In the past few weeks, more often that not, I have heard about breaking news events from Twitter. Whether following the massive manhunt for the suspects of the Boston bombings, hearing the news of Thatcher’s death, or keeping up with the arguments against austerity, Twitter and other social media have played an active part in my consumption of the news. I am a news junky, I absolutely hate not knowing what’s going on in the world around me. I often really annoy people who come up to me asking ‘have you heard this…’ when I respond in the affirmative, and give them three different opinions on it that I’ve garnered from social media.
And I’m clearly not alone. Most news sources have nearly a million followers, and ‘new’ media websites such as BuzzFeed and Reddit have thousands of followers retweeting their news every day. The most retweeted tweet of 2012 was the picture of Barack and Michelle Obama when victory was announced (I did it myself). The majority of my friends tell me that they get a large amount of their breaking news from Twitter and other social media. As I write, the top hashtags in the UK are Boston, #manhunt and #bostonstrong.
But can it replace traditional news sources? I suppose you could argue that yes, it already has, as most news sources break their stories on Twitter long before even their websites catch up. The BBC regularly has links to Twitter on its ‘breaking news’ section, websites, broadcast and print media include tweets in their articles on a regular basis, and – in places where the media can’t go, or haven’t got to in time – tweets from citizens on the ground are used to make stories. In the Boston manhunt, pictures and tweets from people in the Watertown area were used by BuzzFeed, The Boston Globe and others to get a clearer picture of where the police search was heading.
I don’t, however, think Twitter can – or should – replace traditional news sources. There are any number of flaws I could point out in relying on Twitter solely as news. Firstly, it’s full of complete rubbish. Yes, there is useful stuff in there, but you have to fight through the One Direction and Bieber fans, rampant sexism and homophobic language, and fake profiles to find anything even vaguely useful. Once you do, it’s quite common that it will be purposefully made up, wrong information or irrelevant. It’s incredibly difficult to check your news sources on Twitter, whether they’re really where they say they are and really have knowledge of something.
The thing about traditional news sources is that they can offer you informed debate. Twitter cannot. In 140 characters it is impossible to get the nuances of any story quite right, and it opens up the possibility of some serious errors. CNN and Associated Press, amidst the drama of the Boston bombings, put it out that arrests had been made at a time when police didn’t even have a suspect. Throughout the manhunt on Friday, police regularly had to put out statements asking people to stop tweeting things they heard on the police scanner and stop creating false Boston Police accounts putting out wrong information – for fears of the safety of officers. Far too often, Twitter is used by people to make sick jokes about news stories rather than adding to the discourse – I think this was most obvious in the wake of the death of Lady Thatcher. And, as we all know, Twitter can be used to bully and intimidate people, with anonymity and with a distinct lack of consequence.
So no, I don’t think Twitter will replace traditional news sources and I really hope it doesn’t. For breaking news and for a snapshot of what is happening, it is a fantastic resource. For anything more, a reliance on Twitter gives a false impression of the news and can quite easily lead to misinformation and a dangerous lack of understanding. If you’re going to try and talk with knowledge about something, don’t rely on Twitter – go out and do some real reading of the news.