Saturday, May 23, 2009

NETWORKING: Taking Twitter activism to Tbilisi? (

Next weekend I'll be doing some training for journalists and NGOs in Tbilisi alongside Kevin Anderson (blogs editor for Our mission:
To popularize and legitimize new media in Georgia for both journalism and civic activism purposes
To fill the niches that are currently unfilled by both mainstream media and current bloggers
To create at least one showcase local project - defined by the local audience/blogosphere and designed by the local participants
We've only got two days to achieve all this(!) and I don't want to parachute in with irrelevant training. I've posted below about the background and opportunities and I'd be happy to get any tips here or off-list.

The time is ripe?
According to the project brief "The time appears ripe for new media projects in Georgia, as the situation with the mainstream media continues to deteriorate. Throughout the region, blogs are underdeveloped - even as Internet usage continues to rise - and knowledge of worldwide trends regarding citizen media is largely missing. Few blogs can be characterized as locally driven and influential, as members of the Diaspora or other Caucasus-watchers operate the majority from abroad".

Decreasing media freedom
Freedom of the media in Georgia is on a downward trend. "Significant problems still remain with press freedom advocates pointing to murky media ownership structures, oppressive Internet policies, restricted information access, harassment of journalists, self-censorship, and the cozy interdependence of the state authorities and media outlets...The media in Georgia are
relatively free when compared to neighboring countries; however, international organizations have noted the authorities’ creeping control - both direct and indirect - since the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003".

Potential for new media
On the other hand, both the recent war and opposition demonstrations have revealed some of the latent potential for social media to have an impact: after the
war with Russia over the disputed region of South Ossetia "many Georgians turned to the Internet to find information not provided by the country’s three major stations. Youtube, for example, provided video of Gori being bombed and other shots unavailable on Georgian media, some of it filmed by normal people with their mobile phones - true citizen journalism". And "the Resistance Georgia blog was launched one day after the Georgian authorities forcibly broke up the 7 November opposition demonstrations, and subsequently attracted numerous citizens with diverse opinions. The discussions, impressions, rumors, and analysis posted on the site helped to better shape on the ground coverage of the unfolding events, and after only a week, even The New York Times was quoting it".

Online civil society
There's a strong interest in developing an online civic space where there can be level-headed discussion of controversial topics across communities. Ahgain, there are positive signs: "another interesting blog, run by a Georgian refugee from Abkhazia, attracts an average of 1,261 visitors a day. Showing the strength of the interactive blog format, the blogger Sukhimi is able to discuss issues surrounding the frozen conflict in Abkhazia with Abkhaz, Russians, and Georgians, all at the same time. The discussions are generally lively and vibrant, and provide valuable insight into what the dialogue between the conflicting sides looks like".

But like most other places the existing NGO sector seems poorly prepared to make the most of the digital opportunities: "many throughout the civil society and NGO sector are unfamiliar with these new technologies, do not understand how to use them effectively, or lack tools for their particular setting. Despite the growth of new media in recent years, NGOs have yet to adjust their outreach strategies, ignoring the possibility of using platforms such as blogging and social networking sites to promote their activities and research, in the process attracting members of the younger generation".

Looking for impact
My starting point for digital impact is to match the
memes (patterns) of the social web to the faultlines of the social situation. In other words, how can the power of the web to increase transparency or organise mass collaboration be used to strengthen civil society.

Of course the best way to do this is with inspiring examples, like the ones we used in the
workshop on 'Interactive Tech Tools for Transparency' in Riga a few months ago. I want to show how straightforward it can be to assemble an online campaign from the giant toolkit that the web has become.

Mashups and Mobilisation
Mashups are great next step because they combine compelling visualisation with the potential for engagement that we also explored in
'Crowdsourcing for transparency'. Here in the UK, initiatives like Mash the State and Tony Hirst's Googledoc ninja skills are starting to put the power of mashups in the hands of the non-programmer. (Tony's gone in to overdrive recently with the data on UK Members of Parliament's expenses).

And it's the potential for engagement and mobilisation that the social web offers to nascent social movements, especially in an environment where discontent is high. I want to shift the conversation in Tbilisi from 'websites' to the social web as
a cloud of possibilities for participative campaigning. How much that applies to the online and offline situation in Georgia is something I hope to learn when I'm there.

Twitter activism and repression

The spectrum of online campaigning was well represented in
our Riga workshop, from the sophisticated probing of MySociety projects to the guerilla activism of the Tunisian blogosphere. But in Tbilisi I plan to explore more about Twitter activism, examples of which are breaking out all over the place. Those sterling folk at DigiActive have produced a Guide to Twitter for Activism which is a good starting point. The reality becomes more complex when contesting claims that recent protests in Moldova were a Twitter Revolution. And Guatemalan police recently arrested someone for a tweet they claimed was "inciting financial panic" - in reality, the twittering was part of a widespread & outraged response to the assassination of a lawyer for threatening to expose government corruption.

Social innovation and civic futures
Although online campaigning is of interest to both journalists and NGOs, the real innovations will come from people thinking outside of those disciplines. If the web is going to catalyse to think differently and feel more empowered.In the UK we've pioneered SocIal Innovation Camps to unlock the potential of the internet to deliver different solutions to social problems. I'm co-organising a SICamp for CEE countries in Bratislava in September, and while there's no space in Tbilisi for that, it'd be good to run a version of the 'SICamp express' that we use at meetups.

Journalism and tipping points
One big win of doing the training alongside
Kevin is that we'll be able to cover the blurred zone where mainstream & social media collide with online activism. The events around the G20 protests in London are an interesting case study which has challenged the previous dynamic of police impunity on protests. It sounds like civil rights in Georgia may be approaching a critical point and there's a chance that new media can help tip the balance the right way. At the very least I hope the participants in the training come away with an idea of what's possible, feeling inspired and feeling able to act on that. Your thoughts, as ever, very welcome.

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