Tag Archives: New Media

The ‘retweeting’ of Iran: Bloggasm experiment

Simon Owens, who runs Bloggasm, did an experiment on how many times a ‘tweet’ from Iran is retweeted (RT). Read his full findings here – an extract:

Out of the 100 random tweets, each one was retweeted an average of 57.8 times. The tweet that received the highest volume of retweets had 311 retweets. The smallest had only 6 retweets. Most of the tweets I found had between 30 and 50 retweets.

Of course this was done during normal Eastern Time hours, so it may be that the volume fluctuates throughout the day. But it does show that a single tweet coming out of Iran can be seen by a massive volume of Twitter users fairly easily.

I’d be interested to see how many of those retweets come from inside Iran: this would give us some indication as to the extent of it’s use – within the country – as a tool. Then again, when someone in Canada can retweet about an embassy being open or closed on the back of what someone in Singapore said, who got it in turn from someone in the UK, who saw it from an Iranian, does it matter that much how the information is spread?

It’s easy to concentrate on one tool and it’s obvious that sections of the mainstream media do so. It’s not a replacement for real journalism, but real journalism has it’s limits, especially if journalists are put in jail or asked to leave the country. So Twitter has some role to play.

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Jennifer Bussell on Indian e-government: technology and development

Ethan Zuckerman has a post on ICT4D (Internet Communication Technology for development) on India, and Jennifer Bussell’s recent talk at the Berkman Centre on the issue. I know this isn’t about the Middle East, but thought it was worth highlighting:

“There’s a strong critique of ICT4D that argues that the importance of information is overstated and that ICT4D proponents either overvalue information technology because they’re personally attached to the tools, or more sinisterly, because they’re looking to create developing world markets for these tools. Many supporters of ICT4D – myself included – will concede that there are lots of badly thought out and poorly executed projects that do little more than drop expensive technology in areas where it’s a scarce resource and likely to stay a scarce resource for a long time to come.

Bussell argues that e-services tend to systematically reduce corruption, and that they therefore can be threatening to existing political elites. Elites have the power of transferring bureacrats, moving them from a job where it’s easy to seek bribes (the customs service) to one where it’s harder to do so. They exercise this power by demanding kickbacks from bureacrats, which they use as campaign finance. A politician whose political livelihood relies on control of bribes and rent-seeking officials is likely to be threatened by eGovernment efforts and might fight their introduction.”

It is easy to assume that the introduction of technology will not solve third-world problems, with a first-world solution. But this is unlikely to work right-away, given the differences in culture, levels of development and expertise. The introduction of mobile phones to rural India, for example, will not solve all it’s agriculture problems.

An advantage with, for example, new media in the Middle East is that it is much easier for the local population to take ownership of the technology and it’s content, using it in their own languages and their own devices.

However, we should not be put off introducing technology into the third world. When can a country be deduced as being ‘ready’ for a certain technology – at what stage can the mobile phone or Internet be introducted, and if we do decide that there is a stage when a country can be ready for certain technologies, does this not 1. means the West is ‘owning’ this technology, 2. assuming that all third-world countries will react in the same, amusingly, negative way (as the restriction of technology would be based on previous examples) and 3. is arguably a restriction to a globalised, free market. This last point is difficult, as some may argue that a free market also damages these countries.

But who is deciding what is a negative and positive development in these countries: those analysing it from the outside, those within the country – or perhaps journalists, if it is their role to make such a judgement?

Michael Wolfe on new media and Islam: the wrong focus

Writing on CNN, Michael Wolfe has an article entitled ‘New media, new Muslim voices

Wolfe discusses the opportunities the American Muslim community now have to discuss, react, and if necessary refute news stories concerning them or their religion.

An extract:

“Now, perhaps in the nick of time, the Web offers Muslims the chance to blog in their own words, tweet their reactions to a breaking news story or further progress in their own communities by exchanging ideas through online forums.”

Wolfe continues:

“But conversations aren’t one-sided; they involve at least two parties. What does this mean? It means that the opportunity Muslims now have is shared with their neighbors. When a Muslim goes online to blog about why she wears a headscarf, a Christian or Jewish woman who is interested in the topic can ask her questions directly.”

What’s new with this?

I’ve got a couple of problems with Wolfe’s article. Firstly, what he is discussing is the same for every community with Internet access. I don’t see why Muslims need to be treated as a special case, about whom an extensive point needs to be made. Just like millions worldwide, they can blog, surf, email and everything inbetween.

I fail to see how, ‘in the nick of time’, the web suddenly allows Muslims to use the same tools as everyone else – as if they haven’t already. In the same way that, across America and the West, Muslims and non-Muslims will be having, and have been having, conversations for decades. These may be as colleagues, as friends, as neighbours and as partners. The Internet has an unparalled impact on our lives, but perhaps not in this part.

The wrong region

Wolfe’s analysis does have resonance, but not in America. The rise in Internet usuage in the Middle East is expodential. Despite firewalls, cenesorship, and often the difficulty of simply getting online, there is a wave of bloggers, activits, citizen journalists and everyday individuals doing just what Wolfe describes – sometimes in English, more often in Arabic or Farsi.

Wolfe:

“Sometimes it is geography that separates us, or sometimes we are too shy or embarrassed to ask questions or speak out when face-to-face. The Web makes all of this much easier and unleashes unparalleled potential for humans to communicate directly with the rest of the world.”

By allowing more two-way communication between the ‘east and west’ (for want of a better phrase), between those living in Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the English-speaking world, the web is ‘making this easier’. But on a much greater, arguably more significant scale than that which Wolfe describes.

Al Jazeera in the global arena and new media

In the past decade the Middle East has seen as explosion in Pan-Arabian mainstream media, including Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.  The former now devotes a good share of its resources to the Western market – it’s lack of effort to do so previously was a cause for criticism – and is increasingly using new media to enhance its coverage. This offers Westerners a rival and alternative perspective to Middle East (and worldwide) events than that perpetrated by their media.

This is much more important than simply showing more gory pictures of the Gaza conflict, which I certainly noticed, as did the Jersualam Post. Ibrahim Saleh, in ‘The Arab Search for a Global Identity’ (in ‘New Media and the New Middle East’, ed. Philip Seib), explains the problem with Western media covering the Arab word:

‘The ignorance of journalists covering the region is one principal reason for misunderstanding the Arab identity and culture, thus developing media bias as well as promoting the notion of Islamophobia. Even when foreign news agencies attempt to place the events in a hisotircal context, they often get facts wrong and create an inaccurate or misleading impression…The media routinely adopt the news frames that fit their agendas. Once an image or impression is ingrained in someone’s mind, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to erase it.’

Al Jazeera English

Sahar Khamis explains what the effect of Al Jazeera English could be for the global media:

‘Today, the majority of news flows from the developed to the developing world, that is, from the West to the East. If Al Jazeera succeeds, the new channel will represent a counter flow of information from the Arab world to the rest of the world, especially to developed western countries. In other words, it will represent in this case the first viable and competitiveve attempt to challenge the existing Anglo-American news hegemony and to offer a credible alternativeve to global Anglo-American news channels.’

Even if is taking a similar form of 24 news as BBC World and CNN, and adopting a language which is not inherent to the station’s region of origin (though is widely spoken), the success of Al Jazeera English could herald the start of a reversal in the dissemination of global news through the mainstream media. The consequences of this for development journalism could on the one hand be small – as the intended audience is in the developed world. On the other hand, the breakdown of stereotypes and an increased cross-cultural understanding across languages and politics could lead afford the Western public a better understanding the Middle East, and perhaps a better understanding of attitudes towards aid, democracy, religion and Western values.

New media

In a recent interview with Journalism.co.uk, Tarek Esber of Al Jazeera answered questions about the networks new media output and its wider appeal to a Western audience:

“There was also a huge amount of interest in the Twitter feed we set up just for news about the Gaza conflict. 5,000+ followers from all around the world and for a lot of them it was their first exposure to News from Al Jazeera. The feedback we got was fantastic.

Our Livestation stream, which allows anyone who has an Internet connection to watch our English and Arabic channels live for free, also proved very popular. During the War on Gaza viewer figures shot up six-fold and the largest pool of viewers were in North America, a traditional dark zone for Al Jazeera. We’re working on that. Since the War on Gaza we’ve started to make a push to get Al Jazeera English broadcast in Canada and the USA: the IWantAJE.com site gives more information.

Our YouTube channels, in Arabic and English, were just as important. They have always been extremely popular but during the time of conflict we were one of the most viewed channels on there.”

The ‘War on Gaza‘ experimental site from Al Jazeera labs allowed users to ‘submit and incident’, pictured them on a map and by type (rocket strike, protests, civlians) and then detailed whether or not the report was verified. You can see more on Al Jazeera’s use of new media during the Gaza conflict on the video below, where Shuli Ghosh talks about the network’s platforms for online users and how they can contribute content:

However, use of the Internet is also allowing those in the Middle East to access more information, more freely. As Saleh points out: ‘…in the past, the Arabs were exposed only to “official” news through media that were mouthpieces of their governments. Now, thanks to the Internet and international satellite channels, there is less constraint on news dissemination. Any person can gain access to the news from all possible perspectives.’ Sahar Khamis, writing about ‘The Role of New Arab Satellite Channels’ reinforces this perception:

‘…the significant changes in the media environment in the Arab world since the early 1990s, especially the legalization of private sector ownership of satellite channels, brought about a new era of diversity and relative freedom, away from direct state ownership and control.’

For both Middle East and Western viewers, the use of new media by Al Jazeera, while hardly revolutionary, can only be a positive step for it’s coverage and wider understanding of the region. What Al Jazeera has failed to develop to the same extent as CNN or BBC is a worldwide base of citizen journalists and commentators. This may be thanks to its lack of reach as yet, but unfortunately Al Jazeera can still be castigated as a ‘Middle Eastern’ operator, covering primarily that one region – whereas the BBC, though obviously British based, has such reach that it can be perceived as truly worldwide.

Al Jazeera has some way to go yet in truly rivaling CNN and the BBC for worldwide coverage. However, it’s use of new media as well as traditional broadcasting during the recent conflict in Gaza was much more comprehensive than either of its global competitors. The LA Times ‘Babylon to Beyond’ praises the channel:

“One of the hidden realities of the Western media’s coverage of Gaza is that most correspondents live in Jerusalem and only occasionally visit Gaza, once a month or so, for specific stories. What that means in the current conflict is that many of us were caught out of position when the Israeli air campaign began on Saturday.

Since then, Israel has shut down the border crossing into Gaza, citing security concerns — effectively shutting out most of the Western press corps and forcing us to rely on local journalists in Gaza to serve as our eyes and ears.

But Jazeera already had a permanent position in Gaza, and its correspondents continue to risk their lives to crisscross the territory, bringing the most comprehensive coverage of the conflict available.

There’s another crucial distinction between Jazeera and the Western press. The channel doesn’t shield its viewers from the horrors of war.

An old friend of mine from Boston arrived in Jerusalem for a visit on Friday. The first time she saw Jazeera English’s footage of casualties in a Gaza City hospital, she was shocked. She simply never had seen such graphic images.”

Literature

Ibrahim Saleh ‘The Arab Search for a Global Identity: Breaking out of the Mainstream Media Cocoon’. pp.19-38 and Sahar Khamis ‘The Role of New Arab Satellite Channels in Fostering Intercultural Dialogue: Can Al Jazeera English Bridge the Gap? pp.39-52 in ‘New Media and the New Middle East‘ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

Egypt’s failed virtual protest

A little over a week ago came the anniversary of a domestic protest in Egypt, for which a group of students and activists attempted to organise a nationwide day of action. The April 6th 2009 protest was widely regarded as a failure, but raises questions about the use of new media in democratic movements and their coverage by the mainstream media in both the Middle East and the West.

The Iniative for an Open Arab Internet paints an optimistic view of the protest in its planning stages:

“A call went out in 2009 for 6 April to become a day of “anger”. Every means of communication has since been pressed into service to spread the message far and wide, including slogans scrawled on bank notes and thousands of text messages sent to random phone numbers. The young Facebook users have no political experience and their real numbers are unknown. But that is their strength. Since any type of meeting is banned under the state of emergency law which the country has been under for 28 years, the Internet allows meetings to be held through a computer.”

Similar sentiments are echoed by the SHABAB April 6th Youth Movement:

“We Youth April 6 movement believe that the change and reforming of Egypt will not happen by claims or petitions,we will achieve it by providing real alternatives and real solutions to find a real alternative for political, economic and social Renaissance in Egypt that provides stability and security of the Egyptian citizen.
And we Youth April 6 movement believe that this will happen only by the move of young people – as they are the real one who will benefit from the change when it happens, as they exceed 60 % of the Egyptian population..”

Eman AbdElRaham, on Global Voices Online, reflects on the differences with last years strike, pictured after the quote:

“In comparison to last year’s spontaneous movement and the worker’s strikes and demonstrations, especially in El Mahalla, this year’s initiative was met by the fictitious approval of the opposition parties and opposition from the workers themselves; and so the few protests that took place were almost only held by students in Egyptian universities, along with another one in front of the journalism syndicate.”

A protest in Manhalla, Egypt in April 2008

A protest in Manhalla, Egypt in April 2008

Despite stating that the movement recognises that change will not happen through merely claims and petitions, they have been criticised by Jack Shenker at the Guardian, among others, for not expanding those involved in the protest:

“Facebook groups might grab the attention of social-networking-hungry global news outlets, but they mean a lot less in a country where only about 10% of the population are internet users. That’s not to say the web doesn’t have a vital role to play in providing a much-needed space for political expression, but it does mean that those seeking mass mobilisations against the regime must find ways to reach out and co-ordinate with those beyond their own middle-class circles.”

It’s worth asking whether or not the protest would have attracted as much attention from Western media outlets had it been planned by trade unions (such as they are in Egypt) and the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than by English-speaking, internet savvy students. Much of the Anglo-Saxon media seems unable to go more than a few days without having a story about Facebook, Twitter or the next big thing. We saw this with the so called ‘Twitter Revolution‘ (France 24) in Moldova recently – would it have achieved the same level of albeit short prominence was it not associated with the tweeting service?

The excellent Babylon to Beyond LA Times blog was at one of the few demonstrations in Egypt that took place:

“Many observers blame Egyptian apathy on more than five decades of military rule and political oppression.

“People cannot find a good leadership to follow. The state has destroyed all institutions, including active political parties,” said Diaa El-Sawy, a leader of the April 6 youth group. “We, as April 6 youth, try to advance a new leadership for the people.”

Despite the low turnout of protesters, El-Sawy said he believed his group’s call chalked up some success. “The arrest of students reflects our success in terrifying the state. April 6 strike is just a step on the way to a general civil disobedience which we believe is the only way to bring change.””

In effect, a dictatorship which lasts for so long with little opposition and limited media freedom creates a ‘de-politicised’ state, in which opportunity for discourse and engagement is virtually null. Gulf News also blamed widespread apathy for the failure of the protests. What the internet and new media tools then enables is access to outside ideas and a stage for discussion which is harder to contain – but only for 10% of the population, a minority which will inevitably be disproportionality educated, English-speaking, Western leaning and without any institutional power bases.

However, there has been an explosion in the use of new media in Egypt and it’s calls for social justice and democracy are undoubtly a form of development journalism. Although the many bloggers are well-meaning, their form of journalism is hardly partcipatory and due to the apathy of the nation, and the low internet usage, this looks unlikely to change soon.

Egyptian bloggers will keep trying. Marwa Rakha highlights a Facebook campaign for a silent demonstration on April 18th on the subject of harassment. With any luck, it will spread beyond those who can access the group.