Norwegian terrorism and the new media landscape

Posted on July 22, 2011

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I had written a book about the power of Twitter in disseminating news (in particular in the Arab Spring) but until today hadn’t quite gathered just how powerful a movement it is.

The general argument I made when the book was published in May was that Twitter was vitally important in providing the impetus for the uprisings across Africa and the Middle East, but wasn’t the be all and end all. But because it was remote, and because I was an observer, I couldn’t really comment properly on the incredible power and dynamism social media and the internet gives news stories.

That changed today.

I hadn’t meant to get caught up in a horrible story of what now (just over an hour after a gunman on Utoya was let loose with automatic weapons on an island being inhabited by 560 15-25 year olds) looks to be at first glance a major act of terrorism – whether domestic or foreign – in Europe. I was just intrigued, like anyone who takes an interest in the news (and yes, might one day think of trying to break into the ranks of journalists) as to what was unfolding. On my Twitter feed I’d seen a couple of photographs of utter destruction: ones that shared worrying similarities with the wrecked streets of mid-town New York nearly a decade ago, and sent out a tweet asking for more information.

At first I wasn’t quite sure whether to commit to the reality that it could be a bomb: I wanted it to be a horrific, tragic accident. A fluke. But then I began looking at the local press (another boon of the connected world – foreign-language newspapers and television channels, which previously were bound by geographical lines and a knowledge of the language, have now been opened up by the internet and more importantly Google Translate) and realised that it was something worse.

I’d gone to Dagbladet, a Norwegian news site, who had claimed that the explosion was the result of a carbomb. No-one on my Twitter feed had said this, but plenty were speculating, so I tried to clear it up somewhat. I tweeted the information, and followed it up with others.

One of those repeated the news that the Norwegian Energy Ministry had been hit. That’s related to the work I do, and I began to get puzzled as to why they’d been attacked. I offered up some context: Russia and Norway had just cleared up an enormous and potentially huge conflict over gas and oil exploration in the Arctic. To me, an attack there didn’t make sense.

That tweet was picked up by Joseph Stashko of who blogs for the Huffington Post UK, who had created a Storify of the Oslo explosion. (Yet another example of new technology being adapted to try and present a coherent story.) Worryingly, my tweet was being quoted, so I felt I had to clarify my musings. I began getting into conversations with Jonathan Frost and Dave Wyllie, two aspiring journalists of a similar age to me.

I ended up putting up 39 tweets in a bit less than 4 hours, collating information from local sources and sharing it with a couple of key disseminators – first Wyllie, who had somehow fallen into the role of being informer-in-chief, then Andy Carvin of NPR as the time difference kicked in and Americans began fully appreciating the story that was unfolding (it’s worth noting that Carvin has prior history in this sort of thing: he was – and still is – one of the major news disseminators on Twitter for the Arab revolutions).

None of it broke news; some of it beat English-language press by a few minutes, but it was all taken from journalists on the ground. And that’s where Twitter really works. It doesn’t necessarily create the story, or involve any original journalism, but it does travel faster than television.

They key seems to be judicious factchecking. It’s all too easy to get carried away with the sheer rush of volts that power through your veins and retweet rumours in haste. (I know that I begrudgingly tore myself away from the computer for an hour to travel home because I was so concerned about the potential mounting death toll; I drained the battery on my phone accessing Twitter, above the BBC or any other news website. The sheer compelling horror of a breaking news story can blur judgement, and you have to actively take measures to focus it.) I’m happy to say that I don’t think I or anyone I was reading spread bad info – but some people, encouraged by the lack of censorship on the internet, forgot to censor themselves. As Dave Wyllie tweeted, “it’s not big or clever to tweet photos of people quite clearly dead with their face/distinctive clothes in shot.”

What happened today was absolutely horrible. Unspeakable. I wish I could’ve just got up today, done a day’s work, had my stupid blogpost about quantitative easing be the record of the day and maybe watched a film tonight. Instead I’ve faced up to the horror of humanity and the way that you can somehow be swept up (in some small way) into a maelstrom of news. I’ve learnt that online media is much more powerful than I ever conceived. It won’t ever replace old-style journalism: in fact, it leeches shamelessly from them, but it’s a powerful force nonetheless.

Now, though, I’m going to think of those who lost their lives today, and of those who are trying still to rescue countless more whose lives are on the brink. One last Twitter reference, from the person who I began sharing this horrific experience with:

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