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As Arab Spring Unfolded On Twitter, Social Media Gained Foothold At NPR

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This week we've been marking a milestone - 50 years of NPR - and with it, reflecting on how journalism and the media have grown in that time as well. And one of the biggest shifts? The embrace of social media. For NPR, that embrace came in the early 2010s with the so-called Arab Spring.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELEBRATION AMBIENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in non-English language).

CORNISH: On the radio, listeners heard the celebrations in Egypt's Tahrir Square after that country's president stepped down in February 2011, and NPR correspondents and hosts would report from uprisings across the region. But their work was boosted by someone not even in the newsroom - a man named Andy Carvin, who was hired to reach out to new audiences and, you know, do internet stuff.

ANDY CARVIN: I was such a weird creature to have in the newsroom that no one knew what to even call me professionally.

CORNISH: His title was senior product manager for communities at NPR. And in that role, he was, of course, always online. And in late 2010, he began noticing hashtags out of a small city in Tunisia, a country he had done some traveling in.

CARVIN: It turns out a young man had just set himself on fire and ultimately died because authorities had harassed him and confiscated his produce cart.

CORNISH: He was reading in real time about the spark that eventually lit up the Arab world.

CARVIN: And so these bloggers that I had gotten to know in prior years were now using Twitter and other places to share information about protests, which were absolutely unheard of in Tunisia at the time.

CORNISH: And so began the live tweeting of a revolution. Carvin would pass along tips and share what he learned, not only with colleagues on the ground covering the story, but outside the newsroom, too.

CARVIN: One of the best ways someone described it to me is they saw me almost like a DJ who was improvising with information as it was coming along and trying to sort out what aspects of it were salient enough to want to share with the rest of the public.

CORNISH: In the decade that followed, social media-based movements grew. And with it, so did a world of pundits, analysts and for better or worse, reporters offering commentary in real time.

CARVIN: It had an almost call-and-response, like, feel to it that otherwise had been pretty much alien to any other type of journalism. And now, this was essentially a real-time conversation with the entire world not only potentially listening, but potentially chiming in with their own thoughts as well.

CORNISH: There have been a lot of downsides to that.

CARVIN: There have been a ton of downsides to that. And in many ways, I think the Arab Spring was a very innocent time. You didn't see many instances of cyberbullying, for example. Disinformation wasn't even really a major factor because one of the things about trying to cover a real-time event is you had so many eyewitnesses in a particular location, you could almost visualize and triangulate in your head what was happening based on how they were each responding to it.

CORNISH: What lessons do you think we've learned in the media about how to do a kind of healthy social media-based journalism?

CARVIN: I think the one thing that's come across fairly clearly since January 6 in particular is that you can be an unbiased and fair journalist while at the same time acknowledging when movements or individuals are engaging in undemocratic activity. And as uncomfortable as that can be, especially when it's coming much more from one side than the other, we learned the hard way what happens when we try to treat that as a balanced situation, when one side of things is trying to play mostly by the rules and still holds the basic tenets of democracy, whereas the other side in many cases does not. And if part of what we do as journalists is to protect the broader public civic space for civil discourse and supporting the freedoms that democracy gives us, at some point it often requires acknowledging when there are circumstances where people are acting undemocratically.

CORNISH: Andy Carvin, formerly of NPR and now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab. And by the way, the old iPhone Andy used for all that tweeting is now at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in an exhibit on American innovation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.