Since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in Syria in March 2011, the UN calculates that more than 100,000 people have been killed and about 6.5 million others have been driven from their homes.
People have been covering the conflict through mobile and social media – YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, to name a few of the networks – giving people abroad an often unfiltered, real-time view of the horror.
Who’s telling Syria’s real-time social media story? When you’re looking for the latest updates, where should you look first and how do you ensure they are accurate? What good even comes from publishing this content in real-time?
Allendria 12/10/2013 6:40:51 AM
Our chat will start in less than 15 min. Leave your questions on the liveblog, or join in via Twitter with #ScribbleChat.
Allendria 12/10/2013 4:48:39 PM
Allendria 12/10/2013 4:53:59 PM
Good afternoon, and welcome to today’s Scribble Chat: Real-Time Media And The Conflict In Syria.
We’ve brought two real-time media experts in today to discuss the country’s conflict and how people are using social networks to cover what’s happening.
Allendria 12/10/2013 5:00:28 PM
Allendria 12/10/2013 5:00:48 PM
Thank you both for joining us here today.
Allendria 12/10/2013 5:01:32 PM
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:01:45 PM
Glad to be here!
Margarita Noriega (Reuters) 12/10/2013 5:01:53 PM
My first question is one that I've heard asked in several interviews related to other areas in the Middle East – like Egypt – but I'm interested in your take as it relates to Syria.
From what you’ve seen, who’s telling Syria’s social media story? Who has access to the internet, and how does that influence what we know?
Allendria 12/10/2013 5:02:57 PM
Here's a bit of extra context for our readers: According to the CIA World Factbook, there were almost 13 million cell phone subscribers in 2012 for 22.4 million people. In 2009 it was calculated that 4.5 million people had access to internet. Internet and phone outages have happened several times since the conflict started, like the one that began yesterday morning as the country is working to remove chemical weapons.
Allendria 12/10/2013 5:04:45 PM
It's a tough story to tell, because Internet access is inconsistent in Syria. The government routinely shuts it off during military operations against specific areas.
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:05:05 PM
Anti-govt elements have access via satellite, etc, but it varies, and it's those who are able to get the footage out that are the ones who can frame the story.
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:05:41 PM
That's why you're much more likely to see a lot of footage from big cities versus villages in rural areas.
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:06:01 PM
Allendra - I'm glad you bring up the question of access to the internet, specifically as it relates to who is telling the "story" in Syria. As we know, there are multiple, competing narratives, and often the ones that are controlled by those who have quicker access to online media are those narratives which I have seen get out more quickly to the rest of the world.
The good news is, you don't necessarily need internet to share information -- I will point to the use of wireless networks and "dumb" phones that are text-based as a creative way of using technology to share information with limited access.
Margarita Noriega (Reuters) 12/10/2013 5:06:13 PM
And then there are the good old fashion smuggling methods, sneaking footage across the border. That still happens sometimes.
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:07:01 PM
@Andy - Indeed. Smuggling information, people, goods, and illegal items for trade is rampant in the area.
Margarita Noriega (Reuters) 12/10/2013 5:07:45 PM
Yep - especially people, arms, etc. Syrian govt forces have gotten a lot better at searching people for storage devices when they capture people.
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:08:33 PM
btw, speaking of limited internet access, I'm on a train, so I apologize in advance if I get disconnected at various points. :-)
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:09:10 PM
Those are great points.
At Mozfest this year, I spent time in a security and journalism discussion talking about "open hiding" of information and people – sometimes, it's easiest to hide things by not hiding them at all.
Allendria 12/10/2013 5:09:14 PM
Thanks for letting us know.
Allendria 12/10/2013 5:09:30 PM
Yeah, classic forms of steganography - hiding information in plain sight.
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:09:54 PM
So on that point – what are the most impressive technological innovations you have seen coming from the citizen population? How have you seen people avoiding the government’s sophisticated electronic army?
Allendria 12/10/2013 5:09:58 PM
I think there are some characteristics of smuggling culture that make it more difficult to source information: safety is critical in these violent environments for all parties involved, which can hamper information flow and verification.
Margarita Noriega (Reuters) 12/10/2013 5:10:26 PM
I'd rather not go into specific techniques - it would compromise sources' safety - but they've become much more adept at using anonymizers, virtual private networks, encrypted software/hardware/data, etc.
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:11:14 PM
@Allendria, on the question of impressive use of technology, I'm going to have to point to "dumb" phones -- people in developed countries or those who are unaware of the harshness of these environments forget how important it is to have a simple phone to text someone. "Dumb" phones are extremely important in connecting people simply and quickly.
Margarita Noriega (Reuters) 12/10/2013 5:11:58 PM
Another bit of reading, if our audience is interested: Social Media Aids Humanitarian Work in Syria
In an interview with Mashable, Anna Therese Day – an independent journalist that has reported from Syria, most recently for The Daily Beast – noted that she's witness extreme innovation from within Syria.
Activists inside of Syria are incredibly innovative. There is encryption and hacking, but they are not safe. They will be tortured and killed if they are caught, and it has happened to many people now," she said. "The Syrian government has such a sophisticated electronic army.
Allendria 12/10/2013 5:12:46 PM
But at the same time, opposition groups know that the govt has also gotten very sophisticated when it comes to intercepting information, so there aren't any methods that are truly 100% safe and secure.
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:13:02 PM
Yeah, it's a constant game of cat and mouse. Both sides get more sophisticated as time goes by.
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:13:54 PM
Indeed. The Syrian Electronic Army
is quite a force. Which leads me to my next question.
As the government’s tactics on censorship, control and intelligence gathering have changed over the past couple of years, so have citizens’ means of disseminating information. Has your news-gathering process changed over the course of the conflict? How?
Allendria 12/10/2013 5:14:34 PM
Safety and privacy concerns can limit the information flow. That applies everywhere, today, I think, in and outside of war zones.
Margarita Noriega (Reuters) 12/10/2013 5:14:54 PM
The biggest change in my work has been information security - both my own and with sources. Everyone has to be using tools to protect themselves from snooping. All it takes is one weak link in the chain for info to get intercepted.
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:15:51 PM
The Syrian Electronic Army has the reputation as vandals of websites, Twitter accts, etc, but it's the hacks they don't brag about publicly that should worry you.
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:17:07 PM
I cannot speak to the news-gathering process outside of our live coverage online, given security concerns, but I can certainly say that public access to sharing media content has transformed news gathering for all news organizations, governments, and interested parties. Public sharing is changing the way we understand information flow.
Margarita Noriega (Reuters) 12/10/2013 5:17:43 PM
When you’re looking for the latest updates on Syria, where do you look first? Social media? Freelancers? Newswires? How do you cross-check and verify information?
Allendria 12/10/2013 5:18:19 PM
Absolutely. The sheer number of Syrian youtube channels gives you a taste of how different a conflict this is as far as open info sharing goes.
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:18:23 PM
It's a combination of methods, from keeping up with social/traditional media outlets, interacting with sources, and sometimes sending your own people in - but that's become increasingly dangerous.
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:19:19 PM
Verifying can take place privately - ie, asking your social media communities to help research certain claims/footage/etc, but a ton of stuff goes on behind the scenes, consulting various sources and experts. The method will vary of course, depending on what you're trying to verify and why.
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:20:35 PM
I certainly took advantage of all source types, but I rely heavily on the excellent professionals employed by Reuters, including our photographers and writers, to inform me. What was most helpful to me, though, in covering Syria online was our photographers. I saw pictures long before I had any other type of content. It gave me a sense of what context was to come. For example, I would point to Reuters photographer Goran Tomasevic on his coverage of war zones
Margarita Noriega (Reuters) 12/10/2013 5:21:03 PM
Goran's a great example.
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:21:31 PM
Also, the type of news org you are impacts what you can do - NPR is relatively small compared to the Reuters, APs and AFPs of the world.
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:22:11 PM
I'm going to bring in a question from an audience member now:
It seems to me that traditional media organizations don't really have the resources to keep up with the flood of information. It's interesting that a forum on reddit, for example, has now been quoted many times by various media sources, because dozens of users are collating and analyzing videos and eyewitness reports in real time. Is this the future? Is this a tool that has a place in professional journalism? Is it competition? Should this model be adopted, or perhaps emulated, by the rest of the media?MillerMENAat 12:19 PM
Allendria 12/10/2013 5:22:26 PM
For those interested in reading more chats with Andy, he participated in a Reddit AMA
earlier this year.
Allendria 12/10/2013 5:23:28 PM
It's not "the future." It's "a future." I'm definitely an advocate for crowdsourcing and collaboration when it's appropriate, but not all news questions can be answered this way. It should be part of your toolkit. It's just gotten harder for those news orgs that have cut their investments in foreign coverage.
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:23:40 PM
One extra note on photos -- I will say that when I first saw this series of photographs on a boy making weapons in Syria
, I was shocked. I waited patiently to hear more about how we came upon him.
Margarita Noriega (Reuters) 12/10/2013 5:24:00 PM
Also, it's not even the future per se as it's happening already. :-)
Andy Carvin 12/10/2013 5:24:08 PM