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April 13 2012

13:50

18DaysInEgypt: Crowdsourcing a Story of Revolution

In the 18 days of Egypt's uprising that began on Jan. 25, 2011 and ended with the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak, thousands of Egyptians turned to their cell phones, digital cameras or social media sites to document the events as they were unfolding in Cairo and across the country.

Tapping into this wealth of material, American documentary filmmaker and journalist Jigar Mehta co-founded 18DaysInEgypt, a crowd-sourced interactive documentary project aimed at capturing the history of the revolution in Egypt. A former video journalist with The New York Times where he contributed to innovative collaborative media projects, Mehta was awarded a 2011 Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University for 18DaysInEgypt and currently splits his time between the U.S. and Egypt.



18DaysInEgypt, a collaborative documentary project about the revolution in Egypt.


In his new capacity as digital entrepreneur, Mehta explains in a Q&A why he considers 18DaysInEgypt a pioneering storytelling platform.

Q: What triggered the idea to create 18DaysInEgypt?


Jigar Mehta: It was around day 17 of the Egyptian revolution. Just like many others, I was following the events via social media to know what was happening in real time. It was overwhelming to see masses of Egyptians taking to the streets in their remarkable bid for freedom, and ousting a leader so quickly. It wasn't Al Jazeera or CNN telling me what was happening; it was the people who were there filming on their cell phones, taking pictures, texting, tweeting, Facebooking, live streaming on YouTube.That's when I had my original inspiration: What would it be like to make a film using the media that people generated during those 18 days to tell their stories?

As 18DaysInEgypt kicked off, my team and I realized that the raw material created by Egyptians, whether a tweet, a photo or a video, was just the beginning of the storytelling process. The core part of the project has been to retrieve these snippets of moments captured by the people on location, collect their thousands of stories and make them available on our website, both in English and in Arabic.


image
18 Days in Egypt fellows and tech team. (IΛ is 18 in Arabic.)

Source: 18DaysInEgypt Kickstarter project


Who is involved in the project?


JM: My business partner Yasmin Elayat, a software developer based in Cairo, and I are the co-creators. We teamed up with documentary producer Hugo Soskin to work on the story structure and with Emerge Technology, an Egypt-based software development company. We worked on building the online collaborative storytelling platform, GroupStream. In addition, we started a fellowship program targeted at young Egyptian university graduates. There are currently six fellows who are helping us to collect and post stories on the website, but also to share media through their networks, and encourage other people to contribute with their own stories.

The people who are registering on the website right now are definitely younger people, social media savvy users, bloggers. The stories are, nevertheless, representative of a larger section of the population because young users may post stories relating to their parents, or other, elderly, family members.

What is innovative about 18DaysInEgypt?


JM: First, we introduced something that is not a one-off initiative. Unlike a traditional linear documentary, this project is rather an open, interactive space. Second, this initiative removes the curator in that the person who created the media is the one who shares the story in the way he or she wanted to tell it.

We designed a user-friendly website that guides people through the process of creating a story by enabling them to upload and store media content, produced from events recorded in real time. The stories can then be shared and accessed by everyone now and in the future.

We look at 18DaysInEgypt as a "sandbox" to experiment and gain understanding in how people can tell stories as a group and experience that journey, which is a very important part of the storytelling.



2011 Knight Fellow Jigar Mehta explains what motivated him to set out to help Egyptians capture and preserve the media they had created during the revolution.


What is the project's main appeal?

JM: I think it is its ability to show how stories are connected. We provide a place to create a story or timeline by pulling together all the media fragments from several sites and services. By adding date tags and map location, we are able to help users connect individual stories.

Besides, the site is updated every day as new features are introduced. We recently changed how we share stories: You can now like a story directly from the site's main page.

What topics are covered in the stories?


JM: The stories cover a broad variety of topics and events such as the football match tragedy in Port Said stadium, women's day, humor of Egyptian protesters, music and graffiti art inspired by the revolutionary struggle.

How has the Egyptian public responded to 18DaysInEgypt?


JM: Although 18DaysInEgypt started off as a project about the 18 days, we built the website in a way that it presents the history of the ongoing revolution. There are two interesting correlations that we have noticed in the response to our initiative. We launched the website on January 19 of this year and two weeks later, when the Port Said football disaster took place, we saw an incredible online traffic in people both registering and consuming present day stories. Furthermore, we have clearly seen a steady monthly increase in returning visitors, which is a good indication that people are wanting more.

Will the scope of the project evolve beyond the revolution? Will it expand geographically?


JM: Sure. We developed a project that really thinks in line with the way the web works; we do see the potential in this for many types of stories to be told in a new, open way. What we have seen since last year, through events such as the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the riots in the U.K., is that people first want to see raw media elements created from the frontline (photos, tweets, Facebook updates, YouTube videos) before going to traditional media. So a platform that allows storytelling in the rawest form is very powerful.

Our major plan for the next few months is to expand outside Cairo. We recently raised funds through Kickstarter, and soon we will have fellows in Luxor, Aswan, Suez, Alexandria, Port Said, and other parts of Egypt.

The biggest challenge remains the gathering of thousands of stories to contribute to Egypt's big story.


image

How do you go about promoting the initiative?


JM: Our fellowship program is playing a big part in our promotional efforts. We organized a mass launch party in Tahrir Square last February 19, when the project successfully raised its funding goal. We are regularly calling on institutional sponsors and partners to support us. Not only are we feeding the site with rich content, we are also training the next generation of Egyptian journalists to gather and craft stories through the fellowship program.

We are actively involving the local press, both in English and Arabic language. We are relying on our personal networks, which is the most effective way to engage with communities and encourage more people to use the website and tell their stories.

What is your long-term vision for 18DaysInEgypt?


JM: We want to wrap up the project at some point. Perhaps after the presidential elections on May 23- 24, we will decide to stop collecting stories, then we can start working on what we call the "experience": how to take all the collected stories and present them in a digestible format for someone who, in years ahead, would like to learn about the Egyptian revolution. This is a way to make history come alive.

Alessandra Bajec, Italian/French bilingual, holds a Master's degree in Conflict Resolution and a Bachelor's degree in Political Science. Between June 2010 and May 2011, she lived in Palestine, where she made her first steps as a freelance journalist. During that time, she reported on news events, conducting interviews and writing feature stories. She also contributed as English radio newscaster to Voice of An-Najah (An-Najah University). Her articles have appeared in Palestinian newswires such as the PNN, IMEMC, and The Palestine Telegraph. Now based in London, she is establishing herself as a regular freelance journalist. Her interests include Palestine, the Middle East, independent journalism, peace, human rights, and international travel.


ejc-logo small.jpgThis piece was originally published by the European Journalism Centre, an independent non-profit institute dedicated to the highest standards in journalism, primarily through the further training of journalists and media professionals. Follow @ejcnet for Twitter updates, here on Facebook and on the EJC Online Journalism Community.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

13:15

18DaysInEgypt: Crowdsourcing a Story of Revolution

In the 18 days of Egypt's uprising that began on Jan. 25, 2011 and ended with the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak, thousands of Egyptians turned to their cell phones, digital cameras or social media sites to document the events as they were unfolding in Cairo and across the country.

Tapping into this wealth of material, American documentary filmmaker and journalist Jigar Mehta co-founded 18DaysInEgypt, a crowd-sourced interactive documentary project aimed at capturing the history of the revolution in Egypt. A former video journalist with The New York Times where he contributed to innovative collaborative media projects, Mehta was awarded a 2011 Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University for 18DaysInEgypt and currently splits his time between the U.S. and Egypt.



18DaysInEgypt, a collaborative documentary project about the revolution in Egypt.


In his new capacity as digital entrepreneur, Mehta explains in a Q&A why he considers 18DaysInEgypt a pioneering storytelling platform.

Q: What triggered the idea to create 18DaysInEgypt?


Jigar Mehta: It was around day 17 of the Egyptian revolution. Just like many others, I was following the events via social media to know what was happening in real time. It was overwhelming to see masses of Egyptians taking to the streets in their remarkable bid for freedom, and ousting a leader so quickly. It wasn't Al Jazeera or CNN telling me what was happening; it was the people who were there filming on their cell phones, taking pictures, texting, tweeting, Facebooking, live streaming on YouTube.That's when I had my original inspiration: What would it be like to make a film using the media that people generated during those 18 days to tell their stories?

As 18DaysInEgypt kicked off, my team and I realized that the raw material created by Egyptians, whether a tweet, a photo or a video, was just the beginning of the storytelling process. The core part of the project has been to retrieve these snippets of moments captured by the people on location, collect their thousands of stories and make them available on our website, both in English and in Arabic.


image
18 Days in Egypt fellows and tech team. (IΛ is 18 in Arabic.)

Source: 18DaysInEgypt Kickstarter project


Who is involved in the project?


JM: My business partner Yasmin Elayat, a software developer based in Cairo, and I are the co-creators. We teamed up with documentary producer Hugo Soskin to work on the story structure and with Emerge Technology, an Egypt-based software development company. We worked on building the online collaborative storytelling platform, GroupStream. In addition, we started a fellowship program targeted at young Egyptian university graduates. There are currently six fellows who are helping us to collect and post stories on the website, but also to share media through their networks, and encourage other people to contribute with their own stories.

The people who are registering on the website right now are definitely younger people, social media savvy users, bloggers. The stories are, nevertheless, representative of a larger section of the population because young users may post stories relating to their parents, or other, elderly, family members.

What is innovative about 18DaysInEgypt?


JM: First, we introduced something that is not a one-off initiative. Unlike a traditional linear documentary, this project is rather an open, interactive space. Second, this initiative removes the curator in that the person who created the media is the one who shares the story in the way he or she wanted to tell it.

We designed a user-friendly website that guides people through the process of creating a story by enabling them to upload and store media content, produced from events recorded in real time. The stories can then be shared and accessed by everyone now and in the future.

We look at 18DaysInEgypt as a "sandbox" to experiment and gain understanding in how people can tell stories as a group and experience that journey, which is a very important part of the storytelling.



2011 Knight Fellow Jigar Mehta explains what motivated him to set out to help Egyptians capture and preserve the media they had created during the revolution.


What is the project's main appeal?

JM: I think it is its ability to show how stories are connected. We provide a place to create a story or timeline by pulling together all the media fragments from several sites and services. By adding date tags and map location, we are able to help users connect individual stories.

Besides, the site is updated every day as new features are introduced. We recently changed how we share stories: You can now like a story directly from the site's main page.

What topics are covered in the stories?


JM: The stories cover a broad variety of topics and events such as the football match tragedy in Port Said stadium, women's day, humor of Egyptian protesters, music and graffiti art inspired by the revolutionary struggle.

How has the Egyptian public responded to 18DaysInEgypt?


JM: Although 18DaysInEgypt started off as a project about the 18 days, we built the website in a way that it presents the history of the ongoing revolution. There are two interesting correlations that we have noticed in the response to our initiative. We launched the website on January 19 of this year and two weeks later, when the Port Said football disaster took place, we saw an incredible online traffic in people both registering and consuming present day stories. Furthermore, we have clearly seen a steady monthly increase in returning visitors, which is a good indication that people are wanting more.

Will the scope of the project evolve beyond the revolution? Will it expand geographically?


JM: Sure. We developed a project that really thinks in line with the way the web works; we do see the potential in this for many types of stories to be told in a new, open way. What we have seen since last year, through events such as the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the riots in the U.K., is that people first want to see raw media elements created from the frontline (photos, tweets, Facebook updates, YouTube videos) before going to traditional media. So a platform that allows storytelling in the rawest form is very powerful.

Our major plan for the next few months is to expand outside Cairo. We recently raised funds through Kickstarter, and soon we will have fellows in Luxor, Aswan, Suez, Alexandria, Port Said, and other parts of Egypt.

The biggest challenge remains the gathering of thousands of stories to contribute to Egypt's big story.


image

How do you go about promoting the initiative?


JM: Our fellowship program is playing a big part in our promotional efforts. We organized a mass launch party in Tahrir Square last February 19, when the project successfully raised its funding goal. We are regularly calling on institutional sponsors and partners to support us. Not only are we feeding the site with rich content, we are also training the next generation of Egyptian journalists to gather and craft stories through the fellowship program.

We are actively involving the local press, both in English and Arabic language. We are relying on our personal networks, which is the most effective way to engage with communities and encourage more people to use the website and tell their stories.

What is your long-term vision for 18DaysInEgypt?


JM: We want to wrap up the project at some point. Perhaps after the presidential elections on May 23- 24, we will decide to stop collecting stories, then we can start working on what we call the "experience": how to take all the collected stories and present them in a digestible format for someone who, in years ahead, would like to learn about the Egyptian revolution. This is a way to make history come alive.

Alessandra Bajec, Italian/French bilingual, holds a Master's degree in Conflict Resolution and a Bachelor's degree in Political Science. Between June 2010 and May 2011, she lived in Palestine, where she made her first steps as a freelance journalist. During that time, she reported on news events, conducting interviews and writing feature stories. She also contributed as English radio newscaster to Voice of An-Najah (An-Najah University). Her articles have appeared in Palestinian newswires such as the PNN, IMEMC, and The Palestine Telegraph. Now based in London, she is establishing herself as a regular freelance journalist. Her interests include Palestine, the Middle East, independent journalism, peace, human rights, and international travel.


ejc-logo small.jpgThis piece was originally published by the European Journalism Centre, an independent non-profit institute dedicated to the highest standards in journalism, primarily through the further training of journalists and media professionals. Follow @ejcnet for Twitter updates, here on Facebook and on the EJC Online Journalism Community.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

February 22 2011

18:25

One Journalist's Survival Guide to the Egyptian Revolution

During the uprising that eventually ended the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak, I became convinced that the most important journalistic work being done today is in those countries where journalists are not wanted. Mubarak and his agents were determined to silence the protesters and their message.

But, thanks to the valiant efforts of journalists and the resilience of the protesters they were there to cover, the revolution was not only televised, it was also streamed, blogged, and tweeted. During 18 days of sustained resistance by the Egyptian people, the world was able to see what real bravery is -- in real time. This is one reporter's eyewitness recollection of the revolution and the coverage of it.

Dangerous Driving

I flew into Cairo on the night of February 1st. I counted 35 checkpoints from the airport to my hotel on the island of Zamalek, where many journalists and diplomats reside and work.

The drive, which normally takes 30 minutes, took nearly three hours. After dark there was a curfew in Cairo, and every block in the city seemingly had its own distinct checkpoint. Most of them were manned by civilians armed with all manner of improvised weapons: sticks, poles, machetes, and even a samurai sword. These men primarily wanted to prevent looting in their neighborhoods.

The Mukhabarat, Egypt's secret police, had also set up their own checkpoints. These were the most frightening, especially for a foreign journalist. Last year, I was detained by the Mukhabarat. I was in Rafah doing a story on the tunnels into the Gaza Strip. While shooting street scenes in broad daylight, they snatched me off the street. I was held captive for 12 hours and it was not pleasant.

I was luckier this time and made it to the hotel without incident. After checking into my hotel, I tried to check Twitter for the latest information from Tahrir Square, but the Internet was still shut down across the country. Fortunately, cell phones were working so I was still able to communicate with my editors and colleagues.

I watched Mubarak's second speech since the "Day of Rage" from my hotel room. It was broadcast on virtually every channel. CNN and BBC both offered a live English translation. He was defiant, stating that he would stay in power for another six months to oversee Egypt's transition.

A Wave of Thugs

Twenty minutes later I was on the streets of Cairo, producing a video for the New York Times with Nicholas Kristof. We didn't know yet that someone close to the regime was orchestrating a concerted, systematic effort to harass, arrest, and assault journalists.

As Kristof and I crossed the October 6th bridge on our way to Tahrir, we saw a mob of about 150 Mubarak supporters rushing towards us. It was nighttime and they were some 100 feet away, so initially I couldn't tell if they were friendly or not. They had already seen me filming and probably suspected I was a journalist, so I just kept the camera rolling.

Generally in these situations, I like to keep the camera out for two reasons: Evidence and self-defense. If I get beat up (or worse), I want it to be documented. I am also a trained martial artist and know how to use my Canon XHA1 to ward off attacks. (Don't bother looking in the manual for this.) My camera isn't one of those flimsy Flip cameras that are popular these days. It is hard and heavy and fully insured. It can be used for blocking punches, keeping a distance between me and a threat, or as my own kind of improvised weapon.

I stood my ground filming the mob as they swarmed me. They were chanting "Mu-bar-ak! Mu-ba-rak! Mu-bar-ak!" (I must say, the anti-Mubarak protesters had much more creative chants.) I breathed a huge sigh of relief when they went past me.

We filmed some interviews at the square, then left when an Egyptian colleague warned us that some dangerous elements had moved in.

Targeting the Media

I went home, slept, and woke up early the next morning to edit the material. I had to get to the New York Times bureau in order to upload it, since the Internet was still down. The Times and other news organizations used a satellite BGAN communications system to get around the web shutdown. After filing, I met up with Kristof and headed back to the square.

Reports of journalists being targeted by pro-Mubarak thugs had begun coming in. Our driver dropped us off as close as possible to Tahrir Square, but the area on its periphery was where journalists were the most vulnerable. I felt a bit like a seal swimming in Mosselbai, South Africa, a favored feeding ground for great white sharks.

With my camera in a student-like backpack, we walked up to an army checkpoint outside of Tahrir. They didn't let us in. We went to another and were again denied entry. At a third, the soldiers finally allowed us in. Past the army checkpoints, civilians were also stopping people in an effort to prevent armed thugs from entering the square.

The protesters' checkpoint was security with a smile. A man in Levis jeans took my passport, frisked me, opened up my camera bag, and said with the utmost sincerity, "I am so sorry. Welcome to Egypt."

In Tahrir Square

Inside, it was like a parallel universe. I walked past a Hardees restaurant that was being used as a station for processing medical equipment. The travel agency next door was a prison for captured Mukhabarat.

Tahrir Square was the one place in Cairo where I actually felt safe working as a journalist. I knew that every single one of these protesters would take a bullet to defend me and my right to film.

As is the case in many revolutions in history, journalists become part of the story. The protesters knew that we were not affiliated with Egyptian state media, and thus were likely to depict the strength and righteousness of their movement accurately. They did everything in their power to help us (which in turn would help them). They fed us, offered us cigarettes and tea, and then posed for our cameras.

Western journalists knew we were being manipulated. But most of us didn't care because we believed in their cause. I didn't meet a single Western reporter who was not in favor of the revolution. Journalists cherish the same democratic ideals that these protesters were fighting and dying for. We were all touched in a very profound way and this resonated in all the reports coming out of Egypt.

I spotted Nawal Saddawi in Tahrir Square and we quickly darted over to interview her. Saddawi is an acclaimed writer and one of the leading women's rights advocates in the Arab world. In the middle of the interview, the frail, old lady nearly got knocked over by a group of protesters dragging in one of Mubarak's goons for interrogation.

But Saddawi is tough as nails. She recalled how she first protested against Nasser, then was arrested for opposing Sadat. Now here she was protesting against Mubarak with nearly a million Egyptians by her side. She claimed that this was the first time she could speak freely to a reporter in public. My spine still tingles just thinking about it.

I was in one of the many makeshift clinics in the square, filming a guy with deep lacerations all over his head and face from rocks, when I got a phone call from the Times' Cairo bureau. Two of their journalists had been detained by police. Anderson Cooper was beaten up by thugs. Reports of violence against journalists were now coming in by the minute.

The U.S. embassy warned the Times to get all their journalists off the streets. They were planning on evacuating the bureau in Zamalek. The situation seemed to be rapidly deteriorating. I passed on the information to Kristof and we immediately met up with Stephen Farrel, another Times journalist in Tahrir.

The three of us decided that Kristof and I should try and get all the video footage out so he and I could start feeding it to New York from our hotel rooms. The problem was, our Egyptian driver refused to come pick us up from the square, saying that it was too dangerous. We didn't have another exit plan.

Saved by Public Transit

Fortunately, two young Egyptian students overheard our conversation, and offered to help. They said the best way to get past the thugs on the streets was actually to go underground. I was amazed that throughout this revolution -- with the Internet and phones and the entire country basically shut down -- the Cairo subway system never stopped running!

I took my tapes and stuffed them deep inside of my socks. I always wear hiking boots and long socks in these situations. I did the same when leaving North Korea. My precious material always stays on my person, either in my socks or underwear. I put a blank tape in my camera and labeled it "Giza Pyramids 1."

Kristof and I followed these two guardian angels down a staircase and got on the train. We made one transfer at Mubarak Station and then reached our final destination, Opera Station, where our driver was waiting for us.

We went to Kristof's hotel, where we bumped into CNN's Anderson Cooper and Hala Gorani. They both looked visibly shaken from the day's events.

As a precautionary measure, we switched Kristof's hotel room to another one checked in under my name. At this point, he'd already penned three strongly anti-Mubarak op-eds. I could understand why Kristof didn't feel safe staying in a hotel with the president's mug staring down from a golden frame in the lobby.

An employee of the now-evacuated Times bureau in Cairo brought me my laptop so I could edit from the hotel. Unbelievably, after all the difficulties that day, my computer died on me when I tried to compress video. I was so frustrated that when we were told to evacuate, I just stayed in my bed. "If Mubarak's thugs find me here, then it was meant to be," I thought to myself.

Back to the square

Sleep didn't come, but neither did the Mukhabarat. The next day, I edited my footage on a friend's computer and went back to the square alone.

I walked briskly past several pro-Mubarak gangs. When eye contact was unavoidable, I flashed a fake, friendly smile. I find that in these situations smiling is the best way to alleviate anxiety. More importantly, it projects positive vibes to the people who otherwise may want to harm you. Smiling and maintaining positive, relaxed body language is often the best deterrent.

But that doesn't mean you should ever let your guard down. My eyes were always scanning 180 degrees for signs of danger. My ears were sensitive to increases in pitch or noises that would indicate violence. Probably due to the adrenaline, I could actually feel that my brain was processing data at a faster rate than normal.

I tried filming one of the pro-Mubarak groups, but within seconds was being threatened. One guy made a throat-slitting gesture and aggressively came towards me. I immediately assumed an apologetic posture, and said how sorry I was for filming.

He asked me in Arabic if I was from Al Jazeera. Omar Suleman, Mubarak's newly appointed vice president, accused the network of being foreign agents who were sowing the seeds of this revolution.

While I do speak rudimentary Arabic, I replied in English, "I'm American." My goal was to limit the conversation as much as possible.

Mass Bloodshed

As I got closer to the square, I witnessed scenes of horrible violence. Molotov cocktails lit up the night sky. I saw lacerated, bloody faces. The air smelled of smoke; sour, rotten tear gas; burning flesh.

Pro-Mubarak mobs ran into Tahrir making male guttural noises and screaming. Armed with broken glass bottles, poles, and anything that they could find, it felt like a scene from a cheap, Middle Eastern remake of "Braveheart."

I was too afraid to take out my camera, and it was too dark to film with my iPhone, so I just watched.

Feeling insecure, I used another important defense tactic, which I call "meet and greet." I found a group of pro-Mubarak guys around my age and asked them for a cigarette. I don't normally smoke, but I wanted to create a feeling of camaraderie with them in case the situation got much worse. For once, I really enjoyed a cigarette.

Change Over Night

By next day, the violence had waned considerably. It reminded me of how South Florida feels the day after a hurricane. The Internet was back on, the thugs were mostly off the streets, and a sense of tense normalcy returned to Cairo: I once again smelled the stench of Cairo pollution; drivers went back to using loud, obnoxious honking to communicate; street vendors hawked tissue boxes and Egyptian flags.

As days went by without mass violence, more and more people came to Tahrir Square, sensing that the protesters were on the right side of history. I even ran into many employees of the government controlled Al-Ahram newspaper. They told me that a similar mutiny was occurring inside their newsroom.

At this point, I was stringing for Time Magazine and PBS MediaShift. I bumped into some Times reporters I'd previously worked with and they told me that their bureau had reopened. I joked that it had been "a premature evacuation."

The mood had shifted from anxious to festive. Celebrations peaked on Friday night, when Mubarak finally stepped down.

After his resignation, foreign journalists seemed as confused as the Egyptian protesters about what to do next. The common refrain among reporters was, "Where should I fly to now?" Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Iran, Bahrain, Morocco, China, and even the West Bank have felt tremors from the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Protesters and journalists changed Egypt and have inspired other uprisings across the world.

The Middle East today feels kind of like a seventh grade classroom: It's a rapidly changing place with young countries at various stages of awkward transition. These transformations are happening faster than reporters, politicians, and intelligence services can process them. As Egypt steps into a very uncertain future with the world watching, I get the sense that the Middle East's coming of age story may have just begun.

But wherever the plot leads next, it's likely that journalists, bloggers, and social networkers will be there to share it with the world.

Jaron Gilinsky is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. As a freelance video correspondent for Time, the New York Times, and Current TV, he has produced and directed scores of documentaries on a range of international topics. Jaron regularly posts his videos and articles on his personal blog.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

February 18 2011

15:00

This Week in Review: Paying up with Apple and Google, Twitter and activism, free labor for HuffPo

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Apple lays down its terms: Publishers have been quite anxiously awaiting word from Apple about the particulars of its subscription plan for mobile devices, including the iPad; they got it this week, but it wasn’t what a lot of them were hoping for. The New York Times summarized publishers’ initial reaction with a few of the basic details — Apple gets a 30-percent cut, owns subscriber data (whether to send data to publishers is up to the subscriber), and publishers’ options for subscription services outside Apple are limited.

The Lab’s Josh Benton aptly laid out some of the primary implications for news organizations: Apple is setting itself up as toll-taker on the new news highway and putting a heavy incentive on converting print readers to tablet readers, but not putting restrictions on browser access within its devices. Media analyst Ken Doctor offered two astute takes on what Apple’s proposal will entail; we’ll call them glass-half-full and glass-half-empty.

Most of the reaction to Apple’s deal, however, was overwhelmingly negative. Media consultant Alan Mutter pointed out a couple of gotchas for publishers; Dan Gillmor called Apple’s policy stunningly arrogant, and the publishers that sign up for it “insane, or desperate”; ITworld’s Ryan Faas accused it of “gouging content producers”; Gizmodo’s Matt Buchanan dubbed it “evil”; developer Ryan Carson urged users to fight Apple’s  ”extortion”; and the Wall Street Journal raised possible antitrust issues.

The beef that most of these critics have with Apple is not so much the 30-percent cut (though that’s part of it) as it is Apple’s restrictions on publishers’ alternative subscription methods. Apple is requiring that publishers that want to have a non-App Store subscription method can’t charge less than their Apple-sanctioned route, and can’t show app users how to access it, either. This means that, as Buchanan states, “Effectively, all easy roads to getting content on the iPad now run through Apple.” (Plus, as TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld noted, those terms could easily become even worse once Apple has publishers and readers hooked.)

Of course, the system looks a bit different from the consumer’s perspective — it may be the most user-friendly subscription system ever, argued MG Siegler of TechCrunch. (Publishers, of course, disagreed about that.) As GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram pointed out, this may come down to how much publishers think it’s worth to have Apple handle their mobile sales for them.

We got some mixed early signs about how publishers might answer that question. PaidContent reported on publishers who felt Apple’s terms could have been much worse, and Poynter’s Damon Kiesow talked to publishers who plan to offer multiple options. Popular Science became the first magazine to jump on board and Wired is following suit ASAP, but Time Inc. pre-emptively struck deals with Apple’s competitors, and another publishers’ group threatened to take its business elsewhere.

One Pass to rule them all?: As if to underscore that point, Google announced its own One Pass digital paid-content system the next day. Unlike Apple, Google will keep about 10 percent of publishers’ revenue and allow publishers to own their subscribers’ data, according to Advertising Age. Much of the commentary about Google’s plan positioned it in opposition to Apple’s proposal: The Wall Street Journal described it as a fired salvo at Apple; search guru John Battelle summed it up as “Hey Apple, we’ve got a better way;” Alan Mutter detailed the ways Google’s plan “trumps” Apple’s; and others from The Next Web, mocoNews, and Fast Company compared the two proposals.

But several others — particularly the Lab’s Josh Benton and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds — explained that while it might seem natural to compare Google’s system to Apple’s given the timing of their announcements, Google One Pass is focused far more on web access than app access, making the paid-content company Journalism Online a more direct competitor than Apple. Journalism Online’s Gordon Crovitz made the case to paidContent for his company over Google, highlighting its flexibility, and paidContent also noted that newspaper chain MediaGeneral is trying out both systems at different papers.

A couple of other notes on Google’s plan: TechCrunch’s MG Siegler argued that Google’s agreement to allow publishers ownership of subscribers’ data is at least as big of a deal to publishers as the revenue split, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram ripped One Pass, saying that as long as its clients’ content is on the open web without the exceptional user experience of the best apps, it’s just “a warmed-over content paywall.”

Parsing out the “social media and revolutions” debate: Despite having been declared “over” early this week by The Daily’s editor-in-chief, the protests in Egypt continued to dominate conversation, including in future-of-news circles. Via The New York Times, we got a glimpse into how Egyptian officials were able to shut down their country’s Internet and how Facebook is wrestling with its role in the protests. NPR’s Andy Carvin continued to earn plaudits (from The New York Times and PR exec Katie Delahaye), and the Lab’s Megan Garber looked at the way Carvin spontaneously launched a personalized Twitter pledge drive.

But the bulk of the discussion revolved around the same discussion that’s been on slow burn for the past few weeks: What role does social media play in social activism? Washington grad student Deen Freelon has once again produced a fantastic synopsis of what we know and what we have yet to learn in this arena, so consider this a supplement to his post.

The parade of articles arguing that Twitter doesn’t cause revolutions continued at a steady pace this week, prompting NYU j-prof Jay Rosen to profile the Twitter-debunking article as a genre, concluding that the argument  — along with the glib social media triumphalism it’s refuting — is a cheap detour around thoughtfully considering the complex issues involved in social change. Several others built on Rosen’s point: Aaron Bady delved deeper into the social media-debunking article’s function; CUNY j-profs Jeff Jarvis and C.W. Anderson focused on protecting those technological tools and opined on the difference between academic and popular discourse on cause-and-effect, respectively.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t substantive things to say about social media’s role in recent protests, of course. POLIS’ Charlie Beckett noted that newly adopted technologies (such as mobile phones) have helped create a more “networkable” power structure in the Middle East, and NDN’s Sam duPont looked at social media’s role as an organizing tool, news source, and public sphere in Egypt.

To pay or not to pay: With a few exceptions (Frederic Filloux’s short, fierce takedown of The Huffington Post as a “digital sand castle” is well worth a read), the second week of commentary on AOL’s purchase of The Huffington Post centered on the question of whether HuffPo’s thousands of unpaid contributors should start getting paychecks for their work.

At The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog, Nate Silver attempted to calculate the worth of a typical HuffPo post, concluding that they follow a classic power law relationship and that most of them aren’t worth much. The New York Observer’s Ben Popper said Silver is undervaluing HuffPo’s contributors, and Gannett’s Ryan Sholin made the point that having those posts within a single platform is worth more than the posts themselves.

Most of the grist for this week’s conversation, though, came from Silver’s Times colleague, David Carr, who used HuffPo as an entree into some observations about creating online content for others for free through platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Quora. Paul Gillin of Newspaper Death Watch built on Carr and Silver’s analyses to make the case that in the face of devalued online content, demand for higher-quality material might bring us out of the basement of online pay.

Several others countered Carr with similar points: Web thinker Stowe Boyd, British j-prof Paul Bradshaw and HuffPo’s own Nico Pitney said that HuffPo bloggers have eminently legitimate non-monetary reasons for writing there; GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram pointed out that The Times’ op-ed system isn’t much different from HuffPo’s; and Jeff Jarvis said news folks should be thinking more about value than content.

Reading roundup: Some interesting bits and pieces to round out the week:

— Google unveiled the latest tool in its effort to fight content farms this week — an extension to its browser, Chrome, that allows users to block any site they choose from Google search results. TechCrunch called it “crowdsourcing” Google’s content farm detection, and Gizmodo said that it allows for the arresting possibility of “an Internet that never disagrees with you.”

— A few miscellaneous items regarding The Daily: Slate’s chairman, Jacob Weisberg, ripped it (“It’s just a bad version of a newspaper in electronic form with a very condescending view of the audience”); Scott Rosenberg wondered what’ll happen to its archives; and the publication updated its glitch-ridden app.

— A couple of great data journalism resources: Poynter’s Steve Myers broke down the difficulties in integrating data journalism into the newsroom, and ProPublica’s Dan Nguyen wrote a wonderful post encouraging journalists to get started with data analysis.

— The second blogging Carnival of Journalism, focusing on increasing the number of news sources within communities, began going up over the past day or so, so keep an eye out for those posts. I’ll have a roundup here next week.

— If you want a 30,000-foot summary of what’s happening on the leading edge of news right now, you really can’t do much better than Josh Benton’s speech to the Canadian Journalism Foundation posted here at the Lab. It’s a fantastic primer, no matter how initiated you already are.

February 16 2011

17:24

7 Lessons From the Egyptian Revolution

Whilst I am no expert in Egyptian history or politics, I have found the role of digital technologies in Egypt's revolution fascinating. This blog serves as a summary of some of my observations surrounding the 18 days of protest, which successfully ended President Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30 years of rule.

1. People at the heart.

Whilst information and communication technology (ICT) provided critical channels to mobilize and magnify the revolution, it was the motivated, driven activists, such as the leaders of the April 6 Movement who effectively and deliberately used these tools to organize the protests. Millions of brave, determined demonstrators took action and met on the streets. Thus, it was the Egyptian people -- not the tools they used -- who need to be given credit for successfully demanding political change.

2. Kick-started by social media.

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Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing manager administered the We are all Khaled Said Facebook page that -- amongst others such as the January 25 Facebook page -- were the initial tools that enabled and enhanced the January 25 demonstration. Soon Twitter followed Facebook, with the #Jan25 hashtag spreading virally online.

As Ghonim told the AP: "This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook...This is the revolution of the youth, of the Internet and now the revolution of all Egyptians."

3. A combination of tactics.

The organizing capacity of social media was the impetus for the revolution and it continued to play a pivotal role throughout, recording events in real time for all with Internet access to see. However, other combined and coordinated tactics were used, including demonstration invitations delivered face-to-face and via email and SMS.

Hotline numbers, such as those of Front to Defend Egypt Protesters, were used to receive citizen reports. Blogs and photos were posted online, bambuser.com was used for live video streaming, Google created the Crisis Response page for Egypt and videos were posted on YouTube, Storyful, and CitizenTube.

Here's one such video highlighted on YouTube's CitizenTube page:

Arab satellite television, such as Al Jazeera, was also a particularly powerful force for intensifying participation both locally and internationally. For instance, Wael Ghonim was interviewed on television, after he was imprisoned for 12 days by the secret police. He wept for the 300 Egyptians killed and it is widely believed that this emotional moment turned up the movement's heat and led to a large swell in the number of protesters in Tahrir Square the day following his interview. It was broadcast on television, uploaded on YouTube, subtitled, and then circulated widely on Facebook and Twitter.

Even when the government disrupted and blocked Internet and mobile phone communication, activists were inspired to be even more resourceful in their use of cross-platform strategies. Researcher, Alix Dunn gives examples of these hybrid techniques and how they spread: satellite news broadcast of tweets, transmission from satellite television to radio, and leaflet distribution by people on the ground.

The impact of this coordination is proof that the Egyptian revolution was both a people's movement and a tech-centric uprising.

4. Censorship led to further innovation.

During government disruptions of Internet/mobile communications, citizens and journalists continued to use social media via third party applications like Hootsuite and TweetDeck and they transmitted videos via satellite devices.

Full Internet/mobile censorship by the government led to further communication innovation, with Speak2Tweet being developed by Twitter/Google, so that Egyptians could send news without being online. Egyptians could call in to advertised numbers to leave voice messages, which were then tweeted via the #Egypt hashtag, with a link to the audio message. Small World News subsequently organized translation of the Arabic messages into English.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo warned autocrats that censorship doesn't prevent protesters from using Twitter completely, "you're just challenging them to find another way to use it. People will always find a way to communicate."

5. The importance of external allies.

Twitter and Al Jazeera English service were key avenues for Egyptians to communicate with the rest of the world, including with international NGOs, bloggers, and media. Once the world is paying attention and in solidarity with the uprising, citizen protests become more difficult for dictators to ignore.

6. Corporations should be held more accountable.

According to Pyramid Research, the government used Vodafone Egypt, in which it has a 36 percent ownership stake, to send pro-government SMS messages to the Egyptian citizens. According to sources on the ground, Mobinil was used for this purpose as well. Later Vodafone, other mobile operators and the country's major Internet service providers, were forced to suspend their networks by the government.

Telecommunications providers and ISPs, which have physical assets, usually need a country license to operate. Thus, they are more susceptible to government pressure than corporations like Facebook and Google, which do not have to build infrastructure in a country to be accessed by its citizens. Yet despite pressure from repressive regimes, surely corporations like Vodafone have some responsibility to citizens and should be held accountable for their actions in Egypt and elswhere?

7. A question of access.

Egypt is blessed with a relatively solid ICT infrastructure. According to Pyramid Research, there are three mobile operators, providing nationwide coverage and 3G services, with cellular penetration having reaching 78 percent of the population by the end of 2010. According to 2009 data 21 percent of Egyptians are online and 5.1 million are on Facebook.

In African countries, where access to ICT is considerably less, building up this type of political momentum may be more difficult.

Conclusion and next steps

ICT and particularly social media definitely lubricated and sped up the revolt in Egypt and, as Ethan Zuckerman states, it will be interesting to see how these tools will be used to help form a new democratic government in Egypt.

When Wael Ghonim was asked what's next in revolutions in the Arab world, he told CNN: "Ask Facebook."

Similarly, global citizens from countries with repressive regimes have heard the tweets and the news from Egypt and are in some way emboldened and inspired.

February 14 2011

03:23

Pondering predictions…


…in this case, one I made more than a decade ago. The Internet was young and fanciful thoughts about what might happen to news were being bandied about when I came up with my wild concept.

Imagine a news organization that only employed a few anchors and reporters, but a ton of writers and producers. Imagine a breaking story…a plane crash. Rather than sending a team out, a producer does an Internet search (not even sure if Google was around at this point) and manages to locate a home across the street from the crash. Makes a phone call and tells the person who answers to hook up their video camera to their computer, point it out the window, and describe what they see. Almost unimaginable.

So what do we have today? Skype. Live streaming sites. Uh…it has happened, just not yet completely the way I guessed it might.

All this brought about by a discussion on b-roll.

What began as a discussion of the National Press Photographers Association contest and magazine has evolved into a discussion of the place of broadcast (read TV) members in the organization, how they are being served by NPPA (or not), and how the quality of broadcast has gone downhill – in terms of production values and equipment.

Sigh. There are a lot of anguished folks out there…who remember the “good ole days,” when a camera(wo)man could feel good about what they produced at the end of the day.

But financial hard times are a reality and we don’t always get what we want.

One of the lessons to be learned is from a very old, very tiny camera – the 35mm camera. For more details, check out the information on photo.net.

1914: Oscar Barnack, employed by German microscope manufacturer Leitz, develops camera using the modern 24x36mm frame and sprocketed 35mm movie film.

THAT was just the beginning. The camera became commercially available in 1924 (Leica) and took off in the years just before WWII. By the 1960s it had pushed the standard high quality cameras into the background and for forty plus years became the standard in print news photography – and there it reigned until the advent of digital.

We seem to be poised on the cusp of another change in standards…whether broadcast shooters like it or not. While there will always be room for big bucks, high end, expensive cameras, I am convinced that the news broadcast standard is the 1/3 inch three chip pro-sumer camera…with of course, the requisite bells and whistles. XLR, manual controls, shoulder mount, good glass.

The audience may love high-end high-quality in their movies. But I suspect they will settle for excellent quality video in news and general programs. I just hope they also demand the highest production standards to go with it.


February 13 2011

17:13

Gutenberg of Arabia

At the critical climax of the Egyptian revolution, one of its sparks, Google’s Wael Ghonim, told his followers on Twitter that he would not speak to them through media but instead through the Facebook page he created, the page he’d used to gather momentum for the protest, the page that had gotten him arrested, the page that was one of the reasons that Hosni Mubarak hit the kill switch on the entire internet in Egypt (here’s another reason). After Mubarak left, Ghonim said on CNN that he wanted to meet Mark Zuckerberg to thank him for Facebook and the ability to make that page.

After the Reformation in Europe, Martin Luther thanked Johannes Gutenberg. Printing, he said, was “God’s highest and extremest act of grace.” Good revolutionaries thank their tools and toolmakers.

There’s a silly debate, well-documented by Jay Rosen, over the credit social tools should receive in the revolutions, successful. abortive, and emerging, in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Jay compiles fine examples of the genre, which specializes in shooting down an argument no one we know has made: that Twitter carries out revolutions. (I would add the Evgeny Morozov variation, which incessantly wants to remind us—not that anyone I know has forgotten—that these tools can also be used by bad actors, badly.) No one I know—no one—says that these revolutions weren’t fought by people. As a blogger said on Al Jazeera English, Twitter didn’t fight Egypt’s police, Egyptians did. Who doesn’t agree with that?

This same alleged debate—curmudgeons shooting at phantom technological determinists and triumphalists—goes on to this day over Gutenberg, too. Adrian Johns, author of The Nature of the Book, accuses premier Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein, author of The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, of giving too much credit to the printing press. He does not buy her contention that print itself was revolutionary and “created a fundamental division in human history.”

Like Jay, I’m a befuddled over the roots of the curmudgeons’ one-sided debate. Why do they so object to tools being given credit? Are they really objecting, instead, to technology as an agent of change, shifting power from incumbents to insurgents? Why should I care about their complaints? I am confident that these tools have been used by the revolutionaries and have a role. What’s more interesting is to ask what that role is, what that impact is.

I was honored to have been able to call Eisenstein to interview her for my book, Public Parts. Her perspective on the change wrought through Gutenberg was incredibly helpful to my effort to analyze the change that our modern tools of publicness are enabling. When I asked her about the internet, she demurred, arguing that she’s not even on Facebook. (Though I do love that when she’s researching, her first stop is Wikipedia.)

At the end of our conversation, Eisenberg raised the Middle East, observing that “they sort of missed Gutenberg. They jumped from the oral phase to this phase.” She was quick to add that it’s facile and wrong to say that the Middle East is still in the Middle Ages; she’s not saying that, merely observing that “they skipped Gutenberg, for better or worse.” She said this before the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions and I was not sure what she meant.

Today, it occurs to me that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube may be the Gutenberg press of the Middle East, tools like his that enable people to speak, share, and gather. Without those tools, could revolutions occur? Of course, curmudgeons, they could. Without people and their passion, could revolutions occur? Of course not, curmudgeons. But why are these revolutions occurring now? No, curmudgeons, we’ll never be able to answer that question.

But it does matter that the revolutionaries of the Middle East use—indeed, depend upon—these social tools and the net. That is the reason why we must protect them, for by doing so we protect the public and its freedoms. If you follow Gladwell, et al, and believe that the social tools are merely toys and trifles, then what does it matter if they are shut down? That is why the curmudgeons’ debate with themselves matters: because it could do harm; it could result in dismissing the tools of publicness just when we most need to safeguard them.

In the privileged West, we have been talking about net neutrality as a question of whether we can watch movies well. In the Middle East, net neutrality has a much more profund meaning: as a human right to connect. When Mubarak shut down the internet, when China shuts down Facebook, when Turkey shuts down YouTube, when America concocts its own kill switch, they violate the human rights of their citizens as much as if they burned the products of Gutenberg’s press.

In the midst of the Egyptian revolution, I realized that many of us in the West—and I include myself squarely in this—act under the assumption that progress in digital democracy would come here first, because our technology and our democracies are more advanced. Then it became clear to me that such advances would come instead where they are most needed: in the Middle East.

This is why I keep calling for a discussion about an independent set of principles for cyberspace so we can hold them over the heads of governments and corporations that would restrict and control our tools of publicness. I keep revising my list of principles, from this, to this, to this, to this:

I. We have a right to connect.
II. We have the right to speak.
III. We have the right to assemble & act
IV. Privacy is a responsibility of knowing.
V. Publicness is a responsibility of sharing.
VI. Information should be public by default, secret by necessity.
VII. What is public is a public good.
VIII. All bits are created equal.
IX. The internet shall be operated openly.
X. The internet shall be distributed.

This, to me, is a far more fruitful discussion than whether Facebook and Twitter deserves credit for Egypt and Tunisia. The revolutionaries deserve credit. They also deserve the freedom to use the tools of their revolutions.

February 03 2011

21:45

Social Media Alone Do Not Instigate Revolutions

This post was also written by Sean Noonan for STRATFOR.

Internet services were reportedly restored in Egypt yesterday after being completely shut down for two days. Egyptian authorities unplugged the last Internet service provider (ISP) still operating Jan. 31 amidst ongoing protests across the country. The other four providers in Egypt -- Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt and Etisalat Misr -- were shut down as the crisis boiled over on Jan. 27. Commentators immediately assumed this was a response to the organizational capabilities of social media websites that Cairo could not completely block from public access.

The role of social media in protests and revolutions has garnered considerable media attention in recent years. Current conventional wisdom has it that social networks have made regime change easier to organize and execute. An underlying assumption is that social media is making it more difficult to sustain an authoritarian regime -- even for hardened autocracies like Iran and Myanmar -- which could usher in a new wave of democratization around the globe. In a Jan. 27 YouTube interview, U.S. President Barack Obama went as far as to compare social networking to universal liberties such as freedom of speech.

Social media alone, however, do not instigate revolutions. They are no more responsible for the recent unrest in Tunisia and Egypt than cassette-tape recordings of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini speeches were responsible for the 1979 revolution in Iran. Social media are tools that allow revolutionary groups to lower the costs of participation, organization, recruitment and training. But like any tool, social media have inherent weaknesses and strengths, and their effectiveness depends on how effectively leaders use them and how accessible they are to people who know how to use them.

How to Use Social Media

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The situations in Tunisia and Egypt have both seen an increased use of social networking media such as Facebook and Twitter to help organize, communicate and ultimately initiate civil-disobedience campaigns and street actions. The Iranian "Green Revolution" in 2009 was closely followed by the Western media via YouTube and Twitter, and the latter even gave Moldova's 2009 revolution its moniker, the "Twitter Revolution."

Foreign observers -- and particularly the media -- are mesmerized by the ability to track events and cover diverse locations, perspectives and demographics in real time. But a revolution is far more than what we see and hear on the Internet -- it requires organization, funding and mass appeal. Social media no doubt offer advantages in disseminating messages quickly and broadly, but they also are vulnerable to government counter-protest tactics (more on these below). And while the effectiveness of the tool depends on the quality of a movement's leadership, a dependence on social media can actually prevent good leadership from developing.

The key for any protest movement is to inspire and motivate individuals to go from the comfort of their homes to the chaos of the streets and face off against the government. Social media allow organizers to involve like-minded people in a movement at a very low cost, but they do not necessarily make these people move. Instead of attending meetings, workshops and rallies, uncommitted individuals can join a Facebook group or follow a Twitter feed at home, which gives them some measure of anonymity (though authorities can easily track IP addresses) but does not necessarily motivate them to physically hit the streets and provide fuel for a revolution. At the end of the day, for a social media-driven protest movement to be successful, it has to translate social media membership into street action.

The Internet allows a revolutionary core to widely spread not just its ideological message but also its training program and operational plan. This can be done by email, but social media broaden the exposure and increase its speed increases, with networks of friends and associates sharing the information instantly. YouTube videos explaining a movement's core principles and tactics allow cadres to transmit important information to dispersed followers without having to travel. (This is safer and more cost effective for a movement struggling to find funding and stay under the radar, but the level of training it can provide is limited. Some things are difficult to learn by video, which presents the same problems for protest organizers as those confronted by grassroots jihadists, who must rely largely on the Internet for communication.) Social media can also allow a movement to be far more nimble about choosing its day of action and, when that day comes, to spread the action order like wildfire. Instead of organizing campaigns around fixed dates, protest movements can reach hundreds of thousands of adherents with a single Facebook post or Twitter feed, launching a massive call to action in seconds.

With lower organizational and communications costs, a movement can depend less on outside funding, which also allows it to create the perception of being a purely indigenous movement (without foreign supporters) and one with wide appeal. According to the event's Facebook page, the April 6 Movement in Egypt had some 89,250 people claiming attendance at a Jan. 28 protest when, in fact, a much smaller number of protestors were actually there according to STRATFOR's estimates. The April 6 Movement is made up of the minority of Egyptians who have Internet access, which the OpenNet Initiative estimated in August 2009 to be 15.4 percent of the population. While this is ahead of most African countries, it is behind most Middle Eastern countries. Internet penetration rates in countries like Iran and Qatar are around 35 percent, still a minority of the population.

Eventually, a successful revolutionary movement has to appeal to the middle class, the working class, retirees and rural segments of the population, groups that are unlikely to have Internet access in most developing countries. Otherwise, a movement could quickly find itself unable to control the revolutionary forces it unleashed or being accused by the regime of being an unrepresentative fringe movement. This may have been the same problem that Iranian protesters experienced in 2009.

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Not only must protest organizers expand their base beyond Internet users, they must also be able to work around government disruption. Following the Internet shutdown in Egypt, protesters were able to distribute hard-copy tactical pamphlets and use faxes and landline telephones for communications. Ingenuity and leadership quickly become more important than social media when the government begins to use counter-protest tactics, which are well developed even in the most closed countries.

Countering Social Media

Like any other tool, social media have their drawbacks. Lowering the costs of communication also diminishes operational security. Facebook messages can be open for all to see, and even private messages can be viewed by authorities through search warrants in more open countries or pressure on the Internet social media firms in more closed ones. Indeed, social media can quickly turn into a valuable intelligence-collection tool. A reliance on social media can also be exploited by a regime willing to cut the country off from Internet or domestic text messaging networks altogether, as has been the case in Egypt.

The capability of governments to monitor and counteract social media developed alongside the capability of their intelligence services. In order to obtain an operating license in any country, social networking websites have to come to some sort of agreement with the government. In many countries, this involves getting access to user data, locations and network information. Facebook profiles, for example, can be a boon for government intelligence collectors, who can use updates and photos to pinpoint movement locations and activities and identify connections among various individuals, some of whom may be suspect for various activities. (Facebook has received funding from In-Q-Tel, the CIA's venture capital firm, and many Western intelligence services have start-up budgets to develop Internet technologies that will enable even deeper mining of Internet-user data.)

In using social media, the tradeoff for protest leaders is that they must expose themselves to disseminate their message to the masses (although there are ways to mask IP addresses and avoid government monitoring, such as by using proxy servers). Keeping track of every individual who visits a protest organization's website page may be beyond the capabilities of many security services, depending on a site's popularity, but a medium designed to reach the masses is open to everyone. In Egypt, almost 40 leaders of the April 6 Movement were arrested early on in the protests, and this may have been possible by identifying and locating them through their Internet activities, particularly through their various Facebook pages.

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Indeed, one of the first organizers of the April 6 Movement became known in Egypt as "Facebook Girl" following her arrest in Cairo on April 6, 2008. The movement was originally organized to support a labor protest that day in Mahalla, and organizer Esraa Abdel Fattah Ahmed Rashid found Facebook a convenient way to organize demonstrations from the safety of her home. Her release from prison was an emotional event broadcast on Egyptian TV, which depicted her and her mother crying and hugging. Rashid was then expelled from the group and no longer knows the password for accessing the April 6 Facebook page. One fellow organizer called her "chicken" for saying she would not have organized the protest if she had thought she would be arrested. Rashid's story is a good example of the challenges posed by using social media as a tool for mobilizing a protest. It is easy to "like" something or someone on Facebook, but it is much harder to organize a protest on the street where some participants will likely be arrested, injured or killed.

Beyond monitoring movement websites, governments can also shut them down. This has been common in Iran and China during times of social unrest. But blocking access to a particular website cannot stop tech-savvy Internet users employing virtual private networks or other technologies to access unbanned IP addresses outside the country in order to access banned sites. In response to this problem, China shut down Internet access to all of Xinjiang Autonomous Region, the location of ethnic Uighur riots in July 2009. More recently, Egypt followed the same tactic for the entire country. Like many countries, Egypt has contracts with Internet service providers that allow the government to turn the Internet off or, when service providers are state-owned, to make life difficult for Internet-based organizers.

Regimes can also use social media for their own purposes. One counter-protest tactic is to spread disinformation, whether it is to scare away protesters or lure them all to one location where anti-riot police lie in wait. We have not yet witnessed such a government "ambush" tactic, but its use is inevitable in the age of Internet anonymity. Government agents in many countries have become quite proficient at trolling the Internet in search of pedophiles and wannabe terrorists. (Of course, such tactics can be used by both sides. During the Iranian protests in 2009, many foreign-based Green Movement supporters spread disinformation over Twitter to mislead foreign observers.)

The most effective way for the government to use social media is to monitor what protest organizers are telling their adherents either directly over the Internet or by inserting an informant into the group, counteracting the protesters wherever and whenever they assemble. Authorities monitoring protests at World Trade Organization and G-8 meetings as well as the Republican and Democratic national conventions in the United States have used this successfully. Over the past two years in Egypt, the April 6 Movement has found the police ready and waiting at every protest location. Only in recent weeks has popular support grown to the point where the movement has presented a serious challenge to the security services.

One of the biggest challenges for security services is to keep up with the rapidly changing Internet. In Iran, the regime quickly shut down Facebook but not Twitter, not realizing the latter's capabilities. If social media are presenting a demonstrable threat to governments, it could become vital for security services to continually refine and update plans for disrupting new Internet technology.

Quality of Leadership vs. Cost of Participation

There is no denying that social media represent an important tool for protest movements to effectively mobilize their adherents and communicate their message. As noted above, however, the effectiveness of the tool depends on its user, and an overreliance can become a serious detriment.

One way it can hurt a movement is in the evolution of its leadership. To lead a protest movement effectively, an organization's leadership has to venture outside of cyberspace. It has to learn what it means to face off against a regime's counterintelligence capabilities in more than just the virtual world. By holding workshops and mingling among the populace, the core leadership of a movement learns the different strategies that work best with different social strata and how to appeal to a broad audience. Essentially, leaders of a movement that exploits the use of social media must take the same risks as those of groups that lack such networking capability. The convenience and partial anonymity of social media can decrease the motivation of a leader to get outside and make things happen.

Moreover, a leadership grounded in physical reality is one that constructs and sticks to a concerted plan of action. The problem with social media is that they subvert the leadership of a movement while opening it to a broader membership. This means that a call for action may spread like wildfire before a movement is sufficiently prepared, which can put its survival in danger. In many ways, the Iranian Green Revolution is a perfect example of this. The call for action brought a self-selected group of largely educated urban youth to protest in the streets, where the regime cracked down harshly on a movement it believed was not broad enough to constitute a real threat.

A leadership too reliant on social media can also become isolated from alternative political movements with which it may share the common goal of regime change. This is especially the case when other movements are not "youth movements" and therefore are not as tech savvy. This can create serious problems once the revolution is successful and an interim government needs to be created. The Serbian Otpor (Resistance) movement was successful in the 2000 Serbian democratic revolution precisely because it managed to bring together a disparate opposition of pro-Western and nationalist forces. But to facilitate such coalition building, leaders have to step away from computers and cell phones and into factories, rice paddies and watering holes they normally would never want to enter. This is difficult to do during a revolution, when things are in flux and public suspicion is high, especially of those who claim to be leading a revolution.

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Even when a media-savvy leader has a clear plan, he or she may not be successful. For instance, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister of Thailand and telecommunications magnate, has used his skills to hold video conference calls with stadiums full of supporters, and launched two massive waves of protests involving some 100,000 supporters against the Thai government in April 2009 and April and May 2010, yet he still has not succeeded in taking power. He remains a disembodied voice, capable of rocking the boat but incapable of taking its helm.

Simply a Convenience

Shutting down the Internet did not reduce the numbers of Egyptian protesters in the streets. In fact, the protests only grew bigger as websites were shut down and the Internet was turned off. If the right conditions exist a revolution can occur, and social media do not seem to change that. Just because an Internet-based group exists does not make it popular or a threat. There are Facebook groups, YouTube videos and Twitter posts about everything, but that does not make them popular. A neo-Nazi skinhead posting from his mother's basement in Illinois is not going to start a revolution in the United States, no matter how many Internet posts he makes or what he says. The climate must be ripe for revolution, due to problems like inflation, deflation, food shortages, corruption and oppression, and the population must be motivated to mobilize. Representing a new medium with dangers as well as benefits, social media do not create protest movements; they only allow members of such movements to communicate more easily.

Other technologies like short-wave radio, which can also be used to communicate and mobilize, have been available to protesters and revolutionaries for a long time. In reality, so has the Internet, which is the fundamental technological development that allows for quick and widespread communications. The popularity of social media, one of many outgrowths of the Internet, may actually be isolated to international media observation from afar. We can now watch protest developments in real time, instead of after all the reports have been filed and printed in the next day's newspaper or broadcast on the nightly news. Western perceptions are often easily swayed by English-speaking, media-savvy protestors who may be only a small fraction of a country's population. This is further magnified in authoritarian countries where Western media have no choice but to turn to Twitter and YouTube to report on the crisis, thus increasing the perceived importance of social media.

In the Middle East, where Internet penetration is below 35 percent (with the exception of Israel), if a movement grows large enough to effect change it will have been joined through word of mouth, not through social networking. Still, the expansion of Internet connectivity does create new challenges for domestic leaders who have proved more than capable of controlling older forms of communication. This is not an insurmountable challenge, as China has shown, but even in China's case there is growing anxiety about the ability of Internet users to evade controls and spread forbidden information.

Social media represent only one tool among many for an opposition group to employ. Protest movements are rarely successful if led from somebody's basement in a virtual arena. Their leaders must have charisma and street smarts, just like leaders of any organization. A revolutionary group cannot rely on its most tech-savvy leaders to ultimately launch a successful revolution any more than a business can depend on the IT department to sell its product. It is part of the overall strategy, but it cannot be the sole strategy.

stratfor logo hi res.JPG

This story originally ran on STRATFOR's site under the headline Social Media as a Tool for Protest, and is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

Image of Moldova protest sign outside UN by Dan Patterson via Flickr.

Image of tanks in Egypt by Beacon Radio via Flickr.

Image of Thaksin Shinawatra from www.kremlin.ru via Wikipedia.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

June 30 2010

01:51

Behind the Citizen Journalism Revolution

Citizen Journalism is still a relatively new medium, with a few key players dominating the playing field. Sites like DigitalJournal.com, NowPublic, OhMyNews and Newsvine are carving a niche in the world of citizen-powered news media.

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