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Twitter's take on war reporting is one of gleeful voyeurism

Date

Official propaganda is colonising social media as a powerful tool.

THE Twits got terribly excited over footage of the missile blast killing a Hamas leader in Gaza. By Twits, I mean junkies for the social media program, Twitter, and yes, I'm being deliberately derisive.

The short message service has plenty going for it as a quick means to share information and views. Twitter built a cult following during the Arab Spring, with many convinced of its emancipatory potential in societies where censorship is rife, or, closer to home, as an escape from the tyranny of corporate control.

The Western media‚Äôs obsession with the goings-on online is out of hand. 

But this event should mark a turning point for even Twitter's most evangelical supporters to recognise official propaganda is quickly colonising social media as a powerful tool. The Twits are being corralled, the latest in a long line of what Marx reputedly called ''useful idiots'' and later became known as the mob or the chattering classes.

The gleeful voyeurism the video provoked online was little more edifying than a global audience at the Colosseum, cheers or boos as the gladiator made his kill. In a way this is not surprising - much better to distract people and have them talking about how, rather than why.

The Israeli military is hardly the first to release footage of a deadly air strike to serve this purpose, though it may have been quickest, waiting only a few minutes and then tweeting it again ''in case you missed it''. But the reaction last week seemed to treat this as an entirely new phenomenon.

The dissemination might have changed, but footage from the 1999 Kosovo war, for example, beamed directly from the nose of a missile as it slammed into a rail bridge - only for a train to slide into view at the last second before the screen went blank - was equally dramatic. As was the 2006 bombing of al-Qaeda's lieutenant in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

But the immediate reaction of the Western media last week was to suspend critical analysis and focus not on the event - and its consequences for an unstable region, where Egypt has brittle new leadership, or the response of Iran - but to look instead online. It has become a standard first-reaction story: what is trending, how many tweets and what pithy comment did users give?

In an era of declining revenues for media companies, perhaps this can partly be explained by cost-cutting. But you could also be forgiven for thinking the publicly funded ABC has given up its advertising prohibition, with the amount of free advertising it gives to Twitter Inc. Not that what happens online should be ignored. As an evolution in the way conflict is reported, the scale of the response to the assassination of Hamas commander Ahmed Said Khalil al-Jabari was indeed measurable.

But for such events, what Twitter tells most is of an outside audience's interest, in a similar way to television ratings. The moon landing was the most-watched broadcast of its era - Twitter offers an extra level of interactivity in the modern age, but it largely amounts to thousands of people saying ''Oh, look at that'' in their lounge rooms around the world. Its importance is easily overblown.

The Western media's obsession with the goings-on online is out of hand. Hardly a day goes by without a Facebook fracas getting picked up and reported. Some are important for what they tell about modern life but real-world events still matter more than the online response. Watching the Twitter feed or other internet service can only augment - not replace - a reporter's first-hand experience.

To give an example, for all the talk about the threat posed by online services to traditional media, it is telling who invests in covering the national leader. Julia Gillard recently attended a Pacific forum in the Cook Islands - carried in by a dozen burly locals on a sedan chair, one of those memes that kicked off plenty of online discussion. But no online outlets bothered with the expense to send a reporter, and so-called ''citizen journalists'' relied on television, radio and print outlets for coverage. Similarly, when Gillard went on to Vladivostok a week later, only to rush home early after her father passed away, there would have been nothing for the Twitterverse to chat over if not for the expense paid by major outlets to be there. It just goes to prove that getting the story matters more.

Given the faddish nature of the internet, the recent obsession in reporting with audience response will fade over time. But there is also something insidious about the way governments are co-opting social media, seeking to further displace the job of reporters who, ideally, look at a story from different points of view.

Journalists can't be too thin-skinned about this, but the spin merchants are increasingly aggressive with their use of social media, challenging interpretations and seeking to intimidate reporters. Officialdom has always sought a loud-hailer to amplify a message and drown out critical views.

In the present conflict in Gaza, Israel's media strategy was not only aimed at the international media. It also sought to counter online dissemination of propaganda from the Palestinian side.

Again, this is best understood not as something new, but the most recent iteration in a long-running contest; some years ago soldiers began carrying cameras to have video evidence to release and challenge claims of abuse.

Even online, it's important not to be fooled into thinking what is old is new again.

Daniel Flitton is senior correspondent.

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30 comments

  • Well it's easier to report on something posted on Twitter isn't it. Basically many journalists have become lazy and full of their own self worth.
    What is the percentage of Twitter users in the population? 10% maybe.
    Bit pathetic really. Lift your game.
    The majority of us couldn't care less about the narcissistic inane comments posted.

    Commenter
    J Walker
    Date and time
    November 20, 2012, 8:27AM
    • With you on that J Walker, what can you say that is real in 140 characters? I do not have a twitter account and do not follow ayone on twitter either. Never will.

      The co-option of on line media by governments ought to have been expected, it was always jsut a matter of time, What frustrates me is the continual pro Israel stance taken by the US and Australia.

      Regardless of the rights and wrongs of this dispute, when you assassinate someone's leader you have to expect a response and then to use that as an excuse to escalate it is high form of chutzpah indeed.

      Let's us not forget that Palestine has no standing army, 50% of the population are minors, it is compeletely unable to defend itself in any sort of organised fashion and Israel has taken over all the good bits. But Palestine is not a saint either.

      It is time that they came together and sorted out a real two state solution that is reasonable for both sides and recognises that both have a right to exist.

      Commenter
      Anyeta
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 12:31PM
    • I agree totally, don't have facebook and don't even bother with a mobile phone as I find them ridiculous and intrusive and twitter is just plain stupid.

      However the lazy, racist standard of our general media is also not worth reading lately.

      Commenter
      Marilyn
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 3:00PM
  • 'the job of reporters who, ideally, look at a story from different points of view'... And that is exactly why social media is where it is today, because the 'ideal' is so far from the the reality in mainstream media. There is no 'balanced reporting', just another 'special interest' group trying to corral the 'useful idiots'. Of course, we're too simple to understand that on our own.

    Commenter
    james m
    Date and time
    November 20, 2012, 9:15AM
    • Its not "balanced reporting" that is required - take a look at the current state of reporting in the U.S.A. where you see "balance" is synonomous with "utterly spineless".

      Rather we want journalistic objectivity (i.e. fairness, disinterestedness, factuality, and nonpartisanship).

      Commenter
      Dean
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 9:55AM
  • Twitter??

    I tried it once a couple of years ago during the Iranian uprising.

    I found it a waste of time. Some dimwit wrote something about being a follower.

    I have never been a follower in my life. I do my own thing.

    Then I closed the account.

    The name twitter sums the concept up neatly. Twitter is for twits.

    Commenter
    sapphire
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    November 20, 2012, 9:38AM
    • Obvious troll is obvious.

      Commenter
      nukethewhippet
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 10:13AM
  • Flitton is only explaining half the picture. Yes, Twitter can fall prey to the same old same old spin but what the Internet and social media has opened up is the access to more than one source of information. Certainly people warm to and want to promote views that conform to their own biases but other voices, opinions and analysis are out there.

    This is what the new media is about. Consumers can hear more than the one party line and make up their own minds for themselves. Twitter is often trivial, frequently nasty but also occasionally highly informative.

    Commenter
    wonk_arama
    Date and time
    November 20, 2012, 9:38AM
    • Any person with even half an ounce of discernment at their disposal saw the release of the car bombing footage for the crass triumphalism that it was. Is it the fact that those who committed the act now have the means to distribute their own news to a global audience, effectively bypassing the traditional gatekeepers of reporting and analysis, that has you decrying the value of services such as Twitter?

      When the talk turns to things that happen "online", I find it useful to remember that "online" isn't a place. That explosive device was deployed by real people, and killed other real people.

      Perhaps, we should be critically examining the willingness of the IDF to publicly broadcast their execution of a Hamas leader via the Internet. Perhaps, we should be asking questions about why they feel comfortable assuming that their actions would be applauded.

      Has our professional media failed so utterly in their self-appointed mission of even-handed coverage of events that those who blow up cars in busy streets no longer fear any kind of tough questions being asked about their actions?

      Commenter
      nukethewhippet
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 9:53AM
      • Agreed, but that's far too many 'characters' in your post. ME conflict reporting is always biased towards Israel.

        Commenter
        A country gal
        Date and time
        November 20, 2012, 12:32PM

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