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Deliver us from Twitter…

Sick of Twitter yet? Can’t say I blame you. In a week where Oprah took to the medium (and promptly got smacked down by Shaquille O’Neal, an old hand at the 140-character medium), where Aston Kutcher promised bednets for Africans if the Twitterverse would just show their love for him (and picked a fight with Africans who think the practice of donating bednets is unwise and destructive to local economies), it’s easy to understand why one might want to encounter the world through another medium. So let me point you to one of the best things on radio… and yet more conversations about Twitter.

Twitter, and the benefits of real-time feedback

I’m on On The Media this week, WNYC’s must-hear media criticism show, talking with Bob Garfield about Twitter in Moldova. We cover most of the same ground I covered in my second post on the topic, but with fewer histograms, excel spreadsheets and, well, data. Perhaps that’s a good thing. At the very least, it’s good to be talking about Moldova, and nice to have a Twitter story that’s not focused on American celebrities. (I’m not sure this interview is my finest hour, but OTM really is one of the very best things on the radio, and is absolutely required listening if you’re interested in the media and intelligent critiques thereof.)

My friends at TechPresident have a lovely Twitter story as well. Nancy Scola points to a blogpost on DailyKos about a wonderful experiment with Twitter disinformation by “Bamos”. Bamos created a Twitter account named “InTheStimulus”, and tweeted outrageous (and utterly fabricated) items in the stimulus bill. The feed included gems like:

# $473,000 to Fueled by Ramen, record label for such bands as Fall Out Boy.
# $4 million for Obama bobbleheads.
# $104,000 to exhume President Taft.
# $465 million for massive air conditioners to combat global warming.

And finally,
# $855,000 for the gambling debts Laura Bush incurred on diplomatic trips between 2004-2008.

His posts were widely retweeted and amplified by angry conservatives, almost none of whom questioned the accuracy of the information – indeed, he reports that many thanked him for the service he was providing. (Reviewing the retweets, it looks like he got a bit more obvious near the end, pricing absurd items at $88 million and inviting people to call bullshit on him.)

His conclusions from the experiment:

First, conservative activists are crazy and gullible. But second, be careful of what you read and believe on Twitter. I think some of the leeway granted to InTheStimulus is based on the soundbite nature of the site; people can get away with no citations, which is less likely than with a conventional blog. And be careful, because if I could do InTheStimulus, a conservative could do a Twitter feed tricking us.

Interesting. As I’m looking into the Moldova protests more closely, it’s clear that one of the interesting storylines is the use of the #pman tag for disinformation as well as for reporting on events on the ground. Jon Pincus notes that a hashtag is an open channel – in the same way that the #skittles tag, promoted by the company as a form of viral marketing ended up being used for NSFW posts, it’s hardly surprising that #pman would attrack trolls and disinformation.

On the other hand, participatory tools may be particularly effective at debunking this form of disinformation. Here’s a comment on one of my Moldova blogposts, from Twitter user Gabriel Radic:

I did a little experiment on the day of the events. These were posted at a couple of minutes interval…

– Following the uprising in Moldova, on Twitter #pman
– The .md uprising seems big on Twitter. I wonder how much is propaganda. Next 2 tweets are fake!!! It’s bate for the media, ignore them.
– Russia’s 4th army tanks, based in Tiraspol, are moving towards Chisinau. #Moldova #pman
– Moldavian navy choppers “engaged to restore order in the capital”. Pictures coming soon. #moldova #pman
– Ok, just seconds later my tweets are being RT-ed. The ball is rolling like a headless chicken.
– RT @Ceziceu: @gr stupid fake twitts. no army and navy in #Moldova. #pman
– I take back what I said. Twitter as news does work. My troll/experiment was quickly uncovered. Happy.

Anecdotes don’t equal data, of course. I’m looking forward to looking closely at how Romanian-speaking users challenged disinformation in the #pman feed, and how long it took for good and bad information to spread.

One last Twitter note, before a weekend of interacting with the world in a less mediated fashion. I’ve been enjoying the opportunity to post shorter links via Twitter than I generally post on this blog. But I’m starting to bump into the inherent limits of the medium. During Kutcherfest, several friends pointed to this article by TMS Ruge, a fierce critique of celebrity aid to Africa, with a special focus on Kutcher’s promise to donate mosquito nets.

I retweeted the post as follows: “CNN versus Aston Kutcher – not just stupid, but bad for Africa: http://bit.ly/pwziW (via @whiteafrican @afromusing)” That was my attempt to summarize the article, offer the link and credit the folks who’d pointed me to it, all in 140 characters. Unsurprisingly, people assumed that was my take on the situation, not my summary of Ruge’s take, and several folks took me to task, asking me whether this was inconsistent with my complaints this week about Dambisa Moyo’s new book.

I don’t know what I think about donating mosquito nets… not that I haven’t thought about it, but because it’s really, really complicated. I think that nets are more effective as part of a multi-part strategy, preferably one that includes spraying houses with DDT, draining standing water and providing anti-malarials where necessary. I agree that models that produce nets locally (as Jacqueline Novogratz’s projects do) are superior to programs that bring nets in from other countries. The success of social marketing campaigns to sell condoms at affordable prices suggests, to me, that selling nets for a low cost is a bright idea. And I worry that providing nets in fishing communities can have nasty, unintended consequences, as fishermen start seining their streams and ponds.

In other words, it’s complicated. Way, way too complicated to address in 140 characters. I was thrilled to see friends like Katrin Verclas engage with the article in the comments thread, and hope that people made it beyond the headline, to the blog post and to the comments beneath it. The point I tried to make in my interview with Bob Garfield is that these media don’t always make much sense in isolation, but they’re very powerful in combination. Blogs are a good space for argument. Twitter’s a great way to push people to those conversations, but not a good space to hash these things out.

I find myself engaged in an extremely goodhearted disagreement with Evgeny Morozov, now on the topic of whether social media technology is inherently progressive, or whether it’s equally useful for progressive and repressive movements. And while I’m looking forward to hashing through these ideas on my blog and on his, I’m really looking forward to having lunch with him on Tuesday – sometimes face to face is the best Twitter alternative of all.

8 thoughts on “Deliver us from Twitter…”

  1. listened to On the Media – all very insightful and reasonable, as always. however, saying that the youth involved in the protests were somehow left-leaning is probably misleading (strictly, speaking they were fighting the communists :-). I am pretty sure that most of them were actually right-of-center; so I don’t know why you stressed the youth “on the left” in the podcast

  2. Fair point, Evgeny. Was making a bad in-power = conservative equation that probably reflects my view the last eight years of US politics rather than reality on the ground in Moldova. Then again, there’s been a lot of debate about whether the Moldovan communists are actually leftists, or more pro-Russian conservatives. But you’re right that it shouldn’t have been a major emphasis for me.

  3. Thanks for documenting all this.

    Just yesterday, I was giving a talk at Columbia Business School on a meeting about User-Generated Content and decided to bring up the example of the Facebook/low grades phenomenon. I should put up a blog post about that like you wrote this down so that it could be documented. Too many fleeting moments in all this and too easy to forget drawing lessons from them…

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  6. Ethan, what is it that bothers you so much about Twitter? Is it that very uncontrollable social movements occur on it which technologists and experts cannot control and influence the way they can blogs and RSS feeds?

    It’s curious, in this “let’s debunk Twitter” article, you didn’t mention #amazonfail even once. That really surprises me. #amazonfail is an example of Twitter gone absolutely rabidly wild. It is really handily debunked by sources you should respect like Wired and Techcrunch. There really was no plot to block gay books on amazon. Yet perhaps you are ambivalent about talking about this as a #twitterfail because it is a progressive cause, that used twitter to do something progressive, and if it messed up as badly as you say Moldova messed up, then that must say something is wrong with progressive movements, eh?

    See, that’s the dynamic you are setting up. Twitter is bad when used by anti-communist movements who are terribly discredited (so you say) but anybody else using them for progressive causes is ok even when they mess up! Surely you don’t mean to imply that!

    Your exegesis of #pman here suffers from one very gigantic problem: you are examining only the English language tweets. There are numerous #pman’s in Romanian, as there are blogs, Facebook posts, and emails — I don’t read Romanian, but that simply has to be part of the study so I hope you will find a way to factor that in.

    I don’t see at all that if #pman contains some misinformation or deliberate disinformation on it that it would discredit this movement. All social movements are uneven and turbulent and filled with chaos, and all kinds of things happen in them, with manipulations all around. I don’t think it takes away from the basic narrative here: young people used Twitter and other social media tools to oppose a communist-rigged election.

    Well, Ethan, now you have company, from the American Enterprise Instituite:

  7. Re: “I don’t know what I think about donating mosquito nets…”

    I totally agree with you about this. There’s a technologists’ fetish now lately with Africa, instigated primarily by high-profile figures like Jeffrey Sachs, that all you need to do is plunk down *things* or “technological solutions” like “X number malaria nets with DDT” or “one laptop per child” and you will have solved lots of problems. But of course this is totally simplistic and completely patronizing in ways we haven’t patronized developing countries since the days of missionaries! It’s merely a new kind of missionary zeal.

    There’s the problem first of all that if this Twittering aplusk takes his 10,000 nets — who will deliver them? How? What is the capacity to absorb this sudden largess from the Twittering masses? The infrastructure may be overloaded. All best practices from humanitarian groups and the UN indicate that you never flood a humanitarian zone with *stuff* that might be hard to deliver or secure or will get stolen or broken when you have no *capacity* for really getting it to people. Money is always a better thing to be sending, and using local resources and supporting locals in business or in the marketplace to respond to a disaster is always better.

    I agree that not only water programs are needed but another key thing: medical personnel, and their salaries. I’d rather the Twitterers pay money into a group like MSF or UNICEF who have the expertise to deliver help skilfully in the way it is needed.

  8. Catherine, we’re starting a study at Berkman on the #amazonfail data. I haven’t looked at any of the data we’ve retrieved, so I was reluctant to offer any interpretations – I also wrote this post as the twitter storm was very much in full flight and we were still retrieving data. I’m not planning on being the lead researcher on the Amazonfail data, but will certainly share whatever gets discovered here.

    I agree entirely that an English-only analysis of #pman tweets would be a disaster. Part of the next steps in any research on the data set – getting beyond the quantitative to the qualitative – involves working closely with Moldovan partners. Fortunately, several folks have offered their help in working through that data.

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