How to avoid being a victim of a Twitter hoax

Filed as Guides on July 6, 2011 6:05 am

Some things are just too juicy not to Tweet or re-Tweet.  There is the thrill of thinking that one is the first or at least among the first to tell the world about something that seems monumentally important at the moment.  Then there is the chance of becoming somewhat famous on twitter for a couple of hours, days or weeks. And if you’re an online traffic junkie, well, nothing beats the stats of a well crafted post launched at the right time — it’s like lighting up a huge pile of kindling.

It would be great if it turned out that your Tweet or re-Tweet was actually spot on, but what if you end up unknowingly passing off something that is not only false but malicious as well?

Whatever the motivation behind it may be, the pressure of being the first or among the first to post content can sometimes lead one to throw caution to the wind and click “send”, “post”, or “update” without much thought.

This has given birth to the often repeated criticism against social media and this is that it blurs the distinction between rumor mills and professional journalism.  While there is the idea that news stories can start out as a rumor, journalists are expected to abide by professional standards and ethics that aims to ensure the pressures of immediacy are balanced with accuracy, objectivity, fairness, and above all coherence.

Ordinary social media users are not expected to strictly abide by the same standards and are perhaps merely posting or passing on what they assume to be true and interesting but otherwise innocuous or inconsequential information.  If they do post or pass on something that appears controversial or vitally important to a lot of people, there is little assurance that the information is accurate, objective, or fair.

If one were just sharing something for purely social reasons, the worst thing that can happen with wrong information may be a rebuff from a friend or family member.  However, if one has made claims of being a “journalist”, it is expected that one has undertaken the necessary steps to ensure they aren’t passing on wrong information that could harm others.  And even if one isn’t a journalist but merely enjoys using social media to expand their circle of friends, abiding by the rules that journalists use to verify information can keep them from committing a ghastly social blunder.

It is no secret that nowadays, journalists use Twitter to either scan stories or probe for stories.  In using Twitter to turn up or spot story leads, journalists have to account for the following:

- Robots, fictitious personalities and pseudonyms. Not everyone on Twitter uses their real name, people who appear to be using a real name may not really be the person they claim to be or may not be a person at all.  Moreover, there is no way to know for sure just based on a person’s Tweet where they are or the nature of their involvement in the event.

- Twitter accounts can be hacked.  As seen in the recent hacking of the Fox News Politics Twitter account, even verified Twitter accounts can be used to send out hoax tweets.  In this case, the Fox News Twitter account was used to send out six tweets saying that US President Barack Obama had been shot dead.

- Audio, photos and videos can be edited or faked.  It may seem like a no-brainer but some times the fake photo or video can look so convincing.  But even when it the audio, video, or photo passes authenticity tests, there is still a chance that it may not be telling the whole story.

- Malicious intent and unlawful acts.  Granting that one is reasonably certain that a person is real, that their account has not been hacked or that they media they are publishing IS indeed real, one has to be careful not to become a party to a malicious ploy or an unlawful act.

Rather than curate or collect the tweets on a single page and merely pass it on as a legitimate news story, journalists are required to look beyond the tweets and get at the facts that tell the real story that will be useful to a larger audience.  At best, Twitter merely provides leads.  The real story comes out after one has done the necessary research, analysis, and writing.

Here are steps that a journalist is expected to perform after gathering leads.

Evaluate your source and the information he claims to have.  As already point out above, ascertaining a person’s identity, location, and involvement in the story is crucial to figuring out whether a Tweet is something worth looking further into or not.  Check out the information or material that the person claims he has and if you cannot reasonably ascertain if the material is genuine or not, it’s better to consult an authority or expert on the matter.  Moreover, try to ascertain what impact the information will have and if it seems malicious or unlawful, it is best to err on the side of caution rather than face unnecessary legal repercussions.

Find other sources and compare. Looking at other sources and comparing them allows you to ferret out inconsistencies in the information presented to you which could lead you to find more information.  Do the sources seem to support one another or essentially have similar accounts?

A previous post here in Blog Herald outlines more tips on evaluating a blog for truth.


 

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