Crowd-sourcing Tunisia: separating electronic rumor from reality

(Jan. 21, 2011) The Tunisian revolution is another reminder of the power of viral media. But it also underlines the fact that not all information is created equal.

As they did during Iran's much-hyped "Twitter Revolution," news organizations and bloggers have been channeling a torrent of cellphone videos, tweets and blog posts from Tunisia. Indeed, the dearth of reporting in the Western media until shortly before President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country meant these "citizen journalists" were a primary source of information.

"We have never been so well-informed about what is happening," wrote a blogger called "Slim" quoted on the Global Voices website. "The border between the real and virtual worlds has never been so tight."

But truth can be lost — or distorted — in that electronic borderland. Tunisia was a closed society under Ben Ali, who had ruled since 1987. Its media is under state control; independent journalists have been under siege; Western reporters are rarely allowed access.

So until this past weekend, the outside media, and the world, were relying largely on the very people who took to the streets to protest Ben Ali's rule for information about that uprising. It's called "crowd-sourcing." And it can be very powerful.

The Seattle Times won a Pulitzer last year for tapping the power of the crowd in its reporting of a police shooting. But in that case, editors used the information as leads to check out. And members of the public tweeting didn't have an ulterior motive.

Not so for those on the ground in the Middle East hoping to create a revolution, or bloggers abroad who have been breathlessly supporting their cause.

No less an authority than reported, "If Twitter is to be believed, Ben Ali really is gone." (12:40 p.m. EST, Friday, Jan. 14). But that's like saying "if rumors are to be believed," because Twitter is not an individual source, it does not provide facts that have been confirmed. It is, ultimately, an electronic rumor mill; a cacophony of unfiltered posts from often nameless, faceless individuals.

People posting the thousands of tweets coded with #Tunisia have ranged from "a girl trying to find her way in this world ... obsessed with fashion" who could as easily be in Chicago as the Middle East, to individuals on the ground tweeting from military checkpoints.

Clearly, not all tweets are equal. During Iran's "Twitter Revolution," there is reason to believe the regime was also secretly using social media to influence the outside world.

It turned out that, in the Tunisian case, "Twitter" was right — or at least whoever posted first word of Ben Ali's flight was correct. But for a while, it was just one rumor among many.

A full two days before Ben Ali fled there were plenty of posts on Twitter claiming a military coup was already under way — dutifully channeled by some Western media organizations. No one talks about those now.

Like YouTube and blogs, Twitter is simply a tool — no different from a telephone or e-mail account — that can be used by anyone: political activist, government provocateur or trained journalist.

The images on YouTube can be compelling; some tweets and blogs give gritty insight from the streets. But not everyone with a cellphone can be believed. The more retweets, the higher a tweet moves in the "top tweet" hierarchy. That doesn't make it fact, just the most popular rumor. The tyranny of the crowd.

These electronic tools can, indeed, fuel political uprisings; the spark for the Tunisia riots seems to have been news of the suicide protest of a shopkeeper that spread virally through the country. They can tear down electronic Iron Curtains, providing a glimpse of events inside closed societies. And they can inspire others, as witnessed this past week on the streets of Cairo and Amman.

It may be true that, as Hosam El Sokkari of Yahoo! Middle East posted, "Revolutions in 2011 are made out of sweat, blood and tweets," but the challenge is to ensure that we in the media and the public don't get swept up in the fervor.

Just ask the Iranians who are still wondering what ever happened to that Twitter revolution.

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