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'Distant Witness': Social Media's 'Journalism Revolution'

A shop in Tahrir Square is spray-painted with the word "twitter" after the government shut off Internet access in February 2011 in Cairo, Egypt.
Peter Macdiarmid
Getty Images
A shop in Tahrir Square is spray-painted with the word "twitter" after the government shut off Internet access in February 2011 in Cairo, Egypt.

When protests in Tunisia inspired a wave of revolutions known as the Arab Spring, Andy Carvin tracked the events in real time from thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C.

From the tear gas in Egypt's Tahrir Square, to the liberation of Libya, Carvin, NPR's senior strategist, used social media to gather and report the news.

In his book Distant Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution, Carvin explains how he cultivated social media sources into a new form of journalism where civilians on the ground controlled the news.

"It's kind of like running a newsroom on Twitter that's become transparent," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. "And rather than having news staff fulfilling the roles of producers, editors, researchers, etc., I have my Twitter followers playing all of those roles. So it ends up becoming this rather large, convoluted media literacy experiment in many ways."

Carvin shares the challenges of verifying information and how stories spilled out to the entire world in real time.

Interview Highlights

On verifying reports during the Arab Spring

"What I would end up doing is I would ask my Twitter followers to help me dissect what was in this footage. I have a number of people who follow me that are native Arabic speakers and know a variety of dialects. They're people who grew up in many of these towns, cities and villages that have experienced fighting and protests.

"And so, for example, when we first received videos that were reportedly out of Libya, you know, it was understandable that some news networks, they were hesitant to show them, because ... there are so few people who've experienced covering Libya.

"But my Twitter volunteers would come out of the woodwork and say ... if you hear what they're chanting, you can tell it's a Libyan accent from the way they pronounce the letter G rather than the letter Q.

"And so it's that kind of insider expertise that you may not have yourself, but if you have a community of people who have a vested interest in what you're reporting, they can be very helpful. ...

NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin discusses the Arab Spring at the 2011 Personal Democracy Forum in New York.
/ Personal Democracy Forum
Personal Democracy Forum
NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin discusses the Arab Spring at the 2011 Personal Democracy Forum in New York.

"I'm always cautious to couch my tweets in the context of I don't know what this information means. We need to sort through it all. And so I'll often have to retweet a number of times, saying, this is unconfirmed footage or unconfirmed reports."

On how his sources around the world are evolving

"You see people taking a variety of different paths as time goes by. Like in the case of Egypt, for example, I know a number of protesters who actually have become freelance photographers based on the work that they did during the revolution. And they've tended to pull back from being a 'protester' and being more traditional journalists. Others continue to march on Tahrir or in other locations, advocating an ongoing revolution. ...

"It's pretty clear in Egypt, things are very tense right now. But you also see them splitting off into different camps because some aren't comfortable with the way things have turned out. Others are just so disgusted with everything, they don't want to be a part of the process.

"In Syria, ... I've actually seen a number of people who initially shared a lot of footage that seemed reliable and plausible, but since then, on a number of occasions, have shared things that seem a lot less plausible. And I think some have started to follow the route of the government in terms of taking the context away from footage and putting it out there in a way that favors them rather than the other side."

On the future of social media and journalism

"I think many news organizations are starting to invest in staff who are much more comfortable utilizing social media — both in terms of mining it for real-time research, for breaking news, as well as to identify potential members of the community who can assist them in their coverage. But ... it's still relatively unproven. ...

"Let's face it, it can be a risk of an editor to say, OK, I want you to spend 50 percent of your time hanging out on Twitter, and when it's all hands on deck because a major story is breaking, I expect you to stay on Twitter. That can be nerve-wracking for any manager in the news business. But ultimately, I think, if we're going to evolve and incorporate new methods, ultimately, it does take a certain amount of experimentation and trusting your reporters to be professional about it."

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