New Publications on Mobile Phones & Citizen Journalism in Africa

The last few weeks have brought a flurry of new publications – my first properly peer-reviewed work, actually. I had a great time working on these rather diverse projects – two reviews and two survey-based studies; on media and on economics; about Africa and Europe. As you can see below, much of the work has been in cooperation with Drs. Mutsvairo, who’s a PhD candidate at Leiden University’s African Studies Center and teaches communication at my College in Amsterdam. He is partly responsible for my shift of geographic focus towards Sub-Saharan Africa, although I’m sure other factors played a role as well. Below is a short introduction to all four papers.

Already out since February is a book edited by Ndubuisi Ekekwe and Nazrul Islam, “Disruptive Technologies, Innovation and Global Redesign” with two chapters in which I’ve been involved. The first is a review of the literature on economic impacts of mobile telephony in developing economics; the second a study done in cooperation with Bruce Mutsvairo and Louis Klamroth on the implications of media usage patterns for traditional media theories.

In another paper just out this last weekend in the Central European Journal of Communication, Bruce and me studied citizen journalism in Africa. I did what I consider a rather comprehensive review of the (sparse) literature on this topic. Some of the key findings are a complex relationship with traditional media (“against, parallel to, and interlinked with…”) and democracy (here I’m drawing heavily on an excellent working paper by Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich for the Berkman Center on Kenya). In many parts, the review highlights the lack of sources however: most of the papers cited are case studies of conflict situations.

Finally, a week ago I was in Austin to attend the International Symposium on Online Journalism where Bruce presented a paper written by us and my friend Iris Leijendekker. In this study, we explore the ethical beliefs of African citizen journalists. In particular, we asked our (unfortunately rather small sample, n=20) questions about their motivations, aims, and allegiances. We find that citizen journalists are strongly driven by the wish to inform others and have a tendency to reject self-censorship and governmental control. In a traditional journalism ethics framework, this is consistent with the theory of social responsibility. Especially with regard to our analytical framework based on Yochai Benkler’s notion of the ‘networked public sphere’, this is a hopeful finding; yet the question remains whether beliefs and practices actually measure up.

One issue I have with academic publishing are the restrictions it puts on sharing. The book is available from IGI Global for some ridiculous price (each chapter individually costs $30, of which I get absolutely nothing); the online edition of the Central European Journal of Communication will be out “in Spring 2013” according to the publisher. The very positive exception is the International Symposium on Online Journalism, who put up all presented papers following a request from attendees. Ours is here. As for the others, I guess you know how to write me an email…


Mutsvairo, B., Columbus, S., & Leijendekker, I. (2012, April 20). African Citizen Journalists’ Ethics and the Emerging Networked Public Sphere. Presented at the International Symposium on Online Journalism, Austin, TX.

Mutsvairo, B. & Columbus, S. (2012). Emerging Patterns and Trends in Citizen Journalism in Africa: A Case of Zimbabwe. Central European Journal of Communication 5(1), 123-137.

Columbus, S. (2012). Is the Mobile Phone a Disruptive Technology? A Partial Review of Evidence From Developing Economies. In N. Ekekwe & N. Islam (eds.), Disruptive Technologies, Innovation and Global Redesign: Emerging Implications. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Mutsvairo, B., Columbus, S., & Klamroth, L. (2012). Rethinking mass communication theories in the Internet era. In N. Ekekwe & N. Islam (eds.), Disruptive Technologies, Innovation and Global Redesign: Emerging Implications. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

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Is the Internet Revolution Really Unprecedented?

How much new is there in our contemporary communications revolution, enabled by the Internet, pushed forward by blogs and microblogs? A look into history can be clarifying. And it is surprising how often Elizabeth Eisenstein uses the same phrases that today describe the purportedly unprecedented characteristics of the Internet to tell her history of “The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe”.

The similarity between blog and printing press is to obvious to go unnoticed, and many have extended on this allegory. But Eisenstein’s account highlights details which most advocates of the rise of those who were formerly called the audience will likely overlook. Who would have guessed that crowdsourcing is a practice half a millenium old? But indeed, early printers of maps and globes and natural compendia already asked their readers to contribute their discoveries to following editions, as Eisenstein shows. “After printing, large-scale data collection did become subjects to new forms of feedback which had not been possible in the age of scribes.”

This, of course, is not the collaborative process enabled by the Internet which we see today in the Wikipedia, and which Clay Shirky invests so much hope in. But Eisenstein’s work is fascinating because it allows us to look for the general principles that communications revolutions come with. Enhanced feedback processes, it seems, are one of them.

I have often heard from sceptics that they don’t see any new ideas in blogs. How can a medium be revolutionary if it just spreads the contents of its traditional predecessors, undermixed with urban myths and conspiracy theories, they ask. A historical perspective seems helpful, because the same is true for the printing press: Early printed books did barely contain any new content; in fact, they often served to spread myths and charlatanry, alongside the same old, unscientific theories as before.

Eisenstein claims that there is a benefit in knowing three wrong theories instead of one. From comparison, their inconsistence can be realized – and new, better-fitting theories can be devised. We might think similarly about the Internet. My generation has already grown up with near infinite sources of information at their hands, open for comparison. Surely, most people don’t use these intellectual pastures of plenty, but what can they effect as tools of those who do?

“The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe” had originally come to my attention via a mention in Graeme Kirkpatrick’s “Technology & Social Power”. There, the author enhances Eisenstein’s arguments in connecting it with Habermas’ writings on the emergence of the “public sphere”. He writes that “only through the agency of print […] does it become possible for people to think of themselves as members of an ‘imagined community’, the basis of modern nationalism”.

The fascinating question that arises is, of course, whether this development will find an equivalent in the social media age. Ala’a Abdel Fattah recently wrote, regarding the current revolutions in the Middle East, that “[f]rom the internet and satellite TV a new pan-Arabism is born”, and Zeynep Tufekci (when rebutting Malcolm Gladwell) touched on hopes for an social media-enabled globalism as a possible force against global problems such as climate change:

New movements that can bring about global social change will still require people who interact with each other regularly, and trust and depend on each other in somewhat dense networks. Or only hope is if those networks span the globe in a tightly-knit, broad web of activity, interaction, personalization. Real change will come only if we can make friends we care about everywhere and we make bridge ties that cover the world in a web of common humanity that is bigger and more powerful than a handful of corporations and the corrupt, self-perpetuating class of politicians. […] I say, bring on the hive mind, please let it be global in scale as nothing less will do, and let Facebook and Twitter lead the way.

But is this global hive mind really emerging? Despite great efforts such as Global Voices, it doesn’t seem as if national media spheres were truly converging. I recently did a series of interviews for an upcoming publication, and inspired by Ala’a comment I also asked about the chances for a social media-enabled pan-Africanism. While most interviewees had high hopes, the status quo seems less promising. I’ll quote the great Ethan Zuckerman:

I think that’s wildly optimistic. I see very little conversation outside of individual regions, with the exception of a few cross-continent ties (Kenya to Ghana, for instance.) It’s rare to see dialog between Anglophone and Francophone speakers, for instance, and the conceptual barrier that separates sub-Saharan and Northern Africa remains firmly in place in a digital age. I’d love to see digital media emerge into regional media, and will wait to see that before I indulge in Nkrumist fantasies.

Elizabeth L. Eisenstein: The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge University Press, 2005. Amazon.

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Which revolution is being televised?

As to be expected, I am glued to my laptop at the moment following the developments of the situation in Egypt. What strikes me is the communicational difference to the situation in Iran 2009: With the Internet (mostly) shut down, Al Jazeera, as well as news agencies AP and Reuters, are nearly the sole source of information.

Naturally, corporate foreign news organisations are confined to major urban centers, in the case of Al Jazeera (resp. Al Jazeera English) Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. And following numerous attacks on their reporters, they are even restricted to their own offices. The revolution is being televised – but which revolution does the television show?

Since the Internet and mobile network shutdown, news from rural areas have all but vanished from international reports. Commentators have repeatedly stressed that the uprise in Egypt is exceptional for happening all over the country, but whatever is happening outside the urban centers right now – it goes unnoticed. I.e., for the international audience it effectively does not take place.1

In a short digression, it’s also noteworthy that there are now news that Al Jazeera Arabic was taken off air a couple of minutes ago. The most important news source for Egyptians first on the revolution in Tunesia and then on the developments in their own country is thus no longer available. Alaa Abdel Fattah, Egyptian superblogger and longtime opposition activist, has pointed out the impact of supranational media in the Guardian: “From the internet and satellite TV a new pan-Arabism is born.”

It’s a close call to compare this situation to the much talked-about role of social media during the “green revolution” in Iran one and a half years ago. What is noteworthy is that Blogs, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter diversified the range of news sources – I might just point to the videos of the death Neda Agha-Soltan, which were spread over the Internet. While apparently not relevant to the organisation of protest, Twitter and other social media certainly changed the portrayal and perception of the “green revolution” in the West.

However, in Iran the protests never spread nationwide in the way they are now in Egypt. There were demonstrations in other major cities apart from Tehran, yet they stayed minor events in comparison to the mass rallies in the capital. Most notably, I barely found (English-language) sources on the ongoings in these smaller cities. Should one conclude that the Internet doesn’t make reporting on uprisings (spatially) more diverse?

The recent developments in Tunesia seem to go counter such an analysis. Sure, the situation there went unnoticed by a broader (Western – it was amplified powerfully by Al Jazeera in the Arab world) audience; but social media such as movie-sharing platforms were used from the beginning to spread news about the uprising from the beginning.

The Internet enables us to get informed on the ongoings in any place connected to the network, however remote it might otherwise be. Egypt’s Internet shutdown has effectively narrowed down our perspective to the angles of Al Jazeera’s television cameras. Does that change civil resistance? Being skeptical about media’s role in these in general, I am not sure. But it is certainly an issue to watch as events unfold.

  1. Just as I am writing this, Al Jazeera English is interviewing somebody from Bani Suwaif. So it seems they are, after all, able to create connections to more remote places. []
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