UPDATED: Terror Attacks in Mumbai: Mobiles and Twitter play Key Role in 24/7 Reporting

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Nov 27, 2008

UPDATED POST: Mobiles are yet again playing a key role in citizen reporting as terror attacks grip the Indian city of Mumbai.  Twitter, the microblogging service that is available in India, was especially instrumental in conveying first hand reports as the chaotic events were unfolding in the city.  Twitter users set up aggregator accounts at Mumbai, Bombay@BreakingNews and with the search tag #Mumbai.

Numerous people distributed regular Twitter updates from Mumbai directly such as @zigzackly @vinu @gsik @chhavi @asfaq @dina, according to @mumbaiattacks. The first photos of the Mumbai terrorist attacks from MMS video were up on CNN-IBN and NDTV and both have been streaming live video from Mumbai, though mostly now from reporters on the scsne as a curfew has been imposed.  GroundReport, Mahalo, NowPublic started receiving reports on the Mumbai terrorist attacks shortly after Twitter started receiving Mumbai reports.

PC World reported that the Taj Mahal Hotel, one of the locations attacked, has "used SMS to get its help line and other important numbers to anxious relatives who had people living or visiting the hotel at the time of the attack. A trapped hotel guest used his mobile phone to send an MMS video clip of police action to a local TV channel, IBN Live." There were other reports of interviews of media with hostages in the hotels on their mobile phones.

People near events and those watching on Indian television reported and repeated news, reports, and in some cases, rumors, makling it hard to distinguish fact from fiction.

Shefali Yogendra points out in a thoughtful post that Twitter allows for a "distributed system" that produces and disseminates from to many geographical locations. Tweets also spread quickly across users in different locations. Yogendra also points out that Twitter allowed people to self-organize with a hashtag #mumbai that "was settled upon for Twitter users." She notes: "Hashtags helps Twitterers classify and annotate their tweets, and separate them from the other traffic. Those looking for information could just go to Twitter Search with this hashtag and follow the developments."

Twitter also acts like a feeder to other sources, helping with

"creation and preparation of meta-documents where information was documented and live-updated for those who are not on Twitter and looking for information. The Wikipedia page on Mumbai Attacks came into being within a couple of hours of the terrorism incident beginning" There are others as well -- the blog MumbaiHelp, Vinu’s Flickr stream of photos from the scenes and was widely distributed via Twitter.

As Yogendra points out, "Twitter acts as a feeder system to other sources of information, more permanent perhaps that millions of tweets that can become overwhelming for some." 

She notes, finally, that Twitter is a self-regulating system. She writes:

"The morning after the incidents began, there were unsubstantiated rumours that the Indian government was trying to block Twitter for security reasons. These were quashed or otherwise not re-tweeted since there was no confirmation from official sources. Twitter users also were quick to condemn mainstream media for broadcasting live details of every move by the police and the commandos, and every gunshot or explosion. These behaviours demonstrate a degree of self-regulation, self-correction and responsibility in the system."

Amy Gahran details on her blog how a rumor to stop tweeting to protect the integrity of the governmen's operations developed.  She writes:

"As far I can tell, the source for this alleged request by the Indian government is someone based in the U.S. who is monitoring the situation by remote online. He did not cite or link to a primary source for his allegation. It’s unknown whether he got this news firsthand, is repeating what he heard secondhand, or simply made it up. (I’m not saying he would fabricate that info; I’m just saying it’s possible that he could have done so — and that possibility needs to be ruled out before making this news worthy of repeating as fact.) On that basis, I personally would not repeat this rumor as fact.

That’s why, just now I asked Bao about his source: “@mumbaiupdates: What’s the source of your info that Indian government was seeking to curtail tweeting about #mumbai? Link or cite, please?”

However, this was a rumor that floated on Twitter for hours last night until fact-checked by other citizen and mainstream media reporters.

In the future it wil be useful for responsible citizen reporters to pause in the chaos (and sometimes somewhat voyeuristic excitement) of the events in the moment to distribute fact checking before repeating unverified rumors, or develop better standards to cite courses (as @mumbaiattacks does with citing CNN an other sources in its tweets now).  

Gharan points out:

"Media is increasingly unmediated. People are communicating directly. We don’t all have to be journalists, but we’d all be better off by adopting stronger media-literacy skills. Specifically, when you hear something that sounds surprising or important, check or ask for the primary source before you share the news. If something just sounds like common sense (like, “hey, it might be dangerous to tweet details of police movements, don’t do that”), there’s no need to appeal to authority (i.e., saying the government said so) to make people listen. That message stands on its own — and it may even hold more credibility as a peer recommendation than an order from “above.” However in this case, many, many well-meaning Twitter users simply repeated the alleged government request as if it is established fact. But if an important primary source (like a government official) did offer crucial or interesting information, say so clearly! Just a like when professional journalists rely on source documents or press releases, transparency counts! It doesn’t take much time to include a link in your tweet, or say you heard directly from a source."

Gauran has been keeping track of citizen reporting all night and in his excellent post point out: "Several bloggers are now discussing if Twitter has been a valid source of news during the Mumbai terrorist attacks — Mathew Ingram, Ewan McLeod, Jason Preston, Twitips, Tom, TechMacro, Riayn, Chris Maiorana, Laural Papworth, Stephen Collins, Amit Agarwal, Tim Malbon, Daily Twitter.

UPDATE:  Twitter - as have text messages and mobile video in other instances - has shown the power of "immediate media" with all of the inaccuracies of eyewitness reports who are often in the middle of an event and chaos. Twitter, in the case of Mumbai, also showed the danger of a 'play telephone' echo chamber where second-hand and false information was repeated at nauseam, often without a source. 

As the stand-off in Mumbai continued, most of the aggegating twitteres such as @mumbaiattacks started to source all of the tweets, indicating in a standard format like <> the source of a given piece of information -- most from live newsreports, such as IBN/CNN. 

But, as Om Malik on Gigaom pointes out, Twitter is usful for this "raw" media, unfiltered, unverified, and sometimes false. He notes:

"The future of media is being split into two streams" one that consists of raw news that comes like a torrent from sources such as Twitter, mobile messages and photos, the other, from old media.  The eyewitness dispatches (and photos) via social media are an adjunct to the more established media — which needs to focus on providing analysis, context, and crucially, intelligence — in real time. And yet it is old media — and their next-generation counterparts, the blogs and other Internet outlets — that will have to adapt to this."

We are in the middle of this revolution where we are immediately inundated, as events unfold in all their chaos and messiness, with unmediated raw data fragments and snippets that are not vetted, analyzed, or put into context.  Context and analysis comes over time and with more investigation by reporters, but often impressions and opinions are set by then through ppowerful pictures, videos, and words.  As societies and media consumers we have to, collectively, come to grips with what this means and become more skilled at producing, vetting, assessing, tactically using, and, at times, ignoring citizen media.

More on the role of mobiles in citizen media is in our new report "A Mobile Voice" that details how mobiles are being used in citizen reporting.

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