In the summer of 2009, I watched, like the rest of the world, as Iranians rose up against their government, protesting rigged elections. Not speaking Persian or knowing anyone on the ground, I was limited in context and understanding of the core issues, and reliant on Western media–skewed hostile toward Ahmadinejad–for news. Though mainstream media sources were, at the time, relying heavily on Twitter for sources, it was unclear to me (and, frankly, lots of people) whether most tweets were actually coming from within Iran or not. And as solidarity activists the world around changed their locations to Tehran (in retrospect, kind of a terrible idea), it became more and more difficult to tell who was reporting from the ground and who was just sympathetic. In other words, it was not a Twitter revolution, but a Twitter clusterf&*%.
By the time Tunisians were demonstrating, the media was clearly wary of using social media as sources; that, coupled with Tunisia’s low Twitter penetration rate, meant that there weren’t many tweets being flashed across CNN; rather, media relied on traditional sourcing (as well as Facebook and other social media) for reporting.
Enter Egypt. I, for one, followed a large number of Egyptians on Twitter prior to January 25, so was able to watch as protests were planned and hashtags decided upon. As the day neared, I began following more and more Egyptians, and by January 25, had a pretty decent (private) list to watch. And then Twitter was blocked, and the Internet mostly down, but a few remaining sources (often people I’d met in person or had a mutual “real life” friend with) continued to tweet from the Noor ISP or other methods. And once Internet was turned back on completely a few days ago, Egyptian Twitter users were back in droves, tweeting not only from their homes but from Tahrir Square and other public spaces across Cairo and the country.
Admittedly, I’ve watched little television coverage throughout, though without Al Jazeera here in the US (sidebar: Demand Al Jazeera!) it often doesn’t seem worthwhile, as many of the major news channels focus all their time on the Muslim Brotherhood or Americans trapped in Cairo. Today, Sheila Carapico, professor at the American University of Cairo, has an interesting piece on Foreign Policy that contends that the media coverage of the uprising in Cairo–including Al Jazeera’s–is skewed toward Tahrir Square, often ignoring what’s happening across the rest of the city and elsewhere.
Being here in Cambridge, I obviously can’t vouch for the article’s accuracy. I’m not on the ground, so I’m wary of making proclamations about the piece. For the sake of argument, however, I’d like to assume it’s true, as it presents an extremely interesting case for Twitter.
We already know that Twitter is unparalleled for sourcing opinions from Egyptians (note: I’m going to use “Egyptians” throughout the piece for the sake of clarity, but we should also assume that this argument could apply to similar situations elsewhere). Lots of people tend toward “uncensored” on Twitter anyway, so it seeks to reason that in discussing thoughts on live events, those in the thick of it might be compelled to spill out what’s on the top of their mind.
But beyond opinion, I believe there’s a strong case to be made for Twitter reporting, not necessarily as standalone media but as a complement to the major news networks. Two nights ago, as violence broke out between pro-Mubarak hired thugs and anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahrir Square after curfew, journalists–both local and foreign–were relegated to the sidelines, reporting from balconies and hotel rooms, some ducking low to the ground with the lights off to report their stories. Meanwhile, young Egyptians (like Mona Seif, whom I’ve mentioned in previous posts) were in the thick of things, mobile phones at the ready, often live-tweeting as skirmishes broke out. Others in various parts of the city uploaded photographs and pictures from the day’s events, not just from Tahrir Square but from side streets as well, documenting graffiti, ordinary life, and those now-famous leagues of neighborhood protection committees. Still others tweeted from more remote locations, and from cities without the benefit of dispatched reporters.
It also strikes me that, this time around (compared to, let’s say, Iran of 2009), the media and the public have a better grasp on who to follow on Twitter. I think there are a number of reasons for this–the Arabic-speaking world encompasses 20+ countries, while Iran is a single country with a solitary diaspora, which means there’s a far greater network of Arabs and experts on the region’s social media to discern which tweets to follow. We’re also two years out from Iran and 5 years after the creation of Twitter, meaning Egypt has a far more established Twitter community than did Iran in 2009. And the fact that no one has changed their avatars green and their locations to Cairo certainly helps as well.
Of course, just with any form of citizen journalism, there’s always a risk of false or incorrect information, but I would posit that similar risks exist within traditional, mainstream media, despite more stringent fact-checking. The advantage of citizen journalism in this case, of course, might outweigh the risk: Egyptians know their country better than CNN, MSNBC, or even Al Jazeera possibly could.