Twitter shows us the good and bad of crowdsourcing the news

If you were glued to your Twitter updates last Monday through Friday, you were probably more aware of what was happening in Boston than most law enforcement on the scene and certainly more than CNN. The bombings on Boylston Street didn’t come to us first from a traditional news channel, but were instead instantly evident as they mushroomed out from the Boston Marathon race course through friends of friends and connections of connections on Twitter. We looked away from our screen for a few moments on Monday afternoon, only to look back and watch tweets scroll with eyewitness accounts and photos. It was remarkable. It was nearly instantaneous.

922605_10151542302499837_2141539993_oThe same thing happened from Thursday night to Friday evening as friends in Watertown, Massachusetts tweeted out details of the lockdown and pictures of armored personal carriers and SWAT teams descending on their neighborhood (thank you, Jon and Mary Chen). It seemed surreal to find out details of what was happening well before CNN or the other networks.

Just today, we were in Boston, staying at the Westin Copley Plaza, just one block from the scene of the Boston Marathon bombings. The streets around Copley Square are still blocked off but otherwise, Boston seems to be returning to normal. We met a police officer who told us he was part of the command center in Watertown on Friday, and that he and his fellow officers were monitoring Twitter as the best source of information. Even better than their police radios. Hard to believe but he seemed credible.

Anderson Cooper was in front of our hotel reporting the news, showing us that Twitter may be fast, but CNN has the budget for the highly paid anchors and enormous satellite trucks. It made us consider how late the media was to the game in a world that is simply too connected and everywhere. Is CNN done? Are the TV crews about to fade into history?

It goes both ways

Dow-Drop-1024x540So just as the world was ready to declare Twitter as the new CNN (some actually did), today happened. The Associated Press Twitter account (@AP, with nearly 2 million followers) was hacked. They reported, “Two Explosions in the White House and Barak Obama is injured.” Before the information could be shown as false, the news spread just as quickly as the Boston story and the Dow Jones industrial average plummeted briefly before recovering most of its losses by the end of the day.

Before this incident, we’re ready to declare the established news dead. But we need to stop and think about what just happened. In this case, it was financial markets and the effects were short-lived, but what if the same were to happen over a false missile attack or something that requires immediate and irreversible response? How much can we trust news delivered by OUR network and not by THE network?

As for me, I think I’ll be looking for multiple sources before I buy into any big story.

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Categories: Crowdsourcing

Author:Chris Taylor

Reimagining the way work is done through big data, analytics, and event processing. There's no end to what we can change and improve. I wear myself out...

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3 Comments on “Twitter shows us the good and bad of crowdsourcing the news”

  1. April 24, 2013 at 6:19 am #

    Chris, I, too, was glued to my Twitter feed during the Watertown drama last week. The two things that I’ve found amazing about the experience as I step back from it are this.

    1. How really ineffectual the news agencies were. They seemed totally ignore social media. I went to the gym very early that day, and three hours later when I got to work, CNN was reporting the exact same information. They had a really ominous picture of the two suspects with “Dead” and “On the Run” plastered over there face, were interviewing former heads of homeland security agencies who were given random context to facts way too early, but they weren’t reporting things that were coming from multiple sources on social media sites, like Twitter, to any degree. These things later came out as factual.

    2. The self-policing of the social media outlets. There were a few turds, don’t get me wrong. But, when an official organization (like Boston PD) asked the social network to not share certain types of facts (like location, number of police, etc.), the folks policed themselves and it stopped.

    We obviously have to do something about hacking, a la, the AP story from yesterday. But, the social network acts just like an in-person network (being from a very small town, I know about “the grapevine”. Social media is just a very large grapevine.

    • April 24, 2013 at 6:22 am #

      Thanks, Ron, great comments. On the hacking side, there are things that can be done like two-step authentication for those who have high profiles that would help enormously. My experience tells me that when a problem is serious enough (like yesterday), a solution always arrives.

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