Direct Advocacy, Reporting & Publishing in Front Line States

All roads now lead to Andy Carvin,” says US online media maven Jeff Jarvis.  Last December, Carvin, who develops special online projects for the US non-profit National Public Radio (NPR), began re-tweeting testimonies, photos and video from the protests in Tunisia as they broke out.

Following up with similar coverage of Egypt and Libya, at the heart of his method is what is fashionably called the ‘curation’ of news – the use of personal skills and knowledge to sort and select relevant and credible material from the storm of information flowing across the computer screen.

As he told the Guardian, it’s somewhere between reporting, collaborative network journalism and oral history. He likens the process to the work of a network TV anchor, doing a breaking live story by managing input from producers in the studio, reporters in the field, pundits anywhere and his own personal observations. He dislikes the ‘curation’ word – he says it is just journalism plain and simple.

It’s true.  It is plain old copy editing for publication, with a new and original approach to verifying the contributions of sources.  Carvin, who used Twitter to fact check the 2008 US presidential election, crowdsources the news from his followers and then re-tweets this unverified material back to all of them, so they can collectively help him verify it.

It’s undeniably efficient but thanks to the volume of material, incredibly time consuming, Carvin sending up to 400 tweets a day at peak moments. To marshal all this material, he and others use programs like Tweetdeck, TwitterificTumblr and Storify to filter, redirect and republish the incoming information.

The programs are a huge improvement on using Twitter itself, as they make it easier to handle the volume of the stories by prioritising sources. Tweetdeck and Storify make use of Twitter’s own capacities, such as the Twitter followers’ lists and hashcode and text search functions. This makes it easier to filter new material to pick out better sources – i.e. personally known sources, or ones that are more widely connected in different languages, or ones just more likely to be better informed.

Tweetdeck and Twitterific allow easy republication by simple retweeting. Storify, which allows searches on Google, Facebook, You Tube as well as Google, allows republication of curated information by pasting into a neat web page of links, tweets, Facebook entries, video, audio and even Scribd documents that can be easily pasted into a blog.

As an online publication of record of a running news flow online, it’s good, but limited as a feed into a really diverse range of social media platforms. It falls short in achieving our objectives; to quickly insert verified, sourced and contextualised information into the social media flow around a breaking free expression story – especially when that kind of information is in short supply or lost in the rush of tweets.

We need online tools that will give us:

  • Greater speed of access and selectivity of sources
  • Faster verification of new material
  • Quicker redistribution of curated material online and to other media

These tools, to cite Index’s own technical project brief, will allow us to “research, assess and combine new or adapted tools to facilitate the quick collation, curation and migration of editorial content, from and to different online media platforms – including mobile – rapidly and on an ad hoc basis, in different national technical environments”.

We need an online editing tool that combines and improves on the content search tools of Storify and Twitter with a republication function that reposts to Twitter, Facebook and other outlets – and critically – receive, search and repost SMS and MMS message from and to the mobile phones of followers on mobile phones. This is the first of our technical projects for 2011-12.

tech1206carvin2
Andy Carvin: Mike Janssen / Current.org

To start, it helps if you have your own high-value brand name like NPR or Carvin (or Index on Censorship). It helps random users identify and prioritise your output as a reliable source – or in Andy Carvin’s case, identify you as the identifier of reliable sources to prioritise.

One way of prioritising sources – beyond the sources self-selected by the editor by search request, or hashcode, or purpose-made follower list – could be to adopt methods used by the new ‘social metrics’ sites like Klout and Empire Avenue that measure different individuals’ online profiles.

Another way would be to share the program package we seek with fellow activists and journalists and work with an identified team of fellow ‘verifiers’, or perhaps more traditionally, ‘sub-editors’.

Sharing the programme package – and the methodology of reposting verified material for verification among your followers – would give Index’s own editors the opportunity to assign different leads to different ‘verifiers’ in the system.

It would embed multiple layers of verification when extra fact-checking was needed. It would also allow sub-editors to take the investigation where they thought fit, independently of the originators, a kind of open source – in the programming sense – approach to checking and sharing information on a news story. (A good way of moving between these open-source content verifiers/editors would be to have their current outputs exported to a data visualisation tool or a link visualiser like Pearltrees.)

Most of the technical issues surrounding the actual sorting of incoming information via an online package have been largely solved by other programmes and tailor-made Application Program Interfaces (APIs) working the internet. More work needs to be done in the realm of managing incoming and outgoing mobile phone SMS and MMS messages online, or via a 3G connected tablet or smartphone, which will probably be the media activist’s tools of choice in the future.

The second half of the project, facilitating better mechanical republication of single items of information between different platforms – reposting,  republication online or just sharing with friends via Twitter or SMS – is potentially the most complex part of the process.

Formatting is a recurring problem familiar to anyone who has tried to repost links to Facebook. Headlines can appear in the wrong place and text or preferred images disappear altogether, while Facebook wall posts and status updates have different rules about things like linebreaks.

Tools are needed to allow easy line edits of reposts to Twitter, Facebook and its social media parallels around the world, a mix of old sites like Hi5 and Friendster, still popular in Asia, or country or region-specific services like OkNO in Italy, Wykop in Poland, Yonja.com in the Middle East. China’s millions of social media users rely on sites like Qzone, 51.com, Xiaonei and Kaixin001.

A global solution to this Babel of formats might be impossible – at least not within Index’s reach and resources – but we would plan to develop APIs for prototypes that would be used by Index journalists and advocacy partners in specific countries where we already work – notably in the Arab World – but also in front line countries with functioning mobile phone systems and dysfunctional internet links, notably in Africa and conflict zones like Libya.

These tools will be tested in the field by Index media rights activists and Index’s regional editors as Index expands its online media-led advocacy work in front line free expression defence, in more than a dozen countries around the world in 2012.

Training is essential to the process, including sessions to develop editorial, advocacy and technical skills backed up by a mentoring process – Index editors and programme leaders working day by day online with partners on the ground as the new tools are incorporated into their daily work.

Security is vital. Our partners will sometimes have to operate covertly for their own safety, so the new package will have to be reasonably compatible with current encryption and anonymising systems.  As organisations like SaferMobile point out, the security and privacy issues raised by the internet pale into insignificance compared to those raised by the use of mobile phones.

But again, the key objective is to quickly insert verified information into the social media flow around a breaking story. For Index on Censorship, the purpose is to help circumvent censorship, of course, but also to help counter disinformation, propaganda and hate speech.

For Index, the appropriate response to this kind of abuse of free expression rights is not censorship, but a response with reasoned argument. In the realm of participatory social media, this will be essential.

First published by Index on Censorship on 26 July, 2011

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