David Faris / Middle East

All the News That’s Fit to Tweet

The Rassd News Network has become one of the most influential news sources in the Middle East. Created within an explicitly activist framework, it raises serious questions about the future of journalism.

All the News That's Fit to Tweet

Last month the Egyptian news organization R.N.N. was acquired by a consortium of businessmen for $2 million USD. In the universe of big media acquisitions, and given the shake-ups at The Egypt Independent and the Daily News Egypt in the past year, this hardly rates as big news except for one thing: R.N.N. is run on a shoestring budget, has hardly any staff, and consists almost entirely of Twitter and Facebook posts. This is not social media as a component of a larger media empire – those short posts and Facebook videos are the entire operation. And R.N.N.’s sale raises important questions about the nature of journalism and activism, and the future of digital media.

R.N.N. was born in the final moments of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. Throughout the roughly ten years preceding Egypt’s uprising, the regime did little to disrupt Internet-based activism and news production, which led to the flowering of the region’s most robust blogosphere. This small but vibrant blogging community was responsible for bringing many issues into the public sphere, and became the core of a committed group of activists who sought, and eventually were able, to change the political regime in Cairo. Of course, individual citizen journalists – or blogger-activists as they once referred to themselves in the domestic context – were frequently jailed, harassed, and tortured, but Web sites were rarely permanently shut down.

It was in this context that R.N.N. was formed, at the height of the Mubarak regime’s efforts to close off the aborted democratic opening of 2004-2006. The Rassd News Network is a unique news consortium founded in Egypt in 2010, in advance of the country’s November, 2010 parliamentary elections. Rassd is an Arabic acronym that stands for Raqib (Monitor), Sower (Shoot [i.e. film]), Dowin (Write). R.N.N. was founded by Abdullah Al-Fakharany, at the time a medical student nearing the completion of his studies. He and a small group of friends wanted to find a way to challenge what everyone correctly anticipated to be a heavily rigged set of parliamentary elections. Al-Fakharany and his colleagues never considered themselves to be neutral – in other words they considered themselves activist-journalists, doing the kinds of reporting that other organizations could not or would not do. R.N.N. began to gain attention during this period through its unique system of channeling citizen reports into short Facebook posts and Tweets. Anyone can send a report to RNN, but the organization’s small editorial staff made a concerted effort to verify which reports were and were not true. Thus R.N.N. became well known both for the volume and general accuracy of its reports, a reputation which was responsible for its meteoric rise in the regional news environment.

Currently R.N.N. has more than 737,000 followers on Twitter, making it one of the leading news sources on that platform, particularly in the Arabic language. For comparison’s sake, Al-Jazeera’s Arabic Twitter feed has just over 1.6 million followers. RNN’s Facebook page also has an even more impressive number of followers – 2,481,852 at last count. This makes it the most ‘liked’ Egyptian-origin page in all of Egypt. RNN is the 9th-most popular Facebook page in all of the Middle East and North Africa, directly behind the Lebanese satellite channel MBC4 and only 6 spots behind Al-Jazeera’s ranking.  This remarkable achievement suggests that social media have only yet begun to yield new forms of media, contention and participation. It also suggests that in addition to being a component of the existing market strategies of existing media firms, or empowering individuals in moments of crisis, social media may have properties that create new forms of media in and of themselves.

But how can we be sure that these likes and follows actually amount to some kind of media influence? One of the ways to measure the influence of a particular identity on Twitter is to ask how often content is retweeted. According to retweetrank, RNN’s feed, which is composed entirely in Arabic, is highly influential. RNN’s Twitter feed is ranked 359th in the world in total retweets. This may not seem especially jaw-dropping, but consider for a moment that Al-Jazeera’s Arabic Twitter feed (AJAarabic) is ranked 631st, and you get a feel for how RNN, which virtually no international press attention, has become one of the most popular news sources in the entire Arab world.

RNN is unique in that as a news organization it effectively consists of a Facebook Wall and a Twitter feed. It has thus never conceptualized itself as a market competitor with Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiyya. It does have a web site with original content but its Facebook posts and Twitter posts appear to be purposed for themselves – i.e. they are not intended to direct people to the Web site. For most news organizations, social media is a component of their overall strategy of channeling viewers or readers to their main platform. For RNN, which also links frequently, the outbound URLs from their Twitter feed are typically routed to RNN’s Facebook page. Most often, the content is the same, but the Facebook page includes photographs or videos that of course cannot be posted into a Twitter feed.

It is RNN, ultimately, that provides an entirely new model of social media production, and thus perhaps an entirely new mode of media. What is most appealing about this process is that it avoids issues of bandwidth and the financial hassle of hosting a large, well-trafficked Web page, by channeling its consumers through the already-existing and externally-paid for servers of Facebook and Twitter (at least until recently, when Facebook started extorting its groups for advertising money just to reach their own followers). In that sense the organization has solved one of the problems of scale and funding that can plague such organizations, and done so within an explicitly activist framework. ■

Dissent and Revolution in a Digital AgeDavid Farisnew book is Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt, and he is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Roosevelt University, where he teaches Egyptian and Middle Eastern Politics.

Image courtesy of David P Anderson.

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