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The danger of inaccurate information in conflict reporting

Before we stop to think, we share. We don’t think about what it means to re-Tweet a news article. Are we claiming ownership of the information contained in it? In increasing public exposure to this information, are we taking personal responsibility for its accuracy?
Pawel Wargan
7 March 2012

On February 28, a Reuters report claimed that journalists Paul Conroy and Edith Bouvier were evacuated from Homs.  This was quickly confirmed in a statement by French president Nicolas Sarkozy.  The Twitter machine suddenly shifted into gear.  It swallowed these reports wholesale and regurgitated them in volumes.  But curiously, voices of defiance began to appear.  Among these, Sunday Times correspondent Miles Amoore stood out.  “BBC reporting is incorrect”, he wrote on Twitter minutes after the BBC posted Sarkozy’s comments, “I would repeat that ANY information at the moment that goes public endangers journalists lives...” 

The informational bedlam that occupied the internet that day revealed, at the very least, a surreal relationship to fact in the international community.  The Guardian reported that three Syrians were killed in the evacuation of Paul Conroy to Lebanon.  Minutes later, a Tweet had re-quoted the figure at thirteen.  A subsequent Guardian article tentatively confirmed the larger number.  In the space of a couple of hours, newsrooms had started what looked increasingly like a game of Chinese whispers.  At the end of the line were the lives of people being buried alive under the weight of hearsay.

The story got worse.  The meticulous, and largely misinformed, reports of evacuations were accompanied by maps and place names.  They contained intelligence data that gave anyone interested an account of the possible location and destination of each evacuee.  And the barrage of Twitter posts and re-posts continued, citing sources that began to seem increasingly unreliable.  “PLACE NAMES ARE FUCKING UNHELPFUL,” Amoore wrote. “Please be very careful what you report. You are risking the lives of others.” 

His claims came under fire.  “Are you saying Sarkozy jumped the gun?” one Twitterer asked.  The question might have been honest.  But it showed that once a story has taken hold, it is difficult to uproot, as here was one poster going against the wisdom of a thousand Tweeters, denying the veracity of presidential announcements, and calling for the silencing of the online information flow.  

The situation shows us how little online journalism has matured.  Mistaken news reports spread beyond the domain of conventional media, and infest the blogosphere at an alarming pace.  Before we stop to think, we share.  We don’t think about what it means to re-Tweet a news article.  Are we claiming ownership of the information contained in it?  In increasing public exposure to this information, are we taking personal responsibility for its accuracy?  What gives us the right to favour one account over another without any means of independent verification?  Can we, having cited false authority as truth, later claim the opposite with good conscience? 

Just an hour after the BBC posted Sarkozy’s claim to its Twitter feed, a retraction appeared.  Other news sources followed.  But the machine had already been set in motion.  It revealed something about journalism that we are often unwilling to admit: we don’t always get the story right.  Yet, many of us took the reports coming out of Syria unquestioningly.  And while Bouvier was lying in a small room in Bab Amr, her broken leg deteriorating by the day, the international community was bruiting abroad the news of her release. 

Bouvier and photographer William Daniels were finally evacuated under the cover of darkness.  A number of locals risked their lives to transport them out of Homs and into a safe-house near the Lebanese border.  In the eyes of the media, the rescuers were ancillary characters in a drama of salvation: “rebels”, "volunteers", activists" or “civilians,” but always without names.  It's hard to find the names of the local doctors who spent days caring for Bouvier while blood flowed into the gutters of Homs.  Multiplied by serial re-Tweets, these stories spawned narratives, entirely without local context, about westerners who had found themselves in danger one day and managed to escape the next.  

We live in an age of informational ubiquity.  Any opinion we want can be found on the internet.  It’s a tool that has allowed each of us to publish our thoughts for the world to read.  And Twitter has made it possible for these thoughts to gain statistical significance.  More than ever, I think it’s important to think about the things we post.  What purpose do they serve?  What is out goal in sharing, or writing, about issues that relate to the lives of others? 

I’ll start.  I have little background in reporting, but the drama that unfolded on the internet last week made me clench up.  It’s a story about a number of journalists drowning under a stream of misinformation.  It’s a story about a wave of reports that de-prioritised the conflict in favour of the “heroic” struggles of select individuals.  And it relates to people whom I might have met, or to people who might yet find themselves in the crossfire.  It's a story that matters, because it raises important questions about the way we use and share information, and our reasons for doing so.

 On March 5, the Guardian reported that two novice journalists crossed the Turkish border into Syria.  They called themselves “independent citizen journalists” and cited exposure to the Occupy movement as field experience.  They filmed the border crossing, and put it up on Youtube.  Their video reveals the precise location of an unguarded Turkish guard tower, allegedly passed by Syrian refugees on their way to refugee camps across the border.  Their naivety is staggering.  One of the journalists, 30 year old William Gagan, made a point of saying that Syrian history was irrelevant to his mission, because “people were dying and that's what I was going there to try to help.”  It’s this blind idealism that has created a web of false reports online.  The fact is that Gagan’s adventure will save no one.  Worse still, his lack of interest in the wider political and historical context might serve to further distort information coming out of the region.  And how many Syrians will die when the time comes for him to be carried across the Lebanese border?  Three?  Thirteen?

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