CC Hidalgo | Ashton Kutcher and the Knight in Twittering Armor

By CC Hidalgo

MANILA  — When the actor Ashton Kutcher and CNN had their pissing match in April to see who could gather the first million followers on Twitter, new media denizens were excited like crazy. Many of them predicted that Kutcher would trounce CNN, perhaps the most popular icon of what is often derisively referred to by bloggers as MSM (mainstream media). And he did.

And not a few, Kutcher among them, hailed it as a victory for new media. Imagine that: one man defeating the world’s leader in breaking news in a popularity contest. Many thought of it not so much as a testament to Kutcher’s celebrity status but as an indictment of the news media, a confirmation of the oft-repeated criticism that, in a nutshell, the news media sucked. (Well, in many ways, it does, which is why alternative news sites like Bulatlat exist.)

Kutcher, feeling a little smug, told Oprah what he thought of his victory: “This is a commentary on the state of media. I believe that we’re at a place now with social media where one person’s voice can be as powerful as a media network. That is the power of the social Web.”  He added: “I thought it was almost like an uprising of the Internet.”

You would think that, from that point on, would be the go-to URL for anything that matters in the world or that Kutcher would transcend the use of the micro-blogging service from being an “ego stream” (his words) into something more relevant.

Hmmm. Let’s see. Let’s begin by comparing Kutcher’s tweets and CNN’s breaking-news tweets in the past week, from June 18 to about three hours ago, on the hottest news at the moment, Iran (#iranelection).

CNN had a total of 49 tweets during the period. More than half of them – 29 – were about Iran.

Kutcher, on the other hand, had 60 tweets. Most of them about show business, replies to his fans, and one about him missing his summer tan. Twelve of them are about his anti-poverty advocacy (hooray!).

Only six of the 60 tweets, however, were about Iran. Here they are:

For somebody who gloated that he beat CNN in popularity, that’s a pretty dismal output about the most important news of the day. Although Kutcher did tweet about Iran in the previous days, he sounded like he was groping. Then he posted this total cop-out on June 15:  “I’ve been asked several times to tweet about Iran. I understand the election is being protested. not sure what I can do to be of service.”

You might say, “Come on, do you really expect an actor to supplant the functions of a giant news network?” Well, no. But the moment Kutcher bragged about his triumph over CNN, some people did expect him to be more attuned to what’s going on in the world. After all, the point of his battle with CNN was to prove that he, an actor using Twitter as a platform, can be just as effective in reaching out to the masses and telling them what’s going on. After all that self-righteous crap about the state of the news media and how he was able to prove that Twitter can make a difference, I didn’t want to read about his tan.

But the point of all this is that there’s no point in social media comparing itself to the news media, let alone proclaiming that Twitter can do a better job than CNN in bringing news to the masses of the world.

The two are different animals and should complement each other. Where one fails, the other prods it to move along, as in the case of #CNNFail. I wouldn’t be surprised if social media and the news media morph into virtual parasites, feeding off of each other, living off of each other’s strengths and, conversely, weakened by each other’s weaknesses.

To some degree, that is already happening. As Iran demonstrated in the past month, the social media and the news media have made good use of each other.

While social media sites, writes Pete Cashmore, “are both a source of unfiltered information and a venue for public discussion, we still look to CNN, the BBC and their ilk to add context and meaning to this flood of data. And when they fail us, we demand more of them.”

To be sure, social media got more attention and, deservedly, more praise because it demonstrated its nascent power as a political tool (it would be impossible to talk about Iran years from now without mentioning Twitter, Flickr, YouTube or Facebook). But that’s hardly an indictment of the news media (notwithstanding #CNNFail), which faced considerable odds in bringing out the news from Tehran. If anything, it only proves that new tools of communications crop up the moment an information vacuum is created. It also proves that, in this age, tyrants will have a harder time hiding their atrocities.

Put another way, if the tyrants of Tehran didn’t clamp down on the news media, the social media would still be abuzz about the protests and Mousavi and his supporters would still rail in their Twitter and Facebook accounts against being cheated. But it probably wouldn’t take the center stage as it did because it would have no compelling reason to come forward.

And here’s the good part: the news media was not exactly shy about hailing social media as its knight in twittering armor. (

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  1. Hey, isn't it that CNN lead the "mass encouragement" of the first few days of the Bush administration's "war on terror" in Iraq? They even featured how "high end" their warfare (aka death machines) machines are! And yet here you are, glorifying CNN? Tsk.

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