Twitter 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.