Wrote this article for Newcomb-Tulane and decided to put it up here on a lark.
The recent Mumbai terrorist attacks left India’s most dynamic and complex city shaken to its core. The world watched in astonishment as heavily armed Islamic terrorists murdered nearly 200 people over the course of two bloody days, holding a violent standoff with police forces and the Indian military. The terroists held hostages in the luxury Taj and Oberoi hotels, shot up a popular tourist café, laid waste to a women’s and children’s hospital, and attacked the city’s Nariman Jewish center. Terrifyingly well organized, the attacks fostered tremendous fear and uncertainty in the city’s population, uncertain of what was going on or how they should best respond.
I spent the spring of 2008 exploring India, freelance writing for a few local publications, but mainly soaking up the various pleasures of the subcontinent. I have fond memories of the couple of weeks I spent in Mumbai’s Colaba district – the area where the vast majority of the terrorist attacks took place. I remember hanging out at the Leopold Café far into the night, and I also remember walking through the blissfully air conditioned Taj hotel upwards of five times a day, wishing for the day when I would be able to afford a room. Colaba was an exciting, if often frustrating place, and I enjoyed exploring the city’s back alleys, tropical parks, and street markets, under the gentle guidance of my local friends. Indeed, I had been planning a return to Mumbai this summer when the horrible news came over the wires. I managed to contact my friends in Mumbai and was vastly relieved to find out that they were okay. I spent the Thanksgiving holidays glued to my computer screen and the news websites: it was terribly surreal to watch such brutal violence play out in a place I knew and loved.
But I couldn’t help but notice another dimension to the tragedy: the prominence of new media and citizen journalism in the ensuing coverage of the attacks. I am a habitual blogger, and I watched with interest as Twitter, blogs, and the internet stepped up to fill the spaces traditional media could not for the people of Mumbai. Mumbaikers utilized Twitter, personal blogs, and even text-messaging to keep each other informed as the attacks played out. These efforts occurred at a level umatched in history: according to many, the Mumbai attacks have done nothing more then bring the social media revolution to a climatic new peak.
Twitter, a new “micro-blogging” service garnered the most recognition as a potent citizen-journalism tool, as the blogosphere breathlessly discussed its power to report in absolute real time. “Tweets," 140-word posts shared via txt from cell phone or from a computer web browser, allowed Mumbai’s populace to write near-constant updates, posting information, theories, and advice at a rate of 50 to 100 posts a minute – a veritable barrage of on the spot information. Twitter’s #Mumbai channel drew the most posts: people tweeted as they watched the attacks play out, reporting on details and observations major media outlets couldn’t cover. And Twitter users also discussed the aftermath: the anguish they felt after the attacks, about the revenge they wished they could exact on the attackers, and on ways they could help the victims.
Within minutes of the attacks, the blogosphere had also stepped up to the plate, delivering incisive and passionate analysis of the terrifying events happening outside. Arun Shanbhag (http://arunshanbhag.com/) kept up a passionate and running commentary on the attacks from his home disquietingly close to the Taj. Mumbai Metblogs (http://mumbai.metblogs.com/), produced by city residents, produced (and is still producing) fascinating photo blogs from residents of the city. DesiCritics (http://desicritics.org/index.php), a South Asian based blog, has posted hundreds of compelling accounts from Indian citizens. Hundreds, if not thousands of other blogs have also covered the attacks in detail: the attacks are a red hot topic on the Internet right now, and interest shows no sign of waning.
Cellphones also played a pivotal role in the conflict: those held hostage inside the hotels were able to text the outside world about their situation, sending out messages as they cowered in barricaded hotel rooms or lay on the floor as terrorist hostages. Many used cellphones to stay in continuous contact with family members and even news agencies – “embedded” reporting as it has never been seen before. One entrapped couple texted Indian commandos a “safe” word, ensuring they would not open the door to the hotel’s attackers. Another man, tragically killed in the conflict, was able to text his family members up to the time of his death. With the power of new technology, even victims have found a surprising new voice.
However, the role of social media as an essential tool in times of disaster has raised many critical eyebrows. Most common is the assertion that information shared via social networks in crisis situations is not necessarily correct or even useful. Speculations and conspiracy theories flew around Twitter throughout the 72-hour attack and afterward, ranging from accusations laying blame on everyone from George W. Bush to space aliens. Although citizen accounts of the events helped many stay abreast of the situation, the Indian authorities implored citizens not to use Twitter, as a (still unsubstantiated) rumor had got out that the terrorists were using it to stay one step ahead of the police. Furthermore, a recent article in the Australian Courier Mail indicates that the shooters used Blackberries, GPS navigators, and difficult-to track cell phones to both coordinate the attacks and to closely monitor world reaction to their violent actions. (http://www.news.com.au/couriermail/story/0,23739,24726093-954,00.html). Today, even terrorists are concerned about their profile on the Internet, and are eminently capable of following international sentiment in real time. It seems we are all becoming self-referential.
Ultimately, the coordinated attack on Mumbai has brought into focus the real-world application of Internet tools – both for good and destructive purposes. Citizen journalists, on the scene and on the street, have gained unprecedented importance influence in a time where old-school media simply can’t move quickly enough.