Missing Links

The YouTube Effect

How a technology for teenagers became a force for political and economic change.

A video shows a single line of people slowly trudging up a snow-covered footpath. A shot is heard; the first person in line falls. A voice-over says, "They are shooting them like dogs." Another shot, and another body drops to the ground. A uniformed Chinese soldier fires his rifle again. Then, a group of soldiers examines the fallen bodies.

These images were captured high in the Himalayas by a member of a mountaineering expedition who claims to have stumbled upon the killing. The video first aired on Romanian television, but it only gained worldwide attention when it was posted on YouTube, the popular video-sharing Web site. Human rights groups explained that the slain were a group of Tibetan refugees that included monks, women, and children. According to the Chinese government, the soldiers had fired in self-defense after they were attacked by 70 refugees. The posted video seems to render that explanation absurd. The U.S. ambassador to China quickly lodged a complaint protesting China’s treatment of the refugees.

Welcome to the YouTube effect. It is the phenomenon whereby video clips, often produced by individuals acting on their own, are rapidly disseminated throughout the world thanks to video-sharing Web sites such as YouTube, Google Video, and others. Every month, YouTube receives 20 million visitors, who watch 100 million video clips a day. There are 65,000 new videos posted every day. Most of the videos are frivolous, produced by and for teenagers. But some are serious. YouTube includes videos posted by terrorists, human rights groups, and U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Some are clips of incidents that have political consequences or document important trends, such as global warming, illegal immigration, and corruption. Some videos reveal truths. Others spread disinformation, propaganda, and outright lies. All are part of the YouTube effect.

Fifteen years ago, the world marveled at the fabled "CNN effect." The expectation was that the unblinking eyes of TV cameras, beyond the reach of censors, would bring greater accountability and transparency to governments and the international system. These expectations were, in some sense, fulfilled. Since the early 1990s, electoral frauds that might have remained hidden were exposed, democratic uprisings energized, famines contained, and wars started or stopped, thanks to the CNN effect. But the YouTube effect will be even more intense. Although the BBC, CNN, and other international news operations employ thousands of professional journalists, they will never be as omnipresent as millions of people carrying a cell phone that can record video. Thanks to their ubiquity, the world was able to witness a shooting on a 19,000-foot mountain pass.

This phenomenon is amplified by a double echo chamber: One is produced when content first posted on the Web is re-aired by mainstream TV networks. The second occurs when television moments, even the most fleeting, gain a permanent presence thanks to bloggers or activists who redistribute them through Web sites like YouTube. Activists everywhere are recognizing the power of citizen-produced and Web-distributed videos as the ultimate testimony. The human rights group Witness arms individuals in conflict zones with video cameras so they can record and expose human rights abuses. Electoral watchdogs are taping elections. Even Islamic terrorists have adapted to this trend. Al Qaeda created a special media production unit called Al Sahab ("The Cloud"), which routinely posts its videos online, with the realistic expectation that they will be picked up by major media outlets and other Web sites.

The YouTube effect has brought other mixed blessings. It is now harder to know what to believe. How do we know that what we see in a video clip posted by a "citizen journalist" is not a montage? How do we know, for example, that the YouTube video of terrorized American soldiers crying and praying for their lives while under fire was filmed in Iraq and not staged somewhere else to manipulate public opinion? The more than 86,000 people who viewed it in the first 10 days of its posting will never know.

Governments are already feeling the heat of the YouTube effect. The U.S. military recently ordered its soldiers to stop posting videos unless they have been vetted. The Iranian government restricts connection speeds to limit its people's access to video streaming. These measures have not stopped the proliferation of Web videos shot by U.S. soldiers in Iraq, or savvy Iranians from viewing the images they want to see. And, though Beijing has been effective in censoring the content its citizens can view, it has yet to figure out a way to prevent a growing number of videos of peasant rebellions from being posted online. In the long run, all such efforts will fail.

When it comes to having faith in what we see online, the good news is that the YouTube effect is already creating a strong demand for reliable guides -- individuals, institutions, and technologies that we can trust to help us sort facts from lies. That is important, because the hope of countering the downsides of the YouTube effect will never come from government intervention. Markets and democracy do a much better job of filtering the bad from the good in the confusing tsunami of Web videos coming our way. The millions of bloggers who are constantly watching, fact-checking, and exposing mistakes are a powerful example of "the wisdom of crowds" at work. Sure, markets and democracies often fail or disappoint. But the openness these political and economic forces promote are now being assisted by a technology that is as omnipresent as we are.

Missing Links

The Hidden Pandemic

How crime is quietly becoming a global killer.

In the past five years, the bird flu epidemic claimed 186 victims worldwide. In the same period, another less-recognized but growing menace maimed or killed millions of people and produced massive economic losses. Like others, this dangerous pandemic ignores national borders and erupts in different places at different times. Inexplicably, it has surged in Boston and abated in Bogotá. Experts disagree about its precise causes and what explains its sudden eruptions. Unlike bird flu, it is not caused by a virus transmitted from one species to another; it is exclusively created and spread by people. I am talking about street crime.

The world is experiencing a crime pandemic. Crime rates are on the rise almost everywhere, and these statistics typically are distinct from the death and mayhem that comes with terrorism, civil war, or major conflict. The data reflect the booming number of civilians assaulted, robbed, or murdered by other civilians who live in the same city, often in the same neighborhood. Frequently, the victims are as poor as the criminals.

Crime has increased steadily for all the countries the United Nations measures, according to a 2003 U.N. report. Even in the United States, where crime rates famously declined since the mid-1990s, violent crime has risen sharply in the past two years. In 2005, violent crime had its largest annual increase in 15 years. The Police Executive Research Forum, a U.S. law enforcement association, reports that homicides increased in 71 percent of the American cities that were surveyed, robberies increased in 80 percent of them, and aggravated assaults with guns increased in 67 percent between 2004 and 2006. In Boston, murder rates are at an 11-year high. Crime is also a major problem in Britain; the European Union (EU) calls it a "high crime country."

Of course, the United States and Europe are still relative paradises compared to other countries. In many, the situation has gotten so bad that frustrated citizens in Johannesburg, Mexico City, and even Milan have staged massive marches to protest the inability of their governments to protect them. And they are right. The streets of many cities have become more dangerous than war zones. Postcard-perfect Rio de Janeiro, for example, has become more dangerous than the bullet-riddled Gaza Strip. According to the Washington Post, 729 Palestinian and Israeli minors died as a result of violence and terrorism between 2002 and 2006. Yet in that same period, 1,857 minors were murdered in Rio.

And Brazil is not even at the top of the list. The world's most murderous region is the Caribbean, followed by South and West Africa, and then South America. But the trend is global. Russia’s homicide rate is roughly 20 times higher than Western Europe’s. Rising crime rates are also reported throughout Asia.

In the poorest countries, the consequences of high crime rates are crippling. Crime increases the costs of doing business and makes countries less competitive. High crime rates can also scare away investors. "We were making good money in Colombia in the mid-90s," the CEO of one multinational corporation told me. "But I decided that there was not enough money in the world to compensate for the despair that I felt during the many sleepless nights I spent worrying about my kidnapped colleagues there. We paid the ransom, got them back … and left the country." The World Bank reckons that Latin America's economic growth could be 8 percent higher if its crime rates dropped.

But the main reason to reduce crime rates is not to spur economic growth or attract foreign investors. The paramount purpose is to give citizens the right to walk their streets -- or stay home -- without fearing for their lives, a basic human expectation that millions around the world are increasingly losing.

Unfortunately, while the consequences of high crime rates are clear, their causes are far less so. Consider, for example, the notion that crime is the inevitable consequence of poverty. This idea is as common as it is wrong. There is no correlation between poverty and crime. Some poor countries have high crime rates; others don’t. Russia is far richer than Costa Rica, but its crime rates are substantially higher than those of Costa Rica. Some have suggested that crime rates may be explained by the strength of religious institutions, measured by church attendance and involvement in religious activities. Again, the statistical evidence isn’t there. Countries with high church attendance rates, such as Guatemala or the Philippines, for example, can also be plagued by murder.

So what drives up crime rates? Researchers can agree upon little beyond the general notion that crime soars in places where there is a combination of a high percentage of young males, ample drugs, and easy access to guns. Economic inequality and urbanization also accelerate crime rates (but experts disagree by how much). And, once criminal behavior takes root in a neighborhood or city, it takes a long time and an immense effort to reclaim the streets.

It is easy to dismiss growing crime rates as either a local problem or one that has been with us since time immemorial. But that would be a major mistake. Because, though we may have recently lost ground, the problem has the potential to be a far greater global nightmare. Consider China and India. They have growing populations of young males, growing levels of economic inequality, and rapid urbanization. And, though drugs and guns are still relatively hard to come by, they're becoming easier to obtain every day. If these two nations become more like other poor countries in this regard, too, their crime rates could soar to unimagined levels. Suffice it to say, the crime pandemic would never be hidden from anyone again.