Daily Archives: February 1, 2011

Reporting Revolutions: Are we too reliant on Twitter, Facebook and other UGC?

Photo: Maggie Osama via Flickr - Creative Commons License

Egypt has been dominating the headlines and trending on twitter for the last week. The latest in the series of so called ‘twitter revolutions’ that have brought change from Moldova to Iran to Tunisia and is now in the land of the Pharoahs.

But are we overestimating the impact of Twitter and Facebook? Also as journalists as we too reliant on tweets coming through from hard to reach places?

Firstly, Twitter and Facebook don’t bring about or even inspire revolutions, they aren’t out there on the streets egging on protestors. Social Media helps people to shout a little louder and it’s interesting to see that governments are pretty keen to shut them down or block them off (Iran tried and Eygpt plain severed the Internet). But I’m pretty sure that the tens of people that have self-immolated, and the hundreds of thousands that have protested across North Africa these last weeks didn’t do it for the tweets. But as a genuine protest against their autocratic governments based on long term greviances, excacerbated by rising food prices and unemployment.

While Twitter is very useful for real time updates from rapidly emerging situations – how much can we trust what information is put out there?

During the Iranian revolutions when foreign journalists weren’t allowed to enter the country Twitter became one of the key sources of information for foreign news services. But who are we to trust? In his latest book ‘The Net Delusion’ Evgeny Morozov says that twitter and facebook are actually not the ‘freer’ of people but can instead be used to covertly spread disinformation and tighten government control.

So if governments are sometimes using Twitter to further their own aims and severing or shutting down the internet during protests who exactly is getting this information onto the Internet? Blogs, twitter, facebook and youtube are all ablaze with new updates and startling videos.

Yet western journalists who couldn’t reach or didn’t bother to reach people on the ground in Iran, just scrolled down the English tweets searching for #mubarak #egypt or #iranelection and getting whatever info there was. It just seems like lazy journalism.

I accept that Twitter and Facebook are useful for mobilising the diaspora of a nation that is under going rapid political change as well as rasing the international profile of their movement. It just doesn’t seem like it is the best way to report on these events after all wouldn’t most people involved be tweeting in Farsi or Arabic?

**Since posting it turns out that google have introduced a voice-to-twitter service to help Egyptians to continue tweets during the protests.

Trending Topics: What they mean and how to use them in journalism

If something is ‘trending’, it is being discussed and/or mentioned on Twitter as part of a keyword or hashtag phrase. From Twitter:

“Twitter’s Trending Topics algorithm identifies topics that are immediately popular, rather than topics that have been popular for a while or on a daily basis, to help people discover the “most breaking” news stories from across the world.

Most popular trending topics in 2010:

The results show that people were most concerned about serious news stories from around the world but also spent time discussing entertainment in the form of Justin Bieber and the newest Harry Potter film.

Any self-respecting journalist knows the importance of breaking news and so it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the Twittersphere cos we often hear about it on there before AP gets hold of it.

They’re useful if you want to narrow trends down to countries or even cities to see what people are talking about in specific geographic areas. Think of it as a virtual vox-pop.

It’s also useful to gauge a range of opinions on a given topic in s very short space of time and without leaving your desk. If you want to follow a story more closely as it develops, you can do by clicking the hashtag (#), which collates all the tweets with that word or phrase into one place.

Most newsrooms now have a screen setup with Twitterfall or something similar- an app that brings together hashtag and keyword searches in real time.

But we must be careful when collecting data from hashtags and trending topics on Twitter. Although a global phenomenon with over 106 million users, we cannot over-generalise trending topics to be a realistic cross-section of the opinions of all members in any given community. Most Twitter users are young professionals or college students living in first-world developed countries with readily available internet access.

Digital Surgeons have put together a great infographic which compares Twitter an Facebook users. The majority of Twitter users are slightly older than those who use Facebook most frequently (26-30 compared with 16-24 age bracket). Plus Twitter users tend to be more technology savvy as a higher precentage of users log in on mobile devices compared with Facebook users.

To sum up then, Trending Topics are useful as a starting point to find breaking news and research opinion and comment on particular news items as a springboard for further research, but should not be used as a valid cross-section of society.

By Lucy Hewitt