On February 17, 2011, non-violent protesters began to take to the streets in Libya, seeking an end to decades of dictatorship and calling for basic human rights, rule of law, and rudimentary economic development. It was apparent to me, that given; the violent history of the regime, the absence of international media inside Libya, the limited media attention the protests were likely to get in a busy international news-cycle, these protesters were in grave danger. I began to work with some contacts on Twitter and started mapping cities in which protests were occurring. A number of days later, as the violence against the protesters increased, I changed my approach, removed references to the protesters and their successes, and instead mapped government violence against protests, medical needs, infrastructure disruptions, military resources, and political arrests. This reflected a conclusion, that I could minimize the harm to protesters through media attention, by plotting violence, rather than running the additional risk of plotting protests.
Has the tactic of manually mapping information compiled from trusted Twitter reports been successful? In the metric that really matters, we’ll never know. The repressive Libyan government continues in power, but it does seem like its days are numbered. But in determining the usefulness of this tactic for activists in the future, we can reach for perhaps a somewhat bald conclusion, by noting the traffic to the map, and media coverage of it. At the time of writing, the map has had over 314,000 views in 12 days. It has been shown on Al Jazeera English. It has been covered in at least the following 20 news publications: the Lede Blog at the New York Times, Zeit Online, Wired, Huffington Post, Newshour, The Guardian, Global Voices, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal Blog, Kurier (Austria), La Stampa, Excite Italia, Le Post, Expresso, Prachatai (Thailand), Observa Internacionales, Mashable, The Register-Guard, American Public Media, WiredVision (Japan). Given the amount of resources used (the part-time labor of one volunteer), this is not too bad a result. Two points worth noting. The first is that the Libyan story has a particular context; a high-profile story coupled with an almost complete inability of the media to get access to it. This context no doubt produced a more exaggerated reliance on the map and social-media. Nonetheless, these conditions are unfortunately not rare. Secondly, it is interesting to note the press-coverage in non-English speaking media. It may be that because maps are more visual than text, they are able to reach further as a type of media. This might be a useful lesson for activists working in situations where language may be a barrier.
The following is a list of some of the specific things I have learned from this project:
- In contexts where protestors are likely to face serious violence, map the violence, not the protests. I do not recommend automatic mapping projects in this context because they do not have the capacity to weigh, within reason, the potential consequences of each entry mapped. I recently saw an entry on an automatic map stating that protesters were waiting at a certain location to ambush mercenaries. This is reckless.
- Vague-ify locations, and delay updates to protect protesters.
- Identify reliable sources. Use your common sense in this regard. Review the politics of your source. When was this source Twitter account opened? The more recent, the less reliable and the more likely it is to be an account intended to spread disinformation. How many followers does the source account have? Generally, the fewer in this context the less reliable. Who are the followers? On how many lists has this Twitter account been listed? Again the fewer, in this context, the less reliable. Who can vouch for the Twitter account as a good source? What are the tweets like? Does the person qualify his/her reports? Are they intelligible? Is the person given to exaggeration and inconsistencies? Do they seem more political than factual?
- Remain skeptical about the reports that you receive. Look for multiple reports from different unconnected sources. Does the report make sense? Is it likely in the context? In the Libyan context, I had no illusions that my reports were as well-confirmed as those that would show-up later in the traditional media. Nonetheless, I knew that without at least some attempt to confirm reports I would become part of the problem.
- Do not follow your sources on Twitter. Create a private list. Who you follow on Twitter is public information.
- Develop a circle of people, either in or outside the country, who can help you with language and geography questions. The latter is especially needed when you are dealing with non-Roman alphabets, because place-names will often be translated into English differently by different people.
- Give priority to mapping medical information and needs. Lining-up medical supplies outside the country is one of the very practical and important ways people outside a crisis can help. Inform medical organizations such as the Red Cross/Crescent (@federation) and Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (@msf_usa) that you are mapping medical reports. However, as described above, be aware that even medical information can be used by those seeking to do harm and make a considered judgment.
- Circulate to the media, at least daily, via Twitter and email, a link to your updated map, 1-2 hours before “prime-time.” There are hundreds of media-outlets and journalists on Twitter who will appreciate being kept up-to-date regularly on the latest developments. Include politicians and policy-makers in these circulations when relevant.
- Use consistent icons to categorize your reports. For example I used the police-car icon to indicate arrests, a wheelchair icon to indicate medical information. This allows people to easily read the map and to quickly find the information they need. The ease-of-use of what you create is part of the value you are supposed to be delivering.
- Encourage everyone to embed your map in their blogs, webpages etc. Below is an embed of the Libyan map which is located at Google Maps here: http://bit.ly/hGtqiV. I am embedding it on this page because I have received a report that the URL of the map at Google Maps is blocked in Libya. Google is reporting normal traffic patterns to Google Maps generally in Libya, which means that only the URL of this map is being blocked. If the map is embedded in webpages with different URLs it will be visible within Libya at those locations. During the course of this conflict, I am encouraging you the reader to embed the map in one of your blog pages and then tweet: “#Libya Pro-Democracy Map [URL of your blog page with map] #feb17” This will fill Twitter with alternate URLs that people in Libya can see.
- Think strategically. What is important information? If, for example, protesters are being attacked by air, or by sea, where are the air and navy bases located that are the staging areas for these attacks? This helps the media and your audience prioritize and better understand the news reports they hear.
- In a context where the situation is changing rapidly, find a trusted and suitable collaborator in a complementary time zone so that they can continue the work while you sleep. Civil protests can often continue for weeks and months before success. Build a sustainable process.
- In particularly violent conflicts, such as the one in Libya, you will often be exposed to graphic and terrible imagery/video on a consistent basis. Have someone you can talk to about this. These scenes are abnormal to everyday life, so you need to exorcise your normal human reactions to them by having someone you can talk to about them. Even a short note to a fellow activist can help you process the horror.
- Always protect your identity and stay safe. Think about the Twitter ID, email addresses and cell-phone numbers you use.
- Back-up your map so you can restore it in the event of a hostile attack. Easiest way to do this is to click “View in Google Earth.” This will create and automatically download a KMZ file that you can view in Google Earth and have as a backup.
Feel free to ask me any questions, suggest additions, improvements, or highlight errors by sending me a tweet via Twitter @Arasmus.
View Mapping Violence Against Pro-Democracy Protests in Libya in a larger map
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