My Year @ TwitterBay

The double-edged sword of covering the news, 140 characters at a time.

CAIRO, EGYPT - JANUARY 27: In this photo illustration a smartphone displays a page from Twitter on January 27, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. People across Egypt have used Twitter and other social media to mass organise protests with the searchable hashtag, #jan25. Thousands of police are on the streets of the capital and hundreds of arrests have been made in an attempt to quell anti-government demonstrations. (Photo Illustration by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

One year ago, at the suggestion of my editors at Foreign Policy, I established a Twitter account associated with my blog, Turtle Bay. I obliged the request, but as a longtime newspaper reporter, I was skeptical that having access to a series of 140-character missives would change the way I report the news. Simply put, I was wrong. I’ve been covering the United Nations for over a decade, but joining Twitter gradually changed the way I cover my beat. Following the latest events in Egypt, I’m reminded that those changes are for the better and worse.

For news junkies, Twitter’s speedy and efficient dissemination of information is hard to match. I used to keep an eye on the news wires, but they can’t keep up with the mix of content — news stories from the mainstream press, analytical articles from out-of-the-way places, and specialty blog posts that I’d never have known to look for — that my Twitter feed curates for me. And I’ve learned that my followers — a modest but sophisticated group of nearly 2,000 — are themselves an able source for my reporting. They’ve directed me to important public documents, challenged my reporting, and answered oddball questions that Google couldn’t. Where else can you put out a request for the correct name of Burma’s traditional pink turban and get an answer within five minutes? (It’s called a gaung baung.)

But the medium can be perilous for a reporter. A false tweet can potentially embarrass your employer and your colleagues and harm your reputation. It is all too easy to rocket off some passing observation, or revelation, or recycle an unverified news development from a familiar follower, without subjecting it to the same scrutiny you would a fact in a newspaper story, or a blog post. And in some sense, that’s kind of the point. From a reporter’s perspective, Twitter is a rumor mill, a high-tech, and often partisan, upgrade on the old office water cooler — except this version lets your boss, your friends, your critics, and everyone else listen in. But like office gossip and rumors, a lot of it is often dead wrong.

And in a case like that of Egypt — where the stakes are high, and as governments around the world and young Egyptians on the street try to plan their next move — mistaken reports have been frequent on my Twitter feed. In recent weeks, I’ve read tweets claiming incorrectly that President Hosni Mubarak resigned his party leadership and that Egyptian opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei vowed not to run for the presidency. One blogger posted unverified documents purporting to detail Mubarak’s bank deposits — with a proviso urging others to test their veracity.

The denizens of Twitter, I’ve discovered, aren’t always acting in bad faith. But the medium has a way of allowing old-fashioned mistakes from obscure publications or even traditional news organizations to spread like wildfire. The retweet is an especially ambivalent Twitter function for those who use the service to gather news. Retweeting allows you to forward an interesting tweet or link to your own community of followers while leaving the original Tweeter to vouch for its credibility. The lax norms around retweets can let an incorrect story initially sent out to a handful of people gain exposure to a wider audience of tens or hundreds of thousands, even millions.

“When I retweet something, it does not mean that I believe it’s true,” Issandr El Amrani, the Arabist blogger warned his readers last month on his blog. “I am just noting that the information is flying around. I feel slightly uncomfortable with that and thus often add TBC (To Be Confimed [sic]) to my retweets.”

I’ll confess: I have had my own share of screw-ups, inadvertently sharing bad tweets or retweets with my followers only to have to delete them and post corrections or clarifications. Last month, an African newspaper reported that the African Union had appointed Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to participate in a panel charged with leading negotiations aimed at pushing electorally defeated Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo from power. The story got tweeted and retweeted by people I know and follow. Thinking this was a news flash that would interest my readers, I tweeted a version myself.

Within minutes, an anonymous reader — ironically identified as @fakegbagbo — flagged my tweet, noting that it was an unverified rumor. Only then did I exercise the caution that I would normally use when reporting a story. A quick review of the coverage showed no confirmation by a reputable news agency, and a little more digging revealed that Mugabe was not, in fact, appointed to the panel. I quickly posted a correction, along with an apology.

The experience provided two important, potentially contradictory, lessons. First, reporters need to use Twitter carefully and deliberately: I needed to slow down, think, and take this more seriously as a news vehicle. I couldn’t help but be embarrassed by my mistake. The other was a certain admiration for the self-correcting nature of Twitter — that errors are quickly spotted and challenged.

Of course, the effectiveness of Twitter as a news medium is highly dependent on the number and quality of followers you manage to attract and maintain. In the early days, when I had a handful of followers, my own tweets had little reach. In April 2010, I experimented by tweeting a modest scoop, the revelation that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be traveling to New York to attend a major U.N. meeting on nuclear disarmament and proliferation. Nobody seemed to notice. I couldn’t even detect a single retweet.

But last week, I sent out a tweet, based on an internal U.N. email alert to reporters, that the United Nations had restored service for Al Jazeera English on the U.N.’s internal television system. It was picked up by a Washington Post blogger, the first time one of my tweets was used as the basis for a story in a major publication. It was flattering to see one of my tweets move up the media food chain, but also a little terrifying. I do a lot more reporting for the stories I write for the Post and FP than I did when pinging off that announcement from a U.N. news release. My old reportorial instincts jolted me to action: I scrambled to update the story with additional tweets providing contextual detail, explaining that the resumption of service was not a political act by the U.N. to rattle an influential member state.

(Al Jazeera, along with CNN and the BBC, were all broadcast from the U.N.’s internal television system until the U.N. renovation forced reporters out of their offices and into new quarters in the U.N. library. Al Jazeera only got its technicians into the new quarters last week to re-establish the feed. The timing of the announcement — which came as the U.N. leadership was stepping up criticism of Mubarak’s government — was coincidental.)

Still, I’ve become ever more impressed by the utility of Twitter in monitoring global news — most of all, the popular upheavals currently spreading across the Middle East. The political uprising in Cairo has been dubbed the Al Jazeera Revolution, and rightly so: It is a recognition of the network’s round-the-clock coverage of events unfolding in Tahrir Square. But for me, the crisis has unfolded on Twitter.

Throughout most the crisis, I’ve been glued to my Twitter feed, relying on a select group of analysts, bloggers, and reporters to organize my reading. I’ve come across links to an old FP interview with ElBaradei, an analysis of the Egyptian military, and a piece examining the prospects of the two pre-uprising rivals for power after Mubarak, his son Gamal and Omar Suleiman. It was on Twitter that I first learned about the arrest of Washington Post colleagues Leila Fadel and Linda Davidson, and Dan Williams, a former Post reporter and Human Rights Watch researcher. It also presented me with grisly footage — of uncertain provenance — depicting a speeding police van as it plowed into a group of protesters, sending one of them flying into the air.

I’ve learned to keep an eye out for tweets from specific sources. I monitor several Arab and Western bloggers and journalists, including familiar faces like CNN’s Ben Wedeman — who tweets brief snapshots of life in Cairo, including a dramatic account of his wife handing out baseball bats and kitchen knives to neighborhood security detail — and local observers and political figures, including Wael Ghonim, the head of Google’s marketing efforts in the Middle East and North Africa; Mahmoud Salem, known by his Twitter handle @sandmonkey; and others. “Pray for #Egypt,” Ghonim now famously wrote on Twitter before his arrest. “Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die.”

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a columnist from the National in Abu Dhabi, provides a voluminous running account of developments, tweeting breaking news from Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and other Arab language outlets. But more importantly, he translates and tweets important speeches, including Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s response to the fall of Tunisian leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and Ghonim’s emotional television interview last week, following his release from 12 days in detention. “Damn it this is the first time I cry in a while,” he wrote after completing a nearly comprehensive live tweet of the Ghonim interview. “I won’t tweet again tonight.”

But though Twitter is filled with smart, fresh new voices, it is also populated by propagandists, fakers, and tricksters, spreading propaganda and doctored documents to see whether someone is gullible enough to pick them up. Some of it is transparent political satire, of course — there are fake twitter sites for Mubarak, his wife Suzanne, his son Gamal, and his newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman. And the world of tweets I encounter is politically skewed, I realize. For the moment, there are many more voices on Twitter in favor of the pro-democracy protesters, not least because they recognized the power of social media to transmit their message to Western, English-speaking opinion makers. In contrast, Arab governments, including Egypt, and their defenders have been flat-footed. Compare their failure to use the media with that of Israel after its controversial raid on a Turkish aid flotilla: The Israel Foreign Ministry and Israel Defense Forces actively used Facebook and Twitter to disseminate videotapes reflecting their version of how events unfolded.

But despite its limitations, Twitter deserves credit for allowing the development of a novel form of journalistic storytelling. I’ve been captivated by the compressed, real-time narratives of people on the ground in Cairo. Al Jazeera English reporter Dan Nolan described a night of violence in Tahrir Square in which he found himself protected by demonstrators:

  • Thanks to a state media campaign blaming aljazeera for trying to spark a revolution, those pro-Mubarak thugs are now hunting jazeera staff!
  • Got stranded in Tahrir Square last nite & had to sleep the night. Pretty terrifying night, protestors gave shelter as they defended all nite
  • my life was pretty much in hands of those protestors defending the square last nite. If pro-Mubarak thugs found me inside, well u know…

And then there was the short series of posts on Feb. 4 from Wael Abbas, a well-known Egyptian blogger:

  • arrested by the army!
  • army released us, but getting stopped by every single checkpoint, rabbena yestor!
  • we are all safe now

Safe, at least for now. But I’ll be checking my Twitter account over the coming days in the hope that it stays that way.

Please follow me on Twitter @columlynch

*This article was updated Feb. 11, 2011, mainly to correct minor typographical and transcription errors.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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