When the uprising in Tunisia began last winter, as most Western media outlets stayed away, Andy Carvin (@acarvin), a digital strategist at NPR, began tweeting fragmentary reports of protests, violence, and salutary acts of courage uploaded by "citizen journalists" -- ordinary Tunisians capturing the revolution in real time. Since then, Carvin has been the world's go-to source on the Arab revolt, tracking gripping and often bloody news and footage on his Twitter feed. He spoke with FP's Blake Hounshell about his one-man "editorial policies" and the unique dilemmas of new journalism. Excerpts:
FOREIGN POLICY: On Twitter, you've become a sort of advocate for sharing really gruesome images. You've tweeted a lot of horrifying videos from Libya, Syria, etc., and I know you have a philosophy behind that. Tell me what you're thinking when you share these images.
ANDY CARVIN: I don't think of myself as arguing for gruesome photos and I'm not this ‘Grim Reaper' or anything like that. But I think the way the media handles images of violence during war is changing because of the Internet. If you go back as recently as, 15 or 20 years ago when the Internet wasn't a primary way of people getting access to information, you have mass media -- broadcast media, print -- as the way people would get much of their news, for visual news.
And given the fact that it wouldn't be that unusual for a family to have a newspaper sitting on their breakfast table each morning, it made a lot of sense in not putting photos above the fold on the front page that would be rather gruesome. It doesn't seem appropriate. It's the same way when families would traditionally watch the 6:30 evening news, because it was such a mass audience. I think they tried to be careful about what they showed. (Though there were always exceptions, especially during Vietnam: the famous photo of the naked Vietnamese girl who had been burned by napalm or the general shooting the Viet Cong in the head. There have definitely been times when shocking photos and footage were shown, but it was always the exception and not the rule.)
Then you have the Internet coming along, and the revolutions that have been happening over the last five months. First of all, a lot of the footage that came out of Libya, especially early on, was purely because of members of the public capturing it through their smartphones or their Flipcams or whatever they happened to have. There was no Western presence there, and so they were making their own decisions about what to upload, and often it was uncensored and quite gruesome. And it certainly helped the Western media, helped informed them of what was going on. Because the Internet is essentially a series of choices, I think it's easier to point out those types of footage.
So, for example, if I've shared a video of something that's rather disturbing -- first of all, you need to be following me on Twitter to be exposed to it, or following someone on Twitter who's retweeted it. And then secondly, you have to choose to open it. I never post anything as a surprise. If there's footage of a group of soldiers who have had their arms tied behind their backs and been executed because they've refused to shoot protesters, I will explain that in my tweet with the link to it, because I don't want people to accidentally click on it and see something they're not prepared for. There are even times when I'll say, ‘Here's the link to something but I recommend you actually not watch it because it is too disturbing.' But I think it's important to keep a record of all of this footage.
So much is getting lost already. We're probably only seeing a small fraction of the footage that's being captured by members of the public in North Africa and the Middle East. And it would be difficult to tell the story of what's actually going on the ground if we didn't actually know what the footage shows. It's too easy for us to sanitize war and the fact that these people who are caught in the middle of it are essentially screaming out through YouTube and through Twitter and Flickr and Facebook: ‘This is what's happening to us.' I think the public would find it hypocritical if we didn't acknowledge it. People can find this stuff anyway, if they want to.
It's one of the reasons why there's been a lot of commentary about how the media handled bin Laden's death. People were talking about it on Twitter for 90 minutes or two hours before Obama spoke and newscasters on TV were struggling to figure out what to say. They didn't know how far to take it and what to acknowledge even though pretty much everyone knew that this was what was going to be the announcement.
FP: The irony, by the way, was it was actually a TV station that tipped off Rumsfeld's guy.
FP: And then he tweeted it.
AC: Right. There's always this cycle; it's an echo chamber, and if you're not paying careful attention, you don't know who started it. So within, I don't know, 20 minutes of Obama giving his speech, I saw on Twitter people sending around this photo that looked like Osama bin Laden being shot in the head, or actually shot in the eye.
And the first thing I did, I did an image search for it and within 2 minutes I found it on a blog from last year, talking about a conspiracy theory about him being dead for years, and that was the proof of it. So clearly this was a photo that had been floating around for a while, and it was just resurfacing. So before I went to bed that night, I said, "OK folks, this particular photo? Debunked. Let's pass that along." Meanwhile, it got picked up by a number of other news sources the following day and members of Congress saw it and thought it was real and mentioned publicly that they had seen the photo.