Interview: Andy Carvin, Author Of 'Distant Witness' | A Journalism Revolution When protests broke out across North Africa and the Middle East, NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin followed the events in real time online. In his book Distant Witness, Carvin explains how he cultivated social media sources into a new form of journalism where people on the ground controlled the news.
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'Distant Witness': Social Media's 'Journalism Revolution'

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'Distant Witness': Social Media's 'Journalism Revolution'

'Distant Witness': Social Media's 'Journalism Revolution'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. From the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia to the tear gas in Tahrir Square, from a traffic circle in Manama to the liberation of Libya, NPR's Andy Carvin has found new ways to gather and report the news.

In our new digital world, thousands of people used twitter to provide play-by-play of the Arab spring. Andy gathered their tweets and their videos, tracked back their contacts to develop new sources, appealed to other users to help him check facts, and their stories spilled out to the entire world in real time as history unfolded in front of their smartphones.

If you used social media to report on an event, what worked, what didn't? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, Ambassador Thomas Pickering tells us about what needs to change in American security abroad in the wake of the attacks in Benghazi.

But first, NPR's senior strategist Andy Carvin and his new book "Distant Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution." Andy's with us here in Studio 3A. Congratulations on the book, and nice to have you back on the program.

ANDY CARVIN: Thank you very much, Neal, I appreciate it.

CONAN: And have to begin by asking you: You don't stop. I mean, your phone's in your pocket for the first time in hours, I'm sure, but...

CARVIN: Right, my hands are shaking slightly from the DTs, but I'm controlling myself.

CONAN: But I'm sure you're monitoring events in Egypt still.

CARVIN: Yeah, things are still very tense, especially in cities like Port Said, which have declared themselves independent and have been under one form of state of emergency or another for several days. New videos have surfaced today that are most likely from a couple of days ago but showing snipers taking out protestors from snipers' nests in different parts of the city, footage that's very reminiscent from some of the footage we saw out of Yemen a year and a half, two years ago.

Meanwhile, there have been new meetings taking place between the opposition, the National Salvation Front, along with one of the most conservative religious parties that sometimes has been aligned with Muslim Brotherhood but have also been at loggerheads with them at times. And so once again, almost on a daily basis you feel the political alignment shifting.

CONAN: When you started getting the information from Tahrir Square, it seemed impossible that Mubarak would be overthrown. When Mubarak was overthrown, it seemed impossible that there would not be a blossom of democracy. It's all turned out rather messier.

CARVIN: Extremely messy. Every time you think you have a grasp of what's going on in the region, it changes the next day and the day after that. It's very volatile. But at the same time, I think we need to take this in the context of other geopolitical shifts that have happened in history, whether it's the fall of the Berlin Wall, et cetera. These things don't get solved overnight. There are going to be ups and downs, highs and lows that will last for years.

And things don't look very good at the moment for a number of these countries, and so there are lots of concerns. In Egypt for example, the military has made veiled threats of getting involved if the government can't get its act together regarding security in the country.

Anything's possible, and a lot of the protestors, if you follow them online, you can sense their exasperation. They really feel like they're not sure where to turn next.

CONAN: Yeah, you're getting that information from Port Said from people on Twitter, people who've filed videos on, what, Facebook or...?

CARVIN: A variety of sources, on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. A lot of the videos that I've seen from Port Said in the last 12 hours or so have initially been posted on YouTube and Facebook but then disseminated through Twitter. And then you have this loop that occurs between them as people debate, well, how fresh is this footage.

So, for example, one of the videos today, people were able to identify the location as a particular market in - a fish market, I believe in Port Said.

CONAN: So then you know it was Port Said.

CARVIN: Right.

CONAN: And because of the time stamps on it, you were able to tell when it was shot?

CARVIN: Well, we're still looking at the time stamps because if you make a copy of a video, it's possible that it will essentially erase that initial information. And so what people were initially claiming as brand new footage from today quite possibly is from the 28th, when things got rather dangerous there. And so we don't conclusively know one way or another yet.

CONAN: And I know you're a worldly man. Are you familiar with the fish market in Port Said, or...?

CARVIN: I can't say I've been there yet, but I did look it up on Google Maps today.

CONAN: So you could tell aha, it looks the same.

CARVIN: From above it looks like it could reasonably be that location. But ultimately I did have to talk to people who were either in Port Said or had just talked to people there, and they were able to describe the location after watching it.

CONAN: And that goes back to a fundamental part of what you've been doing, is checking stuff out. There is - going back to I think in Tunisia in the early days, there's an instructive moment when a picture comes up on one of these services, and it says: This is the embassy. And you looked and said no, no, it's not the embassy.

CARVIN: Right. In that particular case, someone was circulating a photo saying it was the Tunisian army in front of the French embassy. Well, it was partially correct. The problem was is they took the picture from an angle that did not show the embassy. They actually showed a Catholic cathedral across the street. And so while the photo was essentially correct in the location of where these troops were, it caused confusion online because there was no clear embassy appearing in this picture.

And that's something that would happen very commonly. I would see videos from Tunisia that would say four people shot dead in Kasserine, which is a city in the central part of Tunisia, and you'd watch the video, and there would be people running for their lives, and you'd hear gunshots, but there's no evidence of people actually getting shot.

And so a lot of context can get lost through real-time dissemination of information, especially when people are in somewhat of a state of panic while they're sharing it.

CONAN: And obviously these are not professional photographers, either.

CARVIN: For the most part they aren't. Among them you will find people that do have some experience as freelancers and the like, but the vast majority of them are people who simply have a cameraphone or some other device that allows them to shoot footage easily.

There are a number of iconic videos and photos that have come out of places like Tahrir Square where you show - see armies of people holding up their hands with their iPhones or their Android phones recording what's going. Even when Moammar Gadhafi was killed, and the body was put on display in a city in central, the central coast of Libya, you can - it's sometimes hard to actually see the corpse because there were so many people shoving their cameraphones into the face of the body.

Everyone wants to get a piece of the visual action.

CONAN: And it's interesting, your book is as much a tutorial, it's about how to do this, as it is about the dramatic events that unfolded in Tunisia and in Egypt and in Libya and in Syria.

CARVIN: Right, I didn't write the book as a primer on the Arab spring or an introspective analysis of the policy issues at stake for each of these countries. I'll leave that to the pundits. That's - I don't see that as my role. What I see happening here is that I've been experimenting with different methods for reporting in places that you can't get to for one reason or another.

Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, and so what I've tried to do is highlight some of the experiences I had, particularly over the year 2011, and document them in such a way that it can inform people who are interested in trends in journalism but can hopefully also make for a compelling read for people who are interested in the Arab spring.

CONAN: And we want to hear from those of you in the audience who have used social media one way or another to report on events on, well, precisely that question: What worked? What didn't? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, And we'll start with Chris(ph), and Chris is with us from Elkhart, Indiana.

CHRIS: Good afternoon, and thank you for taking my phone call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CHRIS: Good afternoon, and thank you for taking my phone call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CHRIS: I was actually in Fukushima in Japan for a number of years as a teacher, and when the earthquake hit a couple years ago, and the nuclear power plant went down, we as the group of us that were there and the group of us that were still there, used Facebook and YouTube specifically to transmit information and make sure that people were all right.

There were even a number of us non-Japanese English teachers through the program we were on who were using Facebook and uploading videos where many of us where going around with Geiger counters after the power plant went down to double-check and make sure that there wasn't or there was a number - great amount of nuclear radiation coming from the plant wherever they lived.

CONAN: And it's interesting, of course your first thought would be, well, this is Japan, you can depend on the government to provide accurate information. It turned out no you couldn't.


CHRIS: In fact - I'm sorry, in fact a number of people, Japanese people that I know used Facebook to communicate and find out if their family members in other areas of Fukushima were safe because they weren't getting the information from the government that they needed.

CONAN: Andy?

CARVIN: I think Fukushima is a fascinating story when it comes to looking at how the public gets involved in capturing a story. Almost immediately after the earthquake, within a matter of moments, you would start to see tweets coming from the region, and then the videos began to pile up, then the discussions on Facebook.

For me what was the most fascinating was starting to see volunteers sending Geiger counters to the region because there just wasn't enough information. So what you and your colleagues participated in I think in many ways was the most powerful role citizens played.

And so, you know, we tend to abuse the word citizen in terms of citizen journalism and all that, but you could say you were all acting as citizen scientists in the public interest. And I think in the grand scheme of things, the public was grateful for those actions you took.

CHRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: Chris, thanks very much for the call.

CHRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: And it's interesting, just going back to his story that part of what you look for to start your investigation is a whole bunch of tweets with letters like OMG and WTF.

CARVIN: Yeah, it's interesting that when people make exclamations online because they've experienced an earthquake or something, they speak - they write in ways that are similar to the way they speak because they're so comfortable in the medium that it doesn't occur to them to say something more formal than that.

And so it's not unusual for when there are initial reports of an earthquake happening somewhere, we'll search for the WTFs and more profane phrases to narrow what's happening. And so we did the same thing when the Fukushima earthquake happened.

I was - I spent the first several days involved in our coverage on that trying to find sources on the ground. But after a while, I decided to pull out of it. Once the story shifted from a natural disaster story to a nuclear energy and nuclear science story, I felt I was no longer able to contribute constructively to that conversation because I wasn't acquainted with the science.

And so while the citizen journalists continued to go about their work, it then became necessary to bring in other types of experts to discuss the health and pollution ramifications.

CONAN: Andy Carvin is with us today, and he is talking about his new book, which is called "Distant: Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution." If you've used social media to help report on an event, call, tell us: What worked? What didn't? 800-989-8255. Email us, More with NPR's Andy Carvin after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. As NPR's Andy Carvin kept his eye on the Arab spring through Twitter, there were a few moments almost too incredible to believe. Take for example the tweet that came through in early February 2011. It essentially read, in saltier language, Mubarak thugs are riding in on camels and horses. What the heck do they think this is, the Arabian Nights, version 2.0?

Carvin worked quickly and confirmed yes, Hosni Mubarak's men, some armed with truncheons and swords, were making a cavalry charge on horseback and camelback through downtown Cairo. History, Carvin writes in his new book "Distant Witness," was unfolding before our eyes.

If you've used social media to report an event where you are, what worked, what didn't? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Andy, I wanted to ask you about a moment also in the Egyptian revolution. There was a tremendous battle that was going on right around in Tahrir Square, right around the great museum there.

CARVIN: Right, the Cairo Museum.

CONAN: And you were getting so much information sitting here in Washington, D.C., but so much information from all these different vantage points, from people at different places as the struggle went on, as Molotov cocktails went whirling through the air. Tell us what that was like.

CARVIN: Well, in the days leading up to that, I had been able to pull together a list of sources among the protestors, probably 30, 40, 50 people. And on that particular day, which the locals now call the Battle of the Camel because of the people on camelback attacking them, they spent almost 18 hours trying to prevent these essentially thugs coming in with a variety of weapons trying to clear the square.

So it was a siege. And what I found incredible, after a number of hours in this, I had gotten to interact with people in different places over a battle space that's probably about one square mile. It's a much bigger space than you might realize when you think about a square. It's not - it's bigger than a typical square.

And as I began to picture who was placed in different locations and the roles they were playing, it gave me this distinct sense of being in a virtual helicopter, flying over the battlefield, being able to visualize what's going on, a type of situational awareness that I don't think I would have been able to achieve if I had been stuck in one corner of the square.

And over a year later, I was in Cairo and did get caught in a rather vicious fight that happened there, and it turned out to be the case. I could - I was essentially caught between police lines, and I could see everything, hear everything, tasting the teargas in my mouth, but I could only really understand what was happening in my immediate frame of reference just because the action was spread across such a large field that I lacked that sense of situational awareness.

Ironically when I was able to step back out of Tahrir and go online on my phone, I felt like I knew more at that moment than I did when I had been physically present.

CONAN: So that idea of seeing this tremendously complicated incident through all of these different individual perspectives enabled you to I guess approximate the fly's eye and get the whole picture.

CARVIN: Right, and it's a different type of picture. Reporters on the ground are able to capture these extraordinarily visceral moments, that chance when you get to look someone in the eye and capture their fear or their pride or whatever they're experiencing at that moment.

And so I think in many ways what I was doing online nicely complimented the work that NPR reporters were doing on the ground because they tackled the topic from two very different perspectives.

CONAN: And an important point: What you does not replace what reporters do.

CARVIN: Oh, I hope it never does. I saw a lot of the work I did was out of necessity because for example in the case of Libya, there were no Western reporters for the first several weeks. And so while NPR made its plans to get reporters inside the country, I was able to start building a source network within the country identifying who was more reliable than others, what connections they might have to different factions and militias.

And so in that sense I was serving as a social media producer for our reporters on the ground.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Diego(ph), Diego with us from Overland Park in Kansas.

DIEGO: Hello, yes. I just wanted to comment. I know you brought up - the discussion is focusing largely on citizen journalism. But I think there's a different sort of subclass to that, which I am prepared to offer an example of. I'd say it's more of a - I'd say a conversion of amplification sort of position to the journalists and citizen journalists who provide original content.

I just wanted to point out there's a group called No More Deaths operating out of Arizona who captured some high-definition video of a border patrol unit destroying food and water caches out in the Sonora Desert. These are meant for immigrants who are crossing through the perilous terrain there. All I did was create an animated GIF, this is a small, moving-image file, and posted it on the social networking website Tumblr, and this received thousands of comments and replies and re-blogs.

This provided a whole different audience than the original media, which had only largely been seen on Spanish-speaking networks in the United States like Telemundo and Univision. This, I just think creating that sort of social media application exposes a whole new group of people to these sort of sources that would not usually see the light of day.

CONAN: And not - well, analogous to what you do.

CARVIN: Yeah, and I think amplification is the perfect word for it because people are essentially - on social media they are organized as networks of friends and colleagues and communities. And so when one person posts something, and it resonates with the rest of their community, it has the potential of moving down to a next generation of users.

And I think your example of the animated GIF being passed on Tumblr, Tumblr is a sort of online community where animated GIFs are a very popular thing to share.

CONAN: That's G-I-F.

CARVIN: G-I-F. It's a file format for images. It's one of those images that are kind of grainy, and they - or they loop again every five or 10 seconds. They've become a rather trendy way of sharing footage for - over the last year or so.

But what I find fascinating about this notion of amplification is with that type of power also comes great responsibility because there are always the risks of amplifying information that's incorrect or not with the proper context. And so for example when there's a battle going on, or more recently in the case of the Newtown massacres as news outlets and citizen journalists were circulating claims about a second shooter, a maroon van somehow getting involved, rather than just completely ignore that conversation spreading online, I would go out of my way to tweet it but in the context of asking people for independent confirmation.

What other news sources have commented on this? How have they verified it? And so there are some occasions where amplification without adding context or questioning the context can be risky.

CONAN: Diego, thanks very much for the call.

DIEGO: Thank you.

CONAN: And there are also people who use these same services in different ways. I wanted to ask you about some people you encountered doing so right under your nose. Tell us about the L Team.

CARVIN: So towards the end of the Libyan revolution, I heard from one of my online contacts, a guy who goes by the Twitter handle Nolesfan2011(ph). And he had been very helpful over the course of that spring and summer identifying a variety of munitions and weapons that were circulating around Libya. And so I assumed he must have some type of military background.

And he asked me if I had some time to chat with him, to get on Skype so he could share a story with me. And so I got on the phone with the guy, a nice fellow with a strong Southern drawl, North Florida drawl, and he told me how he used Twitter to essentially find volunteers who had backgrounds in either the military or in emergency medicine.

And they proceeded to create a manuals, almost 50 of them, describing everything from how to dress a battle wound to how to dismantle an IED or...

CONAN: How to attack a T-72 tank.

CARVIN: How to attack - yeah, exactly. They had schematics of weak points on Soviet tanks.

CONAN: It turns out there's a lot of them.

CARVIN: It's extraordinary what they were able to produce. And so as he told me his story, I thought about his Twitter handle, and I realized it was a reference to the Florida State Seminoles. And so I asked him if he went to Florida State or if he was just a fan. And he said: No, sir, I'm actually in high school.

CONAN: High school?

CARVIN: High school.

CONAN: Fifteen years old he turned out to be.

CARVIN: At this point in time he was 15 years old. He was being homeschooled. And he essentially did this as a summer project.

CONAN: And most of the people in his network who were helping him comprise these manuals for Libyan revolutionaries were also youngsters like himself or college students.

CARVIN: They ranged from college students to young professionals with nursing backgrounds, Special Forces backgrounds, some still active in their professions, some not. And what I find most fascinating is they didn't know how old he was, either, until they were well on their way creating these manuals.

And so I imagine at that point they figured well, yeah, he's 15, but he seems to know what he's talking about. And I've talked to Libyans who were in the field in battle zones, like during the liberation of Tripoli, and they've told me that these documents they created played a tremendous help in helping them getting organized.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Hannah(ph): I work an overnight cops reporting shift three times a week at the York Daily Record Sunday News, I assume that's York, Pennsylvania.

I am expected to produce a story for each shift I work, and or, report breaking news. Sourcing stories at 12 AM at night can be hard, so we've turned to Facebook and Twitter to find residents willing to comment on the issues. Other journalists in our newsroom are also working with first responders to set up Twitter accounts for local fire departments, et cetera. It's another way for them to get the news out and a sort of tip line for us to monitor. This overnight breaking news reporting shift is new to our newsroom within the past four months. The desk I work on would have been known as the cop desk three years ago. We now call it the night news and digital media desk. We're still producing three papers a night on the desk as well.

CARVIN: It's very heartening to hear that because one question I haven't been able to answer is will these methods apply in other types of journalism? So, yeah, I've been able to determine that it works in some cases as breaking news anytime there's a critical mass of eyewitnesses or subject matter experts.

But would it work for a local crime reporter? Would it work for someone covering the school district? I don't have many answers for that yet because we're just beginning to see people try it. So, as I said, I feel really heartened hearing that you have been trying these methods when it comes to local crime reporting, because it seems like a natural step to try.

CONAN: Police - well, let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Al(ph) is with us from Tucson.

AL: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

AL: I'm calling as a news junkie, a consumer of all the journalism. You mentioned, in your role as the social media producer, you had to determine the reliability of this multitude of different sources you had available. How did you do that? Do you do it through multiple corroborating sources, locally, or are you using outside media to corroborate the stories? Do you have the same problem? What media are reliable?

CARVIN: What I would end up doing is I would ask my Twitter followers to help me dissect what was in this footage. I have a number of people who follow me that are native Arabic speakers and know a variety of dialects. They're people who grew up in many of these towns, cities and villages that have experienced fighting and protests.

And so, for example, when we first received videos that were reportedly out of Libya, you know, it was understandable that some news networks, they were hesitant to show them, because there's - there are so few people who've experienced covering Libya.

But my Twitter volunteers would come out of the woodwork and say, oh, I recognize. That's the courthouse in Benghazi. Or if you hear what they're chanting, you can tell it's a Libyan accent from the way they pronounce the letter G rather than the letter Q.

And so it's that kind of insider expertise that you may not have yourself, but if you have a community of people who have a vested interest in what you're reporting, they can be very helpful.

CONAN: Inevitably, though, you are putting out rumors on the Web and saying, can you help me check this out?

CARVIN: Inevitably, and that's why I'm always cautious to couch my tweets in the context of I don't know what this information means. We need to sort through it all. And so I'll often have to re-tweet a number of times, saying, this is unconfirmed footage or unconfirmed reports.

So it's kind of like running a newsroom on Twitter that's become transparent. And rather than having news staff fulfilling the roles of producers, editors, researchers, et cetera, I have my Twitter followers playing all of those roles. So it ends up becoming this rather large, convoluted media literacy experiment in many ways.

CONAN: Al, thanks very much.

AL: OK. Great answer. Thank you.

CARVIN: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Andy Carvin, NPR's senior strategist - whatever that means - about his new book, "Distant Witness: Social Media and the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I'm wondering how your correspondents, to use a word, how they're evolving. There are - are there people trying to take advantage of this new media and put out propaganda?

CARVIN: You see people taking a variety of different paths as time goes by. Like in the case of Egypt, for example, I know a number of protesters who actually have become freelance photographers based on the work that they did during the revolution. And they've tended to pull back from being a quote, unquote, "protester" and being more traditional journalist.

Others continue to march on Tahrir or in other locations, advocating an ongoing revolution. I mean, it's pretty clear in Egypt, things are very tense right now. But you also see them splitting off into different camps because some aren't comfortable with the way things have turned out. Others are just so disgusted with everything, they don't want to be a part of the process.

In Syria, we've - I've actually seen a number of people who initially shared a lot of footage that seemed reliable and plausible, but since then, on a number of occasions, have shared things that seem a lot less plausible. And I think some have started to follow the route of the government in terms of taking the context away from footage and putting it out there in a way that favors them rather than the other side.

CONAN: To make a point, rather than to tell a story.

CARVIN: Right. And I've even heard some citizen journalists say, you know, point-blank, that they have exaggerated the death toll in some places or downplayed the number of atrocities in others. And so I think just because of the savagery of the situation, everyone has sunk to that level, and it's really hard to trust anyone anymore.

CONAN: At the same time, as much as this is a tutorial, it's a tutorial one would assume, probably a case of these books going over to the Chinese ministry of information.

CARVIN: It's entirely possible. You know, it's funny because, over time, I've had people at various government agencies inside the U.S. and outside, say, hey, would you like to come over and do a brown-bag lunch? And I politely decline. Anyone, of course, can watch what I'm doing on Twitter, and I'm not the only person doing this. It's not rocket science.

But having said all that, if you listen to what the governments, especially the U.S. government, said in terms of their intelligence prior to the Arab Spring, they said that they were caught off-guard by what happened in Tunisia; whereas there were thousands of us on Twitter monitoring a handful of hashtags that made it very clear that something was happening there. What level it would get to remained to be seen, but to have pretended that you didn't know something was happening, I think they really dropped the ball on that one.

CONAN: What's the future?

CARVIN: The future is, I think, many news organizations are starting to invest in staff who are much more comfortable utilizing social media, both in terms of mining it for, in real-time research, for breaking news, as well as to identify potential members of the community who can assist them in their coverage. But as I said earlier, it's still relatively unproven. It's - let's face it, it can be a risk of an editor to say OK, I want you to spend 50 percent of your time hanging out on Twitter and when it's all hands on deck because a major story is breaking, I expect you to stay on Twitter. That can be nerve-wracking for any manager in the news business. But ultimately, I think, if we're going to evolve and incorporate new methods, ultimately, it does take a certain amount of experimentation and trusting your reporters to be professional about it.

CONAN: Andy Carvin is with us here in studio 3A. His new book is "Distant Witness." And well, everybody can relax. He's going to turn his phone back on and get back on Twitter. Andy, thank you very much for being with us. Appreciate it.

CARVIN: Thank you. My pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Coming up next. Ambassador Thomas Pickering joins us to talk about the implications of his report on the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi and what still remains to be investigated. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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