The face of citizen journalism is made up of thousands of facets competing for the reader’s attention. On Twitter, crowdsourced snippets like this jostle and merge together, as each minute a hundred new ones emerge over the internet into your hashtag reader (in my case, Tweetdeck). You strain to understand both the extent of the new Iranian post-election protest and the truth of the claims being made.
What is in no doubt? This, for example: “Ahmadinejad is delivering his speech at Tehran University.” But other tweets are less easy to decipher, such as: ‘Nedaagain basijis and military are just looking don't know what to do.” You are confused when you read this, however: “Police force frees arrested protestors from Basijis & protects people.”
Is this the final revolution? Will the military come across to the side of the protesters, and oust the government? Surely a coup d’etat would be the only way to shift Ahmedinejad?
Still the tweets arrive. “THE BASIJI ON HIS loud speaker on his truck saying death to America. People ARE CHANTING DEATH TO RUSSIA.”
Whatever else we can say about citizen journalism, it is still necessary to confirm and interpret. Not every utterance carries the same weight as the others. The “cost of moderation” is undoubtedly a cause for relief for traditional journalists, my experience with yesterday’s Twitter stream tells me. You cannot take everything at face value. Some things must be jettisoned.
“Police on poeple’s side go to Basijis, take arrested from vans, free people a few streets away, saying ‘we r with u’.” I doubt it. The revolution may come one day, but not today. According to Oxford University's Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism:
[J]ournalists must accept that the dynamic between audience and journalist has changed and must find new, collaborative ways to tell stories, [Washington Post columnist and former visiting fellow at the institute, John] Kelly argued. While the rise of new forms of newsgathering, such as citizen journalism, and revenues may not be fast enough to compensate for the decline in Western news media, he wrote, 'the impulses underlying the rise of citizen journalist are here to stay'.
Twitter streams like yesterday’s show us that there is more to journalism than just reporting facts. On the other hand, facts must be verified before they can reliably be reported. Journalists are trained to be wary of unconfirmed reports which, in many societies, can result in costly legal challenges. In others, they may result in worse outcomes, including imprisonment or even death. So there is still a need for the journalist to sift and glean. Nevertheless, watching a full-on Twitter stream like this is exhilarating. You feel as though you are in the middle of something bigger than yourself.
“Al Jazeera reports millions were out today.” “Mobile phone contact down in Shiraz.” “Caller saying in Shiraz pepper spray was used.” “Females ... chanting, chanting and clapping, clapping ... women SO LOUD ... MOUSAVI MOUSAVI.”
While you are watching the posted videos on Youtube and reading through the stream, you might at the same time be tuned into the local news. The broadcast seems so mundane, so boring. It’s not the real thing. The real thing is several time zones and thousands of kilometres away. It’s early morning in Tehran and the ‘Sea of Green’ (the opposition-leader supporters) are marching in the streets. Over there they also have local news stations, TV and radio.
“Caller R Farda: 'I saw a kid that they caught in side street, his mother was pleading & they sprayed face with gas.’” "Death to the dictators," and "Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, We are ready to die for Iran," chanted protesters.” “Heavy attack on #Esfahan University. Students need help. Esfahan Uni campus under attack.”
But the breathlessness eventually tires you out. Tweetdeck refreshes continue to pulse out 30, 40, 50 tweets every minute on the #iranelection hashtag but you zone out. Eventually, you go back to the reliable source you recognise because you see it daily.
A Twitter friend writes: “@matthew_dasilva prefer to rely on a smaller network rather than hash tags on unconfirmed reports.”
Unconfirmed reports. What is he talking about? The stream is relentless. There’s no way they could fake this outpouring of emotion and information. But you understand why he says this.
It’s the lack of credibility that each tweet possesses. “LeFigaro.fr also confirms Khatami attack and how police and supporters saved him from thugs” is plausible because it has a media outlet’s name attached. If you go to the website you read that it is true. You trust the news source whereas you do not trust the tweet.
The atmosphere generated by the twitter stream cannot be reproduced by a news report, however. There is something so visceral and compelling in the array of short bursts of information that conjures images and emotions a normal news story cannot.
We are witnessing something more than a political rally in Iran. We are witnessing a sort of collective consciousness emerging in the Twitterverse. Each voice bleeds into the next, ricochets off it, and thunders away only to be replaced by another, no less interesting one.
“Helicopter flying over sea of green now in Tehran, greens booing them, chanting & showing V sign.” “Basiji thugs attack in Valiasr circle in Tehran has been defeated by people.” “Security Forces stopped 1,000 students of Sharif Industrial Uni in Tehran from protesting and beat them up.”
You cannot pull your eyes away. You are engrossed. You only wish there were fewer, more carefully selected clips of data. You wish for form. You collapse back into the welcoming arms of your favourite broadsheet, breathing heavily.