Social media curatorial journalism

A Reading Note

In May of 2013, a protest broke out in Instanbul’s Gezi Park in response to an urban development plan that called for demolishing the park. As international attention about the Gezi Park protests grew, the state-sanctioned media in Turkey maintained an official blackout. At one point, Tufekci explains, CNN International was broadcasting about the protests while CNN Turkey aired a documentary about penguins. In response, a group of four young journalists created a collective called “140journos” and attempted to fill the void that the mainstream press had left behind:

The role that 140journos sought did not come with a script. In fact, much of what its founders knew about news and journalism wasn’t helpful at all. Their first impulse was to become volunteer journalists. They started going to events, including significant political court cases, that they thought were newsworthy but were not being reported on, and they would tweet from them. They would often be the only reporters remaining in the room after the judge would throw out all the traditional journalists. What could a few youngsters be doing on their phones? They also started going to observe protests and other events across the political spectrum just so they could report on them.

When I first met these young people, early in their journey, I told them that I noticed they were acting like journalists who happened to be citizens rather than capitalizing on the special capabilities of the tool. Often, they traveled to various venues—important court cases, demonstrations, and other events—and reported from the scene. This clearly limited what they could do because they could report only from where they were.

They soon decided to shift course. Replicating old-style journalism and merely using social media were not going to harness the potential of having so many connected phones in so many ordinary hands.

Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas, page 41

140journos evolved new tactics where they observed activity across social media, curating and verifying information from a vantage point where they could see more than any individual could spot on the ground. In other words, rather than view the vast number of people with connected phones as an audience they needed to reach, they saw them as a network of sources they could sift through to understand what was actually going on. Tufekci defines this style of journalism as social media curatorial journalism:

Traditional journalism tries to solve a problem of scarcity: lack of cameras at an event. Social media curatorial journalism tries to solve a problem of abundance: telling false or fake reports from real ones and composing a narrative from a seemingly chaotic splash-drip-splash supply of news.

Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas, page 42

Two years later, in the summer of 2015, violence erupted between Kurdish insurgents and the Turkish government. This time, the Turkish mass media did report on the event, but their version of events was unreliable. So people again turned to their phones, where things were even more confusing:

The news seemed awful. People posted pictures of women and children who had been shot, houses that had been destroyed, and streets that were littered with ammunition. Every picture that went viral, though, was immediately met with the claim that it was either a hoax, a Photoshopped picture, or that it came from another war or another location, such as Gaza, Chechnya, or Egypt. The locations were always claimed to be someplace else—anywhere but Turkey.…

I talked to other journalists, including the team at 140journos…whose members had developed some of the most advanced methods I had seen for verification of citizen media in Turkey. They were also stumped. There was rarely enough information to do the kind of thorough checking they can do when citizen journalists are reporting from the ground. The round-the-clock curfew had made most of their ordinary methods useless. Unable to verify, they, too, resorted to “here are some claims and here are some counterclaims” style of reporting, which did not offer any clarity. The only options were to believe whatever you might have believed initially or to give up trying to make sense of it all.

Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas, page 245

So a set of tactics that had been useful for breaking through government censorship and bringing attention to social movements was felled by a different kind of censorship—that from a glut of unverified and chaotic information. Elsewhere in the book, Tufekci compares this to a denial of service attack—a method where you can take a site or server down by flooding it with too many connections, often using robots or machines that have been commandeered to serve that purpose. I’ve heard similar comparisons, and thought of it often in light of the news cycle leading up to and following the US election. Flood the network with too much information, cast doubt on any information that is shared, and you make it too hard to find the truth in the noise. You may even convince people that there is no truth—that nothing can be believed. Technical denial of service attacks are challenging to deal with, but there are methods that work; but we don’t really have good strategies for dealing with information denial of service—at least, not yet.

Related books

Twitter and Tear Gas

Zeynep Tufekci

Zeynep Tufekci’s book spans the Zapatista uprisings in Mexico, the Occupy movement, a Turkish coup, Arab Spring, fake news, and more—and provides the most lucid analysis of the ways digital networked media has both enabled social justice movements and been used to thwart them.