Skip to content
Apr 17 / King Kaufman

The good and bad of Twitter chaos when news is breaking

Boston Marathon runners react to blast

As the Boston Marathon tragedy unfolded Monday, this blog tweeted that it was a good time to remember everything we’ve learned about verification.

Bad information was broadcast by various parties Monday. CNN collected 5 viral stories about Boston attacks that aren’t true. But it seemed to me that the Boston bombing was the first major news event during which calls for caution and warnings not to blindly retweet rumors outweighed the false stories.

That’s nothing more than one person’s impression, but I’ll note that USA Today’s Bill Goodykoontz saw it the same way.

It was an example of Twitter being what the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones has described as sort of a self-cleaning oven:

Twitter is both where the untruth flies first and where it gets shot down. It’s sort of a self-cleaning oven, where the wisdom of the crowd can work out the kinks. A reliable version of events generally emerges because vanity (in the form of a visible number of retweets for the user who posts the canonical version) fuels the process, much as a writer’s byline can press ego into the service of good writing.

Mathew Ingram, addressing the same idea on Monday, wrote that “as chaotic as that process is, we are better off for having it”:

Sure, it’s messy and erratic, but that’s because it is made of human beings. Traditional media is like that too, we just rarely see it happening out in the open. But I believe that having it happen out in the open is ultimately better than keeping it behind closed doors.

Let’s not lose sight of an important distinction, though. On the macro level, the big, messy, it’ll all work itself out chaos of Twitter is great. We do have some bad information, but we also have so much more information so much faster than we’ve ever had before, and so much of it is good information, that it’s a net positive. We’re ahead of the game.

On the micro level, though, we can’t use that as an anything-goes excuse. If you, as an individual, want to be taken seriously and trusted, then don’t disseminate bad information. Use this blog to learn about verification and attribution. And always respect Lennay’s Law: Tell us what you know and tell us how you know it.

Because, contrary to the opinion of the Onion’s satirical version of a New York Post editor, it does matter exactly how many people died and what the details are.

* * *

Photo: Runners near Kenmore Square react to the bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. (Getty Images)

  • Kelly Scaletta

    I’ve been waiting for this. Ironically I read it with, “we have a suspect in custody, wait no we don’t, oh! it’s just a guy running away from a bomb” is playing in the background.