In the United States, the tragic events of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India kept many of us riveted during our Thanksgiving holiday. It’s a horrific example, but the tragedy that took place last week demonstrated how information can be gathered, analyzed, dismissed or accepted and then propagated to an audience craving information using “old” and “new” media.
If one lived outside of India and wanted to follow the coverage, options were somewhat limited. I tried BBC America on satellite, but was not getting all of the news that I wanted, then I tried CNN and coverage was even less there. Then I turned back to my old friend, Twitter.
The Washington Post offered a synopsis of how social media helped to connect us in an article last week:
Twitter users, who simply tagged their comments “mumbai,” traded information at a rate of 50-100 posts a minute in messages that were sometimes wrong, often fragmented, but always instant.
The lightning-quick updates of the attacks that killed 174 people read like a sketchy but urgent blow-by-blow account of the siege, providing further evidence of a sea change in how people gather their information in an increasingly Internet-savvy world.”
Twitter and even blogs are somewhat mischaracterized by what I would call still the “mainstream” media (note that the “tagged” comments were actually hashmarks — “#mumbai”), so by digging a little deeper than thinking a little more, I have a slightly different take. My take is that social media helped, but also reflected the chaos of the situation.
So out of this horrendous tragedy, what did I learn?
- Twitter can be chaotic, but leaders will prevail. I am privileged to know one of the “leaders” of the Twitter discussions, Shonali Burke, who was one of the more frequently contributors in the United States. Being a social media pro, she often called for people to refrain from accusations or insulting comments, but report on the news. Tweets and events were coming to fast and furious that disinformation was likely an output. Crisis communications is based upon uncertainty and social media leaders like Shonali will emerge.
- Twitter is global and was the most likely second stop for those seeking information. Michael Arrington of Tech Crunch reported on this as well, “Twitter isn’t the place for solid facts yet – the situation is way too disorganized. But it’s where the news is breaking.” Agreed.
- Twitter is part of a news and information circle–and cycle. What we all saw happen was the news story break – I don’t know if social media had it first or television did, but I would bet that it was social media (see below). So global Twitters users were tweeting fast and furious, bloggers were reacting to what they were seeing on television and Twitter, and even CNN was following Twitter for news leads. It’s no longer a one-way communications channel, but a big circle through which Twitter, blogs, radio, television and text messages all work together – or at odds with each other, especially in times of crisis.
- Those who are part of the “traditional” media ignore social media at their peril. Mindy McAdams of Teaching Online Journalism takes my thinking a little bit further and makes some good – but very strong points:
- Breaking news will be online before it’s on television.
- Breaking news — especially disasters and attacks in the middle of a city — will be covered first by non-journalists.
- The non-journalists will continue providing new information even after the trained journalists arrive on the scene.
- Cell phones will be the primary reporting tool at first, and possibly for hours.
- Cell phones that can use a wireless Internet connection in addition to a cellular phone network are a more versatile reporting tool than a phone alone.
- Still photos, transmitted by citizens on the ground, will tell more than most videos.
- The right video will get so many views, your servers might crash (I’m not aware of this happening with any videos from Mumbai).
- Live streaming video becomes a user magnet during a crisis. (CNN.com Live: 1.4 million views as of 11:30 a.m. EST today, according to Beet.tv.)
- Your print reporters need to know how to dictate over the phone. If they can get a line to the newsroom, it might be necessary.
- Your Web team must be prepared for this kind of crisis reporting.
What I would prefer the focus of this column to be is empathy for those within, and equally importantly, outside of India who craved any morsel of information. But I truly think that this was the first case in which we saw the “Twitterverse” become part of the real news cycle.
Mark Story is a part-time, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, a full-time communications professional at a government agency in Washington, D.C and writes the “Intersection of Online and Offline” blog. Prior to the government, Mark worked for 12 years in some of the largest online public relations shops in the world. Tweet him at mstory123.