19 Apr 2013
As we at Meedan followed the tragic and dramatic events as they unfolded today in Boston through both mainstream media (BBC, CBS Boston) and social media (Twitter) we noticed a couple of things that are worth recording:
If you Googled the name of the second suspect, which was first announced by the AP at 11:45 UTC then there was plenty of information to be found right away. Within 60 seconds of the name coming out, we could see where the 19 year old had gone to high school, that he had won a scholarship for college, and that he was probably a student at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. When we repeated the same search only 3 or 4 minutes later, Google was flooded with news reports, blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts - all saying the same thing “AP reports that the second suspect is a 19-year old named Dzhokhar Tsarnaev”. All the useful, valuable information had been instantly buried and running a Google search was basically pointless if you wanted to find out anything more about Tsarnaev than his name or age. To find out the useful details which had previously been available, you had to look again to Twitter, where prodigious citizen journalists shared what they had found, and newsrooms played catchup.
Journalists and citizen journalists should not get caught out by fake Twitter accounts any more. BioIsChanged.com can instantly tell you that @Dhzokhar is most likely _not the real deal, because he changed his profile a few minutes before he was reported to be who the account claimed. Add in the fact that his (now deleted) tweets refer to FootyTube giving away prizes, and it should be clear, yet even prominent citizen journalists erroneously reported that this was the “real” account. This was after the emergence of another account @Dhzokhar_A, whose threatening tweets towards the Boston police account even got mentioned on police scanner radio, which brings us to:
A strange relationship between rumour and truth emerged today, particularly with regard to “reporting” on social media and the police scanners. Firstly Reddit reports that the suspect was a missing Brown University student were given more credence than perhaps was merited by the mention of the student’s name on police scanners. Much later, scanners were heard to say that the suspect was posting online that he would kill police, reports which can be traced back to the aforementioned fake Twitter account. When a rumour moves from social media to police radio, and then back to social media, the lines between credible, reliable information and potentially dangerous rumour get very blurred.
— Amine أمين(@AfriNomad) April 19, 2013
As we think about Checkdesk, and the role it could play in facilitating structured collaboration around fact checking, it strikes me that the biggest take home lesson from today’s news reporting is that we need to - as was succinctly put by Ma’an head Raed Othman at a recent Checkdesk meeting in Cairo - “chill the news” ( تبريد الأخبار). In a rush to publish, we lose access to important information, make avoidable mistakes, and create a self-affirming echo chamber based on false reports. Food for thought.