New Media Could Reweave Iraq’s Social Fabric - 09.29.2009

As most of you know, my focus has been on Iraq for quite some time. Increasingly it has also drifted into how to further leverage “new media” strategies and “web 2.0″ technologies to increase our reach with a shrinking budget, among other difficulties.

Although a State Department trip earlier this year was sold to the media as a trip where new media experts “will provide conceptual input as well as ideas on how new technologies can be used to build local capacity, foster greater transparency and accountability, build upon anti-corruption efforts, promote critical thinking in the classroom, scale-up civil society, and further empower local entities and individuals by providing the tools for network building.”

The media’s breathless excitement in covering this interesting new take on the Iraq conflict failed to mention how Iraqis such as Salam Pax, Raed Jarrar, and “Riverbend” to name a few began using “new media” to tell their stories from the beginning of the conflict in Iraq.

More than two years ago we heard another innovative story about Iraqis utilizing Google Maps to share information about checkpoints and sectarian violence around Baghdad. Although many Iraqis have adopted and adapted digital media tools to fit their special needs, there are still many who would benefit from learning more about new media.

In particular journalists in Iraq, as in many other countries, despite the limitations of technology, internet access, and even basic infrastructure in some cases(such as Iraq!) there are many ways new media could be utilized to improve their reach.

Unfortunately language is a major limitation for promoting stories from the Middle East internationally. Most blogs in English have tended to reflect a small subset of the Iraqi populace, typically the wealthy and educated. News sites that are produced in English by Iraqis, typically do not utilize RSS much less other new media opportunities available to them.

By integrating technologies that emphasize open distribution, such as YouTube or where high-quality videos can be distributed easily and embedded in other websites, agencies producing video content could dramatically broaden their visibility. There are no doubt risks involved, including potentially economic loss by opening access to their content. The enthusiasts and supporters of new media encourage transparency and openness as measures that grow the audience and increase visibility, thus agencies may be able to bring in greater revenue from advertising and sponsorship.

Journalists that produce audio content are coming closer and closer to a world where the convergence of technology, rather than leading to the death of radio, may be extending and encouraging the survival of this niche market. With only a mobile phone a journalist, or a “citizen journalist” who witnesses a bombing, a killing, or even street crime can make a short phone call and create an audio podcast. In fact, with this method they can report on the event live via audio updates posted to the web to an audience only limited by distribution, presence, and interest.

Using the same phone the said individual could conceivably take photos to provide realtime images from the scene. None of this is possible without also opening up the architecture of the distribution point itself. Today, with only a phone, Iraqis could be publishing reports that in 2006 and 2007 might have greatly reduced instances of sectarian violence, by reporting via SMS, MMS, audio, or email the location of a checkpoint or occupation of empty houses by militia elements.

Although widespread sectarian violence has dissipated for the moment, new media still has a place in Iraq. by increasing the participation of the citizenry in the media. This and expanding the reach and depth of coverage produced by Iraqi journalists can help restore bonds and rebuild communities. Transparency provides more than just visibility and access to news. Effective use of transparency and access can produce a wider faith in the strength of the social system and, potentially, the faith citizens have in their government to provide for their needs.

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