AFP PHOTO/Mohammed Abed
By Sara Hussein
Follow @ sarahussein
I’ve never tweeted a war before, and even writing the word “tweeted” feels a little odd, although my spellchecker doesn’t object to it, so I must be behind the times. The fact is it’s the best way to describe the coverage I provided via Twitter of the recent eight-day conflict between Israel and Gaza militants. I’ve been on Twitter for about three years. I followed what I think is the standard trajectory for many journalists: signing up cautiously, no tweeting at all to start with, using it mostly as a breaking news feed of sorts.
I gradually worked my way up to “re-tweeting” – sharing interesting tweets with my followers that are visible to all – and eventually tweeting here and there. By the time I moved to the Middle East in October 2010, I was still far from a prolific user, but I knew my way around, even if I maintained a sort of professional scepticism about the wisdom of tweeting. I’m not a Twitter-hater -- it’s a useful medium for journalists. But I also think it’s a dangerous one. It’s an unfiltered jungle, where false information travels fast, and one misstep can travel around the world before you even realise your mistake.
When I started covering the uprisings in the Middle East, I was eager to use Twitter, but it was rarely an option because the communication situation was so bad. In Egypt, there was virtually no Internet outside the office and the 3G system was patchy at best. In Libya, there was simply no Internet at all, and the phone system was also almost non-existent. And it was the same situation in Syria, almost impossible to file stories, let alone tweet – not to mention the dangers of posting information online that could endanger yourself or your colleagues and sources.
So this conflict is the first I’ve covered where round-the-clock tweeting was an option, and I decided early on it would be a good idea, personally and professionally. On the personal level, it was an easy way to let friends and family keep up with what I was doing and where I was, and to know I was alive and well, without having to send constant email updates.
Professionally, it gave me a chance to promote and share our coverage, and also to use tidbits of information, colour, or my own photos that wouldn’t make it into our AFP stories. It also personalised the story for people in a way that wasn’t necessarily possible in a story, allowing me to provide minute-by-minute coverage of incoming naval shelling and air strikes and to describe what it felt like to be woken up at night by the sounds of the conflict.
I struggled with whether I was making the right professional decision. I knew I had to be careful about “cannibalising” material that would be used in our coverage. And I was also wary of looking like some self-aggrandising fool, suggesting that my experiences were more important or relevant or even more difficult than those of the people around me.
AFP PHOTO/Menahem Kahana
I wanted to make it clear that I was in one of the safest places in Gaza and that my experience was in no way representative of the terror others felt in much more dangerous places in the territory. On a personal level, I also worried that sharing more information with friends and family would only worry them more, and I quickly discovered that the boost in followers I was getting from my coverage also meant a boost in “trolls.”
For the first time in my life I started to get messages telling me to “get ready to meet your maker” and individuals offering to “send a bullet for you.” It was deeply unpleasant, and I decided – again for the first time in my life – to block and report those people making direct threats against me. Twitter seems to have suspended their accounts.
AFP PHOTO/Patrick Baz
I also received plenty of positive feedback, including from people who really seemed interested to get a sense of what it felt like on the ground
I tweeted information, along with photos from air strikes and funerals, and even tried posting audio for the first time, of some air strikes one early morning. Over 1,000 people listened to the recording, even though the quality wasn’t great.
Overall, I’m happy with what I was able to offer. I think it complemented our reported coverage well, and I now have a personal timeline of the conflict to look back on. And over 7,000 followers, only some of whom want to kill me.