Tweeting From A Conflict Zone: Does It Help Or Hurt News Reporting?

As Gaza, Ukraine and Syria trend on Twitter, has social media changed the way conflicts are covered? Host Michel Martin finds out from reporter Anne Barnard and Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We begin today with a look at how social media is affecting the way we learn about war. If you haven't seen for yourself how Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have revolutionized the way the media does its job, you cannot miss it now. We're also seeing more information, photos and videos than ever from activists, aid workers and even what we might call ordinary people who happen to be on the frontlines of conflict. This was underscored last week when Israeli forces bombed a fishing shack on a Gaza pier, and it struck again as young boys ran across the beach. When the smoke cleared, four boys were dead. Journalists at a hotel across the street witnessed and tweeted the whole thing. There was also a viral video showing an Israeli wedding party running and screaming as a Hamas missile was blown up overhead by Israel's Iron Dome defense system. But as you might imagine this conflict, among many others, stirs up very strong opinions around the world. Some are questioning whether social media helps or harms accuracy when reporting on conflict. We wanted to talk about this so we're joined now by Anne Barnard, a New York Times correspondent in Gaza City. She's been covering the Middle East, including Syria's civil war, for a number of years now. Anne, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

ANNE BARNARD: Thank you.

M. MARTIN: Also joining us from Geneva is Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for the Human Rights Watch, the human rights organization. As part of his work, Peter has investigated alleged war crimes in Syria, Sri Lanka and the Central African Republic. Peter, welcome to you as well. Thank you for joining us.

PETER BOUCKAERT: Thank you.

M. MARTIN: Anne, I'm going to start with you because you're on the ground reporting on this current conflict in Gaza. Is anything you want to tell us about the situation right now?

BARNARD: Well, today there is continued fighting in the east of Gaza. More than 100,000 people have fled their homes. And even though they've been told to move West, there is also an intensifying air campaign even in downtown Gaza city. So people are fleeing and they're still getting hit in the places they've fled. So it's a very chaotic situation.

M. MARTIN: As I mentioned, you are an experienced - a very distinguished reporter for the New York Times, which is a veteran, kind of legacy news organization. You also bring along your Twitter followers for real-time updates of news while you're out reporting, just like we are doing now. You do this after the fall of Homs in Syria and over the past few days in Gaza. How do you decide what to tweet out?

BARNARD: Well, it's a practical matter. Sometimes we're just constrained by the situation. We don't have data on our mobiles when we're out and about so we can't tweet live from the field. But I do think Twitter gives us more immediacy. So when I'm tweeting, you know, live in a war zone, I'm just going to be tweeting what's in front of me. And it might be a little more personal, you know, how it feels in a certain place, how I reacted to something. For instance, I tweeted about a girl who we saw die in the hospital. She didn't have any relatives around her so we couldn't find out her name. And we actually watched the moment of her death and her being pronounced dead. And both my colleague and I actually cried, you know. We decided to tweet about it, but she struck me as being something like an unknown soldier although she was a civilian. So in my tweet, I described the scene and I said she was the unknown civilian. And that's not really something I would write in a news story, but it's been retweeted, you know, thousands of times. So I think it strikes a nerve because people feel like they're getting a postcard from another human being who is experiencing something far away.

M. MARTIN: Does anybody vet your tweets, for example, in the way that you wouldn't post something? Nothing would be published in the Times without an editor having put his or her eyes on it first. Does anybody kind of vet your tweets or put their eyes on it first just to say gee, Anne, do you really want to say that? Or anything like that? Or are you your own editor in the situation?

BARNARD: In this situation, they rely on our judgment. I mean, we have to be aware of not crossing a line just the way we would in the paper.

M. MARTIN: Peter, what about you? As we mentioned, your work with Human Rights Watch has brought you to the Central African Republic and Syria. And what do you decide to tweet out or to put out on social media? What's the standard for you?

BOUCKAERT: Well, one of our big jobs at Human Rights Watch is to try to draw attention to crisis which are underreported. So I spent a lot of the last year in the Central African Republic live tweeting the conflict that was happening there - a very brutal conflict between the Muslim and the Christian community. And we managed to get a lot of attention to the conflict by using social media when the normal media was not really present on the ground. But the real challenge is to treat information which is reliable. And I have a rule of thumb that I always read the tweet three times before I send it out because it is a very immediate way to communicate. And we have a reputation for reliability, both at the New York Times and at Human Rights Watch, that we want to keep. So we do have to take great care to use the same standards when we're tweeting than when we're reporting or investigating these kind of abuses.

M. MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the role that social media, like Twitter and YouTube and Facebook, play in conflict zones around the world. We're speaking about this with Peter Bouckaert. He's emergencies director for Human Rights Watch. That's a human rights organization. Also with us - Anne Barnard, New York Times correspondent. She's currently reporting in Gaza. Talking about fact-finding, you know, I think a lot of people in the U.S. remember for example from the Boston Marathon Bombings, that inaccurate rumors spread very quickly. Let's assume that some of these people were well-meaning because they thought that they were helping law enforcement - they thought they were kind of helping, you know, pin down, you know, vital information that needed to get out to the public. But a lot of this stuff was just wrong and so I wanted to ask if - and maybe want to start - has that ever happened to you? Is any check that you impose to be sure that that does not happen? And is there - are you called upon for example, to respond to those kinds of rumors coming from other sources?

BARNARD: Well, I think on occasion yes, I have knocked down tweets that I have seen that I know to be untrue or unreliable, but that's not really my job. My job is to be responsible for my own reporting.

M. MARTIN: Do - I wanted to ask though - when I was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and was based at the White House, I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time - exactly that - chasing down other people's rumors because, you know, there are obviously motivated players who have an interested in promoting false information for their own agenda. And, you know, that could have taken up my entire day, and I just wondered, Anne, if chasing down other's people's false information - does that take up space in your brain that it didn't for example, five years ago or 10 years ago?

BARNARD: Well, it certainly does in the Syria conflict. That's the case where it's very hard to access the front lines. Sometimes it's hard to even access the back lines because the government has a very strict visa regime and the rebel-held areas pose a very high kidnapping threat for foreign journalists. So social media has been an invaluable tool, but it's just one tool. And so we do have to keep in mind that there are motivated players on both sides and there have been many instances where pictures have been tweeted that - you know, you could easily just search on Google Images and find that that image is old, or from another time, or even from another place. So yes, there is some amount of time that we spend verifying that information but in a way, it's a good thing to have more information and you just have to be selective about how you use it.

M. MARTIN: Peter, what about you? I mean, some have said that, you know, the information age is like trying to perpetually trying to drink water from a fire hose - that your whole purpose in what you do is to try to draw attention to things that people are not paying attention to. Are you finding that a easier or harder with social media?

BOUCKAERT: It is hard work verifying some of this information. But if I could just use example of the Ghouta chemical attack last year - we were able to use social media to establish that the Syrian government was the most likely culprit of that attack. And that's not just looking at tweets and reporting them - it means tracing back who is posting this information and then speaking to them and asking them to send us additional information. In that case, we have activists sending us pictures of the actual missiles which were used in chemical attack. We used satellite imagery, as we did last month, to confirm mass executions claimed by ISIS in Tecrete. So, we have been able to use social media, not to just get our message out, but also as a research tool.

M. MARTIN: Do you feel that your priority is documenting abuses by governmental entities, or by all parties? And do you feel, you know, an equal responsibility, or do you feel that you need to project through your social media presence and evenhandedness, or not?

BOUCKAERT: Absolutely. In all of the conflicts that Human Rights Watch works in we investigate abuses by all sides - by Hamas and by the Israeli army in the case of Gaza. We have to focus on the abuses by both sides. And I think one of the most frustrating parts for all of us working on social media is the incredible insensitivity of people tweeting back to us justifying these kind of crimes - whether it's, you know, people saying death to Arabs or justifying abuses on the other side. It really is horrendous just to get these very awful and often racist messages on both sides of the conflict because that's another dark side of social media.

BARNARD: And Peter, just to speak to that - yesterday that was - that I had finally tweeted out, listen people if you're going to tweet anti-Arab, anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim tweets, please just take me off your thread. And that tweet was also re-tweeted many times.

M. MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that Anne - that's actually where I was going to go next - reporters working in war-zones have always been - you know, by definition it's dangerous work and I just wondered whether you felt that social media in some ways exposes you to more risk because people are aware of where you are in real-time and are tempted to influence your thinking, or to threaten you.

BARNARD: Yes, when I do receive threats I report them to Twitter and oftentimes I confront the people and they take the tweets down. Sometimes people don't realize that they're talking to a human being until they stop and think, you know. Also, I do try to say for instance - I don't tweet in real-time my location, either in Syria or here. In part that's, as I said, because of technical problems but it's also because I don't want to endanger not just myself, but the people I'm talking to. So usually I tweet once I've moved away from the place.

M. MARTIN: So this is here to stay. Anne, is that a - is that really a kind of - forgive me for being, you know, pedestrian about it, but this is - the social media presence is here to stay. There is no going back, I take it?

BARNARD: I don't think so. I think overall it bring more benefits than problems. I think we just - again, we have to member our primary work is the reporting we're doing on the ground. You know, our - our job isn't to tweet in real-time. I've - I've have people harassing me on Twitter saying, why haven't you treated this, why haven't you tweeted that? And it's like well, because I'm working.

M. MARTIN: That was Anne Barnard Mid-East correspondent with the New York Times with us from Gaza. Peter Bouckaert is emergency director at Human Rights Watch, with us from Geneva Switzerland. Thank you both for being with us and we thank you both so much for taking the time during these very busy days.

BOUCKAERT: Thank you.

BARNARD: Thank you.

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