One challenge is the accuracy of the information shared. With the low barrier to entry combined with the urge to publish, many people are tempted to break news before checking their facts or sources. Others may want to knowingly spread false information. A rumor can be launched in a matter of seconds on Twitter when people continue to retweet and share.
It doesn’t stop with the net. Social media now drives what the mainstream media reports. Not only does the mainstream media use Twitter as a source, but they feel compelled to report faster to keep up with social media.
Hurricane Sandy brought with it a number of false news reports and doctored photographs on Twitter. One user, Shashank Tripathia used his Twitter account, @ComfortableSmug, to blatantly start rumors and spread lies. One being that the New York Stock Exchange was under three feet of water. CNN and the Weather Channel went on to report this.
Jeff Roberts (@jeffjohnroberts), Media and Legal Reporter for GigaOM & paidContent, questioned whether tweeting false news in a crisis is illegal or just immoral.
Everyone agrees that his behavior was reprehensible. But there is also the question of whether tweets like Tripathia’s are (or should be) illegal. Keep in mind that Twitter is not just an online gab fest, it is also a newswire. During the hurricane, a phone-based Twitter feed was the last and best source of news for some of us who had lost access to TV and the internet. It was at this very time that Tripathia chose to make mischief with his fake news reports, knowing full well his lies would be picked up by other news sources. It’s as if the local TV channel began broadcasting fake hurricane news just for fun.
I’ll leave whether it’s protected free speach or not to spread false information during an emergency until another time. One thing that did beome clear during Sandy was just how fast false information was corrcected on Twitter.
It was a matter of minutes for the New York Stock Exchange flooding rumor to be corrected. CNN and the Weather Channel apologized for the mistake and moved on. I’ve seen hundreds of times before where the mainstream media corrected reports they’ve made. But I am not sure they corrected their errors as fast as they do now with the help of thousands on Twitter.
Critics of social media like to focus on how much fake news gets circulated during events like Hurricane Sandy, but Twitter and other services are also quick to correct those kinds of reports, and have become part of an expanding ecosystem of real-time news.
Though many people criticize Twitter for the amount of false news which circulates, one of the benefits of social media is that falsehoods are quickly discredited. Though we rely on reporters, editors, and producers to bring us the truth, it’s hard to compete with the crowdsourcing that can be done by tens of thousands of people all at once.