The Blind Leading The Blind: News, Twitter Style

Days like yesterday make me realise I’ll always feel I’m a journalist. My schooling leaves me obligation-bound to the truth and facts, not conjecture.
Yesterday was a painful lesson in how very exceptional that mindset can be on the web, when it comes to researching from a fact-based place, and not just trying to find reports that match your worldview.


Cutting-edge graphic demonstrating how news circulates on Twitter.

Early in the day, a “Congress on Your Corner” event in Tucson, Arizona, left 6 people dead and 14 injured when a gunman opened fire with a semi-automatic weapon armed with an extended magazine of ammo.
For a very short time after the first word of the shooting in Arizona, all we knew was that a politician and her surrounding entourage had been fired upon in a crowd at Safeway, and the casualties seemed heavy.
Immediate reactions were: “Some Tea Party bastard did this!”
And my gut reaction was the same. Do the math, right?
Emotional reactions happen to us all, that’s humanity for you.
Then I realised: We don’t know jack. We need to wait for more. Realising that put me in a very small minority.
Probably 80% or more of the content I saw flying about on Twitter was rampant speculation about political motivation.
Now, here’s the thing: We still don’t know what happened. Anything I say about Jared Loughner, the alleged gunman, or his motivations, are speculation until his life is torn apart and we know everything.
There’s a possible second shooter/accomplice that the officials are still seeking, so we’re far from having a clue about what really happened.
Early evidence, though, suggests that Loughner is anti-government more than he is motivated by party lines. There’s also evidence that he’s usually a nice guy and a volunteer for social events, but that he has some kind of mental illness.
This is all we know, really, so far. And it can change, quickly, and so might my stance; but the EVIDENCE will dictate my reaction.


It’s funny, the public always says how crap the media is, so off-the-mark so often, but the public itself doesn’t seem to have a clue on how to check stories before they go retweeting “facts” or “news”. They don’t seem to even care if it’s true.
But god help the news organisations if THEY get it wrong, right?
Case in point is this particular tweet from late in the day, when reports suddenly circulated that stated Congresswoman Giffords had already magically recovered from being shot in the head and was up chatting just a matter of hours after the shooting.
Because that always happens, right? Why not just assume it’s true. Okay! Here goes.

This tweet flew fast and furiously, with these 143 retweets coming within a half-hour of the report. His profile says he’s a reporter with KTLA. Therefore, he MUST be right, right?
How did I respond?
First reaction: That’s AWESOME.
Second reaction: Okay, says who?
So, I did a Twitter search for a couple different terms: “Congresswoman” and “Giffords”. When paging through HUNDREDS of results, the ONLY report saying she was awake was coming from this guy, Reporter David Begnaud of KTLA.
Literally, no other source was claiming this on Twitter. No news organisation links were floating, nothing. Just Begnaud’s inaccurate story.
Did the rest of Twitter check this out? No, more than 140 people blindly retweeted Begnaud’s erroneous information without seeing if a source had been cited anywhere.
One great thing about Begnaud is, he retracted it as soon as he knew.
But the big problem? He had a lousy 550-600 followers at the time. The 143 retweets had spanned widely across the web, with a vast array of six-degree tweeters, and the damage was done.
As soon as he retracted it, I was the FIRST PERSON to retweet his retraction. Others followed.

Just not many others, that’s all. Lookit. Four lousy retweets.
His retraction received less than 3% of the retweeting traffic his erroneous information generated.
So, who’s at fault here? Well, both the journalist AND the public.
Kudos to Begnaud for admitting he fucked up, big ups to him for retracting it and deleting the wrong info. But he reported without getting definitive confirmation from authorities. Journalists aren’t supposed to do that. “Be accurate, THEN fast.” Not the other way around.
Damage? Done.
And that’s how the whole OMIGOD A TEAPARTYMEMBER KILLED A MEMBEROFCONGRESS, WHATAREWEGONNADO? panic got unleashed on Twitter earlier yesterday.
Folks just ASSUMED there was a Tea Party connection. Someone remembered there’d been a clip about target practice in the opponent’s campaign, someone else remembered the Palin infamous “target” poster, and everyone just assumed they went together.
The wrong story flew and a shitstorm ensued.
But don’t just take my word for it, take a look at Craig Silverman’s excellent timeline of tweets that shows you how the Twitter Day of News progressed after the horrible shooting happened. It’s simply brilliant. The news agencies screwed the pooch six ways to Sunday yesterday.


But that’s traditional media. Surely social media has no such ethical obligation, right? Wrong.
If you’re a member of “social media” and you think you’re some news aggregator, and you’re sending out link after link because you’re “so on top” of all this shit, but you don’t research to make sure there’s more than one source cited, or ensure it’s not just speculation, then you have no business aggregating news.
I don’t give a shit that you don’t have a degree in journalism, you’re not paid, and you think the media’s “ethics” aren’t bound to you.
You’re “helping” people by spreading “interesting” stories?
Um, no. No, you’re not.
You have a responsibility to do your CHOSEN job well. Make sure what’s sent around the web isn’t just more of the lies and half-truths that are tearing America apart.
Waiting for the right information isn’t sexy.
Being the woman shouting “YOU’RE SPECULATING, THERE’S NO PROOF” is really hard when people accuse you of being a heartless bitch or not caring about the victims, or that you’re stupid and ignorant about the OBVIOUS political situation.
Conjecture and speculation are dangerous.
What if it took longer for the news to come in? What if enraged Democrats loaded their rifles and went out looking for retribution?
What if?
Yesterday could have been a far worse day.
We’re very lucky the misinformation and passionately partisan battles have largely subsided today, because it’s toxic and should have no place in our society.
As social media, we too have a responsibility to ensure the accuracy of what we report. We have an ethical obligation to ensure truth, not conjecture, is what we spread.
I’ve been saying for years that blogging and social media could change the news world forever, that the non-corporate “journalist” worldview could bring a more “We, The People” perspective on the news, and events could be shaped with more societal relevance than ever.
But, you know what?
Not if you don’t get your shit right. Not if you don’t stop believing that, if it’s in print, it’s true.
There are more inaccuracies on Twitter than anywhere else on the web, I feel, because of the fly-by nature of tweets and the ease in which you can delete them.
But tweeting fast-and-furiously without regard for accuracy and then just using the Cleanup-on-Aisle-7 method of delete-and-retract IS IRRESPONSIBLE. It’s dangerous.
It’s bad social media.
I don’t give a fuck if you think the Tea Party is horrible, and that violence seems to be something they espouse. You don’t take that belief and sandwich it with what APPEARS to be the situation, then call that a “news”. That’s a gossip column, at BEST.
You don’t take your politics and then analyse the situation according to your worldview then report your subjective take on it.
Who the fuck are you, Glenn Beck? Oh, you’re a liberal, so THAT makes it okay? Uh, no.
And I don’t care if you’re some guy with a Twitter account, not a “journalist” — you’re a part of the misinformation problem. Don’t be.
Sooner or later, bad things are gonna happen if people don’t start spreading information with more objectivity and research done before clicking on “update” or “tweet”.
If folks don’t like me because I call it like it is when people are injecting personal feelings into their chosen “news” tweets, or are jumping to dangerous conclusions that are inciting others, then so be it.
But I sure as hell won’t stand around when I see nothing but half-truths, inaccuracies, and preaching being sent around. I won’t stand around when partisan hate of either political affiliation is being circulated as “news”.
Because, whatever you might think of some fuckwits in the industry, I’m a journalist, I learned the ethics of news circulation, I live the ethics, and that’s not changing.
Integrity matters. Truth matters. Because that’s what the press SHOULD be guided by. That’s what social media SHOULD be guided by.
If we the people want the media held to a higher standard, reporting better than they have been, then it needs to start with us.
It starts with us demanding more, but also with us researching the claims we make, the links we share, and the stories we tell…
BEFORE we send the information out there.

8 thoughts on “The Blind Leading The Blind: News, Twitter Style

  1. Raul

    About a month ago, somebody tweeted that EasyDNS (Canadian company) had blocked the DNS of WikiLeaks. Within hours EasyDNS’s business was down, the owner of the EasyDNS Twitter account was online fighting the misinformation. Check this link for some background
    And he at some point yelled online (caps lock) at one of the women spreading the mistyped name and she replied back “there’s no need to yell – I was typing too fast, sorry I made a mistake”. So I took to Twitter to force her to tell her 6,000 plus followers that she was wrong. She was, of course, nonplussed. But the truth is, as you say here very cogently, that WE social media folks do have a responsibility for accuracy rather than speed.
    I too have written about how it’s important to be accurate rather than fast, but journalists all over Twitter (and normal, random folk) seem to forget it. As Travis Smith told me, the AP says “be first, but be right first”.
    Great post, Steff

    1. Mark Jeftovic

      Interesting post and comment. I’m the president of easyDNS and yeah, at one point I did get pretty upset with some of the people who seemed to believe that their perpetuation of misinformation was quite innocuous. One of the most disappointing was the Huffington Post reporter Arlene M Roberts, who plain said “I didn’t say that!”, but I have screen grabs of her tweet where she most definitely did.
      (“The #domain name company has followed @amazon and @paypal in severing ties with @Wikileaks”)
      Back to this incident in Arizona. When it happened I was on the road and my tracking of events was for the most part via CNN Breaking News Alerts, and it was IMHO, another major media trainwreck, as CNN “reported” that Giffords was dead:
      “– U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has died after being shot at a store in Tucson, Arizona, law enforcement source tells CNN.”
      One subsequent alert made only the most cursory reference to the major #fail:
      “– Rep. Giffords still in surgery, according to hospital. Earlier reports said she had died. Stay tuned to CNN for details.”
      It became clear to me that once again, a mad scramble to “get the scoop” out there trumped all other considerations, like even verifying something as major as a death one at least one other “source” (although to professional journalists, “fact checking” means culling material from twitter, so it’s almost hopeless)
      I still see references out there on the internet that my company unplugged wikileaks (There’s an article called “27 facts about Wikileaks” making the rounds that counts the “fact” that “easyDNS terminates DNS service to wikileaks”. Once something hits this social sphere, wrong or not, redacted or not, corrected or not, it seems to be there for good.
      Even the corrections issued by the major media to our fiasco contained yet more errors.
      While always skeptical about what I “read in the papers”, now I’m just downright 100% jaded about both the major media AND the social sphere.

  2. Lauren

    Excellent post about the importance of thinking before we retweet (even for the ordinary tweeter like myself). I’m pretty sure I only retweet when there’s a link to an article backing the info up but yesterday’s a reminder to make doubly sure of that AND to make sure I trust the linked source.
    Cases like this one is one of the reasons I still subscribe to a weekly news magazine even though the net is faster. I get up to the minute info on Twitter (which, like you pointed out, can end up being very very wrong) and then when my mag comes I read a well-thought out article written when more of the puzzle pieces have fallen into place.
    Brava. We’re always taught to think before we speak. The same applies to tweeting.

  3. JanineAnnT

    I too have been guilty of the misinformation retweet in my early Twitter days (relatively speaking I am still an utter noob!) I guess it is that guilty pleasure of being the first to be in ‘the know’ – sad thing is when you behave in a ‘leap first look later’ manner you usually end up spackled in the big pile of turd you could have easily seen had you the wherewithal to do some solid research.
    Your above example of how the rapid fire spread of misinformation eclipses the genuine attempt to clean up the mess behind it, reiterates to me the need for traditional media methods to retain a strong foothold in the modern news reporting. The long term/investigative/research & watchdog journalists have an important place in this world of 10 second sound bites and regurgitated links.
    Don’t get me wrong, I love my instant hockey updates and Twitter is where I usually get tipped off to the latest news flash– I usually follow them to their reputable sources– I chose not to follow this particular story on Twitter as it became clear very quickly it was all over the place. I am reminded of the telephone tree in Edward Scissorhands and don’t want to be guilty of feeding or buying into the mob mentality that can arise as we are confronted with news that elicits an emotional reaction.
    Thanks again for another direct & smart post Steff!

  4. Zoeyjane

    While I agree in theory, I have to bust out semantics on this sentence:
    “As social media, we too have a responsibility to ensure the accuracy of what we report. We have an ethical obligation to ensure truth, not conjecture, is what we spread.”
    Now, as Journalists/news leaders within social media, I agree. But there are TONS of non-reporters and those who are simply there to communicate, and yes, even share misinformation. It would be lovely for them to fact-check, but by definition, they don’t have the training that a journalist or other member of the ‘new media’ might, as far as soundly-researched, unbiased reportage is concerned.
    I think we tend to lump twitter and facebook users together under an umbrella genre of ‘new media’, when we have to really consider the fact that (what I’d wage is) a majority of users are just individuals being social.
    Now, as a humanist and one who’s kind of into the whole kindness/karma deal, I think EVERYONE owes their peers the factual spread of information and unbiased, non-judgmental news reporting. But especially about issues that people are impassioned – politics, terrorism, economics, war, killing, death, health, celebrity goings-on and religion (at least) – people are simply doing what they do: dividing and conquering [news and allegory].

  5. JP Holecka

    As always a well written and well thought out post Stef. I want to add another reason why the desire for internet fact checking with the Palin accusations did not and will not happen.
    Firstly, I did post and re-tweet links to the simple fact that Sarah Palin and her camp have removed both the offending Facebook target map and the tweet “Don’t Retreat, Reload” that originally pointed to the map, so I am directly involved with this discussion. I did not take the position that the assassin was left or right in his beliefs, or a fascist for that matter. I tweeted the posts to continue to shine the spotlight on Palin and her clever campaign of violence that she has been using to selfishly push her agenda and use for personal gain. Her approach is a “Between the lines” style of campaign and although this gunman may not be directly linked to the Tea Party or the Palin camp, we can observe that she has been deliberately creating fear with her comments and campaign. Palin knows very well that in desperate times fear is key to getting people to fall in line and to insight fear and to position yourself that you are the answer to those fears. Her carefully crafted tv show that paints a picture of the gun wielding “Mama Bear” that can protect her young through the use of force is no accident. She repeatedly killed animals and fish in a sick and twisted fashion. So when the loose association of Palin and the gunman were made it was the other camp that decided to initiate a campaign to counter hers.
    This is also the reason no one is fact checking at the moment. It’s not about accuracy at this point in the game, this time it’s about an exploit that has been identified in Mrs. Palin’s march to the White House. The people that do not want her in power are pushing this connection further than maybe it really is. We all know the expression that if you say something enough times people start to believe it. This quite frankly is what’s going on.
    You make the reference to “It’s bad social media.” as if this is an organized group of people that are trained in the rules of journalism and report to some governing body. They/we are not and will never be. The masses are emotional and are armed with Twitter accounts, blogs and Facebook status updates and as long as there is politics there will be emotional outbursts of inaccuracy based on fear and or pushing a personal agenda. I am not saying is right or wrong, it’s just human nature and isn’t going away anytime soon. 99.9% of people in social media do not know they are in social media, they are simply just people with a voice and the tools to be heard.
    The fact that she took the offending posts down and won’t stick by the original rational does not help her at all. The left and the centre right have been waiting for a way to connect her to the dangerous game of violence that she so passive aggressively has been running on. This is the beginning of the counter offensive and accuracy will have nothing to do with it.
    The US has not been this divided in a very long time and yes the tenor of the conversation needs to be changed without a doubt. This unfortunate incident may just do that.

  6. JHP2

    Thanks for posting this and the mature way of looking at this issue. Even though I am certain that your politics and those of the Tea Party/Conservatives/Republicans are very different, you exercised restraint, ethics and common sense that much of our media in the States could stand to emulate. Of course, too many are hoping to help some “deftly” manage this into a winning electoral issue. Thanks again.

  7. Drew Snider

    Brilliant, Steff! The irony that it was a “mainstream” journalist who got it wrong about Rep. Giffords’ condition is not lost on me, and it’s worth pointing out that it was the reporter filing to the CBC on Saturday who ran with the “Tea Party” angle. Apparently, “investigators are still looking into the suspect and any possible motives” was not a good enough piece of reportage.
    A couple of things are at play here. One is that people don’t seem to realize yet the impact of tweeting and re-tweeting: by the time the poor KTLA reporter finally got his facts straight (or remembered the need to do so), the “retwaction” was lame. There’s no way that sort of thing could have been retracted with however many thousands of Twitterers re-tweeting it: talk about trying to cram toothpaste back into the tube!
    The other is that the MSM have made such a bloody hash of reporting in the first place lately that people don’t know whom to believe. Too often, reporters will latch onto an inaccurate premise or piece of information and keep repeating it, perhaps because it makes for a conveniently catchy lead or headline. They also chase after stories that one wonders why on EARTH anyone would care, and until the advent of social media, there hasn’t been an alternative. Now there is, and even though it shouldn’t be a serious competitor, that’s what it’s become. There’s a reason why a single Tweeter with an inaccurate story can get more traction on that story than a huge media machine with all its resources and contacts and Ed Murrow-style “journalistic principles”.
    I don’t think I agree, by the way, with JP’s assessment that the US has not been this divided in a long time: the right-left schism really started to deepen in the Clinton years, with each side getting progressively more hateful towards the other. The Rush Limbaughs of the world got stuck-in during Bubba’s term in office; and I’ve NEVER seen such hatred towards a president as towards Bush II … until Obama got in, and now the pendulum has swung the other way. As an Evangelist, what distresses me most is that the Tea Party types tend to associate and be associated with the church. Yet no Scripture calls on Christians to demonstrate their faith by proclaiming their hatred of anybody, no matter which party he or she belongs to. In fact, we’re called on to pray for those in authority. It’s hard to pray for someone while you’re posting pictures of that person with target-sight crosshairs superimposed.

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