Barot has been using and studying the use of chat apps in journalism since the London riots of 2011, and has subsequently launched BBC World Service projects such as the WhatsApp Ebola service. He has been sharing the findings of his report with First Draft, where he explained the principle difference between chat apps and social networks;
Unlike the big social networks, which act as a global town square where citizens of the world share information and interact, chat apps are small pockets of friends, digital community centres connected by their members rather than the platform. As such, news outlets need to consider who they are trying to reach before setting up their private network accounts as platforms are more popular with different communities.
By understanding which app is most popular in each region, the BBC has been able to maximise its global reach. Barot gives the example of Telegram which has an emphasis on secure communication and as a result has become popular in countries where users have to be worried about state surveillance and the danger of open debate.
“We knew that Telegram was rising rapidly in use in Iran specifically for these reasons, where the government bans consuming BBC News content through television,” Barot said, so the BBC launched a channel on Telegram with the BBC Persian service. The website is also blocked in Iran but, within two weeks of launch BBC Persian had more than 100,000 subscribers on Telegram and some posts reached over 800,000 unique users in the app, “by far the most significant numbers we’ve ever experienced on any chat platform,” said Barot.
The BBC uses its existing channels and outlets to promote any new services on offer, and once a small audience is accrued it encourages users to share the service with friends and family. Users are encouraged to share their stories and experiences enabling newsgathering to commence.
In addition to the distribution channel, BBC Persian set up a separate channel for the Iranian public to share tips and multimedia files which quickly became a gold mine for stories. “Since they launched on Telegram they’ve been absolutely inundated with content that’s come in,” Barot said. “Some of it is spam but a lot of it is from parts of the country they’ve never got content from before and Telegram is proving to be a great medium for them to solicit really valuable intelligence and material.”
First Draft say that verification of reports can be more difficult when using user generated content from chat apps. Images may be passed from user to user multiple times and lacks the original link that a Twitter image would have. Newsrooms therefore need to be careful about the verification procedures they employ. However the non-public environment of a chat app can offer more anonymity and to users who want to communicate securely from dangerous environments;
Newsrooms need to consider “to what extent is a person sending that material in danger,” said Barot, “to what extent, even if they want their names to be used, could they be under threat if we reveal the source.” This may even go against the wishes of the contributor, but news organisations are generally more aware of the fallout from going public than members of the audience themselves, so should use their judgement accordingly. “There have been some examples where people have sent us content from Libya or Iran and have said ‘I’m happy for you to use my name’, but we said we’re not going to or we’d anonymise it by just using the first name because we felt that was important, even if they were fine with it. We overrode their safety considerations they may have themselves and made our own judgement.”