Implementing localized interpretation
This chapter uses Albuquerque and Lycariào’s (2018) ethical and epistemological analytical facets for localizing reflection on some results of the BRICS journalism study. It is able to engage with its methodological analytic approach only insofar as it overlaps with the ethical and epistemological facets; analyzing results from the supra- and infra-power relations perspective is outside the scope of this chapter.
To implement the ethical aspect, we deconstruct the existing stereotype of nonWestern countries as lagging behind the West, by training our reflection out of Western normativity. From the epistemological point of view, we generate new knowledge based on empirical evidence from our study rather than use nonacademic, Western organizations as the only arbiters of authoritative knowledge. We describe the new opportunities for journalistic freedom in BRICS that are emerging in the era of social media, rather than rely on the ‘ready-made knowledge’ of the freedom rankings created by Freedom House (FH), whose measurements are influenced by Western ideas of freedom and are not free from bias (Steiner, 2016; Fonte and Gonzalez, 2018). According to Albuquerque and Lycariào (2018: 2882), ‘Possibly, no other agent has been as influential in [objectifying a Western-centered moral order| as FH, whose Free Press Index has been ubiquitously employed as having a self-evident value, despite evidence about its methodological flaws (Becker, 2003), political bias (Gianonne, 2010), and institutional ties with the US government (Tsygankov and Parker, 2014)’.
Social media in news making
Other than South Africa, the BRICS countries today have all become world leaders in terms of the number of Internet users (Worldatlas, 2018). When we conducted interviews with journalists in 2012-2015, the number of Internet users in the BRICS countries was much smaller, but these four countries were still among the top ten Internet users. China occupied the first position, India the third place, Brazil the fifth and Russia the sixth place (Internet Live Stats, 2014).
An analysis of news-making practices reported by BRICS journalists confirms that social media has become a new tool in the everyday work of these journalists. The commonalities and differences among the countries were as follows: in Brazil, India and South Africa journalists relied solely on global social media, i.e., US technical inventions with economic and political domination in the Internet market, whereas in China and Russia journalists used both global media and domestic media (WeChat.Weibo,VKontakte), which also became global later.
A majority of journalists in Brazil and South Africa shared a preference for the three global social media giants: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In both Brazil and South Africa, the most convenient way to access social media and consume and share information was mobile phones (Wasserman et al., 2018: 52). In Brazil, almost all respondents (97 per cent) had their own social media profiles (Paiva, Guerra and Custodio, 2015: 20).The majority ofjournalists in Brazil assessed social media positively as a new tool at work but some also noted ‘the danger of false information’ and ‘the need for surveillance of information supplied by the user’. Some wished ‘for stronger regulation to meet the challenges of the virtual world’ (Wasserman et al., 2018: 57). In South Africa, almost all the journalists regularly used such social media as Facebook and Twitter in their work. At the same time, some online journalists were concerned that Twitter was a threat to their positions because it enabled ‘people to remain abreast of the news without having to consume formal, online media’ (ibid.: 59).
Access to the Internet in India was also mostly mobile driven; newsrooms had unlimited access to the Internet and journalists had smartphones. In the words of two Indian journalists respectively: ‘It is a changed world; reporters are filing stories from their phones’ and ‘it is a new age wherein stories are already being done at one tenth of the cost with the help of mobile phones’ (Vemula et al., 2018: 163).
India was the only country whose journalists used WhatsApp as one of their main tools to gather news and immediately transmit it to the news desk or to publish it on their media site. Journalists appreciated the integration of social media with news media because it facilitated gathering information and communicating with sources, and also promoting their media outlets and themselves in the public sphere of the Internet (ibid.). In Hyderabad, an online journalist suggested the term ‘explanatory journalism’to describe journalism that emerges from such integration of social media with news media:
We can embed tweets about what someone is saying. So now the whole idea of calling someone, going to a person, and getting his quote is not necessary; you can just embed the person’s tweet or hyperlink to older stories related to the person, which makes it all the more credible. For example, get the Prime Minister himself and put his quote. You can take his tweet and embed it to your story. All these possibilities are there where news becomes more accessible, and the idea that we have of explanatory journalism can happen smoothly.
Both India and China had the largest number of young journalists (age 18-29) in the BRICS group. In India, 52 per cent ofjournalists in traditional media and 63 per cent in online media were between 18 and 29 years old. In China, these percentages were 69 and 71 per cent respectively. Both countries also had a high post-2000 generation workforce. In China, ‘95 per cent in both traditional and online news media’ and in India ‘80 per cent in traditional news media and 93 per cent in online news’were from this generation (Pasti and Ramaprasad, 2016: 21). These journalists grew up with new technology and thus could easily introduce it into their work; in fact, due to this technologyjournalism became a very attractive and easy occupation for them. One Indian journalist observed how quick and easy it was for young journalists to do their job: ‘The other day I was covering an event and I saw this guy recording everything that the speaker was saying and it was automatically converted into a Word file, and there was nothing much for him to do except maybe editing’ (Vemula et et al., 2018: 36).
In contrast to journalists in Brazil, India and South Africa, a majority of journalists in Russia used both global (Facebook,Twitter, Instagram and Linkedln) and domestic social media (VKontakte and Livejournal). Some Russian journalists, both in the capitals and the provinces, made diversified use of different social media. In Yekaterinburg, the respondents noted: ‘VKontakte for personal communication, Facebook for work’. A similar explanation was given by a St. Petersburg journalist:
Initially, the idea of any social networks was ... people [communicating] among themselves; [thus] a person must have one account to communicate with friends .... [and for journalists] to publish events from [their] life and profession - another account ... Let’s say you don’t call [by phone] to take a comment, but take it through Facebook.
[by asking your information source for a comment]
Facebook only came to Russia in 2008, when the domestic social network Vkontakte, initiated in 2006, had already begun to win an audience. According to Konradova, Vkontakte became popular among young users because of its multimedia content, while Facebook turned out be ‘more politicized and functioned as a platform for liberal and democratic opposition’, which was mainly concentrated in large cities in Russia (Konradova, 2020: 67-68).
The use of social media in Russia for journalistic work also differed by type of city (metropolis and province) and its specific urban environment. For example, in Petrozavodsk, a small city far removed from Moscow, journalists preferred VKontakte, which had both audiences as well as sources for journalists. In St. Petersburg, most online journalists used VKontakte, Facebook and Twitter, and half of the traditional media journalists used VKontakte, and some used Twitter and Facebook.
Unlike some South African journalists, who considered social media as competition, Russian journalists did not believe that social media could compete with traditional media or online news media. They argued that social media were used mostly for communication, not for producing journalism. For example, a Russian journalist said that social media ‘could serve as a source of information exchange and for exchange of some links’; i.e., only as a tool in a journalists’ work. Another spoke more specifically: ‘I take it as a news feed, where I can find the links, but no more, because these media certainly do not replace traditional ones’ (Wasserman et al., 2018: 58).
Similar to Russian journalists, journalists in China also used both global (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Linkedln) and domestic (WeChat, Weibo, QQ, Renren and Douban) social media, but they considered domestic social media more important. It must be noted that Chinese journalists mentioned nine popular social media altogether. This was two to three times more than the number of social media that journalists mentioned in other BRICS countries. In essence, Chinese journalists are well informed from various sources. This finding characterizes a Chinese journalist as curious and dynamic in searching for information, likely out of necessity, but still an indication of resourcefulness in finding independent sources of information (those international social media officially blocked by the government) to supplement the information from the domestic social media that are controlled by the government.
Indicating how Chinese journalists used the banned global social media in their work, Simons et al. write:
[the] authorities are clearly content to turn a blind eye to media practices that breach the rules but are recognized, in other respects, as serving markets and facilitating business activity. Many international news sites and social media platforms are blocked in China. However, four interviewees had it as an explicit part of their work duties to ‘leap over’ the Great Firewall of China to gather international news. These reporters used VPNs as part of their job descriptions ....These kinds of jobs existed across both Party outlets and quasi-private media enterprises. Even those journalists who did not have access to international news in their job description routinely used VPNs. The Great Firewall of China was for them and, they assumed, most of their educated audience, an inconvenience rather than an effective restriction on the free flow of information.
(Simons et al., 2017: 233-234)
From an epistemological perspective, this finding from interviews with Chinese journalists gives us pause with regard to the evaluation of the freedom ofjournalists in China by Freedom House, which ranks China as a non-free country in terms of freedom of the Internet (Freedom House, 2019). As mentioned above, Freedom House is not a neutral arbiter in assessing the freedom of the press in the world and its role in international media research is to strengthen the centrist position of the West. Its critics tirelessly draw attention to its neoliberal political bias (Giannone, 2010; Sapiezynska and Lagos, 2016; Steiner, 2016; Fonte and Gonzalez, 2018) and methodological flaws (Bollen, 1986; Becker, 2003; Coppedge et al., 2011).
Freedom House assesses Internet freedom using the following three criteria: obstacles to access, restrictions on content and violations of user rights. It is clear that authoritarian rule in China will affect the level of political rights, and the civil and journalistic freedoms in the country, but these measures do not allow for the opportunities that are opening up in China due to new conditions for China’s integration into the world market and international communication, i.e., the digitalization and globalization ofWestern and Chinese social media. Freedom House considers the official ban on Facebook and Twitter in China as an obstacle to access, but it does not assess how this ban actually works in practice, and in the process indirectly provides a picture that underestimates the use of social media for journalistic work by Chinese journalists. It is common knowledge that virtual private networks (VPNs) make it possible to bypass the firewall and get access to Google, Facebook,Twitter and other sources in China, though this has become more difficult in recent years.
In today’s digital world without borders, Chinese journalists are globalizing through these informal practices of using global social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, etc.), which provide room for alternative opinions. These journalists look for alternative ways to create a space of autonomy and make professional choices about sources of information and the nature of their use in the context of their own situation with regard to their relations with government. In other words, how journalists work in the non-Western context has its own dynamics of formal and informal practices. We may surmise that by regularly using these global social media as alternative sources of information and communication, Chinese journalists gradually legitimize them as the norm in their professional practice. Our analysis counters the stereotype of Chinese journalists as being completely unfree and totally controlled in their journalistic work.