Lost in #Haiti

How Haiti's disaster showed Twitter's limits as a news medium.

If Iran's post-election uprising last summer was the world's first "Twitter revolution," the massive Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti was the first "Twitter disaster." In a sign of how much the media landscape has changed since the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 or Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Twitter users around the world quickly turned to the massively popular microblogging site to read the latest news, express their sympathy, and learn how to help. Haiti quickly became the site's top "trending topic," edging out such favorites as #TeamConan and #nowTHATSghetto.

In an effort to catch the wave, established media sources like the News York Times and CNN used Twitter's new list feature to set up aggregator feeds featuring the latest updates from the ground in Haiti. The tweeting fever did not let up in the days that followed. On Wednesday Jan. 20, more than a week after the original quake, a rush of Twitter activity following news of new aftershocks in Port-au-Prince actually shut down the site.

It's clear that Twitter became a portal for people looking to connect about the tragedy -- just click the #Haiti hashtag and then refresh after three seconds if you don't believe me. But did Twitter actually replace other, more old-school media as a means for staying informed about events on the ground?

Unsurprisingly, instead of offering news, the vast majority of Haiti-related tweets seem to consist of either expressions of personal sympathy for the victims of the quake or links to news articles from other sites. Foreign reporters, including CNN's Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta, tweeted their impressions, but these were more of a supplement to their coverage than actual works of reporting. Foundations like Doctors Without Borders and CARE provided Twitter updates on their efforts, but these were of little interest to those not directly involved in the relief effort -- who presumably had more reliable sources of information anyway.

Then there was the dark side. False rumors quickly began to spread on Twitter about relief initiatives that didn't exist. A Twitter message stating that UPS was shipping free to Haiti and another that U.S. airlines were flying doctors to the country for free -- when in fact, the country was completely closed to commercial flights in the days following the earthquake -- led those companies to be deluged with phone calls and requests they couldn't answer.

Twitter can occasionally be an effective means of organization -- Tweets played a role in the online campaign to pressure the U.S. Air Force into opening the Port-au-Prince airport to aid flights -- but they can just as often lead well-meaning readers astray, particularly when there's celebrity involved. Haitian-born musician Wyclef Jean quickly became one of the most popular Haiti-tweeters as he traveled to his home country to help with the relief effort and urged readers to donate to his Yele Foundation. (#Yele was a top trending topic in the immediate aftermath of the quake.) But concerns were quickly raised over the foundation's financial irregularities and ability to deal with a problem the size of the earthquake. Many in the development community resented that Jean's group was diverting funds away from groups better equipped to respond.

In fact, though it's often said that new technologies like Twitter can empower individuals to communicate directly to a large audience, those who seemed to be benefiting most from it during this crisis were mainstream news outlets, who have the manpower to pick out the decent information from Twitter for more discerning readers; foundations and charities looking to raise money, whether deserving or not; and government agencies publicizing their own efforts.

If anything, the few tweets resembling news -- generated by genuinely engaged tweeters like musician Richard Morse or the New York Times' Damien Cave -- only pointed out the limitations of Twitter as a news medium. A tweet like Cave's "Navy helicopters circling the embassy now. More military on the way. Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti -- different, but all nation building?" is more of a teaser for his articles than an informative statement. Is there value in readers in the United States and Europe knowing that a particular store in downtown Port-au-Prince had been ransacked or a particular building in Jacmel had collapsed rather than waiting for a more comprehensive roundup of these events in the Times or on CNN?

In the past two decades, the news cycle has gone from the daily updates of newspapers to the up-to-the-minute coverage of cable news and the blogosphere to the up-to-the second updates of Twitter. It's possible that we may have reached a point where information is being provided faster than users can process it, and the "news" ceases to inform at all.

Top Tweeters
Although in aggregate, the Haiti quake might not have been Twitter’s finest hour, there were those using the site to provide interesting updates and valuable news.

Richard Morse (@RAMhaiti) A Haitian-American musician and hotel manager living in Port-au-Prince
Frederic DuPoux (@fredodupoux) Port-au-Prince-based blogger and photographer
Amstyl Polycarpe (@apolycarpe) An IT specialist based in Delmas Carel Pedre (@carelpedre) An earthquake survivor in Port-au-Prince.
Multilink Haiti (@InternetHaiti) The feed of a Haitian Internet services company.
Troy Livesay (@troylivesay) A Port-au-Prince-based missionary.

New York Times (@HaitiRecovery) The Times’ official Haiti feed.
Maria Sacchetti (@mariasacchetti) Immigration reporter for the Boston Globe.
Damien Cave (@damiencave) New York Times, Miami bureau chief
Jacqueline Charles (@jacquiecharles) Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald
Joanna Smith (@smithjoanna) Political reporter for the Toronto Star
Amy Walters (@AWaltersNPR) NPR Ccorrespondent
Amy Wilentz (@amywiletz) Freelance journalist and professor at the University of California at Irvine
Anderson Cooper (@andersoncooper) CNN anchor and correspondent
Sanjay Gupta (@sanjayguptaCNN) CNN medical correspondent

United Nations (@UNHaitiInfo) -- The United Nations' official feed for Haiti updates
Mission Manna (@MissionMANNA) A Christian charity based in the Haitian town of Montrouis
Doctors Without Borders (@MSF_USA)


The Worst of the Worst

These are some of the jihadi pundits who are making waves on al Qaeda's Web forums today -- and could potentially trade their keyboards for suicide vests tomorrow.

Asad al-Jihad2

Who is he? The most flamboyant and popular jihadi pundit currently on the forums. His recent announcement that he was "logging back on" after a hiatus has reinvigorated online participants who have been eagerly anticipating his return.

Sample quote: "I will disclose something about [myself]: When I see the planes hitting the towers, I exclaim loudly 'God is Great.'  I cannot hide my happiness every time I see this clip, which heals Muslims' chests, praise be to God first and foremost."


Abd al-Rahman al-Faqir

Who is he? A senior jihadi pundit whose work concentrates heavily on the role of the media and perception management. His essays have been amassed into a 290-page compilation book and reposted on jihadi forums.

Sample quote: "There is nothing more dangerous to the United States than stirring up social issues and mobilizing racial groups, as well as focusing on the class system that is unique to this, the largest capitalist nation in the world.... I am willing to donate $10 to Obama for his fulfillment of a personal favor and for his success in instigating racial tension in the United States when it was unable to find anyone to stir it up."


Hafid al-Hussain

Who is he? A popular jihadi Web activist and instigator. He has sought to call attention within the al Qaeda Internet forums to a number of campaigns. One initiative was designed to enlist members of four premier al Qaeda forums to invade American websites and spread al Qaeda messages. He has also promoted a campaign to convince men to marry the widows of dead martyrdom operatives.

Sample quote: "Therefore, we encourage the followers of the master of prophets Muhammad (prayers and peace be upon him) and the sisters and brothers to be considerate of this matter, and perpetually to publicize and upload it to the forums, urging and encouraging the brothers in the Hijaz, Egypt, Syria, and the Islamic Maghreb to marry the wives of martyrs. This is in order to protect the Sunni girls and save the honor of your sisters and the orphans. O brothers in Islam, is this difficult?"


Shaykh Abu-Abd-al-Rahman al-Yafi'i

Who is he? A newer pundit who has seized the forums' attention with his playful writing style that draws on puns, poetry, excessive hyperbole, and irony. He tends to make arguments that bifurcate the world into good Muslims and others. Importantly, he makes ample use of Quranic and Hadith justification in his arguments, a quality that distinguishes him from most other pundits and substantiates his use of "Shaykh" in his pseudonym.

Sample quote: "The shaykhs of the Marines and all Arab and non-Arab 'Marines intellectuals' know very well that they are orbiting the worldwide terrorist campaign to defame the intentions of the Muslim mujahideen, who seek to resume the caliphate on the path of the Prophet and to remove all obstacles on the way to achieve that noble mission and sacred ordainment.... By God, I feel sorry for your reality, you miserable people. How can you judge the mujahideen for their mistakes, they are certainly not angels, while your eating, drinking, standing, sitting, sleeping, and traveling are a worse sin, which is abstaining from ordained jihad in due time. By God, the movements of the mujahideen -- standing, sitting, laughter, sleeping, waking, eating, and drinking -- are all good deeds."


Abu Shadiyah

Who is he? A rising star in the jihadi forums. Cocky and brash, yet formal in his writing style, Abu Shadiyah has amassed a huge following in a short amount of time. Some of his writings take the form of poetry.

Sample quote: "Al Qaeda is the one who will carry out the pre-emptive strike
Al Qaeda is the one who outlines the features of the battle
Al Qaeda is the one who drags the enemy into the battlefield
Al Qaeda is the one who sets the zero hour
Al Qaeda is the one who makes peace and make truces. It is the one who fights and carries out strikes."


Ziyad Abu Tariq

Who is he? Abu Tariq has been publishing since 2007 on the jihadi forums. His essays often focus on the role of jihadi pundits and the reasons these forums and media groups exist.

Sample quote: "On the media side, al Qaeda surely relies on advocate authors. This fact clearly suggests the wide horizons of al Qaeda because there are many ideas to be read between the lines.... [W]hen al Qaeda wants to convey messages ... it appoints one of its great scholars to undertake this task using the jihadist forums.... [Asad al-Jihad2] has conveyed many messages for al Qaeda to the followers as well as the opponents.... 'Yaman Mukhaddab' has posed terrifying questions to the enemy's face that made them nervously cower. The professional 'Abu Shadiyah' dots the i's and crosses the t's and clarifies the way of dissolving alliances. 'Ubadah Bin-Samit' kills them silently and opens the fire of his limited and unlimited media fronts on them. The fingers of 'Husni Salamah' take their breath away and tighten the grip around their throats. The general administrator 'Mujahid' attacks them with his raid of glory and enablement, invades their borders, and drives them crazy. 'Hadi al-Arwah' takes them to the basements of nightmares and sadness with his realistic analysis of al Qaeda threats. The very witty 'Muhami al-Dawlah' makes them feel depressed and starts the bidding with 200 killed persons, hopes for 100,000, and increases the number."


Shaykh Abu Ahmad Abd al-Rahman al-Masri

Who is he? An old-hand Egyptian jihadi author who now publishes a prolific number of essays and short monographs. Beyond the al Qaeda Web forums, a number of more formal jihadi media outlets and magazines have begun publishing his work, which suggests that he is becoming a more trusted personality in the inner rings of al Qaeda's movement. Recent reports have surfaced that he is ill, which could really mean that he is sick -- or potentially is code for being under duress.

Sample quote: "O Muslim masses everywhere, this blood cannot be stopped except by blood. This fear will not be killed except by blood. The body and sins of the ummah [the Muslim community] will not be purified except by blood."


Yaman Mukhaddab

Who is he? A revered jihadi analyst who is rumored to be "close" to al Qaeda. After a short posting hiatus, Mukhaddab returned in September 2009, though the pace of his writings has decreased noticeably. His writings are premised on the idea that al Qaeda is very clear about its strategy and goals. All jihadists need do is listen carefully to understand their rationale. His recent writings about the need to attack Germany were well received in the jihadi forums.

Sample quote: "I expected a decisive announcement from al Qaeda ... 15 days from my having written an article on this subject here in al-Hisbah.... By the grace of God, Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir's announcement of the beginning of a new stage different from its predecessors came out 16 days from the date of my writing the article. This success that God granted me in deducing the plans of al Qaeda ... gives me confidence to believe -- and God knows best -- that I have understood and comprehended al Qaeda's strategy and implementation plans very well.