Bangalore bomb blasts show real use of Twitter

‘Earthquake reported on Twitter. No sh*t.’

I felt Jemima Kiss at The Guardian was trying to tell me something with this headline – we know that this 140-character micro-blogging tool can be used to break the news. Get over it and move on.

Although I agreed with her about the non-novelty value of using Twitter to break news about earthquakes – UK, China and most recently California – I wasn’t convinced that we know everything there is to know about Twitter.

A few days previously, around mid-morning, I was looking at reports on Twitter about some blasts in Bangalore. I blog for the Frontline Club about war reporting but it’s my PhD thesis that pays the bills – a study of the impact of blogging on the BBC‘s coverage of war and terrorism.

I took the ‘tough’decision of dropping some footnoting I was doing to follow what was happening in Bangalore. Earthquakes, you see, don’t fit into a war and terrorism project; bomb blasts are a better case study.

I was quickly sucked into the buzz of a breaking news story. As I watched it unfold, I was hoping for some answers to a simple question: how could Twitter be used as a source of information by journalists?

I noticed that most of the twitterers only tweeted occasionally and offered me little new information: ‘Bangalore blasts count goes up to 9. What in the God’s name is going on!’said one. (The second sentence of this tweet rather undermined any confidence I had in the first.)

These tweets weren’t very helpful. But my ‘virtual office’of media twitterers had quickly identified that the man to follow on Twitter was ‘Mukund”. He was in Bangalore, apparently, and he was also churning out regular updates. I began tracking his tweets.

Unlike many, Mukund possessed a vital journalistic instinct – overwhelming curiosity. So when his cousin phoned him to say there had been some explosions near to his office in Bangalore, Mukund decided he would head out to the scene. He became a ‘citizen journalist”. And this time, the label really made sense.

Mukund offered his services to those in the USA who wanted to know if loved ones in Bangalore were safe. He also reported the times of blasts, produced a map with their locations, wrote a blog post including facts about the devices that were used.

He spoke to eyewitnesses, the police and monitored other media reports. In short, he seemed to be doing some fine journalism.

I thought it would be worth writing a blog post for Frontline readers about what was going on. It was a simple post: a short introduction and a collection of Mukund’s tweets. They spoke for themselves. I tidied them up, stuck in a few links, and was ready to hit ‘publish”…

But hang on. Who was Mukund? That might not even be his real name. This guy seemed authentic but how did I know?

I sped through some verification procedures. First, other sources. The blasts had been reported by the wire agencies, and Indian websites. It was a small story in the UK – a big hole in a Qantas aircraft was proving more interesting – but the BBC World Service was covering it.

Most reports said at least one person had died. Others claimed two. And the number of injured ranged from a handful to two dozen. Mukund’s ‘facts”, though regularly amended, were giving me more detail than I could find elsewhere.

Second, who was this guy, ‘Mukund”?

I looked at his Twitter profile. He has a blog. He’s a technology entrepreneur. There’s his full name: Mukund Mohan. And a photo, a mobile phone number, an email address. This gave me confidence.

I read some of his blog posts. His blog has been up for some months and it’s clear he’s a regular visitor to Bangalore, India’s IT capital. He’s a technology entrepreneur. So using Twitter; being in Bangalore. It all made sense.

Third, I read back over the updates. Mukund Mohan had now been twittering for hours, and his updates were detailed and precise. He used the right street names. He accurately quoted the names of the police commissioners he said he was listening to. He was cautious with information he was unsure about. He avoided speculation and his tone remained calm and factual throughout.

Did this all ring true? I decided it did. I felt it was as good an account as I could find on the web. I published my blog post and updated it over the next couple of hours.

Other tweets provided some different angles on the usefulness of Twitter, sparking a few comments on my blog including one from Mukund. They provided the ammunition for a series of follow up blog posts during the week.

Unlike most twitterers, Mukund had used Twitter to do far more than break the news; he used it to report breaking news, and did it really quite well. But no sh*t – there is more journalists can learn about using Twitter yet.

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