THE Twits got terribly excited over footage of the missile blast killing a Hamas leader in Gaza. By Twits, I mean junkies for the social media program, Twitter, and yes, I'm being deliberately derisive.

The short message service has plenty going for it as a quick means to share information and views. Twitter built a cult following during the Arab Spring, with many convinced of its emancipatory potential in societies where censorship is rife, or, closer to home, as an escape from the tyranny of corporate control.

The Western media‚Äôs obsession with the goings-on online is out of hand. 

But this event should mark a turning point for even Twitter's most evangelical supporters to recognise official propaganda is quickly colonising social media as a powerful tool. The Twits are being corralled, the latest in a long line of what Marx reputedly called ''useful idiots'' and later became known as the mob or the chattering classes.

The gleeful voyeurism the video provoked online was little more edifying than a global audience at the Colosseum, cheers or boos as the gladiator made his kill. In a way this is not surprising - much better to distract people and have them talking about how, rather than why.

The Israeli military is hardly the first to release footage of a deadly air strike to serve this purpose, though it may have been quickest, waiting only a few minutes and then tweeting it again ''in case you missed it''. But the reaction last week seemed to treat this as an entirely new phenomenon.

The dissemination might have changed, but footage from the 1999 Kosovo war, for example, beamed directly from the nose of a missile as it slammed into a rail bridge - only for a train to slide into view at the last second before the screen went blank - was equally dramatic. As was the 2006 bombing of al-Qaeda's lieutenant in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

But the immediate reaction of the Western media last week was to suspend critical analysis and focus not on the event - and its consequences for an unstable region, where Egypt has brittle new leadership, or the response of Iran - but to look instead online. It has become a standard first-reaction story: what is trending, how many tweets and what pithy comment did users give?

In an era of declining revenues for media companies, perhaps this can partly be explained by cost-cutting. But you could also be forgiven for thinking the publicly funded ABC has given up its advertising prohibition, with the amount of free advertising it gives to Twitter Inc. Not that what happens online should be ignored. As an evolution in the way conflict is reported, the scale of the response to the assassination of Hamas commander Ahmed Said Khalil al-Jabari was indeed measurable.

But for such events, what Twitter tells most is of an outside audience's interest, in a similar way to television ratings. The moon landing was the most-watched broadcast of its era - Twitter offers an extra level of interactivity in the modern age, but it largely amounts to thousands of people saying ''Oh, look at that'' in their lounge rooms around the world. Its importance is easily overblown.

The Western media's obsession with the goings-on online is out of hand. Hardly a day goes by without a Facebook fracas getting picked up and reported. Some are important for what they tell about modern life but real-world events still matter more than the online response. Watching the Twitter feed or other internet service can only augment - not replace - a reporter's first-hand experience.

To give an example, for all the talk about the threat posed by online services to traditional media, it is telling who invests in covering the national leader. Julia Gillard recently attended a Pacific forum in the Cook Islands - carried in by a dozen burly locals on a sedan chair, one of those memes that kicked off plenty of online discussion. But no online outlets bothered with the expense to send a reporter, and so-called ''citizen journalists'' relied on television, radio and print outlets for coverage. Similarly, when Gillard went on to Vladivostok a week later, only to rush home early after her father passed away, there would have been nothing for the Twitterverse to chat over if not for the expense paid by major outlets to be there. It just goes to prove that getting the story matters more.

Given the faddish nature of the internet, the recent obsession in reporting with audience response will fade over time. But there is also something insidious about the way governments are co-opting social media, seeking to further displace the job of reporters who, ideally, look at a story from different points of view.

Journalists can't be too thin-skinned about this, but the spin merchants are increasingly aggressive with their use of social media, challenging interpretations and seeking to intimidate reporters. Officialdom has always sought a loud-hailer to amplify a message and drown out critical views.

In the present conflict in Gaza, Israel's media strategy was not only aimed at the international media. It also sought to counter online dissemination of propaganda from the Palestinian side.

Again, this is best understood not as something new, but the most recent iteration in a long-running contest; some years ago soldiers began carrying cameras to have video evidence to release and challenge claims of abuse.

Even online, it's important not to be fooled into thinking what is old is new again.

Daniel Flitton is senior correspondent.

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