Ghost Boat brings together journalists and the public to find a missing refugee ship. What can it teach us about participatory citizen journalism?
[I am archiving some of my writing in the spirit of digital preservation - this is a repost of a blog that originally appeared on the Nesta website on 23 December 2015]
Image credit: Aneta Foubíková via Unsplash
On June 28 2014 a refugee ship left Libya, on board 243 refugees, mostly Eritreans. The ship never made it to Europe, which, as we know all too well, is unfortunately not uncommon. 2,889 people have died trying to reach Italy in 2015 alone. But where the sinking of refugee vessels on the Mediterranean is usually quite well documented or can at the least be traced back through distress calls or pieces of wreckage found at sea, this particular ship never left a trace. Is it possible for a ship with 243 people on board to just disappear, not leaving a single blip on the radar? That is what the makers of Ghost Boat want you to help find out.
Amateurs have been committing acts of journalism since before Gutenberg, but it was the democratising nature of the internet and the rise of open source tools that have truly allowed citizen journalism to prosper. The near infinite amount of publicly available information, from Google maps satellite imagery to Twitter APIs, allow anyone with an internet connection and some tech savviness to do the kind of investigative journalism newsrooms only could have dreamed about just 15 years ago. Eliot Higgins, a supporter of the Ghost Boat project and one of Libya and Italy. Currently on episode eight in a planned series of nine weekly instalments, the investigation is still ongoing. Watch this video by Al Jazeera’s AJ+ for a brief introduction of the project.
Over the last couple of months, the Ghost Boat project has led to a series of insightful and personal background pieces on the refugee crisis and the criminally under-reported plight of Eritreans fleeing their homeland. In addition to the involved journalists’ efforts, around twenty community members have actively joined in on the search as well. Though very valuable, perhaps not the kind of numbers the creators were hoping for. The limited participation can be partially explained by the lack of breakthroughs in the case so far. With virtually all possible leads explored, from mysterious phone calls to lighthouse patterns, the Ghost Boat investigation has not yet led to any real answers about what happened to the ship. Without the buzz of progress, it is hard to get new readers excited about contributing. Hitting a roadblock is an inevitable risk that comes with investigative journalism, but Ghost Boat teaches us some important lessons about setting up a collaborative citizen journalism project as well.
Being a responsible internet sleuth
Amateurs have been committing acts of journalism since before Gutenberg, but it was the democratising nature of the internet and the rise of open source tools that have truly allowed citizen journalism to prosper. The near infinite amount of publically available information, from Google maps satellite imagery to Twitter APIs, allow anyone with an internet connection and some tech savviness to do the kind of investigative journalism newsrooms only could have dreamed about just 15 years ago. Eliot Higgins, a supporter of the Ghost Boat project and one of Nesta’s 2014 New Radicals, is one of citizen journalism’s biggest success stories. A complete novice when it came to military technology when starting out, Higgins found conclusive proof for chemical weapon use by the Syrian army, and had the scoop on identifying the BUK that allegedly shot down flight MH17. But where Higgins’ work distinguishes itself in its diligence and careful fact-checking, this is often not the case when the public jumps on a case. The Reddit Boston Bombers debacle is probably the most infamous example of internet sleuthing gone wrong; in a frenzy to find the terrorists behind the Boston marathon attack, Reddit users falsely accused several innocent bystanders, who consequently found their pictures plastered across global media. An angry mob with access to Facebook and Google maps can do as much damage as the most egregious tabloid headlines- but with even less accountability.
Ghost Boat’s setup- combining the work of trained journalist with the contributions of engaged readers, would naturally prevent this kind of irresponsible bandwagoning. The Ghost Boat team runs the project’s Medium page, suggests tasks and highlights interesting community findings. First Draft, a coalition of eyewitness media experts also involved with the project, has created several guides for budding citizen journalists also shared on the Ghost Boat page. Joining up efforts in this way adds an element of curation, education and gatekeeping to the investigative journalist’s role, an interesting development in a rapidly changing media landscape.
Finding a balance between hierarchy and community-driven investigations
Where imposing a degree of control and hierarchy onto the citizen journalism process helps solve the overzealous internet sleuth issue, it is also constraining. Successful participatory journalism investigations often happen organically. A recent example is the case of the ‘Grateful Doe’, where a Reddit community (finally some redemption) came together to successfully identify an unknown victim of a car accident as nineteen year old Jason Callahan, solving a two decade-old cold case. We can wonder if a formalised version of this investigation would have led to an equally engaged community and a stricter division of tasks would have generated the same unexpected breakthroughs.
Whether a passionate community will form around a missing refugee ship or any topic is hard to predict beforehand: for every Jason Callahan, there are hundreds of initiatives that never take off. The central case in Serial’s first season (which formed the inspiration for Ghost Boat’s investigation-in-installments model) is perhaps even rather mundane as far as controversial murder convictions go, yet singlehandedly revived the podcasting medium. What the most successful investigations do have in common is a sense of excitement of being an important part of something potentially big- where you might be the one to come up with the breakthrough (indeed, Serial spurred its own unanticipated community of amateur detectives hoping to break the case ahead of presenter Sarah Koenig). Ghost Boat, though its subject incredibly important and compelling, seems to miss this important element, hindered by its hierarchical structure from taking off further.
The great long-form articles produced by Ghost Boat’s team of journalists are the center pieces of the project- also quite literally: the audience’s investigations are published in second column, playing second fiddle. The public’s findings are rarely used by the journalists to steer their own investigation. Part of the power, and draw, of citizen journalism is that anyone can become involved, and is free to take the investigation in any direction they would like. When the investigation already has a clear direction, and the tasks feel predefined, any breakthroughs feel less like the accomplishment of the community as a whole, but more of those leading it. Future experiments like Ghost Boat will face the same difficult challenge of finding a balance between structure and freedom to explore.
Don’t Waste People’s Time
Just as important as finding a meaningful topic and allowing the whole community to take ownership of the investigation, is actually asking your community to do meaningful work. Over the years, we have often seen media outlets get carried away by the possibilities new technologies offer, resulting in gratuitous data visualisations and presidential election holograms, losing sight of the actual news value of such endeavours. Crowdsourcing the public has similarly often fallen prey to editors’ gimmicky pet projects. But where an unnecessary infographic is just a waste of internal resources, squandering the effort of well-meaning volunteers feels particularly exploitive. This is problematic. Does an investigation really require the time and skills of the public, or is it just a nice to have?
‘The Counted’, the Guardian’s ongoing investigation into people killed by police in the United States is a particularly good example of an established newsroom effectively sourcing the crowd for a very specific bit of information. The newspaper asks readers to submit accounts of their own encounters with police brutality, which are then fed into a central database- very valuable, as no exact numbers on this type of violence are publicly available.
Defining similar tasks for a project like Ghost Boat, which has a much wider range of potential leads to be explored, is far more difficult. By casting a wider net, and designing a project much closer to typical citizen journalism, there are also far more different avenues to be explored, with a higher possibility of smaller sub-investigations not being particularly useful for the larger investigation. The journalists leading the project regularly post datasets and documents they themselves do not have the time and skills for to do anything with, but do hold potential promise to provide more insight into what happened to the ship. Though offering suggestions about what might be useful information to extract from these potential bits of evidence, readers are encouraged to take the investigation even further. In this collaborative model, working with specific, smaller tasks is perhaps most useful both for the investigation and in getting people involved- but does take away some agencies from contributors. Another fine balance future experiments will have to grapple with before the perfect formula is found.
Just as important as finding a meaningful topic and allowing the whole community to take ownership of the investigation, is actually asking your community to do meaningful work. Over the years, we have often seen media outlets get carried away by the possibilities new technologies offer, resulting in gratuitous data visualisations and presidential election holograms, losing sight of the actual news value of such endeavours. Crowdsourcing the public has similarly often fallen prey to editors’ gimmicky pet projects. But where an unnecessary infographic is just a waste of internal resources, squandering the effort of well-meaning volunteers feels particularly exploitive. This is problematic.
With newsrooms increasingly strapped for resources and time, crowdsourcing the public to help out with investigations could be a promising solution to help keep investigative journalism alive. Ghost Boat has made great strides in paving the way to elevate these kinds of projects to a higher level.