Social Journalism: A Revolutionary Wave or a New Journalistic Model?


As the events of the Arab Spring were rapidly unfolding, the need became more pressing for instantaneous and up-close coverage of the protests that echoes the demands of the people rather than stay on the sidelines for fear of loss of credibility or objectivity. Online Social journalism fit this requirement with its amateur yet creative, lightweight yet mobile, citizen journalists who sometimes bordered the line between objective coverage and actual agency. In the wake of the Egyptian Revolution on January 25, and until the overthrow of Mubarak, on February 11, Rassd News Network (RNN) managed to present this model of journalism that acts as both a news outlet and a political agent. Though its role was marginalized in the post-revolution stage due to lack of resources, experience and claims of political bias, the role it played during the eighteen days before ousting Mubarak has been crucial in both updating and mobilizing Egyptians with instant protest news.

Social Journalism is the term used to refer to social media websites utilized as citizen journalism platforms. This new form of social journalism is certainly changing the scene for what is known as citizen journalism by providing a prominent space for citizens’ contributions, unlike traditional news outlets which may have strict editorial policies. Facebook pages such as Rassd and We Are All Khaled Said do not segregate citizen contributions in a section titled “readers’ contributions”, but rather push contributions of good quality to be published in their main newsfeed stream. Not only that, but in the case of the Arab Spring and the events leading up to it, citizen journalism often drove the content and discourse of mainstream media. This process occurred especially in areas where mainstream media was lacking, such as being present and taking live pictures at the onset of events. Riyaad Minty, head of social media for Al-Jazeera, said of the network’s coverage of the Arab Spring: “where [they could not] go live [they] had a lot of citizen media reports coming out” [1]. Even MSNBC was following the English version of the Rassd News Network Facebook page during the protests [2].

An earlier version of Rassd started with the intent of covering the Egyptian Parliamentary elections of 2010. Its motto was Rakib (monitor), Sawwir (take pictures), Dawwin (record/blog)—abbreviated as Rassd [3]. According to Ghonim [4], their former page “Monitoring—2010 Parliament,” attracted “more than 40,000 people before the elections even started” [4a]. Seeing this successful model in 2010, Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who helped organize the protests and founder of the influential We are all Khaled Said Facebook group, recommended that Amr Al Qazzaz, one of the co-founders of Rassd, create a new Facebook page. He suggested “that [it should be] a source of information”, but “not a source of analysis or bias” (referring to their previous bias to the Muslim brotherhood) [4b]. Ghonim later advertised Rassd on We are all Khaled Said, and “recommended that people use the [Rassd page] to follow the news updates” [4c].

Rassd launched on the night of January 25 (the day the Egyptian revolution started). It started as a Facebook page with a few members and no web presence, but in three days, it managed to amass 400,000 subscribers [5]. By August 2011, less than a year since its inception, it had a million Facebook users subscribed to its news updates. The page soon became one of the main sources of instant protest updates via text, audio, and video, for both Egyptians and Arabs in the region at large. It also provided an aggregation of news feeds from traditional media news outlets such as Reuters, CNN, Al-Jazeera, and Al-Arabiya so that its readers could be updated through the page alone. What distinguished Rassd’s model of citizen journalism was its ability to transform any citizen with a camera mobile phone into a potential reporter. Members of the public were encouraged to send in text messages, pictures and videos documenting events they witness” [6]. With a staff of almost 200 volunteers, Rassd checked, formatted and published the news they received [6a]. According to Schuh, “[i]n the 18 days following January 25, Rassd received an average of 6500 reports a day and published 4,000 of them, attracting every day an average of 40,000 new followers” [6b]. When asked about the inner structure of Rassd, Abdullah Fakharany, a co-foundqer of Rassd, said “RNN functions on the basis of a vast network of volunteering reporters, and a small core of volunteering editorial staff. The team behind Rassd is composed of four different committees; one for editing the news, another for correspondents all over Egypt, a third for multimedia such as photos and videos and the fourth for public relations, development and training. They connect through closed groups on Facebook and meet at coffee shops” [7]. Rassd became a central point of connection between the protesters and those not able to join them in person. According to Ghonim, due to the role played by Rassd and similar pages, “many Egyptians abroad were able to follow what was going on in Tahrir Square and accurately represent the protesters’ point of view to their local media” [8].

Hardly anyone predicted the magnitude of the protests, and hence Rassd with its recent journalism experience in 2010 and its prior knowledge of the protests became the de facto source of information for the 2011 protests. Rassd launched without a dedicated website; nonetheless, Facebook provided the founders with the basic tools to publish, share, receive contributions, and get public feedback all with the added benefits of a highly interconnected social network. Facebook served as the ideal platform given the group’s limited resources and time constraints. This was aided by the fact that the former Egyptian regime raided press offices and persecuted professional journalists. Rassd’s reporters on the other hand, equipped only with their mobile phones were unidentified, agile and able to move along with the protests for closer coverage. Moreover, the fact that Rassd was the most widely followed news source on the protests, encouraged some officials to send near classified documents detailing regime attack plans or incriminating state officials with the charge of killing civilians.

Despite its popularity, Rassd’s model is not without flaws. The first and foremost criticism leveled at social journalism news sites generally is the lack of fact checking, hence assigning its news reduced credibility. Though Rassd tried to alleviate this criticism by categorizing their news snippets with labels such as “Confirmed”, “Almost Confirmed”, or “Unconfirmed” depending on criteria such as supporting evidence or confirmation from multiple or single sources [9], on few occasions, their reported news was inaccurate. For example, due to their unofficial nature, their posts were sometimes mobilizing more than informative.

One pitfall to this blurry distinction between their role as information providers and their assumed role as mobilizers is that they can sometimes post emotive rather than objective content. At one instance, Rassd posted a picture of injured protesters in another country suggesting that it was from Tahrir square, which they shortly apologized for after members of the public pointed it out. Moreover, whereas some may argue that raw videos provided by citizens may be more credible than news which is framed to convey a certain reality, raw videos can also be framed to mislead using an inaccurate video title, time or date. For instance, some readers do not bother reading the articles, or watching the videos and inaccurately consider the title of the article or video as the news itself. In such times, it is essential that the role of the audience shift from passive readers to producers of meaning, who not only read, but also collaborate and scrutinize the story in the making [10].

After the ousting of Mubarak, the political schism between the different political parties was more evident now that the common goal of deposing the regime was achieved. Political activists started accusing Rassd of being sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood [11]. When asked about Rassd’s relationship to the MB, Anas Hassan explained that though many of its founders are members of the organization, Rassd itself is not part of it or any other organization. He added that their operation room consisted of activists of different political orientations such as the media committee of the ElBaradei campaign and Da’am center in addition to the youth of the MB [12]. However, while this alleged bias may have been difficult to discern during the first 18 days of the revolution, it was considerably more noticeable afterwards. During the post-revolution period, Rassd’s posts refrained from covering much of the criticism directed at the Muslim Brotherhood.

Though Rassd started off with only a Facebook page and no web presence, it now runs a dedicated news website. Throughout the 18 days prior to the fall of the Mubarak regime, Rassd was the main feeder of news for Egyptians following the protests online. In the post-revolution state, the frequency of newsworthy events subsided, but Egypt has been going through a state of political vacuum and confusion that prompted people to seek more personalized firsthand accounts of events by citizen reporters and eyewitnesses. Thus two years after the revolution, Rassd continued to fill a role not played by traditional media due to its emphasis on citizen content. Rassd’s concept has spread, for several sister networks, such as Barq in Libya, and Sham in Syria.

Nonetheless, as a side effect of relying on volunteers and the lack of dedicated resources, it is hard for initiatives like Rassd to sustain their level of success or upgrade their coverage to long term serious investigations. Rassd’s news snippets and those of other networks alike, no longer received the same level of involvement from the readers, judging from the number of likes and comments that has significantly dropped from thousands to tens.

The slow progression of events coupled with lack of resources for in-depth investigation, alongside the accusations of bias may have all contributed to the readers’ reduced engagement. Despite the ongoing increase in the number of Rassd’s subscribers who have reached more than 2.4 million in May 2013, the large number of subscribers does not necessarily translate to increased popularity. Users of social media may subscribe to Facebook pages at a time of heightened demand for news and forget to unsubscribe or could skip over the news in favor of more personal updates.

Now that the progression of events has significantly receded and the demand for a revolutionary media has subsided to that of more serious investigations, the question remains: what will become of Rassd and other forms of social journalism? Was Rassd a provisional success aided by a historical moment, or will it be able to transform its journalistic model to accommodate for the demands of more a serious, and objective investigative reporting?




[1] Ulbricht , Melissa. “Covering Protest and Revolution: Lessons from Al Jazeera’s Mobile and Citizen Media.”, March 2, 2011.

[2] Cary, Mary. “Egypt Cuts the Internet in the Face of the Revolution.” U.S. News and World Report, January 28, 2011.

[3] Hassan, Anas. شباب رصد، ويكيليكس مصر [The Youth of Rassd Network, Egypt’s Wikileaks]. Interview by Shaimaa Mamdouh. Bawabet Al Shabab, Al Ahram, February 12, 2011a.

[4] Ghonim, Wael. Revolution 2.0: A Memoir. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

[4a] Ivi, p. 119

[4b] Ivi, p. 170

[4c] Ivi, p. 171

[5] Escobar, Pepe. “Rage, rage against counter-revolution.” The Global Realm, February 1, 2011.

[6] Schuh, Mathias. “Citizen Journalism in Egypt: The newsfeed of the Revolution.” Masters of Media, October 10, 2012 (para. 8)

[6a] Ibidem.

[6b] Ibidem.

[7] Solayman, Hanan. “Egypt’s Revolution Media: A Question of Credibility.” Emaj Magazine, September 13, 2011.

[8] Ghonim, Wael, Revolution 2.0: A Memoir, cit., p. 236

[9] Farrag, Amr and Ossama Tolba. البرنامج مع باسم يوسف.. شبكة رصد [The Show with Bassem Youssef: Rassd News Network – Interview]. Cairo. August 25, 2011.

[10] Goode, Luke. “Social news, citizen journalism and democracy.” New Media and Society 11, no.8 (2009): 1287–1305.

[11] Ghonim, Wael, Revolution 2.0: A Memoir, cit., p. 119

[12] Hassan, Anas. حوار خاص مع مؤسس شبكة رصد الاخبارية [A Special Interview with the Founder of Rassd’s News Network]. Interview by Mahmoud Mubarak, Rassd News Network, February 20, 2011c.