The real Twitter revolution: Changing coverage on the ground in Egypt

By Wilf Dinnick

For the first time since leaving my ‘on camera’ job as a foreign correspondent more than two years ago, I thought I might be envious watching my friends and colleagues report on momentous news stories out of Egypt. I had trouble containing nervous jolts of energy, as if I had to be in Cairo.

But even though I’m not dodging angry pro-Mubarak mobs around Tahrir Square, I feel surprisingly satisfied watching Twitter—as if I’ve taken a ‘virtual’ front row seat to the action. Following the story through social media is giving me an unbelievable and surprising real-time perspective of the events.

The debate continues as to whether Twitter played a role in kicking off the protests in Tunisia and the uprising in Egypt. That discussion is simply burying the lead—Twitter is an incredible newsgathering tool that helps ‘share’ these events in fantastic ways.

I am lucky to have added perspective from reporting in situations like Cairo—to know what is likely going on around and behind the camera; what it takes to get pictures with the police watching your every move; how to snag a specific interview; and how difficult it must be to report when there are armed mobs attacking reporters.

But now everyone can get a street-level perspective through Twitter. From our OpenFile offices in Toronto, Twitter allowed me to follow almost every ‘tweetable’ move my friends and colleagues made while covering the January 25th story, including my wife, Sonia Verma.

Sonia is reporting with The Globe and Mail team. Before she left for Cairo, she finally relented and started using her Twitter account. She left for Egypt with about 40 followers and she is now closing in on 3500.  Clearly people want to know what she is seeing…what she is broadcasting.

Beyond that, Twitter became a literal lifeline for her. One day, when she was driving through Cairo, she was stopped at a checkpoint, her car surrounded by secret police that commandeered her vehicle. At the time, I was on a flight returning from New York to Toronto.

I touched down on Toronto Island Airport and flipped on my iPhone, immediately going to Twitter for the latest. Sonia’s most recent tweet: “We are being taken into some kind of custody.” Then this: “Military have commandeered (sic) us and our car.”

Sonia sneaked those two tweets from the back seat of her driver’s car – shooting off a message to let everyone know what was happening to her. Sonia was being detained.

Minutes later David Common, Mark McKinnon, Nahlah Ayed and all our other Canadian colleagues and friends retweeted – it was a collective call-to-action. From a few more retweets and some direct messages, I got a tremendous amount of information about her situation by the time I walked off the plane. So did her office in Toronto, which contacted the Canadian Embassy and others to figure out what was going on.

With all of that information I was able to gather that Sonia was taken by someone from the Egyptian government and there were others with her, likely some Americans. Armed with that information, I felt comfortable the situation would be less dangerous than if had she been taken by by some mob or group of thugs.

Three hours later:

 @soniaverma: “We are out we are free!”

I saw the same thing, several times, when reporters or ‘shooters’ went missing in Tahrir Square. When reporters use Twitter, we see and hear what is happening in real-time:

@davidcommon: “More soldiers unloading from trucks near Tahrir Square”

Sure, the context would come later, but how exciting to follow a reporter’s every move in a turbulent and risky story like the one happening January 25th. Including those amazing moments that often don’t get into the newscasts or in the paper:

@NahlahAyed: “More human chains keeping tanks from entering Tahrir”

Reporters were all getting different perspectives of the story from their colleagues from different parts of the Square, adding a better understanding of the bigger story.

On the ground, it is impossible to be everywhere at once. But Sonia was reading other reporters Twitter feeds to get a sense of where she should go, story ideas, and contacts.

It turns out, less than 1% of those Twitter users who were communicating about Egypt were actually located in Egypt. What that means, of course, is the rest of the world was retweeting the reporters and protesters tweets.

Twitter was broadcasting the news almost immediately across the globe. This is not about triggering an uprising but the ability to communicate how events are unfolding. Every reporter needs context to understand what he or she is seeing. When everyone starts working as a team, through Twitter, it is clear we all get a better understanding of a story.

Wael Ghonim, the Dubai-based Google executive who was detained for 12 days, disappeared shortly after tweeting “Pray for #Egypt,” and “Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die.”

Ghonim become a national hero, amassing more than 28,000 facebook followers. Since being released he’s started making TV appearances. Reporters could easily put a ‘face’ to the protesters through social media.

Twitter let me be there, minus the awful hours, tear gas, and risk of being beaten by those pro-Mubarak thugs. It eased my urge to get on a plane but intensified my interest in following the story, and now any big story, tweet by tweet.

@wilfdinnick is the CEO of OpenFile, a network of local collaborative news sites. He has worked for CNN, ABC News, Global, CBC and CTV News.