Mobile media as a force for change

Posted on October 22, 2009 
Filed Under Journalism, Mobile, Social Media

Full script of the extended presentation on “Mobile and social media as a force for change.”

Hi. My name is Julian and I have five stories to share with you on today. One from Iran, one from India, one from Kenya and, because I really don’t like government slogans, 2 from Malaysia.

1. IRAN: This is Neda Agha-Soltan. She was 26, an university student in Teheran studying philosophy, music and was planning to learn how to play the piano. She’d already ordered the piano.

On June 20, 2009, at around 6:30 p.m, Neda was stuck in a traffic jam for more than an hour inside a Peugeot 206 with a poorly working air conditioner. She and her music teacher, a family friend, decided to get out of the car for some fresh air.

The two were near where protesters were marching and chanting. Suddenly, Neda is on the ground — felled by a single gunshot wound to the chest.

Cameraphone footage show men kneeling beside her trying to help. But it is too late. Neda’s eyes roll back, her body falls limp and blood streams from her mouth and nose. The teacher is heard calling out: “Neda, do not be afraid, do not be afraid.”

She died on the way to hospital. Later, a witness said her last words were: “I am burning, I am burning!” Neda neither supported Mousavi nor Ahmadinejab, the two candidates in the elections.

Here is the video. Warning to weak-hearted — the scenes are graphic and explicit.

Neda became the symbol of injustice in Iran. Her killer was never found. Protesters took the streets with the graphic images of her bloodied face. By marching they risked arrest, and possibly a bullet themselves.

The online community used Neda icons and badges on blogs and personal sites and replaced avatars with Free Iran buttons in sympathy.

In France, a 40th memorial day march was held in her honour and the marchers held up Neda images to their faces as if to say “We are all Neda”.

The video struck a chord with sympathisers around the world. President Obama himself described it as “heartbreaking.” To date (Oct 20, 2009) it has racked over 4.6 million views from various copies on YouTube and other sites. The trending topic #neda on Twitter continues to be used until today on any news coming out of Iran.

I tell you this story without ever having stepped in Iran. But based on Neda’s story and the 17 others reportedly killed in protests on the streets of Teheran, there is definitely an underlying and seething unhappiness in Iran.

These people were young, urban, self-motivated and self-organising as far as we can tell. There was no backing from any invested party. They marched because they were angry on the results of an election that didn’t reflect their beliefs. I don’t even think Mousavi or Ahmadinejab knew what was going on until the protests began.

The bottomline, the peaceful protesters connected with each other, armed only with their mobilephones and the power of social media skills.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead said it best: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

2. INDIA: The second story takes us to Mangalore, in India in Jan, 2009. A group of about 40 followers of Hindu fundamentalist group Sri Ram Sena pulled out women found drinking at two bars in Mangalore and then proceeded to beat them up. Two women were hospitalized. The videos of the attacks were shot with cameraphones and posted on YouTube.

Sri Ram Sena chief Pramod Muthalik (left) condoned the beating of women , Nisha Susan (right) fought back with Facebook

The man on the left is Sri Ram Sena Chief Pramod Muthalik. His organisation also planned to protest the upcoming Valentine’s Day and he warned any couples found in restaurants and pubs would be dragged to the nearest temple to be married. Thank god, good sense prevailed and police arrested most of the men involved in the incidents and Muthalik himself was held on the eve of Valentine’s Day.

But the incident riled many people around the world who saw the videos. Tehelka journalist Nisha Susan turned to Facebook and formed a protest group called “The Consortium of Pubgoing, Loose and Forward women”. Within days, the group grew exponentially, and Susan decided to launch an offline activity via a blog: the Gandhigiri-inspired Pink Chaddi campaign.

To mock the fact these religious conservatives are called Chaddi-wallas – people who wear big, loose underwear – The idea was to send Sri Ram Sena cadres pink underwear. Over 39,000 people joined the Facebook group within ten days from all over the world and dispatched a variety of underwear to Sena’s offices. The group page was later hacked.

But the protest had already struck a chord with women and women supporters around the world. They were encouraged to write whatever they felt on the underwear – these women (above) scrawled Discrimination, Bigotry and Intolerance, then sent the pic and underwears off.

The Pink Panty Protest was non-violent. It shamed the perpetrators and brought global attention to the issue. It wasn’t easy like an email petition which wouldn’t have had the same impact. The protesters had to mail in the panties. The unusual protest received worldwide coverage.

Clay Shirky in his book Here Comes Everybody says efforts like these suggest how ridiculously easy it is to organize people now. “The cost of all kinds of group activity – sharing, cooperation and collective action – have fallen so far so fast that activities previously hidden beneath the floor are now coming to light.” He has gone so far as to call what is happening a revolution — “When we change the way we communicate, we change society.”

3. KENYA: This third story is from Kenya. The United Nations agency Habitat is working with 15 youth groups to build businesses through microfinancing and the use of mobile phones in the slums of Nairobi.

This is Kibera in Nairobi. It is the largest urban slum in East Africa with an estimated population of between 600,000 to 1.2 million inhabitants. Kibera accounts for less than 1% of Nairobi’s total area, but holds more than a quarter of its population.

Kibera is one of the most studied slums in Africa, not only because it sits in the centre of the modern city, but also because Habitat, the United Nations’ agency for human settlements, is headquartered close by. Ban Ki-moon visited the settlement within a month of his selection as UN secretary-general.

Kibera is heavily polluted by garbage and contaminated with human and animal faeces, thanks to the open sewage system and the lack of sanitation and no regular supply of running water.

The dam water that people use is the root to cholera and typhoid. It is estimated that one-fifth of the 2.2 million Kenyans living with HIV/AIDS live in Kibera. Access to a cheap alcohol called Changaa, drugs and glue-sniffing has led to crime, rape and and unwanted pregnancies. Just 20% of Kibera has electricity. This place is the closest version of what you would call hell on earth. The children and youth here often ask “Why was I born here?”.

The government, UN-Habitat and a contingent of NGOs, charities and churches, have made brave attempts to lift these settlements out of squalor. On Sept 16, 2009, the Kenyan government started moving families out of Kibera as part of a mass relocation project, which is expected to take five years. However, more than 80 people – a mix of “landlords” and residents – have gone to court to fight the government from demolishing their shacks. If you had watched the science-fiction movie District 9, shot in South Africa, you will find many parallels to what is going on in Kibera. If you read our local newspapers you will find parallels to Kampung Buah Pala and other squatter re-settlement issues.

But there is hope and it comes in the form of a Mobile Movement. Here is the video that is self-explanatory on the initiative.

4. MALAYSIA: TWESTIVAL: My fourth story is closer to home. This is about the Twestival movement which is reaching hundreds of thousands of Twitter users across the world and here in Malaysia too. Twestival is an event run via Twitter and combination of the words Twitter + Festival. It started from an idea a group of friends had in Britain to do something for a charity – something real-world and meaningful from all their chatter and friendship in the online world. Twestivals allowed tweeters to meet and socialize in person over drinks, music and entertainment and tie the social event to a fundraising activity.

The first global Twestival
was held in Feb 12, 2009 across 200+ cities. It raised US$250,000 that went to non-profit charity:water. Charity:water builds wells in African countries and raises awareness about the serious issue of contaminated water in the developing world.

On Sept 12, 2009 there was a second global Twestival event, and participants could raise money for local charities of their choice. In Malaysia, the KL Twestival was organized in two weeks, via Twitter, SMS, Facebook and blogs and utilized the talents and financial support of the local Twittersphere to make this happen.

By rallying together, under short timescales, for a single aim on the same day, the KL Twestival was a small but significant success. There was entertainment, music and dance performances, an auction and participants left with goodie bags.

A number of sponsors and celebrities came in in short notice and every sign-up was announced on Twitter – so you could see it in real-time. The event raised RM11,000 and two free desktop PCs with broadband access which went to a deserving home for delinquents in Klang.

On Sunday, (Oct 18) the PCs were delivered to the home and a friend who helped organize it said the pastor of the house was so grateful for the money and PCs he hugged him.

The common grounds again: The Twestival participants were young or young-at-heart, self-motivated, armed with mobile devices and the power of social media.

This is Niki Cheong. He perhaps exemplifies the demographic we have been talking about all day today. He was a co-organizer of the event.

He is an assistant editor for The Star, the largest English daily in Malaysia, he writes a column called Bangsar Boy, he manages several reporters under him including a section called R.AGE, he is a blogger and manages his own personal website.

He also helps train the young teenage journalists who attend the B.R.A.Ts programme and teaches them journalism and multimedia skills. He dabbles in theater and has over 1,650 friends on Facebook, and 1,770 followers on Twitter. Niki has been involved in media activities for the last 15 years, and get this he just turned 30. In a sense, Niki is the kind of person we look to to bring change in this country.

Full disclosure — I met Niki through our training efforts. For the past three years we have been training journalists and media professionals in various industries on multimedia skills.

As former IT journalists ourselves, my partner Anita and I were shocked at the huge gap with those who had the skills and those who didn’t. So we designed and developed modules on how to use Google for research, how to edit audio and photos, how to conduct interviews via email, instant messaging and Skype, how to write for the web, and we extended the training to other companies on how to use social media, how to monitor your brand online and engage with your online constituents, how to fight negative feedback online or react to an incriminating video, how to do effective media relations and crisis communications in the online world.

We are still surprised that many companies, even public-listed companies still don’t get it. They put up walls and lock off YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, photo sites and blogs. But how will they firewall this – the mobilephone? These companies fail everyday to tap a golden resource – the very youths we spoke of in Iran, India, in Kenya and in small ways here in Malaysia.

5. MALAYSIA: CITIZEN JOURNALISM: My last story is about Malaysiakini, the independent news site that hits a milestone in its tenth year in Malaysia in November. Malaysiakini has been profitable for the last four years. Its pageviews on some days exceed that of The Star Online. It has successfully built a subscription model that works, and even advertisers that were previously terrified to advertise have come in.

Malaysiakini started an interesting project last year to train citizen journalists – people who were keen on reporting on the news they were witnessing. The course is short and intensive and covers all the tools to equip Malaysians with the know-how to be responsible citizen journalists.

These CJs submit videos every week and some are picked up and published by I would like to show you one example done by Jimmy Leow in Penang, of an uncompleted highway in Balik Pulau and the danger it poses.Remember this is done by someone who only recently learnt about scripting, handling videocams,, editing and putting a whole package together for a news site. Shortly after the video was posted, the agency responsible for the project re-started it.

Here in summary are what I hope you takeaway from these stories.
1. Everyone is the media.
2. We are no longer passive consumers, we are ACTIVE participants, creators, producers and organizers.
3. This change is fundamental, permanent and messy.
Live with it.

Slides and video: on Slideshare. A shortened version of this presentation was made at GoMobile Conference 2009 on Oct 20, 2009.


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