Yesterday, I read Dan Lohrmann's, "Fake Tweets: can you trust them for emergency communications". It reminded me of a conversation that Andy Carvin and myself had back in 2007, around the time when my interest was waning on the Alert Retrieval Cache (ARC) - a humanitarian precursor to Twitter I was involved in.
My main sticking point with Twitter at the time was that because it is an open forum, the way people get their signal from the noise is through tags. I've written about some of the trouble with tagging, but in the context of Twitter there is a larger issue: space. You have enough space for a short message, but to get to your audience - since not everyone is watching your tweets with bated breath 24/7 - you have to tag things, and in tagging things you end up with less space to spread your message within a tweet. In fact, as they say in Trinidad and Tobago, you can easily end up in a situation where 'the candle costs more than the funeral'. As Andy pointed out in his resultant blog entry:
Anyway, I know tools like Twitter weren’t designed for saving lives. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t if they had a few more features and were put to use properly. -andy
It actually wouldn't be too hard for Twitter to shove tags into it's metadata, but they closed down access to their metadata some time ago.
But wait, there's more.
In the context of emergency communication - above all else - there is a need for trusted sources - something Dan highlights in his post. In the ARC, this was one of the big problems that had to be solved by human mediators - establishing in an emergency, with no prior communication, which people communicating with ARC were trusted sources. The advantage of ARC in this regard is that people who were untrusted sources could be pulled from the network. Meanwhile on Twitter, being an untrusted source only means the too easily trusting have their intelligence abused, as The New York Times shows.
The first step in any such situation on an open forum like Twitter should be verification, but on Twitter, retweets (RTs) and rephrasing of the same thing can make verification possible. Further, responding to the offending tweets makes them popular, and that in turn makes them more likely to be seen as they begin to trend. Things easily get out of control.
On closed forums - controlled forums - people have trusted sources already, sometimes directly, or sometimes through companies such as Emergency Communications Network (where I work, but again, these are my opinions and not those of ECN). People need trusted sources during times of emergency and random people on Twitter are not as likely to be trusted sources as the particular agency responsible for their areas. Direct texting allows for messages to be sent directly to people who are impacted, whereas Twitter requires staring at a feed. Of course, these days, the same sources also tweet, but they also directly call or contact people. Why? Because it's important. Because fake tweets happen.
Because trust is the basis for any network, and random people on Twitter aren't as trustworthy as people would apparently like to think.