Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Critique of media coverage of Egypt is a strong case for Twitter

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.

Photo by Hossam Hamalawy (@3arabawy)

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.

Photo by Tarek Amr (@gr33ndata)

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.

7 Comments

  1. A colleague actually asked me to look into the difference between the Egypt and Iran unrest, focusing on why my organization is getting significantly more traffic during the present Egypt unrest as compared to the traffic during the previous Iran unrest. Your article gives me some food for thought.

    BTW, I have BARELY watched any TV coverage of the Egypt unrest. Twitter plus some MSM sites like NY Times do the job for me.

  2. Sorry to tell U: You ara ABSOLUTELY WRONG about #IranElection … and about the great Net movimment around it! Ur Vision is Naiff and out of qualification … Just explain that U absolutely didn’t realize what was behid #Iranelection on Twitter and the how great Was Iraina PPL How great the start to do the Job of Journalists outside Iran ( Forbiden by Iranian Governement) … How Great they organazed Tranlations ( WAS AMAZING)
    You even UNDERSTAND Why PPL changed te localization! MY DEAR: PPL WHO TWEET FROM IRAN RISKS THEIR LIFE – EXECUTIONS TO TWEET , to spread info!
    You Just give a Silly Vision of that! Without any kind of worth Thoughs on it!

    By the way I’m Portuguese. Not Iranian. No Connection with Iran before #Iranelection.
    And Yes! I’m doing my Possible also with Egytian PPL.

    I recomend U Learn a little more about what was #Iranelection on twitter Before U write ridicolous Things about.
    Hope nobody read Ur article because it’s a Wrong vision. Just express silly Vanity.

    PS.: I Sopted to read It after the Iranelections considerations … So Wrong! So Anaceptable … Inaceitável de ser Verbalizado ou escrito.

    • We’ve been discussing this on Twitter, but for the record (for the sake of other commenters), I’ll respond here:

      You’re not entirely correct, though I admit to being pithy. This piece is not an analysis of Iran, or the protests there, or the sacrifices young Iranians have made for their country. I was referring only to the use of Twitter in Iran, which I–like Iranian analyst Golnaz Esfandiari and lots of other smart folks believe was overstated.

      In Iran of 2009, Twitter was not terribly widespread. Many of the most prolific Twitter users–such as the infamous @oxfordgirl–were not located inside Iran, and the request to change locations to Tehran, while thoughtful, was misplaced: Iranian intelligence could have tracked Twitter users by their traffic; changing their location on Twitter was cosmetic and did nothing to actually help. Not to mention the fact that most tweets were in English: why do you think that is?

      I empathize with the Iranians who were using Twitter, and I recognize that the Internet as a whole played a role in getting information out of Iran and to the world. But it is your analysis that is woefully naive, not mine.

  3. Jillian,

    Thanks I agree. I’d like to add something to your argumnent.

    I remember that after the Indian Ocean tsunami six years ago, there was a mini-debate about whether the blog or the wiki was triumphant. (Jamais Cascio: “I wouldn’t quite characterize my reaction as “blog triumphalism” — if anything, I think the hands-down best work came at Wikipedia, so I’m more inclined to “wiki triumphalism” — so much as “blog reconsideration.” — http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/001834.html Granted, I had instigated the debate).

    My point over so many years is that the problem with showering adoration a particular technology may come at the expense of giving attention to other useful technologies.

    Obviously, what wiki’s do best (and what mega-newspaper sites have traditionally done well) is package the information. And I haven’t seen so much of that over the last ten days. I’ve been pressing some of the activists — particularly those not hunkered down at Tahrir — to do the traditional web work of putting together an information resource that the average non-Twitter user can look up online and take it all in (list of victims, photos of the the confiscated police ID cards, as well as the grievance list.)

    Jon

  4. I agree with you that Egyptians are well-placed to cover the evnts unfolding there now but isn’t some knowledge of the craft of journalism also important? Good journalism is more than just documenting what’s happening in front of you (although this is an important element of journalism). I also wonder how objective Egyptians involved in the uprising can be as journalists?

  5. Did you actually read Golnaz Esfandiari’s article? She quotes Oxfordgirl as saying she did stuff ‘before the mobile networks were blocked’ then rants about nobody challenging her on how she got news because the networks were down! I call that rather silly and sloppy journalism, the woman said in the article that she could not operate after the phones were jammed. If that is your idea of a smart article I think you need to be more critical.

    • Well yes, Mary Anne, I did read it; it’s a single piece amongst many which criticize the role foreign media ascribed to Twitter in Iran. Do you take issue with my statements generally or only with that one article?

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