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Posted at 2:25 PM ET, 03/ 7/2011

Andy Carvin: The Middle East revolutions one tweet at a time

By Melissa Bell
andy carvin
Andy Carvin discusses uses of Social Media by NPR at last year's Digital Capital Week. (Jeffrey MacMillan/The Washington Post)

The Middle East uprisings have seen a flood of information like never before spill out over the networks of the world. Wading through all of that information has been Andy Carvin, the head of social media at NPR who has attempted to tell the story through Twitter.

What al-Jazeera English did for the the video coverage of Egypt, Carvin has done for the Twitter coverage: provide consistent, thorough, wide ranging aggregation of the events in the Middle East.

A "human router," as the blog TechCrunch calls him, Carvin has spent the past two months -- except for during meals with his family and when putting his children to bed -- tweeting news out about the Middle East.

Appears to be another interrogation video of captured Gaddafi fighter. Not sure of location. #libyaless than a minute ago via TweetDeck

The majority of his time is spent in retweeting people he follows and asking questions.

@angryarabiya were you there when it happened? Did u hear what she said?less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone

He sees his work as part reporting and part fact checking, using his followers on Twitter to help translate, find more information and confirm rumors. Carvin was in California last week attending the TED conference, but he took some time to answer questions about his new role as Middle East Twitter correspondent for NPR:

When did you start curating Egypt tweets?

I've traveled around Tunisia and had met a number of bloggers there, though they generally focused on tech blogging rather than anything political. So as I began to see people using the #sidibouzid hashtag in late December to document and encourage protests around the country, I really began to wonder if there was any chance they would be able to go all the way.

At some point in late December I even asked on Twitter if we were seeing the beginnings of a Jasmine revolution. No one replied to that tweet, because most people didn't even know about the protests yet. Ultimately I ended up documenting those several weeks using a curation tool called Storify, and it became my own record of the whole revolution, told through social media created by Tunisians and others.

On the day that president Ben Ali fled the country, I saw one Tunisian blogger, @MMM, tweet this: "Ok Arabs you've seen how it's done in Tunisia; Tag you're it!" And that really struck me. What would happen next, if anything?

As soon as I saw Egyptian bloggers mentioning #jan25 as the hashtag representing the day they planned to begin their own protests, I started pulling together lists of all the Egyptians I knew on Twitter and began filtering their best stuff.

When did you recognize Twitter as a tool for journalism?

In 2008, a number of us used Twitter during the presidential campaign, including live-tweeting speeches and covering behind-the-scenes stuff at debates. What I'm doing isn't exactly new to Twitter; it's just that I'm doing it at a very intense rate, 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and that I'm working with my Twitter followers in an attempt to sort out what's a rumor and what's factual.

How do you decide what information to tweet out?

My preference is always to tweet information that's been confirmed, but Twitter is also great at verifying and debunking things. I'll often retweet stuff that isn't confirmed but ask my followers to help me get more context. Volunteers have helped me find the exact location where videos have been recorded, translate them, recognize the accent or dialect, etc.

When I saw a photo of a Libyan holding what looking like a very large anti-tank round, I asked people to help me figure out what it was, and about a dozen people started researching it. Ultimately, one of my followers, who happens to be in the U.S. armed forces, identified it as a Russian-made anti-aircraft round, and sent me all the specs regarding it. Many of my Twitter followers end up playing the roles of producers, researchers, fixers and the like.

What were some of the lessons you learned as you went along?

I've made a couple of mistakes, both of them related to Islamic death rituals. I found one video of a child who appeared to be unconscious and being treated by nurses, cleaning off some blood. After tweeting that, a number of my followers wrote back and said Andy, the child is dead. They're cleaning the body prior to burial. I felt terrible about that, because when I watched it I thought I saw her move a bit. Perhaps that was just what I wanted to see. There was also a video of a protester shot and on the ground, and I thought someone was resuscitating them. Several people then pointed out that they were essentially kissing the person goodbye, and that he was already dead.

Do you feel at all trapped, as if you can't stop tweeting now that you've started?

Sometimes I feel a bit trapped, but I brought that upon myself by saying very early that I wanted to cover the fallout of Tunisia's revolution. I figured Tunisia would have an impact but didn't realize just how fast the dominoes would begin to fall. So for now I'm trying to keep up with it. Fortunately, since I can do all of this work on my phone, I can sit in front of the TV and watch a show while tweeting, or do it when my wife is taking the kids to the restroom at a restaurant. Generally though I won't do it while having a meal with my family, and I won't do it when I put my kids to bed. Some things have to be sacred, right?

The tweets are often sided with the revolutionaries, which could be seen as something of advocacy journalism as it only reports one side of the story. Do you agree with this? How would you explain your role?

I don't consider my tweets advocacy journalism because I'm sincerely trying to tweet perspectives from all sides and capture the voices of those directly involved with it. It just so happens in some of these countries that the only people who seem to be social-media savvy happen to be protesters.

In Bahrain it's different; there are pro-government people on Twitter, including the foreign minister. I've retweeted him and even had some Q&A with him via Twitter. Meanwhile, I see what I'm doing as an attempt to tell an actual story about these revolts, with as much of it in the first-person as possible. And when you do that, you end up concentrating on what the revolutionaries are doing.

When I see legitimate Twitter accounts that don't support their aspirations, I try to tweet those as well. There just aren't many of them.

What lessons should other media outlets take from you?

I think media outlets need to remember that their audience isn't just an audience. They're people with a range of experiences and skill sets. I've been able to do what I've done so far because my Twitter followers want me to succeed at this, and they're willing to lend their expertise when I need it. There's no shame in a journalist telling members of the public "I don't know" or "Can you help me?" I think journalism would be all the better if we did this more often, both online and offline.

What's been your most favorite part about this experience?

My favorite part has been figuring out the relationships between people. In Egypt there were a number of people who replied to each other regularly, retweeted them, etc, and eventually I figured it out -- they were siblings.

Meanwhile, it's been incredible watching people find their public voices in countries where they could be thrown in jail or worse for doing that. Free speech and free press generally hasn't been respected in these countries before, so it's amazing to watch people discover their voice and use it. I've even started to notice that some of the people I've been following in Egypt have taken down their anonymous Twitter avatars and replaced them with actual pictures of themselves. That in itself says a lot about how much their world has changed. They can show their faces and speak up for the first time in their lives.

By Melissa Bell  | March 7, 2011; 2:25 PM ET
Categories:  The Daily Catch  
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