10 Oct 2011
Were they clashes? That's the word swirling through the web already. Clashes suggests two parties fighting each other. It suggests an equivalence.
But there is a lot of evidence to suggest that there was something more serious still going on - that the real crux of the events in Cairo yesterday was a series of coordinated 'attacks'.
Who was responsible? Mobs driven by sectarian hate? That's what Egypt's Minister of Justice Mohamed El-Guindy seems to be saying - at least according to Al Ahram. Why else dish out military trials despite pledges to curtail military trials of civilians?
Maybe too there were foreign elements directing events? That's what Essam Sharaf, the prime minister, seems to be saying.
These are critical times indeed for Egyptians - and they more than ever need the life blood of free information to sort out the rhetoric and rumour from the truth.
To date, Egypt's revolution (which surely is still ongoing) has been given impetus from citizens using social media, reporting on what they're experiencing, sharing information and telling the wider world what they feel.
When Egyptians were overwhelmingly against the regime, there was little to disagree on. But now there is a new potential for fragmentation as different interest groups vie for power. So we have to be additionally wary of unsourced citizen content. And we have to empower those who are determined to continue reporting what they see freely and impartially.
But what could give sustenance to Egypt's new generation of digital citizen journalists? How could they be supported?
At Meedan we are working on a project that aims to create the structures needed to do just that. This work hinges on building lasting collaborations between professional journalists and citizen journalists, through tools, training and network building.
Specifically, we are working with local media partners to build tools that allow for citizens to identify, sort, and evaluate citizen reports alongside professional journalists.
In its first iteration, this means a live blog where citizens can actively suggest stories and provide critical markup on emerging citizen videos and witness statements, including inferences as to the time, location and actors of a report. Our aim is for professional journalists to publish out the best of this content, both online and in print, with credit to the citizens involved in producing and curating it.
But we hope to go further. And yesterday's terrible scenes in Cairo indicate how we can do so.
You are a journalist on a leading news outlet, tasked with understanding what is going on right now in Cairo as protests turn violent. It is vital early on to identify what happened, to whom and by whom, when, where and how - the key questions for any journalist. This information will play a part in framing how citizens in Egypt and across the world understand these events, and how the web will 'remember' (will it be 'clashes' or 'attacks'?).
You hear a tweet from @SarahCarr: 'Im standing on october bridge i saw about 15 people get run over.' What is going on?
Shortly after she tweets again: 'Just awful scenes in the hospital. Women screaming men crying. A protester said “the army ran us over like we are animals“'
These two reports suggest the army used vehicles to attack protesters. Is there any other content which corroborates that information?
This is where you need citizens to help you, to direct videos, images, tweets and other content that backs up these claims.
A citizen journalist sends you this video showing armoured personnel carriers moving very fast through areas packed with protesters. The citizen is able to confirm the date the video was published and location (the Radio Shack store is clearly visible). This is definitely Cairo - you can tell from the accents.
All of this information helps the journalist evaluate the content and its likely veracity. This can then be paired with the tweets to 'corroborate' the witness statements they contain.
Other citizen videos emerge that appear to show the protests as peaceful (if vocal) until gun firing begins and fast moving vehicles arrive - both unlikely tools of the protesters when they are already making so much noise. This video clearly shows a crowd moving toward and then running away from police. At the 4:22 point the chaos seems to peak. This is a Bambuser video from username Hayat-Elyamani It was shot on a Samsung Galaxy sII and according to Bambuser "Broadcast started, local time: October 9 2011 18:18 Europe/Stockholm"
A journalist referencing this video might rely on their knowledge of Cairo landmarks to verify the location. They could also reference the history of the source- in this case the user who broadcast the video. On Monday 19:08 UTC Bambuser shares the following meta-data on this citizen reporter: Joined August 3 2011 Last active 2 hours ago 23 broadcasts 4568 total views. A more thorough reporting on this source might examine earlier videos.
Further video from citizens who recorded television reports clearly show armoured vehicles driving erratically at pace in amongst protesters, as if aiming to run protesters over. Citizens attest to watching the same footage on TV.
By building a case in this way - as journalists do routinely - we can be more confident of reporting the original witness statements in their proper context and with a high degree of confidence. And we can make all of this process of working out available publicly, including all the caveats and questions about things we do or did not know. In fact, that's critical because it's what engages the citizens.
The tools do not tell you what is true, but rather allow you to seek and structure the information you require to make a more informed judgment. That in turn allows you to start to sort the truth from the rumour and rhetoric.
Ultimately it is the truth which will hold those in power to account and inform citizens of the importance of detailed journalistic endeavour and of their rights. We can then stop talking about 'clashes' and focus in on what is important: the 'attacks'.