Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 04:08 | SYDNEY
Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 04:08 | SYDNEY

How social media got the J-20 scoop


Rory Medcalf


12 January 2011 16:10

The way the world found out about China's stealth fighter test flight yesterday is a fascinating lesson in the agility and impact of social media, and the disadvantages faced by traditional news organisations and governments in handling fast-moving stories. It took hours for mainstream media, let alone governments, to speculate about and eventually confirm the reported maiden flight of the J-20, despite (or because of) the fact that this was a widely anticipated event of major international significance.

I have recently been experimenting with Twitter, and that was how I chanced upon early rumours of the test, just minutes after it took place yesterday afternoon. An independent American security blog was re-tweeting one-line reports from private Chinese and, apparently, Singaporean blogs and Twitter accounts. The first unverified pictures appeared, and with the help of a few tweets and hyperlinks, were seen within minutes by thousands of individuals.

I did my bit, expressing the judgment that the reported flight test was not only the real thing but also a deliberate snub to visiting US Defense Secretary Robert Gates — as well as, potentially, to Hu Jintao himself.

Thirty, forty minutes passed from the first blog posts and tweets, and still mainstream media websites were silent. Meanwhile, though, a few American journalists in Beijing had picked up my tweet, and were contacting me to see if I could not only offer substantive comment but also help them get the kind of verification their reputable news outlets (quite properly) required before publishing the story.

At that point, neither the Chinese nor US governments were offering confirmation – indeed, it seems that the Chinese president himself may have been in the dark. (Perhaps he needs a personal Twitter-watcher by his side at all times.)

Next came the specialised aviation media websites, still qualifying their reports with words like 'likely'. Eventually, the competitive dynamic compelled a few old-fashioned Western media outlets to take the risk of publishing some cautiously-worded and speculative stories. But it was only when the first pictures and comments on the flight test began creeping into Chinese media websites that major Western news organisations began to firm up the story. And it was several hours later that the first official comments from governments began to appear.

By then, for China's netizens and the Western Twitterverse, it was already old news.

Photo by Flickr user Stephan Gayer.