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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Twitter: A Rank Cauldron of Misinformation (And Some News)

Posted By on Tue, Apr 16, 2013 at 11:03 AM

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When I worked for Cnet during the late-'90s dot-com boom, there were many things that annoyed and perplexed me about the tech-news site.

It was run by former newspaper guys.

Because of that, the editors displayed a weird, very newspaper-like mix of sensationalism and prudishness. An editor once came running out of his office to sweatily insist that I write about the fact that Victoria's Secret was opening an online store. Playing along with this editor's obvious titillation, I wrote a mildly bawdy headline ("Live: Nearly Nude Girls"). The reaction from that editor, and much of the rest of the newsroom, was what I might have expected had I posted a Cambodian snuff film. So, we absolutely had to cover the naughty-underwear merchant's new online shop -- because of the naughtiness -- but we had to present it as if it were no different from Home Depot launching a website.

Having come from Wired, where I had written headlines about tits and boners and whatnot when it was appropriate to the story, I was never able to successfully navigate the Cnet worldview.

There were all kinds of other problems there, but one of the chief ones was the site's insistence that every major news event be "covered" as a tech story. Hence Cnet ran inane headlines like "Internet Reacts to Princess Di's Death." In those days before the rise of blogs (and way before social media) such "stories" consisted of quotes from anonymous people on Usenet (they were sad over Princess Di's death, or they disliked the paparazzi, or whatever), or from news stories. Another example: "Internet reacts to Bush-Gore debate."

Of course, "the Internet" wasn't reacting to anything. People and publications were reacting on the Internet. What's incredible to me is that this conception is still widespread -- even moreso, in fact. So we have Twitter being regularly described as being a singular, integrated voice (almost like a news organization), when what it really is, is a platform for millions of different voices, many of them amplifying stupidity, a few of them sharing wisdom, just like the Internet as a whole. "Twitter reports that..." doesn't mean anything. Twitter doesn't report anything. It just sort of sits there and lets people "report" (or, much more often, yammer incoherently) through it.

And we still have tech news sites trying to "localize" major news events. On Monday, TechCrunch decided that it could pull one person away from rewriting press releases in order to rewrite news stories about the terror attacks in Boston, and to paste in stuff from social media. It was a "live blog" of events that featured "first-hand reports and images as they come in, including live social media updates from official sources." In other words, it was just a bunch of stuff that readers could have seen elsewhere, just a click or two away, if that's what they wanted to do. And it had nothing to do with "technology" except that the news was delivered via technological means. Never mind that news has been delivered through technological means since before the invention of the printing press. So far, TechCrunch doesn't appear to be liveblogging the earthquake in Iran, or any other big, non-tech-related news events. So we can guess that the only consideration for running this blog was to draw pageviews.

ReadWrite, meanwhile, reported on how the attack was a "live-tweeted disaster." That's a valid, if somewhat ho-hum, approach. Some people are still getting used to the idea that major news events such as disasters and wars are reported first by people on social media. On the other hand, don't we all already know that this is what happens? Writer Nick Statt, though, decided to take the opportunity to characterize Twitter as inherently superior to professional news organizations. He called Twitter "an unparalleled source of breaking news and first-hand accounts -- not to mention [of] media criticism of news outlets that jumped ahead of the facts in their reporting."

Not mentioned is the fact that Twitter was also the source of all kinds of nonsense and false reports, and it was most often impossible, as it usually is with breaking events, to discern the reliable information from the bullshit. Way more people on Twitter "jumped ahead of the facts" than did news outlets, which in some cases jumped ahead of events because of crap they saw on Twitter. For the most part, though, it was the worst news outlets that did this -- like Fox News, the New York Post. There have always been awful news outlets (the New York Post was behaving terribly for a long time before the rise of "Web 2.0"), as well as high-quality, generally trustworthy news outlets.

Twitter, taken as a whole, is actually much, much worse than all of them if you're looking for facts.

Statt highlighted a few incidents where the mainstream media got its facts wrong, such as when the Associated Press reported that cellphone service in the Boston area had been shut down in order to prevent the remote detonation of other potential bombs. But he didn't devote a word to the many instances of misinformation and disinformation being spread on Twitter.

For example, there was the Twitter account offering to donate $1 to the victims for every retweet -- of which it got 50,000. It was a scam. And there was the account that posted pictures of children it said had killed by the blasts while running the marathon in support of victims of the Newtown shooting spree. Those pictures were fake, and no such children were killed. Nevertheless, the images were retweeted 100,000 times. Yes, these and the many other chunks of bullshit were eventually shown to be false, but I'm not sure what that's supposed to prove. You can't characterize Twitter as a great source of breaking news and then explain that one of the reasons for that is that it's "self-correcting." For one thing, a lot of people who see false reports don't see when they've been corrected. For another, even as self-corrections are happening, more misinformation is being spewed. "Twitter reports that Twitter is loaded with bullshit."

Of course, we always have to be careful about what we believe when news of a disaster is breaking, even when the information is coming from responsible news organizations. In the fog of disaster, it's inevitable that they will get some stuff wrong. The difference is that they are trying to get it right, while on Twitter, lots of people are either purposefully spreading misinformation, or ignorantly helping to circulate it.

This is one among many reasons why I'm increasingly pulling away from following individuals on Twitter (with lots of exceptions), and favoring institutional accounts, which tend to link to outside source material that has been at least somewhat vetted. The more I do that, the more useful Twitter becomes -- and, when used carefully and correctly, it's still incredibly useful as a constantly updated stream of links to news and information.

But let's not pretend it's helping to filter out bad information when clearly it's doing just the opposite.

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Dan Mitchell


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