The Phone That Helped Andy Carvin Report the Arab Spring is Now in the Smithsonian

The NPR reporter talks about how he was able to factcheck tweets amid the rush of information in 2011

NPR’s Andy Carvin
NPR’s Andy Carvin has donated the iPhone he used during the Arab Spring to the American History Museum. Photo by Andy Carvin

Andy Carvin is a man of many titles—“digital media anchor,” “real-time news DJ” and “online community organizer,” to name a few—but the one he is most comfortable with is “storyteller.” NPR‘s social media strategist, Carvin used Twitter during the Arab Spring to communicate with protesters in the Middle East and verify eyewitness accounts from the front lines, most of the time while he was on his iPhone in the United States. He recently published a book about his work, Distant Witness.

Carvin has donated his old phone to the American History Museum, which will include it in “American Enterprise,” a 2015 exhibition on the role of innovation in the nation’s emergence as a world power. “Engaging with people through my phone on Twitter was a story itself,” he says of his reporting in 2011. Carvin, who still tweets up to 16 hours a day, sees his work as a “form of real-time storytelling…sorting itself out, 140 characters at a time.”

See how the process works in this selection of tweets, and read on for our interview with Carvin on social media in journalism:

How did you use this phone during the Arab Spring?

My job at NPR is to be a journalistic test pilot: I experiment with new ways of conducting journalism and figure out what works and what doesn’t. At the beginning of the Arab Spring, I had contacts in Tunisia and other parts of the region who were talking about protests through Twitter and other social media. Initially I was simply retweeting what they were saying, but as the revolutions expanded from one country to another, I ended up using Twitter to create an online community of volunteers who served as sources, translators and researchers for me. We would all engage with each other mostly through my mobile phone, trying to sort out what was true and what wasn’t.

From 2011 to 2012, I was on Twitter upwards of 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, much of the time on that phone, and rarely in the places where these revolutions were taking place. I don’t have a background as a combat reporter, so this was very much an experiment in collaborative, virtual reporting, in which ultimately my iPhone and Twitter served as the focal points.

I was mostly in the U.S. while this was going on, but I made trips to Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and a number of other countries in the region. I discovered very quickly that when I would be in a place like Tahrir Square in Egypt, I found it really hard to get a big picture of what was going on, simply because when you’re surrounded by tear gas and people throwing rocks, you have a fairly limited field of view. Once I could get away from that scene and get back online, over my phone, I’d immediately have contact with dozens of sources across the field of battle who could help paint this picture for me and give me the type of situational awareness that I actually didn’t have when I was there in person.

A lot of your social media work was fact-checking or fact verification. Did you then funnel those facts to NPR or other journalists?

It varied. I was regularly in contact with our reporters on the ground, so as I discovered things that seemed relevant to our reporting on air and online, it would get incorporated into that work. But much of the time, the goal was to do a long-term experiment in social media and mobile journalism in which I wasn’t working under the assumption that my tweets would ultimately develop into some type of news product, like a blog post or a radio piece. Instead, engaging with people through my phone on Twitter was the story itself. It was the experience of being part of this real-time rollercoaster, with me essentially as a broadcast host trying to explain to people what was going on, what’s true, what’s not—but doing it through Twitter and pulling in people who are on the ground, using these same mobile technologies to share their experiences in real time.

worked in parallel to our other reporting methods. It certainly wasn’t a replacement to our foreign correspondents being on the ground in all these places. If anything, it complemented that kind of journalism.

But Twitter can also amplify rumors and spread false reports very quickly. How do you answer that criticism?

All we have to do is look at the last year or two to see a vast array of egregious errors that journalists have made on cable television and broadcast news and online news in general. Whether it’s the Boston bombing mistakes or some of the reporting during the shooting in Newtown, the rumors that spread those days didn’t begin on social media; they began with incorrect reporting on air and online. Now, people immediately began talking about them through social media, so word of this reporting spread just as fast as it would have spread if the reporting had been accurate.

The problem is that news organizations often don’t see this social media space as their concern, except for promoting their work. If they report something incorrectly on air, they’ll correct it when they can—but ultimately the people online are going to have to sort it out themselves. I personally think that’s a big mistake. If anything, I think news organizations should have journalists active in these communities so we can slow down the conservation, ironically, because you think of Twitter as speeding up the news cycle.

You can slow it down by telling people: “This is what we know and what we don’t know. We have not been able to confirm what this other network is reporting, and we don’t have the evidence to back that up.” The types of things that you sometimes say on air but don’t always spell out. The average news consumer doesn’t know the difference between when a news anchor says, “We have confirmed,” versus “We have received reports,” or “Our news outlet has learned.” These all have very distinct meanings in journalism, and we never explain to anyone what they mean.

If you’re part of a conversation with the public on Twitter, you can say to them, just because this network said they’ve received reports that something has happened, that doesn’t mean it’s anywhere near being confirmed. You can actually improve the media literacy of the public so they become more responsible and less apt to be part of that rumor cycle.

So generally speaking, yes, social media amplifies rumors. There’s absolutely no doubt about it. But I think we have to take a really hard look at ourselves in the media and ask, where are these rumors originating? And when they’re originating through our own reporting, what can we do to alleviate them online?

Carvin speaking at the Personal Democracy Forum in 2011. Photo via Flickr

Twitter is also used by ordinary people, celebrities, comedians, etc. Do you see all those uses of Twitter as different silos, or are they all part of the same phenomenon?

They’re all part of the same ecosystem in the same way that life and culture overlap different ecosystems. If you think about what we do in our online worlds, we occasionally enjoy comedy, we talk to our friends about the crappy meal we had at a restaurant the night before or the bad customer service we got from some business. Other times we’ll talk about serious things, try to help friends online, maybe talk about the news. None of these are mutually exclusive. They’re all aspects of who we are and how we engage with our friends and family.

Twitter and social media in general just amplify those same concepts and put them in a space that makes it easier for people who would never normally meet to engage in conversations. So I’m perfectly proud to admit that I watch cat videos and read BuzzFeed and TMZ on a daily basis, while at the same time talking to sources in Syria and reading the latest essays coming out of Foreign Policy magazine. I don’t see that as contradictory because those are things that interest me offline as well.

I think a lot of the people who follow me for professional reasons follow me because I’m also a real human being on Twitter. I talk about my family, I talk about how things are going at work, the apple picking that I took my kids to a week ago or whatever. Social media gives you a chance to demonstrate to the world that you’re not just a talking head on a screen somewhere and that you actually are multidimensional. I think that adds to your authenticity in ways that make people more likely to trust you, to the point where they may want to share things with you as well. Being yourself on Twitter and social media is just a natural part of being a good citizen and cultivating sources online.

Is it possible to share too much information?

People overshare. There’s no doubt that happens. I’ve been guilty of doing it myself sometimes. But we’re all figuring this stuff out at the same time. There is really no precedent in history for this type of network that we’ve created. There’s an identity crisis when it comes to privacy right now, too. On the one hand we have a habit of oversharing, but on the other hand, people are very concerned about what the government is doing here or overseas. I don’t think anyone’s been able to sort this out yet. They know privacy when they see it, and they know oversharing when they see it. That’s just something that’s gonna have to sort itself out over time. I don’t think at the moment it’s necessarily going to stop those people who want to use social media in constructive ways from using them in constructive ways.

What phone do you have now?

I have an iPhone 5.

How do you feel about iOS 7?

I actually haven’t upgraded to it yet. It’s funny, I don’t consider myself a true early adopter of technologies in the sense that I don’t get new gadgets or tools in the first generation. I’d rather watch other people figure out whether they’re functional or not, and once they’re a bit more stable, then I like to tinker with them and figure out how they can be used in a broad sense.

I’d rather be on the cutting edge of figuring out what’s going on in the world than figuring out how to work my iPhone. I can always play catch-up on that as I need to.

From left: David Weinberger, Rob Paterson, Andy Carvin, Jeff Jarvis, at NPR. Photo by Flickr user Doc Searls

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