Andy Carvin’s first ever tweet back in 2006 was about pita bread. His second was about eating the pita bread. With hummus.
Not exactly an auspicious start, but since 2011 Carvin has been hailed as a groundbreaking social media journalist, with the Columbia Journalism Review asking, “Is [Carvin’s] the world’s most important Twitter account?”
Carvin, who is head of social media strategy for National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States, told Wits University Radio Days conference how he started on this social media journey when the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ erupted in Tunisia in 2010.
Carvin had no background in journalism before joining NPR in 2010. He was an award-winning tech media activist, having started a network called the Digital Divide Network, which tries to redress the inequalities of access to digital media all over the world. NPR recruited him because they liked the collaborative website he set up for survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
He was at NPR when a street vendor in Tunis set himself on fire in protest because corrupt officials confiscated his food cart after he refused to pay a bribe, setting off massive socio-political upheaval.
Carvin had travelled widely in North Africa and met bloggers in Tunisia whom he still followed on Twitter. He saw their tweets about public protests going on in the country and was intrigued, as he knew that the repressive government didn’t tolerate dissent. He started tweeting about the protests and finding protesters and others on the ground to follow. As the protests spread to Egypt and Libya, he established networks there.
Over two or three weeks, he built up a network of sources on the microblogging platform by tracing lines of friendship, kinship and professional connection between people. Were they using a lot of emoticons (implying they had a close relationship)? Did they seem to trust each other? In one case, he established that two people were married because they both tweeted about the hospitalisation of the man’s mother. By forming an idea of who was who and how they were related to one another, he was able to follow a community of protesters, activists and other sources who were genuinely close to the action.
The American and British media were nervous of reporting the early days of the Libyan unrest because they did not have much experience of the country and could not report accurately on the footage coming out. Carvin would send out the footage of protests to his Twitter following and ask them what was going on and where. They would answer citing particular geographical knowledge that could be verified on Google Earth, or translate the cries of protesters, or identify the region by the local accents. His Twitter following became a crowd-sourced verification service.
Throughout the Arab Spring, Carvin’s Twitter account became a go-to news feed, reporting in real time and providing a bird’s eye view of protests and violence across the Arab world. He became, in effect, a sort of aggregated newswire and attracted tens of thousands of followers – all while he was nowhere near the conflict, but at his desk in Washington DC.
As a journalist, he has more in common with a news anchor than with a reporter, as a curator of news and sources and not as a creator of content. He describes himself on his profile as a “real-time informational DJ & occasional journalist, but *not* a social media guru”.
Carvin’s role at NPR is not that of a reporter, but of a strategist who advises NPR’s network on ways in which social media can be used “to tell stories better” on radio, he says. NPR syndicates news and other programming to its network of almost 1 000 independent stations. Carvin is also NPR’s foremost representative on Twitter and his status as an expert – if not a guru – has contributed to the brand’s credibility. Carvin told Radio Days that his approach is all about cultivating a relevant network of connections and deploying their skills and access to news and their own networks. His advice was: “Reporting with Twitter works best with a critical mass of eyewitnesses, or a critical mass of subject matter experts. Invest in those connections.” Carvin tweets prolifically and relentlessly, especially while there’s action taking place. He can average 400 tweets a day and according to his own reckoning once published 1 400 tweets in a 20-hour period during the fall of Tripoli.
He has 99 996 followers at time of writing, and almost 180 000 tweets. No doubt both will have grown by now, especially as he is much engaged with the current Egyptian and Syrian crises. The Guardian in Britain dubbed him “the man who tweets revolutions”, but a columnist in the same paper has raked him over the coals for his reporting on a school shooting in America. Michael Wolff called Carvin’s sources into question when the latter leapt into tweeting unfolding events at Sandy Hook Elementary School earlier this year. He said Carvin was a “fevered spreader of misinformation” who “tweeted a rather broad range of bollocks”.
This was not the first time Carvin’s use of ‘citizen journalists’ has been criticised. While ordinary people can provide unparalleled local perspectives and knowledge, they are not trained, as professional journalists are, to check sources and accuracy. In the aftermath of the Boston bombings earlier this year, police were more hindered than helped by social media, where misinformation and fake accounts made their jobs more difficult. Carvin is aware of the inherent problems of crowdsourcing and says he does not retweet news as fact, or retweet dubious news at all. He is known for adding the simple but sceptical interrogation “Source?” to many of his retweets. In his response to Wolff, Carvin said that crowdsourcing is as old as journalism itself, and that he does not retweet willy nilly.
And his approach has certainly worked to establish the accuracy of news in unique ways. By leveraging citizen networks and local expertise, Carvin has been able to authenticate – or rubbish – news items often reported as fact in mainstream media. Most notable of these was a rumour that Israel was supplying arms to Libya in 2011 to use against rebels there. The source of this rumour was a photo of a shell bearing a six-pointed star, with a crescent above it. Carvin sent the photo around his Twitter network, crowdsourcing his research. He discovered that Israel did not own such munitions.
“It’s a symbol that’s used on shells intended to be used as illumination rounds that light up the sky. We found a British schematic of the symbol from the First World War; we never identified this particular shell’s original. It was not a ‘bomb’. It was a type of flare,” he said.
In another case, Carvin exposed the true identity of a hoax blogger. Syrian-American Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari, who blogged as ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’, became a symbol to many Syrians’ fight for freedoms when unrest broke out there. When someone claiming to be her cousin tweeted that she had been abducted, there was wide concern all over the world, particularly in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, and the story was covered widely in the mainstream media. Several journalists, Carvin among them, raised doubts about her identity and after an exhaustive investigation that began on Twitter, Carvin helped to discover that Amina Arraf did not exist. She was fabricated entirely by an American named Tom McMaster.
Carvin told Radio Days that he has been ‘on the ground’ in the Arab unrest only once.
On a visit to Cairo in 2012, he and some friends were sitting at a rooftop café when they heard the pop-pop of teargas canisters. Rushing off to find the action, they ended up caught between the police on one hand and protesters on the other. He said this was when he realised that his brand of ‘bird’s eye view’ reporting was valuable, because someone embroiled in the action only gets a very localised idea of what’s going on. He had no idea how many people were involved in that particular protest, or what was happening in other parts of the city. On the other hand, the bird’s eye view relies on reports from those on the ground.
This is why innovative approaches using social media will not replace traditional journalism, Carvin said. “Social media and field reporting are complementary,” he adds. “One will never replace the other.”
Note: This story has been updated with information from Andy Carvin. Follow him on Twitter @acarvin
IMAGE: Wikimedia Creative Commons