There have been protests almost as long as there have been people, but how has the rapid expansion of UCG technology changed the way we make our point? Certainly, tools such as Facebook and Twitter can impact on the speed of a protest and its contageous potential, but they have also brought about a far more fundamental change.
Speaking at the Frontline Club on 15 February, BBC Newsnight’s Economics Editor Paul Mason argued that protests have now gone horizontal. New technology has allowed a peer network to replace hierarchies – no longer do people have to cluster around Scargills and Pankhursts to make their voices heard. As with the Middle Eastern protests, people on the street now communciate powerful ideas to each other – across streets and across international borders, without traditional leadership.
The End of a Tradition
Indeed, attempts to preserve conventional power structures in recent protests have failed miserably: the NUS (a traditional, top-down organisation) had planned an A to B march on 10 November in protest at the tuition fee hikes. It started well enough, but as people found their own multi-media voice the march began to break up, with the protest at Millbank taking on a life of its own. As glass was smashed, NUS leader Aaron Porter’s leadership collapsed: people were organising themselves outside of the traditional hierarchy.
New Roles for Journalists
This UGC-inspired de-centralisation poses new challenges for journalists. No longer can we turn up to a violent protest and ask to speak to the person in charge. The Middle Eastern protests of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya lacked any such leadership even at the start, and consequently lacked traditional narrative. With myriad people taking to the streets, journalists are left to contruct their own story, which requires a new respect for authentic voices. Suddenly we need to engage with the grassroots community. Any new hierarchies emerge democratically and ephemerally on the likes of Twitter – and journalists have to keep up with the hashtag deluge, just to make sense of the situation. Political activism has become open-sourced – and journalism a whole lot harder.
Ask a media organisation about their motives for encouraging user interactivity, and they will mention such worthies as democratisation, reciprocity and authenticity. But the evolution of UCG was partly a consequence of, and important contributor to, a growing desire for transparency in the journalistic process.
Going are the days when news is handed to you on a plate at set mealtimes, well cooked and prepared behind the kitchen door. These days, there is no shame in letting the consumers see the work in progress. On the contrary, it’s an advantage: the consumer is then able to credit the source for themselves. It’s a trend that began with the addition of newsroom offices into the background of news studio sets, and continues now in the overt and relentless requests for first-hand information.
Dealing with the Complicated
In covering a large, chaotic event like the student fees protests in December, the BBC was criticised for patchy and delayed coverage (most notably regarding the apparent assault on wheelchair user Jody McIntyre) – its viewers had myriad feeds of alternative eye-witness information from a young, technically alert protest body, and understandably the BBC couldn’t keep up with it all. But its delayed response was also testament to the aforementioned mindset of yore – that reporting the news means churning out a series of finished, pre-validated products, albeit products sourced from new media.
But the trend of transparency means even the process of basic fact-checking can be an open, interactive one. Had the BBC dealt with its complex task by focusing its work on validation through witnesses using Twitter and other media, it would have quietened the howls of criticism. If rumours are circulating, the BBC needed to be discussing them. It’s the only way to maintain journalistic credibility in the face of a social media avalanche; official journalistic bodies no longer have the monopoly on information. As modern consumers become more used to having their journalism built before them, they will increasingly come to assume that if they can’t see it, it isn’t happening. It will be interesting to see if the student fees protest is the last time the BBC does itself such an avoidable disservice.