Being wrong on Twitter

July 28, 2011
tweet from a fake Twitter account saying that Piers Morgan had been suspended from his CNN show.

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Earlier today, there was a flurry of activity in the media subcircle of Twitter, based on a tweet from a fake Twitter account saying that Piers Morgan had been suspended from his CNN show. It wasn’t true, as CNN rapidly said, and as Morgan himself confirmed. But various important media people, including most prominently Channel 4 News’s Jon Snow, tweeted the “news” and made it go briefly viral.

Here at Reuters, our official news accounts didn’t touch the story. Our social media editor, Antony De Rosa, did, and then put out a long series of tweets — and even a Tumblr entry — saying that he’d acted too hastily and should have said that the news was unverified. As for me, I retweeted Anna Holmes wondering whether the news was real, and then, literally seconds later, retweeted Brian Stelter saying that no, it wasn’t. Very shortly thereafter, I retweeted Reuters’s Jim Impoco, who made the very good point that “The good news is how quickly that faux Morgan tweet got stomped on.” That’s a point which was also made by De Rosa, who noted that “Twitter is faster than anything at knocking down rumors, faster than TV, web, and obviously print”.

The meta-conversation about how Twitter got it wrong soon became much louder than the original conversation was — and there was a strong thread within it of people, De Rosa included, apologizing for getting it wrong and tweeting inaccurate information. In response, I put up a quick Tumblr post. Twitter is more like a newsroom than a newspaper: it’s where you see news take shape. Rumors appear and die; stories come into focus; people talk about what’s true and what’s false.

There are flagship Twitter accounts, of course, like @Reuters, which have a lot of equity in being right, and where it’s highly embarrassing to be wrong. But the point about social media is that it’s social — as a general rule, it’s people talking to each other, as opposed to declaiming the Truth in a broadcasty manner. I’m happy to be wrong on my blog — one of my personal slogans is that “if you’re never wrong, you’re never interesting” — but I’m even happier to be wrong on Twitter, which is a forum where things disappear quickly and the stream is infinitely more valuable than any individual tweet. I consider my tweets in general and my retweets in particular to be a contribution to the stream; I’m not placing my personal or institutional reputation behind their accuracy.

A few months ago I had a fascinating conversation with Matt Winkler, the editor in chief of Bloomberg News. He’s not averse to Bloomberg journalists being on Twitter, and some, like Lizzie O’Leary, have fantastic accounts with large followings. In her little Twitter bio, she writes that “RTs are not endorsements, dummy” — but that’s not the way that Winkler sees it: his basic point of view is that before a Bloomberg journalist retweets something, she should basically re-report the the entire story. And in the reaction to my Tumblr entry, non-Bloomberg people like Steven Springer seem to think much the same thing.

I don’t have the time, the ability, or the inclination to re-report everything I retweet — and neither does any other journalist with a decent Twitter following. (What’s more, taking everything at face value would remove all the fun from parlor games like trying to work out who’s doing hate retweets, and when.) I do think that it’s probably not a good idea for people like Jon Snow and Antony De Rosa, who are representatives of news organizations and who have large followings on Twitter, to tweet out news without any indication of where it is coming from. If Snow had simply retweeted the @danwooden tweet, or if De Rosa had simply retweeted Snow, then it would have been clear where the information was coming from. Without the retweet, or any link to follow, it looks as though it’s first-hand reporting — and no journalist ever wants their first-hand reporting to be in error.

The high-church media ethicists, however, are having none of this. Dean Starkman, responding to my metaphor that Twitter is more like a newsroom than a newspaper, says that the size of one’s social graph matters:

Twitter’s not a like newsroom because those have four walls, while Twitter’s amplification power is potentially very large. Your “newsroom” has 25,000, sorry, *30,000*, people in it. It’s a lot closer to publishing than being in a closed news meeting.

And Chris O’Shea goes further still:

While some people who tweeted the rumor – such as Anthony De Rosa – went the right route and simply apologized for the error, Salmon took to his blog and basically said it’s okay for journalists to tweet false information…

People obviously make mistakes, but to tweet something wrong and then say, “Oh, well it’s fine” when people follow you because you’re supposed to be a credible news source, is wrong.

If Salmon doesn’t want that responsibility placed on his account, he should remove “Felix Salmon is the finance blogger at Reuters” from his Twitter bio. Until then people are going to give more weight to what he tweets, whether he likes it or not.

Now there’s very little in the way of clear blue water between De Rosa and myself on this issue. We both believe in transparency, and quickly correcting any mistakes you’ve made as soon as you realize you’ve made them, in a public and traceable manner. If I’d simply reported the Morgan rumor as fact, without any kind of sourcing through a link or a retweet, then I too would have apologized. So it’s weird that O’Shea makes such a big distinction between the two of us.

I certainly don’t think that making a mistake and then correcting it is significantly worse than making a mistake, correcting it, and then apologizing for making the mistake. The last step, the apology, is supererogatory — it has to be, lest it be meaningless.

And more generally, one of the great things about Twitter is its immediacy, the way in which people are talking to each other without carefully thinking first about whether or not everything they’re saying holds up to the standards of some grand and noble news organization. That’s something valuable, and it would be a shame if a small group of self-appointed media-ethics priests tried to crack down on it.

Is my Twitter account really “supposed to be a credible news source”? For that matter, is my blog supposed to be a credible news source? I treat neither of them that way. I rarely break news; I’m much more interested in linking to other people who do that much better than I do. People can give my tweets — and my blog, for that matter — as much or as little weight as they like; I have no control over that.

But for the record, and to state the obvious: my blog and my Twitter account are places where I state my personal opinions. There’s a spectrum here; the blog is probably the least personal, then the Tumblr, then the Twitter, all the way to my Foursquare feed, which is accessible only to genuine personal friends. Social media makes obvious what has always been the case: that journalists are fallible humans with opinions. This should be shocking to no one. And that’s something to celebrate, not something to apologize for.


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