Twitter: The Fastest Way to Get Informed. Or Misinformed.

By  |  Thursday, June 25, 2009 at 7:04 pm

Jeff GoldblumI spent this afternoon doing what a lot of people did: Watching TV reports about Michael Jackson while also gleaning information from the Web–especially Twitter. When I happened to turn on the TV, MSNBC was still speaking of Jackson having gone into cardiac arrest; the (correct) consensus on Twitter was that he had passed away. Impressive proof of Twitter’s speed and old media’s lethargy, no?

Once TV caught up with the tweets, I spent most of my time watching it. But when I checked in with Twitter later, the Twittersphere was mourning Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and…Jeff Goldblum. 

Jeff Goldblum? Yes, the sad news had broken that he had fallen to his death while filming a movie in New Zealand. Many accepted the reports as true; some, like the folks below, were more cautious:

 

goldblum

Goldblum is fine–the story about his untimely passing was a hoax created with a tool for creating fake stories about famous people.  (Some jackass tried to use the same service to spin the news about Jackson.) It took me about 90 seconds of Googling to learn that. And the fact that TV and news sites didn’t pick up on the story at  all was a pretty strong hint that it might be bogus. Checking back on Twitter now, I see that just about everyone’s figured that out, but it took surprisingly long. As Mark Twain said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is just putting on its shoes.”

(Actually, I’m not positive that Twain said that–but he’s often quoted on the Web as having said so. If he didn’t, the quote is self-affirming.)

Lessons?

1) Part of the reason why information travels quickly on Twitter is that it’s not fact-checked. (Or more precisely, it’s fact-checked after the fact, when people realize the original tweets were wrong.)

2) Part of the reason news travels a bit more slowly via old-media sources is that it is fact-checked.

3) If a single person you know and trust tweets something that sounds unlikely, it’s more likely to be true than if 500 random strangers tweet it. But check it anyway.

4) If a huge story breaks on Twitter, give the “old” Web ten minutes to catch up. If neither CNN.com, NYTimes.com, or MSNBC.com has any mention, Twitter probably got it wrong.

5) I think Twitter, or Twitter-like services, will eventually go a long way towards solving this by figuring out how to weight the contributions of the most reliable members the heaviest, so random people believing everything they hear don’t spread falsehoods quite as fast.

6) Imperfect though Twitter may be, I love it. But I consider it a source of news leads, not news.

7) I’m sorry to see Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett leave us, and relieved that Jeff Goldblum hasn’t.

 
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11 Comments For This Post

  1. Hutch Carpenter Says:

    There is a self-correcting element to Twitter. The Michael Jackson news had legs because you could tie it a somewhat credible outlet (TMZ). There was no such outlet covering Jeff Goldblum, and pretty quickly that died out.

  2. Steven Fisher Says:

    Actually, a few places covered the Jeff Goldblum thing. Quite amusing, really. Though I see the first media story I saw on it has already disappeared.

  3. venkat Says:

    Twitter is reliable to get latest news

  4. David Hamilton Says:

    Twitter is gossip, nothing more. Please do not use the words “News Source” and Twitter in the same sentence.

    I have a continual waking nightmare – that the blogosphere will kill professional news (no-one will be able to afford full time reporting staff with the overhead of fact checking), and that ‘News’ will turn into a huge game of Chinese Whispers with no real facts at all…

  5. rpcutts Says:

    Twitter is a conversation medium and is as much a news source as talking with friends at a bar.

    If I walk in a bar and everyone says “Hey did you hear about X”. I’d make assumptions about the credibility of X based on the number of people telling me about it and how believable X seems to me. Neither of which are reliable or scientific methods of measuring credibility. Therefore I would still look it up later from a legitimate source to confirm/deny.

    The only 2 differences between a group of people gossiping in a bar and µblogging.

    1) folk µblogging are connected to the Internet ergo have credible sources at their fingertips.
    2) The size over which and speed with which the information is able to spread.

    I guess what I mean to say is that µblogs are a huge well connected gossip proliferation network.

  6. David Hamilton Says:

    @rpcutts

    3rd difference between conversations in a bar and µblogging: Usually you’ve never met any of the µbloggers, and so are denied all the contextual information that knowing someone (or just looking at them face-to-face) provides.

    After all, if the person talking the bar falls flat on their face when they let go of it to go to the toilet, you have a pretty good idea of the quality of the information…

  7. Jerry Griffies Says:

    5) I think Twitter, or Twitter-like services, will eventually go a long way towards solving this by figuring out how to weight the contributions of the most reliable members the heaviest, so random people believing everything they hear don’t spread falsehoods quite as fast.

    BAd idea. We want democracy, right? Why should some folks be labeled “heaviest” and others not so?

  8. midwinter Says:

    Those of us who are paranoid might even think that the wide-spread embracing of Twitter could even be seen as part of a campaign to destroy news. How much easier is it to control people by rumour and innuendo that hard facts?

  9. the observer Says:

    I’ve been reading a few blogs/tweets where people obviously dislike him, but straight-up have no respect for him or his family during this time. People sometimes believe going against the grain combined with social media is trendy, giving them an edge. We must be careful not to use a faceless Internet as an excuse to abandon humanism, respect and dignity.

    For my bit on Jackson’s death.
    http://hellouniverse.wordpress.com/

  10. Harry McCracken Says:

    @jerry griffies,

    I think Twitter weighting the most valuable contributors can be VERY democratic, if everyone gets a chance. What I’m thinking of is something akin to Google’s PageRank, so factors like the quantity of retweets someone gets would be a factor.

    If 15,000 Twitter users all say something about Michael Jackson and the service does nothing to help you find the most interesting comments, it’s just not very useful–and that’s where we are right now.

    Note that the one thing Twitter currently does to help you find interesting people–the Suggested Users feature that skews towards celebs–is neither democratic nor sophisticated…

    –Harry

  11. project kenya 2011 Says:

    So are you Jeff Goldblum is not dead? I heard on the radio this morning that he is…

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