Al Jazeera English has launched a free interactive mobile web-based app that’s gamified the investigative journalism that was conducted for a documentary investigating Syria’s Cyber war.
Stemming from a film from the network’s weekly Power & People documentary strand called #Hacked: Syria’s Electronic War, by senior Al Jazeera correspondent Juliana Ruhfus, the app, which shares the film’s name, allows users to follow in Ruhfus’ footsteps as she delved deeper into Syria’s cyber war, a conflict that has proven to be just as deadly as the country’s ground war.
A follow-up to Ruhfus’ groundbreaking and award-winning first doc-based interactive investigation, Pirate Fishing, #Hacked continues Al Jazeera English’s quest to present its programming content in innovative ways to reach new audiences. Ruhfus, who says she always has interactivity in the back of her mind when approaching documentary projects, approached cloud-based gaming platform company Conducttr to create the experience.
“We know that younger audiences do not come to news websites as they used to, whether it’s the BBC or Al Jazeera. There’s a massive audience drop related to age, so, I think we have to go out and find formats that speak to younger audiences and maybe to audiences who are not interested in Syria,” Ruhfus tells realscreen. “I can’t challenge power if I only talk to people who only sit in the same ivory tower that I’m in. I’ve got to reach out and reach other people and I think that’s what interactive can do.”
Another benefit of coupling documentary filmmaking with interactive technology, she says, is the tech’s ability to layer on a different type of experience. In the app, which combines original documentary footage with game design and links to outside resources, the user is tasked with collecting as much information as possible in a limited amount of time by contacting activists, hackers and coders, all of whom Ruhfus encountered during the making of the film, and making a number of choices, such as whether to allow interviewees to disguise their identities to keep them safe. The kicker is they must do all of that without being hacked themselves. All the play hacks, from being tricked into clicking infected links to blackmail attempts, are based on real hacks. It all serves to remind players that they are actually dealing in fact, not fiction.
“In the app, we reveal the process of journalism, of filmmaking, how you approach people,” says Ruhfus. “It reveals a dynamic and it reveals the rules according to which we work. And in this specific case of dealing with such a sensitive subject like the Syrian cyber war, it also reveals the security precautions we had to take, first and foremost on behalf of the people that we dealt with to keep them safe, but also Al Jazeera as a broadcaster was worried about getting hacked with a topic like that.”
It also provides users access to information that was never put in the film. For example, users can click through to characters’ actual social media profiles to discover that the person is actually a real social media activist in Syria who’s been tortured by the security forces to reveal their password. All in all, says Ruhfus, it makes for a much different kind documentary experience.
“I think that sense of immediacy and immersion you don’t get when you’re watching a documentary.”
As for her next project, Ruhfus tells realscreen that she is toying with the idea of experimenting with other types of interactive tech, like location-based technology or augmented reality.
“I think with augmented reality you can create an experience and use it as another layer in your narrative.”
The documentary film version of #Hacked: Syria’s Electronic War was produced by Al Jazeera, commissioned by Diarmuid Jeffreys, manager of programs, investigative, with the support of Imad Musa, manager of online. It was directed by Darius Bazargan.