People Keep Fighting Power with Social Media

Pink Frangipani Blossoms

The first chapter of Welcome to the Fifth Estate discusses social media empowered people that act independently of traditional media, government and corporate structures. Last Saturday night on WOR Radio’s The Business of Giving show I had the pleasure of discussing this tension with host Denver Frederick. From Syrian bloggers fighting the Assad regime to the anti-Komen Planned Parenthood social media fury in the United States, people continue to fight power structures with social media.

Average citizens feel a need to circumvent established media as well as traditional government and corporate structures with online tools. Their information needs are unfulfilled and voices are not being heard. So people activate themselves online to demand change and action, or to form new innovative ways of resolving their problems.

The Syrian Revolution

Syrian activists that provide details of their civil war are the starkest current example of the Fifth Estate. The Assad regime and its state-run media refuse to provide an accurate accounting of the ongoing battles within Syria’s borders. As a result, everyday Syrian citizens take to the Internet, and risk their lives to tell the truth.

With the regime allowing very few journalists inside Syria’s borders, these citizen activists have become primary sources of information. For example this graphic video shows a recent death of an innocent 16-year old school girl in Deraa, Syria. The Assad regime regularly denies death reports like this, but the video offers irrefutable evidence.

The scary and dangerous situation in Syria will likely continue for at least another year. These courageous citizen journalists are informing the international community, and putting pressure on the UN, the Arab League and individual governments to act against the Assad regime. Let’s hope their sacrifices bear a successful result.

Take the Pink Back

Image from Banyan Branch

Here in the United States, the Susan B. Komen Foundation decided to pull funding from Planned Parenthood sparking outrage throughout the country, and, in particular, online. The nonprofit tech space saw a coordinated action called Take the Pink Back, which featured folks like Lucy Bernholz, Alison Fine, Amy Sample Ward, Deanna Zandt, Kivi Leroux Miller, Beth Kanter, and others.

This coordinated action to fundraise and protest against Komen’s actions is demonstrative of the groundswell that occurred across the interwebs. The uproar triggered waves of media attention. And as we know, Komen yielded, probably too late to salvage its reputation, but nevertheless the actions by angered Komen and Planned Parenthood supporters were successful. They even caused senior exec Karen Handel to resign.

On a smaller level you can see acts of the Fifth Estate everywhere. Whether its combatting PRSA’s new definition of public relations, the continuing Occupy Wall Street movement, or life and times in Pakistan, citizen journalism commands a place in online media.

The Fifth Estate Forward

It has been nine months since Welcome to the Fifth Estate was published, and 18 months since I wrote that initial chapter. Today, issues remain for citizen journalism and its role in the larger media environment.

Traditional media is still considered more credible, and rightly so. Not everyone is a trained journalist, and people don’t always produce quality content.

That being said, if the media and power sources effectively covered the news and told the truth all the time, there would be no need for citizen journalists. And so for every bad Twitter rumor, a real story breaks there, for example Whitney Houston’s death. The same quality paradox could be drawn to just about any form of citizen journalism.

Steps are being taken to raise the quality of citizen journalism. Several nonprofits are actively teaching best practices to would-be citizen reporters throughout the world. Schools and universities are adding new media journalism courses and degrees to their repertoire.

This movement towards providing better reporting skills to more citizens is the right path. The intertwined nature of traditional and citizen media is an irreversible reality of social media-empowered populations.

Even more encouraging is a current movement amongst libraries, and the Association of American Colleges and Universities to boost information literacy in the digital age. Most people don’t understand how information is spread in digitally networked environments, and simply trust their peers. Consider that 65% of people consider their peers to be credible, more so than company employees, NGO representatives, industry analysts, CEOs and government regulators (see the above Edelman Trust Barometer Infographic). Without a critical eye towards peer-based information, people can create vast pools of myths and ignorance.

Boosting digital information literacy — specifically the ability to discern quality data — can only better our online worlds. An uninformed Fifth Estate is a dangerous one.

What do you think about citizen journalists and the Fifth Estate?


  • Whooee. You know a post is good when you feel like you could write 4 different blog posts in response. I’ll try to not write a book here.

    I think that the growing tendency for online activism is great, BUT I think that there is a danger that people could reach a saturation point, and I am also wondering if people will dedicate themselves with all vigor to one cause and then become sort of myopic. For example, during the week of the big SOPA/PIPA protests, two different stories circulated about teenagers who committed suicide. One of them had actually done an “It Gets Better” video. When I noted that these stories were going unnoticed in the wake of the SOPA thing, I sort of got the response, “Well, we can do something about SOPA.” I think that is scary thinking. If you truly feel your power online can be used for any good, what is there to lose in trying to stop something like teen suicides? Why should there be a limit as to what’s possible?

    Regarding the libraries movement, this is not so surprising if you have a firm grasp of what the actual profession of librarianship is. I was fortunate to earn a Masters in Library Science but was unfortunate (in retrospect) in that I earned it in 2000. The online world was still *kind of* new and sites like Dogpile were still miraculous in their search capabilities. Even then though, we were taught about how information is organized and how people tend to go about accessing it. In fact, those were 2 different required classes. This could be the golden age of librarianship if more people were ready to accept what librarianship actually is all about (hint, not shushing people).

    As for reporting, I am not sure how credible traditional media outlets are going to be in the months and years to come. The CBS gaffe regarding Joe Paterno was rather scary. The fact that Stephen Colbert & Jon Stewart are two of our most respected “news men” should be a signal that something might be amiss (Jon Stewart also happens to be one of the most brilliant men alive in my opinion). I’m finding it harder and harder to differentiate real news from fake news. Part of that is because the world is so darned crazy, but I think also our traditional media has lots some of its credibility.

    Man. This is already long and I didn’t even touch on everything I wanted to. So…great post, man :)

    • I think your point raises the issue that most nonprofits face — 90 percent of nonprofits have a cause that is not sexy. Meaning, they are not loved by the public or are not hot issues and get little attention.  This is the unfortunate nature of the social sector.  We talk about the winners in the public eye, and many heroes are forgotten or unnoticed…   

      Think of @WTFLungcancer:disqus  and all the hard work Jennifer puts in, and how she needs more funding.  Great example of this.

      LIbraries and universities have an uphill battle, there is no doubt about it.  At least they are fighting it.  I hope you are right, and we get a golden age.   Great comment!

  •  Geoff.  Wow.  Great post.  I know I hit you with over-the-top excitement yesterday about the Fifth Estate, but as a former political pr type who has seen a lot in my day, I am in awe. I can’t help it and yes, I do get frustrated by how people use the online world in dangerous ways. That has in many ways prompted me to join in and slowly make my case starting with small business about making the human connection online, which most people still don’t understand or grasp and getting their voices heard over the scam artists. Today, that’s where I feel I can have a voice and make a difference. Tomorrow, maybe more but at least I can comment on places like your blog on the world view.

    I think citizen journalism is the best thing to happen and yes, it is overwhelming, chaotic and scary at times. On one hand, how refreshing not to have to rely on the media to filter the news because even in the best case, they are still people with their own perspectives.  It’s just human nature. I welcome the opportunity people have to challenge them in real time.

    But I do get concerned about the silos being created and people trusting the wrong sources. We already see it in the political world where people take their news from talk radio or bloggers who support a certain viewpoint.  It’s great to have options, and to have a voice, but are people trusting these sources for all their news? Many times they are. I would like to see the media view this as an opportunity to really look hard at their role as the unbiased source  and not try to always compete on the commentary side of things as it seems they are doing more and more. Maybe that’s a fools view.  I don’t know, I haven’t done the in-depth research you have.

    We have a long, long way to go and I appreciate how you share your insights and back it up with case studies like these. It’s a critical void that needs to be filled.

    • I love the fact that you are creating a social enterprise to make change happen.  This is great stuff.

      Education and discussion are the road out. While not as sexy as say Pinterest, this is really a core issue facing all of us. I hope we can address information literacy soon as a society.  I fear our government likes us to continue as ignorant as we currently are.  When I think of our future, this scares me.

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