Tweeting the Arab revolutions

What happens when social media, social upheaval, and foreign reporting collide? Last week, Brian Stewart quizzed WNYC On the Media producer Sarah Abdurrahman, Al Jazeera columnist and International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation director Jill York, and Globe and Mail foreign correspondent Sonia Verma on how the Arab Awakening is changing journalism, activism, and geopolitics. J-Source brings you the highlights from this fascinating discussion.

Only a few minutes into last week’s panel discussion on tweeting the Arab revolutions, Sarah Abdurrahman had a confession to make: “I was one of those social media naysayers.” Until a few months ago, she had never even used Twitter.

That changed when the WNYC On the Media producer logged on, for the very first time, to contact someone in Tahrir Square. That’s when Abdurrahman realized the power of social media. “It is invaluable,” she said, “in making sure the voiceless can have a voice.”

Abdurrahman was one of three panellists at last week’s discussion hosted by the Munk School of Global Affairs. She was joined by Al Jazeera English columnist and International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation director Jill York, and Globe and Mail foreign correspondent Sonia Verma. Brian Stewart led the discussion.

And what a discussion.

Abdurrahman, York and Verma touched on everything from how the Arab Awakening is changing journalism, to how it is changing activism, to whether or not it caused the revolutions. For the record, all three said it did not. “I don’t think social media is a panacea,” said York, “I don’t think it can cause a revolution.”

But can it change the nature of one, and how journalists cover it? Certainly.

“It [Twitter] was a game changer for entire countries,” said Verma. I also think it was revolutionary for our industry.” While people have always found a way to mobilize — and while not everybody has internet access — the big, big difference with using Twitter, she added, is its democratic nature. As Abdurrahman said, it gives everybody the opportunity to have a voice.

By doing so, it also changes the way conflict is covered, and followed, by those around the world.

While Verma, and others, raised the worry that people might think Twitter and Facebook replaces on-the-ground reporting, all three stressed Twitter’s growing presence — and influence — isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Verma, for instance, says she often uses Twitter to get interviews while she’s in the field — it increases the number of people she can contact exponentially.

Twitter can also be used to correct media reports that get it wrong — such as with one example given by Abdurrahman. Media reports had made reference to an incident where 12 people had died. Actually, the number was 1,200.

And, of course, that’s only the very tip of  Twitter’s uses. Indeed, when the hour-and-a-half discussion drew to a close there were still dozens of questions left unanswered. Literally: Munk’s journalism lab director Robert Steiner was left holding handfuls of audience questions.

But maybe that’s OK. As Steiner, and all others involved in the panel suggested, Twitter isn’t going anywhere. In the meantime, when it comes to discussing the Arab revolutions, Twitter isn’t the only topic. As Verma said, “There are other things we should be talking about as well.”