Misinformation in the Twittersphere

Posted on: April 8, 2012

The power of the Retweet – would you say it’s a help or a hazard for journalism? 

Using social media as a news source is becoming increasingly apparent, but increasingly dangerous too. The social nature of the web is revolutionising how stories are broken and distributed, yet all too often speed is being valued over accuracy.

Unlike traditional media, social media platforms bypass censors and can place false information into the public domain. Any regular Twitter user probably remembers the last time they saw a RIP next to a celebrity’s name as a trending topic, only to find it was a hoax.

Twitter is becoming a social media assassin – reporting on famous deaths from Nelson Mandela to Britney Spears. Those that kick start these rumours are probably just up for a bit of fun, but it can have damaging consequences.

From riots to RIP’s, a need for speed is putting facts in jeopardy.

The recent death of Whitney Houston serves as an example of just how fast breaking news can reach millions across the internet without a single confirmed news report. A whopping 2.5 million tweets related to Houston’s death were counted within an hour alone – before the Associated Press could even confirm her passing. However, Twitter’s reputation for hoaxes left many doubting any truth behind the claims of Houston’s death.

Reporting threats in inaccurate locations was rife when the London riots began to spark apparent uprisings across the UK. People throughout the country were left terrified as false rumours of rioting in their local town broke on social media. One image that surfaced on Twitter had even been digitally edited with Photoshop to depict a blaze attacking the London Eye (see below) which exemplifies such deliberate attempts to corrupt the use of Twitter as a news source.

But it’s not just audiences – journalists too are taking to the platform to distribute news, give commentary and interact with their readers. One in particular decided to experiment by purposely spreading false stories. Mike Wise, the Washington Post reporter, was suspended after taking the company’s reputation too lightly by fabricating material through a user account but he demonstrated how other bloggers and journalists will republish unproven rumours.

Journalists told to ‘be suspicious’ of all information online

These cases are a startling reminder of the weakness social media can have as a news source, at a time when media organisations are tightening the reigns on journalists as a consequence. International news corporation Reuters  introduced their social media policy in 2010 to prohibit their staff from breaking news through Twitter.

The policy states that staff must get tweets double-checked and approved by managers before posting anything. The handbook for journalists working under the organisation clearly states “do not use news until you are certain of its authenticity” and to be suspicious of all information online that “is not sourced in a way that you can verify”. (The full guide can be accessed here- http://tinyurl.com/ctquehq)

Clearly Reuters is acknowledging that these platforms pose a threat to the traditional news cycle by breaking news first, but are the attempts to control social media use making their content less relevant to audiences? Are they in fact trying to maintain professional standards in an era that no longer values accuracy over immediacy?

Using Twitter for news means journalists are vital, not redundant.

Perhaps, though, the rise of misinformation on Twitter means it is increasingly vital for journalists to filter information and guard their role as the gatekeeper. “Twitter simply reiterates the essential role of journalists in sifting through the rumour mill” writes  journalist Hermon Manson (http://tinyurl.com/866sv4h).

Whichever way you look at it, fabricated news is a manipulation of the social power the internet has. Twitter is uncurated as of yet and this makes it easy to pass along fiction as fact.


1 Response to "Misinformation in the Twittersphere"

[…] It is now more difficult than ever determine to fact from fiction in our social media news environment. Twitter and other online networks are revolutionizing the way stories are broken and distributed, however the journalist’s desire to get information out there quickly is quite often being valued over accuracy. (Elliott Keene, 2012) […]

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