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Mumbai attacks: Twitter and Flickr used to break news

Within minutes of last night’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in India, blogs and social networks were buzzing with news, photos and eyewitness accounts

 
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Mumbai terror attacks: Twitter and Flickr have been used to spread eyewitness accounts of the terror attacks in Mumbai
Mumbai terror attacks: Twitter and Flickr have been used to spread eyewitness accounts of the terror attacks in Mumbai Photo: REUTERS
Mumbai terror attacks: Twitter and Flickr have been used to spread eyewitness accounts of the terror attacks in Mumbai
Mumbai terror attacks: Twitter and Flickr have been used to spread eyewitness accounts of the terror attacks in Mumbai Photo: REUTERS

Anyone who doubts the power of the social web need only take a look at the activity on Twitter last night, the micro-blogging service that has more than six million members worldwide.

Mere moments after the first shots were fired, Twitter users in India, and especially in Mumbai, were providing instant eyewitness accounts of the unfolding drama.

Messages, known as “tweets”, were being posted to the site at a rate of around 70 tweets every five seconds when the news of the tragedy first broke, according to some estimates.

“Hospital update. Shots still being fired. Also, Metro cinema next door,” twittered Mumbaiattack.

“Mumbai terrorists are asking hotel reception for room #s of American citizens and holding them hostage on one floor” , twittered Dupreee.

Many Twitter users sent tweets pleading for blood donors to make their way to the JJ Hospital in Mumbai, as stocks were in danger of running low in the wake of the atrocity. Others spread the word about helplines and contact numbers for those worried about loved ones caught up in the attacks.

Many more simply used the microblogging platform to let friends and family know that they were safe.

A group of bloggers based in Mumbai used their Metroblog, which usually dealt with the everyday minutiae of life in this bustling city, as a news wire service, bringing its readers, and the wider world, news of the incident as it unfolded.

On Wikipedia, a new page about the terror attacks was set up within minutes of the news breaking, with a team of citizen editors adding a staggering amount of detail, often in real time, to provide background information about the attacks.

Someone even created a Google Map showing the location of buildings and landmarks at the centre of the incident, with links to news stories and eyewitness accounts.

But perhaps the most amazing and harrowing first-hand account of the Mumbai attacks came from Vinukumar Ranganathan who grabbed his camera and headed out onto the streets of the city, taking a series of photos showing mangled cars, bloodstained roads and fleeing crowds. He has uploaded more than 112 photos to Flickr.

New media analyst Cherian George said events such as the Mumbai attacks have highlighted the emergence of citizen journalism and user-generated content.

“If the event is highly dispersed and affects very large numbers of people, it would be physically impossible for a very large news organisation to keep track of every development,” Mr George told Reuters. “Those kind of events show the great potential for all these user accounts to be valuable to the mainstream media."

Indeed, many mainstream media outlets, including CNN, used video footage and photos sent in from people on the ground in Mumbai to illustrate their reports, and many television stations, radio stations and newspapers were also keeping a close eye on Twitter and the blogosphere in the hope of finding out more information.

Despite the obvious value and immediacy of these eyewitness accounts, there are signs that the blogosphere is struggling to know what to do for the best when these sort of incidents occur.

While Twitter is a powerful social medium for spreading news and information, some government agencies fear it could also be used by terrorists as a tool for communication. Last month, the US military warned that terrorist groups could use free, internet-based services, such as Twitter, as a means of communicating covertly across a medium that is difficult for authorities to trace and track.

In fact, it is alleged that at the height of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, the Indian government tried to shut down the Twitter stream people were using to spread news and information, amid fears that it could be used by the terrorists to help them evade capture.

While Twitter and other social media are not yet in a position to replace the mainstream media, there can be no doubt that they provide a powerful communication platform. Last night, the social web came of age.

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