Serious Book Club Live Chat No Poop Jokes Allowed: The Arab Spring, Social Media, And Them Damn Twitters

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Coming up at Noon, EST: Andy Carvin is joining us in the Sekrit Wonket Chatcave for a Livechat until he gets sick of our questions / poop jokes. Please leave your questions in the comments section; we will copy the best questions into our live chat, then bloog the answers below! One of the most dangerous things for a dictator, supposedly, is the free flow of information. That belief is certainly reinforced by Andy Carvin's book Distant Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution, an engaging and sometimes jaw-dropping record of how activists and ordinary citizens used social media technology to overthrow oppressive governments in several countries in the Middle East during 2010 and 2011. Carvin rejects the notion that these were "Twitter Revolutions," because as with any revolution, it was the people who ultimately brought about change. But there's little doubt that Facebook and Twitter provided the revolutionaries with tools that enabled them to organize and communicate more effectively with each other, and with the outside world. And somehow, in a surprising turn of events that American political figures may wish to study, the activists of the Arab Spring managed to make use of the new technologies without even once (as far as has been documented) forwarding racist cartoons or sending photos of their junk out to their followers.


Andy Carvin didn't set out to become one of the most prominent western media people covering the Arab Spring; his job at National Public Radio, "Senior Social Media Strategist," largely centered around experimenting with different ways of telling stories, but didn't include a mandate to report on the Middle East. When anti-government protests blew up in Tunisia in late 2010, Carvin found himself spending more and more time passing on information gleaned from the Twitter accounts of Tunisian bloggers he'd met five years before, and trying to make sense of many online voices of the uprising. Where many of us find Twitter and other social media a fragmented stream of short rants and cat videos, Carvin found tools that helped sort and pull together those fragments into a more coherent narrative. It also helped that he had bosses who were willing to see where this experimentation with social media would go; he recounts one NPR executive stopping by his desk to say "I don't understand what you're doing, but please keep doing it."

The Tunisian protests eventually brought down the government, and shortly afterwards, activists in Egypt started similar protests, leading to that painful moment when Old Handsome Joe Biden wouldn't exactly call Hosni Mubarak a dictator, but wouldn't exactly call him "clean and articulate" either. Carvin only knew one Egyptian blogger directly, a Cairo software developer named Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who like Carvin had worked with the Global Voices Online blogging network. Starting with that one contact, Carvin used Twitter's own infrastructure to find promising insiders:

I clicked on the list of people that Alaa followed and scrolled further and further downward. There were hundreds of names accumulated over several years of Twitter use. When I finally reached the bottom, I found the very first people he connected with on Twitter...I investigated the first dozen or so people he followed. For most, their tweets and Twitter bios made it clear that they were politically engaged in Egypt... I began following their accounts, and then investigated the first people they followed on Twitter to find more activists.

Very quickly, names began to pile up – bloggers, activists, even journalists who had a history of dissent.

It's a relief to know that Mubarak's security apparatus was apparently nowhere near as competent at using Twitter for research as Carvin was.

The book's reconstruction of the protests in Tahrir Square, and later of the fighting in Libya, are gripping and immediate; Carvin builds these sections largely out of the tweets sent by people in the midst of the action, and even though we know more or less how things eventually turned out, the first-person, present-tense messages make for suspenseful reading, OMG's and all:

Mubarak thugs are riding in on CAMELS AND HORSES?! What the fuck do they think this is?! The Arabian Nights v 2.0?! -- @litfreak [Feb. 1, 2011]

Carvin also looks at moments where he and his ad hoc community of internet detectives used their collective smarts to sort fact from rumor, including how they managed to debunk a claim that Israel was selling mortar shells to Gaddafi, a reassuring reminder that even on the internet, good research can drive out bullshit.

This is also a case where the e-book may be the better choice than the dead-trees version; the text is liberally supported by links to photos and videos that add considerably to the narrative. A friend who read it on a tablet said she'd never seen anything like it before. I had, only it was in the early 1990s and it was a book on CD-ROM, a format that had a lot of promise but all too often resulted in a clumsy mishmash of text and poorly-integrated supplemental video and photos.* Distant Witness's synthesis of text and online content isn't always seamless -- there were a very few links that have already passed into Error 404 land -- but this e-book really is pretty close to what a lot of people were getting excited about when they talked about "multimedia."

For all the worries that Twitter and online chat are going to destroy Good Writing, there's something reassuring about the synthesis of tweets and conventional narrative in Distant Witness: if older histories were based on letters and diaries of participants in events like the US Civil War, there's no shortage of electronic texts being generated today, and they can provide rich, ground-level views of today's conflicts, from a variety of voices that may not have made it into older histories. Still, we have to feel a little sorry for some future Ken Burns, trying to get a soulful violin solo to accompany some 140-character burst of text.

*There was one CD-ROM production that really lived up to the multimedia hype: Art Spiegelman's 1995 The Complete Maus which incorporated sketches, drafts, and audio interviews into what was already a mind-blowing comic. It's been re-released as a book and DVD-ROM combo, and is still pretty amazing.

Don't forget, Wonkers, our second book selection will be Denis Kitchen and Michael Schumacher's Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary, a biography of the cartoonist / satirist behind L'il Abner. We are pretty sure Mr. Capp is NOT available for a livebloog, but we will have us a review and chat anyway; let's say the first week of April, probably. And do we have kickback-generating linkies to this book? We most certainly do!

Hardcover: $16.66

Kindle e-book: $13.43

Our first Reader Question comes from Callyson:

I loved the book, but I couldn't stop thinking about one glaring absence--Iran. I realize that the events there began before you got active in this project, but have you considered reaching out to the freedom activists in that nation--or is it too risky to do so?

Andy C. The story of what happened in Iran is worth an entire book in its own right - it's just not the book I wanted to write this time around. I didn't want to write a history of how social media has been used in social movements - otherwise I would've had to rewind to Iran, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and other recent political protests that were documented via Twitter. I decided to start with the Arab Spring because that's where I really got involved covering geopolitics. While I tweeted some about Iran and those other protests, I wasn't as actively engaged as I was with the Arab Spring, and my Twitter archive didn't have the depth of stories from those protests that would've made for a compelling read.

From Chicken_Thief: Ask Andy if he ever had any clandestine meetings with Woodward in dark corners of Billy Martin's to "see what he had".

Andy C. In response to the Woodward q: You'll regret asking me that.

Dok Z: I have a total English Major question: I noticed your Twitter link the other day to the Free Arabs satire site; you asked if it might be "A secular Arab @TheOnion in the making?" What value do you think satire has in changing attitudes?

I'm thinking of the old Mark Twain line about the supposed power of humor: "Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution--these can lift at a colossal humbug,--push it a little-- crowd it a little--weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand."

It's a great line, but there didn't seem to be a lot of ha-ha during the Arab Spring. Of course, in the middle of a street protest, there are bigger concerns than finding just the right zinger about the dictator.

Andy C. Actually, you'd be surprised how much ha-ha there was during the Arab Spring. Egyptians are wickedly funny people, and you'd often see it in their protest signs in the way they made fun of the regime.

In Syria, I remember someone making a video the day President Assad held regional elections. The video showed a bunch of young men wrapped in bandages and limping to a ballot box as explosions rained down on them outside. It's really black humor, but even in the worst of times they've managed to keep their sense of humor.

DerrickWildcat: Do you feel the Arab Spring is responsible for the ongoing events in Mali?

Andy C. Yes, I think there's a connection. During the Libyan civil war, Gaddafi employed a number of Tuaregs among his armed forces. When Gaddafi lost, they managed to get their hands on sophisticated weapons, then snuck them south into Mali. The Malian govt was already engaged in counter-insurgency against the Tuaregs, and suddenly found themselves overwhelmed. Malian soldiers couldn't compete against the Tuaregs, and a group of officers decided to overthrow the government, essentially on a whim. This caused the army front lines to collapse, allowing the Tuaregs to take over the north - and then get sidelined by jihadi groups who ostensibly were their allies.

So, bad news for Gaddafi turned into bad news for Malian democracy as well.

Karlsefni: What have you learned about Tuareg revolutions in West and North Africa, in relation to how the ethnic minority carves out an existence in the majority Arab population?

Andy C. I haven't spend a huge amount of time studying the Tuaregs, but I did have the chance to interact with a lot of Amazigh during the Libyan revolution. The Amazigh are the indigenous Berber populations there. Gaddafi suppressed their culture and language, essentially Arabizing the entire population. Now, Amazighs are creating their own media services - radio, newspapers, etc - in their own language, which by the way is written in a really amazing script, in case you haven't seen it before. When I visited Libya last year, I saw Amazigh graffiti inside the ruins of Gaddafi's house. Talk about an incredible turn of events.

Andy C. More info here

Andy C. Here are my pics from Libya. I got a lot of graffiti but not sure if I got Amazigh graffiti.

I have another good question from Callyson: Were there any repercussions for that jerk who invented "Gay Girl in Damascus"?

Andy C. The last I heard, he was being investigated by his university for violating its ethics code. Apart from that, I don't believe so.

Weejee: "So, bad news for Gaddafi turned into bad news for Malian democracy as well."

Similar perhaps to Washington having a sad when elections, say like in Palestine, don't go the way they were hoping?

Andy C. That's democracy for you.

El_Donaldo: Also, what about the Bahrain episode - there Twitter didn't offer just a ground's-eye view of the protest, but an actual conflict in public opinion, because there seems to be there a pretty wide adoption of social networking communications. Use of Twitter would seem to be an indicator of a certain degree of cosmopolitanism and even privilege and wealth?

And so many of the tweets were in English? I know your followers were doing yeoman's work translating tweets and videos, but how much of the coverage reflected that you were following through on tweets that were directed at an international rather than a local audience?

Andy C. I'll break up this one into two different answers...

RE: Bahrain, it's a very wealthy country. The vast majority of its population is online. Compared to most other countries in the region, its online activities and discussions probably reflects broader conventional wisdom than elsewhere.

In Egypt, many of the revolutionaries tweet in English in order to reach a wider audience. But only a third of Egyptians are online, give or take, and I think they discovered over time that their interpretation of the revolution wasn't necessarily what the rest of the public believed. Many revolutionaries still see the fight as in progress, while other parts of the population just want to move on.

I also made sure I followed people on Twitter who spent an enormous time reading Arabic tweets and local media, so I wouldn't be completely clueless about those perspectives. Still would've helped if I spoke the language, obviously.

Close_Read: I'm wondering if Andy is watching chatter on how governments/authorities might be strategizing to manipulate the twittersphere, prevent future revolutions. The book talks about finding trusted sources and verifying information, but does he think we can expect more astroturf grassroots stuff in the future, i.e., will future social media-enhanced political change be more difficult?

I'm asking for a friend.

Andy C. In the case of Bahrain, the govt worked with PR companies and volunteers to fill Twitter with pro-govt opinions, as well as suppress the opinions of those who supported the opposition. In Iran, they crowdsourced IDing of protesters during the last election, and Bahrain did the same thing during the Arab Spring.

Callyson again: Several times in your book, you mention discussing the events in the Arab Spring with your young daughter. Did she get very interested in what was going on?

Andy C. She got very interested. She asked good questions, like "How are Egypt and Libya different even though they're next to each other?" After a while she understood my job; I asked what do I do for a living, and she said something like, "You pay attention to what's going on and explain it to people." Pretty good definition of journalism if you ask me. Then there were times where she'd just say really surreal stuff, like "She looks like she needs some milk" when Sec Clinton appeared on TV once.

An_Outhouse: Have you observed rules of twitter etiquette evolving, especially where it has been a serious tool for change, as opposed to the supposed serious people in the U.S. who tweet their dicks, inform us to 'assume deer dead', and accuse you of spreading rumors?

Andy C. I wouldn't say they're evolving; I'd say there are multiple Twitter etiquettes depending on the community using it. Some people will use it share naked selfies while others use it to foment rebellion. To each his own.

BerkeleyBear: I realize that you worked diligently to sort fact from fiction. As valuable as that is, and acknowledging that there will always be a (sadly limited) audience for really good work, given what we know about cognitive psychology - such as that 2 sources of a statement make reports "true" in most people's minds, and confirmation bias making it almost impossible for a truthful but counter bias theme to take hold with a hostile audience - how can responsible journalists hope to compete with the sensationalists who seem to dominate social media? It seems sort of like asking the New York Times to compete with Star Magazine at the grocery check-out counter, only with the Times about a month slower than the tabloid on any topic.

Andy C. There's always going to be a space in media for sensationalism, low-brow content, the banal, etc, whether you like it or not. People enjoy it. Hell, I need my daily Buzzfeed fix just as much as anyone. If you look at the history of media, this has pretty much always been the case. If you're going to live in a democracy and embrace free press, you have to make room for pretty much everything. The challenge is finding the voices that are the most interesting and relevant, and making sure they reach the broad audience they deserve.

Rebecca S. You should probably ditch Buzzfeed and start wasting all your time on Wonkette. Smart people say really stupid shit here.

Andy C. Don't worry, I can multitask.

Close_Read: I love the story of the teen in Florida compiling military field manuals for the Libyan rebels. And the housewife in New Jersey who became an Yemeni expert. Just mind-blowing. Ordinary, corn-fed Americans supporting social change from the burbs. Any other amazing stories like that you've discovered since the book came out, i.e., related to Mali or Iran or elsewhere?

Andy C. It's been hard covering Mali since the north of the country was basically shut off from the rest of the world. A few people have managed to get in there and report - @jenanmoussa is one of my faves, as well as Alex Crawford from Sky News.

What's interesting is that a number of the people who volunteered re: Libya are doing the same for Syria. As to whether they'll be successful, only time will tell.

And as for Iran, I'm revisiting my #iranelection Twitter list from a few years ago and prepping it for the next round of elections. We'll see what happens.

NothingIsAmiss: Can you update us on the current situation in Egypt? Things seem to be trending toward a more, not less, supressive state. In the book, people were returning toEgypt, excited about the changes. How are your contacts in Egypt viewing the situation now?

Andy C. A lot of the people I got to know in Egypt in '11 are depressed and disillusioned. Some are worried they've got PTSD. I think they all thought they would've made more progress by this point, but it's been a tough road for them.

It's easy for people to make the assumption that elections create democracy and vice versa. That's just part of the process. Civil society needs to be reconstructed - or sometimes constructed from scratch. And that's hard to do overnight when you don't have traditions of allowing dissent or disagreement. So now the opposition is boycotting the next elections, many of the liberals are annoyed that they haven't been a stronger force, and the Islamist forces bicker among themselves.

malsperanza: Beyond what happened in the Arab Spring, and is still happening, how much access is there to twitter in, say, the Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali? What chance is there for the "silent" corners of the globe to become less silent?

E.g., you mentioned Belarus & Kyrgyzstan--stories not reported much at all in the US or probably Europe.

Andy C. Before coming to NPR, I used to run a nonprofit social network that focused on bridging the digital divide. One of my concerns at the time was that countries that lack access and literacy will be left behind in one way or another. That's why you never see much social media chatter about the Dem Republic of the Congo. Civil wars have come and gone there, with hundreds of thousands of dead, yet you barely notice it online.

As for Mauritania, Western Sahara, etc, there's some stuff out there, but not much. One of the best online sources is Nasser Weddady (@weddady). He's from Mauritania originally. Definitely worth a follow.

Dok Z: Last question, sadly (the man has to catch a plane): You ended up naming the puppy "Penny." Did that come from the Twittoverse, or the kids?

And also, Is the internet making us stupid? I'm not entirely sure I buy all of Nicholas Carr's argument that we're perpetually distracted, but I could just be in denial. Or is it just a matter of finding the right tools to avoid being completely scattered across dozens of twitter feeds and cat videos?

Andy C. The puppy name came from Facebook - a cousin of mine suggested it - and my wife came up with Penny independently. Seemed like a good name, so we ran with it. My daughter, though, insists her real name is Tanny Princess Penny Carvin. Don't think we can fit all of that on a dog tag, though.

and for that Carr-related Q: Wait, could you ask that again?

And so ends our livechat with Andy Carvin, who also notes, "The dog was chewing on my laptop while I was typing, and my 4-yr-old is running around yelling "Carmen Sandiego took the mummy! Carmen Sandiego took the mummy!" Time permitting, he may or may not be able to pop into the comments for additional conversation.

Huge thanks to Andy Carvin for spending time with us, and to Your Editrix for her insanely efficient question-copypasta!

More damn dog pictures here.

Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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