It began, as so many things do nowadays, with a tweet.
Breaking: Huge explosions shook the city in what might be the beginning of US airstrikes on ISIS HQs in Raqqa— Abdulkader Hariri (@3bdUlkaed6r) September 23, 2014
A Syrian man named Abdulkader Hariri broke news of US attacks on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria Monday night. And he did so, very simply, thanks to proximity. “They were relatively close,” Hariri later told Vanity Fair. “So I tweeted the news like I usually do when something happens in my city.” Professional American journalists played catchup for 27 minutes, when a Pentagon spokesman formally announced the airstrikes — in a tweet, no less.
This American war will be different than its predecessors, not only because of the complexity of the nation’s enemy or the lack of ground troops to combat it, but also because few Western journalists dare venture into ISIS-controlled regions where most fighting will take place. It’s exceedingly dangerous to report in such areas — the murders of Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff both shocked in their brutality — and news organizations such as Agence France-Presse and The Washington Post have begun refusing work from freelancers there. “We know in this war, so far, what it looks like for the bombs to be launched,” Rachel Maddow said on her show Tuesday, referencing videos of missile launches released by the Pentagon this week. “We have no idea what it looks like for the bombs to land.”
But a lack of American journalists in the warzone doesn’t reduce Americans’ need for news of the war, so media outlets face a quandary. They can rely on the relatively slow-paced distribution of information by the US government, providing a one-sided view of events at best. Or they can seek out the Hariris of the world, the local observers who will break news or share images of military operations and their aftermath on social media. While not ideal, these reports are in many cases outlets’ best chance to remedy the absence of professional reporters on the ground.
But there’s an obvious catch. “The temptation, of course, is to hit that retweet button,” said Andy Carvin, engagement editor at First Look Media. “And that’s when things get more complex.”
CJR has written previously about the difficulty of covering live or breaking news on social media, including presidential debates and airline crashes. But armed conflict is different, especially when US bombs are being dropped and US service members are in the line of fire. Social media allows news organizations to gather and share at least some of that important information, and to do so safely. It creates an additional challenge, however, of making sure the text, videos, or photos found are authentic.
Carvin, dubbed “the man who tweets revolutions” during the Arab uprisings in 2011, said he’s spent the past three years building up Twitter and Facebook source lists in Syria. “You have to put the same effort in with social media as you do reporting anywhere else,” he said. And the worst thing for American journalists following the action today, he added, would be to jump in without having woven such a web.
“When a name pops up that I never heard of, the first thing I do is try to find out if they have a paper trail,” Carvin said by phone. “I get nervous when I see Twitter accounts that are very, very new and aren’t being followed by a lot of people. I feel more comfortable when I can dig into a Twitter user’s history and see what they’ve been talking about, and with who.”
Of course, Carvin views Twitter “more as a collaborative newsroom rather than a newswire,” he said. “So my twitter followers are accustomed to me as sharing something as questions rather than facts.” In this sense, he embodies a digital variation of shoe-leather reporting, cultivating sources — followers — and constantly pounding the pavement in the form of his Twitter lists and various Facebook groups.
Such a method could pay especially large dividends in Syria, where the social media landscape has matured over three years of civil war, said Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat, a website devoted to reporting on Syria and elsewhere with open-source tools. Due to limited internet access across the war-torn country, sharing is concentrated around specific nodes, usually towns’ Facebook pages or YouTube channels. When evaluating breaking news reports, Higgins wrote in an email, “if you know what these social media channels are you can quickly find where all the information is being shared.”
Aftermath This photo, provided by anti-Bashar Assad activist group Edlib News Network and authenticated by the AP, shows Syrian citizens on Tuesday checking a damaged house that they say was targeted by coalition airstrikes. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network)
But training entire newsrooms in such a technique would not be simple. Reporters covering the war on ISIS will largely have to learn as they go. “That is the job of all our journalists here, especially those covering specific topics mentioned on social media,” Cassandra Garrison, Reuters’ social media and live news editor, wrote in an email.
Reuters uses Storyful to help authenticate user-generated content spreading on social media, Garrison said. And a number of other verification services have also begun sprouting up. Dataminr’s algorithm, for example, combines geolocation with real-time evaluation of tweet clusters, user histories and linguistics, among other variables, to determine if news is breaking.
The Associated Press has an “elaborate” authentication process, said Eric Carvin, AP’s social media editor (and brother of Andy Carvin). While the wire service employs photo and video experts to examine content culled from social media, reporters in the region will have the most important voice in such judgements. “They know the geography, the language, and the culture very well,” Eric Carvin said.
“In terms of getting the big news breaks and tips from the ground, that’s handled mostly by people in the field,” he added. “It’s an expectation as part of the job now…It’s all about source-building. If you’re a reporter, part of being good at cultivating sources is cultivating sources on Twitter.”