Citizen Journalism in Times of the Internet – Giving a voice back to civil society during sociopolitical instability and conflict
A predisposing cause for sociopolitical instability is often a failing social contract. Citizens stop accepting state authority due to the inability of the government to uphold i.a. economic stability, social services, basic human rights, public safety, or an impartial judiciary system (Nafziger & Auvinen, 2000). The intensity and speed of civic engagement in light of such issues is often contingent on how information is created and shared. Before the advent of new media and modern-day technologies, newspapers, radio and television were examples of common sources of information. Also, organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and religious gatherings at Churches, Mosques or Synagogues were used to distribute information. All of these sources still play an important role and have certainly not been replaced. However, the ability of an individual to report and distribute information, without the constraints of an overarching organization for example, has become easier. New technologies and the Internet have made it easier for individual civilians to get involved and influence outcomes.
The term citizen journalism refers to public citizens “playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing, and disseminating news and information” (Bowman & Willis, 2003). Twitter, Facebook, Sina Weibo and alike have transformed not only the way we consume information. These platforms in conjunction with technologies ranging from GPS tracking to high-resolution smartphone cameras enable users to create and share accounts of events in real-time. The once passive audience has become an active participant in the creation and distribution of information. This changes sociopolitical dynamics particularly in repressive regimes and in times of conflict, as it increases transparency.
Generally speaking, transparency is often known to promote an open government, bring civil society back into the decision-making process and increase accountability. Citizen journalists have the ability to use new media avenues to shine light into the closed corridors of government bureaucracy and embrace an open society. “If you want to free a society, just give them Internet access” – Wael Gohnim, a key influencer in the Egyptian revolution and Google Executive, said two days before the resignation of Hosni Mubarak (Khamis & Vaughn, 2011). To many, this may seem to be oversimplifying and overstating the potential impact. Google CEO Eric Schmidt mentioned that the Internet is not the solution to the world’s problems per se; it can help us solve the problems faster and better though.
During the Arab Spring new technologies and media channels promoted civic engagement by surpassing ethnic, religious, geographical and political boundaries. It challenged censorship and provided an alternative voice to traditional media outlets (Sahar & Vaughn, 2011). Even in times when regular internet access was restricted, the online flow of information was continued via VPN solutions and speak-to-tweet services for example. The dynamic between citizens and so-called surveillance regimes has changed and created “a culture of ‘sousveillance’ – the watching of the watchers by the watched“ (Faris, 2013). A recollection of an Egyptian activist explains just how this manifested during the developments in and around Tahrir Square in 2011:
“During the first days, anyone with a Smartphone or recording device was suspected of working for the Mubarak security apparatus. It was part of the surveillance tactic. Later, it became a customary practice for demonstrators to bring along cameras and Smartphone’s for the sake of documenting and sharing state abuse. Essentially it was a counter surveillance tactic.”
Stories like these depict the transition from an age of secrecy to the age of sharing. The hierarchical and rigid institutional structure makes it difficult for authoritarian regimes to deal with the resulting unpredictability of real-time disclosures. The state and its allegiant media outlets are often subdued to such scrutiny that both struggle to uphold a relevant share of voice in this new and diverse media environment.
More transparency often goes hand in hand with an increasingly volatile environment. Volatility is understood as the description of the social or political climate “that implicates the unpredictability of previously stable relations among and within states” (Hayden, 2013). The advent of a diversified media environment now enables small groups to possess an asymmetric ability to enact changes within societies – without the use of conventional hard power, such as military or economic means. Citizen journalists have the potential to voice opinions and spread news virally. This leaves little time to react or adapt policies on part of the ruling elite and key policy decision-makers.
An example of just how fast information spreads is the tweet by Sohaib Athar on the day of the raid of Osama bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The civilian software programmer unknowingly tweeted about the raid – one day prior to the first official white-house statement. In addition, before any location was revealed, a tweet by political scientist Munzir Naqvi connected the breaking news of the raid from Washington with the tweets coming out of Abbottabad (Hill, 2011).
- Screenshots of Sohaib’s Twitter Account:
- Screenshots of Naqvi’s Twitter Account:
The speed at which civilians spread information and eyewitness accounts of events often leave authorities with no other option than to react. The PR strategy of the White house had to be adapted continuously to keep up with real-time accounts of the events.
The lack of control over how and when events are portrayed to the public also became clear to the Egyptian Mubarak regime after images serviced of how armoured vehicles ploughed through crowds, killing 27 Coptic demonstrators in front of state TV and radio buildings. The government had first denied any involvement, but was now subject to an intense backlash from the Coptic community after videos and images of the event were posted (Kouddous, 2011). The same counts for the countless times the regime had denied allegations of torture that were later disproven by leaked images. Regimes that have maintained stability by carefully orchestrating news and controlling how information was sourced and shared, can now often only react to the diverse and autonomous accounts as they come in.
New Media and technology has made it increasingly difficult for governments to manage messages (Faris, 2013). Authorities are forced to respond to civilian journalists – essentially throwing them into a volatile environment with unpredictable actors. In today’s media environment civilian journalists have the ability to increase uncertainty and change faster than ever before, potentially leading to a destabilization of the traditionally stable institutional decision-making hierarchies in states. It is no surprise that the ruling elite – particularly in autocratic regimes – classifies this new capability more as a risk than an opportunity.
Ranging from images of the early raids against demonstrators in Tahrir Square to the live-streamed videos of the battles around Benghazi – citizen journalists often report from places that are off-limits to professional journalists. The stakes for citizen journalists are high. Between 2011 and 2013, 73% (65) of media related casualties in Syria were citizen journalists; the remaining 27% (24) were accredited journalists (Vogt, 2013).
Reporting on government crackdowns or civilian casualties of militia groups make citizen journalists a frequent and easy target. The death of Mohammed Nabbous, a Libyan civilian journalist, who was killed by a sniper while reporting, is a gloomy example. The execution of numerous journalists by the Islamic State (IS) show just how high the risks are for the civilian journalists currently reporting out of IS territory with a few hidden cameras and fake profiles on social network sites.
A recent Amnesty International report on media casualties in current conflicts mentions how governments have increased surveillance of social networks, blogs and communication hardware in order to target the work of citizen journalists (Amnesty International, 2013). The report also describes how media activists are seen to be a threat by opposition groups and militia movements. In this context, the report raises an interesting topic: neutrality. Assessing the risk level for civilian journalists is often difficult, as some are also activists taking a side in the conflict. When reading through the biographies of many civilian journalists, it becomes clear that they were often part of a particular party or movement. In these circumstances the objectivity of their reports is often put into question.
Quality and Reliability
Despite the increasing focus on citizen journalism and acknowledging its growing importance, issues around the quality, credibility, and reliability still persist. As it is the case in many areas beyond the realm of politics and journalism, a higher quantity does constitute an increase in quality. Having more accounts of an event may provide more data-points, yet there is no guarantee about how truthful, objective, or reliable these are. A telling example here is when a blogger covering events in Syria, who claimed to be a Syrian lesbian, was actually a 40 year old American man, married and studying in Scotland (Addley, 2011). The tweets were initially widely accepted to be legitimate and they were re-tweeted both within and outside of Syria. Waleed Rashed, co-founder of the anti-Mubarak April 6 Youth Movement activist group, also said that many were “selling” the Arab revolutions:
“Consider yourself a salesman of change. There’s a big strategy about how to sell a revolution. If you’re going to consider yourself in sales, the product is change, and the customer is the people. I’m [teaching] you how to make a revolution. […]You’re supposed to get more knowledge about many points. First of all, the mentality of your people: your customers. And the mentality of your enemy: the regime. And you’re supposed to have the foreknowledge of your object: change.” (Rashed, 2011)
Rashed refers to the more general tactic and strategy of revolutions here. But given that many citizen journalists are part of a particular political and/or social paradigm, it illustrates the challenge to differentiate between objective reporting and trying to “sell” a viewpoint. In order for citizen journalists to maintain credibility and increase their clout in the competitive global media environment, they cannot only focus on finding new ways of creating and distributing information. There must also be a heightened focus on quality and reliability. Accordingly, the tech and journalistic communities have started working on a few creative solutions. Here are a few examples:
- The Storymaker app allows aspiring journalists to produce news on a professional level. The app takes the user through all stages of creating a credible, well-sourced story by providing a framework and providing various built-in tools, such as a voice recorder for interviews or using the smartphone camera to create images and video content. The App is still a Beta-version, but already has a user base in numerous countries and counts over 1500 downloads to date.
- Storyful is the world’s first social media news agency. Its goals are to find the most important stories amidst the many circulating in real-time and try to get the closest and most credible sources to validate them. Markham Nolan, managing editor at Storyful, says that todays journalism is not about finding information anymore, it is about holding back due to the sheer volume of information, most of which has not been validated (Nolan, 2013). The agency verifies online content with online tools, such as Spokeo (a person finder tool), Facebook feeds, Tweetdeck, and Google maps. Essentially, they use existing technologies to verify blog entries, tweets, and YouTube videos – instead of sending a real life journalist into a potentially (life threatening) situation.
- Grassroots on & offline journalism trainings, such as the Egypt Journalism Project (EJP) are devoted to train young and upcoming citizen journalists about best practices in journalism. Often led by experienced journalists, these trainings serve as a forum to exchange ideas and knowledge on topics ranging from video production to sourcing and verifying stories.
Media futurists have forecasted that by 2021 over 50% of the news will be produced on a peer-to-peer basis. Civilian journalism will continue to grow and challenge the status quo of the top-down audience relationship that traditional media outlets have upheld in the past. It will also lead to an unraveling of the often-biased government-media relationship in dictatorial regimes. However, the development also raises new questions about the quality, neutrality, and credibility of the information created and distributed. The anonymity of the Internet and sheer endless amount of online information in conjunction with the “fog of war” often leads to a very blurred picture of reality. Nonetheless, new solutions for some of these issues are being developed as we speak and will most certainly shape the future of citizen journalism
Clearly, the real-time speed at which information is created, shared, and received has its risks and opportunities – after all, the Internet is known to be an untamed frontier. Increased transparency does lead to volatility in many cases. However, transparency is not just the notion of “putting information out there”, it also inscribes a shared value that information should be available (Hayden, 2013). The risks that civil journalists take, in order to offer their accounts of reality, are thereby not only valuable from an informational standpoint. Their work has an unquantifiable but certainly impactful normative contribution to a more open society as whole.
- Addley, E. (2011, 6 13). Gay Girl in Damascus hoaxer acted out of ‘vanity’. Retrieved 3 01, 2015 from The Guardian : http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jun/13/gay-girl-damascus-tom-macmaster
- Amnesty International. (2013). Shooting the Messenger . Amnesty International . London: Amnesty International Ltd. .
- Bowman, S., & Willis, C. (2003). We Media. Reston, Virginia : The American Press Institute .
- Faris, D. M. (2013). From the Age of Secrecy to the Age of Sharing: Social Media, Diplomacy, and the Statecraft in the 21st Century. Diplomacy Development and Security in the Information Age .
- Hayden, C. (2013). Social Diplomacy, Public Diplomacy, and Network Power. Diplomacy Developmet and Security in the Information Age .
- Khamis, D. S., & Vaughn, K. (2011). Cyberactivism in the Egyptian Revolution: How Civic Engagement and Citizen Journalism Tilted the Balance. Retrieved 03 01, 2015 from Arab Media Society: http://www.arabmediasociety.com/?article=769
- Kouddous, S. A. (2011, 11 16). Citizen Journalism Paves the Way in Egypt. Retrieved 03 01, 2015 from Pulitzer Center: http://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/egypt-journalism-citizen-blogging-press-freedom-government
- Nafziger, E., & Auvinen, J. (2000). The economic causes of humanitarian emergencies. In E. Nafziger, F. Stewart, & R. Vayrynen, War, hunger and displacement: the origin of humanitarian emergencies. (pp. 91–145.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Nolan, M. (2013 йил 1-September). Pod Academy. Retrieved 2015 йил 22-February from From Syria to Hurricane Sandy – verifying crowd-sourced news: http://podacademy.org/podcasts/verifying-crowd-sourced-news/
- Rashed, W. (2011, 10 11). This is the Medicine”: April 6th Youth Movement Founders Speak to SIS. (A. Lyon, Ed.) Retrieved 03 01, 2015 from American University: http://www.american.edu/sis/news/20111020-April-Sixth-Egypt.cfm
- Sahar, K., & Vaughn, K. (2011). Cyberactivism in the Egyptian Revolution: How Civic Engagement and Citizen Journalism Tilted the Balance. Arab Media and Society (13).
- Vogt, N. (2013 йил 26-08). Another casualty of war in Syria—citizen journalists. Retrieved 2015 йил 28-03 from PEW Research: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/08/26/another-casualty-of-war-in-syria-citizen-journalists/
 Most developing countries have Internet penetration rates of 70% to 90%.
 The speak-to-tweet service allows callers to tweet by leaving a voicemail. The project is a collaboration between Twitter, SayNow and Google and was introduced during the Egyptian revolution as an a solution for times with restricted Internet access.
 A similar recollection, confirming this observation can be found in the article From the Age of Secrecy to the Age of Sharing: Social Media, Diplomacy, and the Statecraft in the 21st Century by David M. Faris (Faris, 2013).