As social media become ever more deeply immured into our technology and information landscape, perhaps we should not be surprised that users of such media are starting to be held to standards once expected of reporters at TV stations and newspapers. On the other hand, some seemingly fine reporting about being a lesbian in Syria turns out to be written by a heterosexual male in the U.S. The back in 2009 seemed to be predicted by Twitter, until calmer heads pointed out that unfounded fears could spur twitterers to use terms like ‘#swineflu’ for anything related to pigs, pork, or travel to Mexico.
Recent events in the United Kingdom and here on the east coast of the United States has encouraged professional reporting institutions to reach out to the Twittosphere to try to bring some higher level of expectation to those claiming to report from the riots in English cities or through the mayhem of Hurricane Irene that soaked the eastern seaboard this weekend.
In Britain, newspaper reporters turned to bloggers and especially Twitter to get a sense of what people were seeing within the rioting itself (Hey, why endanger myself when someone is already in the melée and might reach out?). But as The Guardian blog pointed out, many simply retweeted rumo(u)rs.
The Guardian posted ‘Nine Ways To Use Twitter Responsibly‘ last week, with such advice as “Unless you can see it happening, don’t tweet about it”, and “Bear in mind that being scared of something happening isn’t the same thing as knowing that it’s going to happen”. These guidelines were in response to the wild exaggerations about the horrific-enough rioting that took place in London two weeks ago.
Here in the US, though, ‘reputable sources’ are also being challenged by their peers for fear-mongering via social media. For example, ‘The Weather Channel‘ has been called to the mat for its sensationalist reporting in an effort to make its reporters look heroic in their hours-long reports on the hurricane, even after the worst had long passed.
Although we would ethically and fully endorse the guidelines from The Guardian, they do somehow miss the point that the medium can be the message. Twitter is about speed and punch, not (necessarily) research and context. Sure one can, and surely should, try to challenge twittospheric rumors one knows are not true. Unfortunately, once launched into that twittosphere, one has no control of the impact of the missive. Will people retweet your view of the washed over boardwalk or someone else’s fear that the boardwalk has been washed out?
Which is why any organization that wants to be trusted in the social-media galaxy must take the time to build a reputation and garner it where ever possible. As The Guardian concludes, “Follow people you trust to be accurate”. That trust comes from a slow and honest communication between organizations, individuals, and the people who follow/respond/support them. Any organization that does not respond to the feedback given it is also unlikely to distinguish its own wheat and chaff.
Perhaps the nine ways to use Twitter should also be considered as the nine ways to read Twitter?