“We weren’t the voice of the people, we were their megaphone”

“I wouldn’t go so far as calling us the ‘voice of the people,’” Ayman Mohyeldin said. He would know: As correspondent for Al Jazeera English, Mohyeldin flew to Cairo from Tunisia on Jan. 26th, and guided international audiences through a month of demonstrations, upheaval and, eventually, revolution. For those watching, he became the voice of the revolution during countless hours of live coverage. At a packed event in Washington, D.C., he talked about his experience and Al Jazeera’s role.

“Al Jazeera was not the voice of the protesters, but the microphone to the voices of the protestors” he said. “Al Jazeera simply amplified the voices of the people that were yelling to be heard in the region.”

“News organizations have to provide context”

The network’s English coverage soared in popularity, with traffic to Al Jazeera’s English website increasing 25-fold. (The network isn’t carried by most satellite providers in the U.S., which is another story).

Meanwhile the role of news organizations is changing. “Information is so ubiqutous,” Mohyeldin said.

“It’s no longer the information that news organizations have to provide, it’s the context.”

Context helps form a narrative from singular events, connecting them with history and analysis. That doesn’t require flashy graphics: Many of the most iconic images, he said, were simply of a camera positioned on a balcony overlooking Cairo’s Tahrir Square. “The people felt protected by the cameras,” he said. Maybe one reason Egypt’s regime tried so hard to hinder Al Jazeera’s coverage.

In addition to their own cameramen and correspondents, a lot of footage Al Jazeera aired came from ordinary citizens using their cellphones to capture what they were seeing. Does this make Egypt’s regime overthrow a “Twitter revolution” or a “Facebook revolution”? (A question mainly asked in Western media outlets amazed that people in other parts of the world use technology, too). Mohyeldin settled this almost in passing:

“These were the first revoltions in the information age,” he said. They were “powered by information.”

“The fear factor had been broken,” he added.

Do we know the Libyan rebels?

Mohyeldin’s experience and Al Jazeera’s success also demonstrate the importance of regional knowledge. He slammed Western media and pundits for repeating the claim that rebels in Libya were unkown to the West, who is now supporting them with airstrikes to prevent civilian casulaties. In the debate about the intervention, it has often been claimed that “we don’t know who the rebels are.”

“We know exactly who they are,” Mohyeldin said. “They are Libyan people who don’t want to be ruled by Moammar Gadhafi. … If you speak to them, you know who they are.”

The road ahead

While Libyans are still fighting Gadhafi, Egyptians and Tunisians are faced with the question: What’s next?

“Right now we don’t know which way the region is going to go,” Mohyeldin said, “but there is a great sense of optimism.” The most difficult part, however, may be yet to come as Tunisians and Egyptians are working to shape the state of the future, after having abolished the one of the past.

“This is the part that’s gonna be harder for Egyptians, Tunisians and others,” he said. After the images of huge crowds, both fighting and jubilant, this transition period will be much slower and more difficult to tell on television. But “it requires information and discourse,” Mohyeldin said, pointing to the debate about the recent referendum in Egypt as an example. People were struggling to set the pace of change: “Egypt takes two steps forward and one step back.”

One man can change a region

Mohyeldin described that while each country has its own distinct features, the uprisings sweeping the region are connected. He travelled to the Tunisian village of Sidi Bouzid, where a local man lit himself on fire, setting in motion the events that have so far toppled two regimes. “People in Sidi Bouzid hold their heads so high,” he said.

“Let it be told that the power of one man to change an entire region is what we are witnessing right now.”

Egypt curation on Twitter shows opportunities, challenges for journalists

During the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, Twitter has become a major source for news from the region.

One of the most noted Tweeters on the topic is Andy Carvin, senior strategist at NPR (see stories on the Nieman Lab and the New York Times, for example). From six in the morning to 11 at night, he collects, shares and follows tweets about the region, often from eyewitnesses. With this flood of information, how does he filter what to pass on and where to research further?

In an interview with PBS Newshour (above), Carvin explained that he knew bloggers in Tunisia and Egypt before the protests, and thus was able to follow the narrative from the beginning. He “pulled together a list of people I knew … a base of maybe half a dozen people that I had known and followed for a number of years so I knew they were reliable,” he told the Newshour’s Hari Sreenivasan.

Building a network

Having an existing network is also helpful if you’re not covering an event halfway around the globe. Washington, D.C., news site TBD was able to stand out in its coverage of a hostage taking at a TV channel partly because some eyewitnesses were partners in the site’s blog network. TBD had embraced the social media space and used it effectively during this breaking news situation.

For Carvin, he says he can gain a lot of important context from Twitter users’ links to each other.

“If you pay attention to the network, who’s following whom, how long a person has been on Twitter, how often they’re being retweeted … it gives you a mental map of the core people,” he said.

While not immediately reliable, Carvin says at least you know who is talking to whom. (The network of people sending messages about and from Egypt through the social media site is large, as this visualization shows.)

Whom to trust?

A downside of the instant spread of information on Twitter is that rumors, too, can take hold. Multiple re-tweets sometimes blur the initial source, or users may pass on what they heard from someone else in an attempt to communicate with others on the ground while the information isn’t verified.

Craig Kannally, founder of Breaking Tweets and now a senior editor at the Huffington Post, compiled a checklist that hasn’t lost any of its timeliness. In the spirit of the airline industry, here are some things Kannally uses to help determine whether a tweet is reliable.

  • Context: Check the user’s feed for related tweets. “You’d be surprised how often someone posts a follow-up tweet later or precedes the ‘breaking tweet’ with other pertinent info,” Kannally writes.
  • User history: Is this someone’s first tweet? Do they interact with other users?
  • More context: What are other people saying about the same incident this user describes? Does it match up?
  • Direct contact: Send an @-reply or a direct message, build a relationship with the user. Carvin also says he sends private messages to users to find out who they rely on for their information.
egypt jan25

"January 25 - I was there" stickers in Cairo, photographed by Lauren Bohn, who has been tweeting from Egypt from @LaurenBohn.

Mandy Jenkin, TBD’s social media editor, adds further important points to consider before tweeting or re-tweeting information, for example whether the tweet can stand on its own or needs additional information.

A different approach to newsgathering

Something to consider: Jenkins assumes you’re tweeting from a news organization’s account, spreading information under the organization’s banner. Carvin, however, has done most of his noted curation from his own Twitter stream, rather than NPR’s, which a commentar on Nieman Lab noted as well.

Writing under his own name may have freed Carvin to handle information differently than if he were writing under NPR’s banner. By this, I don’t mean that an individual journalist should be any less diligent in the information he or she curates. Rather, I think it’s easier to convey the flow of information, with all its uncertainties, when writing as an individual rather than a news organization. Carvin has communicated that clearly to his followers.

“I see my twitter feed as an open newsgathering operation,” he told the NewsHour.

That includes asking followers for more context or translations, and adding comments like “source?” or “verified?” to his tweets.

Letting the audience share in this search for information makes Carvin’s twitter feed transparent, context-oriented and very fast – a real time “news wire about Egypt,” as the New York Times wrote, with information from sources on the ground. By noting his questions, he has embraced transparency and built credibility. In more ways than one, this is an example to follow.

Al Jazeera’s Minty: The revolution was televised, you were just watching the wrong channel

Many wonder what role social media is playing in the protests sweeping across the Middle East. Some Western commentators quickly stressed the role of Twitter, Facebook and Youtube in shaping the events, to the point of calling it a “twitter revolution.”

[blackbirdpie url="http://twitter.com/#!/katiecouric/status/30751936571514880"]

Others lament the lack of influence social media had on shaping news coverage. Mainstream media in the Western world didn’t pick up the Tunisian protests until weeks into them, shortly before the country’s president was ousted.

TechCruch writes on Jan 14th that “the most jarring thing about today’s revolution was the constant commentary about how the amount of Twitter and Facebook buzz didn’t seem to translate over to mainstream Anglophone media.”

So how important was social media?

Possibly the smartest piece I’ve read on the role of social media comes from Riyaad Minty, head of social media at Al Jazeera. He writes:

“There is a lot to say about the role Social Media played in this, I do think that a lot of people seem to be missing the point on what exactly Social Media can and does do in shaping events. … In Tunisia, it was not about mobilising people through Social Media, it was about broadcasting what was going on to those who chose to listen. Without the tweets, facebook posts or YouTube videos we would not have known about the initial protests… or would we? Only once mainstream media picks up on a story and decides what importance it should have, do people really notice what is going on.”

Meanwhile, demonstrators in Egypt are encountering additional challenges, as it appears many lines of communication have been shut down or significantly disrupted, including Twitter, Facebook and mobile phone services. (Update: Apparently general Internet access is down across Egypt.) Further demonstrations are planned for Friday.

[blackbirdpie url="http://twitter.com/#!/bencnn/status/30777173400879105"]

Some of the tweeters posting live accounts and pictures are @LaurenBohn, @SultanAlQassemi and @Arabist, as well as many more. Let’s hope we can keep following their eyewitness accounts tomorrow, and let’s hope they will be safe.

Update, Jan 29
Alfred Hermida, who was reporting from Cairo for the BBC in the early 1990s, has posted his take on the role of social media.

“In countries like Egypt, part of the government’s power comes from controlling the media. What social media does is allow citizens to get around controls on the media, by sharing information and connecting around a common cause,” he writes.