Panel Discussion: Women’s Engagement with New Media

The proverbial glass ceiling has long been in the way of women’s upward movement within the public sphere, including in media institutions. How have women overcome the limitations of access and opportunity of the conventional media structures by increasingly and innovatively engaging with online media platforms and spaces?

The Sri Lankan chapter of South Asian Women in Media Network (SAWM Sri Lanka) organised a panel discussion on women’s engagement with new media, which I was invited to moderate. In addition to Sachini Perera from Women and Media Collective speaking about women’s participation in new media in general, four distinguished women delivered presentations of around 15 minutes each,

  1. DushiYanthini Kanagasabapathipillai (Journalist, Photographer)
  2. Tehani Ariyaratna (CEPA, Blogger)
  3. Rushda Mohinudeen (Reach Out) 
  4. Sanjeewika Manohari (Boondi, Blogger),

The presentations were uniformly excellent, and I understand will be published online anon by WMC and/or SAWM. I requested the panellists to consider the following points when preparing their submissions,

  1. Why are you engaging with new media? What inspired you, or forced you to do so, and why have you continued to publish and engage?
  2. How has your engagement with new media changed from the time you first started? What topics do you focus on and why?
  3. How do you perceive your role when using and engaging through social media?
  4. Has self-expression as a woman/female journalist/female activist, in your perception, increased qualitatively because of your use of new media? What kinds of expression do you engage in today, that you couldn’t do without new media?
  5. Has new media taught you to communicate key messages in different ways (i.e. long FB post, short Tweet, photo caption and photo, audio clip, and short video – around same issue)? How difficult was this learning process?
  6. Just yesterday, Ceylon Today, ironically a newspaper that has two of the most senior women journalists in Sri Lanka at its helm, published an article that was outrageously sexist, documented by myself and others on this email, including Women and Media Collective, via Twitter. Does new media strengthen gendered critiques of old media practises, attitudes and content? If so, how? Conversely, what examples of sexism and misogyny have you experienced or seen in new media platforms?
You may also wish to consider,
  1. The security dimensions, as a female voice/activist on new media. Do you occasionally or always publish content anonymously, pseudonymously, and if so, why?
  2. What tools and techniques have you found helpful to minimise risk, and engage with difficult issues?
  3. How have you dealt with hate speech against self, institution, family and friends? What are some coping mechanisms in this regard?
  4. How do you assess risk online? What are your markers of safety? When and how do you determine, based on online interactions and content, there is fear of physical harm to self, family, friends or colleagues?

Some notes I took down as moderator, to stimulate discussion and also responding to the presentations by the panellists, follow.


  • As women move from the margins to the centre, and their use of new media grows qualitatively as well as quantitatively, there will be new challenges around privacy, safety and security as well as redefinitions of identity, participation and engagement. This discussions will be both shaped by, and mediated through, new media – the media itself will shape the content, and the content will go on to shape how new media will be used and perceived.
  • The need to move away from blogs and blogging, and to more nuanced discussions of how new media ecosystems can support advocacy and activism.
  • While the frustration with more rights based, gendered and high quality content creation persists, it is also the case that the more people who create content for and publish on the likes of YouTube, Flickr and various blogs also, over time, make it that much harder for the government to censor or block these platforms. While WMC can and must strengthen more serious advocacy by and for women, it should also encourage more content creation of any kind – the more people are online and using new media, the more the impact of censorship is felt across multiple levels and segments of society.
  • Activists need to augment their technical knowledge to keep up with privacy concerns and increasing sophistication of surveillance. The online and virtual today has a direct and immediate impact on the physical and institutional. This connection isn’t made in the minds of many activists, who remain more concerned about physical safety and security and less interested in online security and secure communications.
  • There are attendant challenges of growing audiences online, on multiple fronts. At its simplest, its about growing a fan and following base on Facebook and Twitter, which can cost money, and requires strategic thinking and an understanding of online social network and audience dynamics. There is also the challenge of reaching beyond the converted. Following and engaging with difference – which can often be rudely and insultingly couched – is another challenge. The language of hate, hurt and harm overwhelms the negotiation of difference online, esp. when anonymity is a handy cloak. The nature of this venom is particularly virulent against women and women activists – who need to develop coping mechanisms using technology as well as human/institutional networks.
  • Understanding one’s network influencers can be done through Wolfram Alpha’s Facebook tool –
  • The central challenge of activists in the digital age remain one of the imagination. Activists and institutions consider new media as promotional extensions of their old, street level activism (i.e. by posting videos and photos online of demonstrations around Lipton Circus). While this is in and of itself useful and on occasion, extremely powerful, few if any in Sri Lanka are thinking of the wholly new ways of using social and new media for activism and the captivation of new supporters and audiences. A number of compelling examples in this regard were provided by panellists, and one hopes there is a more robust documentation of what worked when, with whom and why, as a template for others to emulate.
  • The challenge of hyper-connectivity and over-sharing. The first fractures our attention – our brains are today, quite literally, wired differently, because we engage with media and information in a fundamentally different way to how our parents did. A Microsoft researcher called this a few years ago ‘continuous partial attention’ – being ensnared by multiple information nodes (e.g. checking FB on mobile whilst listening to a panel presentation, and quickly tweeting something a soundbite, and at the same time snapping a shot of the speaker and posting on Instagram). Over-sharing (esp. through apps like Foursquare) means that we now share where we have coffee, and with whom. While both can lead to interesting studies of human movement and behaviour, in a repressive regime, they also provide a lot of information that could be useful in censoring and harming activists. The other problem of course is how activists can address a generation and audiences whose attention span is so limited.
  • Photography today is not just limited to D-SLR cameras. Every single phone now has a camera, and most smartphones today have cameras many times better than even low end digital cameras. The power and potential of these cameras to bear witness need to be encouraged and explored, esp. on women’s issues.
  • More awareness about Creative Commons licensing of content needed –
  • The enduring challenge of attribution can in part be addressed by CC licensing, but also requires mainstream media to engage with new media collectives, perhaps convened by the likes of WMC in the case of women who are active on new media, and how they can properly attribute content and use these new voices in their own reporting. Producers of content need to also make their content open, for e.g. (the Twitter archive download feature is being progressively introduced to all Twitter accounts)
  • Engage with Charitha Herath’s / Media Ministry’s new media ethics framework, due to made public in the next week or so. For a government that usually kills, maims, forces into silence or exile, censors and defiles us, even though there is great scepticism about the framework’s raison d’etre, it’s still useful to engage with him and the Media Ministry about it, esp. from a gendered perspective.
  • The challenges of anonymity on a platform like Facebook needs to be fully understood – as it stands, creating a false id on the platform is contravenes usage guidelines and risks account deletion. With the introduction of FB’s new Social Graph feature in the coming months, content on the platform will be far more open to other users, which again raises concerns about how much activists on it know about privacy controls.
  • Know what you want to say and do before embracing tools and platforms. A panellist noted the introduction of Vine by Twitter (6 second looping videos) but rather than be guided by the latest and most hyped tech, it is fundamentally important to ascertain which audience one wants to speak to and engage with, on what issues, and how. Being guided by tech is a recipe for disaster. Being guided by the thrust of a core message helps one select what tools to use, when, and with whom.
  • Know thy network – who are the connectors, who are the influencers. Wolfram Alpha’s FB tool noted above can help a lot in this regard.
  • Institutionally, leverage multiple networks for the greatest dissemination of content – if there is a very popular person in office who has a social media network many times greater than the institution itself, but doesn’t use it for activism, and there is a more advocacy oriented person who updates social media platform more regularly with say rights based content, it is useful to see how the two networks can complement each other.
  • The use of SMS wasn’t discussed, but there are a number of examples from FrontlineSMS alone, incl. in Sri Lanka amongst women – WMC has details – where it has been used. More study and emulation needed.

Posts on Iran, new media and citizen journalism

I’ve been inundated with links on how new media is helping us understand what’s going on in Iran after its recently held Presidential elections.

In order to understand the broader context of who uses new media in Iran, why and how, the Berkman Centre’s Mapping Iran’s Online Public is essential reading.

A few articles on new media and the fallout of the Presidential elections in Iran I found genuinely insightful are:

What you need to understand about the riots in Iran and Twitter from Canada’s World
Tehran, Twitter, and Tiananmen by Dan Rather
Tehran, Twitter, and Tiananmen by the Washington Post
The Iranian Uprisings and the Challenge of the New Media by Henry Giroux in Counterpunch

Evgeny Morozov’s Texting Toward Utopia: Does the Internet spread democracy?, which to me is a definitive essay on the pros and cons of the web and Internet augmenting democracy also resonates with the observations in these articles.

In a slightly lighter vein, I have also looked at why Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s help in developing IT and e-government in Sri Lanka is urgently needed and would be roundly welcomed.

Two new sites for dissent

Came across two new sites for dissent and critical perspectives in Sri Lanka have cropped up recently.


Forgotten Diaries was started in June ’08 and only has a handful of posts. However, the content in these posts is very thought provoking, though judging by the paucity of comments, it is unlikely that this blog is well known.


Just Dissent is brand new. Begun in March 2009 it already has content in English and Sinhala which is largely linking to wire reports on the web. The latest post at the time of writing, I am a Traitor, challenges apathy and encourages pro-active participation to strengthen democracy.

The idiom in Just Dissent is more immediate and visceral, whereas the prose in Forgotten Diaries, which features content from In Mutiny, is more measured. Both however offer new sites for debate and discussion for those connected to the web and interested in civic identity, nationalism, democracy and conflict transformation.

That’s two more valuable spaces in a context where independent media and the freedom of expression are almost non-existant.

Sri Lanka’s first mainstream media article on Facebook activism

Facebook - Courtest Sunday Times
Image from Sunday Times

Smriti Daniel’s article last Sunday in the Sunday Times is to my knowledge the first article that appears in the print media in Sri Lanka dealing with growing web based activism via the social networking platform Facebook. It’s a well written and researched piece that deals with a phenomenon I most recently touched upon in my post on Pissu Poona (Pissu is Crazy in Sinhala, and Poona is cat in Tamil).

There may be sociological limits for activism in and through Facebook, and it is debatable whether Facebook actually engenders meaningful relationships anchored to a common purpose, ideal, process or event over the long term – especially under repressive regimes.  An example of FB supporting a real world event can be found here, set up by the Peoples Movement for Democracy. However, in Sri Lanka, Facebook engineered real world action on the lines of Egypt leading to real world swarms is non-existent today and won’t I believe emerge for a while in SL – though dissent and critical communications within and between local and diaspora groups may blossom.

In this light, the article usefully ends on a particularly sobering note,

At times, it must seem a little like setting up shop in the market and shouting as loudly as you can, cheek by jowl with the other vendors…and it can get frustrating. “On the internet it’s very easy to start things, it’s much harder to sustain them,” says Indi frankly. Both he and Sanjaya agree that while it has the potential to be a powerful democratic tool, Facebook simply needs many more Sri Lankans online and engaged before it can be used as such.

Read Smriti’s article in full here.

Social and political change in the Arab world through new media

The European Journalism Centre (EJC) has a good write up of an event held recently in London that looked at the impact of new media, the web and Internet on polity and society in the Arab world. It notes that,

Keeping up or catching up, respectively, with world standards of communication infrastructure, the Arab and Muslim nations could not help but at the same time create opportunities for the distribution and exchange of news and opinion that did not exist before.

Some of the most interesting presentations on the impact of new media and (mobile) communications writ large I have witnessed are from the Arab world. Time and again I have been fascinated at how repressive regimes and hugely conservative (not to be necessarily confused or conflated with backward) cultures are grappling with the challenges posed by citizen producing, accessing and disseminating news and information through the web, mobiles and the Internet.

Over a year ago, I catalogued some of the most interesting blogs / bloggers in the Arab world based on a story by Gal Beckerman called the The New Arab Conversation. In the interim, many regimes have jailed or persecuted independent voices in the blogosphere that have dared to criticise them.

As the EJC notes the growth of new media in the Arab region,

…does not necessarily mean that the Arab nations are now on the fast track to European-style democratisation and open societies. Rather, they may be on the way to modernise their own traditions, however difficult and painful that might turn out to be in any given case.

Citizen journalism and blogging in Asia: What role for media development organisations?

A presentation made recently at “Asia Regional Forum for Media Development: Creating a Democratic Media Culture in in Asia” organised by the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD).

If the presentation online on Slideshare is too small, just go ahead and download a PDF of the presentation here. (approx. 10Mb)

Tactical Technology Collective Citizen Journalism Toolkit – How not to do a toolkit

Tactical Technology Collective has come out with a new Citizen Journalism toolkit, to complement earlier toolkits for NGOs and activists on security, audio and video publishing on the internet and FOSS publishing.

Covering audio, blogs, images and print (strangely no video) the toolkit is somewhat of a useful resource, but as its stands is irascibly incomplete, confusing and badly executed.

The lack of an emphasis on online video production and dissemination is bizarre, because this is a vital aspect of citizen journalism on the web (e.g. Vikalpa YouTube Channel). Far as I could gather, it only gets passing mention in the sections dealing with podcasts on WordPress!

There’s also no real media / advocacy strategy talked about in any of the sections. This suggests the authors are more versed in the technical aspects of new media and desk research than with any lived experience of citizen journalism in violent contexts, where I usually find the most innovation and the greatest need for this kind of manual.

Further, there is no emphasis on the strategic complementarity of using a range of services and products (e.g. blog + twitter or podcast + transcript on blog), redundancy or planning for failure. No mention of mobile phones. No mention of RSS and how it can be used to get information across even when websites are blocked by ISPs.

The website is also quite a mess. Content could have been vastly better edited and proofed. Navigation is difficult and not at all intuitive. There’s no PDF to download to read and print content off when offline and bizarrely no search function at all. Some of the pages are also just formatted all wrong (e.g. ironically, the page on best practices for effective blogging). The presentation and grouping of content can at time get very confusing. For example, the page of Distributing & publicising your blog’s content lists Flickr and as sites that allow you to store, share and view a range of media such as digital photographs, audio files like podcasts, videos. I fail to see the connection here. While these sites certainly help in online content storage and have dissemination mechanisms of their own (without the need for any blog at all) how they feed into blogs and how blogs can be connected to them isn’t made at all clear. 

There are also pages where the graphics don’t show up at all (didn’t anyone actually go through this website before it went public?!)

There’s an emphasis on products like VLC, Songbird Firefox and WordPress in the manuals, but no real explanation given as to why they were chosen above other competing products and services. I blog for example using Safari 3.1 – others may blog just as well using Internet Explorer, Opera or other browsers. While I know the advantages of Firefox, just saying that it’s a better programme isn’t terribly helpful. Ditto with WordPress. Why not Blogger for example? (An exception here is the discussion on the pros and cons of Flickr)

There’s some really useful content here, but I was really struck more by what’s missing. Tactical Technology must live up to its name and reputation and urgently work on this set of resources to make it much better than what it is. As it stands, the section on print media is the strongest, with some really useful insights and tips on how best to communicate one’s message.

As noted earlier, the exclusion of video from a CJ toolkit is wholly unpardonable. This, and an emphasis on mobile phones will make this toolkit far more useful than what it presently is.


Updated – 22 May 2008, 7.42pm

Perhaps as a result of the feedback they got and on account of my suggestion below, the website now clearly notes that it is a work in progress and will be officially launched in June 2008. A tactical mistake by Tactical Technology, now rectified.