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Exploring Social Media: Live Citizens Press Conference on Twitter

Exploring Social Media: Live Citizens Press Conference on Twitter

Exploring Social Media article series badgeYesterday, was used as a real-time news conference podium by the Consulate General of Israel in New York and featured on their Israel news and commentary blog, . In this ongoing series on Exploring Social Media and Social Media Tools, the politics in issue are not up for discussion, but the manner in how this popular social media tool was used to great a Q&A forum for discussion of a current event is worth discussing.

Called a Citizens’ “Press” Conference on Twitter, from 1300 – 1500 EST on December 30, David Saranga, Israel Consul of Media and Public Affairs in New York, answered questions regarding the situation in the Middle East regarding Israel and Gaza and all parties involved. Questions were submitted to their Twitter account, @IsraelConsulate and attempts were made to respond to the questions through the 140 character limit, with those requiring lengthy answers would be posted on the blog.

There were no rules, other than the typical “play nice” and all questions were welcome from any and all angles. While Mr. Saranga was the host of the Twitter event, I’m sure he had a lot of help from his staff at the Consulate to respond to the flood of questions.

Twitter example during Israel Gaza Press Conference by Israel Consulate of New York

Within a very short time, the “edited” version of the Twitter conference was posted in sections on the Israel Politik blog. They explained what they meant by “edited” as:

The conversations were ‘expanded’ (meaning we removed the short ‘twitter talk’ and re-wrote fully spelled words) but otherwise unchanged.

Reviewing the conference, words such as “u” were expanded to “you” and “ppl” changed to “people” with no obvious attempt to censor or change the intent of the words.

The discussions can be found in the Citizen Press Conference category and include:

Twitter hashtags were used when possible in the discussion and included #AskIsrael for the Consulate discussion. Other situation specific hashtags used across Twitter include: #gaza, #gazawarofwords, #israel, #2states, and #rafah.

While many bloggers in the Middle East and around the world have been covering their side and perspective of the issue, this is a dramatic use of social media, possibly the first time a government has held such a “press conference” – a sort of Q&A, town meeting, and world-wide discussion – especially one condensed into 140 character sound bits.

Shel Israel of Global Neighbourhoods and @shelisrael on Twitter, asked this question about the choice of discussion platform:

shelisrael: Why have you chosen to come on Twitter. Is that not political in itself?
IsraelConsulate: We saw debate on Twitter and saw people who had unreliable information. We felt Twitter would be a good way to put an official voice out there.

This is an interesting modern move associated with the Israel government, long known for their struggles to get their message across in the media.

Social Media for Real-Time Citizen Journalism and Media Campaigns

This is not the first time Twitter and other social media tools have been used for press conferences, propaganda, and “real time citizen journalism,” though it might be the first for a government press conference.

Barack Obama’s Twitter account brought up-to-the-minute information on the US President-elects life and activities before and after the election. Other presidential candidates soon jumped on the social media game, and continue to use blogs and Twitter, along with other microblog tools, to get their messages out to the public, creating the next generation of “transparent” politicians.

Blogs, Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media tools helped get the news out to the world during several recent political and terrorist events around the world.

In February 2005, the Nepal government shut down all international Internet connections after the king imposed martial law, though it was only down for a short time. During that time, many technologically creative people were able to get some information out via social medial channels. However, the government shutdown of Internet connections inside and outside Burma (Myanmar) in 2007 led to overwhelming support from outside of the country to get news and information to the world through social media tools, especially blogs, Twitter, and Flickr, creating a form of underground network for Internet communications and social media.

As the world’s citizens become more techno and social media savvy, social media plays a bigger role in the distribution of “news” by its citizens rather than traditional media sources – which is a mixed bag of positives and negatives.

Within minutes of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, Twitter, Flickr, and blogs were filled with eye witness accounts and news on the events as they unfolded. @Mumbai is a Twitter account which reported on the situation with terror attacks and political upheaval in that area. The Twitter hashtag #mumbai helped track Mumbai related news and events on Twitter.

The role of social media tools during the Mumbia attacks caused a lot of interest and analysis by traditional media sources due to the uprising of “Real Time Citizen Journalism.” How social media was used during the Mumbai attacks was covered by the Guardian News, InformationWeek, TechCrunch, Reuters, ABC News (US), UK Telegraph, India Times, CNet, PC World, and many traditional and non-traditional media trying to get a handle on how social media tools work, help or hinder the spread of “factual” information versus real-time life stories, and the impact this modern “journalism” has on perception and information dispersal.

Global Voices said:

While the TV and media reports have been accused of using sensationalism and inflicting more terror from rumors, the twitter feeds portray the real sense of what is happening and how people are coping with it…

TechCrunch defended Twitter as a news source:

You can jump up and down and shout all you want that Twitter isn’t a real news source. But all you are doing is viewing the world through a reality lens that’s way outdated. People want information fast and raw from people who are on the scene. If it gets a little messy along the way, that’s ok. We’ll soon see tools that help us distill the really good stuff out of the stream anyway.

Twitter wasn’t the only “source” of information distributed by social media tools. Within a very short time after the Mumbai terrorist attacks a Google Maps, Annotated Google map, GeoCommons Mumbai terrorist attack map, Mahalo page, and Wikipedia page with a timeline of the events and news were created. Images started appearing with the Flickr tag “mumbai, which The Big Picture helped feature and aggregate. Blogs were created or redirected to immediately deal with the news and information, especially to help people get more information about friends and family in the midst of the multi-day attack and upheveal such as Mumbai Help and Mumbai Metblogs. Two Facebook accounts were set up to memorialize victims, In Remembrance of the 11/26 Mumbai Bombings & All Those Affected and In Honor of the Bombay Blasts 11/26- 11/… : Wear a White Shirt on Monday Dec 1. These and many more are listed in the Global Voices Online coverage of the 2008 Mumbia, India, terrorist attacks.

In Alexander Wolfe’s column on InformationWeek, he addresses the issues and overwhelming impact of real-time live citizen journalism:

Never before has a crisis unleashed so much raw data — and so little interpretation — than what we saw as the deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, unfolded. Amid the real-time video feeds (kudos to CNN International), cell phone pictures, and tweets, we were able to keep abreast of what seemed to be happening, and where it was going down, all the while not really knowing those other key, canonical components of journalistic information gathering — namely, who or why.

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In fairness, no one did. There were so many tentacles to these heinous attacks, and multiple hot spots… My point here is not to criticize, but simply to note that I was struck, as never before, by the ability of data to outstrip information.

I’d add that Mumbai is likely to be viewed in hindsight as the first instance of the paradigmatic shift in crisis coverage: namely, journalists will henceforth no longer be the first to bring us information. Rather, they will be a conduit for the stream of images and video shot by a mix of amateurs and professionals on scene.

He goes on to describe how Twitter was mentioned as a “key source” for updates on the attacks and how the Indian government asked people to stop posting to microblogging services out of fear of handing information over to the terrorists – a common fear of many governments and enforcement agencies as the ability to monitor social media becomes easier – just turn on your cell phone.

The problem, and challenge, of using social media tools as a “source” of information is the issue of quantity over quality – how do you distinguish the “real” and “quality” information from the noise. Wolfe gives his own example, summarizing what we all know, social media as a useful tool is still evolving:

Indeed, the sheer volume of “#mumbai” tweets would seem to militate against the notion that there’s anything of value easily accessible within. Since going through the first 100 pages of tweets only takes you back several hours, I did random searches on postings from Wed., Nov. 25; Thurs., Nov. 27, and Friday, Nov. 28, and couldn’t come up with much hard information.

The Development of the Social Media and Internet Underground

OpenNet published a white paper technical review of the Internet shutdown in Burma, explaining some of the history and methods used by citizens to get the news out before, during, and after the shutdown.

According to ONI sources, some political blogs have been banned since mid-2007 and rumors circulated that the rest would be banned if this trend continued, spurring many local bloggers to self-monitor their postings in the hope that their blogs would not be added to the blacklist.

Until the Internet shutdown on September 29, citizen journalists inside Burma maintained contact with overseas bloggers through the use of email, chat, proxies, and free hosting pages. These bloggers were often organized in small networks of less than a dozen individuals, including both local and overseas bloggers. Overseas Burmese bloggers sent back local proxy server links and other tools via email and chats. Through this form of ‘trusted contact blogging,’ photos, updates and news links were transmitted to an overseas web of Burmese who were able to post them to the wider world.

…While those who could use the Internet had access to blogs and overseas sites, most Burmese continued to get their news from satellite TV (e.g. CAN) and overseas radio broadcasts (e.g. BBC and VOA). The state mouthpiece, through television and newspapers, directly addressed this fact when it blamed international news organizations for the unrest, labeling foreign media as “destructionists” and “spies.”

At the same time, many more Burmese began looking to blogs and other online information sources during the crisis. Along with the overseas dissident news sites and international news agency sites, CBoxes (or comment boxes) were an important source of news. Burmese bloggers overseas have noted a marked increase in blog traffic, particularly as older Burmese around the world became aware of the importance of blogs and their usage. For one blogger who wrote in Burmese, linking to news sites nearly doubled traffic, while others blogging in English were picked up frequently by international news outlets.

X-Pats were invaluable in getting news out of the country through a wide range of methods from their former homeland, including the creation of a sort of Internet communications underground for transferring the information outside of the country to be published on blogs and social media tools outside Burmese government control.

Preparing for a Social Media Press Conference

As with most modern innovations, it is left to society to figure out how to use these “good ideas” in technology. I’m sure the creators of Twitter never imagined their service being used in all the ways it is used today. Businesses and governments are now seeing the power in Twitter to educate and inform, as well as influence.

In the next article in this series on Exploring Social Media and Social Media Tools, I’ll look at the technical aspect that might have gone into preparing for the Israel Consulate Twitter “Citizen” Press Conference, and the tools that help cover today’s events and news through social media.

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