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Summary:

Recent events, tragic and triumphant, emphasize the social web’s role as a central source for disseminating breaking news. But getting the facts right continues to be a challenge, and a solution requires cooperation and technical innovation.

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It’s been a tumultuous several weeks for Twitter, Reddit and the social web, during which we’ve seen both its great potential and confounding dark side. There was the recent AP account hacking – which instantly (but temporarily) drained some $200 billion from the stock market – the mass confusion of the Boston Bombings (and tragic repurcussions), and, well, insert-specious-news-rumor-of-the-day here. It calls to mind a famous arachnid-movie quote (by way of Voltaire): “With great power comes great responsibility.”

It’s important to note that Twitter  is a platform, not a news service, and also that regardless, no one outlet can control the internet anyway: That’s the beauty and curse of the beast. So when news breaks it’s about two things: accuracy and distribution.  Right now we’re stuck with a drunk leaf blower in a flour factory. I’ll be the first to champion these tools as platforms for change, opportunity and knowledge sharing, but it has become clear we – and especially the reeling news media – are in need of a system that helps Twitter et al sort through the haze of breaking news and get the facts straight, faster. The current model and tools are not clearing things up – they are adding to the mess.

A centralized, collaborative evidence table

Sifting through the mountains of analysis on the bombings alone, I couldn’t help but think of the customized Twitter Nascar hashtag page that was put together in 2011, and how it tied in nicely with the New Yorker digital “evidence table” it describes for Reddit users. So one first step I propose is a one-stop place or system in times of important news or mass emergency. Literally just a single agreed upon place to gather the facts, or a system of checks and balances free from speculation. Like a central hub for help to be channeled and extra information provided – a bit like an active Storify stream.

This feels like a simple fix to a complicated problem at the source. Clearly there are huge questions about who administers it, but one thing is clear: It must be solitary and held to a strict code that is pre-agreed upon, possibly among a cross-collaboration of the major newspapers. For instance, each might host the same page so traffic stays where the trust is with the user.  There is no speculation: Simple fact dissemination and information being released – only after  it is verified – so that the news-consuming public has a go-to source that is consistent.

The ability to deal with errors

Imagine if Twitter or Facebook could lower the relevancy of an incorrect tweet or post in real-time so that bad information was less likely to be seen. Reddit and pals is a more difficult kettle of fish because of their very nature.  We will need to help them help themselves by providing clear information in order for them to do what they do best – engage with it.

The Atlantic wrote recently about the need to undo things on Twitter because it is currently a one-way system that, while capable of self-correcting over time, is pretty flawed when it comes to doing so in the moment. And so we need a system that enables users to revoke or modify what has been said so that it is instantly identifiable. Internet fundamentalists find this idea uncomfortable but many I suspect would cherish the ability to be alerted to incorrect information so the continued dissemination of knowingly false info can be minimized.  A technical nightmare sure, but something to work towards.

A need for innovation and cooperation

Right now big data is not being used or harnessed by news organization beyond visualization or longer-form pieces but I imagine a time (and not too far in the future either) when we see news outlets using Twitter and company in a much smarter fashion than simply looking at volume spikes and “first-grabs.”  So for instance, outlets might soon use data to predict, locate and activate “sleeper-unit” journalists (and trained citizen journalists) who are armed with Facetime technology – or simply volunteer individuals streaming through a phone that a news outlet is able to instantly locate via GPS. It’s interesting to note that Twitter has just appointed its first Data Editor who is charged with “explain[ing] how this phenomenon works.”

We have two options when it comes to “fixing” truly crucial news and real-time mass events: 1) Assume that what we’re doing now works but will need a few tweaks, or;  2) Realize that our current system is no longer tenable and so needs a complete overhaul. Any honest appraisal will quickly come to the brutal truth that the current system is failing, and so needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. In the short term, we will need to move toward something like a system of “Flash tweets:” site-wide notifications, that simultaneously tweet, post, alert, offer a donation system, etc to news sites when major events transpire. I’d like to see a system like this fleshed out by the social juggernauts as they further flex their news muscles.

Paul Armstrong is founder of  Digital Orange Consulting. Contact him via paularmstrong.net, or on Twitter @paul__armstrong or @TheMediaIsDying.

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Photo courtesy Edward Meyer.

  1. Cory Bergman Saturday, May 18, 2013

    Great points, and that’s very similar to what Breaking News is already doing: curating and verifying in real time spanning social (@breakingnews), web (BreakingNews.com) and our mobile apps. With Boston, we minimized misinformation – and even helped suppress it.

    Since we’re agnostic of source, over 300 news organizations tip us over Twitter. We’re a middle collaborative layer between the unverified world of social and the rich reporting of news organizations.

    If you’d like to learn more about us, please shoot me a tweet at @corybe.

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  2. Great points, and that’s very similar to what Breaking News is already doing: curating and verifying in real time spanning social (@breakingnews), web (BreakingNews.com) and our mobile apps. Over 300 news organizations tip us over Twitter, and we’re agnostic of source. We’re a trusted, collaborative middle layer between the unverified world of social and the rich reporting of news organizations.

    If you’d like to learn more about us, please shoot me a tweet at @corybe.

    Share
  3. Agree. Another strong argument in favor of why Twitter Killed RSS in general.

    http://statspotting.com/twitter-killed-rss-period/

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  4. Melinda Wittstock Monday, May 20, 2013

    Great article, and thank you for drawing attention to a problem NewsiT, the social data platform, is solving. Our algorithms and reputation scoring processes filter and vet Tweets in real time for relevance and veracity – allowing publishers, brands and others to publish contextual and trustworthy Tweet streams in real time, and identify and recruit credible sources. Think of us as a clear signal in all that social noise of actionable information. Find out more via @newsitnews – we’re keen to help with a challenge that will only grow as Moore’s Law hits ‘big data’.

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  5. Paul Armstrong Monday, May 20, 2013

    Wow – seems like everyone has solved it and yet news is still terrible at getting it right. What gives?

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