Sometimes here at NetProphet it can be a little too easy to get caught up in all the things happening every day in our coverage region. Whether it’s a new crowdmapping platform or an increase in Net Freedom crackdowns, there’s always something interesting to report on. This is why it’s important to step back and get to know some of the people involved in leading the forward march of social media across the region.
One of those persons is Jaroslav Valuch, a consultant and social media specialist (as well as a long-time TOL collaborator) who is based in the Czech Republic. With his extensive background promoting media literacy and digital activism, he has unparalleled insight into the ebbs and flows of what’s going on at the intersection of youth, activism, and social media.
He is the co-founder and one of the coordinators of the Standby Task Force, an online volunteer community for Live Mapping. He is also one of the program managers of the International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival One World. In January 2010, he helped deploy the Ushahidi Haiti platform a few hours after the earthquake hit Haiti.
Next week, he will be one of the speakers featured at this year’s Forum 2000 conference in Prague. This year’s theme is Media & Democracy, and Jaro will be participating in two of the panels, one on “Censorship and the Internet” and the other one on electronic activism.
He recently spoke to NetProphet about the trends and challenges facing new-media activists today.
NetProphet: You are an international expert in social media. What inspired you to take this road of raising awareness about new media technologies?
Jaroslav Valuch: I’ve been working in the nonprofit/activist field since 1999, when I started an environmental NGO in my home town Zlin. I studied marketing and media and became interested in using this methodology not to sell washing powder, but ideas. I ended up working for People in Need, where I worked mainly on the educational project One World in Schools. I was running a media literacy program meant to increase young peoples’ ability to critically examine the media messages they are exposed to. This was 2008, and young people were already living in completely different media environment that my generation did. This was an impulse to further explore the potential of social media and ICTs in the field of human rights. So I got a Fulbright scholarship and left to DC to study and do internships.
NP: You have also been one of the organizers and mentors of the participants of the Social Innovation Camp held in Moldova in the summer of 2012. Could you talk to us about the potential innovations, such as ideas and projects that have caught your attention?
JV: I liked this Social Innovation camp a lot because it was organized the way it should be, not with the involvement of big international NGO, but with local groups of media activists who have a good and deep insight into the community and the needs of the country. For that reason, the projects selected to participate in the SI Camp were very strong. I don’t only mean the ideas (most of them were not particularly revolutionary), but the strong motivated teams that came to move these ideas forward during the weekend. I’ve been to many SI camps already, and believe me, a strong motivated team is usually more important than the idea itself. There can be many great ideas, but only few that make it to reality and manage to have a social impact because they have a strong team and a plan for sustainability. In this regard, the project Parkanoid caught my attention because it builds an application on an already existing community of people who organized themselves mostly via Facebook. The second strong project that caught my attention was 1000 places to visit in Moldova, not that much because of the idea, but because of the strong and motivated team behind it.
NP: Speaking of ideas that can become reality, how can new media outlets maintain their impact and outreach in countries from Eastern Europe or Central Asia, where objective journalism is under constant attack from official bodies?
JV: It is becoming increasingly difficult for the governments to control all media outlets, simply because almost anyone can use this medium today. There are technical means to suppress communication, but it simply more difficult for them than before. To maintain impact and outreach, they need first of all to be completely networked, supportive and collegial to each other. Once a report goes out, it has to spread quickly via any available channels and to be shared, which makes it impossible for the governments to censor the information. There is also a great need for a better awareness of the security of journalists as they can end up in dangerous situations. Also, traditional journalists have a lot to teach their younger colleagues who are calling themselves citizen journalists. What we need now is to extend journalistic approaches of verification of information and ethical standards to the new generation of digital activists. And also, these “new” journalists have to keep in mind that not all of their audience is online and should seek alternatives to the digital medium in order to spread their message.
NP: On the topic of alternative media channels: you are one of the co-founders of the Standby Task Force, an online volunteer community for live mapping. How is this emerging trend of live mapping going to change the new media landscape, in your opinion?
JV: Well, it is the other way around, the new media landscape is influencing traditional fields such a humanitarian response. It simply built on the fact that today, people share information not only about what they had for lunch, but also about their condition and their needs during a time of crisis. So they are kind of citizen- crisis reporters. The goal of live mapping is to catch these conversations, turn them into actionable data that humanitarian responders can understand and visualize through interactive live maps. The geolocation element is crucial here, you receive almost real time information with the location as the context, in other words, without good maps, you are half blind.
NP: How does your native country, the Czech Republic, fit into these trends of information sharing and into this “new media revolution” in general?
JV: Although some might disagree, we have been a democratic country with free media since 1989. Of course, not everything is perfect, but comparing the situation to that in many other countries, the media control and censorship is not an issue. What I can see is one interesting trend – new media in the Czech Republic are only very slowly finding their way into the hands of activists and nonprofits. Also, citizen journalism and blogging is definitely not a big thing (or at least wasn’t for many years, unlike in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, or Russia. The media control combined with the demand of people to have channels to share and receive information pushed people to seek alternative channels of communication. This is why some have named certain revolutions today not according to flowers and colors, but according to the technologies used (the Facebook revolution in Egypt, the twitter revolution in Moldova and Iran, the Wikileaks revolution in Tunisia and so on). Regardless how important these tools were, it nicely illustrates the fact that people, thanks to their access to ICTs today, explore alternatives to traditional media. As I said, in Czech Republic, we are pretty comfortable – we have mainstream media, we have an unlimited access to them, and they usually are pretty much trusted, unlike individual bloggers. Nothing serious has pushed us to seek alternative channels yet.
NP: And the last question: what message or advice do you have for young journalists trying to raise awareness about their causes?
JV: In general, study and travel but to be more specific… Learn from experienced journalists and try to apply this knowledge to your own digital work. Keep focused on a particular topic, regardless if you can make a living out of it or not. What you need is experience and proof that you know how to work hard to attain certain result. Use social media not just to distribute your messages, but also to aggregate and filter information from the internet space, and use them for verification through crowdsourcing – ask people to join you in producing a story. And first of all – be safe, learn about online security threats, don’t put yourself and your sources to unnecessary danger.