Digital Innovations Help Deliver News Under Repressive Regimes

By Charles S. Clark

June 14, 2013

An all-star team from the Broadcasting Board of Governors hauled samples of the agency’s cutting-edge digital equipment to the Capitol Visitors Center on Thursday for a show-and-tell called “Innovating at the Speed of News.”

The idea was to have top officials and program managers mingle with reporters and technology buffs to explain the latest U.S. international broadcasting efforts at bypassing foreign censors and delivering solid news to societies in crisis.

Using Facebook, Twitter and customized mobile devices, “We’re doing everything we can to anticipate where our audiences are going,” said Dick Lobo, director of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau. “It’s a brave new world for the BBG as it becomes a 21st century communications company” serving a growing worldwide audience of 200 million weekly.

News editors and technicians displayed a large monitor that tracks, in real time, tweets by geographic area as well as Web visits to such sites as YouTube and Facebook by users in Iran. “If 10 people take a picture of the same event,” a staffer explained, the news editors in Washington figure something’s going on and prepare a report.

The crew demonstrated a new Android app called “Buffalo,” a sort of “panic button” on a platform that works in Farsi or in English. It allows the user, upon taking a photo or sending a Tweet, to instantly wipe the device clean of recent activity if under threat that the device will be confiscated by a government agent. It was tested first in open countries such as Canada and Europe.

Also being sent into Iran is an Android-based mini-PC, just a bit larger than a thumb-drive but containing 16 gigabytes of storage space, for monitoring Web censorship. BBG’s plan is to get both devices into firewall-heavy China. The new software is designed to be “responsive,” meaning it can be instantly adapted to mobile phones or tablets of nearly any brand.

Another area getting serious attention is war-torn Syria. Davin Hutchins, Web director for the BBG’s Middle East Broadcasting Network, next Tuesday will launch a ground-breaking feature on an Arabic language website at “http://syriastories.com/Syria stories.com.” What’s missing in the “current coverage of Syria is meeting the need to get to know real people,” he said. The draft webpages he displayed trace the experiences of six Syrians, their names changed and their portraits done as drawings rather than photos, who were interviewed so that writers in Washington could convert their tales going back to the start of the conflict into “novellas.” The goal, Hutchins said, “is to create a community in Syria.”

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Davin Hutchins' name. It has been corrected.


By Charles S. Clark

June 14, 2013

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