Here at YouMakeMedia we often focus on the digital video revolution, and how consumer media is being shaken up by the availability of cheap, easy tools (like Celtx) for creating video projects.
However something that also fits into the scope of user-generated content (and our mission) is user-generated news, and the recent events in Iran surrounding the apparently falsified election results have proven that the tides are turning – users have more ability than ever to change the focus of the news.
#IranElection – the power of a hashtag
Undoubtedly the star of this new media news spectacle was Twitter. It proved its utility to new and old users alike with its ability to enable those inside Iran to quickly and efficiently share what they knew about the events that were unfolding around them.
Throughout the past few nights and days, the Twitter users of Iran (who were spawning the tweets) made use of the hashtag #IranElection to effectively share what they knew about the situation. It became a central source for all news related to the event, and has become one of the top trending topics on Twitter for several days now. #IranElection became a news network unto itself (and in fact spawned some interesting mashups, including one particularly detailed one at Twazzup).
Just as #IranElection told stories of the event, #CNNFail told stories of the failure to tell stories of the event (figure that one out!). While Twitter spent its Saturday and Sunday discussing the event, disseminating information, and spreading photos and video about the event, CNN and other major American cable networks were showing repeats of other programs, and altogether missing out on crucial coverage of the event. In a story aptly titled “Dear CNN, Please Check Twitter for News About Iran“, Marshall Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb stated:
One quip we’ve seen is that “Tienanmen + Twitter = Tehran.” Twenty years ago this month, CNN brought live news about the Tienanmen Square uprising to the world. It’s really strange that the network is absent from this story.
There was another important element that added to Twitter’s success too – what I’m dubbing “people power”. The ability of us to directly connect to people involved in the situation and experience empathy for their situation is unparalleled and offers a new dimension to newsgathering. I tweeted about this phenomenon, and Twitter user Steve Garufi replied:
I must say, it is really touching to be able to connect with people in Iran on Twitter – to encourage them.
This is the most touching personal benefit to this – that we can build relationships with Iranians.
Denice Szafran also tweeted…
I think you’re right – we are watching real people tweet from Iran. It makes a difference.
The connection to real people in Iran (in this case) is incredibly visceral and offers perspective on the situation. We can put ourselves in “their shoes” and get a small taste of the horrors of what this situation is like. I also experienced this firsthand back in February, when a plane crashed in Clarence, NY (near the University at Buffalo, where I attend school). My fellow Buffalo-area tweeters and I spent the night sending out news as we heard it, sharing our eyewitness reports, and connecting with people around the country. This same “people power” applied.
Of course, the standard problems apply – these are only citizen journalists who aren’t working with proper credentials and thus don’t verify stories. With the stakes raised last night, as citizen tweeters were providing other citizen tweeters information in a tense, life-or-death situation, accusations flew back and forth that one poster wasn’t reliable, or another was providing mis-information, and in one instance a protest that was being hyped on Twitter was declared a potential trap (the circumstances are still unclear).
The immediacy of Twitter in covering news is both a benefit and its downfall. As with any other citizen journalism system, the immediacy causes a lack of fact-checking and the potential for the spread of wrong information (although not necessarily with malicious intent). This is common in the mainstream professional news industry as well – the likelihood of mistakes increases as you get closer to the event itself (the more immediate the news). The difference is, the news tends to take more time to collect facts and information (as CNN apparently did).
Further, that same “person power” that attracts us to Twitter can cloud our judgement, and prevent us from seeing the whole picture of a situation. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of affiliating ourselves with one side and take up their cause, without pausing to try to understand what the other side is enduring or see their position. Further, we tend to more openly trust those who we empathize with, without verifying the facts they present (as addressed above).
Regardless, the world wants immediate information. They want to know what is happening as it’s happening, and Twitter was able to provide that last night. But that doesn’t mean we should count out the main stream news networks yet – they provide measured analysis and carefully fact-checked information that is crucial to understanding the broad aspects of the situation at hand. They lose the narrative, and give us the facts.
By combining these two resources, the cautious, careful mainstream news media, and the fast, immediate power of tools like Twitter, we have even more options at our disposal to understand our world in new and fascinating ways.