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Twitter vs. the Tsunami

Posted on 29 October 2012

Over the past three days, we have seen North America buffeted by nature on both coasts: an earthquake near Haida Gwaii, and Sandy up against New York, Toronto, and the east.

Sandy was expected. Government and media were preparing for it days in advance. The earthquake, not so much. I found out it had happened via text message, and confirmed it on Facebook and Twitter, through first-hand accounts of “whoa, anyone else feel that?” followed by direct links to quake measurement sites. Though TV and radio coverage was thrown together pretty darn fast for a Saturday night, Twitter was leading the show. In this sense, it was reminiscent of both the Vancouver hockey riots and the Prince George mill explosion- people sharing photos, video and first-hand accounts in conjunction with mainstream media acting as aggregators and conduits for official channels (government, emergency response) to communicate through.

But on Saturday night, not all the information being shared was accurate. As soon as I saw Tweets warning about tsunami waves, I jumped onto Google to try to find a sourced news report sharing the same information. The first result from “Haida Gwaii tsunami” was a 2011 CBC news article titled “B.C. tsunami threat passes.” Unfortunately, not everyone noticed the date below that title. And they started tweeting that headline as fact, contradicting those warning it was time to get higher ground. The main difference, if you were just skimming through your Twitter feed, is that the tsunami warnings didn’t have a source. The tsunami warning passing posts did. And they were right, if you were worried about a tsunami threat from a year-and-a-half ago.

WHOOPS!! @b9bomber: @acoyne Dude, that article is from Mar. 11, 2011.

— Andrew Coyne (@acoyne) October 28, 2012

 

Almost as soon as those “tsunami threat passes” tweets went out there, new ones were fired off by people pointing out the error. And then people corrected them. But the storm of retweets had already started, to the point that it was over an hour before I saw the last faulty tweet sent and, shortly thereafter, rescinded. It didn’t seem to cause major problems, but if anyone had seen that faulty tweet, assumed it to be true and gone back to bed only to have a worse tsunami hit them, it could have. I know that comes off as alarmist, but bear with me.

This faulty retweet shows two sides of a coin. One the one hand, Twitter put the accurate information out there faster than traditional media. On the other, it put out inaccurate information because it didn’t have the checks and balances of traditional media. That’s the trade-off. As much as traditional media is working to close that gap, there will always be a delay while they verify their facts. It’s not foolproof by any means, but it does generally avoid the mistake of telling people the tsunami threat is over when it isn’t. Or posting photos of Hurricane Sandy that aren’t of Hurricane Sandy.

This is not a lament about the inaccuracy of the crowd and a cry to heed the words of trained reporters above all others. For one, I saw multiple media people share that inaccurate tweet, and many more “civilians” sending out the correct information. For another, I am a firm believer in the value of letting everyone have a voice- on the whole, Twitter was a huge asset to me, speaking as both a spectator and someone who was armchair reporting (the real reporting was left to my colleagues in Prince Rupert and Vancouver, who did an excellent job).

What this is, I think, is a question: In a world where everyone has access to the same publishing tools as government and journalists, what skills do we now have to make part of our basic education system? A lot has been made of the need to teach children about the dangers of the internet, the importance of privacy, the permanence of status updates. But what about the need to verify sources? To check statements before sending them off as facts? To double-check the date on that news story you’re linking to? In other words, the basic tools of journalism?

Every time something like this happens, the line between the media and the audience is erased a little bit more. The next step is figuring out how we maximize the good parts of rapid information sharing while minimizing the bad.

Filed under: Best Of, journalism, social media

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