The Role of Social Networks in the Coverage of Michael Jackson’s death and Events in Iran

Two events over the past 10 days have been announced and developed on social networks before traditional media.  Just last Thursday, the announcement of Jackson death blocked Google research access for queries related to Michal Johnson.  TMZ which broke the story had several outages, and Twitter crashed, and Widipedia seemed to be in temporarily overload.  One of the reasons is that it was a daytime event when people were using their cell phones at work to download the news.  While the scale of the response may be unprecedented, the pattern was not:  News search, reaction, tributes. 

The other major event that was mostly tracked through Twitter was the events in Iran.  A recent article in the NY Times analyzes the advantages and limits of Twitter in this situation.  I am including below some excerpts of this really interesting article.  “Twitter did prove to be a crucial tool in the cat-and-mouse game between the opposition and the government over enlisting world opinion. As the Iranian government restricted journalists’ access to events, the protesters have used Twitter’s agile communication system to direct the public and journalists alike to video, photographs and written material related to the protests.

1. Twitter Is a Tool and Thus Difficult to Censor:  Twitter aspires to be something different from social-networking sites like Facebook or MySpace: rather than being a vast self-contained world centered on one Web site, Twitter dreams of being a tool that people can use to communicate with each other from a multitude of locations, like e-mail. You do not have to visit the home site to send a message, or tweet. Tweets can originate from text-messaging on a cellphone or even blogging software. 

2. Tweets Are Generally Banal, but Watch Out: “Tweets by their nature seem trivial, with little that is original or menacing. Even Twitter accounts seen as promoting the protest movement in Iran are largely a series of links to photographs hosted on other sites or brief updates on strategy. Each update may not be important. Collectively, however, the tweets can create a personality or environment that reflects the emotions of the moment and helps drive opinion.

3. Buyer Beware:  Nothing on Twitter has been verified. While users can learn from experience to trust a certain Twitter account, it is still a matter of trust. And just as Twitter has helped get out first-hand reports from Tehran, it has also spread inaccurate information, perhaps even disinformation.

4. Watch Your Back: Not only is it hard to be sure that what appears on Twitter is accurate, but some Twitterers may even be trying to trick you. Like Rick’s Café, Twitter is thick with discussion of who is really an informant or agent provocateur. Government agents have created some accounts to mislead the public.

 5. Twitter Is Self-Correcting but a Misleading Gauge:  Twitter is a community, with leaders and cliques. Of course, Twitter is a certain kind of community — technology-loving, generally affluent and Western-tilting. In that way, Twitter is a very poor tool for judging popular sentiment in Iran and trying to assess who won the presidential election. “

6. Twitter Can Be a Potent Tool for Media Criticism:  Just as Twitter can rally protesters against governments, its broadcast ability can rally them quickly and efficiently against news outlets. One such spontaneous protest called out CNN last weekend for failing to have comprehensive coverage of the Iranian protests. This was quickly converted to an e-mail writing campaign. CNN was forced to defend its coverage in print and online.”