Hurricane Sandy tests Twitter’s information immune system

There’s plenty of grist available today for social networking cynics.

This storm proved, again, that Twitter is the place to turn for real-time information and analysis during major news events. Journalists and eyewitnesses were posting developments seconds after they happened. The network was pulsing with content — urgent and relevant, practical and emotional.

But some of it was wrong some of the time.

On Twitter, sharks swam the streets of New Jersey and ominous thunderstorm fronts rolled across the New York skyline. Those pictures were either fake or from previous storms.

Storm or not, trolls will be trolls. In this event, most notable was the Twitter account @comfortablysmug blatantly starting false rumors and spreading lies — like Con Edison shutting down power to all of Manhattan, or New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo being trapped.

“Two of his tweets garnered more than 500 retweets. One drew a rebuke from ConEd’s official Twitter account,” BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski wrote, calling the account on its lies.

There were also some parody accounts. @RomneyStormTips (now suspended by Twitter) posted satirical tips like “send the help to the store for supplies” or “set up temporary tax cut shelters.” One of its tweets was retweeted more than 14,000 times, the Chicago Tribune reports.

But let’s look at the other side of the story, too.

The corrective power of Twitter

First, Twitter got a lot of really big stuff right — like circulating an amazing real photo of floodwaters rushing into a subway station in New Jersey and real video of a power plant exploding in New York.

Mainstream media outlets were begging people for rights to use their photos, so clearly there’s some real value created by social media users.

Second, mainstream media outlets got some stuff wrong on their own.

Most notable was the rumor on CNN and the Weather Channel of a flooded New York Stock Exchange, though that may have started on Twitter.

Reuters ran a story, based on a single anonymous source, that said 19 Con Edison employees were trapped in a power plant, which the company used Twitter to correct.

Meanwhile, there were outstanding examples online of people debunking false claims.

NPR’s Andy Carvin and many other journalists were curating, verifying and disproving news throughout Monday night.

Alexis Madrigal gathered and verified some of the most-viral images, labeling each as “real,” “fake” or “unverified.”

One of the viral photos Alexis Madrigal labeled as “fake.”

The Tumblr and Twitter account “Is Twitter Wrong” also went on a debunking spree, shooting down images as they started trending.

Government officials and agencies tweeted advice, information and resources, and they used Twitter to dubunk false rumors.

The social media immune system

John Herrman at BuzzFeed wrote that Twitter is better understood not as an always-accurate newswire, but as a “fact-processing machine“:

Twitter beckons us to join every compressed news cycle, to confront every rumor or falsehood, and to see everything… Twitter is a fact-processing machine on a grand scale, propagating then destroying rumors at a neck-snapping pace. To dwell on the obnoxiousness of the noise is to miss the result: That we end up with more facts, sooner, with less ambiguity.

I’d put it this way: Twitter has developed an information immune system.

Twitter fights off infection just like the human body, which is covered with bacteria and constantly exposed to new germs and viruses but has antibodies and white blood cells to subdue them.

People get sick. Under certain societal and climate conditions (think cold and flu season), epidemics are even predictable.

Likewise, social media will contain some false information. Under certain conditions, we may even anticipate widespread outbreaks.

We don’t expect to live in a world free of germs, nor can we ever expect social media free of falsehoods. We aim for a healthy immune system that can stop a pathogen’s spread, expel it after a short time and remember how to recognize it should it reappear.

Yes, Twitter’s immune system could be stronger. It could build in a corrections system, and we can all do our own part to fight misinformation. Let’s focus on those worthy, attainable goals rather than pine for a system that never catches a misinformation cold.

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