When An Xiao Mina traveled to Shenzhen, China, to do research on selfie stick production, she needed a way to know where people were talking. She contacted Jue Ren, a digital anthropologist working in the area who she had met at a panel on urbanization in Shenzhen. After just a few minutes, Ren introduced her to people from a WeChat network of 500 people discussing selfie stick production.
Reporters have long used fixers—people familiar with the area and with lines of communication—to guide them through foreign countries. Now, a new role is opening up for those who can be gatekeepers for online, mobile-first communities: the digital fixer.
Mina, who leads the product team at Meedan, an organization which builds tools around journalism and translation, introduced the concept of the digital fixer in a panel at Perugia in April as a way for reporters to enter the world of closed apps, such as WhatsApp, WeChat, Weibo, Wickr, and Telegram. These are all services that communities use to talk to each other—and they’re all closed to journalists.
In fact, they’re closed to everyone. The appeal of these messaging apps, for many, is that they allow people to have private group chats with a trusted network or family and friends. These private chats aren’t searchable, and new members have to be invited in. Different apps afford different advantages: certain apps are designed for low-bandwidth phones; others are chosen for their encryption capabilities.
But they’re all wildly popular. As of 2016, there are 1 billion on WhatsApp users and 400 million users on WeChat. Newsrooms such as The Guardian already use WhatsApp to disseminate news, and organizations such as Storyful aim to help newsrooms use them for newsgathering. Chat apps are also now an important venue for reporting, write Valerie Belair-Gagnon, Colin Agur, and Nicholas Frisch in a new Tow Center for Digital Journalism report.
Marginalized communities and activist groups often communicate through private chat apps, as do terrorist groups. Telegram is favored in countries where government surveillance is an issue, mainly in the Middle East, and is reportedly ISIS’s app of choice. In Zimbabwe, The New York Times reported, WhatsApp poses a threat to President Robert Mugabe’s power. Wickr is used in drug networks in South America for its “burn after reading” security options, said Storyful journalist Ben Decker.
It is difficult for reporters who parachute into a region to discover where people are communicating without tapping into the community. How can reporters quickly embed themselves in these networks of trust? This is where the concept of a digital fixer comes in.
Digital fixing is unlike typical fixing in that it is not currently a paid role. Rather, it operates in the currency of personal trust. When Ren introduced Mina to the group, she was personally vouching for her. For the digital fixers themselves, Mina emphasized, keeping up these relationships is time consuming; Ren belongs to 30 to 40 groups and had over 300 WeChat friends, and communicates with them regularly.
It can also be difficult, even with an introduction, for reporters to understand the local culture and nuances of the dialect. Belair-Gagnon, Agur, and Frisch write about the use of chat apps during the Hong Kong Umbrella protests in 2014. In planning the protests, they write, “protesters rely on subtleties of language to distinguish between allies and adversaries.” One journalist, who is fluent in Mandarin, misread some of the details, written in colloquial Cantonese, and ended up at the wrong location.
Reporters also have to pay attention to social etiquette. QR codes are a popular way of friending each other on WeChat in China—and there is significance, in the scanning process, whether your phone is on the top or the bottom, Mina said at the panel. Once they join, the normal rules and methods of reporting apply: journalists need to be clear with their intentions, Mina told me. But “the fact that there is so much friction to adding friends is a way of proving and developing trust.”
The closed networks can also be a great way to spread information. The BBC has used WhatsApp to spread public health information about Ebola and Zika. BBC World Service’s mobile editor, Trushar Barot, formerly head of user-generated content, said spreading information about the Zika virus via chat groups was highly effective because of the contacts they had already developed and the active user base.
There are things that journalists have to be careful about in using these chat apps for reporting. Journalists have been “spoiled by open platforms,” said Laura Byrne, a Storyful journalist on a recent podcast, which allow journalists to directly search for content. On closed apps, one of her guests noted, “There’s an ongoing tension between what might be going on journalistically” and what these platforms have been created for. The reason people use platforms is because they want privacy—and that needs to be respected. Activists want to spread the word about their cause. But they want to do it in a way that won’t jeopardize their safety.
Nor can journalists just rely on content they find on the messaging service. Verification in these situations is still tricky, the Perugia panel emphasized, and journalists have to be careful about revealing sensitive information. The apps strip EXIF data—the data that lets you know where and when an image was taken—and so an extra measure is needed to check the facts.
This is an experimental space, where best practices have yet to be codified. But the digital fixer is an important emerging role. “Journalism as a field should aim to recognize this role in more formal ways, and define ethics and best practices around this kind of work,” said Mina.
Related: “How Foreign Correspondents Use Chat Apps to Cover Political Unrest,” a new report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.