NPR social-media guru Andy Carvin explains the ethics of Twitter in a time of revolutionary upheaval.
- By Blake Hounshell
Blake Hounshell is managing editor at Foreign Policy, having formerly been Web editor. Hounshell oversees ForeignPolicy.com and has commissioned and edited numerous cover stories for the print magazine, including National Magazine Award finalist "Why Do They Hate Us?" by Mona Eltahawy. He also edits The Cable, FP's first foray into daily original reporting, and was editor of Colum Lynch's Turtle Bay, which in 2011 won a National Magazine award for best reporting in a digital format.
Blake joined Foreign Policy in 2006 after living in Cairo, where he studied Arabic, missed his Steelers finally win one for the thumb, and worked for the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. Blake was a 2011 finalist for the Livingston Awards prize for young journalists for his reporting on the Arab uprisings, and his Twitter feed was named one of Time magazine's "140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2011." Under his leadership, in 2008, Passport, FP's flagship blog, won Media Industry Newsletter's "Best of the Web" award in the blog category. Along with Elizabeth Dickinson, he edited Southern Tiger: Chile's Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future, the memoirs of former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.
A graduate of Yale University, Blake speaks mangled Arabic and French, is an avid runner, and lives in Washington with his wife, musician Sandy Choi, and their toddler, David. Follow him on Twitter @blakehounshell.
When the uprising in Tunisia began last winter, as most Western media outlets stayed away, Andy Carvin (@acarvin), a digital strategist at NPR, began tweeting fragmentary reports of protests, violence, and salutary acts of courage uploaded by "citizen journalists" — ordinary Tunisians capturing the revolution in real time. Since then, Carvin has been the world’s go-to source on the Arab revolt, tracking gripping and often bloody news and footage on his Twitter feed. He spoke with FP‘s Blake Hounshell about his one-man "editorial policies" and the unique dilemmas of new journalism. Excerpts:
FOREIGN POLICY: On Twitter, you’ve become a sort of advocate for sharing really gruesome images. You’ve tweeted a lot of horrifying videos from Libya, Syria, etc., and I know you have a philosophy behind that. Tell me what you’re thinking when you share these images.
ANDY CARVIN: I don’t think of myself as arguing for gruesome photos and I’m not this ‘Grim Reaper’ or anything like that. But I think the way the media handles images of violence during war is changing because of the Internet. If you go back as recently as, 15 or 20 years ago when the Internet wasn’t a primary way of people getting access to information, you have mass media — broadcast media, print — as the way people would get much of their news, for visual news.
And given the fact that it wouldn’t be that unusual for a family to have a newspaper sitting on their breakfast table each morning, it made a lot of sense in not putting photos above the fold on the front page that would be rather gruesome. It doesn’t seem appropriate. It’s the same way when families would traditionally watch the 6:30 evening news, because it was such a mass audience. I think they tried to be careful about what they showed. (Though there were always exceptions, especially during Vietnam: the famous photo of the naked Vietnamese girl who had been burned by napalm or the general shooting the Viet Cong in the head. There have definitely been times when shocking photos and footage were shown, but it was always the exception and not the rule.)
Then you have the Internet coming along, and the revolutions that have been happening over the last five months. First of all, a lot of the footage that came out of Libya, especially early on, was purely because of members of the public capturing it through their smartphones or their Flipcams or whatever they happened to have. There was no Western presence there, and so they were making their own decisions about what to upload, and often it was uncensored and quite gruesome. And it certainly helped the Western media, helped informed them of what was going on. Because the Internet is essentially a series of choices, I think it’s easier to point out those types of footage.
So, for example, if I’ve shared a video of something that’s rather disturbing — first of all, you need to be following me on Twitter to be exposed to it, or following someone on Twitter who’s retweeted it. And then secondly, you have to choose to open it. I never post anything as a surprise. If there’s footage of a group of soldiers who have had their arms tied behind their backs and been executed because they’ve refused to shoot protesters, I will explain that in my tweet with the link to it, because I don’t want people to accidentally click on it and see something they’re not prepared for. There are even times when I’ll say, ‘Here’s the link to something but I recommend you actually not watch it because it is too disturbing.’ But I think it’s important to keep a record of all of this footage.
So much is getting lost already. We’re probably only seeing a small fraction of the footage that’s being captured by members of the public in North Africa and the Middle East. And it would be difficult to tell the story of what’s actually going on the ground if we didn’t actually know what the footage shows. It’s too easy for us to sanitize war and the fact that these people who are caught in the middle of it are essentially screaming out through YouTube and through Twitter and Flickr and Facebook: ‘This is what’s happening to us.’ I think the public would find it hypocritical if we didn’t acknowledge it. People can find this stuff anyway, if they want to.
It’s one of the reasons why there’s been a lot of commentary about how the media handled bin Laden’s death. People were talking about it on Twitter for 90 minutes or two hours before Obama spoke and newscasters on TV were struggling to figure out what to say. They didn’t know how far to take it and what to acknowledge even though pretty much everyone knew that this was what was going to be the announcement.
FP: The irony, by the way, was it was actually a TV station that tipped off Rumsfeld’s guy.
FP: And then he tweeted it.
AC: Right. There’s always this cycle; it’s an echo chamber, and if you’re not paying careful attention, you don’t know who started it. So within, I don’t know, 20 minutes of Obama giving his speech, I saw on Twitter people sending around this photo that looked like Osama bin Laden being shot in the head, or actually shot in the eye.
And the first thing I did, I did an image search for it and within 2 minutes I found it on a blog from last year, talking about a conspiracy theory about him being dead for years, and that was the proof of it. So clearly this was a photo that had been floating around for a while, and it was just resurfacing. So before I went to bed that night, I said, "OK folks, this particular photo? Debunked. Let’s pass that along." Meanwhile, it got picked up by a number of other news sources the following day and members of Congress saw it and thought it was real and mentioned publicly that they had seen the photo.
It was a rather gory photo, straight on the face. It looked like his eyes have been shot, and it was a combination of another picture. All you had to do was look at it, because some people had posted it and had a picture of bin Laden next to it. You could tell it was fake because his lip was in the exact same position. And I would surmise that with a photo taken of bin Laden when he was alive, and then one taken after he’d been shot in the face, his lip would be in somewhat different positions. It was too much of a perfect match. So even if I hadn’t done the image search, I would say that there’s no way this is real. And so my followers, at least, knew about it, but I don’t necessarily have the ability to tell everyone in the media, you know?
AC: Especially if something was happening in such a chaotic breaking fashion overnight. And this has happened before. Like there was this story about the mortar rounds that appeared to have Stars of David on them, and Al-Manara, the Libyan expat paper, claimed it was proof that Israel was supplying weapons [to Qaddafi’s forces]. (Like Israel would put Stars of David on anything they supplied to Qaddafi.) A group of us on Twitter proved they were illumination rounds and that was just the official symbol for it. But the following week it gets picked up by Al-Jazeera Arabic, and then, the week after, by [Iran’s] Press TV. Even if you thoroughly debunk a rumor, it still can live on. But it seems like each time the media puts it back out there, the cycle of debunking gets shorter and shorter and shorter because of the previous body of evidence from other debunkings. I ended up creating a collection in Storify, so I could easily explain how we debunked it. And when it’s popped up since then, random people on Twitter have just said, ‘Look, go over here. This is not true.’
But the funny thing is the reason some of these stories keep springing up on Twitter is because it’s not people on Twitter spreading it. Usually, it’s media sources putting it out — just not doing their homework.
FP: Or having an agenda.
AC: Or having an agenda, sure, it’s both. And it does create this cycle. And because other people retweet it, members of the public get the blame. But I think there’s plenty of blame to go around.
FP: Did you ever see the movie The Man Who Would Be King?
AC: Oh, yes.
FP: There’s that scene at the end where the bride bites Sean Connery’s character, who has made himself out to be a god, and then everyone realizes that actually, no, he is a mortal. I wonder if there would be a sort of similar effect with bin Laden.
AC: Well, that’s one of the arguments that I’ve definitely heard, that showing him dead says that he, just as easily as anyone else, can be hunted down and that justice can be served. And so, I think that for a number of people, that is a useful object lesson. But they would probably incorporate it into their own propaganda showing that he’s been martyred. And so there’s really no way to win or lose on this. This situation is so complex that whatever decision the administration ultimate made on this, it was still going to make some people not so happy, and I don’t think it would strategically change that much in either direction. That’s what happens when you’re making these ethical calls.
FP: I want to ask you about something that you particularly struggled with: tweeting the video of Tim Heatherington and Chris Hondros, the two war photographers who were killed, in the hospital in Misrata. Tell me what was going through your mind.
AC: Well, first I got the video. Someone sent it to me. It was already on YouTube, easily accessible, but someone sent me a link to it. I watched it a number of times just to get a sense of if it were real, and looking at the faces of just two of them, it definitely appeared real. They looked like who they ended up being. And also the reports we were getting, even stuff that wasn’t publically out yet, about the types of injuries they’d sustained. It seemed to match those.
Then I had to just decide: Does this footage count like any other footage I’ve been sharing? And ultimately I decided that it did count. Throughout the fighting in Libya, there’s been an extraordinary amount of footage that’s come out documenting the footage. Some of it has been done by the public, by citizen journalists, we call them. Others have been done by professionals, like these guys. And the footage is horrific and it is awful and it is gruesome, but it is documenting war and what happens in war. And ultimately I decided it would be hypocritical to have shared all of this footage of civilians and soldiers being killed in North Africa yet not show photojournalists being killed, despite the fact their primary job was doing this documenting as well.
I also concluded that the families would find out about these videos anyway. So I didn’t feel like I was going to be suddenly exposing it to them. But some people, I think, legitimately raised the question to me of whether or not this was damaging their dignity or taking away their dignity and-
FP: Well, why would it be any different for one of us?
AC: Exactly, that’s definitely one argument I made. They were saying, in this particular case, that it was showing them in such an undignified way. And I said, actually, I think it’s showing the opposite, because what you see in this footage is medical staff doing their best to save two of them and then other staff at the hospital preparing the body for transport and burial. Doing it with great care and sensitivity. So, compared to other videos that have been out there, people whose bodies have been desecrated in ways I would never want to describe, but they’re still out there — this footage was very mild compared to that. I think it documented that they were being treated well, with respect. And that’s a story to tell as well.
But I don’t think there’s a right or wrong on this. I can totally understand people who feel like I shouldn’t have shared it. But everyone has to make their own decision on this.
FP: They don’t have to click.
AC: They don’t have to click; they don’t have to retweet it. And so I ultimately tweeted it, but with a very long preamble explaining all of this. The link to the video wasn’t even in my tweet, you had to go to an intermediary page and read my justification before going to it. I figured that was warning enough for people. It made it clear what they would see if they clicked it and what my reasoning was. And, again, there’s no right or wrong. It was a choice that had to be made, and that was my choice.
FP: One last question for you. Has it occurred to you that you’d be faced with a real moral dilemma if there was some kind of U.S. bombing campaign or U.S. war? Say you had been doing this in March and April of 2003, and people were sending you YouTube videos of civilians being killed in Iraq. Or another example would be Gaza. It’s easy to root for these people in Bahrain or Libya or Egypt because we’re on the same side in a lot of ways. But would you struggle with it if these were people who were vehemently anti-American and were being killed by American bombs?
AC: Well, fortunately it’s not that situation. But if you look at a lot of the people that I retweet and share their footage and content, clearly some of them are anti-American. A number of them are vehemently anti-Israel. But I’m not trying to judge people in documenting this. I originally went into this thinking: I want to document how social media is being used to tell the story. First in Tunisia, but then ultimately in all these other countries. And so, of course, if you look to countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, the social media activists were relatively one-sided. They were all on the opposition side, because they were the ones using social media successfully. If the government had been using them successfully, I would have shared those.
Which is why I think sometimes people get upset with me when I share tweets from the Bahrain government, because they’ve been a lot more savvy about it, and there are a lot more people on Twitter in Bahrain who are supportive of the government. It’s not all one-sided. I don’t know if it’s a 50-50 split, exactly, but there are plenty of Bahraini citizens who are clearly not supportive of the protesters. There’s a legitimate divide between them, and I want to be able to document that legitimate divide. And at times I’ve received tweets from people who have followed me for a while saying, ‘How dare you send the government tweets out and support their cause!" And I say, ‘Look, I’m not a mouthpiece for anyone. I’m trying to see what’s going on here and trying to understand it, and I want you to help me understand it.’ And for me to pretend that the government doesn’t have a point of view on this means that I’m not going to be able to tell a full story.
And so, for example, if U.S. or NATO bombing accidentally killed civilians in Libya and there was footage of that, I would probably share that. I don’t see why I wouldn’t share that like everything else. If I came into this, if I set myself out to document how the war is playing out through social media, I think everything is fair game. It may be awful at times and it may be tough and raise a lot of questions, but social media really changes the way we report what’s going on. In some ways, it’s too bad that people like Studs Terkel aren’t around because there’s almost, there’s an oral history and a storytelling aspect to all of this.
Not everything I tweet is even news, as far as I’m concerned, or even newsworthy, but I consider it part of the story. So I will tweet stuff from people who are involved — they might just be talking about other things that are going on in their lives, but I want to document that part of their lives, because it’s part of a bigger story.
So it’s very complex and I’m sure there are going to be a lot of journalism school classes that are going to use all of this for fodder in their ethics classes, as I think they should, because the kinds of editorial decisions we made when mass media was simply TV, radio, and print — those editorial decisions are evolving very, very fast, and what applies in some contexts doesn’t apply in others when it comes to social media. And so while we’re telling this story, I think it’s useful that we’re having this broader conversation about what’s acceptable and what’s not.