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Race to be first hurts facts on social media

Guest Columnist

Published: Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Updated: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 01:02

Social media bashing is old hat at this point.

As a small subgenre of op-ed, it's halfway between the late Andy Rooney's cranky musings on youth culture and the untenable insistence that President Obama is a secret Muslim socialist on the "OK, we get that you don't get it" scale of social criticism.

Despite the disdain these misinformed cynics invite with their misgivings, there is a valid argument to be made that social media has features that promote irresponsibility.

Take Twitter, a prime source for the spread of misinformation online. Some of that misinformation is wholly trivial, like the recent casual mix-up of singer-songwriters Pete Seeger and Bob Seger. Within a few hours of Pete Seeger's passing in late January, users were tweeting their love of Bob Seger's "Night Moves" – I prefer "Turn the Page," personally – and wishing the very much alive musician a peaceful eternal slumber.

The Seeger-Seger goof was not an isolated example of lazy retweeting, but one of many examples of Twitter acting as the world's largest game of telephone.

Widespread misreporting of deaths and hoaxes perpetrated to that end have affected several notable people. The death of Morgan Freeman was widely retweeted in 2010, the result of a hoax attributing the news to a tweet @CNN never actually made.

Hackers caused quite a stir when they took over @foxnewspolitics in 2011 to report the assassination of Obama while wishing @joebiden good luck in his new job. Bill Cosby appeared on CNN in 2012 to dispel Twitter rumors that he had died and plead the originator of the hoax to consider the devastating effect the joke had on his loved ones.

Perhaps the impetuous mobs of Twitter should be forgiven for their hasty tweets, despite the personal grief they may have caused, but what about traditional media giants like CNN, whose breaking news feed is the most subscribed news-centric feed on Twitter?

In the race to be wrong on Twitter first, CNN is an Olympic gold medalist. Journalistic prudence has been turned on its head by the insatiable demand for content, and "Get it out the door quickly and correct it later," has become the standard.

CNN certainly took that standard and ran with it, jumping the gun in 2012 to report on Twitter that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died within minutes of the assassination attempt she ultimately survived. CNN also led its Twitter coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing with an unverified death count, among other notable online gaffs.

The knee-jerk reaction is to claim that traditional media outlets should be held to a higher standard than the unruly social media masses, but the inescapable truth is that they are a part of the same fray. We, the users, including the person punching the keys at CNN, shoulder responsibility for the mishaps and misreporting. For better or worse – and I say better – social media has made the audience an arm of the media, but we degrade it when we retweet or repost without research, and our obsessive consumption is the driving force behind the imprudent and damaging speed-reporting method adopted by news organizations for the web.

Twitter is a tool, as is Facebook, Reddit, or any other social media site you may hang your hat on. We've been given access to these tools as part of a technological and cultural revolution, and we'll largely build our future using them. It's in our best interest to use these tools responsibly and to quash the irresponsible use of them quickly and mercilessly.

Make CNN earn its title as largest news feed on Twitter by subscribing to more responsible feeds with reporters willing to wait the extra minute to make sure they get it right. And, for the love of all that is good and pure in the world, make sure Cosby is actually dead next time.

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