How Information Travels

By , 4 May, 2011, 3 Comments

For the past few days, I’ve been reporting round-the-clock on the Pakistani fallout of the bin Laden assassination. In the process, I’ve been able to play a small part in one of the fascinating side-stories of the assassination: the discovery of Sohaib Athar, an Abbottabad local who live-tweeted the sounds of the raid (helicopters overhead, then a massive explosion when one copter crashed) without knowing what he was hearing.

The Poynter Institute’s Steve Myers has done a great piece on how news of Athar traveled, and my role appears to have been, essentially, that I sit at the intersection of two networks: the network of people who follow news on Pakistan, and the network of American journalists, media critics and wonks. From the first network, I picked up early news of an unidentified helicopter crash in Abbottabad, and passed it on to Chris, who was visiting New York and watching the news alongside me. Chris did some clever sleuthing (more on that in a moment) to learn more, and came across Athar’s tweets. We both tweeted about Athar at around 12:38 AM on Sunday.

As Chris describes in his stellar post on the experience, my tweet happened to get traction (despite my having a relatively small follower base) because it went to my second network: American journalists, media critics and policy wonks who were, at precisely that moment, trying to get more information on the raid President Obama had described an hour before.

Chris’ role was different. He had the instinctive knowledge of technology to think of using Google Realtime to pull up tweets about Abbottabad from before Obama’s announcement, he recognized Athar’s tweets for what they were (a live account of the raid) and in describing them as such, provided the narrative frame that others could latch on to.

Here’s Chris’ account of what made Athar’s tweets so compelling:

Given a popular narrative of Bin Laden hiding in caves and the like, to find out he was living in a mansion somewhere so quiet, so genteel and so near to the heart of the establishment came as a surprise. The key thing that made Sohaib’s liveblogging from earlier in the day so compelling was that it was completely unwitting, mirroring our own disbelief that Bin Laden had been quietly residing in the Pakistani equivalent of Tunbridge Wells all these years, without any of us knowing. The story chimed perfectly with our own emotions. And because the story had been unwitting, it was also candid and honest, cutting through the hype and speculation that the 24-hour news stations were resorting to.

I agree with this, but I would add something else. At least for me, the power of Athar’s story was as a reminder that ‘war zones’ are also people’s homes. It brought to life the mundane details of daily life, and the poignant struggle of trying to live daily life–in Athar’s case, just to have a quiet work night–in one of the most dangerous and maddening countries on earth. As Athar told me when I interviewed him for Forbes, he moved to Abbottabad a few years ago from Lahore precisely to shield his family from the violence then engulfing the city.

What we saw in his tweets was a man who had run from the madness only to have it running after him. What we witnessed was the moment he realized it had caught up with him. That tension between what people really care about in Pakistan and the violence that prevents them from moving on with their lives, the bitter irony of life there, is something I’ve written on often. Yet no matter how much reporting I do, it doesn’t cease to affect me emotionally. And when, after the news about bin Laden had broken, Athar realized what had happened, and began to receive an avalanche of requests from journalists, he tweeted, “Bin Laden is dead. I didn’t kill him. Please let me sleep now.” For me, that’s an absolute punch to the gut.

Chris’ post makes another really great point about how Athar’s relationship to Twitter and his sudden celebrity progressed during the first 24 hours of the story:

As the story matured and his fame rose, Sohaib took on the role of citizen journalist, becoming a correspondent of sorts (not many other residents of Abbottabad are on Twitter, he remarked, it’s mostly Facebook). He conducted interviews on television, and ventured out into town to take photographs and report back on the mood in the town.This is a far cry from the cynical caricature of Twitter as an echo chamber – a place where nothing new is said and everything is relentlessly retweeted. As the story progressed, Sohaib came to the wider community’s attention and it in turned shaped his role in the affair. His relationship with Twitter evolved – it went from being a place to remark on the events that had taken place, to realising their significance, to realising his own significance, and then finally embracing it with intrepidness, intelligence and good humour. I might have been one small factor that sparked the process off, but I definitely can’t take any credit for the phenomenon he has become – that’s entirely to his own credit, and something that we should celebrate.

I’ve really nothing to add here, except to say that I think this is very much the ideal of how social media and citizen journalism is meant to work. Not everyone can grow into their new status as a one-person-broadcast-network with such speed and grace, which is why I’m so often skeptical of how it will evolve as a model, but Athar’s transformation is nothing short of a triumph.

3 Responses {+}
  • Lyle

    Congratulations on your neat scoop. Athar’s story reminds me of the story of Wilmer McLean who’s home was on the battlefield of Bull Run in 1861. Wanting to get away from the War he moved himself and his family to Appomattox Court House… where is home ended up being the end of Army of Northern Virginia and more or less the Civil War.

    Good stuff.

  • Maha Rafi Atal

    Great anecdote, Lyle. I’ll bet it takes me less than 10 days to drop that into party conversation.

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