Twit TV and Crew Make for Hysterical Viewing

By Novar Caine

The Twitterverse descended into one of the worst moments of its short life last week when users unleashed a torrent of breathless commentary and screaming about events in Egypt as reported by breathless and screaming American television. 

American TV reporters in Cairo – an oxymoron because there was little additional knowledge gleaned outside of pointing a camera at the protesting masses and this breed is glory-hunting and self-serving and seek to insert themselves into the story they are supposed to be covering (thus violating a basic tenet of their supposed craft) – were regrettably injured in scuffles but revelled in their self-anointed hero-victim status.

Will the viewership ever wise-up? With a jump in ratings for CNN, it appears, in the US at least, unlikely. (A comment on The Huffington Post on an item about an American reporter leaving Egypt due to being bashed read: “Narcissistic media reporting on itself. I wonder if he even reported something useful.”)

Meanwhile, battling-on reporter-champions were busy tweeting that rampages were breaking out at Egyptian Museum, the world-renowned institute full of mummies and priceless artefacts and relics. That was sufficient to send twitterers into overdrive. A mountainous mudslide of hyperbole, hysteria and flawed assumptions then slid down the internet. The tiny lines of text were blowing hurricane-force breathless, and anyone following the dizzying tide of tweets – viewable within a Google search – would have assumed that the fine museum had been razed, its contents destroyed or looted. 

None of that happened, and the museum remains under heavy security, as witnessed during after-prayers demonstrations last Friday, when the army kept people far from the site. 

The problem with this assuming citizen journalism – which includes random tweets from reporters on the job – is there are no balances and no checks. With major events such as Egypt, hysteria takes the place of reason. In short, what is lacking is an essential element that makes it all credible, and real: an editor, a person skilled in the professional presentation of news and events. 

As demonstrators paid with their lives in their call for democracy and transparency in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak’s government disgracefully shut off access to the internet as it sought to wrest control on information flows. It also blocked Al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite channel that has an English-language offshoot, from broadcasting in the country. But social media such as Facebook and Twitter may not be the revolution tools of a modern world, as some, including Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell, insist. People from ancient times to more recent have gathered in numbers to topple regimes, long before the internet was invented – from the French Revolution to the collapse of East Germany in modern history alone – with not a computer or phone in sight. 

Any anyway, the citizenry of Middle Eastern countries – now organising revolt via Twitter and Facebook, we are told by the news media and ill-informed TV talking heads – are minuscule in number in terms of their tens of millions of fellow people who have access to the internet, primarily because they can’t afford it. The Cairo and Alexandria protests did not stop when the Mubarak pulled the plug, after all.

Social media can often be a source of mass misinformation that is of itself hazardous. Twitter is built upon a complex code of cant. It inspires vapidity. It is the McDonald’s of the Information Age, an era that promises all at once but frequently disappoints on quality, instead preferring mass appeal that lacks credibility.

Twitter, which has begun introducing paid tweets as a means to actually earn some money – until recently a novel concept for the venture capital-funded firm – has a dismal user-retention rate of 40 percent, according to industry tracker Nielsen Online, meaning millions try the service and, bored, quickly abandon it. There’s just not much substance to 140 characters or less.

So for now, amid an evidently wiser second-generation internet, the headless-chickening continues, its spurious flames fed by scandalous media outlets whose reporters think they can buttress their ersatz celebrity by tweeting to the world. None of this makes for a wiser world, however, and that’s why it is shrewd to put your store in the reason of calm voice, no matter how mundane it might at first seem.

It is therefore no surprise that plaudits have gone to the coverage of Egypt by the BBC’s global services and that of Doha-based Al-Jazeera, a relative newcomer that has overtaken leaders in the field that have become three-ringed laughing stocks.

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