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Building Bridges Between Activists and the Tech and Media Communities

Posted on June 6, 2014 by Sarah Kerr

Internet Week New York 2014 (IWNY) brought together leaders from the New York tech scene to discuss the impact of technology on culture, business and entertainment. The final day of the conference featured a number of panels dedicated to the intersection of technology, the internet and social good. WITNESS executive director, Yvette Alberdingk-Thijm and program director, Sam Gregory both took part in panels at IWNY. Here are some key take-aways from each panel.

Panel I: The Rise of Mission-Driven Media

This panel brought together representatives from emerging leaders in mission-driven media to discuss the developing field of advocacy journalism. Panelists discussed how to they approach objectivity, attract and grow and audience and how to compete in the current media landscape. Read a full description here.

Key take-aways:

There is no “right answer” on maintaining objectivity when working in advocacy journalism. Each outlet must figure out their own model and be transparent with their readers regarding their methods, agendas and biases. WITNESS Executive Director Yvette Alberdingk-Thijm spoke about how traditional notions of true objectivity now feel a bit old-fashioned and along with, Neil Barsky of The Marshall Project, emphasized how readers are intelligent and will respond to truthful, impactful and important stories. Outlets who do not embody these characteristics will be weeded out.

Media outlets are now tasked with the job of help their readers sort through the clutter and competing for “attention minutes.” Melissa Bell from Vox spoke about how as modern news consumers, we are inundated with information and content. Advocacy journalism outlets help contextualize and explore topics with greater care.  While some advocacy journalism outlets may be seeking high readership, others are more interested in cultivating a maintaining a dedicated readership who will participate in the issue.

While it often feels as though front pages are dominated by celebrity or novelty news  (e.g. cat videos), advocacy journalism sites show that people are interested in engaging with issues that resonate with them. Greg Behrman of NationSwell also discussed how we are seeing that advocacy journalism helps people connect with things that are important to them that they will then share with others, like they would share a cat video.

Panel II: Technology & Social Change: How Emergent Technologies & Digital Content Are Impacting Today’s Social Movements.

Panel participants were asked to discuss how emerging technologies are sparking and supporting social change all over the world including new platforms such as Secure Drop and Victory Kit, built by Aaron Swartz before his untimely death. Read a full description here.

Key take-aways:

Activists need to be doing more to build bridges between the activist communist and the tech community. WITNESS’ program director Sam Gregory discussed how the activist community needs to help bridge activist technology needs and mainstream technology needs to reach a wider audience of potential activists. Sam cited The Guardian Project as a group who has done this well through their development of tools like Orbot and Obscuracam. Sam and Brian Knappenberger, director of The Internet’s Own Boy, a documentary about Aaron Swartz, also noted that it is important to frame programming skills as a skillset that can be applied to a wide range of problems, including social change-based initiatives.

Activists need to help grow a greater culture of human rights values within the start-up community. “For good features” such as face blurring in photo and video applications, should applied to new technologies from their inception, instead of retroactively as they frequently are now. Sam noted that we need to engage the tech community to think through  potential way their tools could be harnessed to support social change initiatives and then press them to incorporate features that promote these uses.

We need to do a better job explaining internet policy issues and engage a wider range of players in helping to craft future technology legislation. Panelist Karina Kogan of Participant Media, noted that we are dealing with increasingly sophisticated technology that lawmakers are attempting to regulate with comparatively unsophisticated legislation. In addition, the issues, such as internet privacy, need to be explained in a simplified manner that can be understood by a wide range of internet users, not just those already in the tech community.

This panel was also covered this week in FastCompany, click here to read more about this discussion.

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