FCW Forum | Social media

Trust, but verify, Web 2.0 sources

Twitter, Facebook users can break news or spread lies

Have you ever thought about who controls popular applications such as Facebook and Twitter that facilitate informal social networking and information sharing? They belong to private companies, and the government does not always have contracts with them to govern their use of information. Their software resides outside of the government. Informal communications among government employees, or between these employees and contractors or ordinary citizens, can have many benefits. But there are also pitfalls, particularly for those relatively new to the culture of social technologies.

Inauthenticity is a huge concern in the Web 2.0 universe. To be sure, news of events such as natural disasters and celebrity deaths is often broken on Twitter before news organizations have it because people in proximity to the event share the information immediately. However, because services such as this largely depend on trusted social interactions over time and because of the obsession with exciting-sounding breaking news, false information can easily spread.

Most recently, after a spate of genuine celebrity deaths, rumors circulated online and even briefly on TV that actor Jeff Goldblum had also passed away. It was untrue. In a peak of Web 2.0 humor, satirist Stephen Colbert announced that he learned of Goldblum’s death from Twitter sources in New Zealand — where Goldblum allegedly fell off the roof of a building — only to have Goldblum himself appear on stage disputing that he was deceased. An argument ensued.

For the government, the falsely reported death of Goldblum was of no concern. But what happens when intelligence or law enforcement organizations are monitoring real-time online conversation streams and see potentially false information about a natural disaster, terrorist attack or other dramatic event? Between learning the unvetted information and confirming it, what actions should be taken? What if the information is from seemingly authentic persons from areas where we have no resources?

Mainstream media often doesn’t help. In the rush to publicize, news organizations sometimes run recent video from YouTube or bursts of Twitter chatter to get the break on a story in a strategy of asking for forgiveness later if the information was wrong. And unfortunately, because Web 2.0 companies want to maximize the number of users, sharing and page views, they take little responsibility for the inauthenticity of information. Rumors drive potential profits, and the more salacious the better.

At the Public Democracy Forum in New York, Facebook’s Randi Zuckerberg was asked about authenticity of profiles of politicians from the United States and other countries. Essentially, her answer was that although well-known U.S. people are verified, Facebook profiles for people such as Iranian opposition leader Hossein Mousavi were often not. Inconsistently, Zuckerberg also said that more than half of Facebook’s users were outside the United States. And with an increasing number of high-profile people using Twitter, including the Iraqi deputy prime minister, that company is going through similar growing pains.

The lesson is that not everything is as it seems in the Web 2.0 information-sharing environment. Often, the early information will be correct, and some sources will be more trusted by the community than others. But in an open system that depends on trust, there can be advantages to cheating. Being aware that it happens is the first step to guarding against it affecting the government’s work in a negative way.

About the Author

Mark Drapeau is director of public-sector social engagement at Microsoft. 

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Reader comments

Sat, Jul 18, 2009 transatlanticnomad Berlin

Very plausible, but I'm curious: How do you go about verifying?

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