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State-funded, multilingual international broadcasters, such as BBC World Service, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle and France 24 once enjoyed a privileged position in the Middle East. They now operate in an intensely competitive media arena. As news organisations with a more or less overt diplomatic function, they face an uncertain and volatile geopolitical environment and unprecedented funding, technological and editorial challenges. In order to survive in the digital age, they have to develop new ways of engaging Arabic-speaking audiences through social media. In so doing they employ real-time monitoring methods to gauge user engagement, make editorial choices, evaluate their success, create new projects and satisfy their audiences, and their funders and political masters.
The adoption of social media in the newsroom comes with great expectations as well as high risks, especially with regards to the credibility, authority, reputation and trustworthiness of long established international public service news organisations. This article examines the possibilities and limitations of social media as a tool for broadcasters and researchers. It analyses the differences that can be observed between the rhetoric and reality of social media use, and evaluates whether social media can facilitate, as the BBC hopes, a ‘global conversation’ in which informed democratic debate takes place. These issues are examined through the prism of an innovative experiment in participatory production that tested the boundaries of conventional BBC production. G710 (hereafter G710), a weekly, political debate series, was co-created by BBC Arabic and self-appointed citizen producers using social media in the Spring of 2010. It was broadcast on satellite TV across the Middle East and the Arabic-speaking world at 7:10pm Greenwich Mean Time and foreshadowed, albeit in microcosm, some of the network and discursive features of the Arab Spring 2011. However, after only six weeks, G710 was suddenly pulled. Why? Had the boundaries of conventional and/or acceptable BBC journalistic practice been pushed too far? Was it a question mainly of resources, politics, personalities, or some combination of all of these factors?
G710 presents an intriguing opportunity to investigate the tensions between the democratic potential of social media and the practical and more fundamental problems involved in employing social media as a platform for widening participation and promoting democratic debate by international broadcasters. In particular, the article underscores the tricky trade-offs between empowering and monitoring users, creative innovation and traditional journalism, transparency and editorial control, immediacy and predictability, and commercial imperatives versus public service values.
The analysis presented here is based on a collaborative ethnography of the experiment from conception to termination. A multi-disciplinary team of academic researchers was granted full access to production processes and to the BBC’s real-time media monitoring datai. The article addresses issues at the heart of ‘the social life of methods’ – ways of doing and knowing that are embedded in institutional contexts and social relations, and which in turn, shape those contexts and relations. In the first part of the article, the case study is set in the context of relevant academic literature and debates about participatory production and digital democracy. Second, the BBC Arabic Service is situated in its political, economic and policy context – specifically its relationship with its funders, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the public diplomacy aspirations that are embedded in the concept of the ‘global conversation’, and the BBC World Service’s remit as a public service broadcaster. The third part of the article addresses issues of methods and the challenges of digital data. The fourth part explains how the participatory model of production worked in practice, while the fifth part highlights the relevance of discourses on the virtual or Iftiradi in the Arab media sphere relating to G710. Finally, the article examines practices of real-time media monitoring in relation to ethical questions, ending with some reflections on how this experiment resonates with the Arab Spring 2011. It will be argued that social media have yet to fulfil the much hyped aspirations around digital democracy. Nevertheless we have much to learn from failed experiments like G710 which test the boundaries, helping us better to understand the obstacles to informed digital debate.
Participatory production: empowerment and surveillanceParticipatory production represents a new trend in broadcasting but the proliferation of terms used to describe such developments has tended to obscure our understanding of their significance. Whether we refer to ‘produser-led’ or ‘peer-to-peer’ production, ‘user-generated content’ or ‘citizen journalism’ or ‘citizen producers’, the underlying principles of open participation, democratic decision-making, fluid heterarchy and ad hoc meritocracy are usually the same.
Bruns, for example, uses the term produsage to signal the dual status of users as producers, arguing that the process itself is ‘built on the affordances of the techno-social framework of the networked environment … especially the harnessing of user communities that is made possible by their networking through many-to-many communications media’. Benkler and Nissenbaum argue that peer-to-peer production, as a socio-technical system, has the potential to foster moral and political virtues – democracy, social justice, autonomy. Allen (2009) emphasises the way citizen journalism is associated with crises and catastrophes which compel people to bear witness and articulate their voice in the fight for democracy and dignity in many parts of the world. Uses of social media by citizen journalists, in particular, were instrumental in the organisation of the uprisings during the Arab Spring. These new trends in production are part of what Jenkins (2006) refers to as convergence culture – an unstable cultural process which catalyses a series of unpredictable interactions between different media systems and users (radio, television and online) capable of generating new forms of participatory culture and social and political organisation. Participation in politics depends on media and the digital public sphere affords new possibilities for democratic communication.
In much of the relevant literature, it would seem that participatory production is almost inevitably a positive development. But terms like citizen journalism and participatory journalism production are highly contested notions that encompass diverse practices across multiple technologies, genres, and formats. An emphasis on the empowering and transformative opportunities, welcome as that may be, may serve to mask the inequalities, exclusions, silencing and surveillance qualities of digitally networked initiatives for as ‘power moves with the speed of electronic signals in the fluidity of liquid modernity, transparency is simultaneously increased for some and decreased for others. If social media are used by citizen producers for their own purposes, how do corporations and governments respond when those purposes oppose their interests? What happens when social media trails are used to track, trap and crack down on protesters? Clearly social media projects are good at creating networks with weak ties, expanding participation and challenging power in the short term, but it remains to be seen if they have the power to effect enduring change.
In citizen producer projects like G710 users volunteer their services according to their personal skills, interests, and knowledge in an often intense social and learning experience to create a common object or property. They usually permit non-commercial use and adaptation of their intellectual property, have the hope of being rewarded with status and social capital, and may be equipped with media skills, training and experience to be added to the resume. But participatory production requires certain preconditions to succeed, including egalitarian forms of decision-making and social relations. If these are not present then there is a high risk of participants being exploited without financial reward. And there are many other problems associated with such projects such as the accidental or deliberate introduction of errors, limited knowledge and poor quality content and production values. Diversity in the online community may be lacking, leading to ‘group think’. Internal disagreements may flare and the community may collapse if the moderation skills needed for effective conflict resolution are absent. Hierarchies and power relations online tend to mimic and reproduce those operating offline. And it is important to understand the structural as well as the processual features of participatory production.
Benkler and Nissenbaum (2006) identify three structural properties inherent in the objects of peer-to-peer production. First, they must be modular – consist in individual components which can be independently developed so that individuals with varying competencies can contribute at different times. Second they must be granular – the modules need to be fine-grained so that they require little time, effort or motivation and can easily be aggregated. Third, they must permit low-cost integration of modules into the end product. In other words, they must be cheap. The drawing of the G710 concept by its creator Hosam Soakkari Head, of the BBC’s Arabic Service at the time, clearly captures the attributes of modularity and granularity in visual form – a point to which we will return. The focus on granularity is also a feature of new corporate data sources and the search for particularistic identifiers (demographic or socio-spatial) by corporations, states and marketing firms to identify niche populations for the purpose of generating new markets and/or for surveillance. Such new digital data sources, though produced in relation to ‘whole populations’, drive a concern with the microscopic as ‘amalgamations of databases can allow ever more granular, unique specification… which generates a politics of mash-ups, compilations, and data assemblages’. These new ‘data assemblages’ are often represented as visualisations of spatial networks and mobilities with few or no geographic or 4 territorial or human reference points, depicting transactions and connections, and networks of networks. Visualisations of digital data may privilege non-humanist approaches to social science but they do require human interpretation (as is evident in the webometric diagrams in the appendix).
Digital transactions and projects, and the automated data they generate, work in a mutually constitutive relationship. They also operate within established institutional contexts, in which old and new ways of knowing and doing are juxtaposed. Citizen journalism and social media pose major challenges to established principles and practices of journalism. The informal rhetorical style of user-generated content and social media has to be reconciled with ‘factuality’ and being ‘on message’. Further problems surround the authority and credibility of traditional channels and formats when user generated content is introduced. Working in real-time requires rapid responses based on real-time media monitoring data but overreliance on such data stifles creativity while ignoring it may result in a failure to respond to the information needs and interests of audiences and a drop in market share. Problems of editorial control, gate-keeping, gate-watching, moderation, freedom of expression, and the (self-) regulation of online communities proliferate.
Integrating online media with radio and television re-draws hierarchies and roles in news organisations, shifting the boundaries between producers and consumers, and blurring definitions between audiences as users, fans, citizens and publics. Terms change as fast as strategies in international broadcasting. Incorporating ‘citizen producers’ in social media experiments such as G710 might have been the strategy in 2010 but by 2011, it disappeared from the lexicon of the BBC’s corporate strategy as senior management recoiled at the idea that BBC professionalism and impartiality might be undermined by amateurs. The more neutral term, user generated content, became current. Moreover, a project may be open to all but the result may not be inclusive. Projects in like G710 with an overtly political thrust are particularly vulnerable to being hijacked by saboteurs of extreme ideological persuasion or pranksters. So it is important not to presume outcomes but to understand the structural qualities of participatory production, the organisational dynamics and political factors that constrain such experiments and assess theory through empirical case studies, such as this.
G710 was conceived by Hosam Sokkari, former Head of the BBC Arabic Services (2001-10). Arabic is currently one of the 27 foreign language services in which the BBC World Service broadcasts. BBC Arabic became a tri-platform service (radio, TV and online) in 2007 after the controversial closure of ten, mainly eastern European, language services released the resources required to set up the television station. The resources for BBC Arabic TV remain very limited (£22. 5m operating expenditure in 2010-11) compared with its key competitors in the region, Al Jazeera and Al Arabya, but generous when compared with the BBC’s other foreign language services (The entire African Service’s operating expenditure 2010-11 was only £11. 9m).
The launch of BBC Arabic TV was accompanied by great expectations as both a business and a diplomatic proposition in a post 9/11 world (Hill and Ashfaer, 2010; el Issawi and Baumann, 2010). Sokkari described his vision of BBC Arabic TV as that 5 of ‘piercing the blood-brain barrier that exists between the Anglo and Arab mediaspheres and facilitating an increased flow of high quality, impartial news and debate from the UK to the Middle East and vice versa. ’
The brand image for G7:10, designed by Sokkari, illustrates his self-declared preoccupation with brain chemistry and his intention of re-wiring habitual responses to news about the world. His cartoon face is embedded in the image and suggests that G710 is his brainchild and that he is the brain behind it. However, his vision proved rather ambitious given the highly competitive market in which BBC Arabic operates, the hegemony of Al Jazeera in the region, and inherently sceptical Arabic audiences. Since its advent as the BBC’s first overseas foreign language service in 1938, it has always had to battle with pervasive regional perceptions of its radio operations as an instrument of British foreign policy.
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