If you think the most interesting media story in the U.K. is the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal, think again. It's actually the controversy in, around and about Twitter's role in the riots that have taken place throughout major English cities this week.
In case you've been living in a black hole, many are blaming Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger for helping fuel the riots - just as social platforms were used to foment the revolution in Egypt. When it comes to using Twitter to incite criminality, British Prime Minister David Cameron is even advocating blocking access for riot-inducing tweeters. It's yet more proof that no matter what the communications platform, it can be used for good or ill. While the telephone can be used to deliver crucial news in a timely fashion, you don't have to watch many old thrillers to know it can also be used for harassment.
This trend also comes dangerously close to shooting, or at least blaming, the messenger. In the case of Twitter, it can be used to move people in bad ways or good, to report news accurately, and to distort. Which is one thing when it comes to Twitter death hoaxes, but is quite another when things in the world are actually precarious. At those times, too often, Twitter's ability to break news means it's breaking news that isn't real. As Martin Bryant reported on Monday at TheNextWeb: "As you'd expect, last night Twitter was busy with reports of incidents taking place around the city. It was hard to tell what was accurate, what was exaggerated and what was plain false."
Again, Twitter's ability to spread fake news is one thing if it's a rumor that Eminem just died. (That is not a comment about Eminem's importance to contemporary culture, but he ain't Hosni Mubarak.) It's another if there are reports out there that rioters are headed to your neighborhood. Not only is that dangerous, but it also makes Twitter a less-than-reliable news source when we most need it to be accurate. How do you keep Twitter the free-flowing communications platform it is while at the same time keeping it the go-to platform when something important is happening?
Bryant suggests that journalists and curators of real news have accounts that are "accredited" -- similar to many celebrity accounts. While that's so obvious that I wonder why it hasn't already happened, it only partly solves the problem. Bryant's post also addresses the time-lag problem: if reporters are obligated to verify things, they won't be as on top of the news cycle, be it real, distorted, or just plain fake, as Twitter is. The Twitter amplification and distortion engine will continue to run no matter what the facts are. Maybe having accredited accounts won't make a damn bit of difference.
Still, it seems to me that it's time for Twitter to take the news bull by the horns and decide how it needs to operate when it comes to big news events. None of us needs reminding that we live in precarious times, even if you're not among the millions of us who see reminders every day that we are approaching the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Crises will continue to happen, here and elsewhere, and Twitter, which is effectively the CNN of its day, will be where people turn.
But when it comes to credibility, all tweets are not created equal, and Twitter needs to put the tools in place to ensure that verified news is treated as such. Bryant goes so far as to suggest that not only should news accounts be accredited, they should get priority in the tweet stream; in a time of national or global crisis, he may be right. An alternative is to employ existing tools like Twitter's lists in such a way that people who want an official news feed can pick that stream over often-shakily reported citizen journalism.
I'm sure some of you won't like that idea, but, at least in this country, we haven't put Twitter to the veracity test at a time when people are in danger. Then you might think differently. If and when we need to do that, there will be bigger things than Twitter's image at stake, but being able to separate real news from fake at Twitter will also go a long way toward ensuring Twitter remains a vital service in times of need. Otherwise, it's just too easy to shoot the messenger, when we need it most.