Image by inju via FlickrYesterday was interesting. Twitter once again ruled the news agenda of mainstream media (MSM) networks as the world's editors finally woke up to the fact (where have you been, CNN?) that something enormous, potentially agenda-changing and highly significant was unfolding in Iran.
From the beatings of students in their dormitories (a story that broke on Twitter, with Twitpics of damaged dorms and bruised students) through to the unfolding 'is it on is it off' drama of the march on Tehran by the green banner-waving opposition crowd (some estimates had it at 2 million and more), the news was happening on Twitter significantly ahead of coverage on the MSM.
This meant that major outlets such as CNN, ABC, Sky and the BBC were all reduced to referencing Twitter in their coverage. The actual Twitter output was massive, reaching several tweets a second going into the late afternoon, and the feeds started to get confusing with rumours spreading and people tweeting and retweeting new information almost regardless of its source. A colossal number of people used Twitter, blogs and Facebook to follow events in Iran yesterday simply because the traditional media failed so badly in understanding that we care about this news. It was a massive editorial misstep that you could argue was only avoided by the BBC which with its Persian service, was at least trying to stream live from the streets.
The news media on the ground, under-resourced, restricted and rightly fearful in the face of baton-wielding nasties in and out of uniform (Take a look at this chilling image of, I understand, government Basij militia from yesterday afternoon) simply couldn’t keep up with the flow of witnesses on the ground. Some quite organised student groups were using mobiles to text news from the crowd back to Twitterers who stayed online using their dial-up connections and switching proxy servers to keep trying to get the news through. It reminded me a little of Salam Pax, the Iraqi blogger who kept information coming out of Baghdad in the face of the American invasion and Iraqi resistance.
This stream of information from a confused, dangerous and yet highly important series of events on the ground raises a number of problems. The first of these is provenance. How do you KNOW you’re watching a Twitter feed from a genuine Iranian student and not a hoaxer or, even worse, state-owned instrument of instability. For instance, a foreign intelligence outfit could quite nicely stoke up international concern and damaging coverage by pretending to be a witness – and we’re all credulous enough to take the bait because, let's face it, we want to see social media beating up the MSM.
So how do we know you’re real?
My own personal test is a website or blog. If the Twitterer links to one of those, you have the chance to have a quick browse and test an established track record and a history of conversation. Another test is personal relationship – if someone with whom I have an established online relationship can vouch for the new contact, then I’ll usually take that as a bona fide contact. And another is longevity - I prefer sources that were online and have a track record before the events in question took place.
Keeping a cool head can be hard in the face of the excitement, but there’s nothing worse than finding yourself accused of blindly repeating BS – or being unhelpful in your attempts to help. For instance, at the height of yesterday’s events, people were retweeting lists of alternative proxies. That was cluttering up the stream and generally getting in the way. If you’re based in North America and have no Iranian friends, retweeting a proxy server with an #iranelection hashtag is hardly going to add utility to the conversation, for instance.
Some MSM pundits were pointing out that the information on Twitter wasn’t reliable. I thought it was. Following the couple of simple rules above and waiting a little to have news confirmed by multiple sources, I got compelling information and images from on the ground witness sources often hours before the broadcast media.
The other thing I found interesting about yesterday was that the audience was self-selecting. Those of us that cared – because we have Iranian friends, relations, business interests or any other tie to the events in Tehran – could select the information we wanted and decide how we wanted to receive it. We could dip into the story for an update whenever we wanted, dedicating the appropriate measure of time we all wanted to give to updating ourselves. No advertising breaks, no filler stories about Ping Pong the panda and her lovely babies and no celebrity guff about Paris Modhesh or the like (you still there CNN?) getting in the way.
Was yesterday a great day for social media? Yes. Was it a worrying day for ‘traditional media’? Without a doubt, yes. Does this mean MSM is dead? I don’t think so. But I do think it’s a very clear signal that we are in a time of immense change and if big business news organisations don’t get it together fast, they’re going to get hit, hard.
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