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Summary:

In the aftermath of events like the Boston Marathon bombings, Twitter is often criticized for the way it indiscriminately distributes lies as well as facts — but as chaotic as that process is, we are better off for having it.

Not long after the Boston Marathon bombings occurred on Monday afternoon, several Twitter users noted that these kinds of real-time news events illustrate how incredible the service is as a source of breaking news, but at the same time how terrible it is.

Sure enough, there were plenty of fake news reports to go around on Monday, from reports of suspicious vehicles to the arrest of alleged perpetrators — just as there were during superstorm Sandy and the school shootings in Connecticut. But does that invalidate Twitter as a news source? And should the service try harder to filter out bad information and highlight verified news reports? I think the answer to both of these questions is the same: No.

Erik Wemple of the Washington Post noted that in some cases Twitter can act as a “news ombudsman,” pointing out that there were a number of people advising caution in the tweeting and re-tweeting of details about the blasts, although Wemple may also have been following more members of the media than the average person (ironically, some criticized Wemple himself for being too quick to post his thoughts about Twitter use during the aftermath of the bombings).

This in itself illustrates one of the problems with Twitter as a news-delivery vehicle, which is that no one can agree on the proper behavior during such events — or at least not enough people to make it worthwhile. When (if ever) is it too soon to speculate about the source of the attack or details like the number of wounded? Which sources are reliable and which aren’t when it comes to retweeting? Does everything have to be verified? Is it okay to retweet graphic videos and photos?

Journalism in real time, with all its flaws

These are all the same challenges that breaking-news outlets like CNN face, but they have teams of seasoned editors to make those decisions (and still often get them wrong — perhaps even as wrong as Twitter does). Twitter has nothing but a short attention span, a hair trigger and a couple of buttons that say “tweet” and “retweet,” and they are all too easy to push. Should more people think twice before they click them? Undoubtedly. Will they? Probably not.

That said, however, there’s no question that Twitter is one of the best tools for breaking-news delivery since the telegraph. Unfortunately, it is also a great tool for distributing lies, speculation, innuendo, hoaxes and every other form of inaccurate information. I’ve argued before that this is just the way the news works now — the news wire and police scanner are no longer available only to journalists, but to anyone who cares to listen. And so is the ability to republish.

Should Twitter do more to verify sources, or highlight accurate information, as some have suggested? It’s an appealing idea. The service could try to use geotagging to identify those who are close to the scene, or some other method to determine credibility — something third-party services like Sulia and Storyful also try to do through a variety of methods. But is that really Twitter’s place?

Leave verification to the journalists

Why don’t we get YouTube to verify the source of videos as well, like the ones that are posted from Syria or Egypt? Or get Google to sort the news it pulls in based on the likelihood of it being credible? The simplest answer is that this isn’t what those services are for — they are distribution engines, or pipes (a series of tubes, if you will). Asking them to become news entities is a little like asking AT&T to eavesdrop on phone calls in order to figure out who is a terrorist.

Rather than relying on Twitter to do this, I think it’s far better to accept the somewhat chaotic nature of the medium, and rely on journalists — and not just the professional kind, but the amateur kind as well — to filter that information in real time, the way Andy Carvin did during the Arab Spring (by using Twitter as a crowdsourced newsroom) and others did during Sandy and the Colorado shootings. Over time, I believe, Twitter becomes a kind of self-cleaning oven, as writer Sasha Frere-Jones put it.

Sure, it’s messy and erratic, but that’s because it is made of human beings. Traditional media is like that too, we just rarely see it happening out in the open. But I believe that having it happen out in the open is ultimately better than keeping it behind closed doors.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen

  1. Jeff Kibuule Monday, April 15, 2013

    Twitter needs to make a “verified info” tag.

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    1. that’s actually a super smart idea….

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    2. Who is going to verify it? A team of Twitter editors?

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    3. Great idea jeff. A single six-second Twitter Vine clip of the footage of the Boston Marathon bomb attack has been tweeted 40k times. The footage was from a professional news source, but it was not credited. http://blog.pagemeld.com/2013/04/15/twitters-vine-takes-root-after-boston-marathon-bombing/

      With Vine, Twitter controls both the sharing mechanism and the video footage itself, so it would be possible for credible media outlets and bloggers to verify and watermark footage.

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  2. Reblogged this on Censemaking and commented:
    With the tragic events surrounding the Boston Marathon bombings today, the strength and weaknesses of Twitter and the new media for journalism gets brought out for everyone to see. The news is changing and the importance of traditional journalism and citizen witness reporting all comes together. Much to consider as we reflect on the ways of the world and try to make it a better place while others seek otherwise.

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  3. uh, the top photo by Petteri Sulonen attached to this story is showing a fire in Helsinki, Finland in 2006. how is it related to this story?

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    1. I chose it because it’s an example of “citizen journalism” in action.

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  4. I agree verification is impractical, but also unwanted. Any sort of formal verification would transfer Twitter into a completely different medium, reducing the speed of information flow and endanger its independence.

    It’s up to each Twitter user to use available intelligence to gauge the validity of information.

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    1. Totally agree. Thanks for the comment.

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    2. This is why I only take seriously those tweets from legitimate news organizations, not “citizens.” The news orgs have actual accountability, while a “citizen” who gets it wrong — whether inadvertently or deliberately — can just fade into the weeds and take on a new ID.

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  5. Twitter does not need a verification system – leave it to individual posters to check their own facts – it would be the death of Twitter –

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  6. David Brauchli Tuesday, April 16, 2013

    Mathew, the problem with twitter as news source is precisely what you laud, unverified information. What if someone started a stampede in a stadium or at a concert, for example, with deadly results, would you still laud it as a news source. What about if a financial rumor that ended up with tens of thousands losing thousands of dollars in a scam, would that be acceptable? Twitter should never be considered news, it can be a “didja see this” thing, but as a news source? That’s about as reliable as “citizen journalism.”

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    1. But David, it *is* a news source – whether we like it or not. That’s just a reality.

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  7. I disagree to a point, David. You use extreme cases, which are the exception, not the rule.

    No doubt there are all kinds of false rumors and speculation proliferating Twitter, as there is across the internet and various mediums. That’s why, when consuming breaking news content from Twitter, it is the responsibility of the reader to gauge the validity of information by judging the ACTUAL source, which is not Twitter–Twitter is the delivery mechanism–it’s the Twitter USER they’re getting information from.

    If I see “trusted” news outlets or journalists–professionals with whom I’ve built a relationship and implicit trust from years of following and reading their material, both printed and online–tweet details of a breaking story, I will attach more credibility to their statements and be thankful I have the news first so that I can make responsible decisions and actions based on that information.

    Sure, if someone chooses to believe wildly speculative “citizen journalism”, they can turn to all sorts of mediums beyond Twitter and find it. Blogs, Websites, Facebook, etc. But those who choose to process and act on real-time information in an irresponsible manner will always do so, no matter what the delivery mechanism.

    I see plenty of trashy tabloids printed on the same kind of paper they use to print the NY Times. It’s about judging from where and whom the information came, not how it reaches you.

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  8. enricogiammarco Tuesday, April 16, 2013

    Real-time journalism is not journalism, because it lacks the essential verification phase…

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  9. I believe you should consume all news with a level of skepticism. I’ve read enough articles on deals I’ve worked on from so-called journalists citing sources ‘in-the-know’ that are completely off that makes me question all the other articles you read. Twitter is just a slight less varnished version of the same ‘information’. Use with caution.

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    1. Well said, Barold.

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  10. Brian Brennan Tuesday, April 16, 2013

    The fact that many tweets are not true is precisely the reason it is not news.

    I don’t want to sift through a bunch of random people’s phrases for news. I prefer to wait for the facts.

    But to each their own.

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