Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Upheavals, earthquakes, and my social media experience on Al Jazeera English

It almost didn’t happen. I was due to be a part of a discussion on Al Jazeera English (AJE), the international news channel, about the end of Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year reign in Libya.

A half-hour before show time, I receive the following email in my inbox from a producer:

“We had an earthquake and all over the city people are standing outside their buildings,” the producer wrote. “I’m guessing we won’t get back in in time for today’s show. Perhaps we’ll shift our schedule to do it tomorrow, or another day.”

A quick look on the USGS website revealed a 5.9 earthquake had struck Virginia, shaking buildings in D.C. and New York. The Stream, the cutting-edge AJE news program that blends new and traditional media, might miss the historic event in Libya.

First, some background.

Al Jazeera English is an international news channel that is broadcast worldwide from Doha, London and Washington D.C., to an estimated audience of 150 million viewers in 100 countries.

Being headquartered in the East, Al Jazeera was uniquely positioned to report on the Arab Spring uprisings. Indeed, it capitalized on this major news event, and the AJE internet stream gained more than 1.6 million American viewers during the first months of the revolt.

The White House also took notice, and included AJE in its diet of international events coverage. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took notice of the network, and in a briefing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praised the quality of reporting on the international channel.

“You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners,” she said.

Perhaps no other AJE program has gained as much momentum during the Arab Spring as the new media experiment The Stream.

Broadcast daily from Monday through Thursday from the Washington D.C. studio, the Stream hosts a panel of two to three guests who have some kind of stake in a major news event. But that’s where the similarities between this and other current events programs end.

The host for the program, Hoops Prize-winning Derrick Ashong, plays a dual-role as a moderator of comments and questions streaming in from the web. He also scouts social networks and presents blog posts, Tweets, photos, and on-the-ground reports that have relevance to the news of the day.

Regularly, the news of the day is about the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

"The Show Must Go On"

Technical bugs happen frequently on this live show. Guests joining via Skype can get cut off. Networks can lag and crash. But the host rolls with it, and has guests elaborate on points or raises other questions. This is the cost of experimentation, and the show’s ingenuity pays off dividends.

That success should come as no surprise considering the nature of the Uprising. Social media played a critical role in the Arab Spring, providing a means of coordination, information exchange and expression. And the Stream was in position capitalize on the flood of firsthand accounts coming from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and countries across the Arab region.

So when rebel forces liberated Tripoli this week, I knew I wanted to be a part of the conversation at the media epicenter. I responded to a status update on The Stream’s Facebook Page, and shortly thereafter I received an email and Google+ invite from Ben Connors, a web producer for the show.

Then, the quake happened, delaying the show. But the earthquake turned out not to be as big of an event as the social media world seemed to make it. John McKinley (@jmckinley) posted a photo of an overturned lawn chair, along with a facetious comment: “Thanks to all of you for your kind words of support, as we look to recover from the devastation of today's quake!”

“The show must go on,” Connors emails me. “We’re going to give it a shot.”

While The Stream uses Skype to connect to key sources and guests, earlier this month, it started implementing Google+ hangouts to allow participation from users and audience members. Connors sent me a link to the hangout, and I logged in during the show’s hasty rehearsal.

For the fall of Libya, Ashong was hosting Taimur Aziz, a social media adviser with Libya’s interim government, the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC). Live in the studio was Najla Abdurrahman, a Libyan-American writer and activist, and Jason Pack, a researcher and Libya analyst from Oxford.

“Now that the government is on the verge of collapse, what does the country’s future look like?” Ashong asked rhetorically at the beginning of The Stream. “Libya is a mix of tribes with varied interests and allegiances.”

Ashong displayed color-coded map of Libya divided into classical tribal and ethnic regions, and asked Abdurrahman, “How realistic is it that will it be that Libya will hold together as a unified nation?”

In covering the revolution in Libya and packaging those events for western audiences, the news media borrowed a motif that it drew from other civil wars in the Middle East. The west’s presumption was that archaic tribal relations devolved into power grabs and civil wars after American forces dissolved the central governments in Iraq and Afghanistan.  If Libya had tribes as well, so the western media’s theory went, then there would also be civil war.

With the Gaddafi regime ended, the words “power vacuum” had begun cropping up in western reports from Libya. A New York Times article on the subject quoted experts and officials who believed that a civil war was all but inevitable.

Experts on The Stream, however, had a different forecast.

“I’ve always taken the position that the importance of tribal affiliation in Libyan society has been exaggerated not only by the regime but also by the western press and analysts, becoming a cliché,” she answered.

Pack said he mostly agreed with her, but said that groups within Libya have their own interests. “There is no desire for separatism,” he said. “Groups are going to work it out.”

What's the Proper Role for the Global Community?

Meanwhile, in the Google hangout, I typed Connors a question to send to the guests. Was the Transnational government up to the task of rebuilding the country?

He said the question was too broad, which was probably correct. But it also may have been moot, because seemed that the guests had partially answered the question. By saying there was no chance for separatism, the panel was implying that the Transnational government could find cooperation across political lines to ensure order in the new Libya.

The host kept the conversation moving. As Ashong brought attention to several twitter posts critiquing western intervention in Libya, the topic shifted. Some twitter posts that The Stream chose to air questions about whether NATO intervention was an imperialistic scheme to capture Libya’s oil reserves.

“The Libyan people... want to respect foreign contracts, they want direct investment and oil technitians getting there as soon as possible because that's their patrimony,” Pack said. “The idea of imperialism, where I come and I take from you, is kind of a zero-sum view of things, kind of like a Gaddafian philosophy.”

The host then jumped in and made it clear that he didn’t want the topic of imperialism to be out-of-bounds for the show. “We want to be careful to think that at this day and age that colonialism does not exist, because we see parts of the world where people believe that colonialism does not exist,” he said.

Aziz, the Transnational media specialist who had a stake in whether his government was perceived as a NATO proxy, defended the revolution as a grassroots movement.

“We started the revolution, not NATO,” he said. “Even if NATO didn’t come to Libya, we would have continued this.”

While this conversation was unfolding, the group of four audience members in the Google+ hangout (myself included), started to chat about what the proper role is for NATO at this point. That’s when Connors tapped me to go on air and ask a question on that topic, about thirteen minutes into the show.

“Yes, it seems like a delicate balance between providing a humanitarian effort and also not going beyond your bounds to establish that imperialism,” I asked, my voice lagging several seconds after the video stream from my home office in Urbana, IL.

“So what is the proper role for the global community to support Libya but not go beyond their bounds?”

“The proper role is to monitor,” Naja answered. “I think that a role is really for the Libyan people themselves, but I hope that the international community continues to take an interest in Libya even after Gaddafi leaves.”

“My concern in the coming weeks and months is how the NTC is doing its job,” she continued. “Are they allowing not only for an open, transparent and inclusive process, a representative political process, but are they also on the flipside allowing for the emergence of a robust civil society... Are they going to allow a free press, are they going to allow the labor unions to be strong again and people to organize?”

Rolling With the Punches

The panel then, actually, started discussing the capabilities of the NTC, and whether it was up to the task of governing Libya.

“Do you have the infrastructure you need to credibly govern the nation?” Ashong asked Aziz.

“Right now we are even in the last months of the Gaddafi regime, there was a big plan for developing the infrastructure of the country,” Aziz said, and referred to a multi-billion dollar contract that was signed between the NTC and international infrastructure developer AECOM.

“There’s no real infrastructure in Libya, everything is destroyed by Gadaffi,” he added. “After the revolution, we're going to rebuild the country from scratch.”

Several times during the show, the Skype connection to Aziz broke. But between the collateral damage, Gaddafi scorching the earth on his way out, and the costly results of NATO strikes, Aziz’s observations made it remarkable that there could be an interview at all. Libya just had its internet connection restored the day before, albeit with periodic blackouts.

Yet, as I wrote earlier, The Stream excels at improvisation. And that’s really what it takes to excel at integrate social media into any enterprise – the ability to adapt and excel when things don’t go as planned.

Likewise, whether Aziz and the rest of the RTC can stabilize Libya and turn it into a humane, democratic state will also require a great deal of improvisation.

 Below is the video of the episode of Al Jazeera English's The Stream, titled, "Lybia's uncertain future."