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Smartphone video use during political unrest

How does amateur video taken on smartphones during political unrest affect news reporting and perception of events?

There has been a quick rise in the use of smartphones by consumers throughout the world. Smartphones and other mobile phones are equipped with a video recording function, allowing users to take videos anytime, anywhere.

What happens during times of political unrest? Traditionally, news reporters enter risky situations to get the story, often recording riots, protests, and even people dying on the streets from violence, whether it is during war or in response to an injustice. However lately, spectators have acted as reporters, video recording the violent events themselves on their devices.

This brings to light two transitions taking place. The first is the immediate availability and function of media for a user – to be able to whip out a smartphone and record a riot. The second is the ability of a common person to generate news content. There has recently been an increase in user generated content with the rise of social media networks and blogs. The intersection of these two transitions has resulted in spectators at events of unrest recording them on their readily available smartphones and then broadcasting them or supplying them to news outlets for use in broadcasts.

You can look up on YouTube or Google amateur video that was taken during almost any riot in the U.S. that you choose to view. Many people standing by choose to take video of these events because they feel strongly that what is happening – either the event, or the circumstances which led to the event – is unjust, and they want other people to see what is happening.

How do you think that user generated video has affected news reporting and perception of events?

Do you think it brings viewers into the situation in a way they couldn’t have been before, or do you think it is an intrusion of privacy/unethical?

How do you think this would be perceived or responded to in your different cultures (for common citizens to record videos of riots and events and then post them online or submit them to a news station, for instance, to be broadcast)?



  1. tjglover23 says:

    The use of smart phones during political unrest is a great asset to news and society. If smart phones had been around during the Civil Rights, Black Panthers movement or the holocaust then maybe fewer minority groups would have been heartlessly murdered. The evidence from the phones could have saved lives and taken crocked cops and people off of streets sooner. Smart phones and there ability to record and upload instantly has given a voice to otherwise muted groups. Though from some perspectives they can be seen as negative or harmful to real news; from a grassroots perspective they are an answer to prayers.

  2. Alex says:

    Good pointTaja. When I think of using video to stop racial injustice, Rodney King is the first example that comes to mind. Because some nearby person had the means to videotape the beating, most of the officers were convicted, whereas otherwise, without the video, the conviction wouldn’t have happened. It seems with smartphones, it is easier to submit a video of an event to a news outlet if you are trying to gain attention for it (like in the Rodney King case, the man who took the video tried to submit it to police, but they weren’t interested, so he called the news station instead and they ran it on TV, I believe ), so I imagine with smartphones, this whole process would be easier and faster. Take a ground breaking video on your smartphone and email to the local news station, all set?

  3. Kristina Coppola says:

    I agree that the prevalence of smart phones/videos brings increased awareness of social injustice and file sharing sites, like You Tube, offer an easy way to bypass traditional modes of censorship or news hierarchy.

    But, I think we also have to be careful not to believe that what we see in a single video captures an entire movement or even an entire event…the video is a reflection of one person’s perspective and location and while it can’t be ignored, it can’t always be extrapolated to represent everyone’s experience. I’m thinking particularly of the relationship between law enforcement and protesters. If a video records a reaction, but not the inciting event(s), it could offer a skewed perspective on the situation. When there is a legitimate abuse by one, it shouldn’t be attributed to all.

    I also think that smart phones/video are a really powerful influence in movements of unrest because of the immediacy with which these videos are shared. If someone posts a video to facebook from one area of a protest, it can be accessed by others in another area of the protest in a matter of seconds. I think that the effects of this probably make for an interesting study in the behavior of crowds.

  4. Access through the internet via smartphones has definitely been revolutionary. I read recently that more people have access to the internet through mobile phones than they do through computers. The immediacy that Kristina mentions is a huge part of this revolution. Similarly to what Kristina noted, it is still important not to take every photo or video at face value. I heard a story about a photo that was tweeted about a location in London and that a riot was going on, when in actuality the photo was taken in Egypt. While public access to the internet is wonderful and creates citizen journalists, it is also something that is dangerous because of inherent dishonesty. It is important to recognize who the trusted informers are before spreading news.

    • lisamedina says:

      Jacki I agree with what you say about being weary of content on the web. All too often we trust the content of video because of the virality of it. Recently a story about TAM Airlines has been trending on Facebook (http://on.fb.me/y15vem) with over 18,000 Shares. If I hadn’t heard a similar story before with another airline, the story might seem plausible. I do feel smartphones can be important tools in reporting timely information, I however, worry about video and photos being doctored into partial truths.

  5. Alex says:

    Yes, it is interesting that what is such a powerful tool also requires us to have a sharper eye. Video can document things in ways and through outlets we previously were not able. But at the same time, we have to be analytical of what we are viewing and use our own judgment about what brought the event to a head.

  6. tjglover23 says:

    I think you both raise valid points about the misinformation that can come from the use of Smartphone’s. However, I think that the people receiving this information have to keep in mind that with the internet, “we no longer have to edit ourselves.” (Sidle Up to Difference) Since we don’t have to edit ourselves, then we don’t have to have a filter. Without a filter, we self validate everything we post online. It is then each online user’s responsibility to double check that which is placed online. As a result, online users are now journalists, and just like journalists we have to double check our sources. We can’t just believe that which is posted first, because it is first. Not saying that those who create internet content should not be accountable but just like everything in life, we can’t just take everything at face value. I think if we decide to believe it just because it is online or in video format then it shows our ignorance, as opposed to saying anything about the creator of a video.

  7. Laura Chechette says:

    Do you think it brings viewers into the situation in a way they couldn’t have been before, or do you think it is an intrusion of privacy/unethical?

    I think that videos and photos from a smart phone definitely bring the public into a situation in a way that they couldn’t have been before. No one can be everywhere at once so when a regular person documents an event and shares it with others who weren’t there to witness it I am in support of it. I think the problem which a few other classmates have mentioned also is that by eliminating the media middle men then there are no longer gatekeepers to validate what it real and what isn’t. Today everything can be manipulated and “photoshopped” to portray something that may or may not have happened. How do people know a video uploaded to YouTube hasn’t been tampered with? They don’t. It is important to always take any information online that has not been uploaded by a reputable source with a grain of salt until it can be properly vetted.

    The second half of your question asks about the intrusion of privacy and ethics. I think many times the issue of privacy and ethics can be answered by where the event takes place. If someone is out in a public place like a park or sidewalk then I don’t believe it is a violation of privacy. I think it is ethical to record video or photos of someone in a pubic place because they made the choice to be in public. However if someone is on private property like their house or other nongovernment owned location then a recording a video may violate a person’s privacy. By choosing to leave the privacy of your own home you take the risk that you may be photographed or filmed. I am not saying that everyone should stay home to avoid being photographed, I just believe that people should be aware that anything they do in a public place is public information.

  8. andreslmc says:

    Alex–in regards to news reporting and news consumption, I think that smartphones empower us but also make us more susceptible to manipulation.Clearly smartphones give us the power to vet news instantly. However, given that smartphones also give anyone the power to publish “news,” this new communication medium also calls on us to be more critical. Thoughts??

  9. sonigreca says:

    I think user generated video could sometimes bring different angles to look at some events. The book press effect we’ve read for Payne’s class has mentioned that news are often time framed by reporters. I totally agree with that point and I think it’s more obvious in my culture. So I think smartphone videos sometimes could show us some facts or truth that we cannot perceive from regular news report.

    More and more people are using smartphones in China. In China, the government regulation of what has been posted online is really restrict. In the beginning of online video development in China, we could see a lot of smartphone-taped videos about some events happend in China. However, as the government blocked YouTube and Facebook. Big and official local websites such as Tudou.com and Youku.com, and other online media all improved their regulation systems. And you cannot really see much of those videos online. Now, more people use Weibo.com, the Chinese version of Twitter. People retweet videos that others take about some hot topic events. But if a topic is really political sensitive, those videos will be blocked very soon.

    • Hi Sonya- Do you know if the Chinese government has reacted to such videos you mentioned by doing anything harsher than removing the videos? I know when we spoke with Matar (native of Saudi Arabia) last year, he mentioned that such “activists” tended to receive harsh punishment or even imprisonment.

      • Ji Li says:

        Hi Jackie, I actually don’t know if there was any harsher action Chinese government has taken besides removing the videos. Maybe because that even if Chinese government did made some harsh punishment on that “activist”, most common people don’t have a chance to get to know such “disharmony”news, just like me. Or maybe because that most people who take such videos and post them online rarely provide their real personal information to the public, so it’s hard for the government to track and find them. Also, there are SO MANY similar videos posted online everyday, if the video doesn’t go too provocative or too against the government that really does a huge negative impact on the public, it may not get a chance to draw attention from the government and will soon be replaced by other new similar videos.

      • sonigreca says:

        Hi Jacki, I’m not sure. But some years ago, there was a photo scandal of a actor in Hong Kong.He took so many porn pictures with so many female singers and actresses. And those photo when out to public when he brought his computer to fix. And at that time, the government actually put someone in jail for spreading those photos on line. I think, some one was put in jail for posting some videos that are not “supposed” to be posted… But the public won’t know… The thing is, the government can trace you IP address. So, if “activists” post some videos online, the government will find them. In 2008, Xinjiang province had the protest that Wei Wuer minority people went to the street and beat Han majority people. That protest was directed by someone overseas. She provoked that protest via facebook or something like that. That’s also one of the reason the government blocked the facebook. If she was in China, she sure would be caught.

  10. andreslmc says:

    How do you think this would be perceived or responded to in your different cultures (for common citizens to record videos of riots and events and then post them online or submit them to a news station, for instance, to be broadcast)?

    Alex–Colombians have embraced mobile internet devices such as smartphones and iPads. The use of these devices is widespread in Colombia, as these devices are used to by people to stay connected to social networks.

    However, these devices are also being used to combat political corruption. During the 2010 Colombian presidential elections, many public watchdog groups in Colombia used smartphones to document election day voting fraud and irregularities. In fact many of these phones were outfitted with an open source tracking program developed by Ushahidi, a non-profit tech company, (http://ushahidi.com/) to create an interactive map of purported electoral fraud sites. These interactive maps were designed to warn the public to stay away from such voting sites and also to alert authorities of the purported voting irregularities.

    • Kristina Coppola says:

      Andres, what a great example of the technology bringing people together. I think that more programs, like this one by Ushahidi, are going to be an important force in harnessing the power of smartphones for social justice. By combining the perspectives of many people, I think that it gives the results more credibility and certainly allows an organized effort across a wider area of the country. I’m curious though, did alerting the authorities to the alleged abuses result in any action from those in power or any changes in the public’s voting behavior?

  11. Alex says:

    It’s good to hear about the different ways smartphones and video footage have been used in different countries and cultures, as well as interesting to hear about the level of acceptance or restriction of the technology. I think all of our points have shown that there is good use for video and the technology provides unique opportunity as well as ease of use, but we also know we have to be careful about what we post to the public and how we discern what we watch.

  12. KSA ROCKS! says:

    Hey Alex & class ^_^ — Nowadays, of course, just about anyone with a cell phone can make videos of an event and post it. This is highly invasive of privacy and can cause events to be represented in the wrong context, particularly if people who take video edit portions of it out before posting on social media sites. As the popularity of such shows as “Cops” shows, people want to see video footage of tumultuous situations. However, doing so deadens us to the shocking, as we can see shocking any time we want on YouTube – the truly shocking may no longer exist, which would be the greatest tragedy of the videophone era.

    Is it legitimate to post these sorts of footage as news? Based on the traditional definition of news provided by the major networks and outlets such as CNN, badly made videos with no established provenance are not acceptable. However, with millions of bloggers and hundreds of video posting sites out there, the rules get blurrier each day. The best advice is to refrain from posting anything that you would not want to go viral in a matter of minutes.

  13. meredithmckenna says:

    When I read this post, the first thing I thought of was how the news often distorts information and does not give the full details of a story. With smartphones, I think we are now pushing back at the media, and to some extent keeping the news a bit more honest. The media is always looking to “frame” a story, and the use of smart phones makes it a little easier for the public to go research a story themselves, and find 20+ youtube videos of the actual event taking place.

    Being able to record and share information all over the world at such a fast pace, allows for stories to break almost instantly, and although this information will not tell the whole story, it creates awareness on the subject, which is important for many political movements in countries of distress that do not normally receive global attention. Last year in Egypt, Libya, and Syria twitter was one of the platforms that helped voice (and unite) numbers of people. It will be interesting to see what happens with Twitter issuing its new censorship laws.

    • Boon Han says:

      I fully agree with Meredith about how the prevalence of smartphone videos have returned some “power” back to the common man as opposed to how media conglomerates and even some governments used to dominate the entire narrative and spread their desired propaganda in the past.

      Take for example the conflict in Syria, while the government banned all reporters from entering Syria to report on the conflicts to keep them away from the scrutiny of the international community, videos taken using smartphones are still being uploaded onto the internet for the world to see. As a result, the Syrian government is facing increasing pressure from the international community to cease the blood bath.

      The emergence of such a trend has definitely been a positive step in ensuring transparency in the world. No matter how big an organization or how powerful a government, it has now become near impossible to cover up dubious events and incidents.

  14. grabernieto says:

    Technology and how accessible it is to individuals all around the world is one of the clear signs of globalization. The way media these days is propagated at fast and immeadiate speeds is what makes the world less apart. Technology is also helping shaped up the journalism industry, since anyone can be their own reporter. Take for example a personal experience, 2 years ago there was riots in Ecuador (my country of origin) and the way I stayed informed was not by newsmedia, but by videos of regular citizens who documented their experiences. This resulted very convenient for me since I did not have access to local media and viral sites like youtube are accessible from the comfort of my computer. The fast flow of information, shows how easy technology is to more people than ever. It also is helping bridge geographic and information barriers. The future of communication and media is in the hands and in the control of the citizens worldwide.

  15. Alex says:

    Definitely sounds like the use and acceptance of smartphone video varies across cultures, that it can expose actions during times of social or political unrest. It’s interesting to hear that in China, the focus is on removing the videos, rather than punishing them or doing something to discourage people from posting them. For instance, in the U.S., it is illegal to download music without paying for it, but there are several web sites that allow you to do so. Every once in a while, some random person gets charged or sued a big amount of money for pirating music. For instance, there was a BU student a few years ago that got taken to court for thousands of dollars to make repayment for downloading music illegally which was seeen as taking money from musical artists. The system was just trying to make an example out of this one student as a scare tactic so that people would stop downloading illegally. I think this is definitely a cultural difference in how to enforce a regulation.

    I also think that we are all speaking to the fact that smartphone video brings ease of use and reporting into our own hands, as well as complicates or changes the journalism industry, which can give us more freedom to discern information or more difficulty discerning information, depending on how you look at it.

    It sounds like in places like Colombia and Ecuador, video is empowering people during unrest, whereas in China it is being censored if the content conflicts with or challenges the government. It seems for those of us from the U.S., the view of smartphone video is neutral.

    Mimi – can you give any insight on Saudi Arabia’s reaction to this type of technology? How people use it, or how it’s dealt with?

  16. zhoulinjolin says:

    Hi Alex, my capstone topic last semester is just about the user generated videos. Last year, a train crash accident happened in China. Before reporters went into the accident area, a lot of videos and pictures filmed at the site by spectators had been uploaded to internet, especially Microblog (Chinese Twitter). I agree with you that people believe the Government’s report was unjust. They want other people to see what was really happening. They also used these pictures as evidence to question the Government’s statements about death toll. I believe the way that everyone is a reporter can push the government to build up an effective channel–both online and offline–to communicate with the public. And it is true that through user generated videos people can get more truths.

    But a big concern is about the user’s ability to generate just news content. Usually videos shot by people standing by are more persuasive to the public. The speed of its spreading online is also crazy. If the content of the video is just a quote out of context or is not fair, the communication could be chaotic.

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