Afganistan Social Media



Eileen Guo is the founder of the digital media agency Impassion Afghanistan and the creator and curator of the Afghan Social Media Summit. Days before the third annual Afghan Social Media Summit (ASMS), Civicist chatted with Guo about the changing social media landscape, the first Afghan Social Media Awards, and the most exciting civic tech projects in Afghanistan.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Civicist: What was the impulse behind the first Afghan Social Media Summit? What were your goals?

Eileen Guo: When we started Impassion back in 2013, social media was starting to play a larger role in Afghan politics, culture, and daily life. It was kind of this undercurrent that everyone knew about, but it wasn’t really recognized publicly yet as the powerful force that it was (and would be). And with the 2014 presidential elections coming up, there was a lot of interest in bringing social media and tech to the forefront. A couple of things really happened at once that brought the social media summit to life: The international community in Afghanistan, especially the State Department, wanted to find a way to engage youth in the conversation as well as in civic engagement, and we, meanwhile, were really pushing to leverage social media as a tool.

So the State Dept. put out an RFP [Request for Proposal] to put together a social media summit as well as conduct provincial trainings and create a citizen journalism platform, and we responded and won the bid to conduct the summit and trainings. We ended up creating a citizen journalism platform anyway, because we saw the need for it, out of our own pocket. [Read Rebecca Chao’s techPresident piece on the citizen journalism platform Guo built here.]

Civicist: What were the biggest issues facing social media users in Afghanistan at the time?

EG: I think infrastructure and access have always been big issues—while ISPs and telecoms have been improving their services, internet in Afghanistan is notoriously spotty.

Other issues: a lack of basic awareness on privacy and cyber-security on both an individual and organizational level, a wariness as to the negatives of social media, cultural and generational resistance, censorship issues, etc.

Civicist: And these are all ongoing issues? What’s changed in the past few years?

EG: Well it’s interesting—I see the 2014 presidential elections as really the point where social media in Afghanistan came into its own. There was a very real concern as to social media’s potential for inciting violence during the elections dispute period. For example, I think the biggest changes have been in terms of infrastructure and access, which have improved a lot in the past few years—the government recently launched its own telecom with the aim of decreasing costs—as well as general awareness among the population of social media.

It’s fascinating though—even when you go into rural areas of Afghanistan, even those that might have never used these social networks themselves recognize the word “Facebook” because it’s so prevalent. It’s very much a part of Afghan culture now.

Civicist: What about the third annual ASMS are you most excited about?

EG: The first two years of the Afghan Social Media Summit were really proofs of concept, and this year it’s bigger than ever, 1,200 participants registered from 27 of 34 provinces, and also has better content and bigger-name speakers. It’s also the launch of something that I’ve personally dreamed of doing since we started Impassion Afghanistan, which are the Afghan Social Media Awards.

We started Impassion really with the goal of creating a sustainable self-driving ecosystem of Afghan internet users, and everything that we’ve done since—creating the largest citizen journalism platform in the country, Paiwandgah; running the Afghan Social Media Summit; teaching basic-level social media workshops in hard-to-access provinces—all of this helps drive towards that goal.

The Afghan Social Media Awards, which this year will be giving out awards in ten categories and will be broadcast on national TV, provides an incentive for individuals and organizations to strive to improve their social media use, while also teaching attendees and viewers about what makes for “good” social media use.

Civicist: When we spoke previously, you said that technology is one of the few, if not the only, sectors still growing and doing well in Afghanistan—what about civic tech? Are there any exciting and positive community- or government-driven tech projects for the public good?

EG: Yes, definitely, and that’s actually a key focus of the summit. For example, TOLO, the country’s largest television station, will be launching their civic media project at our event, a government accountability project with both TV and web tie-in’s. The TOLO project is currently in beta and will only launch officially in a few days. It’s based on/inspired by, the platform that we created to monitor the first 100 days of the presidency. (You can see the similarities throughout.)

But more generally, there is a lot of interest in using technology for citizen-government relations, both within the government itself (President Ashraf Ghani is a big supporter of tech and actually ran a social media campaign back in 2009 during his first campaign for the presidency) as well as via the international donor community.

Civicist: Anything else you’d like to add?

EG: Afghans are a very proud people—and rightfully so. What’s really exciting to me about technology and social media in Afghanistan is that it is an area where Afghans are legitimately right to be proud. The amount of progress that’s been made in a decade is very exciting, and it’s gotten to the point where it’s not even fair to say simply that Afghanistan has leap-frogged in terms of tech adoption—in some cases it’s actually leading the way regionally, and this is a focus of this year’s event as well.

Civicist: Anything in particular you want to point to as a source of pride?

EG: That the 3G network came to Afghanistan before Pakistan [in 2012; Pakistan got it in 2014] is a huge point of pride. And (to a smaller scale and to a more specific audience) [the fact] that initiatives like CodeWeekend, Hour of Code, Founder’s Institute, etc. are starting to gain popularity.

Relatedly, technology is an area where Afghans, especially young Afghans, really feel connected to the global community. Not only in that Afghans are now able to connect to others around the world on Facebook or YouTube (which is of course huge), but that Afghanistan is playing a role on the world stage in terms of tech.

So I guess what I’m really trying to get across is that Afghan internet users—as well as internet users in “developing countries”—are a force to be reckoned with, and internet companies, policy-makers, etc, should take note. They’re only starting to realize their own power, but it’s a large population that is coming online for the first time, but as they continue to do so and their numbers grow, the companies/service providers/policy makers that can cater to them are going to benefit.

Civicist: What do you think the impact of these new users will be on the internet?

EG: I love that question! And that’s another [topic] we’ll be discussing at the event.

Afghan users understand and use the internet and social media slightly differently from in other parts of the world due to cultural, economic, and historical context. For example: while the actual percentage of social media users is low, the offline-online linkages mean that the actual reach is much higher, because when a text message (from a presidential campaign, as has happened) comes in, a family or mosque or other community will have it read out loud. And so how do advertisers create messages that take into account this kind of context? That’s a question that our agency is working on.

Or how do we leverage the amount of offline blue-tooth social sharing, which has created kind of an underground social network? Or redesign popular web and mobile apps for illiterate populations?

I mean, one of my best female friends in Afghanistan is illiterate, and yet we communicate regularly on WhatsApp and Skype. It’s incredible how much she’s managed to learn to use these services without knowing how to read, but what if we were to design apps that are specifically aimed at people like her?

Civicist: Absolutely! This is great, thank you for taking the time to chat, Eileen.

Full disclosure: Micah Sifry wrote a letter of support for Guo’s Afghan Social Media Summit proposal.

Debates elections Social Media

Round-Up: Crowdsourcing Debate Questions in Taiwan

Round-Up: Crowdsourcing Debate Questions in Taiwan

Plus: U.S. presidential debates popular in China, study on second screens and political engagement, and could televised debates in the UK become a thing?

  • Between Christmas and Jan. 2, Taiwan held its first and only vice-presidential debate and two presidential debates in advance of the Jan. 16 election.

    The first presidential debate was pretty standard: Candidates answered questions from the news media and then took part in three rounds of direct debates with one another. The second presidential debate, however, included something new: five questions from the public.

    The questions, all policy-related, were submitted via the online platform President, May I Ask a Question and voted on by the public. The platform was first used during Taiwan’s vice-presidential debate; here are the six public questions selected for that forum.

    Watchout spokesman Lin Zu-yi told Taiwan’s press last month that Watchout would select questions by lottery, drawing only from those questions that received at least 1,000 online signatures. We’ll have more on President, May I Ask a Question—developed by Google, the newspaper Apple Daily, and Watchout—in a future article.

    Plus: Remember Mitt Romney’s comment regarding “binders full of women” during a 2012 presidential debate and the memes that followed? KMT presidential candidate Eric Chu’s comment during the first debate about being encouraged to run by an unnamed elder woman sparked a similar flurry of responses, including the Facebook parody page Tamsui Grandma. Another site, Taiwan Fugue, is offering stickers for those worried about being held responsible for Chu’s campaign.

    tamsui grandma facebook parody page

    The Tamsui Grandma parody page on Facebook has more than 37,000 likes.

    Catherine Chou, a PhD candidate at Stanford University, has a fascinating analysis of the responses, looking at how language interweaves with humor.

    “That Chu would use Taiwanese when telling a humanizing story about an elderly lady is predictable; what is less so is that netizens and new political parties—overwhelmingly composed of the young—would respond in the same language,” writes Chou.


    How to Avoid Campaign Fatigue: Not every country is as speedy as Taiwan when it comes to presidential campaigns, but the United States is more like a marathon—or two. Brian Dickerson of the Detroit Free Press looks at how other countries manage to keep their campaigns shorter by putting limits on time, spending and/or by offering public financing.

    Is the U.S. system, which gives more time to candidates to make their case through primaries and debates, more democratic, or simply more adept at supporting all the third-party donors, businesses, journalists, and consultants who benefit from long campaigns?

    U.S. Debates Popular in China: The Guojiang Subtitle Group in China, a group of about 70 volunteers who produce subtitles for American TV shows, are translating the U.S. presidential debates. The videos, which are uploaded to a Weibo account and onto Chinese video-sharing sites, have become quite a hit in China, reports Owe Guo in The New York Times. The group was started by Zhou Qianyu, a Beijing high school student, in 2014.

    chinese translation republican debate

    Chinese translation of Republican debate hosted by CNN and Facebook.

    “Watching the U.S. presidential debates is like watching a football match,” said Yin Hao, one of the translators. “You see a lot of moves and tactics by the candidates, but eventually it all comes down to who scores.”

    You can watch the debates on Sina Video. Read the Times story for examples of comments by Chinese viewers.

    From Parliament to Television: Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn has called for a live, televised annual “state of the nation” debate among party leaders. Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon and Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron told The Independent they would take part if Prime Minister David Cameron is willing.

    That seems unlikely. “Downing Street has said it will ‘look at the formal details of any proposal’, which is throat-clearing in advance of saying no,” writes political columnist Rafael Behr, who takes a broader look at debate participation and the shortcomings of prime minister’s questions.

    The call for an annual debate comes on the heels of a report by University of Leeds researchers showing that the 2015 general election debates increased viewers’ engagement.

    Second Screen Study: A study published in the Journal of Communication found that people who use social media to discuss televised debates are more likely to become engaged in politics as a result. The study, “Dual Screening the Political: Media Events, Social Media, and Citizen Engagement,” focuses on Twitter use during the 2014 European Parliament elections in the United Kingdom.

    “Twitter users who more actively participated in the discussion about the debates on social media using hashtags like #NickvNigel, #CleggFarage and #europedebate came away more energized and engaged with politics,” the authors of the study wrote in the Washington Post.

    New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab helped the study’s authors identify social media users who tweeted about the debates.

    Get Those Second (and Third) Screens Ready: YouTube and NBC News are teaming up for the final Democratic presidential debate before the Iowa Caucus. The NBC News-YouTube Democratic Candidates Debate, hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, will take place Sunday, Jan. 17, in Charleston, S.C., with the action streamed live on the NBC News YouTube channel. The announcement notes that the debate will feature questions from the YouTube community, but we haven’t seen information yet on what that might involve. Check Civicist for post-debate coverage.

    Before Democrats take the stage, FOX Business Network will host a Republican presidential primary debate on Thursday, Jan. 14, also in South Carolina. Happy New Year, and happy debate watching!

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Debates Election 2016 Social Media

Round-Up: Three Questions That Didn’t Change the GOP Debate

Round-Up: Three Questions That Didn’t Change the GOP Debate

CNN and Facebook, hosts of last night’s Republican debate, took pre-recorded questions and engaged viewers with polls and emojis. Plus, is social media improving the debate experience?

  • There was no first-time-ever-for-a-digital-audience moment, as there was during the previous Democratic debate, but CNN and Facebook, hosts of last night’s #GOPdebate, took advantage of several interactive tools—plus emojis.

    CNN touted the “thousands” of people who stepped inside the cross-country Campaign Camper to record video questions for the candidates and the “millions” who weighed in on Facebook.

    How many questions made it into the debate? Three.

    While it was good to include different (and younger) voices, and the questions pushed the candidates for more nuance on their positions on refugees, military action against ISIS and how to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the use of “regular people” mainly reinforced the debate narrative. We need a more direct form of public engagement to drive different questions and to elicit more informative answers.

    During the debate, viewers were encouraged to go to CNN’s Facebook page to vote on such questions as “What’s the greatest threat to U.S. security?” and “Did Trump do a good job defending his plan to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.?” Facebook users could also answer “How are you feeling about the debate right now?” by selecting the appropriate smiley face, ranging from angry to excited (complete with double hearts!).

    CNN-Facebook how are you feeling the debates

    Sanders Trumps Trump:  CBS and Twitter, which teamed up for last month’s Democratic debate, worked together again last night, with Twitter providing real-time insights on

    Here’s the final analysis of the debate conversation, which Donald Trump won, the largest follower growth, which Sen. Bernie Sanders won (!), and the most tweeted moment—a not-compliment from Trump to Bush. For more on the debate and the many mentions of the internet, read today’s First Post at Civicist.

    Plus: Are Twitter and Facebook improving the debate experience? “It depends,” writes Callum Borchers in the Washington Post. “That is, of course, a well-rehearsed non-answer. But you should probably be used to that, given that’s the kind of answer Bill from Reno and Susan from Carson City could very well elicit.”

    U.S. Debate Viewership Soars: Meanwhile, nearly 7 in 10 adults (69 percent) say they have watched at least some of the televised debates, according to a new Pew Research Center poll. That number is up from 43 percent in December 2007, the last time we saw contested nominations in both parties.

    Almost two-thirds of viewers (65 percent) say the debates have been helpful in learning about the candidates. That finding is consistent among all age groups, though young adults under 30 are less likely than older adults to have watched a debate (58 percent compared to 72 percent).

    Just over half (51 percent) of debate viewers have found the debates “fun to watch”—with liberal Democrats (57 percent) and conservative Republicans (59 percent) enjoying the debates the most. Yet only about a third (34 percent) say the campaign has “focused on important policy debates,” while 58 percent told Pew it has not. View the full report.

    It May Never End: Donald Trump last night said he is “totally committed to the Republican Party,” but if he changes his mind again, he could remain part of the presidential debate field. If Trump makes an independent run, he would need to draw at least 15 percent support in national polls, writes Angela Grieling Keane at Bloomberg. The same goes for Sen. Bernie Sanders, though he has been consistent about not running as an independent.

    “Fifteen percent in this crazy year we’re in, it’s not entirely inconceivable that someone may come along,” said Mike McCurry, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates. “Our job is to make sure the candidates Americans are considering for president are there on the stage.”

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Debates Election 2016 Social Media

How Twitter and CBS Found the ‘Voice of the Crowd’

How Twitter and CBS Found the ‘Voice of the Crowd’

“For 55 years, we’ve all been yelling at the screens in presidential debates…This is really the first time the screen talked back.”

  • This is Christine Cupaiuolo’s first report for the Rethinking Debates project. While the vast majority of stories will be about the ways that debate producers around the world are experimenting with using interactive technology and social media to make these events more meaningful and responsive to public concerns, this story highlights an unexpected breakthrough here in the United States: the first time in which a member of the viewing public was able to talk back virtually to the candidates in real-time.

    Political debate watchers in the United States have been offered more ways than ever this year to view the presidential primary debates and to interact with the host networks and the candidates.

    Yet after six debates—four Republican and two Democrat—and tens of thousands of questions submitted via Facebook and Instagram, real-time opinion meters and polls, streaming Twitter reactions, live coverage on Snapchat, and livestreaming in virtual reality, only one attempt to engage the public broke through the wall dividing candidates and viewers.

    It happened Nov. 14 during the Democratic debate in Iowa, when a real-time comment on Twitter was posed to a candidate. While it took all of eight minutes for debate organizers to select, vet, and read on air a #DemDebate tweet rebuking presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, it could be argued that the lead-up took decades.

    “For 55 years, we’ve all been yelling at the screens in presidential debates,” said Adam Sharp, head of News, Government and Elections at Twitter. “This is really the first time the screen talked back.”

    CBS, host of the first-ever televised presidential debate in 1960, teamed up with Twitter for the event at Drake University, marking the first time the social media platform was an official partner in a U.S. debate (Twitter has advised other networks hosting debates).

    The two media companies started working in tandem over the summer, said Sharp, testing out curation methods during the other networks’ debates and building on ways Twitter has been used in previous election cycles and in other countries.

    Past debates, for example, may have included a counter showing number of tweets per minute. This time around, online viewers saw a graphic cycling through the volume of conversation as well as each candidates’ share of the conversation. Visuals also captured the topics people were tweeting about and debate moments that drove conversation (here are the top moments). Twitter collaborated with Postano, a social visualization and measurement platform, to display data on a huge digital video wall in the spin room.

    Using Curator — a tool Twitter rolled out earlier this year to help media publishers search, filter and curate tweets for display on web, mobile or TV — CBS producers could select and display a scrolling timeline of tweets that ran alongside the candidates on

    #demdebate - cbs online

    Photo: @gov

    Photo: @gov

    Photo: @gov

    “That’s where it started, with the data telling a story,” said Sharp.

    As the debate was happening, producers saw a spike around Clinton’s comment linking Wall Street campaign contributions to her work as a senator helping to rebuild downtown Manhattan after 9/11. Sharp said CBS used Curator as well as TweetDeck and Twitter itself to gather perspective on how Twitter users were reacting. Upon noticing that the majority of tweets were highly critical, the search was on for a tweet that would represent the consensus that was forming.

    “It was immediately apparent that this was the moment that was driving conversation, this was the moment people were going to be referring to at the water cooler the next day,” said Sharp. “Finding a tweet that referenced that wouldn’t be just picking a face in the crowd, it was actually picking a voice of the crowd.”

    Then a comment by University of Iowa law professor Andy Grewal surfaced:


    “I couldn’t believe the tone-deafness,” Grewal later told the Des Moines Register. “I felt compelled to make an actual critical remark.”

    Grewal had fewer than 200 followers when producers found the tweet, so it wasn’t the most re-tweeted comment when it drew CBS’s attention (it’s now been retweeted more than 2,800 times and liked by more than 3,000 Twitter users). Being an Iowa voter helped.

    “The fact that it came from an independent voter,” added Sharp, “in Iowa City, in his pajamas, who had never live-tweeted an event before, really just highlights, I think, the potential moving forward.”

    Before submitting the comment for air, CBS producers had to quickly vet Grewal, verifying his bio and reviewing past tweets for any sign he might be working for another campaign.

    “That’s where it gets important to have both that algorithmic layer and that human editorial judgment paired together, but neither can exist without the other,” said Sharp. “The reality is, with many millions of tweets about one of these primary debates, a human without help from the algorithm would drown under the volume. The key is, how do you get them at least to the right part of the haystack so they could start poking around a little bit more.”

    The candidates had already moved on from Wall Street contributions and were discussing gun control when the debate moderator, John Dickerson, interrupted them:

    JOHN DICKERSON: Sorry, I’m gonna bring in [CBS News Congressional Correspondent] Nancy Cordes with a question from Twitter about this exchange.


    NANCY CORDES: —about guns but also about your conversation on campaign finance. And Secretary Clinton, one of the tweets we saw—said that I’ve never seen a candidate invoke 9/11 to justify millions of Wall Street donations until now—the idea being that, yes, you are a champion of the community after 9/11. But what does that have to do with taking big donations?

    HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I’m sorry that whoever tweeted that had that impression because I worked closely with New Yorkers after 9/11 for my entire first term to rebuild. And so yes, I did know people. I had a lot of folks give me donations from all kinds of backgrounds, say, “I don’t agree with you on everything. But I like what you do. I like how you stand up. I’m going to support you.” And I think that is absolutely appropriate.

    The tweet was shown on a screen above the candidates as it was read, making it visible to all debate viewers. Reaction online was swift, with praise coming from other media outlets.

    Micah Grimes, social media strategist for NBC Nightly News, tweeted:

    CNN’s Brian Stelter, retweeting Grimes, wrote:

    Grewal’s tweet led to a short exchange involving Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley about Wall Street’s economic and political power. Yet the comment also had a longer-lasting effect, giving the controversy over Clinton’s Wall Street ties more volume and validity in the post-debate narrative.

    It was the level of impact Twitter officials had hoped to achieve going into the debate. Sharp said they wanted to show other news outlets that a Twitter-enabled debate could be “meaningful and relevant.”

    “For every prior debate since August, [CBS] producers have been using these tools to surface tweets around those debates. They have a very good handle of what type of content and what quality they’d be able to raise during their own broadcast,” said Sharp.

    “And now, undoubtedly, producers of future debates know, Oh, I can get a great question from Twitter, and I can get it in real-time. I don’t have to either take something stale that’s weeks old, or something that’s more stunty or kitschy, because that code’s now been broken, if you will.”

    (In other words, there would be no doubt about the appropriateness of the question, the way there was, say, in 1994, when President Clinton was asked “boxers or briefs” during a MTV town hall. Answer: “Usually briefs. I can’t believe she did that.”)


    Yet we still have a ways to go in U.S. political debates before technological innovation revolutionizes public engagement. Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a professor at Syracuse University and author of “Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age,” cited numerous factors that deter innovation—including risk-averse candidates used to controlling everything from podium height to lighting, and news outlets that see themselves as solely responsible for pressing candidates on tough issues and deciding which questions get asked.

    “Of course they are paying attention to what the public is saying and feeding that back to the candidates when it resonates,” said Stromer-Galley. “But if it doesn’t match the politicians’ agenda or the journalists’ agenda, you’re not going to get new kinds of questions, new kinds of voices, new sorts of topics.”

    There’s still something to be said for incremental change, she added. “When you think about it, we had a debate in 1960 and we didn’t have a televised debate again until the 70s. We’ve had debates routinely after that, and the format—again, very slowly—has evolved to include more voices. And now with digital media, the information infrastructure that we live in opens up additional opportunities for the public to be more directly involved.”

    The next Republican debate is scheduled for Dec. 15 in Las Vegas and will be sponsored by CNN and Facebook. The Democrats follow on Dec. 19 in New Hampshire, in a debate sponsored by ABC News, WMUR-TV, and the New Hampshire Union Leader.

    Sharp said Twitter expects to be involved in more debates but wouldn’t provide specifics. Viewers, however, should expect future collaborations with news networks to be equally substantive and gimmick-free.

    “We don’t want to give another excuse to dismiss the voter and centralize access to the candidates,” Sharp said. “By demonstrating that you can have this popular involvement and engagement in a meaningful, relevant way, it actually opens that door for, I think, a broader civic dialogue to be able to take place.”

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Civic Tech Mapping Social Media



  • “When crowds fill a public space they can change history,” observed Marc Smith, director of the Social Media Research Foundation, at Personal Democracy Forum this year. “And yet where are the pictures of the cyber crowd?”

    We worry about our social networks—who’s following us, who are we following, how many likes am I getting, how many retweets did that get—but are we asking the right questions?

    The Social Media Research Foundation’s project NodeXL displays maps of connections on Twitter in a unique way. By taking a topic or phrase and mapping out the connections in a network approach, we can see more than just who is talking to whom; we can see the communities that are being formed around particular issues. When we take a step back and see not just who the community is, but how it’s formed and what shape it takes, we can begin to ask deeper questions: Am I reaching who I want to reach? How can I reach that cluster of people over there? Do I want to reach that cluster of isolated people? The focus becomes less about numbers and more about the quality of the connections being made.

    In the context of branding or marketing, there is obvious value to this: Am I growing my brand in the direction that it needs to? Am I getting my brand to the right communities, and which online leaders do I need to engage in order to do so? However, in the context of a social movement, the value is arguably more crucial. Social movements live and breathe online, but who analyzes the movement? Without the broad view of how a movement is shaped, it is left to grow or falter passively on its own.

    NodeXL provides a tool for organizers and activists to see a movement, see who participated, and then see what kind of community has formed. Once you know what kind of community you have, you can look at ways to expand it, shape it, grow it, while mapping trends of the community over time. Collective action is difficult to cultivate and sustain; NodeXL provides a space to support action by asking questions like: Who are our main hubs? Which communities are talking about our issues, but not connected to the movement? How can we reach them? Do we have an active community or just a passive audience?

    When answering these questions, we can streamline engagement processes and focus on the movement, not just the numbers.

    Here is an example of a NodeXL network map, comparing the community around “civictech” in May to the community in June. “As people reply and mention one another, they form links or ties that form communities,” Smith explained. “The civic tech network is predominantly a ‘hub-and-spoke’ pattern, with a hub that gets repeated (or retweeted) by many others. A large volume of completely disconnected people are a major portion of the population. These ‘isolates’ are mostly missing from these networks, but still contribute to the conversation. Some areas of the networks are ‘dense,’ which represents a community of connected people, without a central ‘hub,’ and many topic leaders.”

    Overall, in May we see many hub-and-spoke clusters, such as the groups in G2, G5, and G6. This signifies audiences of people tweeting and retweeting from central groups of broadcasters, or mayors. But when we look at June, the clusters become denser. This signifies the audiences connecting to each other, rather than through central mayors, building a more dynamic community. We can also see clearer green lines (showing a direct connection) in May, and in June we see a more spread out series of lines, showing that more connections across communities were formed.

    This change can largely be attributed to the Personal Democracy Forum being held, and is a good example of what a big, centralized event can do for a dispersed community, in terms of building relationships. Using NodeXL, we could see who became more connected to the community because of the conference, trace anyone who went from an isolate to a part of the community and vice versa. We can also see which new isolates entered the conversation, and over time with more comparative graphs, could see their growth in the community as well. This gives us the ability to know who to communicate with, and which “mayors” bring in more members of the community.

    Having followers and retweets is important, but it’s only the surface level step. Numbers only get you so far, in order to understand how, why, and where you need to grow requires a network outlook. NodeXL, and the work Marc and the rest of the SMRF are doing, provides the tool to obtain and analyze that network.

    Asher Novek is a freelance producer, storyteller, and community activist. He is the founder of HeartGov, an SMS based platform designed to connect local government and communities. HeartGov is currently running in Brooklyn, working with local elected officials and community based organizations to connect to citizens. Follow him @ashernovek.

Citizen Journalism Social Media



  • The livestreaming space is starting to feel more than a little crowded, with Meerkat and Periscope battling it out for users and honorifics like “the new killer campaign app,” but that hasn’t stopped a new breed of service called Rhinobird from stepping up and declaring itself a “people-driven TV network.” After launching a beta version just two months ago, is ready for their close-up now. Today they celebrate their Open Beta release by—what else?—livestreaming scenes from the streets of New York City, following several New York City street musicians.

    Felipe Heusser, the CEO of Rhinobird, tells Civicist that the platform has several advantages over their competitors, the most significant being a lag of less than one second. Rhinobird uses WebRTC, an open source project that enables Real-Time Communications (RTC). All a potential user needs to get started broadcasting or viewing is a WebRTC-enabled internet browser.

    “The focus of this is really to open the live TV sector,” Heusser tells Civicist. “To reduce the barrier to producing or distributing TV.”

    The one hiccup, Heusser acknowledges, is having to build an iOS-specific app, which he says is in the works but not yet completed.

    Rhinobird makes it easy to get multiple perspectives on the same event(s) through “channels” created around hashtags. When streaming something tagged #timessquare, other streams with the same tag appear at the bottom of the screen.

    Unlike his competitors, Heusser’s funding comes from the Knight Foundation, not venture capitalists. The project that eventually became won the Knight News Challenge in 2012.

    Heusser was inspired to build the platform in 2011, when student-led protests filled the streets in Santiago, Chile. Although many demonstrations were peaceful, the media covered what violence there was to the exclusion of everything else. To show the world the “real picture,” Heusser attached a camera to helium-filled balloons and sent it flying into the air. The video was livestreamed via Twitcasting and garnered more than 10,000 viewers during the 40-minute feed.

    That spurred him along the path to Rhinobird. When asked about the name, Heusser explains that it refers to the symbiotic relationship between a rhinoceros and the birds that perch on its back, eating ticks. A rhinoceros will defend it’s territory, but with it’s bad eyesight the animal often depends on the bird to sound the alarm. This collaborative behavior is what Heusser wants to be about: peer-to-peer broadcasting that increases the diversity of media and enriches the commons.

    Scenes of summer in the city will be livestreaming starting today on

Automation movements Social Media

Bring on the Bots

Bring on the Bots

There are lots of things that social media bots could do to enrich our online conversation, monitor those in power, shield us from hate speech, and support social movements.

  • Bots—particularly bots on social media—can’t seem to catch a break in the news lately. First, the Block Bot, a program designed to help Twitter users weed-out disliked content and people, simultaneously fell afoul of Richard Dawkins, members of the conservative press, and legal pundits. Next, an article in the MIT Technology Review outlined the ways social bots act as nefarious “fake persuaders” in online marketing and political communication. Forbes then published a lengthy profile piece on Distil Networks, a company championed by the publication as a battler of “bad” bots. Finally, a Slate piece outlined a slew of crooked, “artificially stupid” though dangerous, instances of automated software agent use.

    Over the last several years, in fact, journalists have increasingly reported on cases of politicians using bots worldwide during contested elections and security crises to pad follower listsspam and disable activists, and send out pro-government propaganda.

    That unsavory actors are using bots globally to their advantage is not in question. However, most stories on this topic fail to ask the bigger question. Namely, is it the nature of bots that makes their usage inherently problematic? Or, rather, is it the means used by the bots to achieve their ends and the intent behind them which makes them so objectionable?

    Deeper digging quickly reveals that there are beneficial bots of all kinds in operation on social media. Bots have been used to facilitate protest and have seen action in critiquing injustice. Consider Zach Whalen’s Twitter bot, @clearcongress, which works to highlight astronomically low congressional approval levels. Or @congressedits, which tweets every time someone at a congressional IP address edits a Wikipedia page. Bots can be used to keep powerful political actors in check.

    By providing automated monitoring, bots can act as a type of social prosthesis for communities of users online. Communities lacking human users to track and publicize political action can now make use of bots which—in the words of one journalist—radiate information automatically. This substitutes to some degree the role of the current events obsessed newshound typically played by humans in a community of users online. This can be important, as in the case of the congressional monitoring bots, and whimsical, as in the case of @stealthmountain, which creates a synthetic “grammar nazi” of sorts on Twitter.

    It is true that these bots may not be able to provide the deep analysis that a professional journalist would provide, but they generate awareness of issues where there previously was an information vacuum. To that end, well-deployed bots can help resolve an increasingly obvious challenge facing social media platforms: that the self-segregating nature of connections online tend to produce echo chambers that prevent people from receiving a diverse set of information. Even in cases where journalists and engaged activists exist and take part in online conversation, bots can work to support these efforts and in some cases surpass them in supplying and processing information.

    Bots and autonomous systems can also be used in reverse, to shield users against the emergent group behaviors on social media which work to dismantle productive discourse. James Poulos of the Daily Beast highlighted these sorts of programs in an article written in support of Block Bot. His argument is that this bot helps users to “see how ‘breaking down boundaries’ isn’t the panacea our creative and optimistic culture so often claims it to be.” Rather, Poulos suggests, the same software used to proliferate spam and manipulate public opinion can be used to limit people’s exposure to toxic, often hateful and abusive, speech online.

    It may become necessary to deploy these technologies. Twitter, Facebook, and others are unlikely to take aggressive and comprehensive actions to resolve issues like harassment and the emergence of echo chambers on their platforms. Despite having the most control over their respective platforms, taking action on these issues would force platforms to wade into the messy politics of playing referee in controversies. By maintaining a position of “neutrality” (some would argue negligence), the responsibility—and blame—continues to rest on users, and not on platforms.

    Moreover, as bad actors become more effective with using bots to shape social activity online, the need for “good bots” may become ever more important. Online social movements may be able to combat bots manually when they are obvious and spam messages in predictable ways. They may not be so successful when swarms of realistic looking identities may be used to conduct long term and subtle campaigns of infiltration in the future.

    It is important not to slip into the complacent cocoon of solutionism with this line of pro-bot argument. As some commentators have worried, “good bots” can look like spam and actually erode the social capital of burgeoning movements online. Automation is powerful. Like the deployment of robots in the physical world, the most effective uses will come with careful study and smart designs that are sensitive to the needs and perceptions of communities.

    Bots which declare their purpose and that they are bots, for instance, would add a layer of transparency that better sets the expectations of the communities they interact with. Bots also might be designed as a kind of community scaffolding, prodding and encouraging when a movement is small, but then deactivating gracefully as people rally to a cause to avoid introducing spam into a conversation.

    The failure of the “good bot” is a failure of design, not a failure of automation. Our discourse would be more productive if it focused on the qualities that make bots the right tool for the job from a social and ethical standpoint, rather than ceding the promise of this technology to those who would use them for ill.

    Samuel Woolley is the program manager of the “Political Bots” Project, a fellow at the Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University, and a Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. He is based in Seattle and can be reached at and on Twitter @samuelwoolley.

    Tim Hwang directs Intelligence and Autonomy at Data & Society, a research initiative addressing the cross-arena challenges of policymaking around intelligent systems. He is based in San Francisco and can be reached by e-mail at and on Twitter @timhwang.

Citizen Journalism Social Media



A new Protestify service connects citizen photo- and video-journalists with media companies so that they can be compensated for their work, but will media companies pay?

  • While observing the Arab Spring from afar, Christina Hawatmeh became frustrated that photos and video taken by protesters were getting lost on social media. In 2013 she founded a company called Protestify—a portmanteau of protest and testify—that helps media companies visualize and analyze social media activity around hot-button hashtags. This year, Hawatmeh is rolling out a new Protestify service that connects citizen photo- and video-journalists with media companies so that they can be compensated for their work.

    Compensating citizen journalists is an idea that has been tried before, mostly unsuccessfully. If it works this time, it will be because Protestify has other revenue sources, and because, on top of content, they promise curation based on big-data analytics that media companies might not be able to replicate in house.

    “I didn’t expect to build a tech company,” Hawatmeh tells Civicist, “but I wanted to solve [this] problem and it turned out to be a tech problem.”

    The problem, as Hawatmeh sees it, is the “the disconnect…between mainstream media and people online.” While studying at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), she began building a service to help media companies better analyze, visualize, and acquire breaking social media content.

    Protestify sold their first images last month but they are only now getting around to automating the copyright agreement. Now, citizen journalists can simply tag their photos or videos on Twitter with “#protestify,” signalling their interest in selling the material. Protestify then sends them a copyright agreement and puts the photo up for sale on the website. Although the pricing is a bit variable, Hawatmeh says they are comparable to Getty images, averaging $200 per photo. The money is split fifty-fifty between the photographer and Protestify. Their service offers citizens a “more equitable way to contribute to the news,” says Hawatmeh.

    Prior to launching the “#protestify” feature, the company practice was to reach out to individual photographers about selling their work. Hawatmeh says that they have a 90 percent response rate from users, generally within one or two minutes.


    Screenshot of the Protestify content feed in the United States.

    Screenshot of the Protestify content feed in the United States.

    Without a doubt there is demand for user-generated content: A recent study by Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism found that, in seven of eight television newscasts, an average of 11 pieces of user-generated content (what could also be called citizen journalism) was shown daily. More than 70 percent of that content was not properly attributed or identified at citizen journalism. The real question is whether news outlets will ever pay for photos and video when there is an abundance of free material.

    In 2005, media observer Steve Outing wrote a piece for Poynter headlined “It’s Almost Time to Pay Up for Citizen Journalism,” in which he predicted that photos would be the first thing media organizations would buy from citizen journalists. He cited three then-new online marketplaces for citizen content: Scoopt, Spy Media, and Cell Journalist.

    None of the three are still up and running: Scoopt was acquired by Getty Images in 2007 and subsequently shuttered in 2009; Spy Media was sold in a private deal in 2007; and Cell Journalist was acquired by ScribbleLive in 2014. According to a ScribbleLive spokesperson, “there was never any compensation for submissions.”

    When reached for further comment, Parker Polidor, who helped launch Cell Journalist and is now a ScribbleLive employee, wrote in an email to Civicist: “We were thinking about paying subscribers (at the beginning phases of the company), but never went forward with any of those plans.”

    Thomas Quinn, the founder of Spy Media, tells Civicist that citizen content is a tough sell because the “internet is a massive cloud where everyone can go in and get anything they want.” He adds that verification of ownership was a challenge, and that media companies are afraid of using material from unknown, and therefore less trust-worthy, sources.

    Steve Outing, who still covers media news, says that a surplus of content is an additional challenge. At any given event, he explains to Civicist, “there will probalby be enough people there that there won’t be one person that has the single best photo.”

    Outing adds that “perhaps there is space [in the market] for curation.”

    That is what Christina Hawatmeh is counting on. “Our domain expertise is how to find this content and organize it together,” she says. To that end, Protestify employs four hashtag researchers in addition to the development and design team.

    Protestify has been enlisted by one agency to build an election-centered visualization around a hashtag that the organization will encourage readers to use, so users can “be a part of the process all the way through.” The end result will incorporate photos, videos, comments, and a livefeed will run on the media website.

    Although Hawatmeh isn’t ready to announce any specific partnerships yet, she tells Civicist she has spoken with representatives from the Associated Press, Reuters, and the New York Times. She adds that Protestify currently is “user testing with a smaller, younger agency and a large enterprise client.” They plan to release details this month.