Digital citizens talk back

Read time 5min 50sec

From Congo to Haiti to Zambia, social media is giving voices to those who were previously silent. Digital citizens are exposing issues that are either suppressed or underreported, and are often the first on the scene to report the news.

The theme of the fifth Digital Citizen Indaba, held at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, is Africa's Underdevelopment: Digital Citizens Talk Back. The purpose is to look closely at how the development story is being told by citizens and to give a voice to communities who otherwise would not be heard.

Not being heard is a big problem in Africa. Studies, such as the Global Attention Profiles by Ethan Zuckerman, have shown that wealthy countries with strong science and technology bases get far more media attention than poorer countries. Many countries are under-represented, especially those in Africa and South America, while some in the Middle East (such as Iraq) are overrepresented in the mainstream media.

An excellent example of this is the ongoing conflict in the Congo (largely over mineral resources), which has cost between three and six million lives since 1996 but remains under-reported. Kambale Musavuli aims to change all that, with the help of social media. “The reason I am standing in front of you is because of Facebook. Because of Facebook we have been able to mobilise people,” he says.

Through the Washington-based organisation Friends of the Congo he is raising awareness of the country. “We are giving a face to the victims no one will have heard about with no social media.” Through slides, digital flyers, videos and social media networks, Friends of the Congo is getting ordinary citizens involved, whether it's writing a poem about the Congo or teaching a class about it.

His strategy is working. Musavuli has 4 000 friends on the Facebook page and has gotten people from Japan to New Zealand to Switzerland involved in his project. But he stresses he is using all the tools available in the 'magic toolkit for activism' to create a presence, including radio and print articles in addition to social media. For example, a radio station in the Congo gives a voice to rape victims and has led to several arrests being made.

As communication changes, traditional media platforms will have to adapt accordingly by having a social media presence, according to Musavuli. “If they don't transform, they are gonna die,” he says.

New voices

Although not being heard is a big problem, an equally serious issue is who is heard. In news, sources are usually people in power or members of an elite and news generally supports the status quo and traditional values. News tends to reflect the male viewpoint and minorities are criticised or neglected. This issue can be solved by citizen journalists bypassing the mainstream media.

According to Rory Williams, the blogger behind, the way to empower communities is not by making their voice more credible but to make their ideas go viral through free services like Facebook and Twitter. This allows anyone to voice an opinion and generate instant feedback to create dialogue.

However, one of the biggest criticisms levelled against citizen journalists is that they are untrained amateurs. In response, Grocott's Mail newspaper, based in Grahamstown, has trained citizen journalists, who produce articles and photos from the perspective of ordinary people. Digital citizens are also encouraged to send in news via SMS. During the World Cup, these citizen journalists investigated if locals in the Grahamstown area had benefited - an angle which had never been properly covered before.

The 2010 Soccer World Cup is another aspect of contention. According to Niren Tolsi, World Cup reporter at the Mail & Guardian, South African media is in crisis. It has let Fifa “run roughshod” over the country and has done nothing to look at the World Cup objectively, such as investigating Fifa's lack of transparency. When etv ran a story about criminals planning to target World Cup tourists, they were subpoenaed as the government tried to find out who the sources were. Tolsi suggests people use social media to get round the false patriotism coming out of the World Cup.

The power of digital media technology is exemplified by the experience of Carel Pedre, a radio DJ from Haiti. An hour after the earthquake struck on 12 January, Pedre began posting photos of the devastation on Facebook and then Flickr, releasing some of the very first pictures to the world.

It was not long before some of Pedre's friends posted his pictures to CNN's iReport, a public journalism initiative that allows people around the world to contribute pictures and video of breaking news. As a result, he was inundated with people questioning him on Facebook and ended up giving interviews via Skype, as most other methods of communication were down, including landlines. Through Twitter, he was able to give a real-time account of the disaster and follow it up with more substantial information via Facebook and Flickr.

Two weeks after the earthquake, Pedre set up The New Haiti Project Web site, a system to help the people of Haiti to meet their needs for reconstruction. “Digital media has played a significant role in raising awareness and raising funds,” Pedre says. Facebook has even set up a new relief Web site, to help its members find ways to help during times of disaster.

Cell power

In Africa, lack of infrastructure, illiteracy and poverty have hampered Internet access. Cellphones are changing all this. A decade ago, only 2% of Africans had cellphones; now almost a third do.

Cellphones are doing more than just sending messages - people without access to banks are transferring money via their phones, for example.

One of the innovations showcased at the Digital Citizen Indaba was Frontline SMS, a free open source system designed for non-governmental organisations in developing countries with poor communication networks.

“SMS and mobile reaches where few other technologies do,” says Laura Hudson, product manager for FrontlineSMS.

The software turns a laptop or cellphone into a central communications hub by allowing the user to send and receive SMS messages with groups of people. This is a useful way to respond to disasters or respond to medical patients in rural areas.

“We now have all the tools to make the world a better place,” concludes Musavuli. “It just depends on how we use them.”

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