< Tweeting Graphic Videos From Syria

Transcript

Friday, February 10, 2012

[SOUND OF GUNFIRE]

MALE CORRESPONDENT:

Back now to our top story today, Syria under siege, as the crackdown by the Assad regime only gets worse.

MALE CORRESPONDENT:

And government troops bombarded the Syrian city of Homs, again.

MALE CORRESPONDENT:

The slaughter continues. The dictator, Barshar al-Assad, seems out to destroy all opposition.

BOB GARFIELD:

The situation in Syria is beyond dire nearly one year into the uprising there. With the death toll estimated to exceed 5,000 souls, mostly civilians, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad shows no signs of backing down. Last week vetoes by China and Russia scuttled a United Nations Security Council resolution, calling for Assad to step down. And since then, activists and residents have reported hundreds more deaths, concentrated in the besieged city of Homs.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said we are witnessing, quote, "appalling brutality in Homs" but in reality tight restrictions on media in Syria are making it difficult for the world community to witness anything there at all. This is why perhaps more so than any other conflict during the Arab Spring, social media have played a crucial role in getting information out of the country.

[SOUND OF GUNFIRE]

DANNY ABDUL DAYEM:

Look, look — dead bodies - all dead bodies. We're not animals, we're human beings. We're asking for help.

SYRIAN CHILD:

Mama -

[SHOUTS FROM CROWD]

Mama, Mama.

[EXPLOSIONS/GUNFIRE, VOICES, CRIES]

BOB GARFIELD:

But in this new media order, some old media questions linger. In a situation as horrific as Syria's, how do you walk the line between conveying the immensity of the brutality without traumatizing the audience?

Joining me now are two influential Tweeters who have been curating news throughout the Arab Spring on their respective Twitter feeds. Andy Carvin is a senior strategist at NPR. Andy, welcome back to the show.

ANDY CARVIN:

Thanks for having me, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD:

Neal Mann is digital news editor at Sky News. Hello, Neal.

NEAL MANN:

Thank you very much for having me on.

BOB GARFIELD:

Twitter, as we've discussed many times on this program, has increasingly been a channel for breaking news. In Syria, social media, I gather, is virtually the only game in town?

NEAL MANN:

I think it is to an extent. It's worth noting that obviously we've had teams in there, the BBC have had teams in there, and other major news organizations have managed to get in there. But they can only go in for a certain period of time, and for the likes of me and Andy social media has, has really filled a gap which constant presence there has left.

BOB GARFIELD:

Andy, tell me what kind of stuff you've been including in your feed.

ANDY CARVIN:

I've been observing a number of streams that regularly are activated from Homs. I am in conversations with people via Skype and email. I monitor about a half a dozen different YouTube channels, as well as Facebook pages.

And then there are these scores of people on Twitter who have become fairly reliable sources, as well. So it's basically this latticework of information that even just paying attention to one city, it - it's almost overwhelming at times, given the amount of violence taking place there right now.

BOB GARFIELD:

Now, I haven't asked you guys to join me to discuss a hypothetical. There was a video making its way around the Web that captured the immense cruelty of the government's shelling of civilians in Homs. It depicts a young boy, alive but grievously injured. Some ordinance had blown his lower jaw off, and it was very hard to look at.

NEAL MANN:

That's probably one of the worst videos I've seen in the entire Arab Spring. I mean, it was "truly harrowing" — I think I described it at the time. And it was the first time I've really had to seriously think on, on whether I should actually put this video out to my following on Twitter. And it wasn't a video that I would ever be able to run on air on Sky News; it was just too graphic.

And I felt that, actually, I had to make a personal editorial choice as to my Twitter feed. And it wasn't an easy one to take. I thought about it long and hard.

BOB GARFIELD:

It was just too much, you thought for your —followers to bear?

NEAL MANN:

There may be people who follow me who are not used to viewing videos like this in the same way that the likes of Andy or I am, due to the fact we're journalists.

BOB GARFIELD:

Now, Andy, you performed approximately the same sort of calculus, and you came to a, a different decision.

ANDY CARVIN:

I did Tweet it because I thought it was important to give the link some context. I found out about it because a number of contacts from Syria and other people were sending it to me on Twitter. And the very first time I saw it, it had no context. And so, as bad as the video is, for me it was even worse because I was not prepared to see what was there.

And so, part of my calculus was to share it with my followers and say in very blunt terms, "This is footage of a boy whose jaw has been blown off." And I also said, "It's not enough to call this graphic; I think it's an abomination." I don't use those words lightly, and my Twitter followers know that.

And I heard back from a lot of Twitter followers. Some of them said because of my description they made the choice not to watch it. Others decided to watch it. But they all thanked me, nonetheless, for giving them an informed choice.

We're in a different age now compared to back in the day when mass media was essentially considered family viewing. You would have the news on in the evening and the family would be there. The newspaper would be sitting on the table at breakfast. And so, the possibility of accidentally exposing people to imagery they weren't prepared for was too great, and so discretion was the norm.

But now that people have a choice to be on Twitter and follow my account and then making the informed choice of clicking that link, I think gives people enough of a firewall to make an informed decision.

BOB GARFIELD:

The subject of this video clearly was a poster child for the Assad regime's extraordinary brutality against the civilian population. But it was also a child, a minor. And I'm going to just take a wild guess and say he didn't sign any releases, nor did his parents, to have his horrible injuries the talk of the Internet.

NEAL MANN:

I've seen people in - in the flesh who have been hit by ordinance, bullets and are in a substantial amount of pain, and although they're being filmed by somebody, they may not necessarily actually want that video to go out. In this instance of this kid, that was obviously also playing on my mind, that actually this child is going through a, a lot of pain, and is it worth putting that out for other people to see when say, for example, the description may do the job?

BOB GARFIELD:

Did that enter your thinking, Andy?

ANDY CARVIN:

As far as I was concerned, Pandora's box had already been opened. The video had been online for probably four, five hours by the time I saw it. And it was being discussed in a variety of circles on Twitter and on Facebook. This child, at this point, was still alive. And I wanted the world to see this because I know there are Twitter followers in Turkey and in Lebanon, some of whom have resources to respond to these situations.

And, in fact, within an hour or two of me Tweeting it, I quickly heard from volunteers across the region who were mobilizing to get this kid out. They actually made arrangements for him to be smuggled across the border, and there was a reconstructive surgery team waiting for him in Lebanon. And it all happened because they saw the video being shared on Twitter.

Unfortunately, the boy never stabilized and he died before they could transport him, but the fact that people from multiple countries worked literally overnight to plan a rescue mission for this kid I don't think would have happened if they hadn't seen the video themselves.

BOB GARFIELD:

Another Pandora's box question:  Now that this stuff is substantially in play in social media, do you think it's changed the thinking of mainstream media as to their standards for what constitutes "too graphic?"

NEAL MANN:

The thing is that maybe we're not showing more graphic videos but actually, there's just more graphic videos out there. The amounts of videos actually coming out of the Arab Spring is vast. It's like no conflict before it. These are almost being, you know, live video blogged, effectively.

For us the same editorial standards remain, but there's just more videos out there and more newsworthy moments may be captured.

ANDY CARVIN:

I think all you have to do is think of the death of Muammar Gaddafi. When Gaddafi was killed there — was suddenly an influx of videos of his last few hours. And some of it was pretty disturbing stuff, the kinds of things that normally you would never see on TV.

I was really surprised not only were those clips being shown, at one point I saw on Aljazeera they did a freeze frame of one of the shots after he died, and they said, we're going to leave this on screen in case you want to take a screen shot of it. And I thought, wow, have we come to a point that only are we sharing these things on mainstream media, that we're actually encouraging people to capture that moment of death.

And I wouldn't be surprised if part of it does have to do with the fact that we've consumed so much video from these scenes over the last year.

BOB GARFIELD:

An argument for journalists passing on the horrors of war is that it sensitizes outsiders to what is taking place. The opposite argument is that these images over time desensitize the outsiders as to what's taking place, that they just get used to it.

ANDY CARVIN:

Absolutely, and I've noticed it on myself over the last year. There was a time last spring when I would receive a video of someone who had been shot or someone who was dying — I would stop everything I was doing and try to focus on what was going on. It seemed almost like a sacred act to honor a person that way, to give them the time and effort to observe their final moments.

But fast forward six months into the revolution, I catch myself watching some of these videos while drinking coffee or listening to music on my headphones, and at some point I practically to hit myself and say, you know, what are you doing? You know, is this disrespectful, sitting here just watching one video after another?

And I started thinking of those typical cop shows on TV where detectives are saying sly things around the corpse below them, not even flinching about it, and it reminded me that I don't want to ever turn into that.

I shared the video because I actually thought it would snap people out of their complacency, because we've seen so many videos of people protesting, so many videos of people just laying there in hospitals. But there was something about this image, about being able to look this boy in the eye and see the numbness; his soul was already beginning to disappear at that point. It seemed to me em —emblematic of what was happening in Homs, and I wanted to give people that opportunity to watch it, if they chose.

BOB GARFIELD:

Gentlemen, thank you very much.

ANDY CARVIN:

Thanks, Bob.

NEAL MANN:

Thank you very much, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD:

Andy Carvin is a senior strategist at NPR. He Tweets at acarvin.

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Neal Mann is digital news editor at Sky News in London. He Tweets at fieldproducer.