Signal, noise and narrative

In the middle of a natural disaster or an attack like the recent ones in London and Manchester, Twitter can be an incredible tool. Real-time information can be vital. But when that information becomes cluttered, it becomes less useful.

It’s all about the signal to noise ratio. And while we’re getting better at separating out the signal from the noise, the types of noise keep changing.

The riots

I was initially hesitant about Twitter because I thought it was just like constant Facebook status updates, rather than the constant stream of information and conversation it actually is. But when the 2011 riots kicked off, it really came into its own for the first time for me.

Living in London and, specifically, in an area of London which was the first part heavily looted, the riots were scary. They didn’t last that long, but as they spread across London and the country, information was key. Where was the violence and where were things kicking off? Where should you avoid and where might need police help?

It was the first time I could see something happening on TV and on social media at the same time. And the information that came out of twitter was so far ahead of the TV that it rendered it almost pointless. Except for the amount of false information that was doing the rounds.

There were two pieces of false information I particularly remember. One was that the Electric Ballroom nightclub had been burnt down. The other was that animals had been let loose from Regents Park Zoo.

More or less, what happened each time was that someone said something along the lines of ‘God, I hope the Ballroom/Animals at the zoo are safe’ and then someone else said ‘oh no, what have you heard?’. Someone else would then go ‘Has something happened at the Ballroom/Zoo?’ and that’d be the point where someone else would start going ‘I’m hearing rumours of something happening at…’.

This was also the point where other people started policing it. Someone in Camden went out to the ballroom and tweeted that it was fine. We started to get a handle on the information itself. The idea of not sharing bad information became useful. This is one of the reasons that people tend, during times of crisis, to ask people not to speculate — because one person’s speculation becomes another person’s rumour, becomes another’s false story.

One other thing that I noticed about twitter during this time was that, as well as information, it was useful because it made people feel less alone. Seeing other people talking about being anxious or scared was useful. Knowing you were in contact with people in your community. Knowing that, really, there were people around and things were, on some level okay.

Porte Ouverte

A few years later, when France was dealing with attacks at and around the Bataclan Theatre, we saw both a new way for Twitter to be useful during a crisis and a new way for it to get sidetracked.

The #PorteOuverte hashtag was a beautiful thing. Because the evacuation and panic left a lot of people stranded in Paris, many Parisians started using twitter to let others know that they would open their doors and let stranded people rest or stay. While so many people were frantically trying to find safety and/or let loved ones know where they were, the hashtag was a new and vital stream of information.

However, its effectiveness was briefly compromised through good intentions. It wasn’t so much false information this time. So many people were touched and moved by the gesture that they flooded the hashtag by talking positively about it. The desire to share and react to it got in the way of the tool itself.

This mostly sorted itself out, as many high profile tweeters were quick to realise the problem and ask their followers to keep the hashtag clear. To allow for good information to be signal-boosted, rather than compromised with the noise of even well-meaning discussion.

The message was fairly clear. During a crisis, let information flow and don’t crowd it with speculation or discussion. This isn’t to say don’t discuss it — your account is your own, obviously. But this is why, whenever there’s a crisis, there’s often a plea for clarity and good information.

Over the last few years, this type of event and scenario has played out so many times that it can feel numbing. People passing around advice about how to act online during the onset of a crisis has become part and parcel of the process.

But over the last few weeks, it feels like there’s a new element of commentary that’s beginning to derail the information flow.

London Bridge and Borough Market

The attacks in London were confusing at first for a number of reasons. Part of it was that it all happened so quickly — the person on the scene who talked about gunfire was very likely describing the gunfire that killed the attackers, however it meant that people were trying to find a source as to whether gunmen were attacking as well, which only increased the fear and confusion.

There was also the difficulty that London geography has so much crammed into so little space that it wasn’t clear to people outside that London Bridge and Borough Market are basically the same place. And that attacks in both were very likely the same people. Instead, it sounded like multiple coordinated attacks, especially when an incident in Vauxhall was reported as if it were linked at first.

An attack is frightening enough. Multiple coordinated attacks are even more frightening, because you have no idea if there will be more. As a result, the information coming out was fragmented, confusing and possibly misleading.

But on top of this, there was the strange situation where a number of people were criticised heavily for asking people to signal-boost good information and keep speculation out of the way. And this feels somewhat new. This time, the noise getting in the way of the signal is the argument over narrative.

The main source of criticism was about political correctness. Being asked not to speculate seemed to infuriate a lot of people, as it became interpreted as ‘you can’t say it was Muslims!”.

At the moment, this is a huge conversation. There’s a narrative that the left are prepared to sacrifice security in favour of political correctness. And as a result, there’s a lot of anger and sarcasm. “Oh, I suppose it was those extremist Buddhists” or “Don’t tell me, it was the Catholics!”.

Even ignoring the danger of jumping to conclusions (as seen with the Boston Marathon and other situations), there’s a reason that good information is a priority. Crises are, first and foremost, a local issue. And allowing those immediate conversations about information to take place uninterrupted is vital — it might help people avoid areas of danger and find safety. It also might help people worried about their loved ones know that it wasn’t the area they were in.

It’s not about censoring conversations, commentary or opinions. If there’s one thing twitter is amazing at, it’s arguments. Anyone that’s been on there for five minutes knows this.

But if there’s another thing twitter is amazing at, it’s information. But if the argument over narrative starts shouting over people asking for information to be kept clear, then that’s going to make twitter a lot less useful.

There will be time for the conversations over narrative. But during the time when an incident is live, information has to take priority.

So please, when you see people asking for speculation to be avoided, don’t assume that you’re being asked to censor yourself. Instead, you’re being asked to help.