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How Twitter is changing what news we view

The recent footage coming out of Syria has been brutal. The Syrian regime seems intent on making an example of…

By Meg Mittelstedt , in 2012 Blogs Hacking at the Darkness: Musings on social movements and technology , on February 17, 2012 Tags: , , , ,

It may be intended to spark rage, but could graphic footage from Syria backfire? (Image courtesy Flickr user Freestylee via Creative Commons.)

The recent footage coming out of Syria has been brutal. The Syrian regime seems intent on making an example of the Free Syrian Army holed up in Bab Amr, the opposition stronghold neighbourhood in Homs. But it is innocent civilians who are taking the brunt of the punishment. Stories of shelling, shrapnel bombs, snipers and torture, all against civilians, accompany Twitter hashtags like #Syria and #Homs.

Both Andy Carvin and Anthony de Rosa have tweeted multiple video links with warnings about graphic content: the dead and dying, wounded children, the maimed. It’s obvious that the content is affecting Carvin, who tweeted: “After everything that happened with Hamza this week, the video of the 2-yr-old really shook me up. Dammit. #homs #syria

Blogger Zeynep Tufecki wrote in support of Carvin’s choice to tweet graphic video links, saying that Twitter curators are changing the content of news that we view. She argues that by tweeting links to graphic content that would have never made prime time news, we are now able to obtain a more accurate picture of what is happening in countries like Syria. In addition, because curators like Carvin react personally to these videos, it brings a human face to the conflict in a way that new anchors do not. Tufecki says this “anti-playstation effect” is in contrast to sterile mainstream news reporting which distances viewers from the human reality of war.

But while I agree with Tufecki, I also wonder what long-term effect Twitter will have on the way we view news.

While I understand that there are terrible atrocities being committed in Homs, I have already begun to avoid clicking on links sent out by Carvin and others like him. The warning tells the content, and I’d rather not have my mind full of images of death and dying. Is this chicken of me? Possibly. Or it might just be human: some sights are simply too much to bear.

Will the majority of Twitter users begin, like me, to skip over graphic content? Or, if they view it, will they become numbed to it? Ostensibly, the goal of Free Syrian Army supporters, in tweeting out this kind of content, is to inform the world of the Syrian government’s actions and to draw support for their cause. But could they be shooting themselves in the foot? Will there be a breaking point at which Twitter users tune out and turn away? The evening news initially brought the same kind of horrified response. It had the power to move people and governments to action. Now, however, too many turn away with a feeling of powerlessness.

I suspect that graphic content overload coming out of Syria via Twitter will have the same effect of shutting viewers down, causing them to tune out and turn off. And that would be worse for the revolution than if the graphic content had remained unseen.