Twitter breaking the news – again

Three times in the last 24 hours, I’ve learned about the big stories first through Twitter. And when I’ve gone in search for confirmation on the story from a mainstream website, it hasn’t been there for another 10-15 minutes. It seems Twitter’s changing the pace of online news.

The first story was about Steve Jobs stepping down as Apple CEO for leave of absence. Such a story immediately cried out for a pinch of salt as there have been plenty of false stories like this in the past six months, some by hoaxers looking to make a quick buck on the stock market and others accidentally triggered by reputable news services like Bloomberg mispublishing. The Steve Jobs story this week was ‘broken’ on the Twitter stream of Mashable within 6 minutes of the story going to Apple employees, and quickly went around everyone on Twitter: the problem being, how do you know such a story is true and not just the echo chamber of everyone repeating an incorrect rumour or hoax? Well, it turns out that Twitter – or at least the people I follow – are pretty good at distinguishing fact from fiction and are discerning folk, and while there was a healthy trace of scepticism from everyone until the official word got through, it was equally clear that something was happening and on the whole people were trusting it and digging out supporting evidence as it emerged. In short, Twitter behaved like the best top-skilled and hyper-fast professional newsroom you could hope for.

The second story was the early leak of the UK Government’s decision to green light a third runway at Heathrow. Here, there was little doubt about the credibility of the story – the BBC broke it on their website – and the role of Twitter was to spread the word. I wasn’t checking news sites at the time and the official news alerts didn’t go out for some time, but Twitter was abuzz with howls of dismay and protest at the decision within minutes and so it was hard not to notice the story on my Twitterific app that runs in the background on my desktop as I work. Who needs alert emails and RSS feeds when it’s going to land on your desktop in seconds though your Twitter contacts?

And then today there was the story of the US Airways plane that crashed into the Hudson River in late afternoon EST. Twitter was blazingly fast on this one, not least because the jet couldn’t have picked a more public place to have to ditch. Again, I found instant Twitter messages cascading into my app window and there was no doubt about this one: too many unrelated people were coming up with too many different angles and accounts. It was the journalistic gold standard, not just story confirmation but confirmation times a hundred. Twitter even managed to get the first photo of the plane online, thanks to a user on a ferry in the Hudson that was co-opted to pick up survivors, who took the photo with his iPhone and uploaded it as he sent his Twitter post – and was subsequently interviewed on the major news channels including BBC News for his troubles. Robert Scoble calculated that there were initially “about two tweets every 10 seconds coming in. Within minutes that went up to 200 to 400 Tweets every few seconds.”

Once again I turned to the BBC and CNN websites for more coverage – only to find none for almost half an hour. The best information continued to be from Twitter, with a special mention for BNO News which has been consistently fast – and reliably accurate – in bringing breaking news stories to the Twitterverse for some months now. The story developed with incoming Tweets describing how the passengers escaped on the wing and waited on the sinking plane until rescue craft came to take them off; you could even find a website that showed the aborted flightpath of the jet before it ditched in the Hudson. But fortunately it was a happy outcome: despite some injuries, it seems everyone has survived, a quite remarkable escape for all concerned – and proof that those stupid floatation devices on planes really can and do work when they need to. And also proof that airline pilots can be and are genuine heroes.

The Guardian and Silicon Alley Insider both have stories on the Twitter coverage, showing how Twitter seems like crowd sourcing at its best. Even BBC staff seem to be using Twitter for news, with their technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones describing Twitter as “like a very fast, but not entirely reliable news agency.” But we’d better enjoy these admiring reports on Twitter from the mainstream media while they last, because the traditional media playbook dictates that now they’ve set Twitter up on high, it’s surely about time to tear it down again. A big false alarm story will be next; maybe a flash meme about an assassination attempt on Barack Obama will spread like wildfire and be used by traditional outlets to show how unreliable and gullible Twitterers are. Or failing that, the old Daily Mail play – how Twitter is a breeding ground for paedophiles grooming kids, or maybe that it’s an evil den of sin where the terrorists are all meeting and plotting.

Oh, no, wait – the US Army already tried that last one, didn’t they?


  1. I have very quickly become convinced of the value of Twitter. I had an account for a long time before ‘getting it’, but once I did there was no looking back.

    Just a few weeks ago, if I heard of something I would go to the BBC News website and if nothing was on there Sky, since they seem to have a lower verification standard. Now, it’s a case of whipping out the phone and checking trends.

    As more people beyond social media early adopters start using Twitter it is going to start totally changing the news game – this could be the tool that makes citizen journalism a real competitor for the big boys.

  2. andrewlewin

    I agree, James – certainly the plane crash (and last year’s Mumbai terror attacks, actually) were classic examples of citizen journalism.

    I know some people argue that the news is too disorganised and error-prone at times like this, but I think Twitter coverage of such events (a) gives you a truer sense of what it’s actually like to be there – including the panic and confusion, not the sanitised network news packages; and (b) you also know that this IS only ordinary people, it doesn’t come with that BBC/Sky/CNN “badge of assurance” that can make something “fact” in people’s minds whatever the actual truth of the matter. It’s history as it happens, and hence subject to revision, and not the definitive end-of-year review.

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