The information flow from Mumbai

Internet sites like Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and Global Voices are providing a very rough first draft of history in the accounting of the bloody attacks in India.

As the tragic events unfolded in Mumbai, India, the Internet backchannel came to the foreground with messages, photos, and videos from the masses using Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and so-called citizen reporting sites such as Global Voices, as well as CNN and NDTV.

The terrorist attacks have left more than 100 dead and several hundred wounded in Mumbai, the country's financial center.

In major disasters, Twitter has become a conduit for real-time information and conversation.

As you would expect, the flow of information has been chaotic and potentially unreliable, which presents some problems, especially for those with family or friends at risk. A few posts on Techmeme question the quality of Twitter messages, which are not easily verified or tracked. Mathew Ingram argues that unverified eyewitness reports may not be accurate, but they represent a "first draft of history."

It's true that messages posted to Twitter aren't verified in any sense of the word, and in many cases could be wrong, or could perpetuate misunderstandings or factual inaccuracies -- although I think it's worth noting that dozens of Twitter messages corrected the Marriott reports not long after they first appeared on Twitter. At the same time, however, I think he's blaming Twitter for something that occurs during every similar news event: in other words, unverified eyewitness reports. Every time there is a bombing or an earthquake or a tsunami, there are reports -- many of which appear on television and other "traditional" media outlets -- that turn out to be completely wrong.

Does that make those reports invalid? No. Obviously, no one wants a loved one to be worried by false reports. But at the same time, chaotic situations result in poor information flow -- even to the "professional" journalists who are working at the scene. First-hand and second-hand reports on Twitter are no worse. Should anyone take them as gospel, or the final version of the events? No. Obviously, at some point someone has to check the facts, confirm reports, analyze the outcome, and so on. News reporting and journalism are much more of a process than they are a discrete thing. But as I have tried to argue before, Twitter reports are a valuable "first draft of history," and that is a pretty good definition of the news.

Of course, as Mathew points out, reports need to be confirmed, and no one is going to put the Twitter genie back in the bottle. It's a very rough first draft. There has to be a better way to triangulate and confirm news reports, where you could verify that eyewitnesses are actually on the ground where they say the are. If you are getting multiple tweets from several people in the same area, the likelihood that the information is accurate would increase. Of course, they could all be spreading the same rumor, which happens in traditional media as well. Using video as the source material would make the information easier to confirm.

In any case, Twitter and other sources of citizen-generated information provide a continuous pulse of data that will eventually be harnessed, and integrated with traditional media, in ways that lead to more accurate and real-time comprehensive accounts of what is going on in this troubled world.

 

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