By Reece Gibb
In the week subsequent to the Boston Bombing, Massachusetts law enforcement saw to the capture of suspected co-conspirator Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Twitter was abuzz with “the usual compound of rumor, misinformation and repetition.” Gossip columns from the New York Post claimed “12 people” were “killed in the explosions,” and falsely asserted “that investigators had a Saudi Arabian national suspect ‘under guard at an undisclosed Boston hospital’” Often hearsay, libel, misinformation, and simple untruth find footing in social media in the form of seemingly official information, reports, links, articles, posts, etc.—especially on Twitter.
This alternative universe of bandwagon reporting makes it difficult for students to use Twitter to write factually-driven essays when there’s so much counterfactual noise distracting us. The question is, when we put ‘pen to pad,’ what is the protocol for verifying the factual accuracy of journalistic reporting on Twitter? The pitfalls on Twitter are so numerous that it’s essential to assess the reliability of information and to understand the repercussions of spreading false reports.
In a 2011 survey conducted by Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, nine percent of those surveyed admitted to having relied on “news recommendations from Facebook or from Twitter on” tablets, computers, and smartphones. Sixty-four percent of Twitter news feed consumers admitted to encountering inaccurately or plainly false news. All the same, of that 64%, a modest “16% of Twitter news users said they had retweeted or posted a tweet they later discovered to be false.” Social media has served as an invaluable platform for activism, social justice, and mobilization. But in the case of Twitter, we must be wary of how such a flurry of uncorroborated rumor can degrade what we call truth.
To protect against this, we must be discerning consumers of media, knowing that every journalist won’t be consistent in their factual accuracy on Twitter because it is, after all, a stream of consciousness. How do we avoid the pitfalls of misinformation pervading Twitter and tap into the legitimate reporting on this platform? If you’re researching a topic, and Twitter proves a solid reference, how do you determine if it is honest reporting or just idle banter? Determining the objectivity or professionalism of journalists, their sources, and the information emanating from them on Twitter is a distinct challenge.
Twitter is a veritable smorgasbord of posts that span opinion, reporting, promotion, and information sharing. Some tweets are simply opinions while other Tweets mix opinion and facts. Embedded in Tweets with factual information are often self-promotion tactics. All of these provide a biased presentation. Even sharing and retweeting are a way for journalists or like sources to play the part of gatekeeper, providing tacit endorsement, giving the contents of the original poster unfettered access “to their audience, thereby sharing the stage with them.”
How do we know if reporting on Twitter is source material—how much vetting, corroboration, and sourcing must be done for Twitter journalism to be taken at face value? Opining, for one, is an unusable source. If nothing else, Twitter is meant for immediate breaking news notifications, and the slight bias inherent to opining gets in the way of how events are reported. On the matter of linking, consider this: sourcing links from Twitter depends on the value of the publication or third party site. Much like Wikipedia, Twitter is a jumping-off point, where you may find the basic gist of events, but not the details. So, even the most innocuous of links can themselves be unreliable if they lead to an opinionated blog rather than, say, the Washington Post. The long and short of Twitter’s place in academia is that for the moment it has none. If Twitter were only ever used to link to reputable publications, its presence in school papers, reports, or journal articles mightn’t be met with suspicion. But opining, shilling for one’s own career, and retweets make Twitter a platform that democratizes not the spread of factual truth, but of personal truth.