Everybody complains about Twitter, but nobody does anything about it

Apologies to Mark Twain* for bowdlerising his quote, but it has happened again – somebody has made something up on the internet, without a thought for fact-checking or journalistic integrity. What’s worse is they then used the unregulated media of Twitter and Facebook to spread these lies. Worse still, this latest fabrication sullies the name of that fair and balanced journalistic institution, Fox News. Laugh? I nearly tweeted.

Padraig Belton, in the Irish Independent, told us yesterday that the world is not always as it seems. To support this skeptical world-view, he cites the infamous “Brian Cowen hangover” interview and this picture that did the rounds last week:

Photoshopped screengrab of Fox News Toolooz
Fox News. It's bad, but not this bad

Belton says:

In both cases, social media and citizen-journalism – not long prior heralded engines of a new democratic dispensation – were manipulated in political hatchet jobs.

Political hatchet jobs? I can see how the Cowen interview may have been politically motivated, but what’s the political motivation for “Fox News is rubbish”? Even if you could answer that, who cares? It’s not meant to be journalism. It’s meant to be a joke.

To illustrate the dangers of photo manipulation, he could have used North Korea’s nine-foot soldier, or Iran’s cloning-tool wars.  But he wanted to illustrate the threat of Twitter, so chose a joke.

That joke took a report of a multiple murder and tried to get a laugh at the expense of a cable channel renowned for screaming hyperbole and screw-ups. For example, the original, undoctored image was taken from a Fox News broadcast in which they mistakenly used a picture of Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live to illustrate an item on Sarah Palin. Here’s the video (if you can trust it):

Belton then trots out a litany of other supposed deceptions, some of them nothing to do with Twitter or Facebook – such as the Sunday Times using an illustration of John ‘Soap’ MacTavish, a character from the Call of Duty game, in a graphic of a failed hostage raid – and some of them actually unearthed by social media themselves, such as ITV’s mistaken use of video game footage in a documentary about IRA links to Gaddafi:

Jokes aren’t journalism

It is Belton’s mixing and mashing of media and platforms – very 21st century for such an avowedly traditional journalist – as he takes in broadcasters, papers, Twitter, Facebook , Wikipedia, and Youtube, that makes his point so hard to pin down.

The Fox News image is a joke. The Guardian’s Cowen tape and ITV’s IRA documentary were inadvertent foul-ups. The 50-cent commenters of China and Wikipedia editors of Capitol Hill are engaged in politics less filthy than the past (remember ‘ratfucking‘?). The  RTE-bashing over the Sean Gallagher debate continues the Indo’s delusion that a false tweet lost him the presidential election rather than his floundering inability to decisively rebut its fabricated content on the night.

So what is Belton’s point? If it were simply “do not believe everything you read online”, well, duh. However, he concludes:

Quality journalism, employing social media like Dorian’s portrait to preserve the likeness of vitality, is too quick to abandon its fact-checking traditions.

That sounds depressingly like a newspaperman putting his own trade on a pedestal of probity (despite every print journalist you ever met knowing someone who has massaged a quote, fudged a statistic, or concealed one of their screw-ups). Belton is in good company – John Fleming had a go at Twitter a couple of weeks ago on Hugh Linehan’s Irish Times blog, John Waters has borne the internet curmudgeon’s cross for the Irish Daily Mail (they don’t put his columns online, funnily enough), and Eamon Delaney maintains, terrifyingly, that we should regulate what has become a “cacophony of noise, but at the lowest common denominator”. Conor Brady and Alan Crosbie have both supported calls for State support of the press, which would just bring regulation by another route.

Time for some whataboutery

Donald Segretti faked a letter to discredit one of Nixon’s political rivals. Newspapers followed it up, yet nobody denounced the postal service as a network used by liars. The Sunday Times agreed to print the “grotesquely … fake” Hitler diaries, yet the writing and serialisation of memoirs remains inexplicably legal. If a newsroom takes an anonymous call that contains libellous information, we do not blame the telephone network. If a lobby journalist misinterprets a hand-written note from one minister to another, we do not call for the regulation of paper and pencil.

If a journalist prints or broadcasts material from social media networks, or wikipedia, or a message board, or email, and never bothers to check whether it is true, it is not a failure of the internet, it is a failure by the journalist.  

Flesh-and-blood sources feed bullshit and PR bumf to journalists in person and on paper every day, but they have developed tools for sniffing it out. Newspapers should be extending the use of these tools online and developing new ones when they fail, rather than indulging in this incessant hand-wringing over media their correspondents barely understand and rarely use. Complaining about the climate isn’t going to change it.

“A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar”

– this one is really by Mark Twain. *The one in the headline is by his friend, Charles Dudley Warner. I knew that, but wrote it anyway.

Don’t blame ‘the Twitter’, blame the tweeps

Friday’s events on twitter, the social networking website, have had an unexpected outcome — they might have convinced me I was wrong about something.

I recently spent a couple of hours trying to explain to my father why I thought TV3 was correct to break silence and report over Christmas that the Irish Finance Minister, Brian Lenihan, had pancreatic cancer.

He said because the report brought viewers, market share and advertising money to TV3, then their motivation in breaking the story was suspect and the family’s feelings should trump the channel’s desire to get the story out.

I gave him the journalist’s stock “public interest” defence. Ireland was in the middle of arguably
the biggest ever economic crisis to hit the country. The man tasked with fixing it may be replaced, may have to undergo treatment that affected his energy levels and judgment, he may even die.

The public deserved to know all that, I said. The station’s information was accurate and they gave the Finance Minister 48 hours to inform his family.

We agreed to disagree.

After the events of Friday afternoon, however, I am not sure I don’t disagree with him.

Twitter graduated to breaking online “the news” of a famous broadcaster’s death.

There had been no official word from his family, police, doctors or employer.

His loved ones were given no time to break the news to far-flung relatives.

But before his body had even grown cold, social networking websites Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with the so-called news. Sure, the terms were couched — “just heard unconfirmed report that…”; “still only a rumour, but…”, lots of “OMGs” and “WTFs” (twitter language for ‘Oh my God’ and what the f***?’) but it spread far and fast.

His entry on Wikipedia, an online encyclopaedia that anyone  can edit, was almost immediately amended with the date of his death.

At the same time as these “rumours” were being copied and pasted on to friends, or “re-tweeted”, a twitter argument bloomed between journalists, based mainly in Dublin and Cork, about whether newsrooms should always wait for official confirmation of a death and even if twitter was the correct forum for breaking such news.

Newspapers, of course, make mistakes. Eradicating them is impossible. But you minimise them by ensuring you have the right people (good reporters, editors and subs) in place with the right guidelines and standards. Some twitterers tried to suggest on Friday that modern, real-time social networking sites and instant publishing demand a new set of rules.

Johnny Giles is alive and well. That, tweeps, is why you wait.

Twitter gives the web a short-term memory problem … Twitter gives the Web a short-term memory problem

George Packer’s take on twitter has clearly twanged many nerves – not least Nick Bilton and David Carr. So far, so New York.

How is it that people keep finding new media in which to rehash the same old arguments?

Mr Packer manages to smoke out some real issues with what seemed like an attack on twitter but is merely a re-iteration of the old signal-noise ratio problem. Is George merely suffering from a dose of the shirkys — a dread dose of the filter failures? If so, it is a condition diagnosed two years ago – why are we still debating what he is suffering from when we know how to treat it?

Twitter is a great tool but it requires maintenance. Using a desktop app worked for a while, lists helped, but in the end there is only so much filtration that can be done.There is a base level of filtration beyond which only unsubscribing works. If that threshold is too high, then maybe twitter is not for you. Fair enough.

Reducing a tool and one’s preference for it to an us-versus-them position is a morons’ game. If Mr Packer’s reluctance is based on a genuine, informed choice, who cares if he has never signed up to twitter?

If its simplicity has been used as a way to expand its user base and its investor numbers, it seems a tad disingenuous for users to complain that a journalist must really use twitter and really understand it before they decide it’s not for them.

My sympathy is with Mr Packer on this one — and I use twitter every day, although more to read than to post. His avoidance of the tools of real-time communication does not seem to have hampered his career too much. And he has made an informed choice – why does that exercise so many twitter fans? Are they so afraid to be wrong?

Suspicions must always be raised when the loudest cry is “he doesn’t get it”. “OMFG, Packer just DOES NOT GET IT”. That way lie naked emperors and credulous crowds.

I can recall a time when bloggers, pissed off with “dressing gown in basement” put-downs, used the mental practices of journalism to define its quality rather than the tools or medium used.

A curious, questioning mind plus checking sources plus objectivity plus transparency plus right to reply = journalism (roughly). It doesn’t matter if that reaches you through the The Telegraph, the telegraph or the bush telegraph.

Once more, Twitter is just a tool. Like a pencil. Use it to write a shopping list or to write a symphony, but don’t pretend both are music.

Twitterverse getting shirty with Kirsty misses the twood for the twees

So did twitter really suffer a denial-of-service attack last night or was it just overwhelmed by massive interest from Newsnight viewer newbies?

Evan Williams, the Twitter chief executive, was interviewed by Kirsty Wark on Newsnight on Wednesday night. This post was delayed because my addled brain could not dredge up a Will Rogers quote and google was slow in forthcoming, but here it is at last:

“An ignorant person is one who doesn’t know what you have just found out.”

You would think I could have remembered that, given how many ignorant people I know. Trust a vaudevillain to put humourous wisdom in such simple words. Plus, fulfilling the most important criterion for any post-2008 pith, it amounts to fewer than 140 characters.

In a “but how will it make money?” crusade led by the Guardian, Charles Arthur, the paper’s technology editor, prefaced the headline of the interview’s transcript with “Read it and weep”. And from that objective standpoint, things went downhill: “Newsnight got the ‘first British TV interview’ with Twitter co-founder and chief executive Evan Williams. What did they ask him about? Demi Moore. Then it went downhill,” guardian/co.uk/technology wrote.

Lest I be accused of imbalance, my colleague Shane Richmond wrote ‘Is Newsnight a form of journalism?’

The truth is, I read both pieces and many tweets on the subject and did indeed almost weep. The gist seems to be that those few who are already aware of this service and care about its business model deserve priority over the unwashed masses who still get most of their news from the television and for whom all of this is still a discovery.

If James Dyson were on the show, would the host ask about the business plan for his new design of vacuum cleaner, or would she ask how it worked, what makes it different, does it suck more than previous models?

Which served the viewer better – the assumption of no previous knowledge or asking how Twitter will pay (probably a secret), a knowing wink to existing users (a bit naff) and the navel-gazing that only tech journos can muster (a bit off-putting to anyone but tech journos)?

Let he whose paper has not run rubbish Twitter celeb stories cast the first stone. Or perhaps not.

My own critique of Evan Williams? If anything, Mr Williams looked underprepared for basic questions that most of us have already heard answered online. That is not much of an excuse for not having his quips polished for his first British TV interview.

Maybe Mr Williams missed the wood for the trees – keep it simple is great advice, never more so than when explaining technology to the over-40s. The twitter fans, myself included, are not going to ditch it based on a deer-caught-in-the-headlines interview such as Wednesday’s. But the lacklustre defence of admittedly obvious attack questions is not going to encourage many over-40 newbies to try it out.

Maybe he was lulled into a false sense of security by the twitter faithful? Maybe he (like many of the twitter-obsessed) was expecting Miss Wark to have read the TechCrunch-leaked documents and grill him on Twitter’s business plan and the service’s scalability?

Scalability? What in the name of god is that, I can hear my mother ask. But if Demi Moore is on it … i might give it a look.

Can we chalk the @ev #newsnight debacle down to another MSM misunderstanding? Well, no. Expectations are too high if they demand that Miss Wark ask Mr Williams in-depth questions that assume an intimate knowledge of his product. She does not run a tech blog – she hosts a general news show. Cue basic questions assuming no previous knowledge – on behalf of the viewer, not necessarily of Miss Wark.

Do I know what YouTube is? Yes, but every time it crops up in copy, I will try to add “the video-sharing website” because I cannot smugly assume that everyone shares my earth-shattering knowledge of the internets.

Quintillian wrote: “We should not write so that it is possible for [the reader] to understand us, but so that it is impossible for him to misunderstand us”.

That I have repeated the quote as by Harold Evans shows what I know, but those of us with the benefit of hyperlinks, near-instant feedback and, let’s face it, a much younger audience, would do well to remember those words.

After all, gents, the questions were nowhere near as offensive as a BBC presenter showing too much leg.