There’s been a lot of talk about Twitter and the truth following Hurricane Sandy this week.
The story of the hurricane and the devastation from the storm in New York City broke across several news outlets and mediums, but it was especially prevalent on Twitter. Not everything reported by Twitter users was, however, the truth.
Some things were accurate. The photos of flooded subway platforms. The story of failed generators and an evacuation at NYU Langone Medical Center. A fire burning in Breezy Point in Queens.
But a number of photos went viral and were not actually real, in some cases quite obviously so. The New York Stock Exchange was allegedly flooded. It wasn’t. Coney Island Hospital was reported to be on fire. It wasn’t.
Some news organizations even reported misinformation from the Twittersphere. Jeff Sonderman, of Poynter, noted how CNN and The Weather Channel documented the flooding of the Stock Exchange. These reports were false.
The veracity of posts on Twitter is significant, especially when the platform is being used for journalism. As Sandy hit land, there was an obvious community effort to dispel rumors and disprove lies passed along in tweets.
John Herrman, in a post for BuzzFeed, declared Twitter to be a “truth machine” for this verification process performed by users.
“Twitter’s capacity to spread false information is more than canceled out by its savage self-correction,” he wrote.
But I was uncomfortable with this theory. Would there even be a need for self-correction if Twitter didn’t provide an outlet for the spread of misinformation in the first place? Is Twitter a useful tool for determining the truth or is it just another weapon for people like Shashank Tripathi (@Comfortably Smug) to spread lies?
Herrman further wrote, “Twitter is a fact-processing machine on a grand scale, propagating then destroying rumors at a neck-snapping pace. To dwell on the obnoxiousness of the noise is to miss the result: That we end up with more facts, sooner, with less ambiguity.”
Yes, rumors are often quashed quickly on Twitter, but is it not worse that they were given a place to spread in the first place?
And if a user reads a bit of information one minute, then the next minute is told that was wrong and here’s the real truth, would he or she not get whiplash leaving them with no idea what to believe?
Many questions relate to the discussion of Twitter and truth, and to be honest, I still don’t have an answer to most. But my concerns were at least in part soothed by an analogy Sonderman made in his write-up on the subject. Below is an excerpt, lengthy but worth reading:
“I’d put it this way: Twitter has developed an information immune system,” Sonderman wrote.
“Twitter fights off infection just like the human body, which is covered with bacteria and constantly exposed to new germs and viruses but has antibodies and white blood cells to subdue them.
“People get sick. Under certain societal and climate conditions (think cold and flu season), epidemics are even predictable.
“Likewise, social media will contain some false information. Under certain conditions, we may even anticipate widespread outbreaks.
“We don’t expect to live in a world free of germs, nor can we ever expect social media free of falsehoods. We aim for a healthy immune system that can stop a pathogen’s spread, expel it after a short time and remember how to recognize it should it reappear.
“Yes, Twitter’s immune system could be stronger. It could build in a corrections system, and we can all do our own part to fight misinformation. Let’s focus on those worthy, attainable goals rather than pine for a system that never catches a misinformation cold.”
I included so much of Sonderman’s analysis because I think it is a nuanced and clear way to look at this issue. It’s probably unrealistic in a world so dependent on speed and the Internet to expect nothing but accuracy. But any tool that can more quickly and effectively establish what is and isn’t true on the Web is a good thing. Twitter, though a work in progress, is probably just such a tool.
Photo (cc) by MTAPhotos and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.