Twitter and Facebook have been conduits of information throughout the protests in the Arab world. But that news has been atomized, second by second accounts coming from hundreds of unknown sources. Into that relentless stream has stepped NPR's Andy Carvin, who's become a one-stop clearinghouse of news by vetting sources and trying to verify individual tweets. Carvin explains how Twitter's political utility has also created a new kind of journalism.
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BOB GARFIELD: The significance of social media in the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, compared to the role of Al-Jazeera, for instance, has been hotly debated. What nobody disputes is their extraordinary success in getting news on the ground to the outside world, often within seconds. Some Twitter feeds have been ongoing timelines, often with audio and video links, in popular struggles against entrenched regimes. None has been more illuminating than that of senior strategist for NPR’s Social Media Desk, Andy Carvin, who for two months has been tirelessly, almost obsessively serving as a conduit in and out of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and, for the past week, Libya. In so doing, he has embraced some conventions of reporting and defied others, as digital media play havoc not only with tyrannies, but with the journalistic status quo. It began with a few tweets about unrest in Tunisia.
ANDY CARVIN: Sometime right around the week of Christmas, I started noticing conversations on Twitter with the hashtag #sidibouzid, which is the name of a town in central Tunisia. Now, I've actually traveled fairly extensively in Tunisia and, and have a lot of contacts in the blogging community there, so I really started paying attention to what they were talking about and realized that there were protests forming in different parts of the country. As each day passed, I started seeing more people using the #sidibouzid tag. It grew and grew and grew, and since I knew some of these people and had met them before, I started essentially reporting on them. Ultimately President Ben Ali left the country. And I recall that day a Tunisian blogger sent out a, a tweet that said, okay, Arab world, tag. You’re it. Next thing I knew, I was tweeting on and off 14, 15, 16 hours a day, and it’s been going on seven days a week ever since because these revolutions keep happening.
BOB GARFIELD: Hm, more like hashtag, you’re it.
ANDY CARVIN: Yeah, it is [LAUGHS] more like hashtag, you’re it, absolutely.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, your Twitter account was significant in Tunisia and Egypt. It has become all the more so in Libya. Much of what we know is coming via tweets, many of them harvested and retweeted - by you. I'm curious what your role is.
ANDY CARVIN: My role at NPR, in general, is somewhat hard to describe because the type of work I do have never existed in the newsroom’s org chart before. On the one hand, I work closely with reporters to teach them how to use social media for newsgathering and reporting purposes. I also occasionally report mostly online and through the All Tech Considered blog and, and a few other platforms. And then I also work on broader strategy of how we use online communities to strengthen the relationship we have with our public and further our journalism. So I exist somewhere between the digital business side of the company and the newsroom side. But the powers that be at NPR have always been very comfortable with me. Everyone seems fairly happy with what I've been doing.
BOB GARFIELD: Give me some examples of the tweets that had the biggest reaction and the biggest impact.
ANDY CARVIN: Around a week and a half ago, Bahrain was the country in the news. And then one evening I was at dinner in D.C. and I was literally getting up to go wait in line to get into the men’s room, and I then saw my tweets suddenly get very frantic. People were saying, oh, my God, they're shooting at us. Oh, my God, I can't find my four-year-old. Help us. Please, help us. Half a dozen people were all telling the same story - that a group of protestors were getting shot at in the middle of the night. They were tweeting as they were hiding behind bushes and behind concrete walls to stay safe, and here I am in a restaurant in D.C., trying to get into a bathroom, feeling it in real time. And it was both exhilarating and disturbing, at the same time, because I truly felt like I was there, and it really shook me up afterwards.
BOB GARFIELD: As I read your Twitter stream, it’s pretty obvious that not only are you being a broker of whatever information you can get, but you’re quite emotionally involved at this point.
ANDY CARVIN: Well, I think it’s hard not to be when you’re literally following so many people’s lives on a minute-by-minute basis and when they're passing along information of people they know getting killed or sharing photos and videos that are more violent and grotesque than anything I've ever seen in my entire life. It’s hard not to react to that. And sometimes I just have to say on Twitter, I need to take a break for 30 minutes, or I need to go and hug my kids. I don't feel like that’s taking sides. It’s - I think that’s acknowledging that I'm human. I've never been a war correspondent before. And I don't necessarily claim that I am one now, but I'm certainly observing things in real time that I've never experienced before.
BOB GARFIELD: You mentioned that you are neither fish nor fowl, in terms of NPR’s traditional organizational structure, and that you’re practicing a kind of journalism, which not long ago didn't exist at NPR, or anywhere else, for that matter. That said, I can't help but notice that your Twitter stream is in more or less explicit violation of the existing NPR ethics code on grounds of, you know, advocacy and sort of a celebratory tone for the revolution. Now, that’s an uncontroversial thing to be an advocate for, the end of tyranny but nonetheless, unlike anything NPR has done before. I'm curious how management deals with you.
ANDY CARVIN: Management has been incredibly supportive. At first I thought they would just look occasionally to see what I was doing and hope that I didn't do anything too embarrassing, and that’s basically been the relationship I've had since the day I arrived. Regarding the ethics rules, it’s complicated because, you know, I've - I've been very careful about not saying anything myself personally about how I view the situation. But nonetheless, what I've tried to do is have the people themselves tell the story. There’s no reason for me to take an opinion one way or another because there are plenty of opinions on Twitter. Bahrain is a great example because, unlike some of these other revolts that have started, you had people equally on, on both sides of the issue, so one group would be saying they're organizing, where others are saying, what are you doing, you’re going to wreck the economy. This is crazy. We have the most liberal political reform methods in this region. Don't rock the boat. And I put both of those viewpoints out because I, I didn't want to make it seem like I was only showing one side, when clearly there were two sides playing out on Twitter. For Egypt though and Tunisia and for Libya, the vast, vast majority of people who are tweeting are supporting the overthrow of dictators, and so it’s hard to try to strike an equal balance. So I'm certainly not focusing on having a view from nowhere here. I, I think it would be somewhat ludicrous to do that. But I also think I can do this fairly. I just want it to be an open process where everyone sees what I'm doing to gather the news.
BOB GARFIELD: With the disclaimer that I'm fascinated and delighted with what has come from your Twitter feed, I, I still have to ask how dicey it gets when you are working with members of the Libyan diaspora whose goal, un - unequivocally, is to dislodge Muammar Qaddafi. Have you had any guidance about at what point you become sort of an, an agent for the revolution?
ANDY CARVIN: All the stuff that I've been tweeting is already out there, and, I mean, you hear it quoted on CNN and Al-Jazeera every single day. I'm doing exactly the same. I'm just doing it nonstop. I think my role is different, but that’s because everything is different now. And so, the act of documenting what people are doing in a public way on Twitter and Facebook could be construed as advocacy of it, whereas I see it as simply capturing the entire narrative of it online as best I can.
BOB GARFIELD: Thank you. Keep up the good work.
ANDY CARVIN: I appreciate it, Bob. Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: And keep changing the boundaries.
ANDY CARVIN: Yeah, that’s what I'm definitely trying to do here.
BOB GARFIELD: Andy Carvin is the senior strategist for NPR’s Social Media Desk.