on these so-called Facebook and Twitter revolts, it should not be forgotten that traditional mass media outlets like Al Jazeera and CNN vastly magnified their power. When Mohammed Bouazizzi self-immolated in Tunisia sparking the Arab Spring, videos on YouTube spread word of spontaneous protests. But it wasn't until Al Jazeera's Arab-language Mubasher network broadcast these cellphone images on satellite television that a veritable conflagration engulfed the Arab world. The symbiotic relationship of old and new media plus investigative journalism from independent non-profit organizations like ProPublica have brought a greater degree of transparency to governments than has ever existed before.

Now that almost everyone on the planet has access to a mobile phone, news reports, pictures and opinions can come from everywhere and anyone. Traditional journalism continues to sort, contextualize and analyze the vast data that is available and has the training, the skills and the credibility to tell the story. But a new citizens movement is now emerging that has the people power to demand accountability from our governments, whether in America or in China. There are certainly risks that these newly empowered citizens could become pawns for populist demagogues, but this is far more likely to happen when the media are controlled by a few than when there are multiple and independent sources of information.

Politicians everywhere fear the crowd. They try to control the powerful new tools of communication, they censor the content they don't like and they tighten their secrecy regimes against leakers and whistleblowers. This will only harden the resolve of the emerging citizens movement. Instead of manipulating and monitoring its speech and activities, political leaders should embrace this surge in democracy. Sclerotic eighteenth century systems of representative government need to evolve into new forms of direct democracy. Let the peoples' voices be heard. Open up government data. End the surveillance state. The people demand full transparency. The citizens movement is not going away. It will increasingly assume its role as the watchdog of government.

David Hoffman is the author of Citizens Rising: Independent Journalism and the Spread of Democracy (CUNY Journalism Press)