Tag Archives: SMS text

Madagascar: an SMS away from the news

12 May


Foko Ushahidi screenshot

Foko Ushahidi screenshot

The growing community of bloggers in Madagascar is using the Kenyan web interface Ushahidi to report from the ground about the current Malagasy power struggle. Using SMS text messaging and online mapping tool Google Maps, bloggers are capturing witness accounts of social unrest, giving the global blogosphere an insight into life on the island, that is not all the Disney movie makes out.

Bloggers who started the Foko Blog Club (several bloggers around the country have been trained) are behind the new Foko alert system, which aims to empower ordinary Malagasy people who are increasingly growing to distrust the mainstream media. These citizens can now upload reports of unrest around the country and have them added immediately to an online map.

But what does this easily accessible new media technology mean for journalism?

Kenyan elections

The alert system is powered by Ushahidi (meaning ‘testimony’- in Swahili), which was used to map in real-time results of the Kenyan presidential election. It allowed for a bottom-up citizen spotlight on riots and violence that could be done easily from a mobile phone especially when cyber cafes were under surveillance.

It meant Kenyans did not have to rely on the foreign media for their own news and information could be disseminated in the many unofficial dialects spoken in Kenya. Blogging was intended to ease tension and promote peaceful resolutions in the election aftermath and content was not motivated by the need to supply sensational stories to an editor.

Potentially dangerous

However, this highly accessible form of citizen journalism also showed its sinister side. Text messages were used to threaten and intimidate journalists. Inboxes were infiltrated with messages that fanned ethic hatred and violence between the Kalenjin and Kikuyu tribes that echoed dissemination in Rwanda that was ultimately a catalyst for the genocide.

Citizen journalism

Ushahidi has provided a fantastic participatory media tool, but the events in Kenya are a warning sign of the undermining possibilities.

Does the title ‘citizen journalism’ actually deserve the latter word? The use of online media opens the back door to unethical and unprofessional content. How does the Malagasy system propose to moderate alerts?

Working behind the scenes is blogger Tahina Rak told Global Voices Online that Ushahidi is “a kind of platform where everybody is invited to submit reports. The main objective is to find real facts, and to distinguish rumours from truth.”

The hub through which the SMS messages pass is monitored. A team of bloggers check reports for accuracy, but only after they have been posted. In the case of an influx of a high frequency messages, say when a major event occurs, some reports could run the risk of going unchecked. Is there a proper code set out for moderation? Moderation and amendments at one’s own discretion could simply be classed as censoring. This new media is also at risk of being hijacked with ‘planned’ messages all at once.

Tahina said:

[W]e have bloggers on the ground and will be counting on them. But we will also use all media – newspapers, television and radio to help verify. We also have Twitter now, where we can compare and contrast information. We won’t verify reports unless we are sure of them.

Technical challenges

Foko Ushahidi has faced technical challenges.

  • Phones that are compatible with Ushahidi’s Front Line SMS software are not easy to find in Madagascar. SMS is important because it does not require internet connection.
  • Many mobile phone stores were closed during the unrest.
  • Slow internet connections mean it can take up to 15 minutes to reach the Udahishi platform.

I feel we must be wary of the role these technologies play in journalism, especially when there is inter-conflict or government tension involved. They could become a tool to rock the political boat for people who want to legitimise their own causes. But then cyber-activism is another role altogether that has an important part to play in democratic governance.

Ushahidi is a great platform for an island like Madagascar where environmental disasters and cyclones are recurrences that would not see the light of day in the mainstream headlines because of their unsexy and frequent nature. There are also great possibilities when used alongside networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook, providing there is appropriate moderation.

But then who monitors the moderators?