How to Tweet Responsibly During a Breaking-News Event

Yes, people put out false information and tweet incorrect things during major news events. There are ways to avoid being one of them.


Since Monday night's tweeting on Hurricane Sandy, there's been a great debate in social-media circles over whether Twitter is self-correcting, or whether misinformation spread there and on other social-media platforms can then flood into the real world, outside the range of any pullback. "What happens on Twitter doesn't stay on Twitter," warned Bloomberg's Jared Keller. Writing on GigaOM, Matthew Ingram had a contrary view, hailing Twitter as a "self-cleaning oven" for news. The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal got into the fact-checking business here on this site, knocking down fake Sandy photos and pondering ways to counter misinformation on the viral web. And Poynter's Craig Silverman even proposed that his organization and other groups should "work together to secure a grant and test whether a centralized, non-profit organization could act as a (mis)information clearinghouse during breaking news and other big events, as well as a source of best practices for knocking down misinformation."

But I wonder almost if this is over-thinking the issue. "When we get mad at others for fooling us, we should also be mad at ourselves for fooling our readers," the Guardian's Heidi Moore wrote. She's right.

There are some best practices people on Twitter can maintain on their own to break the chain of infection of bad viral material. Call it building up information-age immunity.

1. Follow every link back through the Web to its source and evaluate the original material for yourself. This is the single most important thing you can do.

Don't retweet links you haven't clicked. Don't do this from sources you know, and don't do it from sources you don't know. Just don't do it -- ever.

If you follow the chain of information back as far as it goes, as often as you can, you'll be more accurate -- and more interesting. For example, very often a link will go to an aggregation of a story that links to another original piece that contains additional information or has a different emphasis. That original report may be more important and worth sharing than the thing you'd first considered retweeting, which summarized it. But even if it isn't, at least you'll know what you're onpassing, and who and where it came from.

The whole point of blogging and a certain kind of news tweeting is to assert individual editorial judgement over the roiling Internet and re-present information in a new way. Bloggers often make news by taking someone else's 17th graf and making it their lede, providing new avenues for storytelling and reporting. That's not curation -- that's an assertion of news judgment.

Tweeting is akin to that. Reporters tweeting pieces of their own will tweet their toplines. But sometimes their "tweetable" is down deep in the piece, and not the thing they thought it was.

2. The corollary of this for visual media is to never tweet or retweet a video you haven't watched. And if you're aggregating from a video, never use the quotes someone else has in their story about what was said in the video. Watch the video yourself -- you'll often find things that things have been elided, or small words have been dropped, in the summary reports. Sometimes it's because someone has edited from raw material into story form, making a decision about what not to include for space or emphasis reasons, and sometimes it's because reporters are human, too. No matter how well-trained they are, or how prestigious the outlet where they work, humans can make mistakes, especially when they are working fast and for an editorial product with a thin editing structure. You can protect yourself from repeating other people's mistakes by confirming everything you can against available original video sources yourself.

3. Consider the source. Your best friend during a breaking-news event is a local reporter or area expert who is independently evaluating the scene or occurrence and tweeting as they go. Agencies you've never heard of but which are important to the news event are also great. If you've never heard of someone, you can Google their Twitter handle without the @ sign and you'll often get to a real identity, as people tend to use the same handles in more than one place. From there you can get a biography and begin to evaluate credibility. If someone appears to have been a troll before they began news tweeting, approach their news tweets skeptically -- they may still be trolling. Also, if someone is purportedly tweeting news about an official agency they appear to have no relationship to, compare that information to tweets coming from the agency in question. If there's no confirmation from the agency, be skeptical.

Finally, just because a major media organization has tweeted something doesn't make it true. Sometimes media outlets are themselves aggregating something from somewhere else; this is why it's important to follow the chain of information back to the original source, if you can. When CNN tweeted that the NYSE was flooded, it was in fact tweeting the misinformation of Internet troll @comfortablysmug, as passed through the Weather Channel. This was a coup for the troll, but got the news organization in trouble.

4. Don't retweet photos that show obvious violations of the laws of physics or wildly improbably events involving animals (unless you can confirm the latter). Be cautious with tweets about areas you know nothing about that are coming from sources who are unverifiable. But do use information you're receiving outside of social media to inform your thinking on what's happening. For example, despite the real-time debate on whether they were real or not, I could tell the flooding pictures of the corner of 8th Street and Avenue C were true on Monday night because I have friends who live one block from there, have gotten to know the neighborhood, and also used to live on 7th between C and D and know how close the East River is. As well, I was getting reports from my sister uptown that there were three to five feet of water on the FDR Drive and from my parents over on the Hudson side of the city that the water was coming up over the waterfront park, over the West Side Highway and up their street. My knowledge of the geography of the city and what was happening elsewhere in it made me ready to believe there would be several feet of water at 8th and C too, no matter how shocking it appeared. Also, you can't fake the tiny little yellow "tree grows in Brooklyn" tree leaves floating in that water in one of the shots. In contrast, I held off tweeting the picture of water pouring into the World Trade Center site until I found a tweet that sourced it to the AP, because the way the water looked -- too perfect, like a waterfall -- made me suspect it. By the same token, photos that have obvious filters on them are ones that have already been manipulated and need to be considered more skeptically.

Often it's easy to second-source a user-generated image, and nothing is lost by waiting a few minutes until you can surface it. Anything that's striking is something people will photograph from multiple angles if it happens in an urban space. Something that's tweeted by multiple people from multiple angles with on-the-scene commentary is more likely to be real than something tweeted only by one person who is clearly retweeting information second-hand.

Finally, when in doubt about the provenance of a picture, you can always check where it came from using a Google Images search. To do that, go to Google, click on Images, and then upload the image in question using the little camera in the search bar. Then press search. If the photo is actually from another news event, the original source should be apparent somewhere, though you may have to scroll and click around a bit to find it.