How Twitter Can Stop Its Descent Into a Cable-News-Style Disinformation Network

It's Time to Make Sense of Those Disinformational Memes

By Published on .

Simon Dumenco
Simon Dumenco

Here's the ongoing problem with Twitter: It wants your love and respect, even as it wastes your time and insults your intelligence.

Before I explain, let me first state that I actually have a lot of love for Twitter and plenty of respect for its management team. Over the past several years, Twitter has undeniably transformed media and pop culture, and it's given me new personal connections and endless fodder for the trend-tracking columns I do twice a week at It has, in many ways, become the pulse of pop-culture -- and when something terrible happens in the world, like the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, it can serve as a gathering place for expressing compassion and sharing grief.

But because I'm so immersed in the Twittersphere, I get an almost toxic level of exposure to Twitter at its worst. Basically, Twitter at its worst throws random bits of information in its users' faces with great velocity and insistence, but absolutely no context, causing no end of confusion and consternation.

Case in point: The recent Jackie Chan death hoax, in which the phrase "RIP Jackie Chan" appeared for days on Twitter's Trending Topics list -- a list which, Twitter tells us, shows topics that are surging on Twitter, as opposed to topics that are continuously popular. Some duped Twitter users initially expressed sadness over the action-flick actor's untimely demise, but debunkers also immediately chimed in, along with bandwagon-hopping spammers (who included "RIP Jackie Chan" in their tweets to get people to click on links), retweeters of the debunkers -- and then, most annoyingly, people expressing their annoyance that "RIP Jackie Chan" would not stop trending.

Of course, celebrity death hoaxes have been popping up since the earliest days of the internet (and pre-internet), but Twitter's presentation of a context-free Trending Topics list has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing disinformation. Because every time someone tweeted to debunk "RIP Jackie Chan," it added momentum to the idiotic meme, thus prolonging its life. Keep in mind that thousands upon thousands of people are having these kinds of infuriatingly circular conversations on Twitter for every given disinformational meme.

On a more insidious level, in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, "Godzilla" was a recurring trending topic. As I reported on, many Godzilla tweets and retweets were related to the Twittersphere scolding CNN anchor Rosemary Church, who supposedly made a Godzilla joke. Of course, one surefire way to fuel a meme on Twitter is to stoke people's outrage, but the problem (as I noted in my column) was that there wasn't any actual evidence to be found of the alleged offense -- and in the TiVo/DVR age, there's always a smoking gun if someone says something stupid on television.

I quoted a (rare) Twitter user who expressed doubt: "Anyone know if a CNN anchor made a Godzilla joke while showing pictures of people running for their lives? Or was that just Twittersteria?" Colby Hall, the managing editor of the blog Mediaite, later contacted me through Twitter to see if I'd been able to find any links to the supposed offending footage (I hadn't). He then posted a follow-up, in which he noted that "Mediaite's crack research team has looked into all of the possible times that Church could have made a monster-movie reference, or making light of the disaster unfolding, and we put together three clips that appear to exonerate Church for the blame she received online." (The apparent genesis of the meme: An eyewitness on CNN did say "these waves of debris, it is almost like a monster movie," but there was no levity associated with that very real expression of shock.)

Nonetheless, I can guarantee you that there are people out there who were "informed" by Twitter that a CNN anchor made a Godzilla joke about the tragedy in Japan, and they're clinging to that disinformation to this day. That's because there's nothing intrinsic to Twitter's interface and presentation that directs users to the truth. In other words, at its worst, Twitter is like the dregs of the cable-news talk shows: a deranged Bizarro world where half-truths and outright lies are breathlessly given momentum.

Sadly, this is not a new problem. I'm thinking back to an interview I did with Scott Case, the CEO of the nonprofit Malaria No More, which had benefited greatly from a Twitter-based fundraising campaign. As it happened, our conversation took place in the wake of the swine-flu scare on Twitter -- the first big moment when people realized tweets could spread panic and disinformation as easily as they could disseminate legitimate news. Case and I agreed that, while it wouldn't be helpful to tamper with or censor the Trending Topics list, Twitter could and should highlight the best sources of information during crises. As Case put it, "Look at what Google has done in the past, look at what Amazon has done in the past. During Hurricane Katrina, or the tsunami, or 9/11, where media in general have used their power to point people in a better direction…. I do think highlighting things like the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] stream are perfect examples of how to use that power for good."

That interview was published almost two damn years ago.

Today, Twitter users continue to cry out for clarity and solid information -- but Twitter turns them away. Some of them turn to What the Trend. WTT, with which has an editorial partnership (for our Friday trend-tracking charticles), makes sense of Twitter memes using, well, humans. A Wikipedia-style community defines trends, and thanks to up-voting and down-voting, the best trend definitions rise to the top and the lamest ones sink.

Last week when "#withoutshoes" was surging on Twitter, plenty of people tweeted their confusion (e.g., "LOL how the hell did this become a trending topic?") and amusement ("#withoutshoes you can take your pants off easier"). While Twitter's site search does prioritize heavily retweeted tweets, those are often just the wittiest posts, or the snarkiest comments from widely-followed celebrities. But on WTT you could learn that "One Day Without Shoes is an annual day of awareness where people go barefoot so kids don't have to. Hosted by @TOMSshoes (With every pair you purchase, TOMS will give a pair of new shoes to a child in need. One for One)."

Wouldn't it be great if Twitter itself made a point of telling you that sort of thing upfront?

It's a mystery to me why Twitter hasn't just tried to outright buy What the Trend (or rip off its system), because without trend definitions, Twitter culture is often completely baffling. But I suspect that Twitter's apparent reluctance to add an editorial framework -- like simple guideposts that would direct users to the most reliable sources of information -- has a lot to do with Twitter management's Stockholm Syndrome relationship with technology. As technologists who are always investing more and more in bigger and better technology (largely in a mad drive to stave off "Fail Whale" system outages), they believe that technology will ultimately save the day.

Only, sometimes it can't.

But you know what? Maybe there's hope. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey has just returned to the company, retaking the reigns of product development, and at The Economist's recent Ideas Economy conference in Berkeley, he had some very reasonable things to say: "Technology's greatest challenge is that it has made it very easy to send information to the world, but it's still a challenge to figure out what the most relevant information is." And "algorithms can't solve everything. You use them to bubble up the best data and then let humans add a narrative to it."

So, yes, let's do that, shall we?

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.
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