Twitter Is a Great Tool. What Happens When It's Wrong?

By now, because of such incidents as the earthquake in Haiti, the recent revolution in Tunisia, and the shooting of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, most people are coming to grips with the fact that Twitter is effectively a real-time news network—like a version of CNN (TWX) powered by hundreds of thousands of users around the world. But what happens when that Twitter news network is spreading misinformation? That happened during the Giffords shooting, when the congresswoman was initially reported to be dead, and there are other more recent cases, as well: On Wednesday, for example, reports of a shooting in Oxford Circus in London, England, swept through the Twittersphere but turned out to be a mistake.

The British incident appears to have been caused by two coincidental events; according to several reports, one was an e-mail about a police training exercise involving a shooting in Oxford Circus, which somehow got into the wrong hands and was posted as though it were the real thing. Meanwhile, another Twitter user posted an unrelated message about a TV commercial "shooting" in the area, and the combination of those two things helped fan the flames of hysteria for a number of hours about buildings being locked down and police sharpshooters being brought in, etc.—which can be seen in the chronicle of tweets collected by one Twitter observer at the site Exquisite Tweets.

In the case of Representative Giffords (D-Ariz.), a number of outlets reported in the minutes following the initial reports of the shooting that the congresswoman had been killed, and these reports made their way onto Twitter—in some cases because the reporters for those news outlets posted them, and in other cases because users heard or saw the reports and then tweeted about them. For hours after the shooting, these erroneous reports continued to circulate, even after the reporters and media outlets themselves had posted corrections. Andy Carvin of National Public Radio, for example, spent a considerable amount of time correcting people about the report he posted, but it continued to be retweeted.

Into the Garbage?

This led to a discussion by a number of journalists in the days that followed (including me, in a Twitter chat for Web journalists) about how to handle an incorrect tweet. Should it be deleted, to prevent the error from being circulated any further? A number of reporters and bloggers said that it should—but others, such as Salon founder Scott Rosenberg and Carvin (who described his thoughts in this comment at Lost Remote), argued that the error should be allowed to remain, but that whoever posted it should do their best to update Twitter with the correct information. Craig Silverman of Regret The Error, who wrote a post cataloguing the erroneous reports, has also described a way in which Twitter could implement a correction function by tying any correction to the original tweet.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that Twitter is, by definition, a stream of content. It never stops flowing, and during breaking news events, it flows so quickly it's almost impossible to filter it all or be sure of what is correct and what isn't. And because it's an asynchronous experience—meaning people step away from it and then come back repeatedly—there is no way to guarantee that everyone is going to see an update or a correction or to stop them from retweeting incorrect information.

It's possible that Twitter might be able either to embed corrections or to tie errors and updates together using its so-called Annotations feature, which the company was working on last year and had originally hoped to launch in the fall.But work on that project was apparently put on hold while the company launched a revamped website version of the service and sorted out some other matters. It's not clear whether Annotations will be revived, but the idea behind it was that information about a tweet—or "metadata," such as location or a number of other variables—could be attached to it as it travelled through the network, something that might work for corrections as well (as noted in a comment below, the Poynter Institute is also working with programmer Adrian Holovaty, founder of EveryBlock, to try to develop a correction mechanism outside of Twitter).

Newswire in Real Time

The Twitter problem isn't a new one. Traditional media have struggled with the issue as well, with newspapers often running corrections days or weeks after a mistake was made, with no real indication of what the actual error was. In a sense, Twitter is like a real-time, distributed version of a wire service, such as Reuters or Associated Press; when those services post something that is wrong, they simply send out an update to their customers and hope no one has published it in the paper or online yet.

Twitter's great strength is that it allows anyone to publish, and republish, information instantly and distribute that information to thousands of people within minutes. But when a mistake gets distributed, there's no single source that can send out a correction. That's the double-edged sword such a network represents. Perhaps—since we all make up this real-time news network—it's incumbent on all of us to do the correcting, even if it's just by retweeting corrections and updates as eagerly as we retweeted the original.

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