February 24th, 2011


Baby Facebook, teenage Voucher, and reporting revolution

It doesn't matter whether or not it is true. It is enough that it is believable.

This is not the first line of a manual for political spin doctors, or public relations executives, but a reflection on the story, reported on TechCrunch and elsewhere, that an Egyptian man has named his daughter 'Facebook'.

He did so apparently in recognition of the role which the social networking site had played in helping protesters to communicate as they strove to drive Hosni Mubarak from power.   

Facebook, Twitter, and other sites helped the demonstrators to organize the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. They did not make those revolutions, but they did help to make them possible.

That has been their principal role. Their use for newsgathering has been more limited. In Libya, where the uprising against the rule of Colonel Gaddafi was inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, an attempted news blackout by the authorities is having an effect. Feeds such as Al Jazeera English's Live Blog  are able to draw on a massive range of sources as they try to piece the story together.  Without the additional resource of a team of correspondents able to move around, it feels like there is a piece of that story missing. 

As with the reporting of the Israeli assault on Gaza two years ago, social media and 'citizen journalists' have been able to fill part of the gap. But stories like this demonstrate that there is no substitute for eyewitness reporting. Correspondents from The Guardian, the BBC, and other news organizations, have entered the country from the east, in defiance of Libyan law. Their reports serve to show what is missing from the coverage of those areas which remain off limits to outside reporters. At least we know something. In pre-internet days, it would have been even more difficult to learn what was going on. Now what is missing is principally detail but, without that detail, it becomes harder to know how accurate the big picture is.  

Colonel Gaddafi's supporters have described journalists who have entered the country as 'outlaws', so there seems little prospect of access improving while the Colonel still has at least some power. One report from Israel suggests this may be about to change, with Saif al Islam Gaddafi apparently inviting journalists to enter Libya. There is no indication, though, of whether this is true, or how it would work in practice. 

Russians share with Arabs the tradition of naming children after historical events or figures. When I worked in Moscow in the early 1990's, the country embarked on a massive privatization programme. Each adult citizen was given a voucher to buy a piece of the former Soviet state's property. A tabloid newspaper reported that one parent had called their child 'Voucher' in honour of this visionary moment in Russian history.

Voucher  - if she ever existed - would now be 18 or 19 years old. The scheme after which she was named did not turn out as it was supposed. It became a byword for the rigged auctions which enabled a few Russians to enrich themselves at the expense of the many. It sowed the seeds for the battles which until today dominate Russian business and politics.

I hope that baby Facebook  -  if she exists - does not live to regret her name. But Voucher's experience shows that we overemphasize the significance of new trends at our peril. 

The coverage of 'Facebook revolutions' in the Middle East today show that while social media can both complement and challenge established international reporting, they are not yet ready to sweep it away.