Thursday, January 14, 2010

This Government Won’t Let Us Say What We Want. Social Media Will.

by: Jessica Allgaier

I have to admit, when I think of the term social media, I envision popular social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Myspace, and maybe a trendy iPhone app like Urban Spoon. I picture mindless tweets about picking the kids up from school or a twitterpic of a really janky car in the drive-through at Burger King. Social media, I once thought, was merely a way to stay in touch with friends from high school or to announce a new relationship cyberly. Chapter 2 of The Social Media Bible says social media enables conversation (1). My narrow definition used to limit that “conversation” to idiotic text jargon and self-portraits from strenuous camera angles, but lately my definition is widening. Through Obama’s presidential campaign, permission based text message advertising, authors using NING to localize readers, and the promotion of unsigned bands through Facebook events and RSS feeds, I’ve realized—perhaps later than my tech savvy peers—that social media is an uncensored way to create and share news content.

The most phenomenal display of social media, in my opinion, occurred this past June 2009 during the protests to Iran’s presidential election. Thousands of Iranians took to the streets, assembling the country’s largest protest since their revolution in 1979. “We want freedom,” protesters chanted, claiming, “This government won’t let us say what we want” (2).

The Iranian government closed news websites and newspapers, banning Western journalists from covering political rallies. BBC’s correspondents in Iran were arrested, video footage confiscated, and broadcasts suddenly became more discreet, like this video posted on YouTube. Because the U.S. doesn’t have an embassy in Iran, on-the-ground news sources were not available, except through social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Internet broadcasting, weblogs, and status updates allowed news coverage to exit the country’s borders and feed into the rest of the world’s MacBooks, PCs, and PDA’s. Through social media, news broadcast companies such as CNN, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, were able to access user created content from the ground without actually having correspondents, let alone contacts, in Iran.

Across the globe, Twitter users manipulated their own account settings to prevent the Iranian government from tracking Iranian tweeters. By changing their location to Tehran, Iran, tweeters—in New York, Toronto, Singapore!—increased the number of #IRANELECTION feeds, making the amount of content too overwhelming for the government to filter (3). In certain locations where social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter were also disabled, CNN’s iReport was still assessable, allowing Iranians to share content (including video footage and photographs) with Western news sources. iReport, a news source that gives “news consumers” the ability to create and share journalistic content as iReporters, is utilized daily by the CNN audience and their producers in order to “paint a more complete picture of the news” (4).

Take a look at this iReport about Iran, a collection of video footage, commentary, and photos submitted by iReporters all over the world (5).

Perhaps the most famous and horrifying footage from the Iranian protests is the death of Neda, an Iranian student gunned down in the streets of Tehran. Her brutal and bloody last moments were captured on video and were shown on news stations and online broadcasts worldwide (6). I remember the first time I saw the footage on, and then viewed it again on YouTube. I was stunned, mainly because the gravity of what I just experienced, but also because social media had allowed me to witness the same catastrophe Iranians were witnessing first hand. At this moment, information was not bound to borders; it was unable to be censored by government. Thanks to social media, information was truly in the hands of the general public.

The footage from Neda’s death appeared on in a post titled “Iran Election Crises: 10 Incredible YouTube Videos.” The website, subtitled The Social Media Guide, says “Social media is raw…YouTube allows you to get the uncensored version of things. We cannot be blind to that fact” (7). Footage from her death is under video 9, viewer discretion advised.

Social media testimonies like this example from Iran, updates and broadcasts from the most recent catastrophe in Haiti, and even the increasing number of businesses that have at least one employee dedicated to social networks all lead to an undeniable fact: social media is defined by its users. People who create content—news, reviews, videos, and photos—essentially become self-publishers, allowing anyone and everyone to participate in a greater conversation.

But some people who participate in the greater conversation defame their subject. ESPN reporter Erin Andrews was horrified to learn that Michael David Barrett, a former insurance company executive, secretly captured nude videos of her in her hotel room. Barrett allegedly video tapped 17 other women without their knowledge and broadcasted the footage on the Internet. Although Barrett faces prosecution in February, Andrews, back on the job, is receiving derogatory comments from sports fans. “I don’t want somebody else’s career to be ruined by this,” Andrews said (8).

I’ll leave you, dear reader in the blogosphere, with this question: if social media enables access to the uncensored truth, how much control do users have in regards to self-censorship? Are our lives forever on display with status updates or incriminating photos posted to our profiles? Do we enable narcissism and voyeurism with sex-tapes plastered on YouTube and clips of ESPN correspondents illegally obtained from a hidden camera in a hotel room? What happens when uncensored user-created content exceeds a healthy journalistic trend (like iReport) and becomes damaging to either the viewer or the subject?



  1. This phenomenon of immediacy and total access may simply be the next logical step in what I (and many others) consider to be a cultural evolution. Those of us who remember the Vietnam War recall that it was the first time that news of an unpleasant nature was not censored and edited before being presented to the public, or at least, not to the extent that had historically been customary. Since that time, the lag time between an event and its reportage has grown shorter, and the processing of that information into a more palatable or acceptable form has all but disappeared. This evolution culminated with the live broadcasts made by Wolf Blitzer on CNN via radiophone from the floor of his room in the bombed-out Baghdad Hilton during the first Iraqi War. Since that time, the demand for uncensored news has grown, and millions of unofficial online news reporters have stepped up to fill this need.

  2. I think the horse is out of the barn on this one. There is no way, at this point, to foist any form of control on user content. Of course, we can control what we ourselves put out there, in terms of FB photos or posts, but if someone else chooses to report on an incident -- say the neighbor down the street with police cars in a domestic violence issue -- there's not much anyone can do. Although in some cases I think there is large potential for intrusiveness -- think celebrities -- I also think that, as the Iranian examples cited in this post, the potential for openness and actual news as opposed to propaganda is too great to be ignored.

  3. I ran across this the other day:

    This person actually lists all the people who have been arrested in Polk County, GA. While arrests are indeed public information, I couldn't help but feel bad for these people. If getting arrested wasn't bad enough, now - due to one person - they're on the web for all the world to see. I guess it's true that, like Rebecca said, the horse really is out of the barn when it comes to reporting through social media.

  4. You might be interested in the Knight Citizen News Network's "Principles of Citizen Journalism."