Mobile Phones for Citizen Media and Human Rights

Over the next week, I'll be contributing to an online discussion about the impact of mobile phones on citizen media. The debate is being hosted by New Tactics in Human Rights, an online resource for human rights practicioners based out of the Center for Victims of Torture.

The conversation will take on questions concerning the risks, challenges, opportunities and successes in using mobile phones to enhance citizen journalism and help protect human rights. It's only just begun, but stop by over the next week to follow along, and feel free to jump right in the debate!

This is an excerpt of a post I put up this morning, taking on the question of "How do you see citizen media in the larger media context?":

We still need professional journalists. In fact, in today's world, we need them more than ever. In taking on corruption and human rights abuses, in covering war, violence or political upheaval, we depend on having sources of news that we know, and that we know we can trust. Sure, if I get a message from my friend in Tahrir Square telling me what's happening, I believe his account. But you've never heard his name, and for all you know, he might be a government plant or a radical extremist. And If I'm the only one who can be sure of what's going on, well, that's not media, and nothing will change.

On the other hand, if my friend can tell his story to a professional journalist, and that journalist trusts him enough to put it in a newspaper read and trusted by millions, then you have the beginnings of change.  Now, I know that we can't always believe everything our traditional media outlets tell us.  But to my mind, Jayson Blair and his ilk are the rare exceptions that help prove the rule.

Of course, the scenario I just described is no different from how news stories were sourced in the past-- a journalist talking to a trusted source. And I do believe mobile-based citizen media can have a greatly positive effect on newsgathering in several distinct ways:

  • Photos & Videos: Often times, a citizen on the inside of a conflict, a protest or a scandal has a unique perspective and can capture an image or a video that would otherwise go unseen. Or maybe an average person just happens to be at the right place at the right time. And while photos and videos don't always tell a complete story, and can be doctored, they provide evidence that is much harder to refute than written words. With the proliferation of high-quality cell phone cameras into the pockets of more and more people on earth-- and with equally widespread video just around the corner-- everyone can document their world with the click of a button. This is maybe the single greatest impact of mobile technology on media.
  • Volume: While a short text message from an unknown source might not be compelling evidence, ten thousand such messages are harder to refute. Twitter is the perfect case study of this. A flood of tweets coming from a variety of people all witnessing the same things can help capture the attention of the outside world and bring important events to life in a citizen-to-citizen fashion.
  • Anonymity: To paraphrase the oft-cited old New Yorker cartoon-- "On the internet, nobody knows you're a citizen journalist." If you wanted to anonymously tip off the Washington Post in 1970, you had to leave a package of documents outside their front door in the middle of the night, or meet discreetly with a journalist and hope that nobody saw you together. While the security of mobile phones is weak, and anonymity is very difficult to guarantee, there are myriad new ways to tell your story without your true identity ever surfacing.
  • Speed: On April 7, 1994, the Rwandan genocide began. One hundred days later, 800,000 people were dead, and yet most of the world still didn't really understand what was happening-- despite the fact that many elites within the UN, the US government and elsewhere did know more or less exactly what was going on as they stood idly by. In today's world, with half of the Rwandan population armed with a mobile phone, it's almost impossible to imagine something like this happening. The story of the genocide would be told in real time to a global audience, in words, pictures, and video, and the resulting outrage would (I'd like to think) compel international powers to action.

All these cases are powerful ways the mobile phone can improve our media. But none of them can realize their full impact without the support of traditional media to distil and broadcast. A citizen's photo of a protest needs an outlet. Thousands of tweets about ethnic violence need to be combed through, sourced and verified. The anonymous informant needs a trusted news source to inform. And real-time story telling only works if somebody is listening who can make that story heard around the world.

Again, anybody is welcome to participate in the conversation, so if I've got you fired up, feel free to jump right in and respond!