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Managing the perils of the social web

Managing the perils of the social web

Social media websites have opened up a new area of risks for freelancers working in conflict zones. Make sure you’re not oversharing potentially compromising information.

I recently came back from training in the West Bank, where the perils of social media reigned tall. One writer has withdrawn from Facebook after one of his 5,000 "friends" hacked into his account and sent false messages that put him in danger. A young Palestinian blogger with thousands of followers around the world has stopped sharing her work on YouTube following threats. And the Israel correspondent for a major American newspaper is quitting Twitter, after posting an unfavorable Tweet about Hamas in Gaza that provoked a disturbing response. "It's just not worth the risk," he said.
Others are opting out, too. While social media poses vast opportunities to reach audiences and sources, we are finding that these platforms often create vulnerabilities that no one quite pondered when sending that first message. Instant and mobile communication has spawned a new dimension of harassment that can turn fatal. Syria in particular has posed some disturbing instances where communications probably contributed to capture or death.
One journalist disappeared after regularly tweeting his movements around Syria and his fondness for Syrian rebels.  The lesson here? Think carefully about the wording and audience of each post.  Never give information about location or plans. Take time to consider whether an article you innocently re-Tweeted could anger a hostile party - or unwittingly endanger the lives of colleagues working in the vicinity. This goes for Facebook, too.
Aside from content, the vehicles by which we send missives can create death traps as well. Syrian authorities could easily eavesdrop on the satellite phone of veteran correspondent Marie Colvin, when she was sending copy and messages in Homs. Sat phones are easily overheard and provide geo-locations. The building she was staying in was a rebel safe house known to host foreign media, and it is widely thought that government forces deliberately aimed the missile that killed her at the site.
Similarly, two other foreign journalists got on the radar of their captors after stopping off at an Internet cafe to file copy and send emails. They were on their way out of Syria and just 25 miles from the safety of the Turkish border, which they never reached. 
So what are technology-dependent journalists to do?  Here are a few simple steps, to try to mitigate risks:
  • Carefully analyze your electronic profile. Always ask: who would want to hurt me and how might I appear? Does my religion or past profession create risks? Have I posted photographs that could be seen as compromising, such as shooting a gun? A portrait of target shooting on the farm back home might be misinterpreted as a mercenary agenda. Do I espouse certain religious or political beliefs? Think carefully about re-Tweeting messages that might be interpreted as controversial, even if you personally don’t agree with the gist.
  • Whenever possible, transmit your footage after you leave the danger zone. No deadline is worth getting killed. Resist the temptation to be constantly in touch and online. Unplug whenever possible, as every minute you are switched on presents opportunities for hacking. Avoid Internet cafes, for risk of surveillance, both physical and digital.
  • Do not post information about your birth date, mother’s maiden name, pet’s name, high school and hometown. These are often the answers to security questions for accounts.
  • Ask: Do you really need Facebook and Twitter to do your job? Minimize communications to the essential. Separate the personal and professional. You may be unwittingly endangering family, sources, or in the case of Sotloff, colleagues.
  • Most importantly: Always consider the worst-case scenario. Then come up with a plan to avoid it happens.
Digital security is a major plank of the four-day safety workshops that we offer at Columbia University. The cyber communications segment takes up a full day, alongside emergency first aid, physical safety, trauma and rape prevention. For all these segments, we believe that risk assessment and contingency planning are critical to survival, not only when plotting one’s moves but also sending messages.

Judith Matloff teaches conflict reporting at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and conducts safety training for media workers around the world. She is a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review, and the author of Fragments of a Forgotten War” and “Home Girl.” This post is part of our Freelance Safety Series

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Image: ©Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen, used here under a Creative Commons licence.

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