Last year, the world saw how citizen journalists used Twitter to report on the November 26 terror attacks in Mumbai as they unfolded. In addition to learning about the attacks, the public also learned about the power that individuals can have to communicate information to a large audience.
Twitter became the most useful source of real-time information about the attacks, according to blogger Gaurav Mishra, and the number of posts jumped to as many as 1,000 in an hour on the day of the attacks. The Daily Telegraph stated that there were up to 70 Tweets every five seconds at one point. (The Times of India reported two million unique website visits from readers looking for information on the attacks.)
“Twitter quickly become the de facto source for on-ground intelligence for mainstream media, and the few citizen journalists on-site in Mumbai become in-demand pundits overnight,” Mishra wrote.
A day after the attacks, international organizations were covering the social media element of the attacks, in addition to the attacks themselves. Mishra states that while most Indians were getting their information about the attacks through Indian television networks, the world was getting the information from the Twitter posts.
Although Twitter has shown to be a very useful tool to communicate short bursts of information in real-time, there are also drawbacks. During the terror attacks last year, media around the world were relying on messages sent via Twitter to learn more about the unfolding situation. Unfortunately, the immediacy of such lightning fast communication in a chaotic, stressful situation also resulted in confusion when contradictory or incorrect information was tweeted. News organizations were reporting confirmed and unconfirmed reports, including CNN and the The Daily Telegraph. Both restated unconfirmed reports that the Indian government asked Twitter users to stop sending messages (the Telegraph said the report was “alleged”). The report was never attributed to a named source, and the BBC included it on a blog post discussing myths surrounding coverage of the attacks and the use of social media tools as part of the reporting.
Though not widely reported here, users of SMSGupShup, a leading India-based SMS-based service similar to Twitter, also posted their own updates. Company CEO Beerud Shuth has said the service has over 20 million local users.
In a crisis, individuals and organizations often need to rely on the most expedient method of communicating important information and obtaining help. Increasingly, that means the use of social media tools. Because these tools are relatively new and evolving, the rules for using them are changing daily, with organizations trying to balance the need to provide accurate and timely information against the need to keep up with technology.
The usefulness of Twitter as an information dissemination tool cannot be denied. As its use increases, it is important that corporate and government organizations (including first-responders), along with mainstream news organizations, continue to update their codes of conduct and operating procedures to incorporate Twitter-use policies, and for organizations to use and produce information judiciously.