Inside Storyful – The importance of social journalism to political dissidents

Why is social journalism important? It’s a big question, but one worthy of further examination. There are, of course, many different reasons – it is uniquely democratic, it is global and ubiquitous, it allows coverage in regions where resource-light news organisations are now struggling to get traction. There are the reasons it is important to the newsroom and the news consumer; we can consume more news from more regions at a lower cost.

There is, however, another reason, and it is perhaps the most important reason of all. The social web has now become the primary conduit through which dissidents in censor-intensive countries get their message out to the wider world. As nations like China close the door on coverage, it is often left to social journalism to give us a peep through the keyhole. The recent Chen Guangcheng story is a perfect example of that; a story that, despite the best efforts of Chinese censors, escaped the country via the social web.

At Storyful, we believe in the power of social journalism. Time and again, we have seen our belief vindicated; whether it be through a new video which lays bare the horrors in Syria, a Twitter meme that foreshadows next week’s headlines, or through, as with the Chen Guangcheng story above, a rumour on Twitter which kickstarts a global story.

Video footage uploaded by Syrian activists has made it to broadcast news, tweets of Egyptian protesters were  cited extensively during the Tahrir Square demonstrations, and Libyan bloggers were given platforms by the Western media to express their opinions during that country’s civil war. All these examples show how social journalism has become a necessary part of the traditional newsroom – the risks of not taking it seriously have simply become far too great. This Channel 4 report is just one example of how social journalism is feeding traditional news pieces:

But the social web provides more than just images and footage. Through the social web, Storyful has developed hundreds of contacts on the ground in some of the world’s most journalist-unfriendly regions; Bahraini activists, Syrian citizen journalists, Egyptian protesters, freelancers in Mali… the social web, and our understanding of it, has allowed us to develop a list of contacts that would be valuable to any news organisation in the world. Not only can Storyful get you the most dramatic footage from the world’s crisis hotspots, we can also provide you with some of the best contacts on the ground.

However, none of what Storyful does would be possible if not for one simple fact; political dissidents, too, believe in the power of social journalism. We need only look at the focus placed on the social web by dissidents in otherwise closed states to understand its importance. Storyful saw this recently with this series of videos from Syria; high production values, high quality and high on drama, these videos were focussed on giving the Free Syrian Army more coverage via the social web. Activists and citizen journalists often take the most extraordinary risks to capture footage, simply so it can be uploaded to the internet for the rest of the world to see.

“This is the first organized revolution of its kind in the history of mankind. It began with a Facebook page We Are All Khaled Said that called for this uprising. The social media tools were very critical in sparking these protests; the Internet is unmistakably the origin of the Egyptian protests. And once it broke loose, the Internet proved to be a very important tool for sharing news about the different demonstrations around Egypt.”

From : Egyptian citizen journalist Ahmed Zidan on the importance the web to Egyptian dissidents

However, Storyful is also mindful of the problems. The internet is not a global free for all, where information can traverse borders and boundaries without fear of censorship or reprisal. Jo Glanville, the editor of the Index of Censorship, has stated that the internet “is as much a revolution for censorship as it is for free speech”. Likewise, Ian Clarke, creator of the anonymous censorship-resistant network Freenet, has stated that “it is easier to censor the internet than it is the censor the mail”.

The efficacy and speed with which states have been able to shut down the internet to quell dissent is quite staggering. China’s Great Firewall has turned the state into something of an internet ‘black hole’, and as Iran has shut down the internet and shut out foreign journalists, coverage in the West has returned to the pre-Green Movement focus on its foreign policy. However, the ingenuity of dissidence cannot be underestimated; use of anonymity network Tor exploded in EgyptIran and Syria in response to censorship, showing that there can often be a route past the censors for those willing to take the very serious risks involved.

Directly connecting users from the Syrian Arab Republic

Pakistan’s recent Twitter ban highlighted this; Twitter users across Pakistan voiced their anger through the social network despite the ban, as many managed to circumvent the blockades.

 

These are the technological difficulties, but social journalism also brings with it a far more traditional set of problems. Like any form of journalism, social news is only valuable if it can be verified and understood. As more information comes out of Syria, for example, and as dissidents there become more sophisticated, questions marks are raised over the images we see. Who filmed this, where was it filmed, and when? Has this footage been manipulated? The difficulty of verifying footage can often lead to it being dismissed outright; this is where we at Storyful come in. Storyful’s focus is on separating the verifiable from the unverifiable, the real from the fake and the news from the propaganda. Our validation process is stringent, and we have access, via the social web, to hundreds of contacts on the ground throughout the world to help us through that process.

Social journalism is important, both to news organisations and to the dissidents who need it to communicate with the outside world. Our role is to take the information provided, parse it, give it context and verify it so that we can better understand what is taking place within the borders of nations such as Syria, Iran and China. The social web acts as a conduit to Western headlines, and we at Storyful see ourselves as an important filter in that conduit; a filter that separates the fact from the fiction.

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