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Credit: By jared on Flickr. Some Rights reserved.
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to speak at the annual Polis journalism conference at the London School of Economics.

I was asked to share on my experiences while at the social media team at Al Jazeera. When you hear "social media," "journalism" or "media," usually a few things continue to dominate the conservation:
  • Was (the Egypt Revolution) a social media revolution? (Yes this is still debated two years after the fact.)
  • What tools do and should journalists use?
  • How do you verify social media sources?
  • How do media companies regulate staff use of Twitter and other platforms?
Remarkably little is said of how social media is actually put into practice, besides analytics.

As well as dealing with the above questions, the social media team at Al Jazeera engages their viewing (and non viewing) audience with campaigns around various media issues. Non-viewing here refers to an audience that does not necessarily watch Al Jazeera due to broadcast limitations.

With the theme of the conference being 'Trust in Journalism' I decided to use three cases: 'Uganda Speaks,' 'Libya Speaks,' and 'Gaza Voices' to show how trust plays a role in how audiences contribute and that social media is premised by offline communities, and simply, by being social.

Uganda Speaks

In response to the Kony2012 campaign by the group Invisible Children to bring Joseph Kony and the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) to justice, the team decided to see what Ugandans in the north of the country - an area where the LRA and Kony had operated - thought of the campaign.

An easy mistake to make in social and mobile media is the assumption of equal access - that if you have a smartphone, everyone else does and is as connected. But in Northern Uganda where this is not a reality, how do you obtain local voices when internet or 3G connectivity is not an option?

Here the team contacted local radio stations to broadcast a call for opinions by phone or sent via SMS to local numbers, as well as a Qatari number for Ugandan expats to also voice their opinions. These responses were verified, filtered (for abuse, duplication and so on) and plotted on a simple Ushahidi map. The results appeared on the Al Jazeera web page.

Libya Speaks

The second instance was #LibyaSpeaks. Following the topple of Muammar Gaddafi and his regime, Libyan elections were held with great anticipation.

For this instance, FlipCams were distributed to willing participants in Benghazi, Misrata and Tripoli. Participants were identified as being active online, as bloggers, activists and the like, and cameras were distributed via Al Jazeera staff travelling to Libya to cover the elections.

Each participant was asked to record and upload one minute length videos asking Libyans would they vote in the election and what their expectations were of the elections.

Poor internet connectivity and limited bandwidth meant that videos were not able to be received and processed in time for the feature page for the elections, although they were taken up on Al Jazeera's user-generated content platform, Sharek (meaning to share/participate).

However there was a plan B. As in the Uganda case, local lines were set up where Libyans could call or SMS their responses. Again these were plotted on an interactive map, with in-house staff providing translation.

Gaza Voices

The last campaign of 2012 centred around the Israeli operation "Pillar of Defense" on Gaza. Again, an interactive map featured responses and prominent voices on Twitter, from both sides.

For this instance (a breaking, high intensity news event), there was also a call for local voices - both Palestinian and Israeli, to speak to new media staff and record their testimony. These ranged from calls with bombing audible in the background to citizens in Tel Aviv describing some disruption to their everyday lives but not being under any direct threat or danger. The calls were recorded and featured on a Soundcloud playlist in raw form.

Two things struck me from the audience response during and after the presentation. The first is how little the public at large, as well as fellow media organisations, knew about these activities.

Senior news folks still need to be convinced of the merits of the social world in allying risks of mis-news, misinformation and liabilityEsra Dogramaci
Secondly, even within media circles the discussion of how to use social dominates how social is actually and actively used. The premise of social media is that to have an online presence you need an offline presence.

It is not enough to have a Twitter, Facebook or YouTube account, to include hashtags and handles and track analytics, if you don't have the people.

Aren't people what are at the heart of news stories and the communities that come together and enable social platforms?

I do think that those working in social media today still constitute a bridge - the media generation to come will have grown up with social and digital media as second nature while at the other end senior news folks still need to be convinced of the merits of the social world in allying risks of mis-news, misinformation and liability.

The success of people working in this field presently will be in their redundancy. When we can step back and see our present efforts - building campaigns, strategies and training staff  as second nature in newsrooms - as inherent, it will be time to move on. By then we will have hopefully graduated to building more innovative ideas in media and looking at the next big social and digital things things.

Where then does trust fit into this conversation? Trust in journalism is built on elements such as reputation, representation, content and relationships.

If you are in media and want to tap into the 'wisdom of crowds,' this is not going to happen if you only run to your sources when there is a breaking news eventEsra Dogramaci
If you are in media and want to tap into the 'wisdom of crowds,' this is not going to happen if you only run to your sources when there is a breaking news event.

It is in taking the time, in building those offline communities and relationships, not because of your brand but because of the reputation that you genuinely care about the people behind the news story and as such are exercising your responsibility to extend the journalism platform, the (proverbial) microphone to them.

Your audience then not only becomes loyal, but also your advocate and is more willing to forgive you when mistakes are made.

If you want to be in social media, you've got to be social. Perhaps then it's less the technological savvy but the human-social traits that should be looked for when bringing the social to media.


Esra Dogramaci Esra Dogramaci was a part of Al Jazeera’s new media/social media team in Istanbul and Doha. She is now back to academia completing a degree in Politics and Communication at the London School of Economics with a research focus on Turkish media in cultural diplomacy. Esra is on Twitter @esrad

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