The Guardian's journalists seem to be able to leverage Twitter better than Indian journalists. Tweeting for a story in the UK seems to be able to get reporters places, but do the same in India, and you'll go nowhere.
For the second time in a few years I found myself following strange people on Twitter for news. And it was not entirely unrewarding! The first was when I randomly came across a resident of Abbottabad who woke up to sounds of a helicopter flying low over the area and who didn’t sleep that night. We all know why. The second time was on May 12 for the polls in Pakistan.
If you were not in Pakistan for the elections, the next best thing would have been to track it on Twitter. There was furious activity on D-day and after and there was not a moment to be missed. The dreadful heat in Karachi and the fact that voters didn’t bring water, or wear dupattas, to beat it. Sounds of the bomb blasts which didn’t deter anyone from coming out and voting, the long queues, someone waited all of seven hours to vote. A couple went back home, they had come with a small baby, and promised to return and cast their vote.
There were appeals to point out rigging. Some places hadn’t opened in the morning, at others there were no ballot papers. There were pictures of three generations coming out to vote, and even a senile woman described as such being brought to the polling station. Later, videos were uploaded on the gross rigging and the one I saw had an empty booth with women stuffing ballot papers into boxes without any supervision.
The audio wasn’t all that clear though. At the end of polling day, a television channel gave out the results even before counting had begun, prompting angry tweets. People also questioned the high voter turnout that was initially pegged at between 60 to 80 per cent and was much less than that. The Pakistan Election Commission’s announcement that polls in Karachi was not free and fair was all over along with a feeling of euphoria of those who had voted, had an exhausting day at the booths or had to wait for hours.
Democracy had triumphed; there was much virtual thumping of backs and elation that people had braved bombs, the heat and red tape to make their voices heard. Some places did not allow women to vote while in other places, women voted for the first time. There was an overwhelming response from the youth who formed a large chunk of the electorate and the virtual world was alive with comments, stories and pictures.
All this reminded me of a lecture I attended by The Guardian editor in chief Alan Rusbridger on the Future of Journalism in a Digital Age organised by the Mumbai Press Club. He said that every person who has a Twitter account or even a mobile phone can go out and tell a story and turn into a journalist. The future of journalism, he said, lies in accepting the importance of the Digital Age.
He also gave the interesting example of a senior Guardian journalist who went to Greece to do a story on the crisis there and tweeted for responses before he left. He got over 200 tweets from different people which he went and followed up once in Greece and did stories which were quite unique in many ways.
I thought that this could never work in India but I foolishly tried to replicate the formula of digital age journalism. I tweeted asking for responses on the drought in Maharashtra - saying that I am doing a story “Everybody does NOT love a good drought” and please send in responses, emulating the Guardian journalist. Something told me this was a bad idea even as I was tweeting and, yes, I was a failure in the digital age even before I started out.
Not a single response and one retweet. I already knew why no one had responded - I had several theories, and am sure all of them are correct.
1) Everybody did love a good drought. 2) There was a drought also of words, so people who wanted to respond, couldn’t. 3) Farmers and those really affected were trying to survive by scrounging for water and food and had no time to tweet - this I know and have seen for myself. 4) There are few computers owned by farmers. 5) Farmers don’t tweet. 6) Neither do experts on agrarian crisis or anyone else for that matter. 7) We are in an age without food and water; the digital age is very far away.
Undeterred by this exercise, I tried again. This time, two of us - a colleague and I - both sent out tweets for reactions from survivors from the 1993 bomb blasts in Mumbai. You can guess the response. I was saved since I had some phone numbers from people I kept in touch with and managed to get some interviews for the 20th year anniversary.
After that, I was sceptical about this kind of journalism and decided that tweeting was best left to journalists from The Guardian who seemed to have great luck with it, enough to spin out tempting ads which Mr. Rusbridger showed us during his engaging lecture.
But after following the Pakistan elections on Twitter, I think maybe he did have a point after all. A story on the elections based on Twitter was highly possible and people would have been more than willing to react, speak, send pictures, and even if you couldn’t go and verify every story, there was enough to go around!