BOB GARFIELD: Bamboozled by online scoops? Mitch McConnell, you are not alone. In the past two weeks, a lot of people have been seriously misled by what they've read, many of them via the magic of Twitter. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, journalists and civilians alike rapidly passed along unconfirmed details and rumor, leading to a pernicious circle of retweeted misinformation. Innocent people were misidentified as suspects, a fake Twitter account, purportedly belonging to one of the bombers, was reported on Twitter as legit. And for Twitter, things went from bad to worse.
On Tuesday of this week, the Associated Press’ Twitter account was hacked. The hackers posted a false tweet about two explosions at the White House and, even though that was quickly corrected, the financial markets swung wildly downward in response.
All this has led to a conversation: Can we fix Twitter? We put our producer PJ Vogt on the case. PJ, we’re not the only ones mulling this over. What’s being said out there?
PJ VOGT: Mat Honan at Wired wrote a piece this week where he said that basically what Twitter needs is a corrections function. So the way he envisioned it, if I were to tweet “Bob Garfield is dead” and a bunch of people retweeted that because that’s a huge new story and later I found out that, in fact, I was wrong and you were alive, I’d be able to go back to my original tweet, write a little correction at the bottom of it and not only would it show up on my feed but everywhere that my tweet went, it would show up, as well.
I think it’s a great idea. I don't think it would ever work because it seems like it would be so easy to abuse. You could tweet something, it could go viral and you then you could add on like a spammy link. And also, it just seems sort of aesthetically clunky in this way that I don't think Twitter really likes.
BOB GARFIELD: But there are other ideas out there.
PJ VOGT: Brooke had this idea to put a question mark at the beginning and end of every tweet. That way you could signal to your readers that this was information that you weren't sure was true. She mentioned it to Andy Carvin during their live chat a while back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A question mark at the beginning and a question mark at the end –
ANDY CARVIN: Mm-hmm –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - could easily become part of the Twitter lexicon and wouldn’t get shorn off –
- when copies -
ANDY CARVIN: Why not?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because it’s only a character.
ANDY CARVIN: But it – stuff like that gets shorn off all the time. That’s the problem.
PJ VOGT: As Andy pointed out, first of all, people might just get rid of the question marks when they retweet it. Secondly, it doesn’t address the main problem we have now, which is that people tweet information that seems good at the time, and then later find out that there’s something wrong with it.
BOB GARFIELD: But you have a genius idea.
PJ VOGT: So my brilliant plan is just that if I tweet something and I find out that it wasn't right or that it was half right or whatever, there should be a way for me to flag it. I’d click a button and my tweet and every retweet of it would turn red or be grayed out, something that just says there's something fishy here. And the reason I like it is because it's simple, it's not easy to abuse and it sort of puts the onus back on the reader; they now need to go out and say find [LAUGHS] what really happened, rather than relying on this piece of information.
BOB GARFIELD: And because it’s fishy, it would come to be known as a “red herring.” This would be like a term of art for Twitter users worldwide, invented right here.
PJ VOGT: Right. The funny thing is when we talk about changing this, it seems impossible and it's like this beautiful thing that kind of works and, and it'll never be any different. But everything that is part of the grammar of how we use Twitter – retweets, hashtags, @replies, none of those came in the box. Those are all things that users wanted to exist. And so, they created it and eventually the service officially recognized it and incorporated it into their architecture.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, I’ve declared this a genius idea, but the fact is I'm not sure. Are you sure?
PJ VOGT: No, I'm not sure. I bet that there is something dumb about my idea that I can't see because it's my idea, but I also bet that our listeners have a better one. So I was hoping we could just throw it open to them.
BOB GARFIELD: Aha! Well, that is a genius idea. PJ, thank you.
PJ VOGT: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, listeners, this is our time. We can fix Twitter. Leave your best suggestions for how to make Twitter better at correcting bad information and more accurate for breaking news delivery. Just go to our website, onthemedia.org, to leave your suggestion, and we are going to solve this thing!