Twitter, the Fort Hood Atrocities, and … Iran?

It is never easy to adjust to the proliferation of a new communication technology. I’m old enough to remember when answering machines were new, and most of the messages recorded were something along the lines of “I … um … never know what to say to these things. Um? This is, this is me, uh, and … call me?” The invention of the printing press enabled all manner of unseemly pamphleteering that I’m sure was very upsetting to the establishment at the time. And imagine the conflicts that arose when people started using language and drawing pictures on walls instead of grunting and pointing.

The rise of citizen journalism — or more accurately, citizen reportage, has been sudden and meteoric, at least in evolutionary terms. Unlike our distant ancestors, we don’t have generations to adjust our way of thinking about how we process and share information. The pace of change has changed, and it is necessary for humans to adapt not only to the change, but the pace.

And yet, the first news and analysis out of the base didn’t come from the experts. Nor did it come from the 24-hour news media, or even from dedicated military blogs – but rather from the Twitter account of one Tearah Moore, a soldier from Linden, Michigan who is based at Fort Hood, having recently returned from Iraq.

Is it fair to call the tweeting of the Fort Hood shootings an atrocity, or to say that ‘citizen journalists’ can’t handle the truth? No, because individuals with camera phones and twitter accounts are not journalists, they are eyewitnesses with the ability to make actual recordings of events and share their raw, unfiltered observations in real time. Live-blogging these observations shouldn’t be referred to as citizen journalism either, unless we are using this term to criticize individuals who are not journalists for not following basic journalistic principles.

The urgency of the desire to share sensational and disturbing information isn’t new, or even particularly modern — it predates the internet, the telephone, the printing press, and probably even cave-paintings. Rumors have always spread with remarkable speed, because the possession of salacious information brings out the resourcefulness in humans, always has, always will. As Douglas Adams put it, “Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which follows its own laws.” The desires to tell and to be told are usually mutual, but the decision to listen and accept at face value is always at the sole discretion of the listener.

2: Fort Hood is not the Iranian revolution

But my main objection is to the parallels drawn between the blogging of the Fort Hood shootings and the Twittering of the Iranian Revolution. Invoking the video of Neda Agha Soltan, then dragging out of the tired old “why didn’t you put down the camera and help” nonsense.

Even if you’ve seen the footage before, you should watch it again. But this time bear in mind the following: the cameraman was not a professional reporter, but rather an ordinary person, just like the victim. And what did he do when he saw a young girl bleeding to death? Did he run for help, or try to assist in stemming the bleeding? No he didn’t.

Unless you are the only person available to help, or you have specific qualifications to provide assistance in the role of a first responder, putting down the camera isn’t going to help anyone.  And in this particular case, not putting down the camera gave the revolution a voice, and a face, and a rallying point. That little bit of cell phone video is horrifying, yes, but it moved people, and changed things. I’d say that’s a pretty stellar bit of journalism, amateur or not.

Of course the rules that apply to an individual with regard to their role in an event are not suspended. If Ms. Moore was acting in an official capacity and had a duty to preserve medical or military confidentiality, she should be held accountable if she violated those rules. And media outlets should not run unfiltered eyewitness tweets as news. You’d think these things would go without saying, but you’d think that about a lot of things that end up needing to be said anyway.

Private citizens have the same role in unfolding tragedies as they always have – they are eyewitnesses, and as such, anything they are able to document during an incident has some value, even more so if they are the only ones available to do so. In the case of the Iranian revolution, the person holding the camera phone plays an important role in what they are recording, since they are preventing it from being suppressed and denied by those in power.

3: Missing the Point

Which brings me to Paul Carr’s cynical observation in the TechCrunch article:

“Despite how successful ten million actual voters marching through Washington, London and other major cities in 2003 were in stopping the invasion of Iraq, a bit of entirely virtual cyber-posturing by foreigners didn’t lead to real change in Iran.”

First of all, the Tweeting of the Iranian Revolution is more than just citizen journalism. Twitter has provided the good people of Iran a platform to share important information with each other as well as with the rest of the world, information which would never be reported by an official news outlet. Twitter access is limited, and dangerous, so a network of individuals both inside and outside the borders gathers and shares whatever information it can. To say that these efforts have failed is both mean-spirited and premature – and overlooks another aspect of this unprecedented worldwide access to the heart of revolution, which is (to me) a compelling and poignant argument in favor of it:

Whether or not the Iranian people succeed, this access has given the rest of us a meaningful and vivid perspective that has already changed the world for those of us who are listening. Political interactions with the leaders of Iran are fraught with posturing and rattling of sabers, and in years past, this would be a primary factor in shaping the perceptions the citizens of the countries involved. What if the only outside knowledge of the Iranian revolution came from their official media outlets?

Communication technology is changing the world, and the pace of this change is changing, gaining mass and momentum. The amount raw, unfiltered information available in real-time exceeds the ability to process it, which is why we have people complaining about reading live eyewitness accounts coming directly out of an intense situation as if this is supposed to be reliable information. That’s an unrealistic expectation.

“Despite a slew of YouTube videos and a couple of thousand foreign Twitter users turning their avatar green and pretending to be in Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is still in power. It’s astonishing, really.”

And finally, trivializing the personal connections between the Iranian people and the thousands of supporters “turning their avatar green and pretending to be in Tehran” is missing … well, not the whole point, but the best part of it.

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