Twitter and the new future of journalism

On April 15, 2013, at 2:49 p.m. EST, two bombs exploded on Boylston Street near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Within seconds, the Twittersphere was abuzz. Between 4:06 and 7:04 p.m. that day, more than 500,000 tweets with the #BostonMarathon hashtag flooded Twitter. According to a location map constructed by a Syracuse University professor and student, only about 200 of these tweets originated from the Boston area, conveying everything from prayers to photos to 140-characters-or-fewer first-hand accounts of the blasts. While traditional media outlets must verify incoming information, Twitter acts as the everyman’s news desk, allowing untrained citizens to disperse oftentimes unsubstantiated information quickly. Twitter makes us a nonstop news society in which everyone is a journalist.

Twitter has cultivated a primarily egalitarian digital society. It’s provided a tiny megaphone to millions of people who, with simple access to the Internet, can provide windows into their microcosms with bite-sized news in real time. Though follower counts may vary, from Justin Bieber’s 38,077,131, as of Wednesday evening, to Student Life Sports’ 308, no user is more accessible than another when live-streaming hashtags. This near-unparalleled parity can do more harm than good, though.

In the hours following the bombs’ wake, unscrupulous tweeters created numerous fake Twitter accounts. Some sought to provide a voice to the bombers. Others, like the faux @_BostonMarathon handle, promised to donate money for every retweet and favorite they received. Even not intentionally malicious accounts, such as those operated by Twitter-users-turned-reporters, dispersed inaccurate information that misled the public or, in conjunction with online police scanners, publicized information that could have disrupted police apprehension of the suspects.

It would be foolish to underestimate the power Twitter currently possesses. Barely a week after the Boston Marathon attacks, the Associated Press Twitter feed was hacked when a staffer opened a well-crafted phishing email. Before the AP could get its account suspended, the hackers broadcast “Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured” to the AP’s 1.8 million followers, who began retweeting the message. In the two minutes before the AP and the White House could confirm that the tweet was fake, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted more than 140 points, temporarily depleting $200 billion of value from stock markets. Though the market rebounded almost immediately after the tweet’s message was disproved, this drastic economic shift exemplifies Twitter’s current clout not only in the microblogging world but also in the fiscal realm.

Twitter represents an emerging trend of immediacy over quality in the Age of Information. Twitter and its fellow user-driven sites allow instant access to information as users glean and upload information themselves. Reddit incorrectly accused a Brown University student as the second suspect through its “Findthebostonbombers” thread, and the New York Post ran a front-page photo of two men based on Reddit tips. In the rush of the Internet’s need-to-know, fact checking comes at a timely premium. As Twitter user Matt Roller wrote after the attack, “Twitter does its best work in the first five minutes after a disaster, and its worst in the twelve hours after that.” We should aim to balance the demands of instant information with the quality control of more traditional media.

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