How effective is community media in creating civil society?

29 Oct

This Wednesday, October 27, 2010, a group of four groundbreaking digital activists came to The New School and presented their work and ideas.  These activists work with a range of mediums, from video and photography to radio and blogging, however they all were focused on the same broad goal, using media tools to empower those who have historically been silenced.

Liz Hodes, from Digital Democracy discussed a project where Haitian women were given cameras and asked to film and document gender-based violence, thereby giving these women a tool to speak out.  James Lebbie from Sierra Leone’s Cotton Tree News played a portion of an audio program named InsaiSalone, in which two women gossip about societal problems that the government can fix, such as corruption and infrastructure.  Lebbie described this program as the one “politicians fear the most.”  Lova Rakotomalala, the French Language Editor of Global Voices, an online blogging aggregator discussed how blogging had exposed the coup in Madagascar from last year.  Finally, there was WITNESS, a global video advocacy program presented by Pricila Neri.

Each of these speakers presented their programs with an air of optimism, but acknowledged that there were challenges and dangers to working in the human rights and advocacy field that might not be readily apparent to a casual observer. At one point Rakotomalala showed a global bandwidth map, which looked something like the one below, showing the fundamental lack of internet connectivity, or “internet penetration” in the Global South.  As most of these projects are internet-based, one must question how effective these initiatives are in creating real civil society among populations that do not have access to internet.  While mobile technology could affect this imbalance, can it really be a platform for substantive civil society discourse?








In our last post, we discussed real activism vs. ‘slacktivism’, the idea that clicking a Facebook ‘Like’ button can not replace offline actions for social change.  Malcolm Gladwell’s recent piece in The New Yorker , “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted About” caused quite a stir by claiming that social tools are ineffective at causing real social change. Gladwell claimed that real activism is caused by strong social ties, and that our new social tools, such as Twitter and Facebook, are driven by weak social ties. Pricila Neri, representing WITNESS, acknowledged this dilemma in her own work.  These organizations seemed to refute Malcolm Gladwell’s argument to some degree.  For example, Cotton Tree News, by giving ordinary citizens a space to publicly critique their government, has caused real physical change.  Additionally, WITNESS has been in existence for 18 years and allows victims such as child soldiers who have witnessed numerous human rights violations to record information, re-telling their stories and broadcasting those videos to targeted audiences to bring about change.  While questions about the effectiveness of community media still remain, the record of these organizations shows that with the right strategies and methods, offline change can occur as a result of dedicated individuals using mobile tools to pursue change.


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