Last week I had the privilege to interview Abdullah Al-Fakharany, a Cairo-based citizen journalist who helps run something called Rassd News Network (RNN). Rassd is an Egyptian Arabic acronym for Raqib (observe), Sower (photograph), Dowin (write). RNN, as it is known in Egypt and across the Arab world, began as a joint voluntary effort in Cairo before the November 2010 parliamentary elections, which were expected to be (and in fact were) brazenly rigged. Fakharany and his friends built, through Facebook, a network of about 100 volunteer journalists across Egypt, who would upload videos and write short news stories that fit into Facebook’s status update bar. There was no television station, no real hierarchy, no long news stories. It was news reporting for the Twitter age. Al-Fakharany told me that their big break came during the Tunisian uprising, when RNN was the first to break the news of Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abadine Ben Ali’s departure. As Al-Fakharany recounts it:
“My friend grew up in Jeddah, and he said someone important had come to Jeddah, and we knew that Ben Ali is in the air. All the people humiliated us, [said] we are lying, and after two hours it came on Al-Jazeera, so this made our reputation. After the Tunisian revolution, we became 70,000 on our page, and we started to focus on motivating people to do something, to never be silenced, to take their rights.”
During the revolution, RNN would publish, on its identical Twitter and Facebook pages, updates from across Egypt. But as Al-Fakharany tells it, RNN was not simply a news organization, but a set of citizen journalists with a political agenda who were actively aiding the cause of the revolution. As he tells it:
“You are a protester, you call me. ‘Abdullah I will start my protest on the street of whatever.’ So I say [on RNN’s page] there’s a protest in the street, and all the people go there because I wrote it on my page. By that way, we mix media, by being a news agency and also creating news.” Al-Fakharany called this “unprofessional,” but he meant merely that RNN makes no pretense of being an objective news organization and is directly tied to the agenda and goals of the revolution.
As of this writing, RNN’s Facebook page had 900, 494 followers on Facebook, and 83,518 followers on Twitter, which is astounding considering the total lack of press coverage they have garnered in the international media. According to Facebook statistics, RNN garners more than 400,000 daily post views, making it even more trafficked than even the We Are All Khaled Said page. Egypt’s Twitterverse tweets and retweets updates from RNN constantly, making it a fascinating case-study of citizen-driven, free news coverage. It appears to be a novel form of digital activism, distinct from other blogging platforms, individual Twitter feeds, or even now-routine forms of Facebook organizing. I plan to spend some time with the team in the next few days and to bring further insights afterwards.