When Social Media Becomes a Wartime Necessity

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How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Vivian Yee and Hwaida Saad, who report on the Middle East and are based in Beirut, Lebanon, discussed the tech they’re using.

Vivian, you were previously a New York metro reporter and a national immigration reporter. How has your use of tech changed in covering the Middle East?

Vivian: Living in Beirut, I’m lucky I can still get access to most of the same tech products I used back in the United States. The internet isn’t censored the way it is for some of our colleagues in other parts of the world, for instance, although the quality of my internet connection in Lebanon leaves something (O.K., a lot!) to be desired.

But I cover a region where many governments control the internet and monitor communications to a degree that would be unimaginable to anyone living in the United States. In Egypt, for instance, certain websites considered independent or critical of the authorities were blocked when I tried to follow their coverage of a referendum I reported on.

When it comes to countries like Syria, the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, I have to consider whether I could get someone in trouble with the government for touching on sensitive topics in online or phone conversations.

It’s also not easy to get journalist visas or press credentials in many of those countries. That means I have to do a lot of interviews from Beirut — via WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram or Facebook Messenger — instead of going to see the people, as I would normally try to do in the United States, or simply calling them.

The reporting restrictions have made me sensitive about the tech I carry with me on reporting trips. As a precaution on my visit to Syria, where I strongly suspected the authorities would track my movements and keep tabs on my communications, I took a new phone without any personal data on it.

And because we have to do so much reporting from afar, my whole understanding of social media has changed thanks to watching how Hwaida keeps in touch with Syrians online, as she’ll explain.

It isn’t just monitoring Twitter for eyewitness accounts and photos, though we do some of that. A steady stream of newsy updates, photos, videos and commentary from Syrian civilians and activists flows into my phone through groups on WhatsApp, Facebook and other services — sometimes so much of it that it feels more like navigating white-water rapids. I’ve been learning not only to try to keep up with it, but also to sift what seems credible from what sounds like rumor or hearsay.

Hwaida, you’ve covered the civil war in Syria since 2011. How have the tech tools that you’ve used for that evolved over the past eight years?

Hwaida: When I joined The Times in 2007, my laptop and my mobile phone and landline were almost the only tools I used for reporting. Back then, social media wasn’t widely available in Syria. Facebook was banned, but people used it discreetly.

After 2011, Syrians started to find different ways to communicate with the media. So I activated my Facebook account and created a Skype account.

Syrian activists began trying to mobilize international and domestic support for protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 also inspired Syrian activists, who drew on the same tools and methods used by other Arab activists. They posted videos to YouTube, created Twitter hashtags and attempted to portray a rising nonviolent Syrian protest wave through online media. With the absence of journalists on the ground, social media and the internet proved essential to the international coverage of Syria.

I’ve now used almost every single communication technology to reach Syrian contacts, from satellite phones to Skype to YouTube to Twitter to WhatsApp to Facebook. I used them to chat with people I never thought I would reach.

You had some issues being blocked by WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook. Why?

Hwaida: I joined about 150 WhatsApp chat rooms, including Islamic State ones that became super active — in order to do my reporting. I was blocked by WhatsApp more than once because I was violating its terms by joining ISIS-related groups, which are generally barred on the service.

Unfortunately, WhatsApp didn’t have special rules for reporters, though I tried to explain the nature of my work. Luckily, I managed to get my WhatsApp account back after promising to leave all the suspicious rooms. It wasn’t an easy decision since the rooms were vital to tracking ISIS-related news.

What kind of internet access do Syrian citizens have amid the civil war?

Hwaida: An exceptional amount of what the outside world knows — or thinks it knows — about Syria’s nearly nine-year-old conflict has come from videos, analysis and commentary circulated through social networks. Many journalists and Syrian activists believe that the internet radically changed the ability of the regime to carry out monstrous acts of violence.

Syrians inside Syria have joined almost all social tools to communicate with the outside world. The majority prefer to communicate via Facebook and WhatsApp, then Telegram and Signal for security reasons. Twitter remains popular. But not all parties and factions use social media for similar activities and purposes.

Outside of work, what tech products are you obsessed with?

Vivian: I’m a millennial who recently left all my friends and family in the United States to move to a place where I didn’t know anyone, so even though I have real concerns that Instagram is proving fatal to my self-esteem and my attention span, I can’t go without it. It’s the only quick, convenient, vivid way to keep track of how my people in America are doing, or at least what they’re eating and where they’re going on vacation. (Or maybe that’s just how I justify my Instagram addiction.)

Before I moved, I never quite understood what VPNs were for, but I want to thank whoever invented them for helping me watch certain TV shows that stream only on the American versions of Netflix and Amazon — that is, when my internet is cooperating.

This will be nothing new to regular travelers, but I’m also utterly dependent on a portable phone charger (in my case, a Jackery power bank) and a pair of Bose noise-canceling earbuds.

Other expatriates I know swear by Kindles and other e-readers to download new books they can’t get overseas, and to carry a library with them across continents and multiple flights, which makes a lot of sense. I, incurably and incorrigibly, am still hauling physical books around.

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