Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Tag: Media (page 1 of 3)

On Syria’s Media Narrative(s): A Rant

This week’s Listening Post–the Al Jazeera program that includes clips from citizens all over the world with varying views–discusses “Syria’s media tug of war.” I haven’t listened yet (I’m at a conference) but the subject is pertinent and timely.

Today, there are two stories making the rounds that illustrate this “tug of war” perfectly. The first is a New York Times blog post that demonstrates the Syrian state news agency’s (SANA) falsification of evidence in its argument that rebels are funded by foreign agents. Another, on CNN and elsewhere, reports a tragedy: More than 40 Syrian soldiers allegedly executed by the regime. In this case, the story may very well be true…but the only source is unnamed “activists.”

In fact, the latter is entirely illustrative of the mainstream Western (and Gulf) media’s approach to Syria. A quick glance at the reporting done by the New York Times, CNN, Alarabiya, and others shows that “unnamed activists,” “Syrian opposition activists,” and “human rights activists” are their primary–and often, only–sources.

In a paper I wrote for the conference I’m currently attending, I analyzed the reporting of several mainstream news sources on Syrian casualty reports between November 2011 and February 2012. While that paper isn’t quite ready for prime time, here’s a table illustrating what I found:

As I intend to argue in my paper, these sources…and their numbers (which vary wildly) matter. As I’ve written elsewhere, I have personal history with Syria. I have known and talked about the horrors of the regime since long before March 2011. But while even 1,000 civilian deaths are far too many, these numbers matter when they’re being used to justify intervention. The media’s almost total reliance upon activists–not simply citizens, but self-described activists–is therefore problematic.

And yet, criticizing that fact has become even more problematic. As I said on Twitter earlier today, “question activist reports and you’re shabih. Report on regime atrocities and you’re a shill for the GCC.” Seriously…you can’t win. The international community largely appears to view Syria in terms of black and white when the situation is in fact quite grey…or at the very least, unclear, unverifiable.

This brings me back to the point about the media. At the moment, you have what is essentially a divide between journalists, commentators, and media bureaus that are very clearly pushing the opposition line and those that appear to be shilling for the regime. And there’s no middle ground – there’s almost no one condemning the regime, for example, whilst simultaneously questioning the dominant opposition narrative. Those who dare search for truth are immediately labeled as being on one side or the other.

Comments on a recent NYTimes article by Tyler Hicks, who was with Anthony Shadid in Syria when he died.

This post isn’t about which side is right or wrong. As I’ve said before, what I think about Syria is well-known but frankly, it truly doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. What concerns me, rather, is that the media–whose job it is to report facts, objectively*–is not only pushing a certain narrative, but also ignoring certain truths: the non-civilian casualty toll, for example (this one in particular bothers me when I think about all of my friends that did or almost did their compulsory Syrian military service).

What bothers me most, however, is the sheer certainty with which both sides attempt to make their points. The New Yorker in the screenshot above, for example, is so sure that “one side is for life, the other for death.” I’m not so sure. I’m certain that the regime is killing civilians (if you’re going to argue with me on that, just go away), but I’m not sure that there aren’t bad actors amongst the legitimate opposition. I can’t be sure…especially not when the media isn’t doing their job.

*not my favorite term, as you might know, but it’s nonetheless relevant.

Journalistic Verification, Amina Arraf, and Haystack

How did a Syrian blogger, who told beautiful and heartwrenching stories of life as a lesbian in Damascus, manage to trick so many people? How did an American software engineer, whose passion for the Iranian cause led him to build what he dubbed the safest of circumvention tools, do the same? The stories of Amina Arraf and Haystack contain odd parallels: Both took advantage of fervor around Middle Eastern uprisings, both had a grassroots formation of followers…and both thrived on the promotion of professional journalists, whose praise helped garner them support. Both were also absolutely sensational stories that may have caused journalists, otherwise scrutinizing, to discard their usual standards.

I’ve written extensively on the Haystack story, but to quickly re-cap: Circumvention tool comes out of nowhere, built by young, outspoken engineer. Wild claims about efficacy. Media picks up on the hype, young engineer wins awards, media builds the hype even further. Circumvention and censorship experts begin to raise doubts about the tool itself, eventually get ahold of it, tear it apart. Turns out it’s not as secure as the engineer–and by extension, the media–had hyped it to be.

In the case of Amina Arraf, her blog–Gay Girl in Damascus–gained a following amongst bloggers and Middle East enthusiasts, then was quickly catapulted into relative blogger stardom after a series of articles in prominent publications profiled her. Therefore, when on June 6, her “cousin Rania” posted to her blog that she had been kidnapped, the public was quick to believe it. It wasn’t until the next day, when Andy Carvin and others began to question the story, that the details started unraveling as the public quickly jumped in to sleuth the story.

So what made journalists cast aside their usual levels of scrutiny? Or, is it perhaps that journalists are not as careful as we trust them to be?

I would argue that the journalistic treatment of the Haystack story was far more problematic, not least because it was easier to verify: After all, the product’s engineer was based in the US. He was reachable by phone and traveled for several interviews and awards. Numerous journalists met him, and yet not one after questioned the security of the tool. In the case of Amina, the journalists (the pseudonymous “Kathryn Marsh” and Shira Lazar) who first profiled her should have seen red flags when they couldn’t get her on the phone, but they were also dealing with a situation in which digging too much could’ve put an already endangered woman in far more danger.

The Facebook page of "Amina Arraf", before it was removed

Nevertheless, the details laid out on Amina’s blog (parents’ and siblings’ names, place of birth) and her now-defunct Facebook account (over 100 photographs, numerous comments about her life) could have been checked up on. And the details in her blog that numerous Syrians have now picked apart (her father standing up to the mokhabarat, her spotting a Syrian woman in the Umayyad mosque wearing a Star of David) could have been scrutinized early on.

I asked Zeynep Tufekci, a colleague and friend who has written about both cases, for her take: “Arguably, Haystack was verifiable whereas it is never possible to completely verify Amina’s identity without somewhat endangering her. Haystack can and should be avoided and journalists should have done much better job re: Amina. But I’m not sure they can completely avoid a future Amina.”

Now, this is where I need to insert my own role in all of this: While I did not fall for the Haystack story (and was one of the earliest to question its veracity), I very much fell for Amina Arraf. Why? Well, first of all, I had spoken with her numerous times. Her knowledge of Syria stood up to my tests. Her personality in private conversation was consistent with her personality on the public blog. Friends claimed to know her (one even suggested she knew her “in real life” – looking back, the suggestion was rather vague, the boastfulness of someone who wants to get close to a story).

I was also late to believe she wasn’t real, and that, for me, is both easier and more painful to explain. It is also a story I hesitate to share, but one which continues to haunt me, as well as remind me every single day why I do what I do.

In 2009, I wrote a piece for the HuffPost entitled “Blogging in Iran: A Dangerous Prospect.” After writing the story, a young Iranian blogger named Omidreza Mirsayafi emailed me to tell me his story. He wrote:

When I see your post on the mentioned website, I became so happy that a journalist in other corner of world writes about the situations of Iranians journalist & bloggers and is concerned about us.

I don’t want talk about my past experiences because it saddens me. these days I’m so sad and I don’t know what to do. I was sentenced two years and six months in prison just for the contents of my blog. just for explain my ideas. many of journalist and bloggers and human rights activists got into trouble specially in last 4 years.Iran GOV heap scorn on the people of Iran specially the journalists, students, human rights & woman activists. We wish one day write in our blogs & papers trouble-free.

After this initial email, Omidreza and I exchanged a few more emails, and had a few chats. He even called me once. But new as I was to this scene, and owing to my own personal circumstances at the time, I didn’t do as much as I should, as much as he asked. On March 18, 2009, he died in Tehran’s Evin Prison. I wrote about it three days later, confessing my own guilt over having not said enough.

It is very much because of this story that I had–no, have–difficulty letting Amina’s story go. While her story has unraveled almost completely at this point, there’s still a small chance that the girl behind the blog was kidnapped. And even if she wasn’t, there is no doubt that thousands of Syrians have been imprisoned these past few months, hundreds killed. While Amina, if entirely fake, should not be the face of those Syrians, it’s so easy to ascribe her that role. We wanted to believe in her. We saw the beauty and tragedy in her stories and put her on a pedestal. Some have suggested it was because she was a lesbian, others have suggested it was her purported dual American citizenship. I don’t really believe it was either. Rather, it was the sense of courage we saw in her, to tell her story so loudly, that made us believe.

Internet & Mobile Access and Social Movements: Libya, Madagascar, Beyond

Lots of conversations in my life these days are inspired by single tweets. And those tweets, for me at least, are often inspired by my own frustration in the media’s ineptitude on certain issues. One of those issues, of course, is understanding the effects of social media and the Internet more generally in the Arab world. The other day, after reading a jumble of cyberutopian bullshit (and yes, the real outlier stuff Evgeny Morozov talks about), I tweeted:

Please, spare me the “Internet/free flow of info/Libya” meme. 5% Internet penetration, friends, does not a “net revolution” make.

Allow me to explain. Regardless of which side of the contrived fence you stand on, you are unlikely to deny the anecdotal usage of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites for political organizing in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. Perhaps you, like Morozov, contend that the Internet is more a tool of repression than one of liberation. Or perhaps you argue that these revolts would have happened without the invention of the Internet. Whatever your orientation, you are no doubt able to see how, in a country where nearly one-third of the population accesses the Internet and millions are on Facebook alone, the advent of social media was helpful in both organizing and disseminating information.

Which brings me to Libya. Libya is not, in any sense, Egypt, nor is it Tunisia. There are others who could explain the political differences, so allow me to ruminate on two interesting and very relevant factors: Internet and mobile penetration. The stats below are from the International Telecommunications Union–one of several organizations that track such data–but are generally representative:

ITU Internet and mobile penetration stats

The normative question in relation to the Internet (mobile is obviously a different story) is, then, how much do basic indicators like Internet and mobile penetration affect the effectiveness of such tools for organizational or revolutionary purposes? Or, can a tiny group of Internet users* influence a countrywide movement?

After posting my tweet, I got an email of polite disagreement from Clay Shirky who, among other things, noted:

“Making the question “net revolution or nothing” kills the part of the conversation that could be about how serious the effect of the net was, in any situation. There’s a lot of space between inert and essential.”

And he’s right, of course, but I pointed out that he was not my target demographic; rather, the tweet was directed toward that elusive class of cyberutopians Morozov so often addresses (note: they might not be the majority, but they do exist). Nevertheless, it sparked an interesting conversation on various aspects of the debate, a couple of which I’ll point to here.

First up, the media. The mainstream US media has perhaps been the biggest cyberutopian of them all. I watched as, during the Tunisian revolt, they shied from overhyping the Internet then, turning to Egypt, began to gain confidence in their reporting. I fielded literally hundreds of calls from journalists who wanted to know (and I quote) “exactly how Egyptians are using social media.” I wrote a blog post about it. I cheered a little inside that they were asking me (and more importantly, actual Egyptian activists) rather than the likes of Tom Friedman. And I did my best to talk to Egyptians and check all of my facts (which is not to say I’m always right, or right to all), as did a lot of journalists I spoke with. Bravo, all around.

And now, with Libya, we’re back to where we were in 2009 with Iran: Completely dumbfounded and, unable to check facts with Libyans on the ground, reporting inanities. Take Isabel Kershner’s garbage New York Times piece on how Arabs are surprised (gasp!) that an Israeli created an autotuned version of Qaddafi that is (gasp!) actually kind of funny. Or ABC News’s piece (parroted later by Wired) on the use of a Muslim dating site (which they claim is the “Muslim Match.com”) to “rally the revolution”. The first example is straight up ridiculous, while the second could be true (as Shirky points out, “it is often better to think of dissidence than dissidents, because when a population gets radicalized, they will use the tools they have to hand.”) But it is nevertheless a single anecdote, not a diagnosis of how the Internet has been used in Libya.

Now, to that point: Frankly, we–and by we I mean folks in this space as well as the media–simply don’t know that much about the Libyan Internet. We know that the blogosphere is limited in size, and that the Libyan exile community is active in this space and read by Libyans in-country. We know that Internet cafes in Libya are under heavy surveillance much of the time. We know that the Internet is only nominally filtered.

We also can assume that Libyan Internet users are largely urban, a point that Shirky argues has a more complex meaning than what I had initially thought:

I think social media (net/mobile phones/digital Al Jazeera) was useful in Libya, even given 5% penetration, because of the disproportionate value net access has in what became the sites and among who became the participants of the uprising, and I don’t think this makes me a woolly headed “X Revolution” labeler — I think it makes me someone who lived through the progress from <1% penetration to ~75% in my own country, and I remember how much of an effect 5% can have on synchronization and coordination of key urban groups.

To that point, I responded that Madagascar might be an appropriate comparison to Libya in terms of Internet use for protest. Shirky agreed:

Yeah, and that’s because Antananarivo is to Madagascar more like Seoul is to South Korea than to the Cairo::Egypt — what happens in Tana is largely what happens in Madagascar, full stop, at least politically, so the leverage of small degrees of connection is hugely amplified by civic density.

I’m not feeling conclusive about any of this, but I think one of the most important points to consider in all of this is Shirky’s offhand definition of “social media” (net/mobile phones/digital Al Jazeera), to which I would add “satellite TV” and possibly landlines. Of course, acknowledging such a broad definition would challenge the media narrative as well as numerous funding initiatives.

And now to the point of mobile, which is well outside my area of expertise (and thus I invite you mobile advocates to jump in here): Libya was the first African country to reach 100% mobile penetration. It now stands at 150% (which yes, means people own more than one mobile, not uncommon in the Maghreb). Why is this playing second fiddle to the media narrative of soccer and dating sites? Why isn’t mobile the point of focus here? Hell, I ought to ask myself the same question (answer: I’m already spread too thin).

It seems obvious to me that mobile (150% penetration), and not the Web (5%) is the real champion tool here. So how do we start that conversation? What are the key factors? How do we measure one against the other? Let’s talk about that, please.

*in Libya, about 320K people have access, and we have to assume that some are apolitical or support Qaddafi

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