Responsible Tweeting: Mumbai Provides Teachable Moment

This morning when I checked the news about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, I saw many people on Twitter reporting that the Indian police or government had asked Twitter users to please stop reporting on police and military operations related to the attacks.

That struck me as odd. I’ve heard police and military make similar requests of news organizations (especially live TV) during crisis situations — but asking social media users for this sort of self-censorship? It seemed not merely futile, but perhaps a bit draconian.

It also occurred to me that such an official request might be a milestone in the evolving power dance of the police/military, professional press, and the public. What precedent could this set for future police/public interactions during other kinds of events — like political demonstrations, natural disasters, or food riots?

So I dug into this, and I’m blogging what I’m learning. So far, it’s still unknown whether India’s government, military, or police specifically included Twitter or other social media in this kind of request.

However, this has proved to be a “teachable moment” in the current state of media literacy. It shows which kinds of skills news organizations might help impart to internet users — and learn from them.

1. Check the source BEFORE you share info. Twitter users especially are fond of “retweeting” (copying and redistributing) news and interesting tidbits posted by others. This is often done with lightning speed, and sometimes not much thought. If you see someone post something that sounds “retweet-able” on Twitter, first check to see if they cite a source — and even more usefully, a link. (This includes links to individual Twitter posts. Every public tweet gets a permalink.) If not, send an @reply to ask about the source. You may get a fast response.

But if your source request gets no response (or a vague one), be careful! If you think this news is so time-sensitive and possibly crucial that it must be shared immediately, take care to say that it’s an unconfirmed report.

This is even more important if you’re a news organization reporting what you just heard on Twitter. The BBC update timeline on the Mumbai attacks included this entry: “1108 [GMT] Indian government asks for live Twitter updates from Mumbai to cease immediately. ‘ALL LIVE UPDATES – PLEASE STOP TWEETING about #Mumbai police and military operations,’ a tweet says.”

…So far, BBC has not clarified or elaborated this point — perhaps leaving the impression that this is reliable information.

2. Include key hashtags when making queries or corrections. This will allow all Twitter users following the hashtag to see that you’re raising questions or correcting outdated or incorrect reports. Otherwise, your efforts might only be visible to the people who already follow you. Especially if you’re trying to point out that a popular rumor is unsubstantiated, use the hashtag. (As I reported yesterday, the most popular hashtag for this unfolding story is #mumbai.)

3. Encourage people spreading a rumor to correct or update. On Twitter, one good way to do this is to monitor the hashtag stream for new occurrences of the rumor. Then, send those people an @reply to let them know there’s new information. If you have a blog, put up a quick post that explains why the information in question is unfounded, inaccurate, or outdated, and include a link to that blog post in your tweet. Since Twitter is very much an in-the-moment medium, it’s usually more effective to correct fresh repetitions of a rumor than older ones. More people will notice, and that can dampen the ripple effect (or start newer, more accurate ripples).

4. Accept that not everyone thinks like a journalist — or wants to. It’s probably counterproductive to denigrate or chastise social media users who unthinkingly spread rumors. Just accept that they are playing a growing role in the media landscape, and help them to be responsible. With guidance and good examples, nonjournalists can learn to be more discerning and useful. Social media users who get known for checking out reports and not spreading misinformation tend to become more influential, so there are ripple effects to consider here, too. Investing a little time to “mentor via tweet” can build relationships that help everyone.

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