Riot? Fire? 8 Rapid Twitter authenticity checks in chaotic times
Talking with casual and non-Twitter users about recent riots around England I’ve noted a common theme… people didn’t know what to trust on Twitter, or felt information on it in general can’t be trusted. In contrast as a regular Twitter user my feeling was the opposite. I knew I could get news, information and commentary, quicker, and more reliably, than from mainstream broadcast media – which by its nature selectively reports and co-operates with black-outs requested by authorities.
I live in Enfield, a London borough which particularly suffered on the second night of the troubles. The information I attained from individuals on Twitter, most of them strangers, was essential in knowing where danger hotspots were, which shops were closing and what the local response was. As I watched in disbelief as multiple gangs turned up and parked cars on my road ready to join in, Twitter provided continual contextual commentary about this sudden descent and also gave me the confidence to know I could quickly share anything of major significance with my followers – and anyone else following the #Enfield hashtag.
This is just one of many reasons I very much hope knee-jerk responses to more heavily regulate social media will fade away – for, from a nod and wink to a global broadcast, the medium is not the message, we should not shoot the messenger, but consider the message. After all, all sorts turn to social media as an alternative source of information sharing.
Anyway. While we are still free to use it, how can we determine authenticity on Twitter, quickly, in chaotic times? When we see an interesting tweet – how do we know if it can be believed? Here are some checks I use on tweets and tweeters, and I haven’t been caught out (yet)…
- Cross-check – who else is saying it?
- Following already / reciprocal relationship?
- Follower numbers, follower to following ratio, listed?
- Verified account?
- Professional journalist?
- Location – where do they seem to be?
- Recent tweets?
- Bio and website link?
1. Cross-check – who else is saying it?
Simply, are others tweeting similar information? If it’s just one tweet, or the same tweet re-tweeted several times, try and dig further. Ask the tweeter for more information using an @reply or ask your followers if anyone can verify, using relevant hashtag (s) so there is a chance others outside your Twitter network will see it and respond.
2. Following already / reciprocal relationship?
Is the person who has just tweeted someone you are already following? If so, you have already, at some point, thought they were trustworthy on some level. This point shows the value of using twitter over time, following and conversing with people. If they are following you too – all the better. This also means you can take extra steps to verify information with them in private via Twitter direct messages. You can tell people are following you back on Twitter if a little black envelope appears on their profile (as illustrated above).
3. Follower numbers, follower to following ratio, listed?
If you don’t know the source of a tweet already, see how popular the tweeter is. Bear in mind that some people use tools to boost up their followers by rapid following and unfollowing. But a quick measure is to see if someone has a very high number of followers compared to following. This shows a lot of people are interested in what they have to say – even without them engaging back.
4. Verified account?
Twitter verified accounts are only available to well known users who have applied to Twitter directly (although they are no longer accepting public applications). This is Twitter’s stamp of authenticity and is indicated by a white tick in a blue circular badge (as above).
5. Professional journalist?
Jounalists are likely to be professionally culpable, in some way, for their tweets, and thus stating they are a journalist for mainstream media is a measure of reliability. You could reasonably assume, for example, that they are unlikely to be lying about where they are.
But just because they’re a journalist, doesn’t mean they’re always right. They may have misheard or got information from a dubious source themselves. Cross-check all information with other people on the ground on Twitter where possible and remember that the same tweet being paraphrased and re-tweeted does not count as multiple sources.
6. Location – where do they seem to be?
Look at where the person states their location to be on their Twitter profile, and also at recent tweets. E.g. if they’re tweeting about Enfield were they mentioning that place before current events kicked off? If they had been complaining about missing a film in Enfield Cineworld a few days before, for example, this is an indicator they really are a local. Or if they are having a discussion with another local, referring to local landmarks this adds to the likelihood they can be reasonably thought to be on the scene. They may also be sharing photos. If you know the area check that these pictures are what they are claimed to be… clicking on Twitpic and yfrog links is safe as these are third party platforms that simply allow the uploading and sharing of pictures to Twitter.
7. Recent tweets?
Check other tweets the person has sent recently. Is the account used professionally? Is the person sharing interesting information and original tweets? Are they being re-tweeted? Are they having civil conversations with others using @replies? It’s important to check recent tweets if you are re-tweeting someone for the first time or referring to them as a credible source. Recently someone tweeting against the London riots set up a very successful Facebook page and rose quickly to prominence in the media… but was subsequently revealed to be tweeting racist material. But this didn’t stop the page being mentioned by David Cameron – who had clearly not done this level of homework. Checking recent tweets may also help alert you to the fact that the person is often sarcastic and the tweet that caught your eye is actually a joke.
8. Bio and website link?
Be wary of clicking on any links on tweets or in profiles until you have ran through some of the above authenticity checks (particularly if they are using a shortened URL – which you would not normally expect on a Twitter bio). But once you are fairly certain of someone and like the look of their profile – check the link they give, if there is one. If this is to an established blog or company, this is another measure that helps prove someone is who they claim to be, and is therefore likely to be tweeting truthfully.
Note: Try and use several of the above checks – but don’t discount what someone is saying if they don’t tick every single box. For example, @HackneyAbbott is a well known UK Labour MP who has previously ran as party leader, and made such well received comments during the tensions that she trended on Twitter for several hours – however her (very genuine) account is not verified.