Rory Cellan-Jones

Twitter - the Mumbai myths

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 1 Dec 08, 16:03 GMT

It has quickly become the received wisdom amongst new and old media commentators - Twitter came of age last week during the Mumbai terror attacks. It is true that the micro-blogging service did provide vast amounts of information, at breakneck speed, about a confusing and rapidly changing series of events. Here are the first messages I found on Twitter, starting at 16.47 London time, some time before the mainstream media started reporting the attacks. But I think a couple of myths have grown up about the role of Twitter in telling the story.

Myth 1 - The government ban

Mumbai hotel on fireOne of the stories that kept popping up on Twitter was that the Indian government was in some way trying to silence the network because of concerns that it was proving an aid to the terrorists. Here's what an Australian website said:

"An unconfirmed report out of India has the Indian Government urging Twitter users to not share specific on the scene information, and further that the Government may be trying to block Twitter in India, or is asking Twitter to block Mumbai related tweets."

The story appeared on the BBC's own Mumbai live event page which pulled togther all kinds of sources, official and unofficial, to give readers a picture of the developing story:

1108 Indian government asks for live Twitter updates from Mumbai to cease immediately. "ALL LIVE UPDATES - PLEASE STOP TWEETING about #Mumbai police and military operations," a tweet says.

But were these "unconfirmed reports" actually true? I can't find any official sources for the story. The line on the BBC website was apparently sourced from this blog which in turn was quoting Twitter posts. The BBC editor I contacted stressed that the live event page was designed to allow readers to keep up with all the latest information circulating about the story, giving readers a sense of how people are reacting and what they are saying, in real time. Items are sourced, he added, and to some extent it's up to the reader to decide how much credence to give them.

(But) if this story does turn out to be a myth it will be a handy reminder to treat everything you hear on a social network with a degree of scepticism. Which brings us to our second myth.

Myth 2 - Mainstream media now irrelevant

The other idea that is spreading quickly is that the huge volume of user generated content coming out of Mumbai on Twitter and other networks highlights the increasing irrelevance of the mainstream media. A site called GroundReport claims that it had a full report on the Mumbai attacks before the established media got out of bed. GroundReport publishes text and pictures from people on the ground and apparently recruited a number of Mumbai Twitterers to cover the story. But it is worth noting that the original story on the GroundReport website has attracted fewer than 200 viewers so far, whereas untold millions have watched television reports in India and around the world.

Now it is not a myth that each time a major disaster occurs there is more material available from witnesses - or citizen journalists - and smart mainstream media outlets are having to learn how to access that content. And last Wednesday evening it was Twitter that first alerted me to the fact that something was happening in Mumbai. But as I searched through the Tweets, the picture got more and more confusing. Who were these people - Mumbai residents or people watching cable television in the United States? Could I trust what they were telling me about this breaking story? Many of the tweets were simply quoting reports on Indian television or the BBC. So from then on I turned on the television and the radio and scanned the newspapers to build up a more complete and reliable picture.

What Twitter has done is to provide instant information about anything that is happening near its millions of users, coupled with a brilliant way of sharing that information. What it doesn't do is tell us what is true and what isn't - and that makes the work of mainstream media outlets and professional reporters all the more relevant.


  • Comment number 1.

    I agree. Technology has many benefits, but there was a Mumbai survivor on BBC Breakfast this morning talking about how he realised that establishing a 'Blackberry network' (whatever that means) was more important to his survival than food and water. This almost parodied his terrifying ordeal.

    Mainstream news sources are supposed to provide an accurate, source-verified account of events, with expert guidance and comment. This isn't directly compatible with the urge to air eye-witness accounts, which are usually partial and incomplete. They're still valuable (much more than third-hand tweets from people reading the news on NewsMax), but obviously completely different in kind from a good piece of journilism.

    This is all fairly obvious, mind.

  • Comment number 2.

    Thanks Rory-- you make many excellent points. First, that the chaos of Twitter is imperfect, and demands a mechanism beyond search/hash/etc to filter.

    Part of GroundReport's role has been to bring order and vetting to the chaos of Twitter and other citizen journalism tools.

    Second, it's entirely true that citizen journalism mechanisms aren't able to aptly serve the audience they deserve yet. I think as traditional media orgs integrate more deeply with citizen journalism, this will change. The distinction will ultimately disappear.

  • Comment number 3.

    I tend to think that social media networks *can* provide additional information and colour but have to be treated cautiously. People watching on 24 hour TV networks aren't really adding anything.

    Indeed, what was also interesting for this tragedy, was watching some if the Indian networks like NDTV and Star which were providing feeds to networks like the BBC and CNN anyway.

    Unsubstantiated rumour can spread just as swiftly as facts - particularly when people "tweet-on" things they've already heard to their, perhaps wider, network of friends.

    The full picture of what actually happened in Mumbai is still not fully clear several days later, so I'm not sure that this is the coming of age or anything.

    It was interesting to hear one of the hotel residents on BBC radio this morning talking about his "Blackberry network" and how he had over 2000 emails sent over the period. Quite what that was and how it works is something to perhaps look at it in more detail. For people holed up in these massive hotels not knowing whether the people running around in the corridors were terrorists or Indian commandos, the micro level detail such a "network" could offer might be invaluable. But beyond those people you already know in the hotel - perhaps fellow businesspeople - I'm unsure how you'd go about setting up such a network in a crisis.

    This is something I'd definitely be interested in hearing more about. Perhaps something to look into Rory?

  • Comment number 4.

    People seem to be in love with Twitter at the moment whilst I really can't see the benefits. So I admit that I entered this article with bias after reading the site's name in the title of the article.

    I'm also no whiz with twitter, so apologies if I'm misread the page (though I'd argue that it's really the designer's fault if I do). Anyhow, the link that Rory provided does indeed provide the "tweets" of various people in Mumbai at the time of the attacks. However, what appears to be the third "tweet" related to the attacks says "news channels reporting gun firing..." Ergo, I really can't accept that it is viable to say the Twitter network were awake to this before the media.

    And even if they were, where's the surprise? Whilst the BBC has to get a correspondent to travel to the scene, interview people who are otherwise occupied in sorting things out, collate and prepare a report, the people of the city merely need to hear from their friends that something's going on and "tweet" away. You're comparing the hours it takes to prepare proper, detailed and truthful reporting with the seconds it takes for one teenager to tell another he thinks he heard gun shots.

    So my point is that systems like twitter would be expected to carry more news stories before the media networks, but they aren't reliable and ultimately don't report that much faster than traditional media.

    I have more respect for GroundReport, and have support for the concept of what they do. However, I feel inclined to point out that their article made "before the established media got out of bed" links to the IBN Live website, implying someone was actually quite awake after all.

  • Comment number 5.

    Rory, you might have to fill some gaps in here for me. I haven't quite figured out how Twitter alerted you to this first?

    Unless you subscribe (or whatever it's called in Twitter) to people in Mumbai who are actually live at the scene watching events, then I am guessing you were seeing Tweets of people who were watching it on the news?
    Either that, or you coincidentally decided to search Twitter for "Mumbai", OR you were watching the second-by-second Twitter timeline, which happened to prominently include Mumbai locals?

    Outside your subscrie-to list, Twitter is sea of chaos. But if you subscribe to too many people, then your own list becomes chaos. It's hardly the "push" news revelation you are making it out to be. Unless you suscribe to thousands of people, and spend an unhealthy amount of time reading the feed, you may occasionally find a morsel of useful information in amongst the masses walking their dogs.

  • Comment number 6.

    I've replied to this post in 140 characters or fewer on Twitter - as that, to my mind, is a better medium for this sort of conversation. I could be wrong, of course. :-)

  • Comment number 7.

    Oh, and number 5, somebody who Rory follows probably tweeted about it.

  • Comment number 8.

    "Could I trust what they were telling me about this breaking story?"

    "treat everything you hear on a social network with a degree of scepticism."

    Rory this applies to all media nowadays. Especially the 24 hour rolling rumour and speculation tv news channels. Endless mistakes are made by the mainstream media channels.

    In turn people are looking for the real story in realtime multimedia by the people for the people.

    All media be it new or traditional is increasingly focussing on voyeurism and the power of images combined with the added incentive to be 'breaking' news first.

    Mistakes and myths will continue to happen regardless of the age of the platform - new or old.

    Indeed, it is a myth that mainstream media is now irrelevant - because they have had to incorporate the techniques and the technology of the new media to stay relevant.

  • Comment number 9.

    Has the bbc considered that publishing the wherabouts of the new hiding place of the first uk person to be killed was irresponsible at best

  • Comment number 10.

    >What it doesn't do is tell us what is true and what isn't

    Uhhm. Isn't that kind of the Internet in general? I mean, aren't we freed from the shackles of mainstream media feed to see the various points and make our own minds up about things?

    I'm not saying this is a good thing but there must have been coverage telling the side of the story of the terrorists?

    If the conversation is on Twitter (or the like) shouldn't BBC, etc. be joining the conversation?

    As I say, the future is distribute, vertical and niche. And oh yeah, the future is now.

  • Comment number 11.

    #Mumbai : 1st Tweets Timeline & Chart...

    wondering where all this is going? Stanford professor has some thoughts:

  • Comment number 12.

    Twitter isn't a news feed or it wasn't the last time i checked. Of course opinion will be mixed and foggy. The longer it goes on you have thousands more tweets to assimilate and filter. For that read thousands of opinions. With Twitter who you've singled out here

    Your job isn't just to access it, it's to be our filter or gatekeeper. You're the one who has to filter it and find the real stories and the real editorial content.

    Before you get there we'll use Twitter and other networks , feeds and whatever source we can find to get our information, and you know what we'll talk about it. We'll talk about it within our own networks but also share and talk about it with someone in Rio for the sake of argument, and they'll do the same. We might even get information from here and compare it with what we're reading on a blog.

    The fact is Twitter did have a moment. Peoples use of it rose dramatically. The situation that unfolded made Twitter a perfect communication tool.

  • Comment number 13.

    What it doesn't do is tell us what is true and what isn't - and that makes the work of mainstream media outlets and professional reporters all the more relevant.

    More relevant than, say the BBC's constant begging to viewers for YOUR opinions, YOUR views, YOUR pictures, YOUR videos?

    On the one hand you welcome 'citizen journalism', yet on the other there's an all too familiar 'leave it to the professionals' edge to your statements.

    Is the Twitterisation of Mumbai any different to the BBC's confused reports on the shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes at Stockwell or the chaotic scramble surrounding the July 7th attacks? Twitter simply replaces a new anchor with a server and allows people to post their own reports and comments.

    How is that any different to the BBC forcing a camera lens up the nose of a passer-by and asking for their thoughts?

    But as I searched through the Tweets, the picture got more and more confusing. Who were these people - Mumbai residents or people watching cable television in the United States? Could I trust what they were telling me about this breaking story?

    Do I trust the anchors on News24? They're in a studio, far removed from any 'action'? Can I trust the quality of reporters who have time to prepare their report; yet can't seem to deliver a sentence without "Um, ah, er, um" between each word.

    What your entire article comes down to, effectively, is: Don't believe a word you read on Twitter because the BBC haven't figured out how to clone this service yet.

  • Comment number 14.

    It probably made a perfect communication tool for the terrorists
    They were probably contacted on their Blackberries by their outside helpers who from all the twittering were able to pinpoint where people were hiding leading to their deaths
    Twitters prosecuted for manslaugter or aiding/abeting terrorists

  • Comment number 15.

    I was amazed by the amount of drivel that the BBC published thanks to Twitter posts. (Has any internet fad been so aptly named?)

    Where were the checks to provide they came from reliable, and verifiable sources?

    There were postings from a guy in Dubai.
    Quite how opinion only posts were relevant to latest news is beyond me.

    Stick to journalists, not punters with mobiles.

  • Comment number 16.

    I thought you told us that Twitter came of age when the Sichuan earthquake occurred?

  • Comment number 17.

    "Who were these people - Mumbai residents or people watching cable television in the United States?"

    A similar question can be asked of the mainstream news. Who are these people? Reporters actually there, or just sitting in a comfy chair at the BBC retyping some agency news? Often it's not clear. Quite often stories do not even have a reporter's name attached to them. That hardly makes for good accountability does it?

    "Could I trust what they were telling me about this breaking story?"

    Can you trust what the media tells you about a breaking story? The media has shown it's bias and distortion across a whole range of issues. When Russia counterattacks Georgian Forces, the BBC's Newsnight says...

    "The Russians are calling it a peace enforcement operation, it's the kind of Newspeak that would make George Orwell proud."

    When have you ever heard the BBC referring to US or UK government announcements as Orwellian Newspeak? There are plenty of examples of the gloves coming off when it comes to Russian military adventures. Compare the clinical and dispassionate BBC reporting on the US assault on Fallujah with this BBC report on the Russian assault on Grozny in 1999 (very similar situations).

    The reporter, Robert Parsons, was fist shakingly angry over the situation. Like the people of Fallujah, the people of Grozny were being ordered to leave so the assault could begin. Parsons said...

    "Why should they go? By what right was the Russian army forcing them from their homes? So Russia could destroy what it itself dismissed as a handful of terrorists?"

    Parsons raises good issues of course, but why did we not see similarly passionate reporting on the very similar situation in Fallujah? Instead we were treated to "Fixing the Problem of Fallujah"

    The mainstream media can clearly present a biased and distorted view of things. The difference between the BBC and all the "amateurs" out there is that while the amateurs may have their own little biases, the BBC deals in large-scale organised bias. At the BBC (like other media outlets, you have news "gatekeepers". These people will happily let through a sentence such as...

    "Why should they go? By what right was the Russian army forcing them from their homes? So Russia could destroy what it itself dismissed as a handful of terrorists?"

    But at the same time would quickly block the following as being "biased" or "unbalanced"

    "Why should they go? By what right was the US army forcing them from their homes? So the US could destroy what it itself dismissed as a handful of terrorists?"

    The situation is worse than that though. In addition to the gatekeepers themselves, you have a filtering system that keeps "controversial" reporters outside of the mainstream system. Basically you do not get a job presenting Newsnight by spending your career writing angry articles about US military adventures. A reporter can get away with calling the Russian military "brutal" but if he were do do the same about the US military, he would quickly find himself on a career path to nowhere.

    I would encourage anyone interested in the failings of the mainstream media to read "Manufacturing Consent" by Herman and Chomsky, or watch the similarly titled documentary online.

  • Comment number 18.

    I think that they were all myths to get everyone excited and upset during the attacks in Mumbai.

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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