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The Problem with Tweeting a Revolution

Andy Carvin tweeted the Arab Spring. He still missed something by not being there.

John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images

During the most heated days of the Tahrir Square protests, Andy Carvin sent more than 1,000 tweets per day. He kept at it for 18 hours at a time, aggregating and crowdsourcing information from activists, freedom fighters, and (citizen) journalists. He submitted to sleep only as a biological necessity. For all this, Carvin, who is also a senior strategist at NPR, has been called “the man who tweets revolutions.” 

Now Carvin has produced a book chronicling his two years in the—what? the digital trenches? the Venn Diagram of laptop activism and journalistic aggregation? The answer isn't quite clear, because Carvin is the most prominent exemplar of something that may not yet have a name.

Carvin often refers to himself as a journalist, saying that he has “used social media to report remotely on uprisings in more than half a dozen countries.” But how much reporting Carvin does is open to debate. In Distant Witness, he doesn't pick up the phone once and is surprised when a contact initiates a call over Skype. Written by an experienced operator in a nebulous field, Distant Witness could have been the type of book that clarified the boundaries and the mission of this type of online journalism. As it is, the book is hamstrung by its own lack of self-awareness or sense of critical inquiry. What we have here is less of an acute assessment than a blind celebration.

Perhaps the first indication of the author’s blinkered view is his failure to examine his privileged place in the pre-existing journalistic infrastructure. Carvin continually cites the original reporting of professional journalists, yet his book tilts toward encomiums of “citizen journalists”—untrained amateurs who gather and broadcast information on their own. Carvin sees great potential in these people, even going so far as to argue that the “citizen” prefix is demeaning. (Journalism may be the only profession where some of its practitioners claim that anyone can do it; and these claims often come from people comfortably ensconced in positions in academia or at large media organizations.)

But Carvin himself is undeniably aided by the more traditional journalistic assets of a thick rolodex (or smartphone contact book). When his profligacy causes his Twitter account to lock up, he emails an executive, and he is quickly “whitelisted,” limitations removed. When a Syrian video service has its YouTube channel deleted (it was mistaken as a spammer), he contacts friends at Google, who restore it within the hour. Meanwhile, Carvin drapes himself with a populist mantle, as if the only difference between him and a citizen journalist is an NPR email address.

On the one hand, it’s hard to blame Carvin for his lack of introspection; he is perpetually sifting through a deluge of graphic videos, photos, and panicked tweets from imperiled activists. It’s all he can do not to be overwhelmed. Carvin's reactions to these media are sometimes unreasonable—a fact he recognizes but doesn't bother to analyze or correct. When following events in Bahrain, he becomes upset as security forces attack protesters: “I began to feel guilty about it. But I couldn't shake the feeling that I had somehow experienced the attack with them.” This book would seem to be the place to unpack that feeling, but that's the end of it.

Instead, Carvin's “witnessing” leans toward identification, as well as a desire to participate that seems violate established journalistic practices. During the Libyan uprising, Carvin is asleep when Mohammed Nabbous, an activist known for livestreaming protests, is killed in Benghazi. “Irrational as it might sound,” Carvin writes, “I felt I wasn’t there when he needed me most. … I might've been able to save him?” Some of his Twitter friends talk him down, and he admits that “there's nothing I could've done. I just could've been there to bear witness. RIP Mo.” 

Amidst his grief, Carvin learns that France has sent warplanes to protect Benghazi's citizens. The journalist is awestruck: “Incredible—the NATO fighter planes that Mo had demanded in his final days were likely taking off when he was killed. He didn't live long enough to find out that he had succeeded in helping save Benghazi.” Carvin's reaction is misguided and presumptive. We have no evidence that Nabbous's calls for NATO intervention pushed the alliance to action. We don’t know—because Carvin doesn't bother to investigate—how influential Nabbous's broadcasts were. Despite Carvin's marveling, we don't know if NATO planes were taking off when Nabbous was killed. But this is typical of Carvin's method: find some weak correlation between social media broadcasts and on-the-ground events and present it as remarkable.

The tenuous connection-drawing is at work when Carvin describes an American contact named Steen Kirby, aka @NolesFan2011, who put together “manuals on a wide variety of military and medical topics, then had them translated into Arabic and shipped off to Libya.” This “virtual help desk for the militias” seems to validate the revolutionary potential of social media. (An additional layer of gloss is provided by the revelation that Kirby is only 15.) One Libyan activist claims that the manuals were “a huge asset.” But the story receives no further vetting. Carvin doesn't bother to contact any freedom-fighters who used the manuals or experts who could judge their quality. Existing only in sensational outline, the tale affirms its teller's techno-utopian vision.

Carvin's overly optimistic attitude toward the extent of his witnessing is similarly problematic. As the book's title indicates, he considers himself “merely a distant witness to these events, but a witness nonetheless.” But he spends little time wondering what this really means—whether, say, distant witnessing is less genuine, or less useful, than on-the-ground observation. Take the case of Tarek Shalaby, an Egyptian activist who was accosted by an Egyptian officer while transmitting a livestream from his smartphone; the phone continued transmitting—albeit only garbled audio—after it was snatched by the officer. Carvin exults that “thousands of people around the world got to witness Tarek's arrest.” Perhaps, but the information being transmitted is nearly indecipherable. Whether Carvin and his fellow digital observers actually witnessed anything remains unclear.

The larger problem with untempered optimism—for a journalist—is that it can become credulity. Watching a video of a wounded “toddler being readied for surgery,” Carvin admires how some men delicately tend to the boy, washing his wounds. He tweets the video. Twenty minutes later, a response comes in, telling Carvin that the child was dead; the men were washing the boy before his funeral, as called for by Muslim custom. “I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach,” Carvin writes. “I thought I might vomit.” He wonders, “How could I have been so stupid?”—emphasis his—and apologizes to his followers.

The answer might be in the degree to which Carvin is cavalier about his sources: about some Libyan Twitter contacts, he remarks, “there was something about the tone of their tweets, not to mention the level of detail they offered, that rang authentic.” Separately, Carvin never considers if his sources—mostly urban, English-speaking, smartphone-owning members of the middle and upper classes—offer him a limited view of events. What is he missing that a journalist in touch with people who only speak Arabic, or who live in impoverished rural areas, might pick up on?

One might excuse Carvin's blunders as forgivable errors brought on by the pace of events, but the more egregious aspect is both how numerous such incidents are and how little self-reflection they produce. Carvin abides by the credo that the Twittersphere has a self-correcting tendency. Better to tweet the information, perhaps with a caveat attached, and let the hive mind sort it out. (Meanwhile, you’ll rack up credit for every micro-scoop.)

While there may be wisdom in crowds, there is also distortion, panic, and falsity. An adept digital journalist should not only be able to make rapid judgments about which is which; he should also acknowledge the limitations of the medium in which he is working. Social-media journalism—or whatever one might call it—needs philosophers and ethicists. In Distant Witness, it's gotten a wide-eyed evangelist.

At the end of the book, Carvin finally leaves D.C. and travels to Egypt. In post-revolution Cairo, a meet-up with some of his sources is interrupted by a confrontation between protesters and police in nearby Tahrir Square. They head over to investigate. (Finally, a reader thinks, a chance for some first-hand reporting.) Carvin runs into Bouthaina Kamel, a former presidential candidate. They exchange pleasant greetings, before Kamel, resplendent in her bravery, walks through a cloud of tear gas toward the square. Surrounded by protestors, cops, and acrid gas, Carvin is less sanguine. He leaves the area and soon relaxes: “I took out my phone again and caught up on my Twitter timeline. Within a minute or two, I felt I had a better understanding of what was going on than I did the entire time I was actually there.”

Jacob Silverman is writing a book about social media and Internet culture for HarperCollins. Follow @silvermanjacob