Responding to Morozov on Twitter's "Power to Misinform"

By Timothy M. O'Brien
April 26, 2009 | Comments: 4

Morozov writes a missive on Foreign Policy attacking Twitter as facilitating unnecessary global panic about the Swine Flu. He writes:

First of all, I should point out from the very outset that anyone trying to make sense of how Twitter's "global brain" has reacted to the prospect of the swine flu pandemic is likely to get disappointed. The "swine flu" meme has so far [sic] that misinformed and panicking people armed with a platform to broadcast their fears are likely to produce only more fear, misinformation and panic.

Thus, Unlike basic internet search - which has been already been nicely used by Google to track emerging flu epidemics - Twitter seems to have introduced too much noise into the process: as opposed to search requests which are generally motivated only by a desire to learn more about a given subject, too many Twitter conversations about swine flu seem to be motivated by desires to fit in, do what one's friends do (i.e. tweet about it) or simply gain more popularity.

His argument can be summarized as: "Twitter, everybody on Twitter is just an attention whore, and there are too many crazy people on Twitter. Plus, hasn't Google already done this."

The Noble Search vs. The Attention-grabbing Tweet

In the brief excerpt above, Morozov points to Google basing Flu Trends off of search. To Morozov, Tweets are social noise while searches are "motiviated by a desire to learn more" and data from search has been "nicely used" to track emerging flu epidemics. Interesting language, what I think he's trying to get at is that Google searches are purely utilitarian and the data derived from them is more reliable where Tweets are affected by social concerns that might skew the data. This is an interesting thesis, and, if proven correct, would discount the utility of services like Technorati which generate metrics from social media.

Clearly, there is little scientific about generating a Twist graph. I'm much more interested in the differences between using Twitter as a research tool for pandemics than Google. Google has done something similar, but on a very proprietary platform. Flu Trends will disseminate some data the service uses, but, go ahead, and try asking Google for the raw search data behind the Flu Trends service. The difference between Twitter and Google, and the reason why people find it so fascinating to use this as a trend analysis tool is that it is marginally more "open" than Google. While Twitter is still a proprietary platform, there are hundreds of third-party services designed to interact with Twitter APIs and there are services such as Twist which can mine the entirety of the data set. What makes Twitter an interesting platform for analysis of an emerging story is the immediacy and openness of the platform.

Morozov's Generalization: Twitter == Attention

Morozov's generalization that all Twitterers are just trying to "fit in" seems disingenuous, but this is a common idea among those that have yet to adopt the tool or new adopters who haven't realized how to apply the appropriate filters to the mechanism to make any sense out of a population of friends, co-workers, and followers. It can be an overwhelming technology especially if you fall into the trap of following everyone who follows you. Doing this will lead you to believe that Twitter is a population of SEO experts and "personal branding" specialists (another way of saying Twitter is a den of attention whores). Once you've used the technology long enough to realize that you don't want or need to follow the world, you'll start to gain value. Twitter yields the greatest value when you've "tuned" your own following list; in all other cases, it appears to be the playground of salesmen, marketing specialists, and social media experts.

While it is certainly true that there are people on Twitter who value nothing more than the number of followers they can assemble. The vast majority of Twitter users connect to those they know or those that they are interested in. To generalize as Morozov has done is to devalue the platform: anyone twittering about Swine Flu must just be interested in gaining more followers. His use of outlier tweets is an example of the "Proof by Example" fallacy.

Should something as "Trivial" as Twitter be Trusted

Clearly, there is nothing scientific about tracking trends in Twitter, but to discount the value of these metrics based on the eight wacko Tweets he uses as an example of hysteria is a mistake. I could just as easily find eight blogs that broadcast paranoid, "New World Order" propaganda or several printed newsletters that contain references to long discredited paranoia about UFOs and aliens. Does the presence of "outliers" on a communications medium discredit the medium itself? Not at all.

Morozov's characterization also reminds of the way most academics continue to question that validity of Wikipedia as a source of information. Wikipedia provides an unquestionable value to millions of people every day. It is not always accurate, and, as such, it should be quartantined from rigorous academic writing. In the same way, one can only hope that the Director of the CDC is looking at more than a simple Twist graph and religiously refreshing her Twitterholic profile. (I'm sure she isn't.)

Wikipedia and Twitter are not authoritative as such, but does this mean that we turn off the servers and shun both services as valuable tools? Yes, Twitter has the power to "misinform", but to grant the Platform these "Powers of Misinformation", you have to assume that everyone using it is a simpleton just waiting to be tricked by the next conspiracy theorist that creates a Twitter account.

I would argue that the data suggests that Email - a communications platform that is now decades old is the most effective tool of misinformation much more so than Twitter could ever hope to be. Many of the people in America who continue to believe that Obama is a secret Terrorist plant who refuses to take the oath of office on a Bible learned this information from a chain letter. Email's ability to misinformation is directly related to the closed nature of the communications mechanism. A group of conspiracy theorists can send email to one another create a closed echo chamber of insanity. At least on Twitter, the insanity is laid bare for all to see.

And (of course) watch out for Twitter Terrorists...

Toward the end of Morozov's piece you'll start to get a sense that you are watching another episode Hannity and Friends on FOX News. "Well, what happens when the terrorists show up on Twitter and whip us up into a panic." He brings up the Estonian event as an example of where text messages were used to whip up a small percentage of texting conspiracy theorists into a frenzy that tied up traffic, an assertion, like many other in the excessive number of summaries of the Estonian event which have not been backed up by rigorous analysis. What about terrorists sending email or creating fake Facebook accounts? What happens when "The Terrorists" release a secret, cloaked "Terrorist iPhone Application"? I just knew someone would eventually bring up the most popular Red Herring argument of the last decade.

Simple Communication

There is an important question to be raised. Twitter is now irreversibly a part of the Government's critical public health infrastructure. There is certainly a danger that it will be misused, but I think Morozov overplayed fear in his article. Most people are not in a state of panic on Twitter, they are simply communicating. A percentage of those accounts are robots, another percentage of those people are shameless marketing folks, but the majority are simply tweeting what they think and feel. The only difference is the platform. All of the issues Morozov raise in Foreign Policy, have been raised about other platforms in the last few years.


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4 Comments

I really like this article. If we were to extrapolate out Morozov's arguments then let's argue that the Internet is a tool for misinformation. Tools are tools, no more than that.

I sent a tweet that contained incorrect information about the status of Swine Flu in New Zealand. My tweet was a word-for-word quote from a respected, traditional news media source. The same misinformation has been reported on and quoted in other traditional media sources. Even Google results showed that Swine Flu had spread to New Zealand - something which is yet to be confirmed by laboratory tests.

In any developing news situation there is a risk of people reaching conclusions that have yet to be conclusively proven. People on Twitter are no more immune to that (or less careless of this) than people anywhere - including those working in traditional media.

You make several good points. One would assume that the 'ease' and popularity of Twitter would inspire enhanced solutions for vertical applications such as emergency & crisis communications rather than fear. However, the breakdown of traditional media and 'source credibility' ranking creates a legitimate debate, particularly as it pertains to noise-to-signal ratio and homeland security issues - obviously Twitter is an astounding noise source. As accurately noted there are dozens of emerging, 3rd party filtering apps/services out there but assuming that anything other than the lowest common denominator is what reaches the general public would be a mistake. Many of us out there are trying to find solutions to this challenge, conscious of the potential that Twitter represents, but also of its limitations. http://wradr.com/news/

I sent a tweet that contained incorrect information about the status of Swine Flu in New Zealand. My tweet was a word-for-word quote from a respected, traditional news media source. The same misinformation has been reported on and quoted in other traditional media sources. Even Google results showed that Swine Flu had spread to New Zealand - something which is yet to be confirmed by laboratory tests.

In any developing news situation there is a risk of people reaching conclusions that have yet to be conclusively proven. People on Twitter are no more immune to that (or less careless of this) than people anywhere - including those working in traditional media.

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