The network effect of bad information

The case for waiting


There’s a seemingly irresistible need to be second. People want to be the first to take something they’ve found and move it across a wider network. Most of the time they’re not bothering to check into what they’re sharing.

What’s truly frightening is that this bad information does not usually originate on places like Twitter, which is usually where the blame is pointed.

Twitter isn’t the problem. You are.

The problem comes from people, the worst offenders being people ostensibly working as journalists, that share reports they haven’t followed up on, and they need to tell you about it right! now!

Several recent examples come from the coverage of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

This report from the state press agency of the People’s Republic of China is entirely false, and was shared at least over 300 times.
The managing editor of Yahoo News’ Southeast Asia bureau shared this inaccurate report, shared over 400 times.
Buzzfeed’s deputy News Director shared this completely false report sourced from the people who brought us “Kim Jong-un feeds enemies to his dogs” Correction: (3/11): Kim-Jong-un story came from Straits Times, not “New” Straits Times, more telephone game! http://mothership.sg/2014/01/straits-times-celebrated-senior-reporter-foul-north-korean-execution-dogs-story/ (h/t @michaelroston)

These are just three examples of people taking information from outside Twitter, people who present themselves as journalists, and use their network effect to spread bad information, rather than wait and do more investigating into the source of the information. Better yet, simply use some common sense to realize the information is dubious at best.

This isn’t even reporting, this is second hand sharing of information, it’s the telephone game. The excuse for this type of reporting is “well, we sourced it to xyz” as if it’s ok to share information you didn’t bother to follow up on, shrug and say “they said it, not me” when it’s knocked down.

The idea of “process reporting” is that you show what you’re seeing and you fix things as you go along. It’s a terribly messy, chaotic and not altogether useful way to inform your readers. It makes readers less likely to rely on you and just adds more noise to the whole process.

Few people have a perfect track record, I’ve fallen into the same trap as the people above. I’m no better, I just want to be open and honest about this type of “reporting.” When I’ve made this same mistake in an attempt to be “second,” I’ve usually followed up with a correction and I immediately feel terrible for not waiting and trying to follow up to confirm what I’ve seen, read or heard.

It would be disingenuous and hypocritical to say I haven’t done what others have, but I’m committed to avoiding the approach I’ve described.

What I can say is this: simply attributing bad information doesn’t absolve you from passing along bad information. I’ll never use that excuse if I’ve made that mistake.

Postscript: Jon Passantino, deputy news director at Buzzfeed said I misinterpreted his tweet:

https://twitter.com/passantino/status/442794039645986816

He also points out the “Kim Jong-un feeds his enemies to his dogs” story came from Straits Times, not “New Straits Times”