Al Jazeera offers reality check for the Twitterverse

by
hira
Al Jazeera head of new media suggests Twitter no substitute for journalism

The head of new media for Middle East broadcaster and news service Al Jazeera, Moeed Ahmad, has poured cold water on the much-hyped role of Twitter as the technology that started a grass-roots revolution in Iran.

It seems a torrent of on-the-ground Tweets simply doesn't add up.

Speaking at the Media 2010 conference in Sydney on Friday, Mr Ahmad said that fact checking by his news agency over the period of disturbances in Tehran could verify just 60 Twitter accounts actually in the city - a number that fell to just six after communications were cut.

The blunt assessment of Twitter's role in fostering what had been touted as the first grass-roots uprising powered directly by social media presents a big challenge to the accuracy of many reports of events in Iran.

It has also raised questions about why the US State Department asked Twitter's operators to postpone an upgrade of the popular service to maintain the flow of information out of Iran during disputed elections in June 2009. Mr Ahmed said a number of the Twitter accounts that first seemed to be coming from Iran, upon checking, appeared to come from people located in the US.

One challenge media organisations are facing from social networking products is how to manage the phenomenon of "crowdsourcing", where non-journalists are encouraged to post their experiences of an event online.

While the waves of sometimes millions of Tweets can sometimes provide the online media with a free view of what may be happening on the ground, the sheer volume of posts limits how much fact checking can be done.

But the demand for verified information in online communities can also work to the advantage of media organisations like Al Jazeera when branded 140-character bulletins become news currency in their own right.

In the case of the recent Gaza conflict, Al Jazeera set up its own Twitter accounts so that it could disseminate news via Twitter as it happened. "During the Gaza conflict, we took a lot more content that was coming in minute by minute from our bureau inside Gaza and we'd boil it down to 140 characters and put it up on our Twitter stream that we especially set up," Mr Ahmed said.

"The uptake we got in the number of retweets was amazing."

The dedicated Twitter stream meant that verified and branded news spread through millions of Twitter accounts, in turn driving traffic to Al Jazeera's other services.

But combatants and governments are also looking to new media to spread their message at times of conflict, a phenomenon dryly dubbed "War 2.0" by Mr Ahmed.

He said that official postings to YouTube as well as other online resources such as web-pages were launched by the Israeli government at the same time it began military action in Gaza.

The move was quickly reciprocated by interests opposing Israel's military action.