Yes, it’s sad that I’m blogging a talk three days late. But these were really good presentations, and I wanted to get a record of what Joi and Mohamed both said. From Friday, at the Knight-MIT Civic Media conference, a morning panel on civic media, citizen science and international news.
Mohamed Nanabhay is the online editor of Al Jazeera English. He’s responsible for Al Jazeera’s English language website, which has risen to prominence during the Arab Spring. Mohamed tells us that he was the “scrappy new media guy”, a barbarian at the gates asking the company to take social media seriously. Now he oversees 70 reporters, and is discovering that it’s harder to be charged with making these changes than to demand those changes.
The protests in Tunisia were documented, Mohamed tells us, thanks to social media. Al Jazeera was banned from operating within Tunisia, so all footage was taken by the general public, uploaded to Facebook (because it was the only unblocked tool for video sharing). Al Jazeera worked to verify the videos, then amplified them, broadcasting them into Tunisia, where they were widely seen, as most Tunisians have satellite dishes. This amplification brought the protests in Sidi Bouzid to a vastly larger audience than would have seen them online, as only a fraction of Tunisians are on Facebook. “Video would be taken, diffused on social networks, broadcast in living rooms, and activists would shoot more video,” recognizing that they were reaching an audience.
Documenting protests became so widespread, it became less dangerous, Mohamed argues. In the past, secret police might have tracked you down to seize your camera or tried to block the service you were uploading to. But the practice, promoted by Al Jazeera, became so widespread, that the widespread adoption of the tactic provided cover.
Mohamed suggests that we’re moving from protest as spectacle to protest as spectacular. To illustrate the former, he shows the famous, disturbing image of Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation in protest of the Diệm regime in Vietnam. That image won Malcome Browne a Pulitzer, but it may also have contributed to form of media where protesters have felt compelled to go towards ever more violent extremes to communicate their distress. The shift to the spectacular begins with self-documentation – Mohamed Bouazizi (the Tunisian vegetable seller whose immolation started the Tunisian rebellion) wasn’t the first to set himself on fire in Tunisia, Mohamed reminds us. His was the first case documented, though. “We had a rock in one hand and a cellphone in the other,” a Tunisian protester told him.
People organizing demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt become increasingly smart about how they used the media and how they organized themselves. They used social media both to organize and to promote their events, ensuring a concentration of coverage. Once we reached Tahrir, we’ve moved from the spectacle to the spectacular: 18 days of people occupying Tahrir, with cameras rolling 24/7. What resulted wasn’t violent or extreme – it was a carnival atmosphere. And it was unavoidable: “You couldn’t miss it in Egypt unless you were watching state media,” Mohamed quips.
The widespread protest coverage helped Egyptians understand the movement was nonviolent and increased their willingness to participate. As the movement grew, the government tried to shut down the internet to slow the flow of messages. They tried older tactics, like imprisoning journalists and confiscating broadcast equipment. Ultimately, they tried to block Al Jazeera’s signal by broadcasting on the same frequency. In an amazing show of solidarity, 11 stations in the region began broadcasting Al Jazeera’s coverage verbatim. For him, Mohamed explains, that was “the moment you see this hegemonic discourse collapse”, where the government’s narrative dies and the spectacular has a life of its own.
To be clear, the success of the Egypt protests wasn’t just about social media and broadcast – “successful organizing is not just on the internet – it needs to be rooted in real world activism on the ground.” There’s a very long history of street protest in Egypt, and the veterans of pro-Labor, pro-Palestine or pro-Intifada protests were some of the key organizers in the Tahrir protests. But it’s important to consider the relevance of self-representation in media portrayals. The protesters in Tunisia and in Tahrir offered “a different image than the angry Arab burning flags and wanting to kill your children.” Dialog about the Middle East offered a choice between extremes – a hypersectarian dictatorship or Bin Laden-type extremism. “Instead, the people said there’s a third way, a path the majority of society is going for,” and civic media allowed for that sort of self representation.
Despite Al Jazeera’s role in helping the revolution spread in Egypt and throughout the region, Mohamed sees this as a victory primarily for decentralized media. He suggests we’re seeing what Castells predicted as a “reprogramming of communication networks.”
“What emerged in the last six months was crystalizing the move away from the hub and spoke of media networks,” Mohamed offers. “Anyone who thought that the rise of social media wasn’t fundamentally altering media: this has shown that vision was wrong.”
The shift to participatory media isn’t always easy for broadcast networks. Mohamed shows us a comedy clip from the BBC where a pair of presenters invite their audience to participate in a dialog, no matter how ignorant of the issues they are: “We know you might not know anything. Email us with what you reckon. Ignorance should not be a barrier.” The opportunity at Al Jazeera, Mohamed tells us, is to bring people into the conversation in a way that takes the story forward, building a narrative that provides context to complex issues.
All journalists at the network, including broadcast journalists, have gone through social media training, which includes finding stories on social media and verifying them. Al Jazeera’s focus is less on building the audience via social media, and more on “listening to a very wide variety of input media, and outputing onto any platform.” This shouldn’t be about cheap news gathering – it’s about building relationships and learning from people in new media as we would with more traditional sources. Al Jazeera was so well positioned in Tunisia and Egypt in part because Mohamed and others have had relationships with social media pioneers in those countries for years. “We disparage parachute journalism, and we know you can’t do that with social media either.”
The biggest sign that Al Jazeera is succeeding? Not the widespread coverage of Egypt or the movement in the US to get Al Jazeera available in cable packages. It’s the fact that the network’s web presence saw a bigger spike in traffic around the Japanese earthquake and tsunami than it did during Mubarak’s departure, indicating that the site is becoming a true source of international news for a broad audience.
Joi Ito, the incoming director of MIT’s Media Lab, and a man with his hand in many social media projects, explains that his first interview at MIT involved the earthquake. “It happened in the middle of the night between my two interviews.” And he shouts out to Mohamed and Al Jazeera. “The first media to interview the team we’ve built to document radiation was Al Jazeera.” Joi lives in Dubai and notes that “more Arabs talking about the earthquake than Japanese talking about Libya,” which suggests another market Al Jazeera may want to pursue.
In offering a reflection on the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, Joi offers the provocation, “Twitter beat the pants off mainstream media.” In the chaos and shock that followed the quake, “foreigners couldn’t get any news in Japan.” The best news was available online. Journalists covered press conferences using Ustream, which allowed Japanese around the world to tweet the Japanese press conferences in English, providing some information for English-speaking residents of Japan.
And social media was able to help correct some of the distortions that came from broadcast media. “At the point when the Prime Minister said the workers have evacuated to a safer place – meaning a safer place in the facility, but he said it in a very subtle way – foreign media covered it as ‘they ran away’ and English media amplified this as an echo chamber.” One guy offering one wire post got it wrong, Joi tells us, but it took hours to get it corrected. (Joi called Mohamed directly and had him talk to NHK, which meant that Al Jazeera was one of the first networks to make the correction.)
From early on in the earthquake recovery, Joi was involved with a project called Safecast, which began life with the name “RDTN”. It was inspired by a visualization from a graphic design studio in Portland, Oregon which offered a map with radiation readings. On a list Joi frequents, Vint Cerf asked whether the science behind the visualization was correct. Joi started reaching out to scientists and to the small clique of people who build Geiger counters.
Reporting on radiation and its effects on health is difficult. “Health physicists are generally funded by the nuclear industry, so they don’t like speaking about these issues,” he explains. “It’s hard to get any professional academic to take a position.” And lots of data that was supposed to be opened by the Japanese government has proven very difficult to get – Joi suggests that crises are an excellent time to check the effectiveness of open data implementations.
Safecast was born and evolved in a Skype channel, open to anyone who wanted to join the team. The project’s main output is a map that shows how radiation levels in different parts of Japan compare to readings before the Fukushima disaster. Green squares show the same readings, while grey shows readings that are higher than before. You can click and drill down into the data, including data from drivethroughts of heavily affected areas in instrumented cars.
This hasn’t been easy to do. It’s not all that easy to get a bunch of Geiger counters. Safecast raised $37,000 on Kickstarter to get counters, but quickly discovered that they’re “messy analog devices”. The good ones were designed many years ago, and they don’t have wifi, bluetooth, ethernet or other useful features. So Safecast is now designing their own, as well as building platforms like the 5 mobile “bGeigie” car-based units, which can drive through affected areas and record levels.
Most geiger counters, Joi tells us, don’t measure all three types of radiation – alpha, beta and gamma. They generally just measure gamma, which is the one most people care about, as it’s high energy and can penetrate clothes. But isotopes that throw off alpha and beta particles can be very dangerous when ingested. Japanese inspectors have taken to scanning bags of rice with gamma detectors and proudly announcing they’re gamma free. That’s irrelevant – the concern is that the food might have isotopes that give off alpha and beta particles. Joi suggests that the country is suffering from “radiation illiteracy”, which is particularly dangerous for children: “In the sand and dirt around elementary schools, we’ve found alpha and beta radiation off the charts. And the TV is showing mothers washing surfaces in the school with soap and water – they’d need to be sandblasting.”
Safecast has been a victory for international cooperation. Bunny Huang is working on new radiation sensors, and collaborating with hacker spaces, who are experimenting with Arduino-based trackers. Aston Martin and Tesla are offering cars as vehicles to collect data. They’re working with GIS folks to overlay readings on maps, and have sketched an iGeigie, a Geiger counter that sticks onto an iPhone. The reason for all of this is that radiation is very granular. Joi reveals that his house is okay… mostly – there’s a patch of the front yard that’s highly radioactive, and like many Japanese, he doesn’t know quite what to do. But in the meantime, he’s advocating for a simple idea: “We’re asking anyone who sells Geiger counter parts to sell only to people who will disclose data under a CC-0 license.” If we’re going to map and measure radiation, he tells us, we’re all in this together.