Monday, September 05, 2011

Are we all a twitter about nothing, or should we be worrying?

The most remarkable thing to be learnt from the Mexican Twitter panic (presently attracting comparisons with the Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast) is the apparent readiness of Twitter users to believe what they were reading. Prevailing wisdom is that most people should have a sufficiently well attuned bullshit filter that they would attempt some form of verification before leaping into their cars and causing mayhem, but it seems that’s simply not the case.

To briefly summarise what happened, a school teacher (Gilberto Martinez Vera) and a radio presenter (Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola) stand accused of spreading false reports that gunmen were attacking schools in Veracruz. Gerardo Buganza, the interior secretary for Veracruz state, likened the trouble caused to Welles’s 1938 broadcast. Not quite, but apparently cars were crashed in the mad stampede by parents to reach the schools.

This is quite disturbing. Much the same thing did happen in 1938, when people heard only a few minutes of the show, but then rushed off to tell friends, neighbours and outright strangers that the end of the world was coming. Of course in 1938 there were fewer means of double checking a news report, though even then you could have twiddled the dials to check if other stations were also in apocalyptic mode. You would think perhaps that in this day and age, people would have so many additional conduits of information that it would become apparent very quickly that they were subject to a joke, but it looks like you just have to hit the right buttons with people and common sense doesn’t so much as go out the window, as dive headlong from the 30th floor.

Clearly intimating that your children are in imminent danger is a particularly cruel and effective way of doing this, but it seems to me that we need to be thinking of some way of applying the breaks to dangerous twitter trends. I don’t actually like to suggest this, as with anything like this, those breaks can just as easily be applied to information unfavourable to governments and organisations. There’s a valid argument that any attempt at censorship is to be frowned upon, and better to have a few Orson Welles moments than risk the freedoms of the internet, but perhaps we can find some way to crowd source the censorship, self censorship if you like that would naturally resist attempts by governments and vested interests from halting the spread of unwelcome news.

How about hash tags #true and #false? Twitter could monitor these in conjunction with trending topics, and if a topic begins to trend, Twitter could provide statistics showing how many people believed it true and how many false. My assumption is that enough people would be sufficiently detached from events to be able to go off and do independent research and retweet with the #true or #false tags, hence tipping the balance in favour of sanity and thus helping to take the edge off dangerously out of control trends. Equally of course, if it appears the event is being reported accurately, people could react as matters dictate. My worry is that some idiot will do something like start a Tsunami warning which will go viral, and then god knows how many people will be hurt or worse in the panic. What do you think, is there a way of controlling this, or am I all in a twitter?

Of course, it could be the story from Mexico is #false, in which case there'll be egg on my face.