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Harnessing the power of social media at Al Jazeera

Harnessing the power of social media at Al Jazeera

“Social media is not just transforming newsrooms – it’s transforming the very fabric of society,” says Riyaad Minty, Head of Social Media for Al Jazeera. “We are no longer the gate-keepers, and we need to understand this shift so as to make sense of it.”

“News organisations do not break the news any more: people break the news,” he says: the new news wires are social networks. When Minty heard that Osama Bin Laden had died, he immediately went to Twitter, and found an account of someone close to the site who was live-tweeting the raid. This was a totally different experience to turning on a TV.

Rather than become overwhelmed by this crisis of relevance, Minty said news organisations need to think, “How do we then effectively access this breaking news, package it and distribute it?” He was speaking at last week's World Editors Forum in Kiev.

In the future, we will see more and more information online, said Minty, and with this comes more noise, and more disinformation. Context becomes more and more crucial, and that is where news organisations thrive: Twitter can say what’s happening now, but not why.

Social media can, however, be an incredibly powerful source of information for those who know how to use it. During the ‘Arab Spring,’ when Al Jazeera was kicked out of Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, the news organisation received more than 60,000 unique videos on its proprietary Arabic social network Sharek. People trust people before they trust an organisation, and it’s therefore important to build personal relationships, Minty believes.

Al Jazeera has made the most of social media to direct huge volumes of traffic to its website, which features a live stream of its TV content. The TV channel is banned in the USA, but now 40-45% of traffic to the live stream comes from the USA and other countries where the channel is not available. The stream is also on Facebook, and YouTube asked if it could host it. On the day that Mubarak stepped down, YouTube put a breaking news ticker across the top of its homepage, linking to Al Jazeera English’s stream, which in turn linked back to the website.

During the peak of the Egypt revolution, 71% of traffic came from social media, and  Al Jazeera had 20,469 people per second on its site, Minty says. By putting content free on other sites, it increases people’s trust in Al Jazeera, says Minty, and as a consequence, its traffic is very high.

It’s also important to be reactive and make the most of what people are talking about on social media, and make it valuable in the way that only a news organisation can. After the Kony 2012 video was released, Al Jazeera launched an SMS-based campaign to ask people throughout Uganda what they thought about the issue. They used Ushahidi to map the responses and the impact was “phenomenal,” Minty said. One Ugandan recorded a 20-minute video of her response, which received more than 600,000 YouTube views, more than any professional content.

“At the end of the day we are news professionals and telling the truth is hard,” said Minty, “but not telling it is even harder.” We need to go back to the essence of being a journalist and understand that we are here to serve the people, he continued, “even if it is only 140 characters at a time.”

Asked about whether the Arab Spring was a social media revolution, Minty responds no, it was a people’s revolution, but social media certainly helped. Hashtags unite people, and encourage them to go out and share their ideas, and social media can definitely speed up events. “Eighteen days to overthrow a government – that wouldn’t have happened without social media,” said Minty.

You can download Minty's presentation on slideshare


Emma Goodman


2012-09-11 15:13

The World Editors Forum is the organization within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (www.editorsweblog.org), launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.

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