Distant Witness

Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution

by Andy Carvin

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NPR Summary

Andy Carvin had unusual access to the people and events of the Arab Spring: from NPR headquarters in DC, he built a highly active twitter community of revolutionaries, witnesses and reporters. In this blend of memoir and history, he shares stories of the Arab Spring while exploring the benefits and difficulties of reporting from a distance.

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Excerpt: Distant Witness

Through the pungent haze of tear gas and smoke, they set up makeshift barricades, ripping corrugated metal off nearby rooftops to shield themselves from the firebombs. Protesters camping out at Cairo's Tahrir Square have been under assault by pro-government thugs for well over 12 hours. As dawn approaches, they're running on fumes. They struggle to repel the thugs and their Molotov cocktails — and now another fire has broken out next to the Egyptian Museum. The treasures of Egypt's 5,000-year history, along with its first real chance of democracy, are in danger of going up in smoke.

Choking on the tear gas, a young protester steps forward with the two weapons that will help determine their fate: a jagged rock and a smartphone. Gripping the phone tightly, he hurls the rock at the thugs. Before the stone even reaches its target, he's frantically tweeting again, hoping that someone — somewhere — will read it and bear witness.

I've started throwing stones with the crew at the museum battle. Don't have any other choice. Viva la revolucion #jan25

The pitched battles that gripped the attention of the world during the Egyptian revolution were just a taste of what we would witness over the course of 2011. The series of North African and Middle East uprisings collectively known as the Arab Spring is a flashpoint in history — perhaps the biggest upheaval of geopolitical power since the collapse of the Soviet bloc 20 years earlier.

It's also been a stunning revolution in the way breaking news is reported around the world — and who controls the news. With countless revolutionaries using the Internet as part of their protests, anyone online could gain direct access to the news, moment by moment — no filters, no spin, no delay. No longer did media outlets have a monopoly on international reporting; people on Twitter or YouTube could patch directly into the revolution of their choice.

For those of us working within mainstream media, the challenge was taking the strengths of traditional journalism and combining them with the real-time, Wild West nature of the social media landscape. Can you trust reports from so-called citizen journalists who are also actively taking part in a revolution? How do you handle the onslaught of uncensored, graphic footage circulating online that in the heyday of mass media would've never seen the light of day? As rumors spread online, do you wait for full confirmation before even mentioning them, or do you acknowledge to your audience that these rumors exist, and that you don't have all the answers yet? Is it even fair to call them an audience anymore? One way or another, storytelling has entered new territory.

Though it's easy to see social media as a relatively new phenomenon, it didn't come into existence overnight; it was a long, steady evolution of tools created to reflect and shape the Internet in the way that people wanted to use it. They wanted to publish travel journals and share cat videos. They wanted to collaborate on crazy projects like an encyclopedia written by the public, or free listings for local goods and services, or open-source software that no multinational company could ever control. And they wanted to get to know other people who shared their passions and interests.

The tools that came out of this dream of a better, more human Internet — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, Reddit and more — have taken on a life of their own. They're cultural drivers, tastemakers and meeting points. And somewhere along the way, people realized they could use these tools to make their lives better. For some, especially individuals living in repressed regimes, social media became a platform for organizing and dissent. From the earliest Arab political bloggers to the citizen journalists of the 2009 Iran election protests, they blazed a trail that foretold the methods used to help organize the Arab Spring.

In September 2006 — on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — I came to NPR to experiment with these tools and explore new forms of storytelling. I wasn't part of the newsroom — I wasn't even considered a journalist by most of the staff. But over my career I'd gotten to know bloggers and online activists around the world. Those informal relationships proved invaluable in plugging me into what would become the biggest geopolitical disruption in years — and put me in a unique position to tell their stories.

My job title at NPR is Senior Strategist. It's a meaningless description in many ways, so I usually describe myself as NPR's guinea pig in residence. I'm a journalistic test pilot — I take new reporting methods for a spin, and see if they soar or crash.

I don't see the Internet as simply a place where stuff gets published or money is made. I don't even see it as a separate place that you enter and exit in and out of the "real" world. It is a living, breathing community of people who don't see a gap between their online lives and their offline ones. And if you connect the dots between the right people, amazing things can happen.

That's how I was drawn into the Arab Spring. In my previous work, as an online community organizer at the Digital Divide Network, I got to know a number of Arab bloggers and made several trips to Tunisia and other parts of the Arab world. I stayed in touch with some of them, even though they didn't have anything to do with my work at NPR. I kept track of them simply because they were a window into a world I found fascinating. No one could have anticipated that a scattering of online chatter about a fruit vendor in Tunisia would change the Arab world, journalism — and my life — forever.

Since the Arab Spring began, I've used social media to report remotely on uprisings in more than half a dozen countries. It started as a hobby, but soon became my calling — some might say my obsession. For months on end, seven days a week, up to 18 hours a day, I used my Twitter account to cover the revolutions as a broadcast anchor would, and worked with online volunteers all over the world to dig up new stories. Many of my sources and followers don't know what I look like, where I am in the world at any given time, or even what my full name is. To them, I'm just @acarvin, the guy on Twitter who's plugged into the Arab revolutions.

From Distant Witness by Andy Carvin. Copyright 2012 by Andy Carvin. Excerpted by permission of CUNY Journalism Press.

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