Since Twitter hasn’t built a correction feature, here are 3 things journalists can do instead
For years, there's been talk about the need for a Twitter correction tool. Early in 2011, not long after the Tucson, Ariz., mass shooting that severely injured congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Poynter convened an online chat about handling incorrect tweets. It didn't take long for the discussion to turn to the role of Twitter itself.
The fact is that everyone who’s involved in spreading news also needs to be involved in correcting it — and, right now, in helping to figure out how best to do so. That includes the people at Twitter. Why not have a ‘correct’ function (like the ‘reply’ and ‘retweet’ functions) that would automatically send a correction to everyone who had retweeted something that contained an error?
That week, I sketched out how a Twitter correct function might work in a column for Columbia Journalism Review. I then participated with Adrian Holovaty in another Poynter chat about what the function could look like.
That was more than two years ago. Since then, we've seen misinformation spread during big stories, with major news outlets sometimes playing a big role in propagating errors. Each time it happens, the discussion reignites: what about a Twitter correction function?
The Boston bombings kicked off another round of such debates, and likely inspired one developer to build Retwact, a service that aimed to offer correction-like Twitter functionality. (The service's account was suspended by Twitter because of the mass of @ replies it sends out to help spread corrections/retractions; it now appears to be back up, but hasn't been active in close to a month.)
After this latest iteration of the discussion, my friend Mathew Ingram offered a post headlined, "Why we should stop asking Twitter to introduce a correction feature."
Despite my past lobbying, I'm now convinced Ingram is right: Twitter isn't going to build this tool, and we need to move on.
We should instead focus our energies on three areas that will help address the core issue at hand: the spread of misinformation on social networks.
1. Create best practices and awareness
[I]f we consumers want to have a real-time account of events -- and we do, it really makes us a better informed citizenry -- we have to understand how to deal better with ambiguity.
This relates to Ingram's point that Twitter is a real-time stream that constantly pushes forward. Such a stream is different than the packaged news of the past -- news is now more open and participatory. That creates a certain amount of ambiguity and chaos, and it's not the kind of news product the vast majority of the public grew up with. People now see the sausage being made, and receive conflicting information. In many cases, I imagine, they feel overwhelmed, confused and frustrated. The same is probably true for many journalists.
These ambiguous news products are still in their infancy, and many journalists -- likely the vast majority -- understandably don't have a good handle on this new world of abundant, fast-flowing, often-unconfirmed information.
It's therefore essential that best practices for verifying and evaluating information are spread not just inside newsrooms, but to everyone. The same is true for finding better ways to help people exercise good judgement about the information they share.
The public needs to be given the tools and skills to help them make sense of the news and information they see, and to do so without requiring the media's filter. By spreading these skills, we will better equip users on networks to know when something's erroneous and not retweet or share it.
2. Build tools to enable best practices
Just because Twitter won't build something doesn't mean someone else shouldn't. That goes for a correction-like feature or service, as well as for other tools that could help with verifying information.
For example, I'd love to see someone come up with a user-friendly interface for an EXIF reader that helps anyone understand and use the data available about a photo.
As for Twitter corrections, Retwact is really the first attempt in this area, and the only way to come up with something useful is to see more attempts by more people.
Remember that until very recently, the best practices and many great features created for Twitter (such as the retweet) weren't built by Twitter. That was a hallmark of the service in its early years: people used its API to build cool things.
In its move to commercialize the platform, Twitter has worked to simplify and standardize the experience. This made it easier for less-techy folks to join and enjoy Twitter, to keep the service growing, and to create a welcoming place for advertisers and brands. Though the public API ain't what it used to be, Twitter is still a platform and you can still build on it.
The fact that Twitter won't introduce a correction function, and the reality that it's something that a smaller segment of users will use, means there's an opportunity for someone to build such a function as a professional feature for a specific target market.
So what if only journalists will use it at first? They remain a core group of TweetDeck users, and Twitter keeps that product going.
The only way to know if this kind of feature will be useful is for people to attempt to build it and then iterate. If something useful can't be created, then we'll know.
As noted above, this is about more than just testing a Twitter correction feature. Other areas are ripe for development, too.
3. Identify areas for cooperation
"I believe part of the answer is for news organizations, journalists, government agencies and other entities to coordinate and cooperate on big breaking stories, especially during crisis situations and natural disasters," I wrote in a previous post.
During emergencies, news organizations that might otherwise compete can work together and help spread good information, banding together to call out hoaxes and fakes. This kind of coordination can amplify the good information and help it rise above the fake and unreliable content that's frankly more appealing from a sharing standpoint.
Along with that situational argument for cooperation, there's also an ongoing opportunity to work together as a profession to share and gather best practices, then work to spread those practices within our communities. Newsrooms should be vocal on social networks about the standards and practices they apply in breaking-news situations, and should share the skills their journalists develop with an eye towards helping the public gain this same knowledge and perspective. That will help create networks that are smarter rather than merely faster.
In my view, this work is more valuable and powerful than any technological feature. It's unreasonable to expect technology alone to alter or mitigate human behavior. Twitter can amplify the misinformation and confusion that occurs during breaking news events, but it's people who make the decisions about what to share and retweet. At its core, spreading best practices and standards is about helping alter people's thought processes and behavior, empowering them to think more critically and make better decisions.