Journalism Goes Ga-Ga Over Twitter: A Little Perspective

By Sadie Bass

Jun 17, 2009 2:58pm

ABC's Lara Setrakian reports from Dubai: Twitter @laraabcnews A few weeks back we reported on the use of high tech politics in Iran, from Mir Hossein Mousavi’s facebook page to the Supreme Leader’s tweets. That was before Friday’s election. Since then the role of Twitter has grown and morphed, from a network of casual contact to a news source and echo chamber for public discontent (see the World News piece by our Miguel Marquez). People following the story want to connect, and they want all the information they can get in real time. Twitter gives access to both professional journalists and the view from the ground. By now you’ve heard of the tweets from Iran. Here are some observations – what I’ve noticed about doing journalism from the middle of the movement: Twitter is a Huge Asset
We get leads and tips to follow up on, hear a geographically broad swath of voices, and have a chance to get feedback on what we’re reporting and reading elsewhere. Drawback: a massive selection bias. We are, obviously, only hearing from the subset of Iran that has the access/ability to live tweet the opposition protests and their aftermath. While many rural and low-income Iranians do have access to internet, it’s through public web cafes that would likely lack the proxy servers that get you around bans on facebook, twitter, and other blocked sites.   Twitter is a Tailored Platform
People hear the mix of voices they choose. That is innovative, but also limiting. Twitter is Unreliable
Most of the original information we get from Twitter is unsourced and unverified. We don’t know whether the people tweeting are who they say they are, or whether they’re even in Iran. Whether out of excitement or malice, the truth can be exaggerated, underestimated, or otherwise distorted. We’re helped by the fact that some of the sources we know and trust are Twittering live from Iran, we follow them there with more confidence. Side note: most information from Iran is now unreliable. Given the ban on foreign journalists, much of what I’m getting comes in emails from Iran that are hard to verify. My solution for now is to twitter them as “e-source” – (as in: e-source: ‘Allahu akbar’ and ‘death to dictator’ chants have begun on Tehran rooftops #iranelection.)
Twitter is Powerful
Data points you might have heard: a protest of CNN’s lack of coverage, waged with a #CNNfail hashtag, succeeded in becoming one of the most tweeted topics over the weekend. Also succeeded, apparently, by CNN taking notice and devoting more time to the issue (though their coverage might also have increased because of the escalating news value). There were widespread calls on Twitter to attack/hack Iranian state websites, including the homepage of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Also, on the emergence of Twitter as a news source, it has evolved into the accelerated extreme of a 24-hour newschannel: content to be followed and updated second by second. Miss a heartbeat and you’ve missed the flow. Twitter Power Caveat
We don’t know if, as has been claimed, Twitter was powerful enough to mobilize people in Iran to get out and rally. What seems more likely is that this was a widespread civic movement, reported and reflected online. Those are my notes from the reporting revolution that’s taking place through #Iranelection (speaking of which, my own Twitter page has partially replaced my notebook – I go over it while writing TV scripts about the day’s events). The line “the Revolution will be Twitterized” began as a protest against limits of TV coverage of #Iranelection. As the authors have since proven, in the Twitter world there are no limits.

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