What a fake AP Tweet Teaches Us

David Cohn
Apr 24, 2013 · 3 min read

There was a moment of panic in every newsroom around the country today. The Associated Press, which needs no introduction, Tweeted that a bomb went off at the White House and President Obama was injured.

My heart sank. In Circa’s never-ending editorial chatroom I immediately told one editor to get writing but not to publish anything until we get more info. I told a second editor to start researching. The second editor and I quickly circled the wagons. We both agreed, this had to be a hoax.

Nobody else was reporting anything.

No news orgs.

No individuals.


Upon closer reflection: The Tweet itself broke AP style, starting the Tweet with “Breaking:” instead of “BREAKING:”

But the damage was already done.

The Tweet spread panic. Some news organizations and journalists RT’d it instantly. The market went into a frenzy that was quickly recovered once facts filled the scene.

Here’s the thing: The Associated Press was not “at fault” here of anything other than being victims of a phishing attack. Does that give them a free ride, no. They should obviously have better cyber-security. But they certainly had no intention of passing along false information nor did they do anything that would have caused misinformation to spread. They had no control.

More interesting than @ap getting hacked are the news orgs/journalists that RTd in the moments before the information was revealed as hoax. They weren’t hacked. They spread the information simply on blind faith. Therein lies a lesson.

Individuals on Twitter get a bit of pass. Their professional job is not in the flow of information. If my mother saw that Tweet and hit the RT button or helped spread the information, you could accuse her of not being the most savvy of readers, but you couldn’t accuse her of journalistic sin. That accusation has no context for her.

But one of the first things we learn in journalism is “if your mom tells you she loves you - check it out.” Without trying to mix too many metaphors, anyone who works in news/information that blindly passed along the AP’s hoax tweet is more guilty of journalistic sin than the AP itself. The AP, in this instance, is guilty of poor security measures. Nothing more.

Adding “via AP” or any other modifier doesn’t displace the action. And this isn’t a SMALL thing to take on blind faith. I’d be the last person to say I double-verify everything I pass along on Twitter. Some things I do place on trust in the sender. But this was about the leader of the free world being hurt in a bombing at our country’s capital. It’s the kind of thing you want to be right about - even if it means you are minutes behind the rest of the world RTing.

There is a lesson here: For Dan Gillmor it’s about “slow news”

We are the guardians of last resort, but we should move up that priority. We absolutely have to get it into our heads that we can trust nothing at first glance. Nothing. But we have to use judgment – checking other sources and, especially, waiting for some verification from other credible sources. The torrent of misinformation after the Boston bombings testified to the need for this more robust method.

I don’t want to put blame on any specific journalists or organizations who, in the last week, have had various errors either around this AP tweet or erroneous information around the Boston bombing. But as an industry we are coming up against a problem.

We have the unstoppable force of news organizations that want to be first and want as much attention as possible, especially in times of breaking news. On the other hand we also have the immovable object of technology platforms like Twitter that will inevitably be where news breaks and where people flock to get information, especially when there is breaking news.

What happens next time as the unstoppable force and the immovable object collide. I don’t know. How that circle gets squared - I am not sure. But something has to give or else as a society the moments we want to get the most accurate information will also be the moments we see “tension” between news organizations and technology platforms.

I. M. H. O.

The Editorial Page

    David Cohn

    Written by

    Senior Director at Advance Publications innovation group. Twitter: @digidave or http://blog.digidave.org Do what I can to help. Also, I love you.

    I. M. H. O.

    The Editorial Page

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