Throughout the months of the Arab Spring, the twitter feed of NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin was a one stop shop for keeping up with events in the region--even though Carvin was a world away in Washington D.C. Now Carvin has written a new book about his experience, Distant Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution, and sat down with Brooke for a live event to discuss his reporting with social media.
Mazen Dha Nahar el Youm
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Throughout the month of the Arab Spring, the Twitter feed of NPR’s senior strategist Andy Carvin was a one-stop shop for news on the ground, flooding the ether with tweets and links, photos and video and the characters’ courage, controversy and rage that is the stuff of revolution, moment to moment. Blogger and City University of New York Professor Jeff Jarvis called Andy Carvin “the prototype of a new kind of journalist.” Media critic and Guardian columnist Michael Wolff called him a social media promoter and a sacred cow.
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Carvin has written a new book about his experience called, Distant Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution. And earlier this week, at an event at WNYC’s Greene Space, he joined me to talk about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Somebody who was hearing about tonight’s talk wrote on Twitter that she was having a Journogasm.
ANDY CARVIN: That close to doing a spit take, so I’m glad I pulled that slowly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s good, ‘cause sometimes you say you’re a journalist, sometimes you say you’re not a journalist. Pick a side!
ANDY CARVIN: I’m a storyteller who works at a news organization who commits acts of journalism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you’ve said, you tweet revolutions, but you weren’t in Tunisia on December 17th, 2010 -
ANDY CARVIN: No.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - when the spark was lit that eventually consumed Egypt and Bahrain and Libya and Yemen and Syria. You weren’t. And yet, you kind of were.
ANDY CARVIN: It’s strange because as these revolutions spread and I noticed a trend in which more and more people were tweeting to me, worrying about my safety, at one point I was in Palm Springs, California at some type of TED event and I decided to go sit outside by the pool, have myself a drink. And I pull up my phone and I saw a tweet from someone that said something to the effect of, my church and I are all praying for your safety in Libya.
People do get confused sometimes, especially when I'm tweeting a hundred times an hour or whatever and pulling together all these stories in real time, yeah, where – whereas, you know, much of the time I'm at a McDonald’s Play Place with my kids and I’ve got my laptop there and talking about Syria.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you knew Tunisia a little bit.
ANDY CARVIN: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you didn't live in the country.
ANDY CARVIN: No.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You don’t speak Arabic.
ANDY CARVIN: Nope.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve never covered a war.
ANDY CARVIN: Nope.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I could – I could go on.
ANDY CARVIN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But let’s –
ANDY CARVIN: Completely unqualified for doing this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let us tick off some examples of how you dealt with those limitations, first language. You saw a picture of a woman in Tunis holding a sign.
ANDY CARVIN: I assumed, in this particular case, that it was a protest slogan of some sort. So I asked one of these guys I knew on Twitter who was involved in protests and I said, could you translate this for me? Before he could reply, a bunch of other people in the region did. And it really struck me at that moment that I don't need to be driving one or two people crazy on Twitter, asking them to answer one question after another. Instead, if I just share more openly what I know and what I don’t know, someone out there will probably come out and have an answer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that picture’s not a slogan at all.
ANDY CARVIN: It was the name of a young man who had been killed the day before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s talk about culture. You wrote in your book about a heartbreaking example of cultural misinterpretation.
ANDY CARVIN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You tweeted a video of what you wrote was a wounded baby being treated in the hospital.
ANDY CARVIN: Right.
So I saw that and I was actually relieved because I thought, okay, this child has survived. They’re cleaning them and getting them ready for surgery, or whatever. And I said something to that effect when I tweeted it. But within a minute or two, I started hearing from people all over the world, saying, Andy, that child is dead. They're preparing him or her for burial, which, of course, I knew - I, I knew that was part of the traditions, that when you are going to perform an Islamic burial, you have to wash the body of the deceased.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then you were horrified that you'd made a mistake -
ANDY CARVIN: I was. I was mortified by it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You want to talk a little bit about graphic pictures and graphic video and how you decide what to post?
ANDY CARVIN: There's been an enormous amount of unspeakable horrors that have been captured. I've had to spend a lot of my time going through a lot of footage trying to sort out what to share and what not to share. But ultimately, I made a decision early on that I wasn't going to censor myself simply because it was graphic. And I had a lot of people complain about that. They said, why are you sharing this? We would never post this on our website or we would never put this as the lead story at our broadcast.
Well, that's partially the point. There was a time when mass media was almost a family affair. You know, you’d all be sitting around the breakfast table reading the paper and then you’d watch the evening news at night. And it required a certain amount of discretion, knowing that there was a possibility that kids might watching it, whereas on Twitter I feel like people have made the choice to follow me and I describe to them very bluntly what they're about to see. I don't say, hey surprise, check this out. I'll say, this is footage of a group of protesters who've been blown up by an anti-aircraft weapon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s no amount of expertise that you can't marshal in the Twittersphere.
ANDY CARVIN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You are trying to figure out the origins of a weapon, a missile that was fired by Gaddafi’s forces against protesters –
ANDY CARVIN: Yeah, this was when the Libyan civil war kicked into high gear and an Egyptian Twitter follower of mine sent me some tweets saying, hey, do you know what this thing is? He showed me a – one of these pictures and he told me that there was a regional news service that said it was proof that Israel had supplied weapons to Gaddafi. And I thought, well, proof, what do you mean? Well, he said, look at the six-pointed star.
And so, I tweeted to my followers, let's say for a moment you’re the Israeli government and you wanted to supply Gaddafi with weapons, would you honestly put a national and religious symbol on said weapons? And so, my Twitter followers agreed it didn't make sense. They started searching a variety of databases and very quickly, like in a matter of minutes, figured out this was some type of illumination round or star shell which they shoot up in the sky at night. It sends off flares and it lights up the sky. And they started finding ones manufactured in India, in the UK, in Eastern Europe. We eventually found a declassified NATO manual, and the six-pointed star was like on page 28. My Twitter followers and I, just by talking to each other, were able to sort this out rather quickly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The weird thing is, is that you don't really know who most of these helpful people are.
ANDY CARVIN: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like one of your ordinance experts –
ANDY CARVIN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - was a guy named Noles Fan 2011.
ANDY CARVIN: That’s right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And sometime later he got in touch with you. I have to say my jaw literally dropped.
ANDY CARVIN: Yeah, this guy was one of my go-to people for munitions. And I thought, well, this guy’s probably ex-military or is currently active but he isn’t using his real name because of it. And then he contacted me and said, hey, I've been meaning to tell you a story, can we talk privately? And we got on Skype together, and he started describing to me how he had put out a request on Twitter for volunteers, people who were ex-military or had medical backgrounds, to start putting together manuals for the rebels in Libya, everything from how to dress a wound to how to dismantle an IED or how to clean an AK-47. And they produced something close to 50 of these manuals and had them all translated into Arabic and snuck into the country and distributed in the capital, in Misrata and in the Western Mountains and a few other places.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And rebels told you they had used them.
ANDY CARVIN: And rebel - I talked to people after, after the fact, and they said, yeah, we used this stuff.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you said you talked to him on Skype. Does that mean you saw him?
ANDY CARVIN: No, I didn’t see him but we – you know, I was listening. I mean, he had this really thick Southern drawl and he talked a bit about being a, a Seminoles fan. And I asked him, so, did you go to Florida State? And he said, "Oh, no sir. I, I haven’t, I’m in high school.”
And I said, really, you're in high school?” “Yeah, I’m 15 years old.” Basically, he liked watching the Military Channel and the Discovery Channel, learned a lot from doing it. And he got soldiers and ex-Special Forces and doctors and, and all sorts of other people, plus made successful contact with people on the ground. And he – oh, he was a kid! It’s made me wonder: Have the Arab revolutions been the real first time that people could volunteer in a very constructive, hands-on way without actually being there?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it raises a crucial question: How do you decide who to trust?
ANDY CARVIN: Well, it certainly helps if you know someone on the ground, to start with. There's one guy I knew in Egypt, and I went to his Twitter account and I took a look at who he was following, and then I went all the way down to the bottom of the list to see who he followed first, because Twitter displays it in reverse chronological order.
I checked out their Twitter accounts, followed some of them and then went to the bottom of their lists of followers and repeated that process several times. By the time the Egyptian revolution got 18 days into it and Mubarak was forced to resign, I had this group of a couple of hundred people that represented a large part of the protest leadership who happened to be online.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The protest leadership, that's what dominated your coverage of the Arab Spring, not government statements. In other words –
ANDY CARVIN: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - the trappings of balanced reporting weren't there.
ANDY CARVIN: Well, it's tough to do that when governments don't know what social media is. In the case of both Egypt and Tunisia, there was no social media presence, as far as I could tell. And I can’t make these people appear out of thin air.
But then in the case of Bahrain, Bahrain is a very wired country. Like 80 percent of the population has Internet access at home. You had a core group of protesters who were fighting against the government. You had people that were very, very supportive of the government. Sometimes they were members of the Royal Family. And then you had people in between that were sympathetic to the protesters but were also concerned that the economy of the country was being permanently damaged.
All of these discussions and fights played out online. On a few occasions when I would re-tweet government supporters, I would hear from supporters of protesters, saying, how dare you re-tweet that government minister. You're buying into their propaganda. And I would write back and say, when did I become the PR mouthpiece for the, the protesters? You know, I’m trying to capture their stories but there are other people who fundamentally disagree with them. And the fact that that’s playing out online, I think it’s even more important that I have to acknowledge that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then there were countries that had virtually no social media presence –
ANDY CARVIN: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - Yemen being one.
ANDY CARVIN: Yemen is a very good example of that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you tried to cover Yemen, you went through your usual practice of asking people to cite sources for the assertions they made, to provide some kind of confirmation –
ANDY CARVIN: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - when people posted things. And you've got a message from somebody who wrote, “Please don't be so hard on us in public. We started reporting as of January, with no training. Losing face and reputation is part of the Arabic culture, so messaging me in private would be greatly appreciated, and the same for most Yemenis, actually. I know you mean well, it’s just a cultural thing. In other words, don't question my tweets in public.”
ANDY CARVIN: Right. I was essentially questioning their honor, that they would not tell the truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And there were lots of bogus stories coming out of Libya –
ANDY CARVIN: Oh, sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - and coming out of Syria –
ANDY CARVIN: I mean, there was – there was this long track record of BS essentially being circulated all over the place, and so just asking people who told you that seems like a reasonable question to me. But they weren’t used to it, and I had to back off a little bit but then also tell them, if you want me to cover this story and you’re tweeting about it, occasionally I’m gonna have to ask you publicly. If you can tell me some of these things privately, that's great, but sometimes it's necessary to have these conversations in public. And after a while, we reached this sort of détente with each other.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yemen was so hard to cover.
ANDY CARVIN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But there was some extraordinary video. This is snipers in the City of Taiz.
ANDY CARVIN: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There were countless videos like these in many countries, shot on cell phones, uploaded to Facebook and YouTube, and I wonder how you vetted them and how you waded through them. This particular tape you couldn’t see anywhere else.
[SOUND OF PROTESTERS/SNIPER FIRE]
ANDY CARVIN: See, what you’re seeing here, there were protesters on the ground in the City of Taiz who had been marching and assembled in this square and, all of a sudden, on these rooftops snipers appeared. And not only where there snipers there, there appeared to be spotters saying, shoot that one there, shoot this one there. And the body counts were extraordinary in, in this particular case. And, and you generally didn't see this stuff being reported in the mainstream media because Yemen is so out in the middle of nowhere, compared to a place like Egypt. And so, the few people who were online suddenly became these conduits for video.
As to verifying them, one thing that’s unique about Yemen is its architecture, and so if you see these wide-angle shots of certain buildings, I may not be able to tell the difference between this city or that, but I can still tell it’s Yemen. When I’d see footage like that, I would then share it with my Twitter followers and ask, do you know which city this is? And they would say, oh, with that mountain, this in the distance, that’s outside of Sana'a, or they would point out a landmark to me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Your tweeting was frequently emotional. You were mourning in public. You wore your heart on your Twitter sleeve.
ANDY CARVIN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was a guy named Mo, Mohammed Nabbous, in Libya. You had an extraordinary admiration for him.
ANDY CARVIN: Somehow this young man had set up a satellite connection and started broadcasting these live stream videos. And so, he was basically like the first independent broadcast journalist to emerge in Libya in probably one or two generations.
MO [MOHAMMED NABBOUS]: Look at this. I mean, what can you call this? Isn’t this attacking civilians? We are being attacked at our houses.
Look at this wall. It’s all down because of the missiles. You call everybody and ask them to watch this. They have to tweet, they have to tweet, the video is coming. The video is coming right now.
ANDY CARVIN: That was Mo, early on the morning of March 19th, 2011. The Libyan government claimed that they were adhering to a ceasefire. And he was getting reports that there was fighting going on. And so, he headed out in the wee hours of the morning, with a camera in one hand and his cell phone in his lap, driving around town and trying to find what was happening.
I basically live tweeted him doing this, up until like 1:30 East Coast time. And the next morning I got up and immediately saw that footage being broadcast on CNN. So I thought, wow, it's incredible, this guy actually documented an attack on Benghazi.
And then I started hearing privately from another mutual acquaintance who said, Mo is dead.
Around that moment, two other videos appeared on the live stream. One of them was audio that he had recorded of him being caught in a firefight. There's gunfire everywhere and he's giving a play-by-play of everything. And then all of a sudden you hear, zing! And the audio cuts off, absolute silence. And then I clicked the second video, and it was audio of his wife, saying that he was killed in that fight. But she asked all his volunteers to continue because the story of Libya couldn't end with Mo’s death.
Just as I was watching that video, I saw the tweets go out from Reuters, saying that France has started its first bombing run. Right around the time that Moe was killed, the first planes were fueling up in Europe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this was what Mo had been demanding.
ANDY CARVIN: Here was a guy who became a journalist because it was the only way he knew how to save his community. I was extremely upset and I, I didn't hold back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which brings me to another of the Guardian columnist Michael Wolf’s descriptions of you, other than “sacred cow.” He also called you “Empathy King.”
ANDY CARVIN: Yeah, whatever. I mean –
- social media has the word “social” in front of it for a reason, because you’ve got human beings interacting with each other, everything from talking about the news to sharing their latest car videos. And I think all of it is valid and all of it is important.
Cory Doctorow from the blog Boing Boing, once described a lot of these things you see on Twitter as a form of social grooming, like you would see among chimps, that it reminds us that we have these connections with each other. So when things suddenly hit the fan and things become important, those bonds are stronger than ever.
I realized early on that the worst thing I could do on Twitter is act like a broadcast journalist in the most traditional sense, where I'm standing in front of a mic and saying everything perfectly, with that perfect NPR voice. It's great for that medium, but that's because the people aren’t talking back to you in real time. Why put on this so-called “professional face” when you can just be a person?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s such a fascinating story, Andy. Thank you so much.
ANDY CARVIN: My pleasure.
ANDY CARVIN: Thanks, everyone.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: This was just part of an hour-long conversation that features more stories of the revolution and a deeper exploration of the strengths and the weaknesses of Twitter as a source of news. We discussed the criticism Carvin faced for re-tweeting misinformation following the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, and how to ensure that tweets of questions don’t get re-tweeted as facts. You can see it all by checking out our blog at onthemedia.org.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Doug Anderson. This is Doug’s last week with us, for now anyway, and we are going to miss this guy dearly. Doug, thank you. It’s been a delight.
We had more help from Khrista Rypl, and the show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Rob Frankel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.