Extraordinary Tweets and the Madness of Crowds

ImageTwitter accelerates the spread old-fashioned mob thinking. Thanks to the efforts of internet skeptics, older varieties of internet noise email hoaxes seem more or less tamed. But recent blowups — from Elan Gale’s pointless Thanksgiving hoax to the more tragic terrorism accusations pointed at innocent people after the Boston marathon bombing — indicate that the skeptical culture hasn’t come to grips with the Twitter medium. With Twitter, pseudo-information spreads and evolves much faster than it can be verified or corrected, and even experienced skeptics get fooled by the noise.  

Before diving into my Twitter attack, I should admit that I don’t understand the popularity of Twitter. I have an account, but I hardly use it. On a few occasions I took a very close look — these included the night of the Tsarnaev brothers’ pursuit in Boston; perihelion for comet ISON; Elan Gale’s Thanksgiving hoax. For getting quick updates from NASA and professional astronomers, I thought Twitter was awesome. It probably has other good uses as well. Usually, though, I’m disappointed.

Twitter was never a truly new or unique technology. It’s founders described it as a way to share “a short burst of inconsequential information” (in reality, we’ve always been able to make pointless noise on the internet). What’s truly unique about Twitter is that so many people use it. And many take it  seriously, under the mistaken belief that tweets may be consequential.

Over the past few days, the internet has been abuzz with arguments over Elan Gale’s note-passing argument with a fictitious woman named “Diane” on a delayed flight (and now I’m talking about it too). Over just four days, thousands of bloggers, tweeters and commenters split into warring camps over Elan’s behavior. Unknown contributors quickly added new details to the story, e.g. that “Diane” was terminally ill. As the debate over airline etiquette raged on, Gale finally revealed that the story was a fake. At this point, the debates may perhaps continue with the understanding that “Elan vs Diane” is just a hypothetical situation.

Some experienced skeptical bloggers got caught in the snare of this hoax and were drawn into emotionally charged discussions. This is a really strange turn of events to me because I don’t think anyone’s arguments are invalidated by the revelation that it is fiction. I wonder, though, if so much emotion would be invested had it been hypothetical from the start. The safest approach is to treat all tweeted information as strictly hypothetical until confirmed — just as we do with virtually all other information circulated on the internet. It surprises me that knowledgeable people have dropped their guard with respect to Twitter, failing to recognize it as just another part of the internet’s wild information jungle.

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4 thoughts on “Extraordinary Tweets and the Madness of Crowds

  1. That it’s a “hoax” does not, however, negate the fact that a lot — a LOT — of people were and still are defending being a horrible human being to another human being. The event itself may not be real, but the drummed-up sentiment of protecting someone for trolling someone else in meatspace “for teh lulz” still needs to be confronted.

    • I don’t disagree with your critique of the behavior described in Gale’s narrative. The story itself didn’t attract my attention until I read your “rage blogging” post, so I can’t claim to be “skepticaler than thou” — I just generally ignore Twitter noise. What fascinates me about this event is how one individual rapidly manipulated the Twitter platform to gain personal notoriety with a global audience with virtually no effort and minimal thought. This was made possible by widespread naivety toward the Twitter platform, on the part of general users and quasi-journalist sites who reported on the story. The etiquette discussion is noble, it just seems (to me) like a transient feature of an event that points to deeper problems with how people relate to Twitter.

      Might it be possible to develop cultural fixes that control Twitter’s capacity for rapid mass misinformation? We seemed to have developed some inoculations for email scams, chain letter, sketchy web sites, IM trolls and other long-established information hazards. But Twitter seems to have raised those hazards to a new level, and is constantly catching people unaware.

      • In fairness, the post I wrote later that day was more aimed at a certain contingent of the Twittersphere who claims we’re all “rage blogging”, “for the hits”, and further that we “wasted” several posts on what turned out to be a hoax. The “we” here includes Ophelia Benson. So while I did come by after the pingback to drop my opinion that it wasn’t wasted, most of the “Rage Blogging” post was not actually aimed at you. Sorry if you got that impression.

        Also, further apologies that I didn’t think to come back and clarify until your other more recent pingbacks.

        You have a lot of well-thought-out posts here — I feel I need to commend your efforts. And I say that knowing full well you went tete-a-tete with Pharyngula. I appreciate that your style allows for modifying your arguments in response to criticism — that is the true hallmark of a science-minded skeptic, and I applaud it when I see it. I further applaud that you don’t necessarily let yourself get pushed around in doing so. You’re doing good work. Keep it up.

      • Thanks for your kind words. I’ve enjoyed your blog as well, and generally think you’re on the right track. If I appear to be overly critical, it is because I’m paying attention to your work.

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