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“The Coming Archival Crisis”

Why and how we should pay more attention to the ephemerality of today’s news coverage

Citizen and mobile journalism give millions access to important and unique information. But they are often based on social media, meaning that unique content is at risk of disappearing. A new article looks at how to approach archiving the social net.

Last year dozens of millions from the US to Nigeria took part in protests against racial inequality. The unrest was ignited by one video – of Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes until Floyd died.

Floyd’s killing is arguably the most prominent recent case of a social media video having global reach and influence. But it’s far from the only precious documentation of our collective memory. 

Every day social networks carry millions of pieces of content, some of which may be of great social significance. Yet those same platforms that give protest videos their virality are designed for content to be ephemeral.

As Allissa V. Richardson, a notable American researcher in the fields of mobile journalism and citizen journalism, writes in her 2020 article “The Coming Archival Crisis” in Digital Journalism, the nature of media content on social networks leaves it vulnerable to the platforms’ whims and thus “threatens newsreels of tomorrow.” 

Richardson monitored the 2020 Black Lives Matter protest coverage across various platforms. Based on this, she points out a direction for researchers to “[find] ways to archive the millions of protest videos that are uploaded to ephemeral social media sites every day.” 

The Fix picked key takeaways from the article. 

The ephemerality of protest journalism

Social platforms have opened whole new vistas for documenting the world around us. Big media companies no longer have a monopoly over content distribution. Every citizen journalist with a smartphone can help write history – from the Arab Spring to the Black Lives Matter protests.

There is one major problem, though. Many of the platforms that give citizen journalism its voice also have their content disappear by design. Snapchat footage disappears in 24 hours, as do Instagram stories. Live streams on some other social networks can be rewatched, but searching through the archives is often difficult.

Thus, the challenge for journalists and researchers, in Richardson’s opinion, is “not… hacking yet another technology in service of storytelling [but] saving what citizen journalists have gathered already”.

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Documenting today for the future: three “P’s”

How to save “newsreels of tomorrow” for future generations, while also taking privacy and security concerns seriously? Richardson suggests we consider three principles – precariousness, privacy, and platforms.

Note: Richardson doesn’t aim to propose concrete solutions to the “archival crisis” she professes. Rather, her goal is to draw attention to the problem and chart a framework for resolving it.

To think about documenting protest coverage, Richardson first suggests to consider precariousness of protest video and its “future historiographic impacts”.

It’s important to think about approaches to archiving citizen journalism. This includes the local community perspective, past work of repository institutions, and the potential impact of social platforms’ rules changes. The first step is to recognise the vulnerability of journalism hosted on social media and need to archive it.

Next, think about privacy. Do citizen journalists have the “right to be forgotten?” To what extent should we consider potential harm to protesters if researchers publicise their civic activity?

There are technical ways to ensure privacy – tools to blur faces or scrub metadata. But much more research is needed, Richardson argues. One has to balance the artistic power of a video or photograph against potential risks for those depicted. 

Finally, we cannot escape the question of platforms. Here, Richardson invites us to pay attention to two factors. Firstly, features that make platforms more or less suitable for documenting protests (e.g., differences in livestream features offered by Instagram IGTV and Periscope). Secondly, the “back-end,” i.e., the algorithmic treatment of protest coverage.

Understanding features might “help us narrow our search for high-quality protest journalism, for future digital archiving research projects.” Meanwhile, knowing how algorithms treat citizen journalism helps researchers and journalists preserve it better.

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Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

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