The world looked on with dismay on the 19th April as what should have been a wholesome, family friendly, feel good event was turned on its head with the Boston Marathon bombings. At the centre of the breaking of this news story stood the mouthpiece for Joe Public, Twitter. When a big story breaks we no longer sit glued to our television screens for our fix – we turn to our phones and laptops for real time revelation. Rather than watch a suited and booted news reporter digest the information for us, we are turning in our droves to ‘first hand accounts’ online for a more affecting relation of events, as it happens, where it happens.
The Boston Police department headed on to Twitter to dispatch information to the public, such as @Boston_Police ‘Suspect in custody. Officers sweeping the area. Stand by for further info.’ CNN reporter Anderson Cooper even halted his live report to turn to his phone and tweet to the world that the suspected bomber was in custody, ‘#Breaking: Boston Police say marathon bombing suspect #2 is in custody. @andersoncooper reports on #CNN with more information’.
The Twitter gods appear to be enjoying their status as a news providing network. In 2009 the question asked to users for status updates changed from ‘What are you doing?’ to ‘What’s happening?’, a signal of the shift from the network as a platform for the voicing of private matters to those of public concern.
Does Twitter spell the end for good old fashioned news reporting? Can we get all the information we need in 140 character hits? The answer is, most certainly, no. Twitter has proved instrumental in the organisation of protests in recent years, its influence so profound during the 2009-10 Iranian election protests and 2011 Egyptian revolution that the respective governments blocked the service. It is also thanks to Twitter that we found out about Ryan Giggs’s naughty side, in a mark of protest by users disturbed by the impact of injunctions upon freedom of the press. Twitter can get information into the public eye that may be otherwise blocked by media channels, however there is a darker side to the ostensibly earnest hash tag.
While Twitter is able to rapidly spread information to colossal volumes of people, there are no checks and balances for insuring that the information is correct. I am by no means advocating censorship of social networks, but implore Twitter followers to tread cautiously. Twitter is primarily a medium for speculation. As well as keeping us updated concerning developments in the Boston Marathon bombing saga, Twitter also produced droves of unverified drivel. Apparently marathon runners who witnessed the bombing kept running past the finish line and straight to the hospital to do their bit to help the wounded and give blood. It was also instantly assumed by many tweeters that the bombs were an act of Muslim terrorism. However, if you believe everything that you read on the network, it was also pulled off by right wing white supremacists. Some tweeters became embroiled in a witch hunt by wrongly laying the blame at the door of missing person Sunil Tripathi, who has since tragically been found dead after a battle with depression.
Another Twitter offender, or ‘twat’ as they are more tenderly referred to, is Sally Bercow. The wife of the Commons speaker has ended up in a libel battle after she decided to use Twitter to link former Tory chairman Lord McAlpine to an allegation of child sex abuse. Her use of an innocent face smiley was no protection against accusations of slander. While journalists are trained in the defamation laws, no such instruction is given when you set up your Twitter account.
Within the confines of 140 characters, tweets can appear to be lucid and definitive. The little blue bird seems so dependable. As cute as he is, he’s not a stringent checker of facts. When put in perspective, Twitter is not a serious challenge to news broadcasting – remember the top three most popular accounts are held by Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. While one can come across gems of information there is a lot of fluff on there. Behind the comforting invisibility cloak of a computer screen everyone fancies themselves as a highly reputable social commentator/news reporter. Twitter can offer a tip off at best, but not the full package.
Published in the University of Bristol student paper, The Epigram