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Communication and “citizen journalism” in the Twitter era

twitterlogo2.JPGWill we use this new access to information through tools like Twitter to create a more open and deliberative democracy, or simply to play gotcha games with politicians?

(Madrid) TWITTER [1] HAS BECOME the new Internet sensation. The site’s name describes how it works: it is a universal microblog that does not allow posts in excess of 140 characters.

“Some see this new social networking site as the latest exemplification of the living, democratic and horizontal web” The site was designed by web developers Biz Stone [2], Jack Dorsey [3] and Evan Williams [4]. In 2008, Twitter expanded seven-fold in comparison with the previous year.

Some see this new social networking site as the latest exemplification of the living, democratic and horizontal web. Anyone with an account can transmit information regarding what they are currently doing or seeing in real time. Some people have called this citizen journalism [5]. The idea behind this concept is that anyone can be a journalist, insofar as he or she can witness something of public interest, encode it in a suitable message and post it before the event is known to the general public. It’s that easy. Or better said: that simple.

THE NEW NEWS FORMATS

The truth is that many web gurus are already predicting that the spread of Twitter is one more threat to conventional news media, arriving at a time when everything is not exactly coming up roses for the latter, especially in regard to their health and sustainability. “Obama himself had confessed to being a habitual Twitter user”

Fast-news enthusiasts felt vindicated a few months ago, when a group of Islamic militants carried out an assault on the Indian city of Mumbai. Twitter had already been given a boost during the American presidential campaign, and Obama himself had confessed to being a habitual user. But the November scare in India’s economic capital turned into Twitter’s baptism of fire, and its anointment as a supposed alternative medium of breaking-news coverage. “Technology is transforming people into potential reporters, adding a new dimension to the news media”

As soon as the assault on the hotels began, the first stream of messages from users who were more or less eyewitnesses began. At the time, the Indian authorities were refraining from releasing official information, and the mass media could barely piece together a broad overview of what was happening. During the first few hours, these tweets quenched the public’s thirst for news. Later, as the crisis climaxed, messages under the tag Mumbai were being posted at a rate of more one per second.

A chance occurrence helped the Twitter effect mushroom. CNN’s license to broadcast video expired before the crisis was over, and as a consequence it started to depend on local Indian channels for images, while its reporters told their stories via phone. This was highlighted as an example of the mass media’s bureaucratic fragility, as opposed to the flexible productivity of the new news formats.

POTENTIAL REPORTERS

Two New York Times journalists analyzed the real impact of the tweets’ provision of information in real time for several days. Drawing influence from the principle put forth by Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor at the Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, which contends that A little bit of information is better than no information at all, in their article [6], journalists Stelter and Cohen stated that this event demonstrated how technology is transforming people into potential reporters, adding a new dimension to the news media.

“A little bit of information, if incorrect, imprecise or biased, can be much worse than the absence – even the complete absence – of information”

However, what is being overlooked –or something in these statements regarding citizen journalism that is passing by without much attention being paid to it– is the acceptance of its reliability. A little bit of information, if incorrect, imprecise or biased, can be much worse than the absence –even the complete absence– of information.

Another Internet guru, Farhad Manjoo, Slate [7]‘s technology columnist and the author of several works on digital civilization, has been busy carrying out an interesting comparative analysis [8] of the information concerning the incident in Mumbai that circulated the Internet as the event unfolded.

Manjoo admits that even the Indian television’s coverage (in this case, IBN Live), which was closer and encompassed more formats, suffered from the problems that usually plague breaking-news reports: spotty, speculative information; contradictory witness statements; and endless repetition. And Twitter? Well the expert points out that the microblog was even worse. It was incoherent, telling no narrative-just a continuously updated jumble of facts, pseudo-facts, unfounded assertions, opinions, rants, condolences and, most of all, repetition of information that (had been) heard on TV minutes before.

FACEBOOK AND GOOGLE

“More than its informative value, Twitter’s most enticing aspect could be its political scope”

The Slate journalist does not discredit Twitter, rather he places its importance and scope on a realist plane, as opposed to mythologizing it. No less interesting is the comparison that he makes between the microblog and the search engine Google and the powerful social network Facebook, but these are issues that will be discussed some other time.

More than its informative value, Twitter’s most enticing aspect could be its political scope. Micah L. Sifry, a proponent and scholar of the transformative power of new technologies in the political world, has also spent some time on the Twitter phenomenon. In one of his articles [9], which was published in the latest issue of the Columbian Journal Review, he collects some important examples of the growing impact of tweets during opportune political moments, such as the information that was going around Twitter on Election Day 2008, which several other forms of media based their own reports on.

As Sifry concludes: The question for citizens is whether we will use this new access to information to create a more open and deliberative democracy, or whether we will just use the Web to play “gotcha” games with politicians, damaging the discourse instead of uplifting it.