Photo courtesy of Syrian-Frames-of-Freedom

The idea that social media spreads truth in defiance of a biased media is somewhat of a myth.

IT IS TRUE that most news stations have agendas. But so do individuals – particularly activists. By definition, activists are advocates of a particular cause, which typically makes them opponents of another.

Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have played incredible roles in major revolutions and events in the last few years, from Occupy Wall Street to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Fundamentally, these networks allow participants to spread information about what is happening worldwide, rather than waiting for the media to report it (or not).

Whether writing a tweet or putting together a video to share online, activists are, consciously or not, going to present slanted information to evoke sympathy for their cause. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s not true journalism, and it can potentially do more harm than good.

Take the case of Kony2012, a video created by activists that went massively viral and spread questionable and unverified information to millions of people. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which citizen journalism goes horribly wrong. In the 1960s, if a popular newspaper mistakenly reported a stock market crash, chaos would have broken out. Today, the consequences might be the same with a viral tweet or video report.

Al Jazeera, a news network based in Qatar, has launched an educational campaign that will attempt to teach individuals how to become citizen journalists. They’ve created a series of video tutorials, which can be found on their YouTube channel, Al Jazeera Unplugged.

The first few videos cover how to set up Twitter and Facebook accounts, and are available in English, Bosnian, and Turkish, with plans for more languages in the works. According to GigaOm, Al Jazeera social media head Riyaad Minty explained that future videos will be more advanced, covering issues such as using mobile phones “in a time of crisis” and how the professional media can locate and use valid reports from citizen journalists.

“The focus is mostly on how these tools can be used to create greater awareness around issues with your society,” Minty told GigaOm. “That’s where the name unplugged comes from – it’s more about a need to disconnect, go out and create content, not just consuming media.”

All of Al Jazeera’s citizen journalist videos will have a Creative Commons license, meaning others can remix and share them freely.

My hope is that these more advanced videos will not just go deeper into social media, but also teach some of the fundamentals of journalism itself, such as fact-checking and conducting interviews. The media revolution would be more significant if it involved not only a switch to citizen journalism, but to reliable, responsible journalism as well.

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