Guardian Readers' Editor on the role of social media in the Egyptian revolution

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 4 April 2011

Guardian Readers’ Editor Chris Elliott recently gave a lunchtime talk to assorted staff about a trip he made to Egypt, where he was talking to local journalists about journalistic ethics and press regulation. It turned out to be a timely visit, as Chris arrived shortly after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, with the press in the country facing an uncertain, but presumably freer future.

The situation prior to revolution was not a good one for a free press. Newspapers needed a licence to publish, and journalists could only be employed if they were a member of the Journalists Syndicate - a sort of state-sponsored “closed shop”. In addition, journalists were bound by 186 laws covering their conduct, and breaching them meant facing a military tribunal, and potentially serving 15 years inside. As Chris observed, those sorts of restrictions are not generally terribly good for democracy.

There has been some heated debate about the prominence of the role of social media in fermenting revolution in Egypt. Whatever “experts” who haven’t visited the country may say, Chris was unequivocal in relaying what the people he spoke to felt about the arguments:

“They are absolutely convinced that Facebook enabled them to have the opportunity to gather, and to create groups, and that Twitter was essential for them to keep up with the reporting of world events”

There was a sense that “This revolution came from Facebook, and they attacked us on camels” - those dramatic images marking an astonishing contrast between the modernity and speed of social media for conveying information, and the incredible anachronism of fighting it with camels and sticks.

Another issue that Chris encountered was that some people questioned the way that the “Western” press had been able to influence events in Egypt. There were some people he met who held the view that The Guardian was complicit in a conspiracy to increase American influence in the region. As Chris said, it is easy to dismiss this as laughable conspiracy theory nonsense in the safety of an office in London, but an uncomfortable accusation to deal with in a face-to-face meeting with someone who truly appears to believe it.

One story in particular had vexed several of the people that Chris met, a Guardian story that said Mubarak’s family fortune was $70bn. Chris has published his own account of this in his Open door column: “Called to account by Egypt’s revolutionised press”. As Chris says, some elements of the story have subsequently been corrected, but at the time of publication, the link was being tweeted and the story read in the streets of Cairo, fueling anger amongst the protestors.

There is a fantastic design lesson for news organisations there. As an industry we are all very excited about our news apps and tablet devices and the wild promise of 4G networks and ubiquitous connections. However, a truly global audience now follows every development in the stories that affect them across a worldwide range of news sources. If you don’t ensure that your news articles can be read quickly and easily on a low-grade “feature phone” device in the streets of every continent, you are doing your journalism a disservice.

Chris said of the people he met in Egypt - “They just don’t take their phones out of their hands”. He had realised the potential of something like Twitter to be used in this way, but it was astonishing to see it in action - during the protests even if something was happening two kilometres away, the crowd were finding out about it via Twitter links to world news sites being published in London, Paris or New York.

During the course of his talk, Chris referred on several occasions to Peter Beaumont’s G2 piece “The truth about Twitter, Facebook and the uprisings in the Arab world” as being the definitive piece on the role of social media in the “Arab spring”, and it is well worth reading.

Next...

The talk sparked a lively debate about how journalists could verify and present information that was gathered via social media in situations of considerable unrest and confusion like that happening in Egypt. Tomorrow I’ll have my notes from that discussion.

currybetdotnet: Best of the blog 2011 brings together over 50 of the best posts on this blog from 2011, covering topics such as live blogging, community and social media for news websites, and the future of digital media. It features write-ups of talks by Guardian journalists including Paul Lewis, Matthew Wells, Andrew Sparrow and Chris Elliot, and behind the scenes looks at Guardian products like the Facebook and iPad apps. It also has transcripts of Martin Belam's talks at EuroIA, the UPA conference, Polish IA Summit, Content Strategy Forum 2011, FutureEverything and Hacks/Hackers London.
currybetdotnet: Best of the blog 2011” for Kindle is £1.92.

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