@DW Global Media Forum: Blogging, citizen journalism and politics

Deutsche Welle BOBs 2008 winners

Deutsche Welle Best of the Blogs 2008 winners

Bloggers were well represented at Deutsche Welle’s Global Media Forum, in part because it was the first time that they awarded their BOBs – Best of the Blogs – to the winning bloggers in person. The forum was a stark reminder of internet theorist Clay Shirky’s observation that technology that is often used to pass time in the West can be an essential tool for expression and democracy in repressive countries. Blogging has become a powerful means of expression, reporting and organisation in countries around the world.

Blogging and citizen journalism

During a panel on blogging and citizen journalism, Israel Yoroba Guebo from the Ivory Coast said that in his country, “We hope that our journalists don’t end up in prison.” There is only one television channel and opposition political parties have no way to communicate their positions. He used to work for a newspaper, but he wanted an outlet to tell about the everyday life of people in his country.

Ivory Coast was divided by conflict in 2002 as rebels held part of the country. The political conflict didn’t just divide the country but also its people. He wrote on his blog Le Blog de Yoro about life in all parts of the country and tried to show that people shared the same way of life in an effort to bring about reconciliation.

He was asked whether blogging could have prevented the conflict. He said:

“In Ivory Coast, we didn’t see a way to prevent crisis, but if we had the blog, maybe we could have prevented some of the massacres.”

Another person asked him who was the target audience of the blog. Was it Africans, many of whom don’t have access to the internet, or was it audiences in Europe and the US?

He said that it was important to let people in other countries know what was happening in the Ivory Coast, but maybe his blog would also encourage others to take up bloggin. “The more bloggers that we have, the greater opportunity we have to talk freely,” he said.

The problem is that blogging there is difficult and expensive. They don’t have broadband and have to go to internet cafes to post. However, he said:

“You can at least give the world the possibility to express themselves. Something that would never be accepted on the television.”

Iranians do not have to be encouraged to blog. It is often said that Persian is the fourth most common language for blogs. Four years ago, women in Iran gathered outside of parliament to protest a law that prevented women from becoming president, but it was one of many laws unfair to women. The women decided to protest every day of the year against one of these laws, said Nazli Farokhi.

“We realised that 365 days was not enough,” she said, so they started the blog 4equality. It gives a chance for women who support the campaign to write about their experiences. She was asked about the security of the bloggers. Police have arrested 50 of their members, and four remain in prison.

During the BOBs award ceremony, she played the group’s anthem which describes the discrimination that women in Iran face and the hope that one day women and men can be equal there.

Threats to bloggers

A climate of fear due to threats of violence, intimidation or arrest face bloggers in repressive countries. Bloggers from China and Cuba were not allowed to travel to accept their awards, but instead had to record video messages for the BOBs ceremony.

Cuban Yoani Sanchez’s GeneraciĆ³n Y won the award for best blog 2008. Appearing via video message, she said that having a blog in Cuba “can drive one to madness”: There are no internet connections in people’s homes, and bloggers are forced to go internet cafes or hotels that cater to tourists. The cost of using the internet for one hour is equal to a third of the average Cuban’s salary.

Zeng Jinyan won the Reporters without Borders best blog award. She’s the wife of imprisoned Chinese human rights activist Hu Jia, and she began blogging after being put under house arrest. She writes about life under constant surveillance by the Chinese authorities. She couldn’t travel to accept the reward, but was able to get a video to the BOB organisers. In the video message, she said:

“Blogging has brought new hope to my life.”

Ahmad Abdalla won the award for best blog in Arabic. When he started writing the blog, he said that he was only writing “about small things” and didn’t think that anyone would care about it. But, he added:

“But these small things are affecting my generation, these small things that we’re missing.”

Blogging in Russia

Eugene Gorny said that two or three years ago, he wouldn’t have predicted that he would be interested in the link between politics and blogs in Russia, but now people who were not previously interested are getting involved in the political discussion.

Most popular media channels or national newspapers in Russia are controlled by the government. They have no chance to report about opposition political leaders, protests or anything that the government doesn’t want known or discussed.

Andrei Illarionov, the former chief economic advisor to Vladimir Putin, says of Russia, “People enjoy a tangible level of personal freedoms, but political rights are almost absent, civil liberties are severely restricted and there are significant limits on personal security.”

The regime is afraid of any political activity of the citizens, and brutally oppresses them, Gorny said.

Russians first started blogging seven or eight years ago, but it was mostly for fun and for the self-expression of the internet elite. As the Russian government has seized control of the media, blogs have become an important alternative to the state media for people to discuss issues that are important to them.

A 2009 report by Russian search engine Yandex found 7.4m blogs in Russian, of which about 1m are active. There are 1m posts in the Russian language every day. Russian bloggers are journalists, opposition politicians or “anyone who has a story or an opinion to share”, he said. Journalists blogging are able to write about issues more freely than in the traditional media. But it doesn’t matter whether a blogger is a journalist or not, Gorny said. Rather, bloggers were judged by their peers about their ability to write about significant topics.

Many blogs have a huge readership and reach in Russia. Free magazine F5 reviews the hottest topics in the Russian blogosphere, coming mostly from popular blogging service LiveJournal. The magazine boasts a circulation of 100,000.

Bloggers write reports on what they see, publish documents such as Amnesty International reports, commentary on current events, coverage of protests and quotes and links to other posts.

Their favourite topics are writing about:

  1. The “iIllegitimate, corrupted, aggressive and unjust regime”.
  2. The constant search for internal and external enemies.
  3. Human rights violation in Russia, Chechyna, Ingushetia,
  4. Police mayhem, extreme violence and the “outrageous breach of all limits”.
  5. Strategies of resistance.

The last has become important as the authorities criminalise new forms of resistance. Russian authorities have clamped down on flash mobs and, earlier this year, they even arrested members of a silent protest for using foul language. The protestors had tape over their mouths. As more protesters are jailed, blogs from prison are part of a growing trend in Russia.

Blogs are a significant and growing part of the media in Russian, and Gorny predicted that if the political situation gets worse, then that the role of blogs will only increase.

Blogs and democracy in the West

Of course, even in the West, blogs can still be used for democratic purposes. US transparency through technology group, the Sunlight Foundation, won the 2008 Best Blog in English for their Party Time blog. The blog aims to collect information on the lobbyists, corporations and other donors who pay for parties for US politicians.

Nancy Watzman said that anonymous sources, some even in the lobbying groups themselves, offer the group tickets to the parties. The tickets come from sources they trust. They post the information on the Party Time blog, helping to shed light on one of the poorly reported aspects of the game of money, access and influence in US politics. During the political conventions in 2008 ahead of the presidential elections, they went to many of the parties, taking videos and posting them to the blog.

They would like to take the project further and are looking for partners, including the Huffington Post.

Markus Beckedahl started blogging at Netzpolitik to discuss issues of digital rights, copyright and censorship on the internet, pulling together stories in German and from around the world on the subject. He does a lot of thinking about how to change politics. He said:

“Politicians do bills about internet and they don’t really know what they are talking about.”

About 70,000 people in Germany use Twitter, and Markus has found that it’s a good way to quickly oganise and mobilise people. Netzpolitik has its own YouTube channel and video podcasting channel, and this has led to reports in traditional media about their efforts and issues.

He discussed some of their political campaigns. In 2005, the German government began discussing whether to switch from Microsoft’s Windows XP to Linux. The software giant threw a party to lobby the government to stick with Windows, Beckedahl said. Netzpolitik crashed the party in penguin costumes, the penguin being the mascot of Linux. Some of the penguins even managed to send pictures from the party via MMS.

In recent months, Deutsche Bahn, the German rail giant, has been in a “spy scandal with their workers”, Beckedahl said. Someone sent him internal DB documents, which he posted on the internet. Their lawyers sent him a cease-and-desist letter. He posted the letter on the site, asking for advice. Soon, the letter and documents were spread across the internet, making it difficult for DB to get them removed.

Their most recent campaign is against a proposed law aimed at child pornography. Instead of seeking to shut down the sites, the German government is looking to use filtering software, but internet activists fear that government filtering efforts could be used by other industries such as the music industry against file-sharing sites or by the Hessen government to filter gambling sites. Activists would rather the government seek limited action to shut down sites operating outside of the law.

The German government has an online petition system. A successful petition has to get 50,000 signatures. Using Twitter and hundreds of blogs, Netzpolitik managed to get the necessary signatures in record time, getting 110,000 in all.

Final Thoughts on the Global Media Forum

I thought one of the best quotes of the forum came from Laura Pintos, who writes at the blog 233grados.com. (233 degrees being the temperature at which paper ignites.) She was asked during the BOBs awards ceremony what she saw as the future of journalism. She answered:

“It is the wrong question. it is the present. We are living in a digital moment. It is our present.”

It was nice to see that point of view represented at the conference, even if it probably represented a minority view amongst the speakers and attendees. While a lot of people are wringing their hands over what the future of journalism is, there are people Pintos and many of the bloggers and podcasters at the conference who aren’t worrying about the future of journalism and rather simply creating it.

Focus on editorial ideas, then find the right tool

My esteemed colleague and comrade in digital arms, Jemima Kiss, Twittered this very astute observation, in less than 280 characters, about Twitter and use of the micro-blogging application by news organisations:

jemimakiss: Common mistakes news orgs make with Twitter 1) That it’s all about Twitter, rather than how people are actually using Twitter and..

jemimakiss 2) They get fixed on using a tool, like Twitter, rather than working out what they want to do & finding the best tool for it. That is all.

She’s spot on when it comes to Twitter. There is a tendency for organisations to rush with the herd to a new social media service or site without thinking about what, editorially, they are trying to achieve. I’ve seen the same thing happen with blogs and Facebook. After entering the mainstream, some journalists demanded their own blog. Why did they want a blog? They saw it as a back door to having a column. They had always wanted an opinion column because it was a sign of status and as we all know, blogs are just opinion (sarcasm noted). A typical conversation in the industry might go like this:

Editor: How often are you planning on updating your blog?

Aspiring columnist: Oh, once a week should do.

Editor: Were you planning on linking to anything?

Aspiring columnist: Why would I do that? This is my column, er, I mean blog.

Editor: Are you going to take part in the conversation and respond to comments?

Aspiring columnist:
No, of course not. I’m far too busy for that kind of thing.

Editor: So why do you want a blog instead of a column in the newspaper?

Asprining columnist: *silence*

That’s not to say that the journalist wouldn’t get their own column, er, I mean blog, thus continuing traditional media’s focus on celebrity over interactivity. Some journalists make incredibly good bloggers, but when a blog is used simply to replicate what possible in print, it is an editorial waste.

Functionally, there might not be a great difference between a column-with-comments and a blog, but editorially, there is a huge difference.

  • Bloggers post frequently.
  • Bloggers take part in the conversation and respond to comments and questions.
  • Bloggers link to the conversation on other sites.

Blogs take part in a distributed conversation in ways that columns rarely do, whereas columns – even ones with comments – provide a relatively closed, introspective conversation.

Jemima has flagged up how much the same is happening with Twitter. This all comes down to understanding how social media differs from traditional uni-directional publishing and broadcasting and thinking about the editorial concept and the unique opportunities for engagement.

NUJ training chair at centre of blog storm

Over the weekend, I was tempted to write about the blog dust-up between Chris Wheal, chair of the National Union of Journalists training committee, and Adam Tinworth, the head of blog development at Reed Business International, on Adam’s personal blog, but I decided to let Suw fight her corner in the comments. However, I have written up a post looking at the debate with interviews from Chris and Adam over at the The Guardian’s media blog Organ Grinder. Adam’s post had kicked off a great debate about a range of issues, and I agree with him when he says that this kind of debate needs to happen out in the open.

I have to agree with Adam to say that this isn’t a print versus online debate. It’s not a bloggers versus journalists debate (thankfully). This is a new intramural debate amongst digital journalists. We’re now at the point where there are journalists who have been working online for a decade or more. This debate is amongst digital journalists who have embraced social media, and I’d include myself in that camp, and those who see it as a threat to traditional journalism values.

Simple questions can create a great debate

Steve Peterson at The Bivings Report pointed out a post on National Public Radio’s The Bryant Park Project that posed a simple question: Who Are Ron Paul’s Supporters?

For those of you who don’t know, Ron Paul is a Representative from Texas running for president as a Republican, although he ran as a Libertarian in 1988. The political outsider broke a one-day fund-raising effort, pulling in US$6m on 16 December. The Republican establishment and the mainstream media are a bit baffled by his candidacy. However, listening to some of his political statements, he reminds me sometimes of Warren Beatty’s character Bulworth, a suicidally disillusioned liberal politician who becomes bluntly honest. (UPDATE: Just to clarify. Warren Beatty’s character was liberal. I didn’t mean to say that Ron Paul was liberal. Personally, I think his politics doesn’t fit tidily into the liberal-conservative spectrum.)

The response to the question was overwhelming, so much so that they had to shut off comments after 4,000 flooded in. The show’s producers called it Ron Paul-valanche. As I said to Steve via e-mail and he posted the Bivings’ blog:

I have often said to our journalists that only a fraction of our audience will respond to [a] traditional article, and often those responses won’t add much to the story. However, by guiding the discussion with a simple question or some framing of the debate or issue, I think participation not only increases but it’s also broader and more diverse.

Ron Paul’s supporters, well known for being vocal and very active online, swarmed the post, but answered the question in quite some detail, providing a great snap shot of the presidential candidate’s supporters. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if Representative Paul’s supporters have a Google alert-driven flashmob system set up that directs them to blog posts, videos and other discussions online to show their support.

But this is still an amazing response, and as I told Steve, they might be able to take this one step further. You could try to extract some of the information in the comments, probably by mining the underlying database that runs the blog. They could extract information such as age and location of the commenters in this thread to do some interesting mash-ups showing supporter distribution by age and state. It would provide some structure to that information and help to show patterns in it.

This idea is so simple. It is a great use of a programme blog. As I say to Guardian journalists, blog posts are great in framing a debate around a piece of traditional journalism or in reflecting a debate online or off-line. A traditional piece of reporting ties together as many threads as possible, but a great blog post teases out threads for a discussion.

This post asked a simple question and got a great response. To me, this post is an act of journalism, but instead of asking a handful of people on the street or over the phone a question, you’ve posed the question publicly and heard from thousands of people.