Social media could change world, means info is disseminated

The Twitterverse was alive last weekend with anti-mainstream media ire over coverage of the Iranian presidential election and its chaotic and bloody aftermath.

Thousands of users claiming to be from around the world slammed the press for not providing them with the coverage they felt was adequate. And then something happened that could not have even a few years ago — social media users began to provide their own coverage — a trend that has continued all week.

They shared photos and video shot by “citizen journalists” on the ground in the Islamic Republic and shared stories of tear gas attacks. Tweeters around the globe shared that content as well as press reports of the latest happenings. Connecticut users suddenly had a front-row seat of the chaos happening in real-time half a world away whenever they wanted it.

In an unusual move and recognition of the social network’s important role, Twitter rescheduled a critical maintenance upgrade after the U.S. State Department urged the adjustment to accommodate Iranian users. The change resulted in the site being offline for an hour beginning at 5 p.m. during one of its most active hours, but at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday in Iran, when users would be less likely to be utilizing the site as a form of communication.

“We highlighted to them that this was an important form of communication,” a State Department official told Reuters.

Sree Sreenivasan, dean of student affairs at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York, told the Hearst Connecticut media group that he has seen users share information on Twitter on a smaller scale before and expects it to only grow.

“We’re going to see a lot more of this where people are able to harness what they see around them in real live time,” Sreenivasan said. “Governments and others will try to control it much more than we’ve seen it before — with blocking of text messaging and the like.”

Sreenivasan pointed to past major news events when Twitter became a means of disseminating information, including the Mumbai terrorist attacks and the Buffalo, N.Y., and Hudson River airplane crashes. He said the mainstream media can either fight this change or harness its potential to supplement their reporting.

“Journalists can’t wake up on deadline and say, ‘I’m going to figure out this Twitter thing,’ ” he said. “Once the shooting happens, once the plane lands in the Hudson, it’s difficult for journalists to get on top of Twitter.”

Christopher Kukk, associate professor of political science at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, Conn., said the impact of social networking goes well beyond the practice of journalism. “Now people who didn’t have a voice before have a voice,” he said. “You are seeing the tools of modern society coming up against the traditional way of thinking.”

While Kukk said he did not think it would be the same type of revolution that happened in Tehran 30 years ago, he said it’s nonetheless significant. “It’s a technological change, but not a change that will overthrow the types of people in power,” he said. “We are going to see how governments and states around the world will adapt to this type of power.”

Kukk predicted countries stuck in the traditional mode of thinking will change dramatically.

Users could organize large protests and gatherings quickly, effectively and anonymously using the social networking device.

Richard Hanley, graduate journalism director at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., said everyone wins with services like Twitter.

“Twitter is a tool for eyewitness reports and quick opinions that reference given events,” he said. “It certainly plays a role beyond the merely supplemental because of that from-the-street perspective, particularly in countries where state-run media dominates.” He did, however, caution that the potential of abuse and fraud to support a political or ideological position cannot be overlooked.

“But that is not a good enough reason to ignore Twitter and its possibilities toward upending censorship and empowering more people than ever before,” he said.

 I had originally written this story for Tuesday’s print edition of the Connecticut Post. Unfortuantely, as so often happens in the newspaper industry, the story was held.


Jamie DeLoma