Wall Street Journal: Amid Chaos, Citizens Spread Word on Web


by Mei Fong and Loretta Chao

On Wednesday night, Mumbai resident Asfaq Tapia heard two blasts. Before turning in, he sleepily noted it on his Twitter account, a Web site that lets users broadcast short messages about what they are doing.

“Later, I started receiving phone calls saying, ‘Are you ok? Where are you?’ At that point I realized something major has happened,” said Mr. Tapia, 24, who then started broadcasting on-the-ground updates, including from a hospital near one of the attacked hotels.

The Mumbai attacks have unleashed a storm of live updates from residents, swelling traffic and content on sites such as Twitter and Yahoo Inc.’s photo Web site Flickr. A Googlemap on the attack sites was swiftly put up. A lengthy entry about the attacks on user-generated online encyclopedia Wikipedia surfaced in less than an hour.

The interactivity demonstrates how Asia’s technologically sophisticated populations are becoming citizen journalists and increasingly being the first sources of information on disasters like the Mumbai attacks and China’s earthquake earlier this year, often outpacing traditional media outlets.

Experts say the late adoption but rapid spread of Internet and cellphone usage has made people in India and China quicker to embrace these new technologies. Compared with the U.S., “the cellphone system and SMS culture is stronger in Asia,” said Sree Sreenivasan, a new-media professor at Columbia University.

Sites such as San Fancisco-based Twitter Inc.’s are “one more step in the evolution,” of news-gathering, he said. He notes that bloggers played a prominent role in disseminating information during the 2004 Asian tsunami, as well as the heavy use of text-messaging during the 2006 Mumbai train blasts.

The rapid spread of news from Mumbai’s online community also led to easy transmission of rumors and hard-to-confirm information. The micro-bloggers posted items such as license plate numbers, purportedly of police vehicles stolen by terrorists. They also speculated authorities had requested some on-the-ground Twitter users to desist, for fear of clueing in terrorists on official movements.

A lot of the information posted also appeared to be generated off local television broadcasts. But in such a catastrophic situation, many found value in the increased amounts of information-accurate or not — generated by these services.

Since Danish Khan started “tweeting” about the attacks, the software engineer has 30 to 35 new people subscribing to his Twitter updates. Twitter is helping “those who are away from Mumbai who want to know about this,” after some television channels stopped broadcasting on-the-ground live updates, he said. These stations apparently did so Thursday, following requests by authorities.

Users posted phone numbers for hospitals, besieged hotels and volunteered to help people outside Mumbai text message their missing friends and family, when phone lines were jammed.

Soon after the attacks, a user under the name John Kenny started the first Wikipedia entry on the subject, beginning with: “The 26 November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks were a series of attacks by terrorists in Mumbai, India. 25 are injured and 2 killed.”

After 15 hours, various users had expanded and updated the entry to include a chart detailing the location and type of attacks (grenades/shooting/hostages), reactions from a number of embassies, names of some prominent casualties — and even the news that the English cricket team had postponed a planned tour to India.

“Earlier on, when you used to rely on TV…even stuff that would have happened two hours ago would still be playing over and over again. What’s happening with social media is, you get on the spot news,” said Mr. Tapia, the Mumbai resident who started broadcasting what he heard on Twitter last night.

“I had an information advantage of at least 10 minutes before the news guys actually reported it. I think [social media is] going in the right [direction],” said Mr. Tapia, an online specialist with an advertising agency in Mumbai. “We are reaching a stage now where information is disseminated by a lot of people, it’s accurate and reaching you in a timely fashion.”

Twitter Inc. started as a side project in March 2006 as a service that allows users to post answers to the question “What are you doing?” in 140 characters or less.

According to comScore Inc., the Web site had more than a million unique visitors from the U.S. in August 2008, up from 282,000 in August 2007. Those numbers are likely to underestimate overall usage, much of which happens on mobile phones. The bulk of users come from the U.S., but India and China account for more than 7% of traffic, according to Alexa.com.

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