Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

[LINK] Two links about social networking undermining journalistic practice

I've come across two very considerate essays examining the ways in which social networking bypasses existing journalistic networks and the ethics of their so doing. Jeff Jedras in "Vikileaks and the death of the journalist as news gatekeeper" at A BCer in Toronto talks about the potential for good in removing the shackles of the journalistic establishment from public discourse, while Zeynap Tufekci in "The Syrian Uprising will be Live-Streamed: Youtube & The Surveillance Revolution" at Technosociology talks about the potential bad that comes from allowing every atrocity to be preserved and recorded in minute detail.

First, Jedras. "Vikileaks" refers to @Vikileaks30, a Twitter account created by an unknown person after Canadian Public Security Minister Vic Toews introduced Bill C-30, the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act. An amendment to the Criminal Code that would give police sweeping powers to intercept individuals' Internet communications without warrants, the bill was harshly criticized by opposition; Toews responded by saying that opposition MPs could "either stand with us or with the child pornographers." @Vikileaks30--traced by the Ottawa Citizen to someone operating on the grounds of the House of Commons--then appeared and began tweeting extracts from Toews' 2008 divorce. Unfettered by the traditional reticence of Canadian journalism, Vikileaks30 revealed that Toews' marriage apparently came to an end after he fathered a child with his children's babysitter. After being this revelation, and much scathing criticism besides, it looks like the Conservative government is going to amend this.

Jedras' view? This, ultimately, is good, since things can't get hushed up.

What really interests me though is the reaction of the proverbial “main-stream media” to the Vikileaks story, with an Ottawa Citizen piece attempting to trace the IP address of the “@Vikileaks30 leaker” spurring endless speculation and demands to identify the person or persons responsible. It should be noted that had @Vikileaks30 given their documents to a journalist who chose to publish a story based onthem, then the media would be reminding us how important it is to protect the confidentiality of their sources. Even competing outlets wouldn’t try to unmask another journalist’s confidential source. That’s just not cricket, old boy.

[. . .]

Journalists made judgment calls every day on what is news and what isn’t, what people have a right to know, and what isn’t relevant. It's part of the job in one sense; there's always more news than column inches or air time. And they see it as a public service. But no one elected them as the arbiters of good taste. They’re accountable to no one but their publisher and the shareholders. It’s a lot of trust, and a lot of responsibility.

The internet, blogging and social media are changing all that however. Now you no longer need a printing press or a television or radio station to publish information to the masses. Anyone with an Internet connection can publish anything they want, and potentially find an audience. And the market will, in away, make its own judgment on its news worthiness. I people find it relevant,they’ll share or re-tweet it and the news finds a wider audience; if they deem it inappropriate it will wither and fade away, perhaps after first being soundly condemned.

What it means, though, is that the role of the traditional media as gatekeeper is drying, if it’s not already dead. With their breadth of reach and size of audience, the regular media is still the fastest way for news to be disseminated to the wider public. But thanks to social media, even if the press deems something“un-newsworthy,” if it gets enough traction online they eventually have no choice but to cover it anyway.

Tufekci's concern, in contrast, is that the preservation of everything--including every atrocity--and its potential for global transmission will make it impossible for people to forget. Her paradigm is the 2007 filming of an honour killing of an Iraqi Kurdish girl by her Yezidi co-religionists seems to have led directly to al-Qaeda bombings that killed hundreds of Yezidis.

One may wish that stoning death of Yazidi Kurdish young girl Du’a Khalil Aswad in 2007 was never discovered on Youtube, but that seems so trivial compared to wishing that she was never killed in such a cruel, brutal fashion. She was, though, for the alleged crime of seeing a boy of a different faith. She was murdered somewhere early in April 2007 and the video started circulating widely later that month. A few weeks after her killing, and a few months after the video was discovered and made headlines around the world, a series of bombings shook Yazidi villages near Mosul, resulting in about 800 deaths and more than 1,500 injured—making it the single biggest episode of mass killing in an act of political violence since September 11, 2001. While the culprits were never discovered, most observers traced the events to the tensions that began with the video of her death and ended in Al-Qaeda style car-bombs.

The fact that the event was filmed and uploaded to the Internet is quite striking, too, considering the community. The Yazidis are a mostly Kurdish speaking religious group in the Middle East who keep to themselves as much as they can. The reasons for their protectiveness is lengthy and complicated but is related to the fact that a central figure in their faith, Melek Taus is accused of being identical to the Muslim figure of Satan. Having faced much prosecution, and also having a contentious faith in a contentious region, Yazidi society is predicated upon keeping outsiders out and practices strict endogamy—no marriage with outsiders.

Du’a Khalil, just 17 years old, crossed just that line with her alleged relationship with, and rumored conversion to Islam. For that, she was dragged by a few dozen men who proceeded to beat her to death as she curled up on the ground, bleeding. The shaky and grainy video, which I saw in bits over the space of a few days as I could not bear to watch in in a single sitting, shows at least *three* people recording her stoning with cell phones. It is quite stunning to think—not only are they killing her –this secretive, closed society which managed to survive for thousands of years by being so guarded and cautious— her killers felt like they should film this. And, more, upload it to the Internet.

Tufekci, thinking particularly of the huge volumes of material--video, audio, text--coming out of Syria as the incipient civil war takes hold, wonders what will happen in other conflict regions.

I have more questions than answers. What does it mean that everything –ranging from the most trivial but especially the non-trivial– has such a great chance of being available worldwide? Does this level of documentation make it more likely that the international community will be compelled to react to atrocities–which will likely come with higher and higher levels of documentation? Or will this, too, become just background noise, similar to famines or disease in Africa have become for most of the world (except the victims, of course)? Does the level of documentation and surveillance make it harder to establish processes like the Truth and Reconciliation efforts in places ranging from South Africa to Guatemala? Will this amount of documentation of atrocities make divisions even more likely and pernicious–as the ability to forgive often needs some level of forgetting? And the Internet, it seems, does not forget. Will this all make regime bureaucrats more likely to defect—as “I was just pushing paper and had no idea all this was going on” has become an even weaker defense? Or will they cling to power to the very end as much as they can, knowing their victims and survivors have much evidence as well as awful reminders of their crimes?

I don’t have the answers but I’m quite convinced that we’ve entered an irreversible point in terms of documentation of our lives, including death and destruction—not just baby pictures and trips, parties and graduations. There is no going back. And tools matter just as wars with nuclear weapons are different than wars with bows and arrows, a world with cell-phone cameras in every other hand is different than a world which depended on traditional journalists and mass media gate-keepers for its news.

As a commenter at Technosociology points out, the critical issue is whether human compassion will keep pace with human technology.
Tags: blogging, canada, iraq, journalism, links, middle east, politics, popular culture, social networking, writing

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