Tag Archives: Iran

Snapchat news targets the young and the underinformed


Previously published at WGBHNews.org and republished in The Huffington Post.

Two years ago, then-CNN reporter Peter Hamby lamented the negative effect he believed Twitter and other social media were having on presidential campaign coverage. In a 95-page research paper (pdf) he wrote while he was a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Hamby put it this way:

With Instagram and Twitter-primed iPhones, an ever more youthful press corps, and a journalistic reward structure in Washington that often prizes speed and scoops over context, campaigns are increasingly fearful of the reporters who cover them.

On Tuesday, Hamby was back at the Shorenstein Center, this time to tout the journalistic virtues of an even more ephemeral media platform: Snapchat, built on 10-second videos that disappear as soon as you view them. Hamby, who is barely older than the 18- to 34-year-old users he’s trying to reach, told a friendly but skeptical crowd of about two dozen that Snapchat is bringing news to an audience that is otherwise tuned out.

“Because our audience is so young, I view our mission as educational,” he said. “I think it’s OK that our mission is to illuminate the issues for young people. That’s not to say we won’t get into more serious, complicated things.”

My personal philosophy about new media platforms is to watch them from afar and to more or less ignore them until it’s no longer possible to do so. That served me well with networks like Foursquare and Ello, which seem to have faded away without my ever having to partake. On the other hand, I’ve been tweeting since mid-2008, which is about the time that Twitter’s emerging importance as a news source was becoming undeniable.

Snapchat, it would appear, has reached that turning point. It already has about 100 million daily users, the vast majority of them between 18 and 34, as Michael Andor Brodeur notes in The Boston Globe. And it is starting to branch out beyond those 10-second disintegrating videos.

The newsiest part of Snapchat is called Discover — channels from media organizations such as CNN, ESPN, Vice, BuzzFeed and National Geographic that provide short graphics- and music-heavy stories aimed at providing a little information to a low-information audience.

CNN’s fare of the moment comprises such material as the fight between Afghan and Taliban forces in the city of Kunduz; an FBI report that crime rates are dropping (a story consisting of nothing more than a video clip of a police cruiser with flashing lights, a headline and a brief paragraph); and the re-emergence of the Facebook copyright hoax.

Perhaps the most ambitious news project Snapchat has taken on — and the one in which Peter Hamby is most closely involved — is called Live Stories. Snapchat editors look for snaps being posted from a given location and, with the consent of those users, weave together a brief story. They disappear after 24 hours; the only one playing at the moment is “Farm Life: Worldwide,” which is as exciting as it sounds. But Hamby mentioned stories from presidential campaign announcements, the Iran nuclear deal, music festivals and the like that he said drew tens of millions of viewers. (If you want to get an idea of what a well-executed Live Story looks like, Joseph Lichterman of the Nieman Journalism Lab found a four-and-a-half-minute piece on the hajj that someone had saved and posted to YouTube.)

“At CNN we would cover an event with one or two cameras,” Hamby said. “With Snapchat we have everyone’s camera at our disposal.”

For me, at least, the most frustrating part of my brief experience with Snapchat (I only signed up Tuesday morning) has been finding worthwhile — or any — content that’s not part of the Discover channels or the Live Story of the moment. The search function is not especially useful. I did manage to friend several news organizations and presidential campaigns.

Any user can create a story that will stay up for 24 hours. So far, though, I’ve only managed to see relatively useless clips from Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham. Hamby gives points to former candidate Scott Walker and current candidate John Kasich for their imaginative use of Snapchat. But as best as I can tell, Kasich hasn’t posted a story in the past day. His campaign website — like those of a few other candidates I looked up — does not include his Snapchat username, even though it includes buttons for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Snapchat is mobile to a fault — you can install it on an iOS or Android device, but not a laptop or desktop computer. That makes it fine if you’re on the go. But for an old fogey like me, it complicates the process of finding worthwhile material. And vertical video! Yikes!

In listening to Hamby on Tuesday, I was struck by his animus toward Twitter. “I think Twitter has made the tone of the coverage more negative,” he said. “Twitter is a uniquely toxic, negative space.” And though you might dismiss that as simply putting down a competitor, he said much the same thing in his 2013 report, citing a Pew Research Center study to back him up. Hamby quoted John Dickerson, now host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” as saying of Twitter:

It makes us small and it makes us pissed off and mean, because Twitter as a conversation is incredibly acerbic and cynical and we don’t need more of that in coverage of politics, we need less.

Will Snapchat prove to be the antidote to Twitter? Count me as skeptical. Five to eight years ago, when Twitter pioneers were using the nascent platform to cover anti-government protests in Iran and earthquakes in California, Haiti and elsewhere, we had no way of knowing it would devolve into one of our leading sources of snark, poisoning the public discourse 140 characters at a time. (And I’m not sure I agree that that’s what it’s become. I mean, come on, just unfollow the worst offenders.)

But to the extent that we have to bring news to where the audience is rather than waiting for people to come to us, then yes, Snapchat may prove to be a valuable home for journalism. I just hope it whets users’ appetites for something more substantial.

Broder’s disturbing advice to Obama

I realize Washington Post columnist David Broder’s expiration date came and went some time ago. But suggesting that President Obama prepare for war with Iran in order to boost his re-election prospects is surely a new low.

“I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected,” Broder writes. Good lord, what is it he thinks he’s doing?

“This is genocide. This is Hitler.”

Terrible news from Iran. (Warning: extremely graphic and disturbing photo.)

The death and life of Neda Agha-Soltan

Los Angeles Times reporter Borzou Daragahi has an in-depth story on Neda Agha-Soltan, the Iranian woman whose death, captured on video (warning in case you haven’t seen it yet: extremely graphic and disturbing), has become a symbol of the post-election uprising.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that Iranian goons attacked and arrested people who tried to attend a memorial service for Soltan.

More on the Tiananmen analogy

It’s hard not to worry that the crisis in Iran will end in a Tiananmen Square-style massacre. Here is the Boston Phoenix editorial page:

Hope, even under a brutal medieval-minded regime, can be a political aphrodisiac. But hope alone, as the Chinese students who sought reform in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago found out, is no match for armed forces. Whether the death toll in Iran will come to equal that of the Tiananmen massacre and its aftermath remains to be seen.

Juan Cole has similar thoughts.

Greenway on Iran

Sharp analysis of the crisis in Iran by former Boston Globe columnist H.D.S. Greenway, now writing for GlobalPost. He begins:

Protests in the streets, angry crowds in numbers not seen since the revolution in 1979, have some people wondering if Iran is on the verge of revolution. But it’s more likely, if the street protests get out of hand, there will be a China-style Tiananmen, with voices crying for reform silenced by gun fire.

Greenway also gives President Obama high marks for not saying anything that would help Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “play the Great Satan card.”

We’re debating whether Obama has said enough here. It was also the subject of a Jeff Jacoby column in today’s Globe.

Obama’s rope-a-dope

I’ve been as frustrated as anyone that President Obama hasn’t spoken out more forcefully about what’s taking place in Iran. But I’ve also heard a contrary view — that if he is seen as giving support to the reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, he risks whipping up anti-American sentiment in favor of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Here’s a fascinating excerpt from an Arab-American blog being highlighted by Global Voices Online. I have no idea who the writer is, but what he or she says makes a lot of sense:

Whether or not Mousavi had the election stolen from him, it seems clear the ruling class has made a calculating move. Anti-American sentiment is one of the strongest cards those wretched clerics hold. By merely softening the tone Tehran hears from Washington, Obama has weakened their hand considerably. But re-instating Ahmadinejad ensures that US-Iranian relations will continue down a rocky road. What happens next is crucial. If Obama takes a firm position as a result of what’s happening, the mullahs may emerge victorious.

Writing for the Independent, Robert Fisk says there are hopeful signs that the Iranian security forces’ support for Ahmadinejad may be fading. That would be an enormously important development.