Skyful of Lies and Black Swans: Who Controls Shifting Information Power in Crises? |

Skyful of Lies and Black Swans: Who Controls Shifting Information Power in Crises?

During Myanmar’s Saffron Revolution in September 2007, video footage and images of the escalating protests rapidly spread online and through news outlets around the world. They had been captured using mobile phones and sent out through internet cafes despite the junta’s attempts to clamp down. The junta would later dismiss reports on the protests as a “skyful of lies”, but seven years later, Myanmar’s transformation towards a civilian democracy is testimony to the impact of those days in 2007.

Former BBC World News presenter Nik Gowing used this example as the springboard for his lecture on September 22 at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), where he discussed how the sea change in information flows has affected power, politics and systems.  In the talk moderated by LKYSPP dean Kishore Mahbubani, Mr Gowing also noted the growing vulnerability of those in power and the need for them to fundamentally change how they react to events and information.

The advent of the public information space

The instinct of many authorities is still to deny inconvenient truths and blame “the damn media” in times of crisis, said Mr Gowing. This is not tenable for two reasons. One, the notion of media in the traditional sense no longer applies. In the new “public information space”, the ordinary person at the end of a mobile phone is almost as powerful as a minister or CEO. When MH17 exploded in the sky over Ukraine, many people’s instinct was to reach for their phones to take videos. One of those videos later showed two missiles apparently missing from a truck heading from Ukraine to the Russian border, providing supporting evidence for certain theories about the airliner’s fate.

The second reason is that the ubiquity of technology and social media has brought access to previously unreachable places at unprecedented speed. For instance, when a market bomb went off in remote Urumqi in May this year, killing 31, images appeared on Weibo within hours.

The vulnerability of authority

These trends have transformed how crises play out in real time. Mr Gowing argued that in the past, those in power had anywhere between six and 10 hours after an event to craft a response before the news reached a peak in public consciousness. Now, this peak or “information edge” has shifted to almost immediately after an event – sometimes even simultaneously as it happens.  

This means authorities will now have to manage the inevitable gap between the speed at which information is being produced, and the ability of systems to respond and control the situation in a timely manner. That also forces a new accountability on governments and journalists, he added. In addition, the new environment creates the potential for a “deficit of legitimacy” and a growing vulnerability of authority. Time lags in response to an event can create the perception that those in power are hiding something.

Yet, Mr Gowing argued, the challenge to institutional power is only beginning. Former Chief Information Officer of the White House Vivek Kundra once told him that the world has only seen 0.001 per cent of the implications that the new information environment has on power, he said.

Tyranny of the timeline

The new public information space can be “cruel and arbitrary” in the challenges it poses to CEOs and governments, who cannot always predict crises. Mr Gowing called this a “tyranny of the timeline”, arising from the public’s unprecedented accessibility to information as a result of new surveillance devices and cheap drone technology.

The public’s instincts have also changed. During South Korea’s Sewol ferry tragedy in April 2014, passengers were transmitting real-time footage to their relatives, including evidence of the ferry captain being rescued while passengers were still stranded. “It’s not about a journalist with one pair of eyes watching. It means everyone is watching and everyone has their own view,” said Mr Gowing.

Meanwhile, there are security implications. Royal Marine Alexander Blackman was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing an Afghan prisoner in 2011 – an act captured by a camera mounted on his comrade’s helmet. Mr Gowing said the incident has had a major impact on the British military, with soldiers now asking questions such as “can we do soldiering in the way we’ve always done it, which has never been seen up to now?” Greater public scrutiny will also come with increasing legal constraints and less secrecy, he concluded.

On 22 September 2014, international broadcaster Nik Gowing gave a talk titled “Skyful of Lies and Black Swans: Who Controls Shifting Information Power in Crises?” at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Mr Gowing was a main news presenter for the BBC’s international 24-hour news channel BBC World News from 1996 to 2014. Before that, he worked for 18 years at ITN, where he was bureau chief in Rome and Warsaw and Diplomatic Editor for Channel Four News. He was also a member of the councils of Chatham House (1998 to 2004), the Overseas Development Institute (2007 to 2014), the board of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (1996 to 2005), and the advisory council at Wilton Park (1998 to 2012). He is currently a member of the council for the Royal United Services Institute. Mr Gowing, who was awarded a honorary doctorate by Exeter University in 2012, wrote a peer-reviewed study at Oxford University titled “Skyful of Lies and Black Swans”, which predicts and identifies the new vulnerability, fragility and brittleness of institutional power in the new public information space. He has just been appointed a Visiting Professor at Kings College, London.


The public information space has been turned on its head. But few at the highest levels of power are willing to realise that its new capacity to disrupt threatens their reputation or brand. There is a reluctance to learn from the destabilising experiences of others in multiple fields and locations. 

This presentation and discussion focus on the new executive fragilities and policy implications for government ministers, civil servants, defence and security agencies plus corporate institutions and NGO’s from the new matrix of real-time information flows and transparency created especially by the explosion of social media. The new digital connectivity and IT realities are disruptive game changers. They challenge mercilessly the inadequacy of the structures of power to respond both with effective impact and in a timely way. As vulnerabilities increase, mindsets and systemic behaviour at the highest levels of executive power lag behind these new realities.


Mr Nik Gowing, International Broadcaster

Monday, 22 September 2014
5:15 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.

Lobby, Oei Tiong Ham Building
469C Bukit Timah Road
Singapore 259772

Seats are limited and will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. Kindly register your interest in attending online.

WordPress Video Lightbox Plugin