Cell phones: A new tool in the war-zone blogosphere
Empowering technology also raises safety, credibility issues
By Marsha Walton
A cell phone captured the image of a Hezbollah rocket which struck a building in Carmiel, Israel, on July 17.
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Pundits and political junkies may have put blogs on the map. But now individuals all over the planet are using new blogging tools to share gritty, uncensored information.
"If you see a car bomb blast, your first thought is not to go to an Internet cafe and start blogging," said digital media expert Erik Sundelof.
But almost everywhere in the world, cell phones are available, with the ability to send text, photos, even video of such events instantly, he said.
Sundelof is the creator of "Lebanon-Israel Conflict Via Cell Phones," a blog that is different from the tens of thousands of web logs sharing facts, opinions, pictures and often unfettered anger about events in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The text and images he's publishing about the Lebanon-Israel conflict are sent from mobile phones, not from computers.
"What this is really creating is a way for normal people to tell their perspective," said Sundelof, who is working in the Reuters Digital Vision Program at Stanford University in California.
Some of the posts he has gotten in the short time the site has been up:
"I am getting tired of feeling afraid all the time. The sirens are becoming like a bad nightmare. I just want it to stop. ..."
"This war is madness. Why can't it stop?"
"I've been living in a state of despair and confusion. I feel helpless."
And one comment praising his creation of a blog for text messagers:
"At last, a tool for reporting," said one contributor.
"If you are working as a journalist, you are getting a professional description of an event. But if you're looking at the blogosphere, it is very personal notes and personal pictures they are showing -- the human side of any conflict," he said.
Text messaging, or SMS (short message system) is ubiquitous among teenagers, and also widely used by adults in Europe and Asia.
The technology has been used for at least five years. It has played a part in sharing information after other disasters, from the London transit bombings in July 2005, to the Pakistan earthquake in October 2005.
Unlike the mainstream media, also known and often maligned among bloggers as MSM, blogs do not always have the same reliability as established news organizations.
"Journalism is about firsthand information. The Associated Press is credible, CNN is credible. If they're not, they will ultimately go out of business," said Howard Finberg, director of interactive learning at the Poynter Institute, a training institute for journalists in St. Petersburg, Florida.
But with blogs and some other new forms of media, "there's no foolproof method, and I'm not sure we will ever find a way of proving it is for real or not," said Finberg.
Evaluating a blog's authenticity involves a lot of skills used every day by news organizations.
"Does this make sense? Does this seem logical? Does this correspond to something someone else said? In short, does it pass the smell test?" said Finberg.
While blog readers always need to beware of fabrications, those sending information, especially from dangerous parts of the world, could face far more serious risks.
Since it is possible to track cell phone calls, and to link an individual to a cell phone number, those sending messages must also use caution. Bloggers from war zones, or countries with repressive governments may be in jeopardy for sharing controversial thoughts -- or even the truth.
"The biggest challenge is to make people feel safe that they won't have their identity revealed," said Sundelof. While he said he would never reveal the number his contributors call from, those numbers may not always be protected.
"I can't promise anyone numbers can't be tracked," said Sundelof. "We are still using other people's networks."
The personal connection
While some bloggers see their role as "citizen journalists," most take advantage of this relatively simple Internet technology for more personal reasons.
In a time of fear and disaster, this kind of communication can also be a comfort, said Sundelof.
"They want to share with friends and family, to be able to figure out how to deal with the bombings," he said.
Those personal connections seem to motivate most bloggers.
Earlier this month the Pew Internet & American Life Project released findings from a national phone survey of bloggers. "Most [bloggers] are focused on describing their personal experiences to a relatively small audience of readers, and only a small proportion focus their coverage on politics, media, government, or technology," according to the study.
Both new and traditional blogs are getting heavy traffic since the Israel-Lebanon conflict began. And many sites contain dialogue between individuals on different sides of the border.
"I see these kinds of communities as the only solution for peace. We can go behind the backs of our governments and work on personal relationships with each other," said a blogger on a blog titled "Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, Reaching Out Across the Frontiers."
Sundelof is also optimistic about this new egalitarian communication.
"Now imagine a new technology like SMS, MMS [multimedia messaging service] and the Internet. It is possible to build friendships over the borders of the countries and that is important for the future," he said.
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