When Twitter Becomes A Liability

I’m sure that all of you will by now be aware of the terrible events unfolding in Mumbai (Bombay as was). I’m not even going to attempt to go into the reasons/repercussions/consequences of the attacks, but thought that instead I’d highlight how the web is having an effect on the ability of governments to carry out secretive actions.

The BBC is carrying live updates of the latest events from the area and a recent one is very illuminating:

1108 Indian government asks for live Twitter updates from Mumbai to cease immediately. “ALL LIVE UPDATES – PLEASE STOP TWEETING about #Mumbai police and military operations,” a tweet says.

Looking at the results for Mumbai on Twitter Search it’s not immediately obvious why the Indian Government would ask people to stop Tweeting but it’s not hard to guess. Let’s say that they’ve cleared out the area around one of the hotels and are about to launch an attack – an eagle eyed hostage, or rather one of the people holed up in their room, spots the commandos moving in and posts a Tweet about it. What if the terrorists are following Twitter too?

Of course one could say exactly the same thing about the people ringing news organisations on their mobiles, but it certainly demonstrates how the web is changing the world around us: on the one hand potentially giving governments access to previously unheard of levels of data, on the other hand wresting away their ability to control the flow of information. I wonder if Sir Tim ever could have foreseen this back in 1989?

UPDATE: The BBC is now actually quoting Mumbai based Tweets in its live update page.

1415 Indian media reports an explosion at the Oberoi-Trident hotel as well as at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. NDTV India says the operation continues.

Sengupta tweets: Trident fire seems under control
Ashokjjr tweets: Oberoi fire under control now

I have to say that of all the media organisations I would have thought that The Guardian would be doing this in its live coverage, but whilst they have an article in their Technology section on the use of Flickr & Twitter in tracking events, they don’t seem to be incorporating these into their own coverage.

UPDATE: It seems that the BBC are now engaging in some soul searching as to whether it was the right thing to do to include the Twitter updates in their coverage, especially as the piece about the government asking people to stop Tweeting seems to have been false. I definitely think there’s a balance to be had, and think that Drama 2.0 has done a great post on why Twitter won’t be replacing CNN or the Beeb.

Mumbai image by Stuti~ on flickr


  1. mobiles are different in that operate on a one to one basis and are usually tracked and can be pinpointed to a few metres, twitter on the other hand is very simple and quick mechanism to provide a would be terrorist, political fanatic, gang or petty criminal with the means to communicate to a group instantly… http://blog.dailytwitter.com/ – i wrote a post on this recently – see what you think

    far more effective and also anonymous too…


  2. Before the internet, the media was still a problem. During the hostage crisis at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games TV crews were filming the police operations. The terrorists were watching the coverage and so had a heads up on anything the police were planning.

  3. Ciaran,

    Mark mentions something along the same lines here:

    It’s interesting that even in recent times social media and public journalism has evolved very quickly. For me a major turning point were the London bombings in 2005 when the BBC were asking for content not to enrich their journalism but indeed relying on it.

    There’s also that great little skit from the brilliant Adam Curtis that he contributed to the equally brilliant Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe about the rise and fall of the TV journalist:


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