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Posted by on Sep 3, 2010 in Politics, Science & Technology | 0 comments

When Political Tweets Go Bad

Updated: Think about this for a moment: you tweet something you genuinely think is the truth, and then you discover that you made it up. In effect, it was a lie.

What would you do?

This is not an academic question: the odds that one day each of us will tweet something that is less than 100 percent true are pretty high. How might you effect a correction?

I’m about to outline what you should not do, with Michael Durwin (@mdurwin) standing in as the poster child.

Who Is He?
His Twitter bio: online marketing genius turned web2.0 entrepreneur and idea guy. Digital Dad, analog husband.

What Happened?
About 11 am Pacific (based on Twitter’s timestamps), Durwin tweeted:
mdurwin sarah palin tweet

About an hour later, @NRDCNews retweeted but included a caveat: “untrue?” Durwin replied:
durwin palin tweet

The NRDCNews reply says it all:
durwin nrdcnews

The tweet was irresistible to the two Yankees (Boston and New York). There’s a world of stereotypes wrapped up in that statement.

Durwin’s url does not link to the alleged tweet: it goes to CNN’s “This Just In” page. The NRDCNews folks simply cut the link from the retweet.

From here, the retweets snowballed, so that by the time I stumbled on this — while searching for news about the explosion — Durwin had been retweeted more than 400 times. For someone with less than 4,000 followers, that’s phenomenal.

durwin palin search

And the tweet was a lie.

What Really Happened?
Three more hours go by before someone else challenges the veracity of the tweet. Durwin said he “saw it for a second just before I cliked Login on Twitter’s home page.” (His browser doesn’t keep him logged in? It doesn’t auto-complete his profile URL? He sees the Twitter home page? I never see the home page.)

He goes on: “Might have been one of the 100 Palin accounts.”

So, he saw something for a second — then typed it from memory and suggested it was a direct quote (he included half of the quotation marks)?

Would he advise a client to do something like this?

Another hour and Durwin switches fully into deflection and finger-pointing:
durwin palin
durwin palin
durwin palin

What’s missing is any acknowledgment that he was told that the account which sent the tweet was a parody account:
durwin palin

Rather than post a correction at this point, Durwin says, in effect, that he doesn’t care that he is spreading a lie:
durwin palin

Not your job?!?

Not your job to verify something before you tweet it?!? And here I thought that raising awareness of the need to verify before retweeting was what we need to improve Twitter’s credibility. I simply took it for granted that professionals would not knowingly Tweet misinformation.

So to have someone who is a self-professed social media expert say it’s not his job to verify before attributing a quote to someone … I can’t wrap my head around this. It was this deflection of personal responsibility that led me to write this post. Well, that and the fact that five hours later he was still replying as though he knew nothing about the spoof Sarah Palin account — “She has a history of posting and deleting” — even though he had just acknowledged that 10 people had told him about the spoof.

Oh, there are two lies in the original tweet. One is that the quote is from Sarah Palin. The other is that it has been deleted:

durwin sarrahpalinu5a

What Would You Do?
Returning to my opening question, what would you do? Would you own up to your mistake? If so, how?

Update – 12:05:
As Howard Rheingold noted in a tweet to me, I only tangentially touched on this point: “unthinkingly repeating a rumor can be as destructive as making up a lie.” In prior writing, I think I’ve made it pretty clear (see this from January) that I think it is the poster’s responsibility to verify before tweeting.

As @MDurwin notes in a comment below, I failed to explicitly answer the opening question in this essay. I hinted at my answer — Would you own up to your mistake? — but I didn’t make it explicit. So now I am doing so: yes, you should own up to your mistake, which is usually done best by posting a corrected or updated tweet.

Last year (2009) at Gnomedex several of us tweeted a quote from a speaker on stage because it was ….irresistible. (Reminder: if it sounds too good – or bad – to be true, it’s probably false.) Fortunately, one person at Gnomedex had his bulls***t meter on and said, “whoa!” I then tried replying to people who had ReTweeted the erroneous stat. One-at-a-time:

@kirste 9-yo stat is false. Average age homeless in US is NOT 9 yo. NYT: #gnomedex ^kegill

It was laborious, and I kept worrying that Twitter would think I was spamming, since I was sending the same message over-and-over.

The response I got, in the main, was not unlike Durwin’s triology above: it doesn’t matter if the stat is false, what’s important is that a there are a lot of homeless children in America and we need to let people know that, no matter how. I think this is not the best way to persuade or win an argument, but I’m feeling more and more like I am a (vocal) minority on this point. Do the ends truly justify the means?

Finally, I think the other reason that this particular exchange set my teeth on edge — or made my head explode — was because it reflects a public sphere gone horribly horribly wrong. I’m teaching a digital democracy class this fall, so public sphere is very top of mind.

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