When Riyaad Minty, who is now head of social media at Al Jazeera, joined the news organisation seven years ago, he was part of a team looking at emerging mobile technologies. As social media has evolved, so too has his role.
But not everyone within the organisation was as ready to embrace new platforms as places for newsgathering and storytelling.
In an interview with Journalism.co.uk, Minty said before 2009 the new media team was often the butt of jokes and there were frequent questions of 'why would you want to do that?', 'what's the point of using Twitter when people get the news from our websites and TV channels?' and comments like 'that's a waste of time'.
The turning point came when he went into the newsroom early in 2009 to find the New York Times had published an article on how Al Jazeera was crowdsourcing the war in Gaza.
"When people walked into the newsroom and saw this article with a picture of the team on one of the main pages talking about how innovative we were, they started to realise 'maybe there is something more to what you guys are doing'," Minty told Journalism.co.uk.
More resources then followed and now there is a social media team of nine people, plus each newsroom has journalists trained in social, and TV programmes have digital producers.
In this feature, Minty shares some of the key moments in the evolution of social media at Al Jazeera, and how his team focuses on amplifying the voices of those who are often not heard.
The war in Gaza
The 2008/2009 war in Gaza was the "first time I started moving a bit more into the social media space", Minty explained.
"It was the first time that we saw a rise in conversations online, we saw the emergence of Twitter and Facebook as a newsgathering space, and people were trying to post not just updates of what was going on on the ground but opinions of the situation and what was going on on both sides of the conflict.
"That was the first time Al Jazeera stepped in and we tried to harness the power of social media."
Minty and colleagues launched an @AJGaza Twitter account. "I think at the time we were one of the first, if not the first, news organisation in the world to live tweet a war minute-by-minute".
"At that time there wasn't a massive audience," Minty said. "We started an account with zero followers and we built it up to around 17,000 which back in 2008 was a sizeable audience."
Al Jazeera also worked with Ushahidi, the open-source crisis mapping platform, to create a map of reports, which updated in near real-time.
The initial plan was to gather information by encouraging people on the ground to send text messages. But as internet and mobile communication channels were disrupted, the team had to change their plans.
"This was a time for us to innovate," Minty said. "We knew we were the only organisation that had correspondents on the ground within Gaza that were covering it for a TV channel minute-by-minute."
Minty and colleagues therefore took information from the broadcasts, tweeting it out from the @AJGaza account, along with other reports coming in from journalists and citizens on both sides of the conflict zone.
@AJGaza was renamed to @AJELive once Minty and colleagues saw the potential in live tweeting events. "So instead of keeping on one story only, the account changed to be our "real-time" account for news," Minty explained.
The @AJGaza tweets provided information for an interactive map. "You could go to that map and click around and see how the conflict was escalating, where the civilian deaths were, where rockets had been launched," Minty said. "You could get a very comprehensive take on what was going on."
This was all taking place before decision makers at Al Jazeera saw the value of social. "Our website at the time didn't even want to embed the Twitter widget or Ushahidi map so we put it under a new domain called labs.aljazeera.net."
And it was a time before they had the resources they do today. "Often we'd have to hack together, stay up for 17 hours working as a team, and come up with innovative ways to tell these stories on very low budgets."
The Gaza war was a turning point for Al Jazeera. "It was really our first big case within using social media and leveraging the power of it to tell stories to a global audience when news organisations did not necessarily have direct access to people."
Soon after the Gaza war of December 2008 to January 2009 came the Iranian elections and the subsequent protests and rise of the Green Movement.
"What was interesting was that was coming off the back of Gaza and the rise of social media," Minty said.
Minty said that at the time, other news outlets were "still struggling with how to deal with this new real-time social information". He said that many outlets "plunged in head-first" reporting what was being said on social but with little contextualisation.
The news coming out of Iran was hampered by a lack of internet connection, with some people using proxies to get information out.
"What we saw was a lot of information was coming out of an open centre in Tehran," Minty recalled. Those sharing news from the centre were generally English speakers and middle to upper class, he said. "But the rest of the country's voices weren't really heard".
"At one point there were around 250,000 tweets using the #iranelections, but the vast majority of those were coming not out of Iran but from people in the rest of the world who were talking about Iran."
Al Jazeera focused on verification and the wider picture. "During that time we were only able to verify six accounts from people who were in Tehran tweeting about it," Minty said.
"So it was this hyper-amplification of noise from there and the second you stepped out of the open centres and started trying to get voices who were from the poorer people who were voting, you started getting a very different picture of what was happening.
"That was really the time when we started focusing on contextualising the information."
Minty added: "I think that when dealing with social media, especially in parts of the world where people may not have direct access or may not be following stories every day, it is important to contextualise this information to understand who are the voices that are online and what stories they are telling? We can then contextualise this as part of a broader discussion on the issues that matter to people across the country."The term 'social media' for me and for Al Jazeera does not just mean Twitter and Facebook, it means a form of communication that people are using in order to tell a storyRiyaad Minty
That thinking has shaped the development of Al Jazeera. Minty, who was moving to the new head of social media role at that time, said that the focus shifted to "understanding voices, and moving away from technology".
"The term 'social media' for me and for Al Jazeera does not just mean Twitter and Facebook, it means a form of communication that people are using in order to tell a story that matters to them or in order to highlight a story that matters to them regardless of platform.
"It could be as simple as text message, it could be people meeting in a coffee shop to have a conversation. It's real connections with people on the ground, and trying to dig in and get as wide a view as possible."
Elections were held in Iraq in 2010 and Al Jazeera partnered with YouTube to gather video stories. "We decided to try and tell the story of the elections through the voices of people on the ground," Minty explained.
The Al Jazeera team identified 17 people across Iraq and sent them sent Flipcams, simple video cameras, and talked them through how to tell stories and how to interview people so that on election day they were able to go out and "document the story from the streets of Iraq", a time when many reports were limited to the Green Zone.
"It was a really interesting first push into curating this network of citizen journalists who were able to tell stories for us."
The Arab Spring
Going into 2010 Al Jazeera hired a second person to work with Minty to look at "user-interface media".
The year was significant both in the growth of social media and in how Al Jazeera was making it intrinsic to its newsgathering.
By the time the uprising began in Tunisia in late 2010, there had been extensive social media training within Al Jazeera.
As the Arab Spring started there was "a great deal of awakening of social media and the role of social media within Al Jazeera", Minty said.
The social media team were by now focusing on strategy, and day-to-day operations were taking place within the newsrooms so that when reports of protests first came out of Tunisia "our web team were on it immediately, before the social media team was on it".
"They were able to find information, take it, contextualise it, and were able to broadcast it on our Arabic and English channels."
And as protests started taking place in other countries the social media training also helped the news outlet's output.
"Because of that preparedness we were able to deal with it a lot better than other news organisations who reacted to it, we were able to understand it a lot better. We started identifying key influencers in different countries and were able to contextualise and verify that information."
The start of the uprising in Egypt in early 2011 was a key moment for Minty personally.
"One thing that I will always keep with me was on the night of 25 January when the protests started. Our top story at the time was the Palestine Papers, an exclusive story that was trending globally on social media.
"Close to midnight in Doha all of a sudden my Twitter stream started going crazy with people in Egypt saying 'hey, there are people on their way to Tahrir Square, this is happening right now' and 'this is Egypt's moment, where is Al Jazeera? we need Al Jazeera's cameras'."
Minty took the story to the news editor and as the noise from social grew, it was passed up the chain of command. "It took us three trips to senior staff before they decided to change the coverage to Egypt," Minty said.
"Being in the newsroom at that time the story was emerging and looking back at it now, it's one of those moments that really defined not just Al Jazeera but the way in which citizens empower themselves and were able to mobilise not just themselves but people across the country to get out and protest."
And as the story developed, so too did Al Jazeera's social team. "Coming out of the Arab Spring we were really focused on harnessing the power of storytelling and getting voices heard and the amplification of those voices."
Using text messages and video
Since then the Al Jazeera team has worked on projects such as gathering those stories by text message and by video.
They used SMS in Somalia, with the Al Jazeera team able to ask questions by text and crowdsourcing translations, with the help of the Somali diaspora.
When a video calling for the arrest of Lords Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony went viral in March 2012, the Al Jazeera team reacted by encouraging Ugandans to upload their own videos.
"What we noticed was reactions from people in Uganda and people who were a lot more conscious of what was going on within not just Uganda but in Africa, their responses were slightly different to how the video was portraying the story."We look to how we empower people to tell stories that matter, putting their stories at the centre of everything that we do, and we contextualise them for a global audienceRiyaad Minty
Al Jazeera therefore launched a campaign called Uganda Speaks, asking Ugandans to tell the outlet what was happening.
It started with Al Jazeera's social media show The Stream (which you can read about here), which got in touch with a Ugandan blogger who recorded a response.
"She was talking to webcam for 20 minutes and the video had 800,000 views."
Again Al Jazeera worked with local radio stations to promote a local text number and ask people what they thought of the Kony video.
"The responses we got were absolutely amazing," Minty said. "We then amplified that across our Al Jazeera accounts under the brand name Uganda Speaks, which eventually led to local Ugandans launching their own website called Uganda Speaks. The president of Uganda eventually recorded a message.
"It was empowering people to tell their own stories, and that's really at the heart of what we do. We look to how we empower people to tell stories that matter, putting their stories at the centre of everything that we do, and we contextualise them for a global audience."
So what are the current challenges for the social media team?
"One of the biggest challenges that we have had within Al Jazeera, and one I think every news organisation has, is the two-speed newsroom element", where traditional media and social media are working at different paces.
There are real-time conversations on social, and there is the slower pace of traditional media, which includes news websites.
"News breaks first online so we need to focus on how we harness that, understand it, contextualise it, so that we don't become a news organisation where we just run with the the first thing that breaks on Twitter, we actually add value to our audience so that they are able to understand the issue in light of a broader context," Minty said.
So where next? The focus for this year is one of taking the long view, he said.
"As platforms get adopted there is a lot more noise, a lot more fake information, there's a real need for us to take that step back and try to understand where we are and our role as a media organisation in these broader conversations of stories as they emerge."
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