The G20 and Social Media

The G20 riots weren’t pretty, and social media was there to capture it all. Still, what we saw wasn’t so much its successes as its limiations. Information about the riots poured down from everywhere – the Globe & Mail’s Live Blog, youtube, blogTO and Torontoist’s bloggers, tweets from everyone and their mother, and even the occasional facebook friend who braved the terror and reported back with cellphone pictures.

Still, for me, it’s CP24 and CTV’s old fashioned, live TV coverage that came out on top every time. For one thing, although the cameras could only cover a small area at a time, TV coverage wasn’t limited to the few-minute-long clips of a cellphone camera, or to Twitter’s 140 characters. You could watch an event from start to finish, see every side’s every move, and for the most part judge the events for yourself. The bias came from the editing choices, the commentary of the journalists and the angle of the camera.

Not so with social media. Although Twitter and blogs were updated live, they were horribly limited. The video that’s been going around in the past half hour or so has been that of protesters peacefully singing “Oh Canada,” and being rushed by police officers, on cue, as the song ended. It’s short, shot from up high, and leaves far more questions than answers: what prompted the order for the police to rush forward? were the protesters given a warning? did they obey this warning? were they really peaceful, or did the protesters you can see walking towards the police at the end of the video threaten them in any way?

The same goes for the rest of the updates. While it was thanks to Twitter that we found out the police was using rubber bullets (a claim which Bill Blair at first denied), most of the available tweets and blogs were so biased to one side or the other (like, for example, the Varsity’s description of the march from Queen’s Park to Bloor via Devonshire), and written by people so vested in the conflict, that they were useless for impartial information, even where they were supposedly just reporting events. The news stations were obviously just as biased, but their long formats and desire to seem balanced at least meant that they presented a wider spread of information.

This is the opposite of what we’ve come to expect following the Twitter’s success in Iran’s “Green Revolution”. So what does this mean? Social media is wonderful for voicing opinions and descent, but it won’t be able to supplant traditional media for straight up information, as long as traditional media is, like Canada’s, relatively free. There needs to be some kind of editorial control, fact checking, and a greater tolearnce for length in order for information to be useful. On the other hand, traditional sources of information are only helpful if they’re live. A newspaper is just too slow to provide anything more than commentary.

The best information comes from the marriage of the two. I’m especially excited about the Globe & Mail’s Live Blog. They use the format consistently on their website, and it works wonderfully every time. It’s a series of Tweets from Globe reporters mixed with user comments, which the reporters correct and respond to. It also brings together all available sources of information, as participants link to youtube, blog, twitter, and newspaper posts, and the reporters link to their own articles, even at times to tomorrow’s headlines. It works because it’s moderated, and because it doesn’t stop at 140 characters, but acts as a kind of live table of contents for longer, traditional sources of information elsewhere.

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