Looking back at the early promise of Twitter with Andy Carvin and the Arab Spring

With Twitter apparently on the verge of falling into the hands of billionaire troll Elon Musk (or maybe not), I thought back to a time when we thought it could be used as a force for good. More specifically, I thought back to a story broadcast on the “PBS NewsHour” 11 years ago (above) in which Andy Carvin, then with NPR, talked about how he was using it to track the Arab Spring uprisings that engulfed Tunisia and, later, Egypt and beyond.

This is a great story, and I hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch it. I used to show it to my students as a demonstration of how Twitter could be used to track news in real time. If I showed it to them now, it would be as a historical artifact.

Carvin began with about a half dozen people in the Middle East who he was already following on Twitter — what interviewer Hari Sreenivasan called Carvin’s “first ring of trust.” From there, Carvin looked at who those people were following. He’d engage in private conversations via DM to add to his circle, building a “mental map” and explaining: “It doesn’t mean that they’re all reliable. It does mean that they’re all talking to each other.”

Carvin also discussed his methods, some of which I would not recommend today given the toxic cesspool that Twitter has become. “I see my Twitter feed as an open newsgathering operation,” he said, explaining he would often retweet items with comments such as “Source?” or “Verified?”

In one such instance, he said he retweeted a sign being held by protesters in Iran that showed three prominent politicians photoshopped to make it appear they were about to be hanged. He was able to verify that the sign was real. Today, given that Twitter has long since grown beyond a small conversation among a fairly sophisticated community, that sort of activity would be called out for promoting misinformation and probably removed by Twitter. (But maybe not after Musk takes over.)

Carvin talked about what was then the surreal experience, now fairly common, of watching live coverage of the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square while using Twitter to follow people on the ground. “You don’t necessarily get complete situational awareness,” he said. “But you get a pretty close proximity to it.” Just a few years later, in 2014, many of us followed the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement on Twitter as protests broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing of Michael Brown — protests that television didn’t catch up with for many hours.

Carvin also discussed the overwhelming nature of social media, saying he would check tweets on his phone while making dinner, lay off while eating with his family and reading to his kids, and then go back to TweetDeck until nearly midnight to keep up with the latest. Of course, Carvin was a journalist covering vitally important live events, and his routine was certainly less exhausting than being a reporter on the scene. If you leave that aside, though, it speaks to the difficulty we’ve all had of achieving any sort of work-life balance in the age of always-on digital technology.

“I don’t know how to juggle all this,” he said. “I’m kind of hoping that others will be able to come in and do similar things. I probably will reach some saturation point at some point. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting pretty close.”

Twitter remains a valuable tool for journalists, but it’s fallen far short of its initial promise. It’s hard to see how Musk is going to make it better. Even after reaching a deal to buy the platform, he was attacking top executives at Twitter, unleashing his army of trolls. It has not been a good week — or, as the Carvin video reminds us — a good decade for any of us who are interested in preserving some sliver of civil online discourse.

Why Sri Lanka’s shutdown of social media was met mainly with applause

Roman Catholic church in Sri Lanka. Photo (cc) 2010 by Ronald Saunders.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Eight years ago, Western observers were appalled when then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak cut off internet access in the midst of the Arab Spring uprisings. Back then, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media were seen as tools of liberation, empowering ordinary citizens to stand up against the forces of repression.

Alec Ross, a top aide to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state, went so far as to call the internet “the Che Guevara of the 21st century,” enthusing: “Dictatorships are now more vulnerable than they have ever been before, in part — but not entirely — because of the devolution of power from the nation state to the individual.”

What a long, ugly trip it has been since those hopeful days. How bad has it gotten? When the Sri Lankan government shut down Facebook and other social platforms following Sunday’s deadly terrorist attacks on churches and hotels, many people applauded, citing social media’s seemingly unlimited potential to spread dangerous rumors and incite more violence. Leading the charge was Kara Swisher, a longtime technology journalist who now writes a column for The New York Times.

“It pains me as a journalist, and someone who once believed that a worldwide communications medium would herald more tolerance, to admit this — to say that my first instinct was to turn it all off,” Swisher wrote. “But it has become clear to me with every incident that the greatest experiment in human interaction in the history of the world continues to fail in ever more dangerous ways.”

Ivan Sigal, the executive director of Global Voices, a project founded at Harvard Law School for the express purpose of giving a voice to citizen journalists across the world, took to Twitter to praise Sri Lanka’s action, as noted by CNN. “A few years ago we’d view the blocking of social media sites after an attack as outrageous censorship; now we think of it as essential duty of care, to protect ourselves from threat,” said Sigal. “#facebook your house is not in order.”

Needless to say, we’ve learned a lot since those heady days when we believed that social media would bring people together, leading to a utopian world community overflowing with peace, love, and understanding. The dark side has become ever more prevalent in recent years as Facebook and its ilk have fostered the rise of right-wing populism from the Philippines to Hungary, from the United Kingdom to the United States.

Sometimes it’s because bad actors have manipulated the platforms, as the Russians did during the 2016 U.S. election — or, more tragically, as the military in Myanmar did in whipping up genocidal violence against that country’s Muslim minority. Sometimes it’s because the platforms work exactly the way they’re supposed to. Facebook, with its 2.3 billion active monthly users, relies on algorithms that keep those users online and engaged — and the most effective way to do that is to serve up content that appeals to their sense of outrage and grievance.

In his book “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy,” Siva Vaidhyanathan argues that the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, is naive and idealistic rather than deliberately destructive — but that makes him no less nefarious an actor. “Mark Zuckerberg is profoundly uneducated,” Vaidhyanathan writes. “He lacks an appreciation for nuance, complexity, contingency, or even difficulty. Zuckerberg has a vibrant moral passion. But he lacks a historical sense of the horrible things that humans are capable of doing to each other and the planet.”

As BuzzFeed News noted, not everyone applauded the Sri Lankan government’s social shutdown. Some pointed out that Facebook and other platforms are among the few means that ordinary people have to stay in touch with their friends and family members and to check on their safety. Others said that the privileged (not to mention the terrorists themselves) would not be affected, as they could simply use a VPN — that is, a virtual private network — to get around the censorship decree.

“Curbing civil liberties and civil rights doesn’t make people more safe,” Allie Funk of the nonprofit organization Freedom House told Wired. “These are societal issues that are going to take long-term solutions.”

Facebook itself said in a statement: “People rely on our services to communicate with their loved ones and we are committed to maintaining our services and to helping the community and the country during this tragic time.”

CNN’s daily media newsletter asked: “Have we really reached a moment where a government being able to shut down the world’s most important social media platforms is better than having the platforms up and running after a terrorist attack, misinformation and all?”

It would appear that the answer to that question is yes. Yes, it is better. Simply put, social media, and especially Facebook, have not just failed to live up to their promise — they’ve been a detriment across the world, undermining democracy, stirring up hatred, and costing lives.

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