Following the earthquake in Haiti on Twitter
President Obama was surely right when he said there are “difficult hours and days ahead as we learn the scope of the tragedy” in devastated Port-au-Prince. There is so much that we haven’t yet been able to see. What we do know about the earthquake in Haiti we learned from a suddenly indispensable new source: the world of social networking, specifically Twitter.
Last night, after the massive earthquake hit one of the most vulnerable cities on Earth, I followed my first reflex, which was to turn on the television and switch back and forth among the various cable news channels. But I also pulled out my laptop and went immediately to Twitter, and that was where I got the freshest information from feeds such as the U.S. government's Twittercompendium of feeds tracking relief efforts.
It came pointillistically -- reports of specific buildings that had collapsed, such as the U.N. headquarters and the Hotel Montana; descriptions of the damage in various parts of the city; news that the president and first lady had escaped the ruined presidential palace. Most important, Twitter was where I found the first pictures of the devastation. Those same images quickly showed up on the cable channels I was watching. They were all monitoring Twitter, Facebook and other networking sites, too, as were the major newspaper Web sites (including this one) and other media outlets.
I went looking for information on Twitter because of the role it played last summer during the massive anti-government protests in Iran. While the Iranian government managed to block traditional news sources, it couldn’t stop the steady flow of tweets coming from demonstrators in the streets of Tehran, men and women armed only with mobile phones and uncommon courage.
Again last night, Twitter delivered vital information when other avenues were blocked. Social networking is an amazingly powerful technology -- but we should keep in mind that as a deliverer of news, it differs from traditional news sources in important ways.
Twitter and other networking sites are unfiltered by editors or other gatekeepers. They rely on the wisdom of the crowd to sort out what is accurate and what is not. To someone (like me) who has spent his career as a gatekeeper, this was tremendously unsettling -- at first. During the Iran protests, I saw how quickly Twitter users identified misinformation that was being posted by government propagandists. The self-policing capability of the medium is impressive.
The other big difference is that social networking offers not just information, but also the opportunity to take action. Twitter users were able to work together to mask the identities of the Iranian demonstrators who were using the site to tell the world what was happening. Last night, along with the news from Haiti came suggestions for how the Twitter community could most effectively help the relief effort.
Is this “news” the way we used to think of it? No. But it’s news people can use.
| January 13, 2010; 1:15 PM ET
Categories: Robinson | Tags: Eugene Robinson
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