*Disclaimer: The tragedy that struck Paris recently was a horrible, horrible thing. In no way am I trying to minimize it by writing about how it relates to Twitter, but I think it’s a topic that needs to be discussed since Twitter is such an integral method of communication.
For a lot of people, they could only watch the horror in Paris unfold late Friday night from afar, so they scrambled to Twitter to stay current in real-time via updates from their followers and various news outlets.
For better or worse, Twitter is where news breaks the fastest, but it’s often not accurate news that breaks. At least, not right away.
In our rush to make some sense of what is happening, we’re quick to re-tweet the first thing that we see, even if we haven’t taken the time to vet the information. As long as it represents what we want to say, we will share it.
One example is this picture of Parisians taking to the street after the attacks to show that they are not going to be afraid:
No doubt, this is a great example of people coming together in the face of terror, but this picture was not taken on the night of the attacks. According to a post onBuzzfeed, it was taken in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack in January.
The natural response, I think, is that this type of misinformation is harmless. It serves its purpose, which is to show that the people of Paris are brave and will not stand for senseless violence.
But it also shows how quick we are to share something that suits our needs, even if we’re not sure of the accuracy. This time it’s harmless, but when does it become more than that?
From the same article in Buzzfeed, someone re-circulated a tweet from Donald Trump that was intended to mislead us into thinking he tweeted this immediately after the attacks.
Here it is:
This tweet, like the image above, was in response to January’s attacks, not November’s. This example, though, has the potential to be more damaging. If you’re on the fence about who to vote for in 2016, for instance, something like this, that is shared inaccurately, might (unfairly) sway your decision because someone else saw that it fit their need to extend a narrative.
Whether you like Trump or not, he didn’t write this in response to this Paris attacks, so it shouldn’t sway your opinion. (Here’s what he actually wrote.) But it’s going to because nobody has time to proof their endorsements (and that is what a re-tweet is: an endorsement) when the news tweets are flying fast and furious.
After all, it’s so easy to click “re-tweet” and move on.
We often criticize news outlets for not moving fast enough to share information when tragedy strikes, but journalists have a duty to double- and triple-check their information before they share it, all while the public is breathing down their necks.
You and I have the luxury of not being held to those standards when we re-tweet something on Twitter, but maybe we should?
At the very least, we should think like a journalist. Anything we share via our Twitter accounts influences someone. We might not think our actions can be harmful, but they are, especially when compounded with the actions of others.
If you think about yourself as influential, then maybe you’ll take the time to make sure that the information you are sharing is accurate. But since most of us view Twitter as something not to be taken very seriously (except when it should be) our actions there don’t carry weight.
I think it’s important to examine how Twitter plays a role during tragedy because it’s not going away.
For as much eye-rolling as we do when the local news runs a story with a Twitter component, that’s just the world we live in now, and no amount of eye-rolling is going to change that. It’s where we go to express our opinions, share interesting content, and interact with our community.
If anything, Twitter is going to become even more ingrained in our day-to-day as more and more users flock to the service. As of September 30, that number stands at a staggering 320 million.
The problem, then, is that, the more people using Twitter, the greater the chance there is for misinformation to spread. And with that comes the inevitable articles that tell us what Twitter got wrong in the rush to make sense of it all, like we saw with the Boston bombing and Paris attacks.
I’m not sure there is anything that can be done to fix this problem, except that we need to be more vigilant when it comes to making sure that what we share is accurate.
But when events are breaking in real time, who has the time for that?
This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.