Killing straw men

Paul Carr has written a post for TechCrunch about citizen journalism and social media entitled After Fort Hood, another example of how ‘citizen journalists’ can’t handle the truth. Normally I ignore TechCrunch, but so many people I know were impressed with the post that I had to read it. Sadly, it’s riven with poor logic, straw men and factual inaccuracies.

Paul starts with a straw man:

…after two weeks of me suggesting that social media might not be an unequivocally Good Thing in terms of privacy and human decency, the news has delivered the perfect example to support my view.

The discussion about the impact of social media on people’s privacy, behaviour and ethics has been going on for years, and there have been many, many examples of people using social tools in ways that can only be described as foolish.

This is not, however, a reflection on social tools so much as it is a reflection of human nature: Some of what gets done with social media is good and some is bad. This is not news, nor new.

We do need some proper studies to see just what sort of effect these new social technologies are having, but going off on a moral panic about social tools is neither smart nor helpful.

Carr goes on to say:

And yet, the first news and analysis out of the base didn’t come from the experts. Nor did it come from the 24-hour news media, or even from dedicated military blogs – but rather from the Twitter account of one Tearah Moore, a soldier from Linden, Michigan who is based at Fort Hood, having recently returned from Iraq.

[…] In reality Ms Moore’s was tweeting minute-by-minute reports from inside the hospital where the wounded were being taken for treatment.

It’s no real surprise that people who use Twitter might use it during such an event. And most people who use Tweet have a relatively small community. Moore now has her Twitter stream set to private, but even now she has only 29 followers, so she most likely thought that she was speaking to a small number of people and it turns out that’s pretty much true: If you search for her Twitter ID, you can see that she was retweeted a little bit, but not massively. I know Twitter search isn’t the most reliable, but there are only 8 pages of search results for her ID, starting 8 days ago. That hardly speaks to a huge retweeting.

Furthermore, whilst Twitter lists were used by the media to collect Tweets related to Fort Hood, Moore is on six such lists, which between them have a grand total of 67 followers.

Carr goes on:

That last twitpic link was particularly amazing: it showed a cameraphone image – of a wounded soldier arriving at the hospital on a gurney – taken by Moore from inside the hospital. Unsurprisingly, Moore’s – [sic] coverage was quickly picked up by bloggers and mainstream media outlets alike, something that she actively encouraged by tweeting to friends that they should pass her phone number to the press so she could tell them the truth, rather than the speculative bullshit that was hitting the wires.

Carr claims that the bloggers and mainstream media outlets picked up on her tweets, but I just can’t substantiate that. I have searched Google News and the only mentions of “Tearah Moore” are people reposting or quoting Paul Carr’s article. Searching for “MissTearah” brings up two articles, neither from a mainstream news outlet. One is from a German blog, the other from The Business Insider, which runs her photo.

Further digging does reveal that the Houston Chronicle in Texas ran her photo (no. 52) with the caption “MissTearah submitted this photo to Twitter purporting to be from the emergency room in Killee.” Australia’s Herald Sun does the same but uses the caption “This Twitter image from user misstearah, claims to be from inside a hospital near the shooting.”

Technorati and Icerocket show the same pattern amongst bloggers: A few people are talking about Carr’s post, not Moore’s original Tweets.

When I mentioned this on Twitter, Carr responded:

@Suw I linked the Independent in the post Here’s NYT and AP trying to ctct:

The Independent post that Carr links to is actually a post by Jack Riley, a tech writer, that he’s written on his own Independent Minds Livejournal. Independent Minds is the Indie’s user generated content platform, it’s not a part of the Indie’s journalistic output. The other two are links to Tweets by the New York Times and the Associated Press trying to get in touch with Moore, which is what you would expect from journalists who think they may have an eye witness to talk to.

Let’s just look at Tweets from the MSM to Moore (oldest to newest):

@robertwood: @MissTearah give me a call if you can. I’m a reporter and wanted to do an interview. 512.474.5264

@DavidSchechter: @MissTearah Please call WFAA TV in Dallas 214-907-5964

@vietqle: @MissTearah I’m with National Public Radio in DC. We’d like 2 talk w/ people at Ft. Hd. Can you contact me? or 202.513.3999. Tx.

@waldon_m: @MissTearah please call me at 2022157069 or email

@waldon_m: @MissTearah i am a reporter with The Associated Press. Please contact ASAP

@waldon_m: @MissTearah please contact the AP 202 641 9807

@waldon_m: @MissTearah please contact The Associated Press if you can 202 641 9807- thank you.

@BBC_HaveYourSay: @MissTearah Hello, it’s James at BBC News in London. I saw your picture from Fort Hood. It would be great to talk to you today. Are u free?

@BBC_HaveYourSay: @MissTearah Thanks for letting us know. We thought the email was suspicious. I’m glad we did not publish your pic. I’m sorry to trouble you.

@xocasgv: @misstearah – Hi, this is Xaquin G.V., Graphics Editor at The New York Times, read you witnessed the event. Any cha [sic]

So, six journalists get in touch, with Michael Waldon not appearing to have much luck in getting hold of Moore at all. The brief exchange with @BBC_HaveYourSay is also interesting – make of it what you will. As Moore’s account is private now, there’s no way to see what her response was and thus tricky to interpret that tweet.

But other than the three posts mentioned above that use Moore’s photo, I couldn’t find any other mainstream media news outlet that quotes from or mentions Moore by name, nor do any bloggers that Technorati or Icerocket can find. Equally, the number of retweets are negligible.

Carr’s assertion that her tweets were “quickly picked up by bloggers and mainstream media outlets alike” just isn’t supported by the facts.

Now there is a discussion that could be had about the content of Moore’s Tweets. She did not have access to completely accurate information but from reading through some of the reTweets and the few Tweets that Riley archived, Moore seemed to feel that the information she was getting was coming from relatively reliable sources. She was also Tweeting what she was witnessing, which is information there’s no reason to doubt.

In the middle of a shooting, in a lock-down situation, is it really any wonder that your average eye witness actually isn’t all that well informed about the bigger picture? People caught up in events can tell us what they see and what they hear, but they can’t necessarily fact check right there and then and I feel it’s rather unfair to expect them to.

Carr also talks about a picture Moore took – a blurry image of someone on a gurney further down the corridor:

Rather than offering to help the wounded, or getting the hell out of the way of those trying to do their jobs, Moore actually pointed a cell-phone at a wounded soldier, uploaded it to twitpic and added a caption saying that the victim “got shot in the balls”.

In the caption to her Twitpic, Moore says that she was at the hospital for an appointment. She doesn’t appear to be a member of medical staff, so would have no role to play in that situation. Whether it is reportage or poor taste to take and upload such a picture — given that there is no way to identify anyone in the picture and you can barely see the wounded soldier — is a matter for debate.

(Carr mentions HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which protects patient confidentiality in the US. I’m not clear how HIPAA privacy provisions would apply in this case and would need an expert to advise.)

But to insinuate that it’s pure selfishness and that Moore should have been ‘doing something’ is misrepresenting Moore’s situation.

Carr himself, though, did appear to have a problem with Moore’s conduct, if his tweets are anything to go by:

@paulcarr: By the way, doesn’t @misstearah have a fucking job to do while all these people are dying? Just wondering.

@paulcarr: Looks like @misstearah’s twitter account has been taken down. Only took the army an hour to respond to that particular threat.

@paulcarr: Also, Twitpics from inside the hospital? From a cellphone? Really? Precisely how many moral and legal rules does that break?

Carr then goes on to talk about the Iranian elections:

For all of our talk about “the world watching”, what good did social media actually do for the people of Iran? Did the footage out of the country actually change the outcome of the elections? No. Despite a slew of YouTube videos and a couple of thousand foreign Twitter users turning their avatar green and pretending to be in Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is still in power. It’s astonishing, really.

What is astonishing is Carr’s arrogance. Whilst the election wasn’t swayed, it is wrong to think that the social media action around the elections achieved nothing. I’d like to hear from Iranians on this, but I would imagine that just knowing the world was listening, that people out there cared, that normal Iranians could be heard outside of their own country would be an empowering experience. We might not know for some years what the full effect was, but to write it all off because the election wasn’t swayed is just shortsightedness.

Carr goes on:

And so it was at Fort Hood. For all the sound and fury, citizen journalism once again did nothing but spread misinformation at a time when thousands people with family at the base would have been freaking out already, and breach the privacy of those who had been killed or wounded. We learned not a single new fact, nor was a single life saved.

Another straw man. Eye witness reports have never been focused on saving lives, but on reporting what someone’s experiences. And as for misinformation and breaching privacy, the mainstream media is just as good at spreading that as anyone else, if not better.

A further straw man is Carr’s complaint that social media is making “our humanity […] leak[…] away”. It’s a meaningless statement, on a par with the anti-electricity rhetoric from the late 19th Century. Ethics are not tool-specific, they don’t change from technology to technology. If that were so, all the positive, constrictive, humanity-affirming actions that are taken through social media would simply not be possible.

Finally, Carr mentions the video of Neda Agha Soltan’s final moments:

Even if you’ve seen the footage before, you should watch it again. But this time bear in mind the following: the cameraman was not a professional reporter, but rather an ordinary person, just like the victim. And what did he do when he saw a young girl bleeding to death? Did he run for help, or try to assist in stemming the bleeding? No he didn’t.

Instead he pointed his camera at her and recorded her suffering, moving in closer to her face for her agonising final seconds. For all of our talk of citizen journalism, and getting the truth out, the last thing that terrified girl saw before she closed her eyes for the final time was some guy pointing a cameraphone at her. “Look at me, looking at her, looking back at me.”

This is totally disingenuous. Neda was on her way to a protest in Tehran and was shot in the heart when she got out of the car to get some air (the car’s air conditioning wasn’t working well). Several people attended to Neda, including Dr Arash Hejazi, who said this about the incident:

A young woman who was standing aside with her father [sic, later identified as her music teacher] watching the protests was shot by a Basij member hiding on the rooftop of a civilian house. He had clear shot at the girl and could not miss her. However, he aimed straight her heart. I am a doctor, so I rushed to try to save her. But the impact of the gunshot was so fierce that the bullet had blasted inside the victim’s chest, and she died in less than two minutes.

Carr’s assertion that the people who videoed Neda’s death should have been doing something is absurd. Others were already doing what they could and it doesn’t sound like there was anything more that could be done.

However harrowing it is to watch a young woman die, there are times when such scenes have to be captured and relayed to the world, to illustrate the appalling conditions and repression that people are suffering. Had she died unrecorded, it’s likely that no one outside of Iran, possibly outside of her immediate community, would have heard of her murder. Instead, she became seen as a symbol of the Iranian protests, even as a martyr.

I was at a panel discussion about social media in repressive regimes a while back with Kevin, and an Egyptian blogger told of how even his friends and family did not want to believe that the police were abusing prisoners until a video of such abuse ended up on YouTube. We might not like it, but unfortunately it can be an important not just in rallying protestors but also as documentary evidence to persuade others.

There is even now a graduate scholarship at the University of Oxford named after Neda so there is hope that, both in Iran and outside, her death was not meaningless.

The key thing that Carr forgets is that what is unacceptable in our relatively safe societies may be necessary in oppressive regimes. Tools we use for play here can be used for survival elsewhere.

More fundamental questions, about whether or not it is right for journalists to stand back and record events instead of intervening to try to save people’s lives is a discussion that has been ongoing for decades. I don’t think that it’s one that’s going to be solved any time soon, either, as there are compelling arguments for and against.

What we should do as individuals, though, when we are confronted by such events is a question worth examining, by each of us and in the frame of our own capabilities. I think most people would try to help and wouldn’t even think about taking photos or video; others would try to help and then think about recording events when the helping is done; and yet others simply won’t be able to help and will only be able to record. Should we criticise and demonise those who record the events around them in a way we don’t approve? Or is it a question for individuals to decide for themselves?

Paul Carr’s main point appears to be that citizen journalists can’t get stuff right, so they should shut up, and those that record events instead of helping to save lives should be ripped a new one. Yet his main assertions are unsupported by the facts, his interpretation riddled with holes and his straw men pathetically easy to demolish.

There are interesting debates to be had about technology, social media, citizen journalism and eye witness accounts, but sadly Carr’s post touches on none of them in any meaningful way. I am befuddled as to why people on Twitter are seizing on it as breaking new ground, as it simply doesn’t.

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