Using Mobile Phones for Citizen Media

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, July 27, 2011 to Tuesday, August 2, 2011
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary available

Thank you for joining New Tactics, MobileActive and other practitioners for an online dialogue on Using Mobile Phones for Citizen Media. Information is a powerful commodity for human rights defenders.  Receiving and sharing information is at the heart of human rights work.  Modern technology, such as the mobile phone, and the global distribution of the internet, provides new opportunities for citizens to actively participate in journalism.  The mobile phone is arguably the most accessible form of information communication technology and a popular tool for receiving and sharing information.

Human rights practitioners are finding innovative ways to utilize mobile phones to amplify the voices of communities around the world in order to collect and disseminate news and information.  In Namibia, readers are able to text in editorial comments that are then published in the Namibia print paper.  In Guatemala, radio listeners text in their comments that are then read on-air.  In India, mobile phones circumvent a radio news ban and allow people to both access news and record information.  These are just a few examples of how practitioners are using mobile phones to get and provide information and news from and to citizens.

With the growing use of mobile phones for citizen media comes new risks, challenges and opportunities.  This online dialogue is a space to discuss stories, tactics and resources for using mobile phones for citizen media, as well as a space to discuss mobile risk assessment and security. 

What is citizen media and why are mobile phones being used to do it?

Citizen media consists of many different platforms (social media, web, mobile phones), types (audio/video reports, SMS) and purposes (comments, suggestions and feedback, story tips, complete broadcasts). It brings to light stories which might not otherwise enter the public domain, and enables communities to contribute and participate in discussions which affect them. Mobile phones, thanks to their ubiquity (seeming to be everywhere at once), have played a major role in enabling citizens to send news reports, pictures via text message to radio stations to be shared on-air. In areas of limited and/or expensive internet access, mobile phones are often the best form of communication as many citizens, including rural residents, do own or have access to a mobile phone. Mobile phones also allow citizens to upload stories as they happen onto a social media site and then immediately delete the evidence to reduce the risk for one’s safety.

In the larger media context, citizen media, particularly mobile-based, may be best understood as a tool to support, enhance and improve traditional media (TV, radio, newspapers, etc.) and trustworthy professional journalists. As witnessed in Libya, citizen media can go a long way in supporting the spread of human rights in oppressive areas. Programs such as Al Jazeera integrate citizen content into their mainstream coverage - a great deal of the coverage of the Arab Spring in 2011 depended on this – while others share advice for area-specific issues such as agriculture or health.

How do you design citizen media?

When designing citizen media tactics, it is important to plan carefully and train and protect human rights practitioners in the field. The Global Press Institute (GPI) offers a distinguished array of specialty reporting seminars for citizen journalists, promoting responsible reporting methods and focus strategies that prevent inaccurate reporting.

Training and education on the use of mobile phones for citizen media is one important part of a successful citizen media strategy. Another is collecting and using of information, for which Tactical Tech, has developed a 50 minute film 10 Tactics for Turning Information into Action to serve as a resource for trainers to get participants thinking outside of the box. Teaching underrepresented communities how to use digital tools for different purposes has had remarkable results in empowering, engaging and mobilizing citizens. With similar results to community radio, citizen media is an easier, more personalized and often more effective tool of news sharing and connecting with audiences.

Two mobile tools used in citizen media are SMS hubs and short code. SMS hubs are interfaces for managing interactions with others via SMS. Examples include Frontline SMS, a simple, free and efficient software that allows a sender to send a message to large groups of people. A short code is a phone number but shorter and easier to remember. It is often done through a mobile operator and many radio stations have them. For example, after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the Red Cross had a short code (90999) that people could text to donate $10.

Share your stories. How are you using mobile phones for citizen media?

In Mali, rural residents are connected to Bamako, the capital, by SMS on Ségou Info Blog. Participants send an SMS to a local number which is retyped and published on the blog, however, photos require a different process. This method gets new bloggers used to creating information, expressing their concerns and needs, and raises awareness of the local populations on practices which are not favorable to them. A challenge of working in the rural areas is that these societies tend to be secretive about their cultures and traditions, something that is addressed by better informing these citizens of the benefits of participating and the impact of their SMS messages.

The Namibian, an independent newspaper in Namibia, gives its readers the ability to quickly respond to articles by texting in their comments. The text messages best representing the responses are published in the (print) newspaper, as well as on the Namibian’s web page. The program has been very popular, and has allowed many more Namibians to have their views expressed.. Challenges remain, including evaluating the legitimacy and accuracy of citizen media, claims by some Namibian government officials that the newspaper itself was writing the comments to criticize the government, and choosing the language in which to publish the comments.

In California, a software enabled people to capture instances of police misconduct at DUI checkpoints. After the evidence was posted online, a legal analysis was obtained, all receiving a lot of media attention. The result was a collaboration with legal groups to bring about a policy change in the state.

In Burma,  Outer Voices worked at the Thai/ Burma border documenting the elections from the perspective of the ethnic groups, and in the process, helped to fund the Karen groups who had contacts inside the ethnic areas, providing on going updates by mobile phone about election related human rights violations as they occurred. The Karen Information Center recorded, logged and translated the calls, and then gave them to journalists for first hand reporting. The process built a stronger internal network for the Karen groups who continue to use it in resisting attacks on villages. This is just one example of how mobile phones are being used to ensure transparency in election monitoring. It also shows the importance of engaging the media.

Freedom Fone is a tool that facilitates two way, phone based information services using interactive audio voice menus, voice messages, SMS and polls. It is user-friendly, inexpensive and does not require Internet access for users and callers alike. Equal Access in Cambodia is using Freedom Fone for a youth radio program to explore life skills, education and civic participation themes in an engaging and entertaining format while Centre for Economic Prosperity in Tanzania is preparing to use Freedom Fone to monitor corruption, particularly of the traffic department stopping and bribing truck drivers in Tanzania. In Zimbabwe, Kubatana, a human rights network has combined Freedom Fone with SMS and email to get information out to subscribers, such as a Q & A information sharing on the new constitution with callers.

What are the risks, challenges and opportunities to be considered?

Risks and Opportunities: When using mobile phones for citizen media, it can be highly risky for citizens to take pictures and videos and involves ethical decision-making. Regarding security, there are tactics for protecting one’s phone and the media (and other information) on it.  Tactical Tech too has published “top tips” on security when using a mobile (remaining aware of one’s surroundings, noting one’s mobile serial number in case of confiscation, changing numbers and phones often, disabling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, among others). Tactical Tech has also developed the Security-in-a-box toolkit in which there is a chapter on How to use mobile phones as securely as possible meant to help the reader understand why communication and storing data on mobile phones is not secure and how to address such issues.

Challenges and Opportunities: Getting citizen media to mainstream news organizations as it happens and engaging the media in human rights. Lessons can be learnt from the successful media campaign of Maher Arar and the rendition and torture that he was subjected to in 2002.  Only after an intense media campaign was Maher Arar finally brought back to Canada, despite aggressive lobbying against his return from security agencies. In South Korea, the Korean Women Workers Associations United (KWWAU) engaged the media to build support for minimum wage reform. With media interest, the campaign was able to expand, bring in new supporters, and provide the organization with leverage in their negotiation and lobbying efforts.

It is important to consider different types of censorship because there are also very serious risks in using mobile networks to avoid governmental influence.  There are examples of news organizations migrating to broadcasting primarily through online or SMS to circumvent soft censorship, but with varied results. In some cases, the censoring party may reduce interference and, in others it may resort to violence.  Rarely does shifting formats resolve the tension between the parties. There are also other ways that governments and/or other third parties can manipulate mobile network operators to compromise user safety: because most mobile networks operators collect and maintain enormous amounts of information about their users, if it is compromised it can be used to locate, prosecute, or, even worse, harm, people using their mobile phones, making basic SMS not a good tool to use to avoid censorship because of the increased risk of discovery and harm.

In some situations where there is censorship of the news media SMS has proved invaluable in getting information out. In Zimbabwe the shortwave radio station SW Radio Africa started sending out news headlines via SMS when their signal was jammed by the authorities. However, even shortwave radio can be jammed.  When this happens, SW Radio Africa has used mobile phones to text out news headlines to its audience.  Mobile phones, in this way, can provide a great opportunity to get information out to citizens who are unable to access uncensored news. However, there is always the risk of shutdown of mobile service providers by the government as was seen in Egypt, as well as instances of governments using mobile phones as a tool for spreading propaganda, showing that the same tools can be used by both sides and to spread both positive and negative messages.  Another challenge in this arena that is the mandatory registration of SIM cards with official ID or passport. While more and more countries are requiring this, there often exists a grey market for SIM cards

Finally, a challenge that is common among many citizen media programs is the cost accrued by collecting and/or sending SMS messages. However, it is still much cheaper for many citizens than any other form of communication. Also, it is more predictable, and thus preferable, than calling a radio program, for example. And for radio programs, text message may prove to be a good advertising opportunity.

Share your resources and tools for practitioners

1. What is citizen media and why are mobile phones being used to do it?

2. How do you design citizen media?

3. Share your stories. How are you using mobile phones for citizen media?

4. What are the risks, challenges and opportunities to be considered?

5. Resources and tools for practitioners

Conversation Leaders

melissaulbricht's picture
Melissa Ulbricht
becky's picture
Becky Hurwitz
MIT Center for Civic Media
amyodonnell's picture
Amy O'Donnell
OpenWatch's picture
Rich Jones
Darren Bunton's picture
Darren Bunton
Eway Entertainment & Foundation
samdupont's picture
Sam duPont
Patita's picture
Patita Tingoi
seanmartinmcdonald's picture
Sean McDonald
Frontline SMS
boukarykonate's picture
Boukary Konaté
Upenyu_Makoni's picture
Upenyu Makoni-Muchemwa
Kubatana Trust
mongster's picture
Mong Palatino
risingvoices's picture
Eddie Avila
Rising Voices
AlixTrot's picture
the engine room
Susannah Vila's picture
Susannah Vila
the engine room