Posted by Matt Egan 23 April 2014
Twitter - not news
Much was made this week of the fact that Manchester United 'broke' the news of the sacking of manager David Moyes via the medium of Twitter. The suggestion is that Twitter specifically - and social media in general - is now a place from which people garner hard news. The trouble is, it's nonsense.
Let me be clear that I love Twitter and use it daily. It is also somewhere from which I source information. A great place to keep your finger on the pulse, and follow the mood of groups of people who are interested in similar things to you. And Tweet is now in the dictionary. But it is not a good source of hard information: here's why.
1. It's not news, it's hearsay
It is true that whenever a big news event occurs you will hear about it on Twitter. And you can definitely glean a certain amount of information about the tone and scope of said event by following Twitter. But there is always as much misinformation as information on Twitter, and it can be difficult to tell one from the other.
Of course that can be true of mainstream media, too. And that's part of the problem. The sheer size of mainstream media these days means that information has to be found to fill the void. And so you get stories such as the missing Malaysian plane in which spurious Twitter posts are reported as news by 24-hour rolling news channels, websites and newspapers desparate for copy.
There are myriad examples of Tweets being reported as facts, from the riots of 2011 through multiple fake celebrity deaths. Reports on civilians being killed in warzones, false accusations of criminal acts, and that poor, missing planeload of passengers. These days newspapers regularly quote famous people via their Twitter feeds, too: it's all hearsay. That a celebrity's Twitter feed says something does not mean that they personally uttered the words.
Don't believe me? Last year I spent time with a successful media agency based in Ireland called Storyful. Storyful makes its living by verifying news broken on social media. And it does so using old-fashioned news values and shoe leather. Find an image that purports to show an atrocity in a foreign warzone and Storyful will investigate the source and attempt to find at least two other sources to back it up before it will stand up the story. Needless to say most stories don't make it.
And if that sounds like a gimmick, know this: Storyful was bought by Rupert Murdoch for $25 million at the end of last year. Say what you like about the old geezer, he knows news and he knows good value.
2. Nothing breaks on Twitter
The other thing to bear in mind is that very little new information actually breaks first on Twitter. Case in point is that 'Manchester United sack David Moyes' story. Despite the fact that the official @manutd Twitter feed prefaced the announcement with 'BREAKING', it was doing nothing of the sort.
For one thing, where does a PR mouthpiece get off using a news term such as 'BREAKING'? It was simply releasing a press release. And, indeed, it released a press release in the traditional way at exactly the same time as the Tweet was posted. That detailed and official information formed the basis of the news coverage.
But more importantly the hearsay version of the news had been all over the internet for 24 hours prior to the official Tweet. I'm not contradicting point one: prior to an official announcement via traditional means, Twitter was great for gossip about an event that came to be fact. But it wasn't hard news. And once it became news Twitter was great for reaction, but added nothing of value to the news cycle.
In the tech world I work in, rumours fly around the Twittersphere all the time. Many are report as fact or rumour, and a proportion turn out to be true. But that someone guessed the specs of a new phone and posted them on Twitter doesn't make it news if it subsequently turned out to be true. Fun, yes. News, no.
3. It reflects your views, not the views of the world
Finally, this is an important point. If you closely examine Twitter in the build up to a general election it will convince you that the party you favour is set for a landslide victory. How could anyone else hold a different viewpoint to these reasoned people on Twitter?
The trouble is, you tend to follow and gravitate toward people with whom you share views and values. And you tend to distance yourself from people who posts views with which you disagree. And so the view from Twitter is homogenised. Good for keeping abreast of opinion, brilliant for finding out what is in the thoughts of people you admire. Bad for finding out hard news. (Unless you count the fact that a Twitter-powered knitting machine is now knitting jumpers.)
For the latest tech news, follow @mattjegan