Rumormongering / by Dan Weingrod

I helped spread a rumor. One that was proved false, and one that says a lot about the influence of social media on news and journalism.

In my case I was flicking through the #sandy coverage and landed on CNN just as they reported that the New York Stock Exchange floor was under 3 feet of water.  At which point they tried to get a comment from their financial reporter, who was in 3 feet of water in Atlantic City, things got ridiculous and I flicked away, but not until I tweeted out my contribution.

Within a few hours, of course, the story was proved wrong. Turns out that it was part of a series of tweets coming from a twitter troll/user named @comfortablysmug. He was the source of the underwater stock exchange tweet, and an number of other scurrilous rumors, which was retweeted 600 times, eventually made it to the Weather Channel who retweeted it, which is where CNN picked it up and vaulted it into the mainstream.

My tweet was also retweeted a couple of times, which gave me some social satisfaction, but I didn’t find out that it was false until the next day.  So the question came up: Was I wrong? Should I have waited, issued a correction? Walked it back with my followers? In the end I ignored it; at least I had attributed it to CNN, let them take the heat. But it made me think more about how this situation is changing the way we are dealing with the effect social media has on newsgathering and the question of how we deal with rumor and fact.

#Sandy was a watershed for social rumormongering. The combination of a mass event that simultaneously focused millions of eyeballs and fingers and the growing symbiotic relationship between personal media and mass media proved irresistible for anyone wanting to put their own spin on events. Consider what happened on Instagram. #sandy brought on an unprecedented profusion of artful, believable, and frankly ridiculous Photoshop hoaxes. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal did some remarkable live coverage of this here, and later pointed out that we still don’t fully understand what its like to experience a fast moving event through the internet:

“With old media still largely moribund and no impending changes in the information ecosystem at the major social networks, the only current systematic answer is the laissez-faire one: over time, people will learn who to trust and who not to trust based on what they post. The people who "provide value" will win. “

I’m not sure about that last part, at least in the short term. As I was writing this I saw this tweet quoting Kevin Systrom that #sandy was Instagram’s biggest moment.

While Systrom based his assessment on the staggering number #sandy hashtagged images, I wonder if another indication of the scale of this “moment” was the the level of instatrolling of events that, up to now, we've been used to seeing on twitter. In a way, you wonder if it’s a sign of a platform’s maturity when hoaxers, in jest or seriousness, know that they have the power to spread their hoaxes.

The larger question is what does this mean for the future of news and information? For me, aside from the issue of attribution, addressed by Maria Popova’s sensible but somewhat clunky Curators Code, one possible solution may have to be a change in our mindset and definition of news as fleeting, changeable and fungible content.  When you have millions of correspondents and publishers viewing the same event and discussing it on multiple platforms the definition of information is bound to change and be affected by how you are curating it. It’s become a sort of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle approach to consuming information.

It’s also why some new news organizations are beginning to adapt to this streamlike approach to newsgathering and publication. Quartz, a new publication by The Atlantic Magazine, has jumped into the fray by not only creating a look and feel that is appropriate for mobile, but by also reorganizing its editorial structure around rapidly changeable topic areas that they call “obsessions”. You can also see this new approach at the ITV News site developed by madebymany. Using a mobile, stream friendly structure the site highlights the live stream of news stories, while simultaneously allowing readers to drill down as the story changes and evolves. In both of these examples, what is coming into focus is that news content needs to be delivered in a way that accept sa certain transitory nature around journalistic truth. That what you see now may be different in a few hours when additional points of view will be added.

But the best example I have seen of this came not from a journalistic institution, but from one of the new breed of citizen journalists that we are all, in a way, becoming.  Last July as the rumors of the awful movie theater shootings in Aurora began to circulate 18-year-old Morgan Jones curated a live feed of social media posts, police radio announcements and news coverage on Reddit. There was much to admire about Jones’ initiative, gumption and desire to get the story out on social media. But along with the task of simply getting the story out there he also displayed an innate understanding of the shifting shape, arc and ultimate changeability of social news through the simple use of strike-throughs.

“I don’t delete things and replace them with something else,” you told NPR’s “All Things Tech.” “I do a strike-through and put what [latest information] I have below it so it gives people an idea of how it’s changing, so it’s transparent.”

For me strike-throughs have always been about a kind of hipsterish fashion, style irony. In this context they have become a signal for a new way of consuming content, rumors and all.