By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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About that “Kony 2012” video


We may not have previously seen a social-media phenomenon quite like “Kony 2012,” the online video aimed at raising public awareness about Joseph Kony, the leader of the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. I saw it on Tuesday, urged on by my son. He was skeptical from the beginning, having seen this. Today, some 50 million views later, “Kony 2012” is on the front page of the New York Times.

You may be familiar with the criticism by now, which I will attempt summarize as follows:

  • It oversimplifies a complex situation.
  • Kony’s forces, which once terrorized Uganda, have dwindled to a few hundred, and have long since fled for parts unknown.
  • Invisible Children, the not-exactly-transparent nonprofit that made “Kony 2012,” is pushing for the U.S. to launch an ill-advised military action.
  • The film plays down the brutal nature of the current Ugandan government, which, among other things, is considering a measure calling for the death penalty for gay men. (A star of the film is U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, who has been accused of inadvertently helping to foment anti-gay hatred in Uganda.)
  • The underlying message of the video is that bringing Kony to justice is something white people must do for poor, helpless black people.

“While I’ve been waiting years for a spotlight to be shown on Kony, what Kony 2012 is all about is shining the spotlight on [filmmaker] Jason Russell,” writes my WGBH colleague Phillip Martin on Facebook. “This is indeed a great white hope form of self-aggrandizement, albeit whatever good intentions he has.”

Personally, I’d been going back and forth on “Kony 2012” until last night, when I ran across this lengthy blog post by Ethan Zuckerman, an Africa expert who is director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media as well as the co-founder of Global Voices Online, which has rounded up African reaction to the film. It’s exactly the sort of nuanced, deeply knowledgeable analysis I would expect from Zuckerman, and I urge you to read it. (If you haven’t seen “Kony 2012” yet, this will take you less time.)

There’s no question that “Kony 2012” will raise awareness, and it’s possible that it will even do some good. But it’s not entirely clear what the goal is, or for that matter should be.

Video recorded by @rosebellk for Al Jazeera.

Three local projects keep an eye on Egypt

Not the first time I’ve said this, but whenever a big international story develops, you can’t go wrong checking in on three news organizations with Boston roots that specialize in foreign coverage.

The most venerable is the Christian Science Monitor, whose commitment to serious journalism extend back more than a century. Now mostly online, the Boston-based news site has correspondents on the ground in Egypt and other stations in the Middle East. Here is a telling passage by Kristen Chick, who’s been covering the protests:

Reinforced, the crowd marched onto the bridge, gathering around two troop carriers the police had been forced to leave behind, along with several of their members. A crowd surrounded the policemen angrily, but some protesters pushed them back.

“This is a peaceful protest,” they yelled. “Don’t hurt them!”

A young policeman walked past, sobbing uncontrollably on the shoulder of a protester.

“It’s OK, you are our brother, you are with us now,” said the protester.

Reporting from Israel, the Monitor’s Joshua Mitnick finds that the Israeli government is anxiously watching what is unfolding in Arab states all around them.

You can follow the Monitor’s coverage of Middle East protests here.

Also well worth following is GlobalPost, the international news agency started by New England Cable News founder Phil Balboni and former Boston Globe foreign correspondent Charles Sennott. GlobalPost reporter Jon Jensen supplements his work with a video report (above).

In an attempt to get ahead of the story, Hugh Macleod considers whether Syria’s repressive regime could be the next to tumble. His conclusion: no, because President Bashar al-Assad has taken steps to spare his people from the grinding poverty that afflicts Egyptians.

You can follow GlobalPost’s coverage of the unfolding Middle East story here.

The most unconventional of the three is Global Voices Online, begun at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center a half-dozen years ago and dedicated to rounding up and synthesizing citizen journalism of all kinds.

Before the Twitter crackdown, Global Voices’ Ivan Sigal posted a fascinating compilation of tweets, blog posts and videos, including a harrowing scene of protesters falling off a water truck. And here is a comment from something called the Angry Arab News Service, in a piece written by Global Voices’ Amira Al Hussaini, reacting to yesterday’s speech by Egyptian President (at least as of this writing) Hosni Mubarak:

Mubarak is speaking live. He is digging a bigger hole for himself. He is insulting the protesters. HE said that he has been sympathetic to the poor all his life. Is that why billionaires surround you, you dictator?

Global Voices has put together a special section called Egypt Protests 2011.

Chile and earthquake fatigue

I hope I’m not just channeling my own dysfunction, but it seems to me that interest in the Chilean earthquake is pretty limited. There’s plenty of coverage out there. But this is not a story people are talking about, especially in comparison to the Haitian earthquake. The reasons are pretty obvious:

  • Haiti is close to the United States, and Chile is on the other side of the world. Related to that is the fact that Haitian-Americans are a large minority group. Chilean-Americans are not.
  • Media consumers are suffering from earthquake fatigue.
  • Even though the Chilean earthquake was much more powerful, it appears that the death toll and the suffering will be far less than was the case in Haiti.

With that, a few ever-so-slightly non-mainstream sources for you to look at: If you’re not accustomed to heading for the Boston Globe’s Big Picture blog after something like this, well you should be. The New York Times is gathering user-submitted photos. Global Voices Online — which is holding its annual conference in Santiago, Chile, in May — has posted two blog round-ups, here and here. And Boston-based GlobalPost has uploaded a number of stories and photos from the scene and the surrounding area.

And let’s not leave out Boston’s Christian Science Monitor, a leading non-profit source of international news. A story on why Chile seemed so well-prepared, for instance, yields this gem:

Chileans are well versed in what to do during earthquakes, with drills part of every child’s schooling. “Just in case” attitudes, which might seem obsessive in other parts of the world, are the norm here. One woman says she turns off the gas valve every time she leaves the house, just in case a quake strikes when she is out.

A citizen-media aggregator for Haiti

On Wednesday I mentioned Global Voices Online, a Harvard-affiliated service that was rounding up citizen media from Haiti and the Caribbean.

Global Voices has since set up a Haitian Earthquake 2010 section that aggregates citizen-produced content and includes key links to mainstream news organizations — including the Boston Haitian Reporter. It’s got its own RSS feed, so you can plug it into Google Reader.

Here’s a first-hand account of the quake that I found on Global Voices:

Towards 4:45 PM, with our driver, we enter the parking lot of Karibean, Pétion-ville’s big mart. As usual, the way in is slowed by the usual Delmas traffic. While driving up the entry, our Patrol began to dance. I was imagining three or four boys standing on the bumper wanting to swing the car. In front of us, the parking lot ground rocked like the waves at Wahoo Bay. The Karibean building started to dance and in 3 seconds’ time completely tumbled down. A white cloud swept across the parking lot and you could see zombies whitened by dust appearing, in complete panic.

The earthquake is a tragedy whose full dimensions won’t be known for quite some time

Citizen media and the earthquake in Haiti

Note: This item originally included a photograph of a woman being rescued that was cited as an example of citizen media. On March 16, I was informed that the photo was, in fact, the copyrighted work of Daniel Morel, a professional photojournalist. Please see this for more information.

Update: Wednesday, 7:21 p.m. We are posting more links in the comments.

Ever since a tsunami devastated South Asia in December 2004, social media and citizen journalism have been recognized as key components of covering natural disasters and other breaking news stories. Professional news organizations can’t be everywhere; on the other hand, millions of people are carrying cell phones with cameras. New-media expert Steve Outing called the tsunami “a tipping point” for citizen journalism.

In such a decentralized news environment, the challenge for journalism has been to make sense of what is happening in something approaching real time. Most recently, social media have played an important role in bringing news of the Iranian protest movement to the outside world.

So when a major earthquake hit western Haiti yesterday, it was no surprise that news organizations, large and small, tapped into Haiti’s online community in order to provide them with the on-the-ground eyes and ears they did not have. Given Haiti’s unfortunate status as one of the poorest countries in the world, you might not think there would be much in the way of electronic communication. In fact, there is a lively and heartbreaking stream of reports coming out of the island.

I’ll begin closest to home. Last night the Boston Haitian Reporter started a live blog to gather accounts from readers and to link out to relevant information. The blog includes a live Twitter stream of news from Haiti. As the Boston Globe observes, there are 43,000 people of Haitian descent living in Greater Boston.

The New York Times, which over the past few years has morphed into one of the most Internet-savvy news organizations, has, not surprisingly, posted stories, a slideshow and a Reuters video. But the real action is taking place on The Lede, its blog for breaking news, which includes everything from staff reports to cell-phone photos posted to TwitPic. The Times has put together a Twitter list of people and organizations posting news updates about Haiti. And it is actively soliciting reports from its readers:

The New York Times would like to connect people inside and outside Haiti who are searching for information about the situation on the ground. Readers outside Haiti who have friends and relatives in the country, along with readers in Haiti who are still able to access the Internet, can use the comments section below as a forum to share updates. Some readers may be searching for the same family members.

Have you been able to reach loved ones in the area affected by the earthquake? What have you learned from people there?

National Public Radio’s efforts bear some similarities to those of the Times. NPR is concentrating its breaking-news and linking efforts on its blog The Two-Way, and it has also assembled a Twitter list.

CNN, whose iReport project is a major outlet for citizen journalists, has put together a page on the Haitian earthquake. As is often the case with citizen media, it’s not always easy to tell what you’re looking at. Some of the images are quite graphic, and are slapped with a label reading “Discretion advised.”

One of my favorite examples of professional journalists and citizen bloggers working together is Global Voices Online, a project founded at Harvard Law’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society several years ago. Global Voices’ editors round up bloggers from every part of the world. For the most part, they labor in obscurity. But not at moments like this.

As of this morning you’ll find a compilation of tweets and photos and a digest of what bloggers in Haiti and throughout the Caribbean are saying. Here is Afrobella, described as a “Trinidadian diaspora blogger”:

Right now my heart aches for Haiti. The already-suffering island nation was just hit with a 7.0 earthquake. A hospital has collapsed. Government buildings have been severely damaged. There was a major tsunami watch, earlier. Reports of major devastation are just starting to pour in…my thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Haiti, and anyone with friends or family in Haiti.

You can also click through directly to Afrobella’s blog.

Twitter itself is a good source of raw information. At the moment, Yéle, a charity founded by Haitian-American musician Wyclef Jean, is the number-two trending topic, and “Help Haiti” is number three. If you want to dip into the Twitter torrent, try searching on #haiti.

Global Voices and worldwide citizen media

My online-journalism video tour continues with Solana Larsen, managing editor of Global Voices Online, a project that tracks bloggers around the world. I interviewed Larsen on June 9 at her Brooklyn apartment.

On April 23 I interviewed Global Voices’ Central Asia editor, Adil Nurmakov, while I was attending the Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan Internet update

If nothing else, free-speech activists in Kazakhstan have a nice sense of the absurd.

According to the Asia Pulse Data Source, about which I know nothing, advocates are pushing for a law to crack down on fences — as in white-picket, stockade, barbed-wire, etc. — in order to protest a proposal that would subject Internet communications to heavy-handed regulation.

The proposed law — the one regulating the Internet, not fences — passed the lower house of the Kazakh Parliament on May 13. Free-speech proponents hold out some hope that President Nursultan Nazarbayev may veto the law, lest his international image be tarnished.

Earlier coverage here.

Kazakh Web sites protest proposed law

Ruth Spencer of the European Journalism Centre, a sharp young journalist whom I met at the Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty, Kazakhstan, last month, has an update on efforts by the Kazakh government to censor the Internet.

Citing a Radio Free Europe report, Spencer writes that several leading Web sites in Kazakhstan shut down for one hour on Wednesday to protest the proposed law, which I wrote about here, here and here.

At Global Voices Online, Askhat Yerkimbay has a round-up of what the Kazakh blogosphere is saying about the proposed new law, which has passed the lower house of Parliament. Yerkimbay concludes:

In brief, the Kazakh language bloggers’ main disagreement is that this draft law would make it possible to ban a blog for any reason, while bloggers would have no rights.

There is some hope that President Nursultan Nazarbayev will veto the proposal, according to Adil Nurmakov, Central Asia editor for Global Voices, whom I interviewed in Almaty. For one thing, Kazakhstan is scheduled to assume the presidency of the Organiation for Security and Cooperation and Europe (OSCE), which is a very big deal.

It could be that Nazarbayev will decide that signing a restrictive anti-speech bill into law would harm his country’s image at precisely the moment that he is trying reach out to the world.

Global Voices’ man in Kazakhstan

While I was in Kazakhstan last week for the Eurasian Media Forum I had a chance to interview Adil Nurmakov, Central Asia editor for Global Voices Online.

I was having a hard time tracking him down, because my coal-powered cell phone doesn’t work outside the United States. (It does, however, use clean coal.) Fortunately Robin Hamman, an American expat social-media wizard who now lives in the U.K., let me borrow his iPhone, and I was able to make contact.

Adil and I walked about a mile to a restaurant where I had thought we might get some authentic Kazakh food. No such luck. We ended up at a British-style pub, complete with a snooker match playing on two flat-panel TVs hanging from the walls on either side of us. I did order some genuine Kazakh beer. It tasted like … beer. Quite good.

We spent a couple of hours talking about his life and career, then walked back to the InterContinental Hotel, where I conducted a brief video interview in the mezzanine-level press room that had been set up for the forum.

A local take on global coverage

Three of the most interesting experiments in online coverage of international affairs are based right here in Greater Boston.

Global Voices Online, launched several years ago at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, at Harvard Law School, is a site at which journalists cull and curate bloggers from around the world.

GlobalPost, a new project started by New England Cable News founder Phil Balboni and former Boston Globe reporter Charles Sennott, is assembling a worldwide network of correspondents and developing a variety of free and paid models.

And of course there’s the venerable Christian Science Monitor, which recently dropped its daily print edition. (It unveiled a weekly print magazine this week, but the emphasis is on the Web site.) There’s a Globe connection with the Monitor as well: the current editor, John Yemma, is a Globe alumnus.

Even as we lament the ongoing collapse of the newspaper business as we’ve known it, there are reasons to be optimistic about the survival of journalism. I thought I would take a look at how each is covering the anti-communist protests in Moldova, which have captured some worldwide attention because of the role played by social networks, especially Twitter.

Though none of the three is as comprehensive as what my former Boston Phoenix colleague Ellen Barry has been providing for the New York Times this week, each has been covering the story in unique ways.

This Global Voices post, a round-up of blog commentary by Veronica Khokhlova, along with two previous posts to which she links, shows some of the strengths and weaknesses of citizen journalism: the bloggers are good at giving you a flavor of what’s happening, but you get little idea of why it’s happening. I imagine this would mainly be of interest to people with a deep understanding of Moldova.

Indeed, folks at Global Voices will tell you that some of their most dedicated readers tend to be journalists and academics. Khokhlova’s post is not something I would want to wade into without at least having followed some of the mainstream coverage first.

I like the photo, which I found by following one of Khokhlova’s links, not because it’s great photojournalism — it isn’t — but precisely because it’s so mundane. I think it gives a better feel for what it must be like to be in the middle of a protest than a more dramatic shot would provide. Then again, isn’t giving you a true picture what journalism is supposed to do?

I’m also struck by the observation that if Moldovan young people had used a social-networking tool other than current media darling Twitter, the protests might not have received as much attention from the West.

At GlobalPost we find a 13-photo slideshow by Robert A. Reeder that takes us from a celebratory concert staged by the communist government, through protests and violence, and finally to a shot of Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, who has ordered a crackdown and blamed the government of Romania.

Reeder’s pictures, along with the photo captions, give you enough of a flavor that you come away feeling as if you know something about what’s going on. But, as with the Global Voices post, this is supplementary material, not a substitute for a well-wrought news report.

Finally, the Monitor, on its Global News blog, presents a post by Fred Weir that is characteristic of Monitor journalism: it’s short but surprisingly deep, offering just enough news and lots of perspective and analysis. It carries a Moscow dateline, and lacks the up-close feel of the Times coverage. But it may be all that a curious, intelligent general reader needs to know.

Weir’s post went up on Wednesday, so the Monitor hasn’t been as timely on the Moldova story as the Times’ Barry has. But judging from Barry’s story in today’s paper, not a whole lot has gone on since then.

All in all, an impressive performance. If you start with the Monitor, then check out Global Voices and GlobalPost, you’ll come away pretty well-informed about a remote corner of Europe.

Photo taken from the blog Kosmopolito, linked from Global Voices Online, whose content is made available through a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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