That’s a Pretty Big Assumption, Though

October 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

Recently a British man was fined the equivalent of $25,000 USD for retweeting a damaging rumor about a British lord — namely that he was a child molester. Unsurprisingly, this case has dredged up questions about how best to regulate (and/or whether or not to regulate) online megaplatforms. Jeff John Roberts of Gigaom considers the issue, and argues the following:

Davis may have shown bad judgment in retweeting something so serious (especially as the retweet came in response to a question he put to Twitter) but a full blown libel case seems excessive — and may have chilling effects on Twitter’s role as a news source.

I don’t disagree with Roberts; $25,000 is an awfully steep price to pay for making a single (though wholly irresponsible) snap decision on the internet. What I don’t understand is this assumption –which you see in so much coverage of Twitter specifically and social media more generally– that Twitter should be a news source.

It is true that Twitter helped usher in democratized, real time responses to online and offline stories. In 2013, that’s the norm. But just because something is the norm doesn’t make it positive. Twitter has proven time and time again, particularly in the wake of mass-mediated tragedies (I’m thinking the Boston Bombings in particular, which generated millions and millions of tweets, 80% of which proved to be untrue, but also natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy), to be little more than an amplifier of half truths, dangerous rumors, and misinformation generally. Yes there is definitely important information mixed in with the rubbish, but in the immediate, chaotic aftermath of a huge story, it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to parse the good information from the bad, a point Roberts himself concedes in his article summary — “People retweet lies and errors on Twitter all the time,” his opening statement reads.

Which — yes. Yes they do. So…remind me why I’d want to rely on Twitter as a news source? As an endless source of gossip, rumor and innuendo, sure. That’s fun. But news? I’d rather wait till the day after, once some of the dust has settled.

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