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How do you know what you know?

August 10, 2010

That was the question I had the other day as I was watching the tweets fly around a protest in Kingston outside one of the city’s (and region’s) penal institutions. Like others in the city, I retweeted interesting tidbits to those who weren’t at the site. I mainly relied on tweets from a reporter at the Whig, who I used to work with. I’ll get to why in a second.

Just before noon, I put out a tweet with a simple message.

I received a few responses, including one that made me scratch my head for a second. Here’s how the brief tweet-exchange went:

TO ME: which part are you skeptical of? all the tweets I’ve seen today seem like simple facts without much slant to them #prisonfarms

FROM ME: noticed 1 said prison staff refuse 2 load cows as tweets go out about trucks rolling. Want 2 know how people know what they know

TO ME: ah, that one… my folks were at the site and said they heard the same thing. any updates were announced over the PA on site.

I agree with my fellow tweeter: Nothing in the tweets seemed like more than simple facts with little slant to them. But I wasn’t disputing any potential bias or opinion in the tweets, I was just skeptical, or more so critical, of how people knew what they were tweeting. The fact that someone was saying something over a PA doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true.The same goes for Twitter.

Take the strange death of Canadian singing legend Gordon Lightfoot. It was so strange that it wasn’t even true. An internet hoax spread rumours on Twitter that Lightfoot had passed on. The info got around and soon it was almost fact. The Vancouver Sun quoted Lightfoot in an interview the day of the hoax. According to the Sun, Lightfoot told Toronto’s CP24 “I was quite surprised to hear it myself driving in … to my office. … I haven’t had so much airplay for weeks.” The Sun, a Canwest paper, noted how it had contacted long-time Lightfoot friend Ronnie Hawkins who at first confirmed the singer’s death. How Hawkins was taken in with the hoax was not explained.

Or the strange death of Thatcher. It was just a simple text message from a member of the federal government, a cabinet minister no less, that simply said, “Thatcher has died.” It spread very quickly to the 1,700 people gathered at an event in Toronto and was eventually Tweeted by a Parliament Hill reporter. And then the fur hit the fan. Here’s how the CBC described it:

The message reportedly spread like wildfire Tuesday night among the 1,700 attendees at a function in Toronto paying tribute to Canada’s military.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s aide Dimitri Soudas, back in Ottawa, was reportedly dispatched to confirm the news and to begin preparing an official statement mourning the death of the Iron Lady, according to The Canadian Press.

When Soudas contacted Buckingham Palace and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s office, he discovered that the 84-year-old Thatcher was very much alive.

“How a text message caused diplomatic panic,” read the headline on the Guardian. “Red faces in Canada this morning,” chimed in Telegraph columnist Lucy Jones.

About 20 minutes after the rumour started, a corrective message circulated among the diners at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

What Transport Minister John Baird had actually told people with the text was that his 16-year-old cat had passed on. He had named the cat after Margaret Thatcher. A simple text message followed by a Tweet from a reporter, possibly to get in on the scoop, turned into a diplomatic kerfuffle.

In both cases, the messages that went out seemed to be simple facts without any slant to them. The problem was with the facts themselves. People who viewed the Tweets or texts understood them in one way and took them for fact without giving it a second look. That’s what I was getting at with my text: I’m not disputing the texts, I just want to know how people know what they know. And if I can’t get an answer like, “I saw it with my own eyes” or “the person involved told me” then the reliability of the information decreases in my eyes. That goes for sources of information that I don’t know very well, or who haven’t demonstrated reliability on a regular basis like my former colleague Rob Tripp.

Either way, a simple statement of fact is nothing if it isn’t based in truth. My final two tweets on the matter yesterday were simple: To one friend, who was at the protest for several hours, I wrote “I’m not there so I rely on others but I don’t know everyone who is tweeting so hard for me to trust everything.” And then came my last one of the day:

And to answer my own question: Yes we should.

For more ways to check the reliability of a Twitter user, the blog Science Roll has a good list of Twitter tools, like Twitter Grader and Twinfluence. While these are helpful tools, they should not be considered the only tool used to measure the reliability of a Tweet. For that, you need to use the critical thinking tools in your head.

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