Recent public criticism against the government’s decision to grant Rs. 20 million to the Maoist mountaineering team named “Lumbini-Sagarmatha Peace Journey” flooded the social networking and blogging sites. User- generated contents, most of them venting anger and expressing discontent against the government decision, continuously dominated social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter in Nepal.
At the same time, the youth wings of opposition parties, Nepali Congress and CPN-UML, took to the streets to protest against the UCPN (Maoist) led coalition government. The government’s decision became automatically ineffectual after Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s son Prakash, one of the members of the mountaineering team, stated publicly that the team would not accept the government funding. He described the widespread public condemnation as politicisation of the issue.
Dahal junior reportedly deactivated his Facebook account for a few days being unable to face the criticism. It is difficult to separate the contribution made by social media in putting pressure on the concerned party from the general public condemnation, but evidently social media users’ contribution was of equal force to the street protests in obliging the mountaineering team to ‘refuse’ the government funding.
With worldwide users being increasingly added to the online community, the importance of social media is significant - not only for the purpose of connecting with the people we know but also for the purpose of disseminating information from the perspective of international users thereby informing, influencing and building mass opinions. This has already had the effect of forcing particular individuals, groups or authorities to listen and to take action.
Wide uses of sites today has enabled people to meet and protest by keeping each other informed. Use of sites and mobile phone technology has been used in many despotic countries - such as Libya, Syria, Egypt and Bahrain to help people who were made powerless by ignorance and lack of truthful communications to come together in mutual support and information sharing.
Many people believe that the Arab Spring of revolts in recent years is directly due to the IT phenomenon. Syria is still keeping social media under strong surveillance having learned and taken warning from the power demonstrated by the blogging community in Egypt and Tunisia.
The overthrow of despotic leaders and governments in the Arab Spring has shown that these alternative channels have become a much more powerful force today. In Nepal the importance of these informal channels was recognised after the February 1st, 2005 takeover of the then King Gyanendra, when almost all the formal channels of information were blocked and only a few online media and blogs remained to share information with the public. The emergence of powerful blogs, microblogs, and social networking communities has actually influenced the traditional channels of information dissemination. In a sense, a virtual world of this kind has made every citizen a journalist; indeed, this trend has been interpreted as citizen journalism by media pundits.
Relevance of news breaks in social media
According to the reports published in various websites, Twitter users posted the message about the death of singer Whitney Houston twenty-seven minutes before the mainstream media broke the news.
Four years back, the power of social media was demonstrated with the hundreds of messages being posted in Flicker and Twitter within minutes of 29 Nov 2008 Mumbai attack. Blogs and social networking sites had buzzed with varieties of contents-news, photo, audio-visual and the accounts of eyewitnesses. According to the Telegraph, tweets were posted at a rate of around 70 tweets every five seconds as soon as the this tragic coordinated shooting and bombing rocked New Delhi.
The growing trend of breaking news in social media mainly on Twitter has also pushed media houses into confusion. On the one hand, the media are not recognising that their own correspondents are posting messages in their personal accounts and that they are re-tweeting news from individuals employed by rival media. On the other hand, they can’t deny the benefit of the increasing value of the social media.
To handle such a situation, the BBC has issued a balanced editorial policy on the use of social media for its editorial staff. The breaking news guidance of the BBC states that it recognises the increasing value of other social networks, as a platform for its content, a newsgathering tool and a new way of engaging with people.
The BBC has built a system that allows its own reporters to send their messages simultaneously to its newsroom systems and other journalists’ Twitter accounts. But, it means that journalists can no longer break news in their personal account before it is officially published from the media houses they work for.
Similarly Sky News has issued guidelines to prevent its journalists from tweeting news and ‘undermining’ its credibility.
Is the growing popularity of social media posing a threat to mainstream media with microblogs like Twitter breaking the news? The Editor of Karobar business national daily Prateek Pradhan says that, for TV, the instantaneous capacity of social media is not a big threat; rather, it can be used as a boon. In his view, when people hear of something via social media, they would like to check it out on TV, if available. So, TV and Radio need to follow the lead of the social media where it is to their advantage. Newspapers have more of a problem and many daily papers now produce an online version in addition to their printed copies. It is entirely possible that newspapers may have to consider giving up event based news and focus more on issues arising from those events. “I believe, newspapers need to go much more in-depth and 360 degree view of the events. So, the social media have provided boon (in a way) to some mainstream media, and challenged others to find their niche Journalism,” Pradhan says.
He thinks that journalist might be tempted to break news which they are aware of, but the media channel where they work are the best forum in which to break their own news and it’s more ethical too.
In some cases social media and main stream news media would be rivals, but in other cases they could be complementary to each other. “When the social media draw in readers and viewers to mainstream media, they are of course complementary. But both of them should and can find ways to take benefit from each other. In the real world they live in, both cooperation and competition exists (which is called Coompetition),” he says.
Media educator and blogger Indradhoj Chhetri feels that social media have indeed redefined the traditional way of the dissemination of information and peoples leisure time activity and engagement with the new media. Engagement of people with social media has kept them above their employers. Many people are hungry for this popularity and break news through it but, this trend is not out of question, he says.
In the judgment of Binaya Kumar Kasajoo, chief commissioner of the National Information Commission, social media are still to increase in powerful to the point where it could affect state policy. But this rapidly increasing use of social media will certainly affect the mainstream news media. Social media has offered an opportunity for everyone to be citizen journalist. But ‘lokpatrakarita’ (citizen journalism) also needs decent and conscious communication, he says. “If social media go on gaining popularity particularly in case of presenting news-based contents without credibility, it will undeniably clash with mainstream media,’ he says (see interview)
Citizen journalism should be decent and credible
Binaya Kumar Kasajoo, Chief Commissioner, National Information Commission
How appropriate is it for a journalist to leak information into social media like Twitter or Facebook or a blog before they are published in the media s/he belongs to?
Of course not! No journalist can exceed the limitations, rules and regulations set by his/her news media. It is related to ethics and violation of ethics is not acceptable. The identity of the journalists is associated with the media house where they work. That’s why they should not misuse that identity. The policy of the media house should guide the journalists. But for those ‘journalists’ who are involved in citizen journalism, this principle may not work. However, it is also important for them to follow the basic norms of journalism. Even the social media users should not leak bogus information going against the fundamental assumption of honest journalism if they want to establish their identity as a citizen journalist. Truthfulness should always be at the centre of however we work.
How can social media affect the mainstream media?
Social media can affect mainstream media in many ways. It can even affect the revenue of the newspaper mainly because of three reasons: immediate availability of fresh news the content of which is not edited, decreasing interest of media houses in their readers/viewers and looking increasingly to the wishes of their advertisers and declining social responsibility of mainstream media and lack of credibility.
Can the main stream media and social media be treated as rivals or can they work as complementary to each other?
The main stream media affects many things ranging from the entire world to a particular society and the individuals who live in it. They influence policy making in the political, economic and social sector. In comparison to mainstream media, social media are still not able to influence to this level. However its role is gradually widening. If the role and influence of social media moves ahead at the current pace, a clash is certain between social and mainstream media. The use of citizen journalism and its popularity is a challenge for the mainstream media. In future, it could be possible that citizen journalism which, of course, has no censorship, will dominate the mainstream media. This makes it even more important that the lines of distinction between the two forms of news dissemination are made clear.
How citizen journalism can be used in better way in the country like Nepal?
In a country like Nepal where geo structure is complicated and access to transportation is not sufficient, both professional news media and citizen journalism (via online) are vital tools for the exchange of news, education and encouragement for people in less accessible areas. Due to the lack of technological development and, therefore, the limited use of the latest technology, the new information phenomenon, national and international awareness and standards are still lacking.
So, to make all forms of online journalism useful and to exploit the many positive things from it, access to the internet at sensible speed must improve. Professional communicators should also be prepared to demonstrate their credibility. For this, journalists must reveal their identity in order to gain the people’s trust. If they disseminate their message from behind a curtain of secrecy, their information can only be given the same credence as that of “citizen journalists”. Although basic norms and values of professional journalism could also be applied in citizen journalism – the people must remain free to express their opinions in a responsible way- without state censorship – in this way, the new social media can co-exist with traditional journalism, each taking benefits from the other whilst ensuring that these amazing developments in communications continue to facilitate worldwide understanding in the future.