When The World Listens: GV08 Summit Day 2, Session 5

Anyone who is familiar with Global Voices knows that the world is indeed talking – blogospheres from the Americas to Sub-Saharan Africa all have a lot to say – but what makes people actually listen?  The fifth and final session of Day 2 of GV's Citizen Media Summit 2008 addressed the role of bloggers during political crises and natural disasters and examined how citizen media activists take news of their experiences to the world.

Presentation screen at the GV 2008 Citizen Media Summit.  Photo by 5lire.

Moderator Preetam Rai, who covered the monks’ protests in Burma, kicked off the discussion by making the link between online and offline realities – inspired by what they were reading online, bloggers in Cambodia organised a protest in front of the Burmese embassy.

Neha Viswanathan, in her uniquely engaging way, agreed that there was a connection between the web and real life, saying that it could be “life-affirming, orgasmic…even creepy.”  But she also encouraged the audience to “blog about anything you like”, since blogs can be “about the simpler things in life.”  To demonstrate how the seemingly trivial can quickly become serious, Neha used the example of Eve Teasing and the Blank Noise Project in India, which hosted a blogathon on street sexual harrassment  as part of an initiative to help men re-examine their perception of women.  “The online movement suddenly went offline,” Neha explained, “and focused on finding the perpetrators, showing maps of locations at which they usually did their Eve Teasing and so on.  Mainstream media finally caught up.”  The result?  A change in language – people started calling the phenomenon exactly what is was – sexual harassment, proving Neha's point that bloggers should define the “crisis” and determine what subjects are of importance.

The Day 2, Session 5 Panel in action.  Photo by hectorpal.

And speaking of important matters, there was no argument that the aftermath of the Kenyan elections ranked high on the influential subjects list.  GV's Environment Editor Juliana Rotich used this case of political instability to lead the discussion on the role of citizen media in web engagement and the web of the future.  A quick recap: Kenya went to the polls on December 27, 2007, with over 70% voter turnout.  By December 30, exacerbated by the slow and unreliable release of results, the situation deteriorated into violence; a subsequent media blackout caused bloggers to fill the gap.  Trusted blogger Ory Okolloh at Kenyan Pundit used Google Earth to show where the damage was on the ground, there were Ushahidi mashups that gave a timeline of events and the Internet was being used to achieve several distinct and urgent goals:

- To create a way for Kenyans to report violence (through flickr, etc.)

- To create an archive of news reports that would be indexable and searchable (especially useful should something happen to people's families)

- To show where the violence was happening

GV's Environment Editor, Juliana Rotich.  Photo by Maneno.org.

The feedback from the global community was tremendous, making the undertaking a truly collaborative one and underscoring the point that citizen media provides a critical service of exploring nuances and offering context in crisis situations.  “It humanizes the crisis,” Juliana said, “it makes things relatable.”  There were also lessons to be learned: Keeping the diaspora engaged, for instance, helped to complete the cycle of information.  It was important to ensure the accuracy of data, partly because bloggers collated their information and collaborated with NGOs on the ground to try and relieve some of the hardships people were facing.  Global Voices even got kudos for being “a valuable support network” in the midst of a crisis.  The next step?  Creating downloadable tools for helping with any crisis in the world – “It's a way of going from a big picture to one story,” Juliana explained.

Next up was Lova Rakotomalala, who spoke about Madagascar getting news from informal networks during the harshest cyclone season ever.  Despite the fact that Ivan, with a strength that matched Hurricane Katrina, left 230,000 homeless, over 300 dead and about 300,000 acres of fields destroyed, responses from both the government minister in charge and the national media were delayed.  International media attention was also focused elsewhere.  “The cyclone hit at the same time that Kosovo declared its independence,” explained Lova, “and while that was obviously a very important story, mainstream media attention could have put more pressure on the government in the recovery effort.”  Once again, blogs filled the gap, providing a chain of information through SMS and reports being sent to Global Voices Online.  According to Lova, getting attention across borders in this particular situation relied on offering timely content, translating as much as possible and networking with people who had similar concerns.

A cross-section of the audience.  Photo by oso.

The panel then opened the floor to questions – and while there was much discussion, Mary Joyce of DigiActive summarized the session very well: it's all about creating change by creating communities.  “It starts off being about information and self-expression,” she said, “and then it evolves into relationships.”

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