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Twitter shows how the news is made, and it’s not pretty — but it’s better that we see it

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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 (s goog) 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

29 Responses to “Twitter shows how the news is made, and it’s not pretty — but it’s better that we see it”

  1. Andrew Duffy

    At this point Twitter is not responsible for what people post (which is right) but neither are the users themselves (which is wrong).

    I value privacy online, and I don’t know what the answer is… but there’s got to be a way to make trolls, liars, and fakes more responsible for what they post.

    Perhaps, in the case of #sandy or #boston, a Twitter editor could temporarily turn on geolocation for tweets carrying a certain hashtag? That way people can still post whatever they want, but they might think twice about abusing the service.

  2. Ayena Mahajan

    Right here is the right blog for anyone who hopes to find out about this topic.
    You know a whole lot its almost tough to argue with you (not that I actually will need to…HaHa).
    You certainly put a brand new spin on a topic that’s been discussed for decades. Excellent stuff, just wonderful

  3. Kathy E Gill

    Mathew, it’s not Twitter’s fault when the NY Post relies on anonymous sources to post … untruths (12 dead, Saudi suspect).

    It’s not Twitter’s fault when Piers Morgan tweets that the JFK Library has been bombed, about the same time that the Boston PD is tweeting that it’s a fire.

    We can’t trust professional journalists, it seems, to tell us when they are reporting from one anonymous source and are thus simply passing on a rumor. The “rumors” that I saw originated with MSM.

    That’s not Twitter’s problem. That’s newsroom ethics.

  4. joanna breen

    Twitter is a source, not a news organization, and that’s as it should be.

    That said, it’s worth pointing out that lots of websites, presumably staffed by some kind of editor were breathlessly reporting bad information in the wake of the bombings in Boston yesterday. ( Do I really turn to IMDB for breaking news? )
    Sadly, many were attributing news of a Saudi suspect in custody to a report by a so called legitimate news organization, the NY Post.

    The point: News Consumer, beware. It takes time for truth to emerge.

  5. Ranjan Roy

    Best summary of how it works that I’ve read. Yesterday, Twitter broke the news for me on the bombings and was extremely informative up front. As the story unfolded, it both presented ridiculous speculation, but also extremely important information. Being from Boston (but living in NYC), I came across city phone numbers that I reposted to Facebook and actually proved to be of value for friends.

    It’s just a medium, like anything else. As I watched CNN at about 9pm, and they had a parade of random guests trying to fill time while they waited for the next nugget of news, it was a reminder, there’s a good and bad side to all mediums. I’ll take Twitter any day over cable news.

  6. One way to “verify” tweets is to geo-tag them. For instance, we filtered the events based on their proximity to the finish line of the marathon. Obviously, the closer to the finish line, the more “real”. My company did this for the Globe, though it didn’t run. Here’s the link, and if anyone wants to know more, give me a shout.*%20line&lat=42.34764725030688&lng=-71.07904146575925&zoom=15&noPin=true&hideFilterPanel=true

  7. Brian Brennan

    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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. David Brauchli

    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.”

  11. 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.

  12. 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.