The ongoing debate over whether Twitter and Facebook can become credible sources for news similar to Google News took a blow last week after Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise tweeted a phony scoop. He told fans Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, suspended over acquisitions of sexual misconducts, would sit out for five games. It turns out, as the Los Angeles Times reported, Roethlisberger got four days suspension, reduced from six.
In a CNN interview, Wise explained how an erroneous tweet can spread like wildfire, especially if the information is from a reputable source. In the case of Wise's comment, several major sports sites picked up the news and attributed it to Wise.
Tweeting a second post explaining the hoax, Wise said the tweet got delayed when Twitter became overwhelmed with people trying to use the service. The site went down and a fail whale appeared before he could right the wrong.
Wise later apologized for using his Twitter account to send out the information. The Washington Post, however, still suspended him for one month.
News travels quickly across Twitter and the Web, in part by links, both the blue kind that allow people to click on them for additional information, as well as friends linking across social networks, blogs and other apps. Twitter spokesman Matt Graves told CNet.com one quarter of all Twitter posts include a link to another piece of content, such as a news story or video. Twitter has 190 million unique monthly visitors.
"Mike Wise gave people what they wanted -- information," says Lyndon Antcliff, founder at search engine optimization (SEO) link-building service Cornwallseo.com, who hopes people will become more distrustful of information because of stunts like this. "Being cynical of the media and the gatekeepers of information is a character flaw people should nurture and caress like a soft, white kitten."
Antcliff, a SEO expert who wrote a factious story to use as link bate for a client, told Wired reporter Betsy Schiffman it garnered about 6,000 inbound links. The fake news story about a 13 year-old boy in Texas who used his father's credit card to go on a $30,000 spending spree includes fake hookers, the video game Halo, and a motel. It's all part of why SEO expert David Harry believes "many times utter bullshit makes its way into the mainstream via social media." Proving a point, he directs me to a Fox News story.
Could social media and the Internet put truth "out of fashion" in a world where something else dictates how people behave, Antcliff says. Twitter may not be destroying the "truth," but it is highlighting its lesser importance, he says. "After all, who thinks, 'I must find the truth. I know! I will log on to Twitter,'" he adds.
The truth is technology and pop culture led society to rely on Twitter, Facebook and other types of social media in the same capacity for news and information as Google News, Yahoo News or Bing. I, too, reach for my blackberry first thing in the morning to skim through Twitter tweets, along with email, for news and information that might have occurred last night. Some information comes from sources I don't know, so I take a skeptical viewpoint before confirming the news. The biggest difference with Wise tweeting fictitious information-he isn't just "some guy," but rather a credible source from a news organization with a long history.
Most people are never in the position to exercise such power and have difficulty understanding it, suggests Antcliff. "I feel it's like using a chainsaw with a toothpick and trying to model a life-size sculpture of George Bush out of butter," he says.