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The role of citizen journalism in our connected world

Local residents clean up the streets and local businesses after looting incidents in department stores and shops in Alexandra township, Johannesburg, South Africa, 15 July 2021. EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK

Citizen journalism is ‘the collection, dissemination and analysis of news and information by the general public, especially by means of the internet’. But what are the implications of sharing images and news via social media, of witnessing and reporting on the world around us?

The role that social media played in provoking and fanning the violence and mayhem which started as Free Zuma protests (and snowballed into a tangled mess of anarchy) is obvious. It is also now clear that the incitement of the protests was planned and executed via WhatsApp and Twitter. 

The non-profit Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC), based at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, traced the instigation of destruction and mayhem back to 12 central Twitter accounts; that’s not to mention Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, the daughter of former president Jacob Zuma, and the leveraging of her influential status in encouraging the rioters; nor the boastful and misleading posts that perpetuated chaos and further fed into the violent cycle; nor our role as citizens in creating and maintaining a state of panic and confusion through our own choices of what we did or did not forward or share. 

But what are the implications of sharing images and news via social media, of witnessing and reporting on the world around us? What does it mean for those of us who, equipped with a phone that has a built-in camera and a recorder, can film and share events (and violence) around us?

Citizen journalism defined 

The Oxford Dictionary explains it as: “The collection, dissemination and analysis of news and information by the general public, especially by means of the internet.”

In fact, the meaning is in the name: any citizen who is recording and reporting the events happening around them can be considered a citizen journalist. As Greg Marinovich, South African photojournalist, filmmaker and co-author of The Bang Bang Club, puts it: “Anyone out there can stumble across or come across news. Whether or not you have a camera. Maybe a cellphone, a notebook. Even just a great memory.”

Citizen journalism is not a new phenomenon and it existed long before social media. Arguably, the first instance of citizen journalism was the recording of John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 by Abraham Zapruder, who was, until then, an ordinary citizen. 

The film that Zapruder recorded (now colloquially called the Zapruder film) is, while not the sole recording of the assassination, certainly the most complete, and proved an extremely useful resource in the investigations that followed. 

The 2010 Arab Spring is another example of citizen journalism playing a crucial role in galvanising a movement despite intense government censorship; more recently, the Black Lives Matter and anti-police brutality protests that swept across the world were sparked by the video of police officer Derek Chauvin suffocating George Floyd, taken by Darnella Frazier (18) of Minneapolis, Minnesota; she later received a Pulitzer Prize for “courageously reporting the murder of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests against police brutality around the world, highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice”. 

In all of these instances, images of violence taken and shared by regular citizens (for ease of understanding, we’ll call this content “eyewitness material”) helped galvanise civil and political movements. And while social media did not mark the beginning of citizen journalism (perhaps that can be credited more to handheld video cameras and easily accessible photographic tools), it has, indeed, made eyewitness material far easier to access and spread.

In fact, in the “community guidelines” of both Twitter and Instagram, their policies on the sharing of violent images make allowances for potential important eyewitness material. 

Instagram notes that although “graphic violence is not allowed”… “if shared in relation to important and newsworthy events, and this imagery is shared to condemn or raise awareness and educate, it may be allowed.” Twitter’s policy reads that violent statements and imagery are for the most part prohibited, but “exceptions may be made for violent acts by state actors, where violence was not primarily targeting protected groups”. 

Police brutality, or brutality of the state against citizens, is a good example of how these policies have been used for the good, how eyewitness material has been used to hold the state, police departments and mainstream media accountable for their (lack of) action. 

Closer to home, this research paper, Pictures, Protests and Politics: Mapping Twitter Images during South Africa’s Fees Must Fall Campaign, explores the important role that social media played in the successful Fees Must Fall protests of 2015. “At the height of the student protests, Twitter played a key role in disseminating information to participants and garnering support for protest activities, acting as a choreography of assembly. Moreover, the citizen journalism on Twitter also played a role in informing citizens about events,” authors Tanja Bosch and Bruce Mutsvairo explain. 

Voices of authority

And yet, Marinovich notes: “Social media is a huge problem. I mean, the public is more and more open to conspiracy theories. So-called voices of authority, for better or for worse, have been broken as the only sources of information.

“If you look at the latest news, the South African President is saying one thing, his acting defence minister is saying a completely contradictory thing, and nothing comes of it. Both statements just sit there. So, you can choose what your truth is. That’s insane.”

Marinovich touches on a central issue with eyewitness material – the potential for fake or manipulated news.

In this article, “How the ubiquity of eyewitness media changes the mediation and visibility of protests in the news”, the authors assert that eyewitness footage is innately “polysemic and polyvalent, because it is easily stripped of its original upload, to appear in different contexts with different descriptions, advancing different interpretations of events and different political goals”.

In conversation with the recent riots in South Africa and the countless amount of imagery that was shared without context, this assertion feels searingly true. As Karen Allen put it in her article about the consequence of social media for the riots, “images and videos (many fake or taken out of context) of burning infrastructure, fences torn down or other acts of civil disobedience generate their own momentum. They have arguably provoked further violence and threats of racialised and militia-like counterattacks.”

Which leads us to a second point: when used in a certain way, social media becomes a site of protest in and of itself. Or, as stated in the article mentioned above, “social media users are turning social platforms themselves into spaces for protest. After all, to publish a partisan take, to share it, to get it trending on social platforms, is itself to participate in advancing or curtailing the goals of the protest. Framing and counterframing protests muddies public discourse, confuses us about the meaning of protests, and entices us to fall back on our available prejudices.” 

To share or not to share is the real question: while sharing might stoke confusion, a sense of chaos, or sometimes hatred, not sharing, thus the absence of images, might suggest that the impact of the event was of little importance, potentially raising the issue of censorship.

It’s important, when asking yourself these questions, to remember what Susie Linfield wrote: “Seeing does not necessarily translate into believing, caring or acting. That is the dialect, and the failure, at the heart of the photograph of suffering.” Are the images you are sharing actually doing anything for the good of your community and society at large? Where did what you are sharing come from? What will your sharing achieve? 

As this article on the Tate Modern’s website succinctly reads, “the limits of citizen journalism lie in its innate freedoms; some essential yardsticks of traditional journalism can be neglected in favour of real-time reporting. The verification of facts and sources and the objectivity of a report don’t necessarily come into play with the hastily gathered material.” 

Journalists are trained professionals for a reason. It makes sense that untrained citizens might be a little more relaxed about following traditional rules of reporting. 

Sharing the news in a connected world 

So, if citizen journalism has so many potential faults and cracks, why do we still need to pay attention to it?

Often it is for practical reasons: the nature of eyewitness material in the age of social media means that a lot of content is produced as it is happening. Citizens can livestream protests or news events that they may be currently witnessing. For this reason, social media is often at the forefront of news; it is difficult for traditional media outlets to be everywhere at all times and turn over content as fast.

Another interesting phenomenon is detailed in a recent Knight Foundation study, which found that many young people in the US are more likely to trust social media content and eyewitness material than traditional news sources. “Where professional news footage can be experienced as distanced – holding the viewer at arm’s length – eyewitness media is thought to provide an authentic immediacy.” 

Yet, Marinovich warns about sharing without checking: “Citizen journalism is crucial, but it needs to be curated and verified. If citizens can film and photograph, those same citizens have got the power to loot and kill, or not loot and kill, or film and photograph good things or bad things. These are the same people that can give journalists information, or lie to them, or not lie to them. We’ve got to be wary receivers of information. As professional journalists we have to adapt our skill for being sceptical, and double and triple check the information we get, especially the stuff we receive on social media.” 

He continues: “This is why you need competent, professional and experienced editors. It is key to have experienced editors, and the capacity to properly fact check.” 

As Allen writes, the recent South African riots, at the very least, have taught us a valuable lesson about the dangers of careless sharing of violent imagery. A new Cybercrimes Act was recently signed into law, which means it is now an offence to incite damage to property or threaten to damage property or people. She says that “if tweets, messages, or conversations are peppered with fake or deliberately manipulated images, the offences may amount to cyber forgery and uttering. Simply resharing deliberately manipulated content that is malicious could make any one of us unwitting assistants in committing a crime.”

She goes on to suggest that in order to stop a chaotic situation like the riots from ever happening again, South Africa’s crime intelligence must be better equipped to identify unrest patterns on social media before they happen, investigators and prosecutors need to be better versed in applying the new law on cybercrime, and we must make efforts to educate the South African public about responsible social media use.

In conclusion, as citizens, our work as recorders and reporters of the South African reality is as important as ever, especially in a country whose government is prone to random acts of slyness. However, it is imperative to remember what power images can have – be careful about what you share and how you share it. DM/ML

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