A Faraday shield to separate rumour from information

I was going to lead with a sentence on how Twitter is not quite a credible news wire, after the Boston bombing suspect rumour went almost viral. Then came the revelation of the hacking of the Twitter account of Associated Press. The hacking of @AP was followed by a nasty tweet about an explosion in the White House and that President Barack Obama was injured. Mercifully, the damage was reportedly contained in seconds, with both the White House and the Associated Press, through the personal handles of its correspondents — in hindsight, a potent Plan B for news organisations — denying the outrageous rumour. But the damage was done. And the egregious compromise of security settings will hopefully make the head honchos at Twitter Inc look at hemming in new safeguards.

The micro-blogging Goliath may have its antidote to deceptively similar handles with its own ‘Verified’ tick mark (there is incidentally a ‘Verified Accounts’ handle with more than eight lakh followers, including the Prime Minister of India) but clearly it’s not easy for anyone to conjure up a ‘Patriot for a Scud missile’ sort of shield against sick minds. What about gullible minds? You may have a disclaimer — ‘Retweets are not endorsements’, but how many tweeple bat an eyelid before adding grist to the rumour mills? Retweeting without pausing to think if the news may be false or alarmist is now so common. Imagine the horror and the trauma the family of Sunil Tripathi would have undergone. What was the young man’s fault? Did people hear what they wanted to hear? Sample this disgruntled but pertinent tweet “The suspect has to be dark skinned. No white person knows how to use a pressure cooker.” Gushing about the power of ‘crowd sourcing’, as in the Boston bombing and the consequent flow of information is one thing, and application of mind, to distinguish ‘rumour’ from ‘information’, quite another. The pressure cooker may be no longer “stainless” but when rumours explode like bombs, it’s high time the social media sat up, did some serious introspection and devised its very own ‘Faraday Shield’ (remember the climax in Viswaroopam?) against fuelling mischief and wild imagination. For once, it isn’t about free speech. It’s about being circumspect over what is disseminated through retweets. Because it can affect anyone — from a common man to the American President.

Much has been made out about how the social media is a threat to the mainstream media. To a large extent, I do believe its speed is almost unbeatable. But the real test of any form of media is to get it right, not first. This is precisely where the average Joe out there on Twitter or Facebook is not entirely equipped to handle sensitive information. As an American writer once quipped: “Journalism is literature in a hurry”. The cardinal principle of checking and cross-checking is part of a seasoned journalist’s drill. The social media has no drill, just the thrill of having the power at your finger tips to tell the world what you heard — no matter where.

Away from the serious introspection, what’s the Twitter version of ‘She sells sea shells on the sea shore’? Here’s an offering from the ‘Mark Twain of Twitter’ @madversity — a one stop handle for wit: “Twitter greeter is a twitter quitter cos twitter turned bitter”. Try it. It just might be a better bet to kill time than retweeting.

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