Al Jazeera’s reporting from Egypt’s revolution and now the uprising in Libya has been transformed by the use of social media and social networking tools. “The key to our success,” said Riyaad Minty, the network’s head of social media, “is getting in early.”

Following the mass protests in Tunisia starting in December 2010, Al Jazeera could see the potential for uprisings elsewhere. Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan. They started building their network of contacts.

“Based on previous experiences and what we saw in Iran and if we go back to the Gaza War, once governments start clamping down on protesters the first thing that they do was to take down communications, specifically online communications,” Minty told the Digital Directions 2011 conference in Sydney last week.

Al Jazeera therefore makes sure to have telephone and other contacts for its sources. And while YouTube, Facebook and Twitter remain the primary venues for building social networks and gathering information, Al Jazeera also runs its own social networks on its English and Arabic websites — and they tend not to be blocked as often.

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“We’ve been receiving up to 4500 images a day on our own citizen media sites, which have been usually graphic images. I mean a lot of it you couldn’t actually broadcast, and images that I’ve never really seen before in any other war,” Minty said.

Al Jazeera also distributed low-cost Flip video cameras to some of its trusted sources especially to gather footage of what people are saying on the street. The main problem is that the large digital video files can’t easily be uploaded from the field, so currently this footage tends to be used in end-of-day summaries.

The most common question Minty has faced these past two months is how we can trust what Al Jazeera receives via its social networks. It’s not magic. Stories aren’t run on the basis of single reports. New sources must provide a phone number, email address and the time any photos or videos were shot, and they’re contacted to establish their bona fides.

In other words, social media sources are cross-checked — just like those contacted in any other way.

Al Jazeera’s success in reporting has led to success in audience terms. Since Egypt kicked off, traffic to its website has spiked 2500%, with some 70% of that being via links posted on Twitter and Facebook.

Most of this new traffic comes from people who can’t access Al Jazeera’s traditional broadcasts, with 45%  from the US. The most-tweeted link is to Al Jazeera’s live video stream, with each of the network’s tweets containing a summary of what’s happening at that moment.

“Most of [the new traffic] is from North America, so there’s definitely potential for us to go out there,” Minty said. “We’ve seen public perception towards the Al Jazeera brand shift overnight just because people have been able to tune in to watch us online.”

More than 45,000 emails have been sent to US cable operators calling for them to carry the network, part of a campaign Al Jazeera is, erm, “encouraging”. They’ve also taken out paid advertising on Twitter Search around keywords such as “Egypt”, “Mubarak” or now “Libya”.

Minty is keen to steer people away from letting the technology hijack the revolution, away from referring to Facebook revolutions and Twitter revolutions.

“It’s the people’s revolution … It’s the people on the streets that are fighting,” he said. “Libya is not very well-known for its internet connectivity or having a very active online voice, so what we find is it’s pockets of people that are using these tools effectively … Yes, technology does play a very important role in these revolutions, there’s no doubt about that. But wherever’s there’s injustice in the world people will turn to whatever media, whatever platforms, whatever tools that they have to get the messages out.”

*Stilgherrian attended Digital Directions 2011 as a guest of the organisers.