Who Got The News First…And Who Got It Right?
UPDATE 11:05am ET: Today’s announcement from Vice President Omar Suleiman Friday that Hosni Mubarak was stepping down from the Presidency was transmitted instantaneously via the ‘old’ and ‘new’. TV news channels over the world carried the announcement from Egyptian State TV live, and the Internet lit up. Twitter momentarily crashed due to overload.
But the question still remains: are the ‘new’ media like Twitter and Facebook as reliable as the ‘old’ – like TV and radio? Last night, the answer was no. We will continue to track this evolving story.
Posted Thursday, Feb.10, 9pm ET: Exactly when the troubles for the government of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak began is a question that has no definite answer. Arguably it started long before protesters began filling Tahrir Square late January. And with Mr. Mubarak’s carefully worded address to the nation Thursday night, it’s end may be equally fuzzy. But at this point it seems clear: Mr. Mubarak intends to remain in office until the full transfer of power in September.
As events in Egypt, and earlier Tunisia, have unfolded there’s been a growing debate over the roles played by ‘old’ technologies like TV and radio, and the ‘new’ ones – meaning Twitter, Facebook and other digital social media. Both in terms of covering the events, but also possibly influencing them as well.
If accurate information is power, there was nothing more powerful than news of Mr. Mubarak’s decision to remain. So which got it first, and got it right? The old or the new? TV, or Twitter?
Both were quick to respond. Among the very first of the ‘old’ media to step in was Associated Press, which at 5:27pm Egyptian Time (or EET) quoted Gen. Hassan al-Roueini, described as the defense official in charge of the greater Cairo area, as telling the crowds in Tahrir:
“All your demands will be met today.”
While no TV cameras were there to record the moment, Twitter erupted.
“The new secretary general of Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party told CNN he expects President Hosni Mubarak will ‘take the next steps’ after amending the constitution.”
What the ‘next steps’ were was at that time unclear – and as a journalistic organization, CNN was reluctant to move far beyond the comment itself.
But those using social media often do not feel bound by the same rules as journalists, and on Twitter there was no uncertainty about what was happening.
“Mission accomplished. Thanks to all the brave young Egyptians. #Jan25”
And his was not the first on Twitter. At 5:29pm, Hossam – who tweets at “3arabawy” – retweeted and translated an earlier note from Twitter-user Ghafari, posting:
“The Army has taken over.”
Mainstream media organizations were less quick to make the call. For example, at 6pm, “This Just In” reported:
“There is a strong likelihood that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will step down Thursday night, CIA Director Leon Panetta told Congress.”
In journalistic parlance, ‘strong likelihood’ is not confirmation, even with a well-placed source. But the suggestion was clear: Mr. Mubarak was poised to stand down. Broadcast organizations like Al-Jazeera and others fed live images of boisterous crowds in Tahrir Square, with commentators and correspondents speaking to the “festive” and “jubilant” nature of the gathering – perhaps hinting at what may come next without actually saying it.
Newspapers with websites took a similar tact. Ahmed Zaki Osman, writing for the Egyptian paper Al Masry AlYoum, posted a story just after 6pm EET that began:
“President Hosni Mubarak will meet the demands of protesters, military and ruling party officials said today, in the strongest indication yet that Egypt’s longtime president may be about to relinquish power to the armed forces.”
And in a surprising move, Al-Ahram, the largest daily newspaper by circulation, added a four-page supplement inside the main newspaper called “Al-Tahrir youths”. The main headline in the supplement read: “The parliament of ‘rigging’ under the siege of ‘Al-Tahrir'”. From the story:
“For long decades, the rigging of parliamentary elections was the most secure tool for the continuation of corruption and suppression, repression of freedoms and the looting of wealth.”
“A gift to the youths of 25 January” was written at the very bottom of the front page. The suggestion was clear: if Al-Ahram was praising those in Tahrir, the days of the Mubarak administration were likely numbered.
Throughout, established organizations such as Reuters, BBC, VOA and others were quick to report suggestions that Mr. Mubarak may step down – but only with careful citations of the source. Witness this Reuters report published online at 6:25pm where reporters Andrew Hammond and Alexander Dziadosz wrote:
“Asked if Mubarak would step down, an Egyptian official told Reuters: ‘Most probably.'”
At 6:37pm EET, the Associated Press moved this story, citing Egyptian State TV as announcing that Mr. Mubarak would speak to the nation shortly from his palace, and that:
“The announcement comes after Egypt’s military proclaimed on national television that it stepped in to “safeguard the country” and assured protesters that Mubarak will meet their demands. In Washington, the CIA chief said there was a “strong likelihood” Mubarak will step down Thursday.”
Here and elsewhere, ‘old’ media organizations began to collect and reference earlier comments – for example, those from Mr. Panetta – to nudge the story closer to a conclusion, but held short of any definitive declarations. Even as late as 7:45pm EET, the furthest CNN would go in its televised coverage was cited a “Senior Egyptian official” saying that the Army would take over.
At 1:02pm ET (8:02pm EET), TV news outlets in the US almost simultaneously began posting a report that the Egyptian Information Minister denied that Mr. Mubarak would step down. While the Internet had already made up its mind that Mubarak would go, traditional ‘old’ media remained cautious.
To be clear, not everyone on Twitter was so certain about what was happening. Egyptian citizen Mosa’ab Elshamy was among those on the streets of Cairo, and was cautioning the situation was “unclear”; that it was premature to say who, exactly, was leading the government. However, reacting to rumors of a coup, he was clear – tweeting at 5:58pm:
Complicating matters was the blurring of the line between ‘old’ and ‘new’ – perhaps no better illustrated when “3arabawy” appeared live as a guest on Al-Jazeera English’s international broadcast, sharing what he has been hearing and seeing on the streets, and online. An unfiltered blogger talking on an edited broadcast – where exactly does this fall?
In a highly anticipated moment, President Obama, speaking in Marquette, Michigan, spoke to the situation. At 1:36pm ET/8:36 EET, US cable news networks took live to Mr. Obama, who said:
“We are following today’s events in Egypt closely…What is absolutely clear is that we are witnessing history unfold. It is a moment of transformation that is taking place because the people of Egypt are calling for change.”
Interestingly, it wasn’t just American media that went live to the President’s comments. Egyptian TV – notably state-sponsored Nile TV – featured Mr. Obama’s comments live, side-by-side with the video feed from Tahrir. The implied message: Mr. Mubarak was going.
This situation – old media withholding but hinting, new media charging forward, continued until Mr. Mubarak’s address. Things didn’t get much clearer after.
Immediately following his national speech, confusion became the rule. Had Mr. Mubarak stepped down? Would he remain as President, or even in Egypt? Who was in control of the army – Mr. Mubarak or his vice president Omar Suleiman?
Bloggers were as confused as TV journalists. Shortly after 10:55pm EET, some 20 minutes after the start of President Mubarak’s address, censored Egyptian blogger “Sandmonkey” tweeted:
“Why is the army saying things that contradict the president? We at a coup?”
Meanwhile Egypt’s Ambassador to the US demurred from questions in a live interview on CNN at 5:30 ET/12:30am Friday EET, saying questions of who exactly was in charge of the military was a “highly technical” constitutional question.
In terms of getting information out, there doesn’t appear to be a significant difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’, save for the most elemental difference that old tends to take more cautious steps while new leaps ahead before confirmation. The key difference is the type of information: old media seems better suited for accurate, definitive statements, while new media communicates mass sentiments or first-hand observances with quicker speed. In this new digital world, both provide important information.
But there’s a deeper, much more complicated question: did either the old media – meaning 24-hour TV broadcasts – or new media – specifically social networks – actually play a role in Egypt’s turmoil?
It’s a question we, and many millions of others, will be exploring in much greater detail in the weeks and months to come. However, some – especially those on Twitter such as Egyptian Hisham Kassem – seem certain about the answer, tweeting:
“The last thing I imagined when I opened a facebook and twitter account that these sites would bring about the end of mubarak”