This is part two of my notes from a presentation at the USIP event “Passing the Baton.” Conference documents here and panel summary and video here. Part one here.

For the presentation, I was asked to discuss how people use digital media information in and around conflict, who they are, and what motivates them. This post focuses on recommendations and examples of citizen media in conflict.

In many conflicts, complex emergencies, and significant political upheavals in the past few years, citizen media have played substantial roles in producing information, as well as for activist ends, to mobilize constituents, and argue positions.

In conflicts such as Lebanon (2006), Pakistan (2007), Burma (2007), Kenya (2008), Kashmir (summer 2008), Sri Lanka (2007-08), and Zimbabwe (2008), citizen media in the form of blogs, social media, user-generated content on media-sharing sites, wikis, SMS messaging, twitter, and other applications have provided differing and new perspectives into the impact of conflict on communities.

This comes at a time of diminishment in traditional international journalism coverage, and fewer resources for mainstream media production.

Citizen media and mainstream media have a complicated relationship today – merging, symbiotic. Together, they form an active online public sphere.

Recommendations: what do citizen media need to flourish?

  • Support open networks and keep generativity in media and computer technology – if we want to build a world that includes mass participation in media creation, then we need technology and regulatory environments that encourage it.
  • Support the principles of free speech in general, and concentrate on listening to diverse perspectives rather than attempt to control or shape opinion. Providing access to diverse perspectives is more important than shutting out divisive viewpoints.
  • Theories of mass media based on scarcity of information and communications don’t take the networked public sphere into account. Different technology calls for different approaches. Re-examine continuing relevance of mass media solutions such as international broadcasting, attempting to restrict information and speech, and public diplomacy based on messaging and strategic communications.
  • Focus on supporting projects that organize and validate good information produced by diverse sources.
  • Focus on ensuring that people are heard. Design projects that amplify diverse, varied, and underrepresented perspectives.

Recommendations for project design.

  • Support local media to adapt and use digital media tools as well as citizen media initiatives, and note the convergence between them.
  • Focus on local innovation, practice and sharing best practices among citizen media groups.
  • Consider the growing role of humanitarian, human rights, and policy/advocacy organizations as information providers.

Citizen media include many, diverse perspectives that may be counterpoints to mainstream media perspectives that often focus on conflict and difference. Citizen media may be spaces for free expression in face of censored, controlled, or corrupt mainstream media. Citizen journalism in conflict zones is likely to include activists, public intellectuals, and others who are not well represented in mainstream media.

What forms do citizen media take in conflict zones? Examples:

1. Incidental use. People witness and record events around them, upload them into networks where they are shared and amplified.

  • Example: The U.S. military bombs insurgents in Azizabad, in Afghanistan. A resident documents civilian deaths on his cell phone and shares it with the journalists. The resulting furor sparks a UN investigation, a U.S. military investigation, and calls for NATO to change its tactics to minimize civilian deaths.

2. Networked communications use. People create their own blogs and content – commenting, sharing, and linking. Tools include blogs, social networks, microblogging platforms such as twitter, mobile telephony applications, SMS.

Some are authors who switch focus of content, much the way that incidental reporting does. Others focus specifically on issues. We find these projects in almost every country with significant political or violent conflict. Examples:

  • Don’t Block the Blog. A Pakistani blog that supports online freedom of speech, created in the time of the 2007 PK political crisis.
  • Freedom for Burma. A Burmese freedom collective blog that links to blogs, news, interviews, videos in support of Burmese political opposition.

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3. Initiatives and Projects. Efforts to understand, analyze, contextualize information, and create metadata, including databases and mapping, specifically for the purpose of communicating or acting upon conflict. These are often citizen-led initiatives, coming from individuals, activists, nonprofits, rather than governments, large commercial enterprises, international organizations. Examples:

  • Groundviews. Sri Lankan citizen journalism initiative with a focus on peace and reconciliation issues and ICTs in development.

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  • CMEV: Centre for Monitoring Election Violence. A project that uses cell phone/SMS reporting to map infractions during elections.
  • Ushahidi. Original page of African-led project to monitor and map violence after the Kenyan elections in December 2007.

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  • Harvard Humanitarian Initiative study comparing Ushahid, citizen journalism, and MSM reporting on Kenya.
  • Ushahidi home page – global development.
  • War on Gaza page. Al Jazeera use of locally developed initiative.

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