06
Oct 11

Wadah Khanfar in London

Wadah Khanfar, until very recently the director-general of Al-Jazeera, is due in London this evening to deliver the James Cameron Memorial Lecture at City University. This is the first time a journalist from the Middle East has been invited to give the lecture (the year of the Arab Spring seemed an appropriate moment) and the first time that Khanfar has been in London since he suddenly announced that he was stepping down from running Al-Jazeera.

To get an idea of the importance of satellite television in general – and of Al-Jazeera in particular – in this year’s events in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain take a look at the annual Strategic Survey of the Institute of Strategic Studies (the relevant section starts at p97). I have a fair idea of who wrote the (unsigned) analysis and she is very expert. There have been many analyses of the influence of social networks and satellite television on the Arab revolutions. Because the IISS survey is sober and careful, its carefully weighed evidence about the influence of cross-border broadcasters counts for more. A slightly less sober (but well-rated by insiders) account of Al-Jazeera’s sudden global fame from GQ is here.

We still don’t know exactly why Khanfar left his job: this is his explanation and this is a summary of the rumours. Khanfar is a journalist; he was replaced by a member of the Qatari royal family previously working in a state oil and gas compnay. All of the above (significance, reasons for departure) in this piece from the Columbia Journalism Review. We may learn more this evening; I will report back tomorrow.

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31
Mar 11

Tunileaks wins Index recognition

The Tunileaks site, which posted the relevant Wikileaks diplomatic cables almost as soon as they were released, was rewarded for its work with an award the other night. The award was collected by Sami Ben Gharbia, co-founder of the Tunisian blog Nawaat, which set up Tunileaks.

Proper acknowledgement of its likely influence I’d say. This blog argued way back that in certain circumstances – and the situation in Tunisia looked like those circumstances – a few cables could have a big influence. (Please bear in mind that the post linked here was written in December).


20
Feb 11

The fast-finger Twitter dilemma: a small confession

I did something yesterday that I probably shouldn’t have. I yielded to the temptation of what the people at lolcats.com call “ease of do”.

I retweeted a short tweet from the Libyan expatriate novelist Hisham Matar about what has been happening in Benghazi. On Saturday afternoon, fragments of fact were starting to seep from the city on the eastern Libyan coast suggesting that something very bad was happening there. I happened to be looking at Twitter. I saw and retweeted this short message from @hishamjmatar:

Doctor in Benghazi hospital puts the death toll at 120. A massacre is taking place in Benghazi. Please spread the news. #Feb17 #Libya

While I still feel uneasy about having relayed it, I don’t think I’ve done any harm. Everything we’ve heard or seen since tells us that the Libyan authorities have been killing protesters in Benghazi; the death toll may well be higher than 120. I gave Matar’s message a modest extra push because I admire his fine novel In The Country of Men, which is based on his own childhood and gives a chilling child’s-eye picture of what Ghaddafi’s regime feels like if you dare to oppose it.

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28
Jan 11

Egypt: what the autocrats didn’t quite get

Yesterday saw a significant moment in the rolling changes brought about by digital communications. An entire country, which until that moment had cheerfully embraced satellite TV, mobile phones and the world wide web, was cut off from the internet by the authorities in Egypt. Today, they followed that by shutting mobile phone networks.

It isn’t possible to predict what will happen: the state may get the streets and opposition under control, it may lose its nerve or the army may tip the balance for or against change. As I write, hackers all over the planet are sending advice to Egypt about how to get round the shutdown.

But one forecast can be made. The autocrats in charge in Cairo may buy themselves some breathing space by shutting communications networks, but they cannot turn the clock back to the pre-digital age. They will eventually discover that they have to deal with a wired society as it is. That wiring offers them plenty of opportunities for manipulation and control, but no way back to the era of terrestrial television, typewriters and printed news.

It’s worth underlining again why this issue is so particularly important in the Arab world. What is cracking apart is the paternalist assumption that governments should shape what people know. This belief runs across both monarchies and republics and is put in practice in varied ways in different states. But what it has produced in almost every country in the Middle East and Maghreb (bar Israel) is a two-tier knowledge system.

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26
Jan 11

Facebook and Twitter targeted by Egyptian authorities

Evgeny Morozov, author of the recently-published The Net Delusion, tweeted the other day that he felt sick having to restart discussions for Egypt about whether the country was starting a Twitter or Facebook revolt.

I know how he feels and social networks aren’t the same as the courage required to get onto the streets in these countries. So I just mention quietly that Twitter stopped working in Egypt yesterday; both Twitter and Facebook seem to be blocked today. It’s worth noting what the authorities think is a threat: the enhanced ability to connect and mobilise. (Readers new to this theme start here or here).

While on the subject of Morozov, if you are looking for a single piece which sums up his contra-suggestive thinking, I’d recommend this. Coming from a quite different, and more constructive, direction on the same theme are two pieces which both examine how journalism needs to adapt to verify the information that flies at us on the web. The first is from the Online Journalism Blog of my City University colleague Paul Bradshaw and lays out basic methods of verification on the web. The second is by the BBC journalist Matthew Eltringham (via Charlie Beckett) and reflects on the practical problems of sifting the truth in new circumstances and something called the “line of validation”. These are both creative ways of extending the idea of “verification” which I listed when trying to pin down the definition of journalism in the digital age.


24
Jan 11

Kidnapping Facebook passwords in Tunisia

There’s been quite a bit here and in many other blogs about the role of social media in the fall of President Ben Ali in Tunisia. One tweeter, @SoniaEdu, sent me an indignant message insisting that what people did was more important than software or networks after a post in which I’d been talking up the role of informal media in the revolt. “(The revolt) was Tunisian.,” she wrote, “Those are tools. It’s like saying the scalpel saved patients because it was used by a surgeon.”

No question that Tunisian people took the risks and made it happen. But a scalpel can be sharp or blunt, well-designed or poorly made. The quality of the blade will make a difference to the result. So it was with Facebook, Twitter and the material they carried which also reached Tunisians via satellite television channels based outside the country.

If you doubt the fear that Facebook was creating inside the regime, read this terrific piece of reporting by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic on the battle waged between the Facebook security people and hackers in Tunisia trying to steal the passwords of every Facebook user in the country. The protesters’ cutting edge stayed sharp despite attempts to blunt it.


16
Jan 11

Tunisian repercussions and perspective

The capacity of new media to spread ideas at speed retains the power to astound me still. But, of course, people leap to conclusions equally fast and ideas get warped.

There’s been an on-the-margins discussion triggered by events in Tunisia about whether the toppling of the President was a “Twitter revolution” or a “Wikileaks revolt”. On the latter, here is a savage and funny riposte to the idea that Tunisians needed Julian Assange’s help to realise that their government was sclerotic and bent.

On the Twitter issue, Marc Lynch has a wise new post correcting the perspective by placing Twitter in the context of all the media changes of Arab societies, including the proliferation of cable and satellite channels led by Al-Jazeera.

Having made a minor contribution to all this by suggesting that the Wikileaks cables may have influenced the Tunisian situation and by stressing that newer media power in Arab countries, can I just go back to the ideas which I hope will survive the passions of the moment to be investigated in tranquility?

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15
Jan 11

Tunisia: what lessons?

Events in Tunisia continue to move at speed, so it seems worth coming back to the topics of yesterday’s post. The fear that nobody was paying much attention to the riots in Tunis and other cities has dissolved with the flight of President Ben Ali. Now everyone’s watching.

On the long-range issue of the role of social or informal media in the Tunisian drama, Ethan Zuckerman (of Global Voices and Yale) gently disagreed with my assertion that social media had played a decisive role. We agree that what’s happened isn’t a “revolution” until Tunisia holds free elections, but Ethan says that “social media’s a part of the equation, not the whole.”

He’s right of course. Ethan also makes the good point that by making it hard for foreign correspondents to operate in Tunisia, the regime paved the way for global media to rely on, and to amplify, the voices of bloggers and tweeters when the riots began. But in such a situation all sources go into the mix: trusted personal contact (digital communications offer great opportunities but are vulnerable to interception and manipulation), mainstream media (in this case such as Al Jazeera, coming from outside) and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. (Update 15/1/11: Ethan has since posted on the Foreign Policy blog a fuller overview).

The only way to truly determine cause and effect would be a proper survey of thousands of Tunisians and their sources of information. Conditions probably aren’t going to allow that for some time. My hunch is that such a study will show that social media – powerfully fuelled by a handful of lethal revelations from Wikileaks – played a powerful role in mobilising people onto the streets and convincing the regime that they had lost the battle to spin people back into line.

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