The Netherlands found itself in a bit of a compromising position on January 29th: the public broadcast station, the one that is supposed to keep on providing information in times of war among other things, was down “because of circumstances.” Twitter became the best source of news on the situation.
The Dutch 8 o’ clock evening news by public news outlet NOS is an institution. Last Thursday was the first time it didn’t air in sixty years and the Dutch’ imagination was gripped quickly: in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shooting anything out of the ordinary for the media could mean something terrible happened.
Tarik Z. entered the NOS using a fake gun to keep a guard hostage. The Dutch 19-year old chemistry student wanted to use the evening news as a platform for a speech that, he claimed, would reveal world issues. Tarik never gave his speech. He was arrested in front of a running camera that gave us this video.
After the video was released, #NOSjournaal started trending on Twitter. People on Twitter were quick to identify and call out the star of the video, sharing his Facebook profile, full name, and any personal details they could muster up.
“Sometimes news value goes before privacy,” chief editor of the NOS, Marcel Gelauff, told Dutch newspaper NRC Next the next morning about his choice to broadcast the video ‘as is.’
The usual guideline for Dutch media is to protect a criminal’s identity—with the argument that it would make rehabilitation into society easier. The NOS repeatedly broadcasted the video throughout the evening without any attempt to protect the identity of Tarik Z.
Showing the responsible party, quickly identified by the public, may be the journalist’s only weapon in the face of an intrusion like this. Legally the NOS was fully within its rights. During the broadcast journalists made phone calls to Tarik’s friends from college (“he came across as just a regular boy actually”) and filmed Tarik’s house.
Tarik, who might turn out to be a young and confused individual in the middle of a mental breakdown of sorts, probably did not deserve to have his identity broadcasted and become an object of public ridicule—and that is what happened once the video hit Twitter.
Twitter allows users to reply immediately. When tweeting from a place of anger, with no time for reflection, nuance is nowhere to be found. Twitter feeds are examples of fairly indiscriminate information gathering, with no way to tell real information from mere speculation.
All that was known about Tarik came from Twitter and Facebook and this seemed, in a way, to dehumanize him. Tarik could not explain himself, there was no extensive coverage of him by professional (i.e. objective) journalists, and so Twitter became the source of explanations—and the 140 character tweets were mainly not enlightening but still influential.
“Didn’t his parents die last week?” one Twitter user asked for instance. They did not die. But the idea that a personal tragedy was behind Tarik’s actions took hold and informed the next batch of Tweets. It was also taken up by the NOS, which was reporting on any developments they could find regarding the case.
“Tarik Zahzah is 19 and has lost both parents last week. Cut him some slack, he’s just lost it, poor guy”
Output on Twitter and Facebook made everyone feel like they recognized Tarik. Not only the people who actually knew him but all Twitter users who knew how to look up a Facebook profile became sources of “information.”
Most tweets showed a profound lack of respect for privacy or boundaries and Tarik quickly became the butt of the joke online. In three days, a Facebook page dedicated to ridiculing Tarik garnered 2,745 likes.
“alleged suspect liked Prison Break on Facebook. Maybe that comes in handy…”
The immediate access to Tarik’s Facebook profile could theoretically bring the viewer closer: this is someone with a Facebook profile, who likes Breaking Bad, just like the rest of us. Through his actions, however, Tarik already was not like the rest of us. Instead, his Facebook profile became the focal point of the search for clues to explain his actions.
There was no convenient picture of Tarik posing with an AK-47 with the text “going to join the good fight of the IS, but first a pit-stop at the NOS!” so all other minor details on his Facebook profile were picked apart, shared and made fun of over Twitter.
It’s ideal to speak directly to people who actually knew Tarik. Not only because they are most likely to have valuable insights, but also because they saw him as a full-fledged human being, rather than just a Facebook profile and a video.
This is what objective reporting allows, and this difference between Twitter and mainstream news is why we should be careful taking news from Twitter—for consumption, but especially for publication.
Also published here.