The Social Network Wire Service

Why does this video exist? More specifically, why is the story of Fouad Mourtada, a young Moroccan imprisoned for creating a false Facebook profile, on the evening news in Chile? The answer may surprise you.

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We are accustomed to receiving news at the speed of light. We expect to see major events around the globe occurring in real time. Networks like CNN and the BBC bring the world into our living rooms and onto our laptop screens not only on the evening news but all day long.

For media outlets without a network of far-flung correspondents, wire services like Reuters and Agence France-Presse (AFP) create ready-to-print news stories and then sell them to other news organizations (*). This combination of correspondents and wire services is how we get most of our news.

But there are other options as well and, with the increasingly global nature of social networks, these methods of news dissemination may become more common.

Take the Fouad case, for example. I lived in Chile for 6 months in 2006-2007. While there I met Alberto Precht, with whom I share an interest in digital activism. I moved away from Chile almost a year ago but, through the wonders of such free communication tools as GChat and Facebook we kept in touch. In fact, we became closer friends because we actually communicate more often online while living on separate continents than we did when we were both living in Santiago de Chile.

I also have a Moroccan friend whom I met online. When Fouad was arrested this friend told me what had happened. I then told Alberto and, being a dedicated activist, he decided to get involved, even starting a Spanish-language Facebook group to support Fouad. When he was interviewed by a Chilean news program he mentioned Fouad’s case and – lo and behold – the news of Fouad traveled from Morocco to Chile in two interpersonal links in a social network.

Now, as an isolated phenomenon this means relatively little. It’s a fluke. But if it were a common occurrence it would become more significant. The way we currently think of ordinary people influencing the news is through blogs, and the effects are usually domestic. Bloggers, especially in the US, are opinion-makers, and for this reason reporters read those blogs and sometimes take their lead on stories, particularly in the field of politics.

The social network is another way for ordinary citizens to effect the news cycle, and the implications are similar as those for blogging: we represent a new series of interests and priorities and a fundamentally different perspective of what is newsworthy than the commercial services, which often play what will get high ratings: car chases, stories of the bizarre, celebrity gossip.

Too often they pander rather than challenge. They guess at what the viewer wants, often appealing to the lowest common denominator. When citizens have the ability to disseminate news they are actively telling media outlets what they care about, rather than being the passive recipients of others’ priorities.

I would like to see the Fouad case replicated, to see international social network “wire services” become a more robust phenomenon. Citizens have already taken on the role of correspondent and columnist. Is it so much to ask that we also begin to replicate complex international news organizations? Blog networks like Global Voices are already starting to fill this role. We have the tools and networks to make it happen.

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