Yeah, I know. I can't believe I'm posting on Twitter and it's ability to deliver news either. But I am. Because this article by Rory Cellan-Jones got me thinking. In it he concludes...
What Twitter has done is to provide instant information about anything that is happening near its millions of users, coupled with a brilliant way of sharing that information. What it doesn't do is tell us what is true and what isn't - and that makes the work of mainstream media outlets and professional reporters all the more relevant.
But what's interesting about that conclusion is this. In the article he quotes the first Mumbai related messages he found on Twitter and, though they are from Mumbai, if you look close you realize most aren't eye witness accounts. They all talk about "hearing news" or "accounts saying" and in fact the very first Tweet says "my sister works there!" indicating it's second hand.
Now I've thought a lot on this issue of "Twitter as a news source" and after doing that here's my problem. I understand the other side of this argument. Twitter is a way for eye witnesses to quickly report what they see to the world and getting first hand information from the scene of an incident is invaluable to anyone who can get to it. Since Twitter gives everyone the ability to get to it that makes Twitter invaluable.
I get that.
But you have to know which reports are accurate for that to work. If I put you in the room with three liars and two legitimate witnesses to an event you aren't going to get any useful information out of interviewing those people because you won't know which set of facts are real. At the end of the interview you'll be no more informed than you were before it. In fact, if anything it's a net loss because there's a chance you'll be influenced by false facts which you wouldn't have had at all if you'd not spoken to the liars.
I don't think people on Twitter are lying but the end result is the same. False information inevitably gets spread around (think back to the Telephone Game). Like In this case where you have first hand reports that aren't in fact first hand reports. So from the very start you have a high possibility of corrupted information.
Now the argument has been made that Twitter self corrects. That erroneous reports are caught and corrected. But I don't see how that would work. The problem I have with that logic is this: Twitter has it's own "A-List" at this point (aka those with the most followers). Those people are the ones driving most of the news on Twitter and they "report" by repeating what eyewitnesses say.
But the actual info is coming from a very small group of eye witnesses and small groups don't self correct well (the theory of social media is that self correction happens because a group gets large enough). Beyond that you have, as the example above shows, people in the right area but who are getting information second hand (since those in the area are most likely to be interested in events and repeat whatever they hear).
So you have an A-List who is basically looking at both the legit reports and false ones (both coming from the right area) and reporting both equally. In turn those A-List tweets become how the news is exposed to the masses. So there's no social media/Wisdom of the Crowds based correction.
So what it comes down to for me is this question: What is the purpose of a news source? Isn't it to deliver accurate information in real time?
Now again I say, I'm not questioning Twitter's ability to deliver context. Once everything is sorted out and you can tell which tweets are true and which are false it becomes fascinating to see what people on the ground were thinking. But in that way it's more like an encyclopedia and less like a news wire (e.g. it provides context to the news after the fact it doesn't enlighten you to what is actually happening).
Anyway, it's clearly a far deeper issue than I ever imagined when I first started writing about it and I'm sure I'll revisit it yet again in the future. But this is where my thoughts are right now.
P.S. Again I point out that the first Twitter report was only 9 minutes before someone mentions a news report proving once again that Twitter isn't that much faster in delivering the news.