Citizen journalists using social-media technology sprang into action after the earthquake in Haiti and amidst savage political repression in Iran.
Hotel Oloffson manager Richard Morse sent what almost certainly was the first “citizen journalist” report from Port-au-Prince after the earthquake: “were ok at the oloffson. internet is on !! no phones ! hope all are okay.. alot of big building in PAP are down,” Morse wrote on his Twitter.com account.
He sent it at 5:23 p.m. on Jan. 12, noted Shashi Bellamkonda, a social-media expert for Network Solutions. The U.S. Geological Survey registered the earthquake began at 4:53 p.m. The Associated Press correspondent in Port-au-Prince sent his first urgent “NewsAlert” only minutes before Morse, at 5:11 p.m.: “A strong earthquake has hit the impoverished country of Haiti where a hospital has collapsed.”
Cell-phone calls were going through only intermittently, but tweets — which use less bandwidth on wireless networks — turned into one of the major sources of information in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe.
“People are praying in groups … others are looking for relatives … no phone service … no electricity,” Morse wrote. “I'm told that parts of the Palace have collapsed … the UNIBANK here on Rue Capois has collapsed … people are bringing people by on stretchers … two helicopters have flown over head an hour ago but nothing since then….”
The evocative details had journalists pressing for more: “Mainstream reporters were relying on social media for details,” the Columbia Journalism Review reported on Jan. 13. The magazine noted that The New York Times' news blog put out a call to people with digital connections to or from the island nation: “Any readers who are in Haiti or in touch with people there are encouraged to … share first-hand accounts with us.”
Twittering, Facebook messaging and texting reinforced traditional media rather than replacing it. “I needed the media; I was glued to CNN,” says Valda Valbrun, principal of Walkersville Middle School in Frederick, Md., whose 82-year-old Haitian-born father had moved back to Haiti after retiring. “The coverage they did was spectacular. Then I did go to Twitter, because I saw that people were able to do that.”
But as days passed with no word from her father, Valbrun started using Facebook to communicate with friends who had their own connections to Haiti. “And I used CNN to post my father's picture,” she said, praising the network's Web page of missing people. As it turned out, he survived the disaster and was able to return to the United States.
In the holy city of Qum last December, Iranian journalist Nazila Fathi of The New York Times reported from her home in exile in Toronto, demonstrators at the funeral of anti-government leader Grand Ayatollah Hossain Ali Montazeri deployed a tool that many Americans may not know about. “Long ago, Iranian dissidents discovered that Bluetooth can link cellphones to each other in a crowd,” Fathi wrote. “And that made ‘Bluetooth’ a verb in Iran: a way to turn citizen reportage instantly viral. A protester Bluetooths a video clip to others nearby, and they do the same. Suddenly, if the authorities want to keep the image from escaping the scene, they must confiscate hundreds or thousands of phones and cameras.”
Ever since protests began during the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, videos and Twitter feeds from Iran have been retransmitted abroad via blogs and social networks. “By following blogs and the cellphone videos seeping out of Iran,” Fathi wrote, “in some ways I could report more productively than when I had to fear and outwit the government.”
Iranians take pictures with cameras and cellphones in Tehran during the August 2007 hanging of two men convicted of killing a prominent judge. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
But citizen journalism has its limits, especially in Iran. The government's security services show plenty of technological savvy as well. Exiles' social networks are heavily penetrated by government agents, The Wall Street Journal reports, leaving democracy activists abroad open to e-mailed threats.
Some exiles visiting the homeland have encountered unpleasant surprises. “One 28-year-old physician who lives in Dubai said that in July he was asked to log on to his Facebook account by a security guard upon arrival in Tehran's airport,” The Journal's Farnaz Fassihi reported. “At first, he says, he lied and said he didn't have one. So the guard took him to a small room with a laptop and did a Google search for his name. His Facebook account turned up, he says, and his passport was confiscated. After a month and several rounds of interrogations, he says, he was allowed to exit the country.”
— Peter Katel