Thursday, March 1, 2012

Data Quality is King. The King Is Dead. Long Live The King.

Twitter can spread false information just as quickly as true.  An essay on the website of the American Journalism Review suggests that this is why Twitter cannot be said to “break news.”  For starters:

While they might not mean it literally, bloggers and news organizations that credit Twitter and other social networks with "reporting" or "breaking" news are implying a contest between social networks and the press, in which lumbering news organizations are smacked down by a faster and more agile rival. And what journalist with healthy competitive instincts wouldn't feel a bit goaded or threatened by that? The far less provocative truth is that the media are working through Twitter, not racing against it.

What’s more, it appears that the pattern of tweets about Whitney Houston’s death—and actual death in this case—supports that view:

While nearly an hour passed between the first known mention of Houston's death and the AP's report, Twitter's timeline clearly shows that the story flatlined until the AP tweet. It was that properly attributed post by a credible news organization with a broad following that broke through the noise.

The relatively few people who saw the initial Whitney Houston tweets had reason to be extremely skeptical. Social media death hoaxes have befallen countless very-much-alive public figures, including President Obama, Lady Gaga, Eddie Murphy, Jon Bon Jovi and Chuck Norris (who, as fans noted, is invincible and cannot be killed). "Twitter Death" has become a near-daily occurrence, prompting a great many users to respond with caution when they hear that Madonna, Jackie Chan or Snookie has gone to the great beyond.

In that context, it's tough to make the case that a handful of dubiously sourced Twitter posts by unknown individuals with relatively small followings broke the news of Houston's death in any meaningful way. Those early tweets were indistinguishable from other celebrity death rumors, except that they turned out to be true.

And information consumers might be learning something about the differences between electronically supported rumor-mongering and actual journalism:

Rather than marginalizing the news media, Twitter and other social networks may be reinforcing their value. A generation of social media users is learning―through debunked reports and hoaxes ―the difference between saying something and reporting it. The ways in which people first hear information may have changed, but their reliance on reporters to separate fact from fiction and provide depth and context to the news has not.

The Twitter Death Epidemic  | American Journalism Review

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