Once again Twitter has made the headlines. Throughout 2011, social media exploded everywhere to become the instrument by excellence of a fast-moving media across the Arab world and the Middle East, in particular in Egypt and Tunisia. Twitter particularly, has been used by the people to mobilise, to warn and to inform. That is excellent but no one believes that it is possible to receive intelligent analysis in 140 characters.
In Egypt, it has been estimated that, at the height of the uprising just 15,000 Egyptians were tweeting out of a population of more than 80 million (and some may have been outside the country). So we shouldn't let tech-euphoria distract us from other critical factors, such as satellite broadcasts of the protests reaching into millions of Egyptian living rooms. So just possibly, some of the credit for freedoms’ wave belongs more to ordinary human beings standing together than to a tide of tweets.
There is no doubt that social networking and citizen journalists were the technological tinder that helped ignite the Arab youth. They shone light when dictators tried to hide internal crises. But without speedy verification they provide material that news organisations must handle with care.
Megan Garber, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about how much Iran’s “Twitter revolution” is “mockable”, warned about the use of news via Twitter by real-time organisations, bypassing the cumbersome newsgathering operations of the mainstream media. She quotes Jon Stewart mocking in his Daily Show CNN’s attempt to warn its audiences of the difficulty of verifying information gleaned from social networking platforms. It was “unverified material” but they still ran it.
The reality today is that the new schools of thoughts, and the new journalism gurus springing up everywhere have become powerful templates for professional journalists and institutions. Many of them, aspiring to develop a journalism geared up both to the leaps and bounds of new technology and to the behaviour of new audiences in a networked world, started having a real influence on newspapers and magazines that has gone further than the introduction phase with social media, and interactivity is increasingly penetrating every corner of newsrooms. The New York Times, one of the first newspapers to appoint a social media editor, has now set up a group of journos in an Interactive News division whose aim is to link the newsroom with all things social. Almost everywhere the quest for a new model economic model is forcing newspapers to respond to 140 characters, sometimes without the ability to check.
One of the biggest questions surely will be what does journalism mean when everyone can blog and tweet, and share it with audiences all over the world? Last week, the coup in Mali by mutineers which ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure triggered such questions as #Mali noise, including the President’s account, overtook traditional media with conflicting reports of what was happening, none of which could be verified.
Only days before, another sinister aspect of Twitter was laid bare when the work of one of the world’s most successful fake tweeters, Tommaso De Benedetti, made headlines exposing how unreliable social media can be as a news source. He revealed how he tweeted the death of the pope, Fidel Castro and Pedro Almodóvar as well as playing parts of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, a Spanish minister and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
De Benedetti claimed he was not a mere hoaxer fooling papers for money but wanted to prove how weak the media was in Italy. "The Italian press never checks anything, especially if it is close to their political line”, he said. "News media believes it because of its need for speed."
If the unreliability of social media have revealed anything, it is that the crisis in trust in journalism has reached yet another peak when. The questions surrounding information – is it truthful, is it ethical, is it honest? – must remain at the heart of reliable journalism. If the best of traditional journalism such as in-depth reporting, fact checkings and demands for accuracy is overtaken by tweets, truth and trust, and in the end journalism, will be the biggest losers.