On April 9, 2013 the following twitter hashtag #nowthatcherisdead made its rounds through social media. It was intended to reference the death of Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of England. However, some people fell victim to misinterpretation. They incorrectly assumed it conveyed the message “now that Cher is dead.” Needless to say, there was no correlation between the deceased leader and the living singer/activist.
A similar incident occurred following the death of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il. In 2011, twitter was abuzz with reports that “Lil Kim is dead.” Due his diminutive stature, the tyrant was sometimes condescendingly referred to a “Little Kim.” But many people mistakenly assumed it was a reference to Lil Kim, the female rapper.
Twitter has a 140 character limit that governs its short message service. It’s a unique social medium because it seemingly promotes the usage of ad hoc abbreviations, urban slang and often a disregard for proper punctuation.
Consider the following scenario. A famous celebrity is attending a game at a newly built stadium. He/she has a massive twitter following and sends out the following tweet.
“This stadium is da bomb!”
In this case, “da bomb” would likely denote luxury and excessive amenities, not an incendiary device.
“Did you see that bomb?”
In the second case, a “bomb” is a reference to a 50+ yard touchdown throw.
Although unlikely, in the age of twitter there’s always the looming prospect for potential confusion. In theory, these real-time hypotheticals could have severe ramifications.
The stadium is being evacuated.
The stadium is being evacuated?
Note how a single question mark can alter the inflection, interpretation and potentially a course of behavior/action. The first statement is declarative. The second statement encourages one to ask the question why.
Through electronic messaging, particularly in the twittersphere, brief snippets of information can grow exponentially. It’s as simple as hitting a retweet button. Notions of censorship and content filters are a mere afterthought.
High profile information can be distributed faster than televised breaking news. In the 2012 Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal, details outlining each count of the verdict were made available via twitter nearly 2 minutes before anything was reported by the major networks. The Penn State independent student-run blog, Onwardstate, correctly reported the entire verdict: 45 out of 48 guilty counts. Every cable news outlet was on site and had tremendous resources at their disposal, but it appears as though Twitter beat them to the punch.
Society has witnessed an increasing trend in the inaccurate reporting of breaking news (Gore wins the presidency, Obamacare overturned by the Supreme Court, Congresswomen Gabby Giffords is dead, etc.). Perhaps, in an effort to obtain more factual information, we should take a fresh look at the all-encompassing manner in which society acquires and delivers breaking news. And another question must be asked. Do Twitter and other social messaging sites conform to established levels of journalistic standards and procedures? At the very least, these issues require closer scrutiny.