Please Stop Retweeting Without Verifying

by @edent | # | 1 comment | Read ~765 times.

If you've been on Twitter for any length of time, you'll have seen dozens of plaintive requests like this.

Original Lost Card

The same happens with missing people, lost dogs, and urgent political causes. Yes, it can be a little annoying to see the same thing again and again - but it's all for a good cause, right?

Hmmm... I'm not so sure. The act of retweeting something important is often called "boosting the signal." In this case, the "signal" is the worthy cause, the "noise" is the trivial information everyone else is posting.

Well, ok, I can deal with a little interruption to my day. And, hey, in this case all that retweeting worked!

Owners found

I first saw the retweet about a week after the owners had been found. The original tweet just kept being retweeted. All those clicktavists failed to do the most cursory check. All it would have taken was to click on the original tweet, scroll through the user's timeline, and see there was no need to waste anyone's time.

Eventually, it seems, the original poster had the good sense to delete the tweet - sending it and the original image down the memory-hole. Problem sorted.

Erroneous Retweet

*sigh*

So now we have...

  • Entirely the wrong continent! Waterloo, London and Waterloo, Ontario are 3,600 miles apart.
  • Extremely out of date information.
  • Dozens of people amplifying noise, rather than signal.
  • Some poor family having their photos splashed about over the Internet without their consent.

But all that retweeting adds awareness, right?

We are, to quote Terry Pratchett pan narrans - The Storytelling Chimpanzee. We love chattering to each other, making up stories, and teaching cautionary morality tales.

We also have a very strange attitude to risk. The canonical example is this...

Imagine that you're part of a small, prehistoric tribe. A hunter comes back and says "there are crocodiles in the river!" Naturally, you run and tell everyone! There is serious danger to you and your tribe. It is a huge evolutionary advantage to raise the alarm.

The next day the hunter comes back and says "There are some beautiful flowers growing up that hill." Do you tell anyone the good news? No. It confers no special advantage, you're not removing them from danger. How will it help to know something like that?

It's exactly what we see with the first two tweet. Hundreds of people pile on to share the "bad" news - they want to raise the alarm. Barely 0.5% of that number retweet the "good" news.

There are some interesting academic studies about this - some of which pre-date the invention of Twitter - and it ties in with our cultural perception of risk.

Our perception is that the risks of passing along incorrect information is low. Much better to hear bad news and be prepared - than to live in ignorance. Even if that ignorance is factually correct!

This is false. Passing along "bad news" without checking its accuracy has an overall detrimental affect.

  • Each false report uses up space which could be used for an accurate one.
  • People become desensitised - the "boy who cried wolf" effect.
  • The usefulness of the channel is reduced - why go on Twitter if it is just endless bogus pleas for help?
  • You risk looking like an idiot.
  • Most importantly, it will annoy me.

Look at it this way. It takes only a minute of your time to verify if a tweet asking for help is genuine. That minute of your time will save time for your followers, and their followers, and so on.

Please! Before you hit the retweet button, check your sources!

As Churchill Mark Twain Sarah Palin Stephen Fry said "A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth has logged in to Twitter."

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