Twitter is, according to much of the mainstream media, an unbelievable, inaccurate and poorly-sourced account of events, best suited to reporting what tweeters had for breakfast rather than providing genuine news.

And yes, indeed, that’s frequently correct. This morning there’s a Twitter rumour that one of Gaddafi’s sons has died from injuries sustained in an attack several days ago. But like all Twitter rumours on major events these days, the demands for sources and confirmation now circulate as much as the retweeting of the rumour itself, as always happens with rumours that sound too good to be true. A week before the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali fled, Twitter had lit up with false claims he’d bailed out. It took several hours for it to die out.

On the other hand, Twitter has been well ahead of the western MSM in telling us what’s been happening on the ground in the Middle East since December, when Mohamed Bouazizi set off a chain of events that has led to the ouster of two dictators, international intervention in Libya and the unmasking of the Gulf monarchies as the murderous thugs they are.

There was more of the same on Friday evening, at least in Australia, even as the Libyan phase of the Middle Eastern revolutions turned into what the MSM should be better at handling: military combat between governments.

Late Friday evening Australian time, a spokesman for the Gaddafi regime declared there would be an immediate ceasefire in response to the Security Council resolution authorising the use of all necessary measures to protect civilians.

But it was plain from Twitter feeds that military operations were continuing despite the proclaimed ceasefire. Reports came of continuing shelling of the rebel-held town of Misurata, even as the “ceasefire” call lit up first Twitter and then the MSM. It continued through the night — tweets saying Gaddafi’s forces were still attacking rebel-held areas.

Either Australian editors weren’t paying attention to Twitter or they discounted it, because up went the headlines, first on websites, then in print. The Saturday Age late edition trumpeted: “Libya caves in after UN vote.” “Gaddafi calls off raids on rebels,” said The Australian’s front page. The ABC ran a Reuters piece: “Libya declares ceasefire after UN resolution” in its “Just In” section.

Wrong, wrong and wrong. There was no ceasefire. In fact it appeared Gaddafi’s forces were intensifying their attacks on rebel-held areas after a comparative lull in the immediate lead-up to the Security Council vote. Anyone monitoring the #Libya hashtag would have known.

The penny eventually dropped at Fairfax late on Saturday morning, and its account began reflecting that the “ceasefire” was non-existent. By Saturday afternoon, when a force of pro-Gaddafi soldiers attempted an entry into Benghazi, coupled with shelling, there was no avoiding the truth.

By way of contrast, The Guardian — admittedly, operating through a weekday shift, as opposed to Friday night/Saturday morning here — noted the ceasefire claim was at odds with what was happening on the ground.

This morning there’s been another Libyan announcement of a ceasefire, which is plainly, again, at odds with what’s happening on the ground. This time, at least, the MSM is treating it with appropriate scepticism.

Something else cropped up on Twitter — claims that Gaddafi regime officials were raiding Tripoli morgues, with the intention of using the bodies to claim there’d been significant civilian casualties from allied air strikes (handily, Gaddafi’s forces have butchered a large number of protesters in Tripoli recently, thereby providing plenty of material for any such staged carnage). While the morgue story remains unconfirmed, it appeared accurate in predicting the regime would attempt to claim the strikes had killed civilians. This duly happened yesterday, and the claims were promptly carried by western media, including the ABC, which carried a report of claims that over 40 people had died in the attacks, without noting their unconfirmed status.

Maybe this is a particular problem at the ABC. This morning Fran Kelly gave Hugh White, the local doyen of the “leave them to the mercy of Gaddafi” school, a platform to argue against intervention, including the bizarre claim that the allied air strikes were plainly not working because individual pro-Gaddafi soldiers could still move around and attack civilians if they wanted to. Kelly didn’t let White have it all his own way, but the whole interview was predicated on the fact the Arab League had criticised the airstrikes and the alliance that produced the UN resolution was, in Kelly’s words “already fracturing”.

What the Arab league Secretary-General actually said was: “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians.” More problematically for the ABC, CNN had reported before the interview with White went to air that the Arab League had later restated its support for the military operation currently underway.

And even if they didn’t have CNN on in the studio, there was another way they could have found out. It was on Twitter.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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