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Ahmed Shihab-Eldin

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The Arab World and the Media's Symbiotic Revolutions

Posted: 05/29/2012 12:48 pm

The Arab world has forever changed, and so has the media. Some would argue governance, as we've known it, is also changing. Business is certainly changing; in fact, the whole world might just be changing too. The question is, is social media the catalyst? My simple answer is yes.

For just over a year now, I've been fortunate enough to be immersed in a series of chaotic and fateful events that had deprived me of sleep, catapulted my career, but most importantly connected me through social media, at times intimately, to my shared generation of Arab brothers and sisters fighting for their right to self-determination.

After decades of oppression and dictatorship, a revolutionary spirit, led primarily by the region's youth, and fueled by social media, has risen across the Middle East and North Africa, challenging the governments in power, their relations with the West, and the role of religion, women and democracy in society.

But it has also challenged, perhaps unintentionally, the mainstream media.

Last fall I had the privilege to speak at the Google Zeitgeist conference in Phoenix, Arizona about Arab youth reclaiming their identity and right to self-determination. But this could not have been accomplished with such a relentless pace had it not been for the democratization of media and proliferation of platforms for political and social mobilization.

Social media connected these young Arabs to like-minded individuals, across the region, and beyond, but perhaps most importantly with the media -- highlighting the limitations of parachute journalism, which is as ineffective as it is costly. Instead, it offered them a new source for news-gathering, social-media, via a platform that President Bush once infamously coined "The Internets."

Just as the Arab world is going through a period of revolution, the media is undergoing its own symbiotic revolution. There has been much speculation as to how central a role social media has played in catalyzing the Arab Revolution or the Global Occupy Movement. But little has been discussed about its role in spurring the media revolution.

Last week while giving this address at Google Zeitgeist UK, I got in bed early and was watching a rerun of Men in Black on the obscenely large TV in my room when a flurry of tweets caught my eye. I watched as photos and a livestream of anti-war protesters clashing with police at the NATO summit streamed through to my laptop from Chicago.

Within minutes another live stream from Lebanon Al Jadeed website popped up in my Twitter feed documenting RPG and machine gunfire that lasted for five hours as the conflict in Syria manifested itself in Beirut's streets. The worst violence in well over a decade, and then some. There I was, aggregating tweets and live video, calling up sources on the ground and curating the story, using crowdsourced maps to track the violence. I was basically using social media as a news-gathering tool and pushing it out to 12,000 Twitter followers in real-time in over 141 countries. Essentially, my own mini-publishing platform.

I would stay up until 3 a.m. in somewhat of a late-night ménage a trois, except instead of lovers, it was my laptop and phone, both of which I'm a little too in love with. (Seriously, my family has had interventions with me about it. But that's another story all together.)

For decades, leaders in media and governments have championed the ordinary citizen's right to information as a fundamental human right. For just as long, in the Arab world, citizens have been deprived and denied that very right.

Fifty percent of the world is under 30. In the Arab world it is about 70 percent. These young people have turned to the Internet to engage with others, share grievances and mobilize to challenge the status quo. Since then, we've seen that spirit of civic engagement spill from the virtual realm to the streets. As the Internet penetration grew and economic situation worsened, millions of young, unemployed, but educated youth acted out -- including one notable man in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi, whose story I'm sure you are familiar with. If not, let me Google that for you.

That same week, I had arrived in D.C. to help launch The Stream for Al Jazeera, an award-winning interactive talk show that aimed to tap into conversations already happening on social media and leverage their voices to tell unreported stories. I stumbled across the hashtag, "Sidibouzid" -- the town that Mohamad Bouazizi was from. Immediately, I called up hundred of photos, and videos showing students protesting, police abuses and sporadic gunfire.

Within a matter of minutes I was able to interview a student via Skype who told me school was canceled. He sent me photos of a protester whose head had been blown off in a hospital. I tried to look on the wires to corroborate the video, but there was nothing in the wires.

There I was, watching this horrible gruesome video, knowing in my gut it was real, unable to find a source confirming it in mainstream media, and wondering where the hell is the story?

As the messages went viral, protests broke out across the world showing solidarity with Tunisia in Switzerland, Egypt, Algeria, Berlin and even London. I realized the beginning of a revolution was unfolding and I, thanks to Social Media, had a front-row seat.

For more than a week I watched the story unfold, speaking to activists, using Facebook, Skype and Twitter, as protests turned bloody. It wasn't until January 11, 2011, with Ben Ali's regime on the verge of collapse, that Time magazine finally found the story.

Despite social media's challenging of the state's intimidation and targeting of journalists, Bahrain, Syria, and Egypt and many others continue to crackdown on dissent. But through citizen reports and mobilization on social media, their stories could not be suppressed.

Google didn't play a small part, working with Twitter to launch Speak-2-Tweet -- allowing voice messages from mobile phones to be translated into tweets to share information from the ground in Egypt when the Internet was shutdown. Still, according to Freedom House, overall global freedom of the press did not decline for the first time in eight years. Social media has played a huge role.


Above is a short clip from a show we did on The Stream that won a Royal Television Society Award for "Innovative News" for its in-depth analysis of the struggle between government loyalists and opposition supporters in Bahrain. The girl on Skype in the video is Zainab Al Khawaja, the daughter of Abdulhadi al Khawaja, the head of Bahrain's Center for Human Rights who has recently ended a hunger strike for over 100 days.

You may have noticed that she accused Bahrain's crown prince of torture. While this allegation was the first time it was being made on television, she and thousands more had made it for months on Twitter and Facebook, and it's also worth mentioning that we booked her (and many other guests) through Twitter. As she made the allegations, my heart skipped a beat, and the producer in the gallery came into my ear piece, repeating, "Oh, shit. Oh shit!" -- so I made it a point to mention before we thanked our guests that we'd be following her tweets the next day in an effort to protect her.

This show included two guests on Skype, a Google hangout with six members from across the world and thousands on Twitter tweeting in to challenge what was being said in the studio. That is the magic of social media. Twitter alone has changed the way we, as global citizens, communicate and the way wars are covered, especially when governments ban journalists from entry to the country. Twitter ultimately becomes the wires.

In this democratized media environment, where the authoritative is drowned out by the masses, and immediacy and transparency trump objectivity, videos documenting demolitions and disfigurements expose enough in real time for us to grasp the reality based on sheer volume, even when what we are seeing is not instantly verifiable.

Even in the face of a death toll reportedly upwards of 12,000, potentially, much higher, the Syrian government officials and Assad supporters with whom I have spoken both on Al Jazeera both on and off camera seem to echo one refrain: "Where is the proof?" they ask me.

When Syria refuses to allow international journalists in to cover the story, where does the burden of truth or proof rest? Does it rest with the activists who are documenting destruction and sharing it with the world through social media or with the government, which is actively trying to shut the world out?

You can doubt the veracity of one video (of a man being buried alive perhaps) but not thousands.

It is true, these tools are also used as propaganda and often activists, whether intentionally or not, exaggerate death tolls. We've also seen spambots on Twitter, the Syria Electronic Army and the cyber battles that ensued, reflecting the battles in the streets. But still, we can and should comb through and develop methods to curate the content on these platforms because there are stories dying to be told, with the raw footage to back them.

Everyday while at The Stream, we would sift through hundreds of videos sent from Syria, and specifically Bahrain, where activists had set up webcams in Shia villages to document police abuses, cops throwing tear gas into homes from the roofs, breaking car windows and worse. Al Jazeera was banned, journalists were detained, but the pictures kept streaming in through social media.

But rather than simply use their materials to tell stories, we decided to open up the editorial process, using Storify for example. Storify assumes we are all media consumers and producers, and is being integrated in newsrooms across the world. Reuters even tried to build their own version.

The New York Times called our coverage "Al Jazeera's moment." But this was not Al Jazeera's moment. This was the people's moment. Al Jazeera, like social media, played a crucial role in amplifying and accelerating the voices of those protesting in the streets -- connecting them with millions of others in the region and billions more the world over.

A few months ago I resigned from Al Jazeera because a truly disruptive project came up that I couldn't turn down. At Zeitgeist last year, I met Arianna Huffington, who went on stage right after my speech. In her insightful comments on the schizophrenic media identity crisis, she refered to "The Ahmed Model," which was certainly surprising to me since I myself was not even aware of this model that I had apparently coined, but the point is, she and I saw eye-to-eye on a lot of things, including the fallacy of objectivity and how transparency, participation and empowerment can trump that calling. Truth, transparency and accountability should trump objectivity. The pursuit of as many angles and voices should replace this notion of getting one sides perspective and the other's sides, disregarding countless others.

Fast forward six months from the Google conference.

There I was in Vienna, giving my mum a foot rub as any good Arab son might do, and the phone rang. It was Arianna. After a lengthy phone conversation, I knew that I had to be part of her new online streaming network, an opportunity to take what I'd learned at The Stream to the next level, and then some.

The project is called HuffPost Live, and aims to disrupt the current TV media environment, which is failing us. This summer we will be launching an online live-streaming network that uses HuffPost's stories, editors, reporters, bloggers and community as its real-time script. At the heart of it will be a platform that leverages the voices of our community rather than the same old talking heads.

The democratization of the Arab world, or any society, is directly related to the democratization of its media. We must all recognize that collaboration should trump competition, democratization should trump authoritarianism. It took us at the Huffington Post seven years to generate 100 million comments from our community. It took us six months (the last six months) to get to 150 million comments. The time, is simply now.

So often on TV news shows they discuss the hottest thing, the current thing, but they never spend time digging deeper to talk about the thing about the thing. That's what we will aim to do. Our segments will be as long or as short as they need to be to sustain the conversation. We won't be limited by the usual time-constrains of TV.

But perhaps most importantly, rather than just booking the usual talking head suspects as guests, we've built into our website and mobile platforms multiple ways for our users to engage with the network -- including coming on and joining us live as a guest. The idea being that the more we call on you the more nuanced the conversation will be.

The news is best delivered when it is done so in an interactive and democratic fashion, and in fact, it is more accurate when the newsgathering process is opened up to the masses. The internet, namely social media, has amplified the voices of the individual.

We do not want or need to be told what is relevant, or newsworthy. Stories are ubiquitous, they are all around us and involve all of us. We know what is relevant from what we see around us, what we all as news consumers and producers experience. After all, the people affected by a story on the ground are the ones who are most invested in the story. So they want to get it right.

It is not easy to make sense of the madness in millions of tweets, photos and videos; there is no style guide for tapping into the endless social stream, but if I know anything, we'd all be fools to turn inwards or turn backwards, rather than reach out and turn to the people who have stories worth telling, and sharing, and yes even tweeting.

My talk at Google Zeitgeist UK:


 

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