The Social Media of the Egyptian Uprising
Foreign correspondence is often glorified in the eyes of the Western public: picture the character Steve Martin in Godzilla with his tweed jacket, slicked back hair, furrowed brow and a pipe, for good measure. The illusion is that they are an elite crowd, full of mystery and with money to burn. But the real male and female foreign journalists face high-living costs, everyday danger, psychological disorders, and, as of late, layoffs. Their numbers have shrunk over the past two decades. John Maxwell Hamilton and Eric Jenner assert that with the exception of a few newspapers, all media outlets offer foreign coverage that leaves holes in the American public’s understanding of other countries. “Economic pressures and technological innovations have changed the way in which foreign news is reported and consumed” (Hamilton & Jenner 2004). With fewer adults sitting down to watch the evening news and fewer media institutions willing to shell out money to support teams of correspondents, journalists have fewer boots on the ground in areas that editors doubt will turn out high-priority news. That translates into reliance on new ways to obtain information from sources abroad. Twitter provides journalists with an option for doing just that.
In a study of 200 North American journalists, 69 percent said they use Twitter in their reporting (Middleburg & McClure). Whether as a reference to point reporters in the direction of an underground story or as a source itself, Twitter enriches coverage, adding a citizen-led dimension. Most newsrooms have a designated social media editor to curate this coverage, advertise the organization, and provide some form of social media training to their staff. Some – ABC News for example – have partnerships with social media analytics firms. ABC also uses social media in their coverage of American politics. For example, their political stock market tracks the number of times political figures are mentioned in Twitter and other spheres and gives them an index that varies based on their performance. That then helps editors and reporters to predict which candidate deserves the most coverage and who will do well in coming elections.
This trend of Twitter’s influence on Western media is not limited to domestic news. After examining 40 articles from online, Western news agencies regarding the events in Egypt from the start of rioting on January 25 through the end of Mubarak’s rule on February 11 (read more about my methodology), I determined that journalists during this time used Twitter in three main ways: first as sources of information, next as a phenomenon to be analyzed and reported, and lastly, as a tool to disseminate information on the ground. Forty-five percent of the coverage did not mention Twitter. I will discuss why that might be the case and the problems associated with trusting Twitter.
When it came to stories reporting the events going on in Egypt without providing analysis, Twitter came up 50 percent of the time and was sometimes used like an interview providing direct quotes. Out of 13 reporting articles that mentioned Twitter, 10 represented it as a viable news gathering tool and/or incorporated tweeted information into their coverage.
So-called “live blogs” took this technique a step further; online editors set up pages that directly published tweets about Egypt. Using tweets in reporting was convenient for journalists for two main reasons. First, the stories essentially wrote themselves. Journalists did not have to be on the ground to get these quotes; instead they could be in their offices in New York City, performing analysis while updates rolled in from unpaid writers. Secondly, the tweets by their very nature made for compelling reads. As I discussed in the section of this site devoted to theories of contentious action, the tweets were often raw and emotional. They established a personal connection between writer and reader that is hard to do when filtered through a professional journalist. This equation made for a chaotic written piece that is hard to decipher looking back, but at the time, readers and reporters could hear the stories of the tweeters develop as they happened. They watched events happen in real time, as of-the-moment as coverage has ever been. Often these were stories that would not have come out of the country if they had gone through the Mubarak-controlled mainstream media in Egypt. That made them exciting and newsworthy in the eyes of some foreign editors, granting them their place of honor on mainstream media organizations’ websites.
A larger number of articles reported on or analyzed the phenomenon of tweeting without quoting from specific tweets. Some of these attributed organization of the protest to social media outlets with Twitter among them and reported on Mubarak’s choice to shut down Twitter. On January 26, the BBC reported, “Twitter also played a key part [in the January 25 protests], with supporters inside and outside Egypt using the search term #jan25 to post news on Tuesday, but it was blocked later in the day.” Nearly everyone I interviewed for this project said in some capacity that these news outlets had overblown the importance and prevalence of Twitter during this time.
One last popular way that Western journalists used Twitter during the Egyptian uprising was to promote or disseminate information. Many of the correspondents on the ground in Egypt used Twitter as a reporting tool, to spread news as they encountered it. Some news organizations kept track of their correspondents’ whereabouts through their tweets. For example, in ABC News’ story in which one of their correspondents was carjacked and threatened with being beheaded, ABC’s Mark Mooney wrote, “Word of their harrowing ordeal came in a Twitter message from Hartman that stated, ‘Just escaped after being carjacked at a checkpoint and driven to a compound where men surrounded the car and threatened to behead us’” (2011). Other articles at times referred readers to the Twitter accounts of their correspondents for reporting. While this serves the commonly sought goal of bringing consumers the news as fast as possible, it limits reporters’ ability to provide context or in depth analysis. It also serves as a marketing tool to allow journalists to build their personal brand. That leaves it susceptible to sensationalism, as tweeters aim to use eye-catching phrases and search-friendly terms to up their tweets’ popularity. These issues illustrate some of the main flaws of Twitter as an information-transmitting medium.
There is another, worse flaw that may explain why almost half the articles did not mention Twitter at all. Inherently, Twitter hides the identity of those using it, which makes it largely untrustworthy as a news source. While it is true that in a way, the English-speaking tweeters who were quoted so often in Western news outlets came to serve as reporters themselves, it is problematic to call them journalists, as many have. When the world first witnessed social media being used as a tool for dissidence with the Iranian near-revolution, the media lauded Twitter and its users for their actions. At a foreign media conference in 2009, CNN International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour called the conglomeration of young people with social media tools, “a huge and valuable pool to nurture” (Smith 2009). The notion of citizen journalism implies that anyone with access to a keyboard and a sense of observation can be a trusted source of news. Indeed, such a person can serve as a source, but the news he or she delivers must first go through the filters employed by professional journalists before it can be useful to the public. News consumers have been trained not to question the stories laid out for them on the evening news each night. While a complete lack of critical analysis of news coverage is dangerous for anyone, it would be impossible for the average viewer to fact check every word that came out of Diane Sawyer’s mouth. The profession of journalism exists to create that link between the trustworthy people on the ground and the viewer back home, while also providing context and doing all this in an attention-getting manner. In another section of this website I go into more detail about this topic, but essentially, Twitter’s structure makes it very difficult to know frauds from friends.
As Egypt experienced great turmoil and change, the Western journalism industry also grappled with new challenges and opportunities. In an article called “Redefining Foreign Correspondence,” John Maxwell Hamilton and Eric Jenner of Louisiana State University said in regards to the changing role of reporters sent to foreign soil, “The operative metaphor is evolution, not extinction” (2004). In order to adapt to these new challenges, reporters and editors will have to decide how to vet tweeters for trustworthiness, when to replace articles with tweets and vice versa, how much of their coverage should be based on information from social media and the importance of Twitter to such events as a whole. I assure you, these are not just hypothetical questions. At an interview for an internship with the Associated Press, along with traditional questions about overcoming conflicts and availability, I was asked how I use Twitter in my own reporting, how I would go about verifying something I saw in a tweet and whether I would ever publish something sourced only by a tweet. Move over, traditional media. Twitter has arrived, and it’s time to listen to the tweets.