When news from the developing world dominates the global news agenda, we get a lot of traffic on Global Voices. As the horrific events unfolded in Mumbai this past week, our authors, editors and tech staff began compiling accounts from blogs, Flickr, YouTube and Twitter feeds. You can get a good overview of the use of social media in reporting the Mumbai crisis on our special coverage page, which includes 32 posts from our authors – offering views of the tragic events from Pakistan, Israel, the Middle East, the Caribbean and Madagascar, as well as from India – as well as links to a wealth of citizen-generated content around the web. Our team did an incredible job of keeping up with events, and keeping our servers up under an unprecedented load.
There’s been a large number of stories discussing the role of citizen media in reporting the Mumbai attacks, some suggesting we’re seeing a new era of journalism, others bemoaning the rapid spread of bad information through online media.
I fielded a couple of inquiries from journalists and bloggers wondering why the Mumbai events were so thoroughly covered in citizen media. My immediate answer: this was an incident that happened in a major world city, not in a disconnected rural area. There’s a huge and vibrant Indian blogosphere, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that reporting of the Mumbai event was as fast and furious as reporting around an event in London, Madrid or New York would be.
The fact that there are lots of people in Mumbai who use social media tools regularly shouldn’t be discounted. One of the reasons the post-election conflict in Kenya was covered so well by citizen media was that there was a vital Kenyan blogosphere writing regularly before the conflict. Bloggers who’d had a good reputation commenting on technology, politics or finance quickly became trusted voices from the front lines of a crisis.
Contrast this to the Georgian/Russian conflict this summer. Very few people in South Ossetia are regular bloggers. While there were huge volumes of blog posts about the conflict, there was a real shortage of reliable accounts from the ground… and some evidence that there were fake “citizen reports” from highly partisan sources, who claimed to witness events on the ground to further their political points of view. If there were lots of Ossetian bloggers, we could evaluate their accounts based on their past performance. Instead, all we had was a crop of new bloggers, all with clear political agendas, and no historical record to evaluate them on. It makes good sense that we’d ignore many of those accounts, just as it makes good sense that we’d pay attention to social media pioneers like Dina Mehta in following events in Mumbai.
(Dina – who posted dozens of Twitter updates over the past few days – notes that there’s a Twitter meetup at the Leopold CafÃ© tomorrow afternoon, a very clear statement that Mumbaikers won’t be cowed by these attacks.)
Several of the media analysis pieces focus on how Twitter was used more freuently to share information than blogs. That makes sense, given the fast-moving nature of the events. Twitter’s a strong tool for realtime reporting, especially given the ease of posting from mobile platforms – we saw friends like Juliana Rotich reach for Twitter when reporting on violence in the Rift Valley of Kenya earlier this year. Some tweets were focused on urging friends and family to avoid certain areas; others were contradicting professional media reports, which had a tendency to report that operations were over before the shooting stopped, perhaps relying too heavily on reports from Indian military authorities and not enough on eyes and ears near the site of attacks.
These sorts of events are extremely difficult for anyone to cover accurately – reporters can’t access the sites where the attacks are taking place, and it’s likely that someone living nearby may be better positioned to hear an explosion or gunshots than a trained reporter. For all the complaints about the “chaos” emerging from sites like Twitter, mainstream reporting of these events was pretty chaotic and contradictory as well, as the events themselves were extremely confusing and hard to understand.
In part, we may not have seen as much blogging about the conflict because blogs are most helpful for analysis and personal reactions to events. It’s too early for detailed analysis, since we still don’t have a clear sense for who carried out these attacks or why. But already on Global Voices, we’re getting a sense for what the reactions might be – from fear to defiance, from solidarity to suspicion. We’ve seen posts of solidarity from Israel, sympathy and concern that Pakistan will be blamed for the attacks from India’s neighbor to the west, and concerns about how attacks in India might affect Bangladesh’s upcoming elections. The comments on posts about the Mumbai attacks have been thick, fast and often furious – I suspect they’re a preview of the discussions that will unfold in blogs, newspaper op-eds, cafes, barbershops, the back of cabs, and every other public discussion space over the next weeks and months.
I oftn grouse that I’d like mainstream media sources to pay attention to the work we do at Global Voices between conflicts, not just during conflicts. But that may not be a reasonable expectation. It’s important that we cover every corner of the world as well as we can as often as we can, as the relationships and expertise we develop in the process is what lets us report well during crises… much as the presence of world-class bloggers in Kenya helped us follow the violence that followed Kenya’s election. Would the violence in Jos, Nigeria, which has recently claimed over 200 lives, be more prominent in the headlines if citizen media were complementing professional reporting? Or would Jos need to be more connected with the rest of the world before it had this population of bloggers… and would this connection lead to more thorough coverage?