By Harry McCracken | Thursday, June 25, 2009 at 7:04 pm
I 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 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.)
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.