Eluding the Censors

April 25, 2017 8:18 AM ET

For all its faults, Facebook is a lifeline for journalists in less developed countries
By Karen Coates

Squeezed between China and Vietnam, Phongsali is the northernmost province of Laos, a land of mountains, valleys and isolated villages that is home to more than 15 ethnic groups. As recently as a few years ago, news traveled through Phongsali at a pace akin to regional traffic: slowly, on a bumpy route rife with potholes and disruptions.

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The communist government of Laos keeps tight reins on all print and broadcast media, and newspapers rarely make it this far north. Many people, in fact, do not read, and until recently, there were few phones or TVs.

Then came Facebook. No longer was news limited to established routes, which in the years since has provided locals with a convenient workaround when it comes to censorship by the communist government. Though that workaround carries its own perils, including sometimes questionable vetting of facts and the threat of retribution from the government, it has changed the censorship dynamic for good.

With an influx of smartphones, the face and pace of life in rural Laos has likewise changed, as has the way Laotians learn about the world around them. In 2010, I spent a week in a Phongsali village and had virtually no connection to the outside world. Power was limited to small batteries and generators and the roads were dirt. In March 2016, I returned. The highway was paved and electricity towers lined the main road. The land felt different. And it was.

Young men check their Facebook pages at a restaurant in Yangon, Myanmar, over beers and dinner. The social network is improving access to news in remote areas. (Jerry Redfern)

I sat one night with colleagues at a dusty roadside restaurant after a long day of reporting in the field. We drank Beer Lao while awaiting orders of minced-meat salad and sticky rice. The table was mostly silent as our Lao companions were deeply engrossed in their Facebook feeds, heads bent down, faces creased with consternation. There had been another shooting (in a spate of recent attacks) against a public bus traveling a major north-south highway. My companions watched video of the aftermath, then chatted online with family and friends. When our food arrived, we discussed an undercurrent of violence that had shaken the country.

This conversation would not have taken place without this remarkable shift in rural information--through Facebook.

Social media, and especially Facebook, is changing journalism like nothing before, particularly in places where public information has historically been stifled or hard to find. "During the turbulent times, Facebook becomes the easiest and quickest place for its users to disseminate news, see and instantly upload photos, videos, and then share them with whoever you want in a format that is accessible everywhere," observed Aliya Bashir, an independent journalist in Kashmir, a northern region involved in a longtime territorial dispute between Pakistan and India, which has led to a fight for independence. The result is that citizen journalists have a new voice that never existed before. "The media in Kashmir isn't what it used to be," Bashir said. "It is being reborn, and with this rebirth, we are witnessing the death of government controlled media as we knew it. The emergence of Facebook has rocked the local and Indian national media field to its foundations."

In September 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama mentioned the change in a speech to the Lao people in Vientiane. "We want to be your partner with the young people of Laos as you strengthen your communities and start businesses, and use Facebook to raise awareness for the rights and dignity of all people," Obama told the crowd.

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, summarized a significant concern about that proliferation in a recent talk to a University of Cambridge audience. The rapid predominance of social media, she said, is happening "almost without us noticing, and certainly without the level of public examination and debate it deserves."

Facebook launched in 2004 with a mission to "give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected." Twelve years later, it's a media giant, alternately portrayed as either the "savior" of journalism, or its "destroyer." When Facebook first emerged, it represented a "radically democratizing" shift in journalism that "helped amplify new voices whose opinions and experiences had never been part of mainstream media before," wrote tech journalist Annalee Newitz.

"In many cases, Facebook information guides mainstream media because it tends to be really fast and far-reaching," said a former freelance journalist and Vietnamese press consultant who asked to be identified only as "G.V." because, she said, she's precluded from stating public opinions in her current job with an embassy staff. Vietnam has one of the world's worst press freedom records, but social media is helping citizens circumvent government restrictions. G.V. cited a recent case involving allegedly corrupt hospital guards in cahoots with transportation companies. Facebook video footage showed Hanoi hospital guards preventing a vehicle from taking a dying baby to the child's hometown hospital. "News outlets brought this forward to the relevant hospital's leaders, who completely denied the case," G.V. said. But after another video was posted "from another angle, which clearly shows that the guards were at fault," she said, hospital authorities were forced to take action by firing the guards.

Based on scale alone, the world's biggest social media network presents unparalleled opportunities for reporting. "Facebook is a rolodex of 1.7 billion people," who could be potential sources, witnesses, experts or leads on a journalist's research and reporting, said Vadim Lavrusik, founder of the platform's journalism program. And it's not just a boon to journalists. Citizens "now have the power to be a mini-news bureau," Lavrusik, who led the Facebook Live engineering team, observed. They can reach audiences that were previously available only to what he calls "gatekeepers such as media organizations or government-sponsored agencies."

Today's journalists also use Facebook to vet and connect with sources. When InSight Crime senior researcher Deborah Bonello plans reporting trips in Mexico, she wrote in an email, "I generally reach out to people via FB to make an initial contact with them. That way they can see my profile, website and connections and know I'm legit." And she can research the same about them.

Activists use Facebook in similar ways. "It helps me report about my organization and my own activities; it helps me to communicate with people," said Long Kimheang of the Housing Rights Task Force, a Cambodian group that works with Cambodia's urban poor. Calling, chatting, sending and uploading photos and video, storing and retrieving data are all possible through Facebook. When she started her work in 2010, Kimheang said, she couldn't communicate so fluidly with the public. "It was very hard before, when Facebook was not very common," she said, adding that radio and TV "are owned and controlled by the government and rich," and there was no outlet for grassroots organizations like hers. Now, she has more than 2,500 Facebook friends around the world, many of whom are professional contacts and supporters.

But Facebook is also a for-profit company (a huge one, at that), and operates accordingly. "Facebook will do what is best for Facebook," wrote WIRED staffer Julia Greenberg. More and more, the company is nudging media producers to turn away from their traditional pipelines and publish directly on the platform. No longer is Facebook just a distributor of news; it's a major gatekeeper in its own right, with all the powers to publish, to censor, and to shape society's views.

The ubiquity of Facebook, and other forms of social media, leads to critical questions about accuracy. As Bashir noted, fact-checking is a challenge. Anyone can post anything to Facebook without any qualifications, training, "or, for that matter, any proof," she said, which contributes to the spread of misinformation, exaggeration and propaganda.

The "fake news" phenomenon hit home in the U.S. during the 2016 presidential campaign, when Facebook and other forms of social media were used as launch pads for rumors and lies about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and their supporters, all of which blazed across the internet. The spread of such falsehoods can have dire consequences: In December 2016, a North Carolina man who opened fire in a Washington, D.C., pizzeria later told police he was on a mission to investigate what was, in fact, a false election-related conspiracy theory.

There are also questions about how Facebook determines what's trending and what's in readers' best interests to see. When leaked documents revealed in May that Facebook employs human editors, analysts reacted with deep concern. Those humans, it turns out, operate "like a traditional newsroom, reflecting the biases of its workers and the institutional imperatives of the corporation," Michael Nunez wrote for Gizmodo.

One critical difference between traditional publishers and Facebook is that editorial decisions seem to be made in a "black box, inaccessible to the public," Chava Gourarie wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review.

"The problem is not that there are human decisions affecting the shape of the public sphere--this has always been the case," wrote Robyn Caplan of the Data & Society research institute. "The concern is that these decisions are in the hands of a small group of often invisible actors who can shift these priorities at will."

Many accuse Facebook and its subsidiary, Instagram, of censoring content under the murky guise of "community standards." Those standards nominally prohibit images of bare breasts, profane language, hate speech, pornography, and criminal activity. But critics also note the removal of posts pertaining to plus-sized women, breastfeeding mothers, breast cancer awareness campaigners, teen sexual health organizations, indigenous rights activists, conservative journalists, pro-cannabis groups, museum exhibitions, and drag queens.

While some bemoan the broad powers of Facebook to censor content, journalists--and citizens in general--face individual physical dangers when using social media. Many governments have arrested citizens for content they post online. In May, Thai authorities arrested the mother of a student activist for allegedly insulting the monarchy on Facebook with a one-word reply to a private message. The word? "Ja," an affirmative that essentially means "yes."

In Israel, authorities have arrested dozens of Palestinians--and some Israeli Jews--in the past year for "incitement" of violence based on Facebook posts. In India, two girls were arrested for Facebook postings after the death of an extremist leader. When Priyanka Borpujari, an Indian journalist, wrote an op-ed for The Boston Globe, half a world away, friends warned her to be careful, although the piece was unsigned. "It was very easy to know that I had written it," she said. "I am definitely much more careful about what I post out there on Facebook."

In Laos, authorities arrested three citizens who posted allegedly anti-government Facebook posts. Months later, Radio Free Asia reports, the government is on the hunt for Facebook friends of the three, who, at the time of this writing, had not been charged. Under a 2014 decree, Internet users face harsh jail sentences for criticizing the ruling party online.

This was not the first incident involving Lao censorship of Facebook activities. A few years ago, the survivor of a plane crash that killed several prominent Lao politicians posted details of the event shortly after it happened. "That posting disappeared in 10 minutes," according to a longtime expatriate in Vientiane who wished to remain anonymous.

Beyond government censorship and threat of arrest, Facebook users are open to trolling and harassment--which can range from mean to abusive, with lasting repercussions.

None of this is entirely new. Journalists on the ground have faced harassment, intimidation, arrest, rape, torture and threats with guns and knives for as long as the profession has existed. And in many cases, real-life dangers outweigh the online versions in both the fear factor and the real-life consequences. "I was incarcerated briefly, I was beaten up by the cops, had my camera taken," Borpujari said. "It had definitely left a big impact on my mind." The dangers she faces online "are nothing compared to being on the ground and being a person who's living there."

Borpujari explained what it's like to work in conflict zones in India such as Assam, an eastern state where insurgents have fought a decades-long separatist movement. "The moment you land in there, the whole state knows... because you are not part of them," Borpujari said. She claims police have monitored her phone calls and placed her under surveillance. "Information travels so fast in a conflict area," she said, and it's "not because of social media. It's simply because that's the scenario in a conflict situation."

Repressive regimes have always had ways of tracking people, just as they've also had ways of manipulating information. That hasn't changed--but Facebook offers yet another method.

Myanmar (formerly Burma) presents an interesting case study. For decades, under the former military junta, many citizens had little access to information beyond government control. Every newspaper required a license to operate and every story underwent scrutiny by state censors. There was, essentially, no daily news in the old Burma; every publication was weekly. And almost no one had a mobile phone.

Then, within a couple of years, SIM card prices dropped from US$2,000 to less than US$2. The transformation was immediate and widely apparent: Cell phones appeared nationwide in teashops, train stations, and remote village homes. The citizens of this vast and diversified country were suddenly linked by technology as never before.

But there is a downside. "Social media platforms like Facebook have become fertile new ground for hate speech," Nick Baker writes in the Myanmar Times. Hate speech--through songs, pamphlets, and other forms of propaganda--is a longstanding facet of communication across the conflict-ridden country. "While this material was once constrained by resources, manpower and geography, the advent of explosive internet connectivity has meant an unprecedented new reach," Baker wrote.

In 2012, Myanmar was engulfed in anti-Muslim furor--directed mostly at minority Muslim Rohingyas--which resulted in 250 deaths and the displacement of about 140,000 people. Since then, analysts say, Facebook has served as a vehicle for spreading hate speech, though it also sparked a counter "flower speech" campaign. In one example, in 2014, radical nationalist Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, who is well known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric, posted on his Facebook page the fabricated allegations that two Muslim men had raped a Buddhist woman in Mandalay. The post went viral, and Mandalay erupted in violence as Buddhist mobs tore through the city's streets, pillaging businesses. Two died and dozens were injured. Unrest among Rohingyas and violent reprisals by the army continued in parts of the country in late 2016.

Meanwhile, "media literacy" and the ability to distinguish between truth and fiction have not kept pace. "Hate speech is 360 degrees," said Ye Naing Moe, head of Burma's Yangon Journalism School. "Anti-military, anti-Bamar, anti-ethnic, anti-Muslims, anti-Buddhists...." Distinguishing fact from fiction is critical, he said, and "ordinary people in the neighborhood really need to know how reliable the information they receive from social media and even mainstream media are, and how they can check them."

When Facebook Live was launched in 2015, it allowed those with access to stream in real time. With a good connection, audiences can simultaneously watch anything from a Florida piano player to an Afghani barbecue to the latest in video news from Lower Egypt. The new tool "enables us to see news as it's unfolding by giving people the power of a TV camera on their mobile phones," Lavrusik said.

It's a notable shift, and it's happening around the world.

It was Facebook Live that allowed millions to view the death of Philando Castile, who was shot by Minnesota police in July 2016. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, posted live video of the immediate aftermath, as an officer kept a gun pointed at the couple while Castile was dying. American audiences were already accustomed to viewing cop shootings online--but until then, longer after the fact.

Livestreaming presents new opportunities for censorship, too. In August, Facebook complied with Baltimore County, Maryland police requests to deactivate the social media accounts of 23-year-old Korryn Gaines, who posted video of an altercation with officers before they shot and killed her, as she was barricaded in her home with her 5-year-old son. One of her videos remains on Instagram while others are reportedly archived as evidence, no longer viewable by the public. Baltimore officials justify the move as a means of preserving "the integrity of the negotiation process with her and for the safety of our personnel [and] her child."

***

A dozen years on, Facebook is a primary outlet for news in many countries, and the questions for journalists are not so much about the "ifs" or the pros and cons of social media. Social media is now a given. The questions now hinge on how society is responding to dramatic changes in communication and how journalists incorporate those changes into their reporting.

"I think it's easy to define someone like me as a 'social media journalist', and I've always thought that was missing the point," said Andy Carvin, the founder of reported.ly, a groundbreaking platform designed to cover news almost entirely through social media. Carvin, who was dubbed "the man who tweets revolutions" for his social media-based coverage of the Arab Spring, sees vast opportunities in combining the strengths of new and traditional reporting tools and platforms. "For my entire career, going back around 22 years now, I've been interacting with people online and offline to help me better understand complex ideas and explain them to the public," he said. That's the bedrock of any good journalism. "Fundamentally, it's not about the platforms," he added. "It's about the willingness to develop relationships with communities."

Borpujari agrees. She thinks social media can--and should--be used for more nuanced reporting about human stories. It's ironic, she said, that people often embrace a more democratic or holistic form of online storytelling when it comes to our pets, as opposed to our fellow human beings. "We watch dog videos where the dog is being funny, when the dog is being naughty, when the dog is being sleepy, when the dog is being hungry. But we don't show humans in that vast plethora of emotions or vast plethora of experiences, right?" she said. When it comes to stories of people, social media gives us "quickies," she said. "Whatever is exciting."

But the dog videos prove social media can offer more. She gives the example of an Instagram series she started after her father died "as a cathartic way for me to deal with loss." It sparked a following that spurred a conversation about the loss of parents "and how we don't talk about that." When Borpujari posts long missives and personal essays, people respond with "their most generous and most surprising comments," she said, "reacting in very beautifully surprising emotions."

That was apparent to me on that night in 2016 in northern Laos, at the little roadside restaurant in Phongsali, with dinner beginning in silence and all those downward-facing heads and thumbs scrolling through Facebook feeds. It seemed an anachronistic scene in a remote little pocket of a sparsely populated country, where showers are cold and meals are cooked over wood fires. But when the owner served us fiery plates of food, and another bottle of Beer Lao was cracked, we all started talking--about the future of Laos and worries over this recent spate of violence, which no one was able to adequately explain.

We shared a meaty, reflective conversation--in three languages--spurred entirely by the news on Facebook. And in that case, everything reported was true, and it was widely known despite the government's routine efforts to censor the news.


Karen Coates is an independent journalist and senior fellow at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.

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