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Mumbai: Twitter's moment

By Brian Caulfield and Naazneen Karmali,
December 03, 2008 14:07 IST
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As gunmen and police engaged in a running three-day battle through the streets and hotels of Mumbai that left more than 100 dead Friday, social-networking services such as Twitter and Flickr were flooded with news, rumors and pictures of the mayhem.

Twitter was inundated with "tweets"--short bursts of information posted by users --Wednesday as mainstream media outlets struggled to catch up with the scope of the attacks on India's financial capital.

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  • It was Twitter's moment. Users tagged posts with information or commentary on the crisis, turning a service that specializes in distributing short, personal updates to tight networks of friends and acquaintances into a way for people around the world to tune into personal, real-time accounts of the attacks.

    Even in ordinary times, Indians have become infatuated with messaging. So it was no surprise that cellphones became the lifelines for those trapped in the two hotels. A businessman hiding in his room on the 28th floor of the Oberoi Hotel recounted that, by Thursday morning, the TV had gone off and the landline phones were dead.

    The messages he received from his family on his cellphone kept him going. Several people who perished sent their last appeals for help via SMS. The cellphones used by the terrorists, gunned down by commandos, helped establish that they were from Pakistan.

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  • The important role played by messaging technology also marked a redemption of sorts for the idea of citizen journalism. CNN was embarrassed in October when its experiment in citizen journalism, iReport, falsely reported that Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs had suffered a massive heat attack, causing Apple shares to plunge.

    Social networks were flooded with bunkum about the events in Mumbai, to be sure. Cynics pointed out that much of the information was of questionable value. As one blogger pointed out, many tweets, particularly later on in the developing crisis, simply echoed the latest reports from mainstream outlets such as the BBC and CNN.

    Better informed users, however, could respond via Twitter to the false reports with a few keystrokes. One blogger worked to try to uncover the source of one particularly troubling rumor--that terrorists were using Twitter to track the movements of law enforcement--updating his efforts regularly.

    A writer with PoytnerOnline, a Web site run by journalism think tank the Poynter Institute, even weighed in with tips for journalists looking to get involved and improve the quality of information being blasted around Twitter.

    And while some of the videos and pictures shared online were gruesome, Twitter users seemed to adapt. One user, for example, polled his followers to find out if they wanted to see pictures of the carnage. No need to guess at community standards here.

    The question now is how to manage--if it is manageable at all--the information that comes to the forefront when anyone with a cellphone or a cheap laptop can blast information around the globe with a few keystrokes.

    There are some reports that Indian authorities asked those in Mumbai to stop Twittering about the event in order to keep the activities of police quiet.

    If true, that's a breakthrough. It's the sort of challenge journalists covering combat have long grappled with: What information should you share? Who decides what you can write? To what end?

    In other words, we're all journalists now. Let's just hope none of us wind up being combat reporters, as so many in Mumbai did this week.

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    Brian Caulfield and Naazneen Karmali,
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