The Western media had few reporters on the ground in Mumbai during the three-day siege so many turned to services like Twitter to make sense of what was happening. Gaurav Mishra, an expert in social media, says a new ecosystem for crisis reporting emerged when western journalists mined twitter posts for details and twitter posters in turn linked to the best reports from the newspapers and TV networks.
Artist: Juana Molina
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Most of the western media relied on the Indian news channels, of which there are dozens, for footage as the attacks unfolded.
To Gaurav Mishra, an expert in social media, when the shooting started, outsiders were forced to rely on Twitter feeds, brief dispatches sent by text message to countless computers and cell phones. Mishra says the global power of Twitter was really put to the test in Mumbai. GAURAV MISHRA: For most Western audiences, the only real source of news for the first six hours or so was the Twitter feed from people in Mumbai staying close to the scene of the event or people who had friends close to the scene of the events.
Many people outside Bombay, and especially outside India, were trying to use Twitter to make sense of what was happening in Bombay, and Twitter users in Bombay were trying to help out these people by sharing help line numbers, also by offering to convey some information themselves. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So were these citizen journalists or were they really just disseminators of mainstream news information? GAURAV MISHRA: There were some who did journalism in the traditional sense. One person called Vinukumar Ranganathan went out very early in the crisis and took hundred-odd pictures on the crisis scene, uploaded them to Flickr, then Tweeted about it. Some of us started posting links to his Flickr photo pool and suddenly everybody was using those photos in their coverage. That was clearly citizen journalism, in its best sense.
What was happening on Twitter was not analysis but, yes, there were elements of breaking news on Twitter. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But there was a lot of confusion about the basic facts on television. Do you think that their reliance on some social sites, like Twitter, actually caused unsubstantiated rumors to get broadcast? GAURAV MISHRA: Yes, some of that happened, but even though thousands of people in India, or at least close to a thousand there were Twittering about the events, it very quickly became obvious who were the people who were doing it responsibly. And very quickly people started sharing lists of Twitter users in India to follow, and they became the conduits through which information was flowing. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've suggested a kind of code of ethics for the online community. GAURAV MISHRA: Actually, I saw very specific examples of people online using great restraint in posting stories about the crisis. For instance, Vinu who posted some of the first photos of the crisis on Flickr, he had some pictures of the injured and the dead, and he asked us on his blog if he should post those pictures. And we said no, and he refrained from posting those pictures.
Similarly, another photo blogger who was taking pictures of the site on the second day of the crisis specifically wrote on his blog that he had posted these pictures with more than one hour’s time lag so that it doesn't give any sensitive information to the terrorists.
So people were showing restraint. I think it’s a personal choice mostly. There will be some chaos online. I don't think it’s possible to implement a code of conduct. BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's been lots of criticism of the network coverage giving the terrorists a tactical advantage by showing them too much, by making them into celebrities. GAURAV MISHRA: Yes, the television channels did cross a line between breaking news and broadcasting sensitive information, which might have been useful to the terrorists.
But we also need to remember that while some of the Indian television news channels have been around for close to a decade, most of them have been around for less than five years. Many people have argued that this was the first big test for the television journalists. And as much as I hate to defend Indian news media on this, I would say that given all these constraints, they did a reasonably good job. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, in the wake of these attacks, are there narratives springing up on the new media versus the old media? GAURAV MISHRA: For me, the story is that many people, thousands of people, came together and tried to make sense of what was happening, using a new service like Twitter, and new media and mainstream media complemented each other in covering this story.
And increasingly I see that traditional newspapers and television journalists and news organizations of all sorts will have in-house people who have high levels of familiarity with new media, who are good at curating news coming out of new media. So I see that as one of the lessons going forward. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gaurav, thank you very much. GAURAV MISHRA: Thank you for speaking to me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gaurav Mishra is the Yahoo! Fellow in International Values, Communications, Technology and Global Internet at Georgetown University.