Yes, Twitter is flawed during an event like the Boston bombings — and so is everything else

By now, most Twitter users are probably aware that the news they get from the network isn’t always 100-percent accurate — especially in the case of breaking news such as the Boston bombings, when chaos reigns and information is scarce at best. Some news outlets have gotten a lot of mileage out of a recent study by a group of information scientists that supposedly shows “Almost everything you read on Twitter about the Boston bombing was a lie,” as one blog put it. But is that really surprising? Not when you think about it — nor does it necessarily invalidate Twitter as a source during breaking news events.

The study, which was done by a group of researchers from IBM Research Labs in Delhi, India and published in September — and picked up recently by Smithsonian magazine, VICE and The Daily Dot — looked at close to 8 million tweets surrounding the events in Boston. The scientists found that 29 percent of the most viral messages were inaccurate and/or contained fake or spam-related content such as the “donate $1 for every retweet” message from one account, or the tweet mourning for a Sandy Hook runner who never existed.

Fake Boston tweets

Even traditional sources are flawed

Of the remainder of the 8 million tweets, the researchers said that more than 50 percent consisted of “generic opinions and comments” (although it’s not clear how they defined that category) while just 20 percent contained accurate, factual information. “So much for getting your information from Twitter,” said The Daily Dot, which called the network “one of the least accurate sources” and said its signal-to-noise ratio, “which can be low on a normal day, is lower still during crises.”

The main thing this statement ignores, of course, is that the signal-to-noise ratio of everything is lower during a crisis like the Boston bombings — and that includes major network news channels such as CNN (which got several things wrong), as well as the channels of information coming directly from the police and other authorities. That was also incredibly flawed, as anyone who listened to and/or retweeted things from the police scanner discovered before too long.

If even the authorities can’t be sure what is happening in the aftermath of such an event, how can we possibly expect Twitter to be any different? If anything, the fact that 20 percent of the tweets collected by the researchers were true seems like something worth celebrating rather than criticizing — and even that leaves out the “generic opinions and comments” the scientists ignored, many of which may have also been accurate, or contributed in some way to the sense of the event.

Fake Boston tweets1

Be skeptical of everything, not just Twitter

As we’ve tried to point out before — and as others such as Reuters media writer Jack Shafer have also noted — breaking news has always been a chaotic event, information-wise. It’s just that most of that information chaos has historically occurred inside newsrooms or at police headquarters or inside a hospital, with journalists and others filtering the information before it is released. That’s both a good and bad thing, but in any case it no longer exists: news, like water, now finds its own path, without the help of journalists or anyone else.

Is that a bad thing, given how much misinformation circulates during such events? Perhaps. The IBM researchers note that one of the big problems with Twitter during events like the Boston bombings is the creation of fake and spam accounts that take advantage of such a tragedy — and there’s no question that muddies the waters. But is it really that serious a problem if people believe for a short time that retweeting a message will send $1 to bombing victims?

And even the researchers own graphs show that the accuracy of the information on Twitter improves rapidly over time, with the worst misinformation present only during the first few minutes. As time goes by, a more accurate picture starts to appear, which is just what you would expect. Should you be wary of information on Twitter in the immediate aftermath of such an event? Sure — but the real lesson is that you should probably be wary of almost any source of information after such an event, including the police and the mainstream media.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / DonSkarpo

Glenn Greenwald vs. the NYT’s Bill Keller on objectivity and the future of journalism

Is objectivity in journalism a false idol, one that leads media outlets like the New York Times into error rather than truth? Or is it the only protection against a future of partisan media yelling at each other and preaching to the converted? Those were the stakes that emerged in a conversation on Saturday between Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald and New York Times columnist and former executive editor Bill Keller.

The debate took place in the pages of the Times, in the spot normally occupied by Keller’s column, under the heading “Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of News?” (a headline that sparked a critical response from journalism professor Jay Rosen, who called it clickbait). As Keller noted in his preamble, one of the most compelling questions about the future of journalism — apart from how it will pay for itself — is whether “objective” journalism is an outdated concept.

Many new-media theorists and observers (including me) argue that transparency is the new objectivity, as David Weinberger of Harvard’s Berkman Center put it in an excellent essay some time ago — in other words, that disclosure about one’s viewpoint trumps the traditional attempt to pretend that a journalist or media outlet has no viewpoint. As Weinberger noted, objectivity is a trust mechanism that you focus on when your media platform doesn’t support hyperlinks.

Keller: Objective journalism is more credible

Bill Keller, NYT

Keller opened the debate by saying that the new form of journalism Greenwald represents is opinionated and activist-oriented, but that this is not always the best way to produce good journalism — and compared objectivity to the impartiality that is demanded of judges:

Keller: “Journalists in this tradition have plenty of opinions, but by setting them aside to follow the facts — as a judge in court is supposed to set aside prejudices to follow the law and the evidence — they can often produce results that are more substantial and more credible.”

The obvious implication was that Greenwald’s style of advocacy journalism is less substantial and less credible. But the Guardian writer — who is leaving to join a new venture funded by billionaire Pierre Omidyar — wasn’t about to let that accusation go, saying the objectivity model “has also produced lots of atrocious journalism and some toxic habits that are weakening the profession,” such as accepting what official sources say without challenging it.

Greenwald also said that a rigid devotion to the principle of objectivity produces a “here’s what both sides say” formula — something Jay Rosen has called “the view from nowhere,” which arguably fails to give readers a meaningful understanding of what is happening with issues like torture. Greenwald argued that disclosure of one’s viewpoint is a far better approach:

Greenwald: “The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers.”

Greenwald: Disclosures provide transparency

glenn greenwald

As an example, the Guardian writer said he only found out after the Gulf War that New York Times foreign correspondent John Burns was favorably disposed towards the U.S. invasion, and would have liked to have known about his position when he was reading Burns’ coverage of it, instead of finding out after the fact. Keller, however, argued that the discipline of impartiality was important in order to prevent distortion of the news:

Keller: “Once you have publicly declared your ‘subjective assumptions and political values,’ it’s human nature to want to defend them, and it becomes tempting to omit or minimize facts, or frame the argument, in ways that support your declared viewpoint.”

Greenwald countered that reporters who “hide their opinions” would be far more likely to manipulate their reporting and not be discovered by readers. And he noted that — despite Keller’s criticism of entities like WikiLeaks and their agenda-driven activity — the New York Times has been guilty of far worse behavior:

Greenwald: “It wasn’t WikiLeaks that laundered false official claims about Saddam’s WMD’s and alliance with Al Qaeda on its front page under the guise of ‘news’ to help start a heinous war. It isn’t WikiLeaks that routinely gives anonymity to U.S. officials to allow them to spread leader-glorifying mythologies or quite toxic smears of government critics without any accountability.”

Are advocacy and fairness mutually exclusive?


Keller stuck to his defense of impartiality, which he said was a “worthwhile aspiration, even if it is not perfectly achieved.” And in what appeared to be the core of his argument against Greenwald-style journalism, the former NYT executive editor argued that journalism which comes from a position of advocacy is inherently less useful:

Keller: ‘I believe that in most cases [impartiality] gets you closer to the truth, because it imposes a discipline of testing all assumptions, very much including your own. That discipline does not come naturally. I believe journalism that starts from a publicly declared predisposition is less likely to get to the truth, and less likely to be convincing to those who are not already convinced.”

In a nutshell, Keller seemed to be arguing that activist or agenda-driven journalism is by definition lopsided and unfair, and results in a future where partisan platforms like Fox News are talking in “echo chambers” to those who already agree with their beliefs. Greenwald, however, said that journalism from a specific perspective and fairness or accuracy are not mutually exclusive:

Greenwald: “My view of journalism absolutely requires both fairness and rigorous adherence to facts. But I think those values are promoted by being honest about one’s perspectives and subjective assumptions rather than donning a voice-of-god, view-from-nowhere tone that falsely implies that journalists reside above the normal viewpoints and faction-loyalties that plague the non-journalist and the dreaded ‘activist.’”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Xavier Gallego Morell

One big benefit of the social web: Journalism emerges wherever it is needed

Media-industry watchers (including us) often tend to focus on how the web and social tools are disrupting existing forms of media and journalism by competing with them, or offering alternatives to traditional outlets and voices. But the democratization of both content production and distribution that was brought about by the social web can be even more powerful when it helps to fill in the gaps where traditional media doesn’t go — either because it doesn’t want to, or because it can’t.

Turkey is one example of that phenomenon at work: citizen journalism of many different kinds became extremely important as a source of unbiased reporting during the recent demonstrations against the government there, in large part because the local media weren’t doing it.

Stepping in to fill a gap

Another good example of this a little closer to home is a one-man operation called Jersey Shore Hurricane News, which was recently profiled by the Nieman Journalism Lab. Much like the celebrated British blogger known as Brown Moses — who transformed himself from an unemployed accountant into a crucial source of information about weapons being used by terrorists in Syria — this New Jersey site is the work of one man with little or no background in media or journalism who felt compelled to be of service.

“The man behind the updates was Justin Auciello, the founder and sole operator of Jersey Shore Hurricane News. It’s a Facebook-only news outlet with over 200,000 followers, most of them concentrated in a few counties of New Jersey. Auciello has been building up this following since just before Hurricane Irene hit in 2011. He has no particular background in journalism; by day, he’s an urban planner and consultant.”

Jersey Shore fire

As Nieman writer Caroline O’Donovan describes, Auciello started posting photos and information about hurricanes affecting the Jersey Shore on Facebook, and the page has gradually developed a devoted following of more than 200,000 people. An urban planner and consultant, Auciello said that he enjoyed the interaction with residents of the region — whom he asked for photos and news submissions after he broadened the site to include news about things other than just hurricanes — and they came to rely on him.

Serve the community’s needs

What I find fascinating is that Auciello didn’t set out to create a new-media entity, or to compete with existing media providers: he saw a need that wasn’t being filled by existing outlets like the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New Jersey Network, and he chose to contribute his efforts to the community. All of this is in his spare time, for no pay. And he is as concerned about verification and reporting the truth as any professional journalist — if not more so — saying:

“I generally will not publish anything about a car accident unless I know if there was an injury, because generally the first thing people ask is, are people injured? And that’s a common, 100 percent natural question. You really don’t want to leave unanswered questions, which, in my opinion, always lead to speculation, and that leads to rumors.”

At this point, according to the Nieman Lab, the Jersey Shore Hurricane News relies on Facebook for distribution and brings in zero revenue, although Auciello has received a grant from a New Jersey recovery fund set up to help the area rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, and he has been thanked by the White House for his service to the community. He is trying to expand his media operation through a partnership with a local public-radio station and also thinking about moving to the web instead of relying on Facebook.

Like Joey Coleman, who set up his own community-funded reporting operation in a small town in Ontario, Canada because he thought it wasn’t being well served, Auciello is a great example of someone who saw a need and decided to fill it — and thanks to the web and digital media, was able to do so. Perhaps this truly is a “golden age for journalism,” as some have argued.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of On The Pier Photography and Flickr user Christian Scholz

Twitter’s unlikely birth: The next big thing isn’t just a toy, sometimes it’s a complete accident

It’s tempting to see world-changing companies as the product of one person’s singular vision and willpower — not only does it make things easier to understand, but it caters to our love of the solitary genius, the Einstein or Jobs who sees the world revealed in a flash of insight. But the reality is often very different: in most cases, it is filled with the kind of messy human chaos that is often left out of such stories, and Twitter’s rise to glory is a great example.

Biz Stone, Ev Williams and Jack Dorsey at Current.TV offices in happier times

An excerpt from NYT writer Nick Bilton’s book about the company’s messy birth reinforces the fact that something we now take for granted — that Twitter has become a massively influential media company, one that is planning a public offering that could be worth as much as $20 billion — is so incredibly unlikely that it almost seems like an accident, or rather a chain reaction of accidents, each one more unpredictable than the rest. As Bilton says:

“In the Valley, these tales are called “the Creation Myth” because, while based on a true story, they exclude all the turmoil and occasional back stabbing that comes with founding a tech company. And while all origin stories contain some exaggerations, Twitter’s is cobbled together from an uncommon number of them.”

Tripping, falling, stumbling — all the way to success

twitter bird tweets logo drawing

It has been said that the next big thing always starts out as a toy, a statement that is a kind of capsule version of Clay Christensen’s disruption theory, and Twitter certainly falls into that category: for the first two or three years of its life, if not longer, it was dismissed as an irrelevant tool for nerds and narcissists to share what they were having for lunch. But as Bilton’s description makes clear, it was also a fluke that the service even got started in the first place, let alone succeeded and became a multibillion-dollar entity.

Take the place where Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey reportedly came up with the idea for the service as an SMS-style status update (his original choice for a name, as detailed in a sketch he made, was South Park in San Francisco doesn’t just have dingy, beaten-up playground equipment, as Bilton notes — it is far more popular with homeless people and drug addicts than it is (or was) with CEOs or startup founders. It makes a garage look good.

“For many in Silicon Valley, this playground is hallowed ground. It was here, one breezy day in 2006, according to legend, that Jack Dorsey ordered burritos with two co-workers, scaled a slide and, in a black sweater and green beanie, like a geeked-out Moses on Mount Sinai, presented his idea.”

So what was the most crucial factor in Twitter’s early success? Was it that early staffer Noah Glass, who was later forced out of the company, came up with a catchy name after a frenzied search through the dictionary? Was it that Blogger founder Evan Williams, whose other business making podcast software was going nowhere fast, needed to find something new to focus on? Was it that Twitter fit in so well with the anarchic social atmosphere at South by Southwest, which at the time was the hottest geek conference around?

Chaos and openness is better than a bad plan


It was all of these things and then some. Even in the early days, what struck me most about both the service and the company was that it seemed to consistently be able to snatch success from the jaws of defeat — just when you thought it was going down for good, after the umpteenth server failure or some high-school-yearbook style upheaval in the executive suite, it came back stronger than before. Users complained bitterly about the downtime and then when it came back they used it even more.

In some ways, it almost seems like the world — or at least certain tech and media-obsessed parts of it — wanted something like Twitter to exist, and were determined to somehow will it into being, despite all the repeated screw-ups and bumps in the road along the way. Users took a simple service that (I would argue) even its founders didn’t really understand completely, and turned it into something that changed the very fabric of the way the world communicates with itself. And not just about TV shows, but about even more important things like revolutions and wars and social phenomena of all kinds.

Al Gore at Current TV offices (with Jack Dorsey in the background)

If there’s one lesson that comes from Twitter’s messy origins and chaotic upbringing, it is that you can do as much damage to an idea by trying to force it into a specific mold as you can by letting it breathe and evolve on its own. It may have been an accident that Twitter was so open and free of constraints in the beginning — something the company tried hard to reverse after it got rid of Williams and started cracking down on third-party developers — but without all of that chaos and confusion, I’m not sure Twitter would exist at all.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Stephen Brace and Shawn Campbell