28 Mar 2011

Gongo la Mboto revisited: social media and redio mbao

To date, this blog's most read post, by a pretty wide margin, is our analysis of how traditional Tanzanian media reported the Gongo la Mboto explosions in February. There we used Twitter to piece together an assessment of traditional media's performance in reporting the tragedy.

Since that was posted, at least three other blogs have also used Gongo la Mboto as a case study of the media in Tanzania - specifically Vijana FM, Global Voices and a more academic analysis from Malmo University's Communication for Development Portal. Each has something valuable to offer, but as SwahiliStreet has rightly pointed out in comments on the Daraja and VijanaFM posts, none (ours included) have really got to grips with one big challenge of social media - accuracy and reliability.

This was evident on the night of the explosions, with some Facebook posts and tweets that proved to be wildly inaccurate. It is not easy to distinguish fact from rumour on such platforms, as evidenced by AfterAfrica's plea that tweets on the #bombsindar incident should state their source.

Jamii Forums has similarly faced accusations of inaccuracy on many occasions, much of which misunderstands Jamii Forums' approach and role. As a citizens' media discussion platform, their focus is much more on providing space for people to express their opinions than on producing reliable original reporting.

The same can be said for Twitter and Facebook. The potential for these spaces to be used for "citizen journalism" is there, most obviously so in situations like the Gongo la Mboto explosions when being on the ground really makes a difference. But with a few exceptions, most of their use on that occasion and more generally is for sharing opinions and links to interesting content.

The Malmo University article mentioned above makes a link between social media and "pavement radio" (or in Tanzanian terms, redio mbao, literally "wooden radio"). They argue that social media can link distant communities, such as the Tanzanian diaspora, into the street level redio mbao networks - "globalising the pavement", as they put it. Making the link turns social media into an extension of the street, a very reasonable conclusion.

"Globalising the pavement" is just globalising gossip?
But this also highlights even further the vulnerability of social media to charges of unreliability - the word on the street is notoriously untrustworthy. Think of all the "news" spread in bars, churches, marketplaces and bus stands, and ask yourself how much of it is really true. Recall the children's game, Chinese Whispers, in which a secret is passed from one person to another and becomes gradually but completely unrecognisable. Even an accurate piece of information, once it has been heard, reinterpreted and retold two or three times, bears little resemblance to the original. If it's then posted on Twitter in its distorted form, how much can it be relied on?

Regular readers of this blog will know that Daraja sees a lot of potential in social media. But can we, or anyone else, expect Facebook, Twitter and Jamii Forums, etc. to become anything more than opinion and link sharing (which are very valuable uses) and have any role in creating original reporting that has a reliable claim to accuracy?

Bloggers excessively link to other sources to back up their claims to compensate for their lack of credibility in comparison to traditional media with its fact checking and editorial processes (e.g. see here). And over time, individual bloggers (and tweeters, etc.) gain a reputation for being trustworthy. Bloggers also did a decent job documenting Gongo la Mboto, particularly over the few days immediately after the explosions.

But with the exception of a few notable blogs, citizen reporting on Tanzanian social media looks up to now like little more than a new space for redio mbao to colonise. It will therefore be filled with rumours that are usually untrue, invidious gossip about people's sexual, spiritual or business practices, smear campaigns and political intrigue spread with political motives, all mixed up alongside and largely indistinguishable from rare and precious snippets of truth.

So what's the way out? I don't have a complete answer, only a couple of starting points.

First, bloggers' transparent linking is an idea that can be extended to other platforms. Tell the world (or if possible show us) what your source is? Pictures and videos posted on Facebook and YouTube or linked on Twitter are much more reliable than simple text. If it must be text, find room in the 140 characters to tell people where you got the information.

Second, it would be great if some kind of reputation / credibility system could be developed as well, like the eBay feedback score system that allow buyers and sellers to know who they can trust. Over time, based on the opinions of other users, a Facebook profile or Twitter account would earn a positive or negative score for reliability. I've no idea how that would work across Facebook, Twitter, blogs and forums, but I hope someone somewhere with more technical expertise than me is working on it.

Beyond that, I'm stuck. But if we want social media to be anything more than opinionating and idle gossip and to become something like citizens' media, we need to find a solution. Otherwise, in the words of a media expert I spoke to recently, citizens' media will go the way of citizens' dentistry.