Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Twitter as Public Domain

The social media/old media war continues both in Iran and in the west. Twitter continues to morph and respond to the events in Iran and perhaps even shape it while the Iranian government uses the state media and threats against foreign journalists to contain the discussion and keep the local and global opposition in check.

For the most part foreign journalists have been left to muse on events from their hotel roofs or beyond Iran's border and have had to rely on amateur video and images posted to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter as sources of information and conformation of what is unfolding in Tehran and beyond. They have either had to acknowledge that the people participating in the event are their main source of information or use those mediums to help get their own message out or figure out how to do it. Apart from the expired visas and government restrictions that have removed them from the frontlines of the story, the institutional inertia of the television networks in particular has not mediated the volume of interest or information that is trying to integrate. The other habit of the TV networks that is starting to prove a bit wonky is their reliance on "experts" to voice some insights on what is happening. The reliance on the university Ph.D to provide analysis of the events. Once a talking head is slotted in for an interview, the network is committed to making the best of their analysis for that 4 or 8 minute timeslot, regardless of the bias and the questionable credibility. There is, of course, need to squeeze in the regular dose of the absurdity formerly known as human interest.
Throughout the events in Iran, the social media have remained responsive and nimble to events taking place. Twitter, which first basked in the spotlight of the inane Ashton Kutcher/CNN race to 1,000,000 followers just a few weeks ago, has morphed into a source of news and a spine for the revolution unfolding in Tehran. Within the activity that can get a bump in attention on Twitter there are a wide variety of events that can gain attention, ranging from the results of the NBA finals to the rumours of a celebrity death that seeks, but does not receive confirmation.
As with the celebrity rumour, news coming out of Iran has sought confirmation and crystalized into reliable information as the protests and ripostes take place. Recommendations of reliable news sources, whether bloggers or mainstream media, have helped news seekers find direction and given shape and credibility to information that has inundated other sources. There is still plenty of dross and garbage in the infoflow but the exchange of interested Twitterers has defined the discussion.

Throughout these discussions there has also been information exchanged to allow the social media to thrive in response to the attempts by the government to track down and stop social media activity as it takes place. Tweets have provided new internet service provider addresses and other information to help sustain the flow of news and information. The more important development over the last few days has been Twitter's response to events. Faced with a maintenance shutdown that would stem the flow of information, Twitter rescheduled to limit its impact on the Iranian audiences who have become so reliant on the service over the last few days. If the mainstream media had the flexibility and responsiveness to its users, it would be able to rival this platform as a source of information.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Static Headlines an Embarassment to CNN et al

CNN and the other major American news networks continue to provide muted coverage of the events in Iran during the Sunday am broadcasts of June 14. Even Fareed Zakaria's GPS, which CNN pitched as a source of updates on Iran resorted to the staid standard summit of experts who speculated on possibilities but did not go into detail. The set piece seemed to have been predetermined for addressing the Iranian election but was handcuffed when it came to insights on the protests or even details on the very fluid situation that is unfolding. Ahmadinejad's victory speech was pondered but little else of the house arrests that have taken place, the extent of the rioting, the military response.

There has been very little analysis of the situation either. No one has dared say that the election has been stolen. Ahmadinejad's response has not been critically examined by the media and muted responses on CNN and other media arms have not identified the behaviour of the leadership in Iran as out of step with the movements of a legitimately elected government. Ahmadinejad and those who support him have seized power after being legitimately voted out of office. The size of the response against him and the energy that it has sustained over the 30 hours since victory was declared is not the response of a disgruntled minority. None of the networks have indicated this.

The news of the major media is being revealed to bne little more than product, churned out by factories that are unable to retrofit or retool themselves for fast moving events. Throughout the Sunday morning broadcasts, the networks have stuck to the scripts and production plans that they determined days ago and included their regular dollops of pap to fill out their hour. That Zakeria took a substantial segment of his June 14 broadcast to congratulate himself on his 1st anniversary of the show is evidence of the rigid confines that the networks have trapped themselves in.

Meanwhile, social media continues to outstrip major network coverage of an event that may be of the magnitude of Tiannamen Square, Berlin or Prague. The networks were following events in these locales but fail or choose not to cover the events in Iran with the detail that they ought to. Meanwhile, the information coming from Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and other social media site continue to report on the pulse in Iran. There have been reports of the actual election outcome (with Ahmadinejad a distant 3rd and out of the runoff election), reports that the government has brought into Hezbollah or other Arab-speaking troops and police to put down the riots and most recently even tanks in the streets of Tehran. Any of this news will be slow to reach the mainstream media.

At a time when events are as epochal as this, CNN and its brethren are failing miserably and revealing themselves to be as stagnant and slow-moving as their print brethren. The papers, of course, devote themselves to a single edition a day and do not insist that they will be able to bring up-to-the-minute coverage of an event.

For those who are looking for up to date reports, Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic has been effective and Jim Sciutto of ABC is on the ground in Tehran and doing as much as he can to report on things despite run ins with authorities.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Twitter takes a giant step

A few months ago, the heightening of Twitter activity during the "Miracle on the Hudson" crash landing in New York City was cited as an indication of the potential of the social media as a form of communciation, or to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, "an extended global central nervous system. With the unfolding of events in Tehran on June 13, the network has proven to be a nimble, agile news source while the mainstream North American media have proven to be sluggish, off the mark and trite in its coverage.

CNN, CBC and other mainstream North American media sources have been relatively slow in delivering news on events in Tehran and throughout the smaller cities in Iran. The routine is the same for all of the networks. Go to the big name on location, (Christiane Amanpour) report with scenes of events in the streets then find some talking head in a North American institution to hold forth with their opinions on matters and follow up by hyping a report on events that will be shown tomorrow, before going to a report on Tetris' 25th anniversary. (Fareed Zakaria's GPS, a program that will likely lack the fluidity required to cover the situation with any accuracy.)

CTV, Canada's largest private network, went so far as to suggest in its reports and interviews that the protests on Valiasar Avenue were those of a minority disgruntled with the consequences of the election, suggesting that there was every possibility that Ahmadinejad's victory was a legitimate one, so off key has CTV's grasp of events in Iran been.

Throughout the presidential election campaign, social media, namely Facebook, have been an engine of communications used by the moderate politicians who have come under seige following the announcement of election results. There were news reports of the Iranian government's shutdown of Facebook to limit communications among supporters of moderate presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. The shut down was brief but was an indication that the government had some notion of the threat social media were posing.

As events unfolded following President Ahmadinejad's claim of victory reports came from both mainstream media and Twitter. Within hours, Twitterer's posted updates regarding Mousavi's house arrest, action in the streets, links to YouTube videos, blogs and other sources of information from Iranians on the ground and some mainstream media sources such as ABC's Jim Sciutto who was reporting on difficulties with the internet network, confiscation of his tapes and the challenges of videoing and uploading his reports via cellphone.

There is undoubtedly some rumour and hearsay that is being sent out via Twitter in the midst of all of this and there are problems with egoized posts that merely hype the trending topics of the day. Despite this, Twitter has been a wealth of information about the events that have been taking place in Iran. One of the first developments of the day, Mousavi's house arrest remained overlooked for hours by the mainstream media. This was likely an attempt by the media to be responsible but when Mousavi himself twittered that he was indeed under house arrest.

Twitter is not primed to be crowned as a champion of truth and accuracy in media coverage, but indications so far have been it has been a reliable venue for one to watch discrete and disparate voices unify to flesh out details of pictures that the mainstream media are too preoccupied or too cumbersome to investigate.