Creating Technology for Social Change

One Year after Mubarak: Wadah Khanfar on Networks, Journalism, and Democracy

Do social networks inherently support democratic values, in contrast with ideology-bound political institutions?

At the MIT Media Lab Friday, former Al Jazeera Director General Wadah Khanfar talked about what it took for the news company to reimagine itself and listen to networks during the Arab Spring. He was joined by Mohamed Nanabhay, head of New Media at Al Jazeera, who discussed their new challenge of shifting media coverage from the spectacle of protest to the politics of building a new society. [Update: a video of the talk has been posted to the Media Lab blog]


The evening, co-hosted by an all-star group of media organisations, was faciliated by my supervisor Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, and by Media Lab director Joi Ito.

Wadah Khanfar is one of the people most responsible for changing the international news landscape in the last ten years. Starting as a commentator on Al Jazeera in the late 90s, he reported from the front lines of conflict as bureau chief and correspondent in Kabul, bureau chief in Baghdad, and eventually the Director General of Al Jazeera in 2006 (See Khanfar’s TED Talk on the Arab Spring).

When their their equipment was siezed and their journalists were imprisoned in Egypt and elsewhere, Al Jazeera incorporated reports from social media in their journalism, amplifying people’s voices to provide timely news despite state censorship. Steered by Khanfar, Al Jazeera’s ability to cover emerging news has made them a top player in international media. (Ethan has written a concise overview of the role of Al Jazeera in the Arab Spring

How Citizen Journalism trumped Investigative Reporting in the Arab Spring

The Tahrir square protests on the 25th of January took everyone by surprise, including Al Jazeera. At the time, they were focusing on a completely different story, a months-long investigation in to the leaked Palestine Papers which featured insider revelations on Middle Eastern peace talks. Al Jazeera expected the Palestine Papers to be a crown jewel of accountability journalism. But soon after they published the leaks, Mohamed Nanabhay noticed a sharp rise in the online readership stats for Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Tahrir protests. Soon Tahrir was commanding more than ten times the traffic of everything else. They only expected 500 or 5,000 people to show up on Tahrir Square. 50,000 people showed up on the first day. Mohamed shifted the site in realtime to focus on Tahrir instead.

To illustrate why social media took everyone by surprise, Wadah described the sloppy state of authoritarian governments and the bunkered mentality of activists before Tahrir. In 2011, Al Jazeera was expecting the big story to involve transfer of power between authoritarian leaders and their successors in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. It was going to be an interesting year, but certainly not a revolutionary one. According to Khanfar, many other years had disappointed them: the end of the Cold War, democratic movements in 2001, the War on Terror, and the Iraq War. All of them led to more oppression. Why would 2011 be any different?

Khanfar was critical of the role which foreign governments, particularly the United States, had played to promote oppression before 2011. He pointed to US practices during the War on Terror, especially the practice of extraordinary rendition, in which the United States transferred detainees to countries where they could be tortured. Arab governments took advantage of this to crack down on opposition, putting activists in jail and threatening the public sphere with an environment of fear.

The war in Iraq was another landmark in the Arab world’s story of humiliation, according to Khanfar. Many activists looked at Iraq, counted the cost, and decided that regime change isn’t worth having a civil war. Wadah believes that the war in Iraq actually delayed the Arab Spring by giving a bad example of how governments can change.

By the end of 2010, the opposition was trying to “enhance the situation” rather than change it. Activists tried to reduce the torture count, reduce the number of people in jail, or settle for humiliation rather than death. It was a game defined by the oppressive governments rather than positive political ideals. At the same time, governments in Egypt and Tunisia were rotting from within. Having begun in popular movements, they retreated to the inefficient structures of hereditary power. No one, it seemed, had the imagination, capacity, or ideals to create change.

Wadah believes that social networks sidestepped this fear and lack of imagination. Connected internationally, they drew inspiration from democratic values abroad. They also avoided the ideological pigeonholes which divide and weaken traditional political organisations. Online, Khanfar argued, one’s parents or institutional position matters much less than your ability to say things that everyone likes. The more you give to the network, the more you are seen. Your family background matters much less than genuine participation. So when people online demanded freedom and democracy, they could overcome activists’ historical pessimism and ideological differences with positive values.

How do you cover a story like this, involving so many thousands of people? It’s impossible for 3 or 4 reporters. Al Jazeera was finding themselves overwhelmed with material from people in Tahrir Square coming in over social media. Formerly the gatekeeper, they simply couldn’t break news anymore–participants could post things to twitter much faster than Al Jazeera could filter, authenticate, and publish. How to respond became a huge debate at Al Jazeera. Should they play the role of slow, authoritative news from professional journalists? Or should they amplify the firehose throughout Arab television and the world? This internal debate was settled when the Egyptian government confistated Al Jazeera’s cameras and kicked their reporters out of the country. That’s the point when Al Jazeera decided to draw all their material from social media.

Although some in journalism see citizen media as a threat, Khanfar called this “one of the most beautiful moments of journalism… where a new ecosystem of journalism emerged.” Four journalists became four thousand, in a media event which was both magnificent and beautiful. Cooperation with social networks benefitted both groups. Protesters fed media to Al Jazeera, who amplified their voices throughout the Arab world, which motivated more people to join the protests.

Khanfar believes that the future of journalism depends on how we handle the relationship between traditional media and social networks. He thinks we’re on the verge of a people-centered age of journalism, one which is free from the manipulation of government. Whenever journalists see themselves as an elite, they distance themselves from the public and open themselves up to manipulation by government. Social Media, according to Khanfar, keeps journalists close to the public.

Later in the evening, Mohamed agreed. Content used to come from media gatekeepers who exercised professional judgment. Citizen journalists create content because they love to do it, and some of them share journalistic values. The Arab Spring and Occupy illustrate a new ecosystem in which professionals aren’t just taking media from citizens, but citizens are full producers themselves. Citizens and journalists can’t exist independently anymore.

Mohamed also pointed to a change in what we think of as authentic media. He shared stats from the most viewed videos of the Egyptian revolution. 65% of those videos were taken on mobile phones. Only 25% were professionally produced. Shaky cellphone footage reflects a moment in powerful ways that professional production values simply cannot achieve.

Stepping Towards Democracy

The story isn’t over. Wadah reminded us that people are losing their lives on a daily basis in Syria. Violence is continuing to erupt in Tahrir Square. But the people have chosen to proceed toward democracy and freedom. Wadah argues that it’s worth it. When we give up on freedom, we become a threat to our children and the future of the world.

Will the end result be democracy? Wadah encouraged us to look beyond sound bites and momentary concerns to think about the overall trend towards freedom. Other nations might not always like the outcome of democracy but should let people learn to become great democrats and establish a proper culture of governance. We should embrace democracy in other societies rather than become pessimists. Khanfar thinks that the international community has a great opportunity to correct historical mistakes by showing their support.

Discussion: What’s the Future of the Arab Spring?

Ethan Zuckerman offered a skeptical view of the future of the Arab Spring to counterbalance Wadah and Mohamed’s optimism. He referred to Mohamed’s ideas on the importance of spectacle towards aligning opposition politics with the interests of media companies. Perhaps Tahrir worked because the movement was willing to create that spectacle, initiating a feedback loop among Al Jazeera and audience interest. This spectacle requires an opponent. It was easy to be against Mubarak, the Egyptian police, and Ben Ali. But now, the tough question that people are facing is whether it’s possible to use these same tools to get different people together around a common goal, not of ousting power, but building a new form of power.

Ethan pointed to the Iranian revolution, where a genuine people-centered movement was resisting a genuinely oppressive regime propped up by the West. But the output was a regime that many Iranians would now protest. In 2012, Ethan doesn’t think any of us have any idea where things are going to go. He wondered if any of these media dynamics going to help us build something positive rather than just a counter-power.

Wadah argued that the situation is fundamentally different from the past. Previous popular movements worked in a constrained environment shaped by the Cold War. This time, international society is not opposed to popular movements. Secondly, the leaders of what he calls Muslim Democrats rather than Islamists aren’t drawing from previous models of democracy. No one expects to implement a system based on Muhammad’s 7th century model. The Iranian model of religious authority is too attached to Shia concepts of the state which are incompatible with Sunni thinking. Nobody wants to replicate the Taliban. Some people look towards Turkey, a secular democratic state with a prosperous economy. What everyone shares, according to Khanfar, is a commitment to universal values of democracy.

Mohamed agreed that a different media process will be needed to build something positive. Mass media can cover a big protest, but it can’t cover a minor revision in a clause of a constitution. Social media for constructive democracy requires something other than spectacle. It requires persistent activity by passionate people on the long tail of media that will never reach an international audience. Mohamed places great hope in citizen media as persistent and tenacious; the long tail never lets go.

According to Mohamed, it’s this horizontal conversation and access to information that makes current movements different from previous ones. He hopes that as this journey towards democracy starts, people will get access to information, not only from governments, but also from each other. If people have more information, they can make better decisions. If people can share experiences and learn from each other, the net gain is going to be positive and not negative.

At this point, Joi pointed out that journalism is only one part of the building process. Directing our attention to Iceland’s crowdsourced constitution. Joi pointed out that the cost of collaboration and activism have gone to nearly zero. It’s now possible to call together a global conversation at low cost, in person or online. This new organising capacity is another reason to be hopeful. The Internet can enable and highlight courage and global solidarity. When the Japanese Tsunami hit, Libyans were sending tweets of encouragement. Likewise the team at SafeCast have been motivated to apply what they learned at Fukishima to other disaster.

Ethan then asked: Is this moment going to be possible again? Let’s talk about how access to information changes societies. We see a combination of the power of participatory media–people using devices to create media–and the broadcast media curating and amplifying participatory media. In this model, information comes from citizens and finds its way to broadcast media. The flipside is that governments have figured this out. We we now see in Syria a much greater degree of control over media.

Crackdowns will not prevent people from sharing media, Mohamed argued. He pointed us to Syria, where the government is trying to map out networks and shut down facebook activism. But the cost of protesting is high already. Filming and distribution is incremental risk.

Ethan asked, “Wadah, why are you no longer at Al Jazeera?”

To figure out how we can combine the power of networks with the values of institutions to create democracies, Khanfar responded. In the past, he argued, youth were not given a place in the democratic process. This is partly because flat, creative, dynamic social networks have a different model from the processes of hierarchical organisations. Social networks are necessary in some cases to create change, and organisations are necessary to get the work done.

Wadah asked us: In Egypt, people are going to write a constitution, and then the constitution will be put up to a referendum. Do you think this is the right approach to writing a constitution? He spoke briefly about the Sharq Forum, an independent networked public sphere of politicians, social activists, business people, and youth leaders. Sharq is trying to build consensus within the Arab world while also relating to the international community. At Al Jazeera, Ethan remarked, Wadah led an institution to listen to networks. At the Shaq Forum, he is building a network that talks to institutions.

Questions: The Role of Al Jazeera in Politics

During the question period, audience members and people on Twitter questioned Al Jazeera’s stance and role in politics.

Mohamed pitched Al Jazeera as a high energy, cosmopolitan newsroom. “We look at what’s important to people in their communities and reflect that back the things that are happening elswhere in the world,” he said. Globalisation and international interdependence are growing, so we increasingly need international news to develop shared values and shared awareness.

Someone from the audience noted that Al Jazeera is funded by Qatar, which has gone from a neutral country to a country calling for military intervention in Syria. How has Qatar’s agenda impacted Al Jazeera?

Khanfar, who could only speak for his time at Al Jazeera, responded that funding from Qatar involved a convenient relationship between a news organisation that needed funding with independence, with a country that wanted greater international branding. It is a very pragmatic relationship.

Mohamed responded that he has never had a call to take down or change a story. He also argued that newsroom diversity is a safeguard. From a pragmatic point, if you have 45 nationalities in the newsroom, there’s no way to create a conspiracy.

Ethan asked, Is it fair criticism that Jazeera is sometimes not able to report effectively on Qatar than if were reporting from another country? Mohamed responded that Al Jazeera covers items of global significance in Qatar. When someone from the audience questioned whether Al Jazeera had effectively covered protests in the country, Khanfar responded that no protesters showed up to the site he personally visited, and that Al Jazeera in his time never failed to cover a genuine Qatar story.

Al Jazeera’s Reporting on Protests in Bahrain

An audience member noted that some people criticize Al Jazeera for not giving protests in Bahrain the same coverage as it gave other countries, which meant that their voices were not amplified and the revolution was unsuccessful.

That’s true, Wadah said. He qualified this by saying that what happened in Bahrain was a protest or uprising but not a revolution. He suggested that the revolution was unsuccessful not because Al Jazeera didn’t cover it, but because the movement was split among sectarian divides.

Ethan pressed further, pointing out that Khanfar had a real decision to make as an editor: “Do you feel Jazeera could have had a different role? Do you have any regrets?” he asked.

A news company can only cover so much, Wadah said. With five revolutions going on at the same time, he had to prioritise. Journalism isn’t science. At the end of the day, a group of people sitting in a room have to exercise editorial judgement. That boils down to editors thinking hard about what events are precious enough to share with an audience that needs to know. He drew our attention to a code of conduct which he calls, “The Al Jazeera Spirit.” Al Jazeera’s mission is to provide people with accurate reporting, and to stand for freedom, democracy, and human rights.

Erhardt Graeff asked: in the shift from protest to governance, what should the role of Al Jazeera be?

Although Mohamed had earlier suggested that mainstream media would have a limited role in contrast with social media, he offered two possibilities for the future. Firstly, mainstream media still shapes public attention. During the revolutions, the news agenda was driven by spectacle. If mainstream media has a role to play in governance, it must succeed at focusing attention on less spectacular events. This may well require more investigative reporting, as well as powerful algorithms and big data to support editorial decisions.