Culture Twitter — Theresa Sauter, 22 March 2013
An honest mistake: how to recover from a mistweet

In a previous blog post, I discussed the re-awakening of the @pontifex Twitter account, which had been sede vacante after Pope Benedict XVI stepped down and a new Pope had not yet been elected. Only minutes after Jorge Mario Bergolio stepped out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to present himself as the new Pope Francis, the first tweet from the papal account was sent: HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM. The reactions to the tweet were steep and immediate. Some were fast to proclaim that the new Pope was tweeting under the account @JMBergolio and used this personal Facebook page. However, these accounts turned out to be fakes. This aspect about the reaction on Twitter to the new Pope’s first tweet opens up a broader debate about the race to inform and the issue of how to deal with the communication of misinformation on Twitter.

Shortly after the new Pope was announced, Zeynep Tufekci (@techsoc), a widely followed (12,961 followers at the time) social media researcher, announced that Jorge Mario Bergolio used the personal Twitter account @JMBergolio, the same false account mentioned in the article cited above.

Here is the original, mistaken tweet:

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The account was outed as a fake within minutes by several of Tufekci’s followers. See some of the reactions here:

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Tufekci, as well as the New York Times blog The Lede (@the lede), corrected the mistake by posting new tweets. Here Tufekci’s reaction to what happened:

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One of Tufekci’s correctors raised the issue that good journalism needs to “verify the source” before it publishes (Michelangelo Nottolo, @fefanto), and this brings me to point number one I want to make about this incident: newsworthy occurrences heighten people’s demand for information. The media, and increasingly the citizen journalists among us, feel a demand and desire to be the first to provide this information and announce updates in situations that transcend routine reporting practices. Split-second decisions are made about what to publish and thorough research is sometimes neglected. Inaccurate information is brought into circulation. Now, this is not necessarily something new or peculiar to Twitter; when extraordinary things happen, people want up-to-date information about them as quickly as possible and journalists working with traditional news media have misquoted sources and misinformed the public in the past. Yet the likelihood of misinformation being communicated, and the speed at which this misinformation travels, are heightened with the immense number of people who use new media tools like Twitter. While social media are increasingly enrolled as useful tools for disaster management, false information can also go viral in times of heightened activity, as in this example from Hurricane Sandy.

However, an expanded community of users producing and consuming information, like that existing on the Twitterverse, also means that misinformation is more quickly detected and outed. This is my second point: on Twitter, expertise is easily asserted by the citizen journalist but also easily questioned by her followers.

I want a feature’

5Finally, Tufekci’s mis-tweet raised a discussion about how to manage this kind of occurrence on Twitter, i.e. how best to correct a false tweet, beyond simply creating a new one with the correct information and an acknowledgment of the falsity of the previous one. Tufekci’s false tweet was retweeted 37 times (within 46 minutes), whereas the correction was only retweeted once (within 39 minutes). Tufekci did not want to ‘delete my tweet – as if to hide my error’. She bravely acknowledged that ‘honest mistakes happen’ and contemplated the best way of rectifying her error. She called for a feature on Twitter that provides a way of reaching those who are reading (and re-tweeting) the false tweet with updated information. The feature should mark the erroneous tweet as ‘retracted’ or ‘corrected’ to make visible to anyone who sees it that it provides false information and has been corrected. Furthermore, she proposed that the feature should reach out to all of those who retweeted the erroneous tweet and inform them of the correction. I would say, Tufekci is onto something… You can check out her own account of the occurrences on her blog.

Tufekci argues that ‘newspapers can append corrections to articles’. In this way, she likens Twitter to traditional media outlets and demands the same options for handling the communication of news. Yet a Twitter correct feature like that envisioned by Tufekci would actually extend the possibilities of correction that newspapers have currently.

When a newspaper publishes a correction to an article in a previous edition, it has no guarantee that those who took in the false information will also read the notice that alerts them to its incorrectness. A direct message, automatically distributed to all those who retweeted a false tweet, would ensure that at least these readers are informed of the mistake. Of course, that still leaves those who read but did not retweet the mistweet in the dark, as well as those who retweeted the retweet of the mistweet… I’ll stop there before it gets too complicated, but as I said, I think the @JMBergolio mishap on Tufekci’s Twitter and the feature she calls for certainly should be something Twitter developers should consider.

About the Author

Theresa Sauter

Dr Theresa Sauter is a Research Associate in the ARC Centre for Excellence in Creative Industries & Innovation, based at Queensland University of Technology. Her research interests include the use of social media as tools for self-formation, digital sociology and practices of governing.

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(1) Reader Comment

  1. I support Tufekci in her request for an Oops key. I agree that rather than delete or retract a tweet , a tweet trail to facilitate the erroneous twitterage be available. Ineke McLean