Coverage of the G20 proved Twitter’s news edge
Published On Sun Jul 11 2010. By Antonia Zerbisias, Feature Writer
The twipping point came late on the Saturday night of the G20 weekend, when a peaceful group of protesters was surrounded by police in riot gear.
Steve Paikin, host of TVO’s The Agenda, had been following the crowd as it made its way through the desolate streets of downtown Toronto, tweeting as he went along.
At first his comments were not particularly remarkable, echoing those of many others — activists, onlookers, bloggers — tracking the G20 security measures. But things changed on the Esplanade, as Paikin’s tweets suddenly grew alarming:
- “cops tightening their perimeter. why? they are forcing something they dont need to force 10:32:03 PM”
- “cops moving closer why? 10:37:09 PM”
- “arresin people 10:47:11 PM”
- “weapons are rubber bulles 10:54:18 PM”
- “i. gone police escor me 11:02:16 PM”
Long after the network crews had packed up, hours after reporters had filed their stories, Twitter was there, providing real-time news plus links to videos from the protest frontlines.
While news channels — which would later boast of capturing huge numbers of eyeballs — endlessly looped that afternoon’s footage of burning police cars, the news had moved on, to The Esplanade and, later still, to the east end detention centre where yet another group of protesters was encircled and rounded up in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
All of it was available via an iPhone webcast, distributed via Twitter, viewed by hundreds.
“Anybody who had a smart phone using Twitter had a real-time intelligence feed of everything that was going on,” says Internet strategist Jesse Hirsh, who describes the experience that night as “transcendent.”
Suddenly, casual usual users of Twitter, those had been previously only signalling their personal thoughts and daily activities, discovered an entirely new way to get news. That was evidenced by the hundreds of new followers gained by Paikin, Hirsh and other journalists using Twitter that night.
That the latest media — whether newspapers, radio, TV or telephones — fuel political and cultural revolutions is not a new idea, of course.
In 1989, for example, the world saw how fax machines helped bring about the fall of the Berlin Wall and generate the Tiananmen Square protests. Later, texting would serve to create flash demonstrations. The Web would get people organized. Facebook sent thousands into the streets in January to protest Prime Minister’s Stephen Harper’s latest prorogation of Parliament.
There was talk of a “Twitter Revolution” last year in Iran, but subsequent research would show that relatively few tweets came out of that country. Not just because the government was blocking the site, but also because only a few thousand Twitter accounts existed in Iran at the time.
Most of the twittering was in the West, as observers “retweeted” what little news there was, or showed solidarity with the protesters in Tehran.
Still, not only does the medium carry the message, it serves to transform it.
And so, there was a clear dichotomy between television coverage of events and the information available to those following the Twitter “hashtags,” essentially search terms that channel data streams (#G20, #G20report, #G20mobilize).
Concordia University anthropology professor Maximilian Forte, who gives seminars about political activism on the Internet, says he was able to witness that split by tracking two of his students, one who followed conventional media such as cable news, the other in the streets using Twitter.
“The one who was relying only on mainstream media was only writing about anarchists, about what ‘thugs and goons’ they are, how they really deserved to get the crap beaten out of them while focusing on the destruction of private property and, of course, praising the police,” says Forte. “For him, there was this kind of homogenization that all the protesters were the same as these so-called ‘Black Bloc’ people.”
“There’s an interesting divide between society where, sadly, it’s the majority who still see a group of violent anarchists who deserve got the beatdown they got versus all the people who were privy to it via Twitter who are like, ‘OMG the rule of law was just discarded,’ ” concurs Hirsh. “It’s a real stark contrast.”
According to Hirsh, newspapers such as the Star, which had reporters tweeting from the streets and feeding a live blog of events, were way ahead of the game.
“There was a clear contrast between journalists who were using Twitter and journalists who weren’t,” says Hirsh, who comments on media for the CBC. “Journalists giving on-the-ground reports were far more accurate than those in newsrooms like (Peter) Mansbridge or Ann Rohmer. They thought they were doing value-added voiceover, but they really weren’t tied in to what was really happening.”
Which might explain why an Angus Reid poll, conducted in the immediate aftermath of the weekend’s wreckage, would show that a majority of respondents agreed with Forte’s student: most Canadians caught those same violent images on television.
Since that tumultuous weekend, the tweeting hasn’t stopped.
“The use of social media, it really does help to establish a public record, one that could contradict in very graphic and very concrete ways the official record, what is produced by the mainstream media,” says Forte. “The use of social media is putting out other truths for people to understand.”
That’s because not only not only were there journalists, corporate and alternative, in the streets, but there was also a phalanx of camera-wielding onlookers.
Online, on YouTube and Vimeo, there are countless videos, some amateurish, some slick, documenting the controversial security measures that resulted in more than 1,000 arrests.
From Twitter, which Forte calls the “gateway” that “leaks” into YouTube, blogs and the photo site Fickr, videos and personal narratives are migrating to Facebook, which is very popular among mainstream Canadians. As a result, growing numbers are getting a view of events very different from their first impressions.
Groups are forming to identify undercover police caught on video, to discuss theories about agents provocateurs, to call for answers. There is a groundswell demanding a full public inquiry, with one group counting more than 50,000 members.
The revolution won’t be televised. It may be tweeted.
“The story is still being written,” says Forte.
“To riff on William Gibson’s line, the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet,” says Hirsh. “For those of us who experienced that weekend, who were immersed in the social media, we’re in the future. We had a transformative experience.
“We really feel that we lived it, that we experienced this Internet movement where Twitter transcended all traditional media, transcended the divisions between physical space and virtual space, transcended whether you were on the street or not on the street.
“We are not thinking in this Internet future. For us it’s the present tense.”
< http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/article/834367–coverage-of-the-g20-proved-twitter-s-news-edge >