It has been an important week for me. I rarely watch television news as it’s too depressing, but on Thursday I tuned in by chance to watch the BBC. I immediately saw images of Pakistanis fill my screen. Not the usual rock hurling Pakistanis, irrationally shouting amidst flaming tyres, but gentle candle-lighting, beautiful Pakistanis with words of love and peace on their lips. It was UN International day of the Girl Child and the BBC chose to illustrate this with a story of what they termed a National Awakening in Pakistan, following the shooting of 14-year-old school girl, Malala Yousafzai. I was delighted at the apparent 24 hour flip from a narrative of “those Pakistanis are so barbaric they shoot their own school girls” to one of hope, resilience, and a more accurate reflection of the millions who reject such an act.
Lots has been written about Malala in the past week. Politicians have flocked to her bedside. Crowds have taken to the streets. She is known around the world and now has a lengthy Wikipedia entry. More importantly people have started to revisit her blogs written on the BBC Urdu website about her life as a schoolgirl in Swat.
We live in extraordinary times. Thanks to technology, we are able to read the inner thoughts of a child on the other side of the planet. From my Cambridge home I can follow “Secular Liberal Feminist Vegetarian Idealist Egyptians” on Twitter (@aliaaelmahdy) and even see Liberian blackboard blogger Alfred Sirleaf in action on Youtube. Where mass media is seen to have an agenda – individual voices appear somehow more credible. In fact globally well over a 100 million of us now write blogs and journalism has been impacted as mass media take to publishing blogs and opinion pieces (like this one) more and more.
The BBC’s Lyse Doucet (@bbclysedoucet) presented the Royal Television Society Lecture this week about how TV journalism is being threatened by the social media. I would like to offer two theories – firstly that the overwhelming focus on negative stories in traditional news is making people literally “switch off” and secondly that we are living in an age of the Little Voice – but not necessarily the weak voice. It is when the little voice is shared with masses disproportionate to expected scale of influence that they become change makers and opinion formers far greater than traditional news channels are capable of. Governments know it – the British Foreign Office has two less than 100 bloggers and it’s diplomats regularly Tweet. Violent extremists seem to know it – some allegedly offer courses in social media for sympathisers, and many attack little voice’s like Malala’s – proof that the little voice poses a powerful threat. Businesses know it too – now paying writers to produce “independent” corporate blogs and infiltrating our social online space encouraging us to “like” Coca-cola or BMW cars. The BBC themselves have faced criticism for investing heavily away from broadcast and into their online functions. Big corporations, organisations and governments have jammed the airwaves and seem to miss the ethos of social media being at it most powerful when it’s a little voice doing the talking. Perhaps Lyse could deliver another lecture on how social media is being threatened by the take over by the big guys.
Traditional journalism that presents news as “fact” is obliged to ensure that more than one credible source of information can back up the story. One criticism of social media is that there is no such obligation on a blogger or other online commentator. So the caveat when reading any blog, is to understand that it is one person’s story – not a news item. You can ask a hundred different people who all witnessed the same event what their experiences were and no two will say the same thing – the single-source argument can be unraveled when you scrutinise news presenting itself as fact or worse still “truth”.
Whilst we are busy sending 250 million tweets a day, and 800 million of us log into Facebook, we could honor Malala by thinking about how we might find our way through the masses of digital information and rediscover the authentic, credible individual voices out there. Don’t wait for a gruesome attack to read these quiet words. When we find them, we should pledge to listen to those little voices … not just online, but in real life too.
It’s gotten very noisy out there, and along with the rest of the world, I am still trying to fathom out what this hyper connectivity means. This week was important for me, because I found – via social media – a swathe of little voices in Pakistan and provided them with a platform in the UK press. It was my first paid UK non-opinion news article and it was a positive news story about Muslim Love in Pakistan.
Caroline Jaine is a UK based writer and artist with a background in media strategy, diplomacy and community cohesion. Her book A Better Basra, about her time in Iraq was published in August 2011. She is currently planning a solo exhibition in London “See Karachi” touching on the perception of Pakistan in the media. More about Caroline’s work and her contact details can be found here and on facebook.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.