How to Tweet a revolution – the future in our hands

With only a phone, a laptop and a Twitter account, Andy Carvin reported on the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions from his home in Washington DC. Bridget Fitzgerald went along to hear Carvin give his speech on Tweeting the Arab Spring, to close the New News conference.

Andy Carvin is a senior strategist for US public service radio broadcaster National Public Radio (NPR). But he is famous for using Twitter to report on the 2011 revolutionary events in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and other uprisings across the Middle East known as the Arab Spring.

A proficient user of the medium, Carvin said he noticed something awry when he started to see the hashtag #sidibouzid in late 2010.

He said he did not know what it meant, but he knew it had something to do with Tunisia, a place he had spent time in a few years earlier.

Carvin used Twitter to  investigate who was using the hashtag, who those people were following, and who was following them.

Then, on December 29 he tweeted.

 “Following protest in Tunisia via #sidibouzid. Wonder what the chances of all of this leading to a “jasmine revolution”. Don’t know”.

This was just the beginning.

Carvin said that after the Tunisian uprisings there was a tweet that read, “Ok Arabs you’ve seen how it’s done in Tunisia; Tag you’re it!”.

“Within a matter of days, I started seeing references to (former Egyptian president) Hosni Mubarak,” he said.

It was then he started investigating Egypt. Not long after that, it was Libya, and then Syria. The revolution was spreading and he was doing his best to “keep up”.

Every time he received new information, he tweeted it and asked what people thought. He used his Arabic speaking followers as translators, and asked people who had visited or lived in these countries to fact-check.

“People were pointing out different facts about video and photos that were emerging,” he said.

“My Twitter followers were putting together all this ‘forensic analysis’ of information.”

He said as well as asking people directly for help, he observed their interaction to better understand who to talk to, who was involved in protests, and how they spoke to each other on Twitter.

“I listened to their conversations to determine who they trusted,” he said.

Carvin said he did play a part in spreading information about the Arab Spring uprisings but said he was not a journalist in a traditional sense.

“I can do the big picture of what is going on, but I can’t do the ‘look in the eye’ reporting,” he said.

He said social media was an important tool for journalists who were willing to test out something new.

“The only way news media is going to innovate is if we experiment first,” he said.

And what is the difference between traditional media audiences and Carvin’s Twitter following?

He said it was the intimacy.

“They say goodnight to me, they ask if my daughter is feeling better,” he said.