The era of the Twitter hashtag that epitomized the arguably less stable and sane part of comedian Charlie Sheen (#winning!) is seemingly eons ago by today’s standard of trending hashtags. In reality, Sheen’s record breaking Twitter account, which during its peak was gaining close to 4000 followers per minute, was launched only less than four years ago. In Twitter time, however, the amount of information produced between one day and the next is comparable to the difference between the beginning of the Palaeozoic era and the ending of the Cenozoic era. I am being a tad hyperbolic here, but if each tweet sent out on Twitter was to represent one geological year, then within one day Twitter would have aged close to 500 million years.
Let’s look into more details. On an average day, based on the data by Internet Live Stats, about 5,700 tweets are being sent per second (TPS), while in comparison, there are about 5 million copies of daily newspapers in circulation in Canada. This means that Twitter is updating you with new information – be it daily updates from your best friend or breaking news from the Toronto Star – nearly one hundred times more often than your daily newspaper and at more frequent intervals then the ink and paper version can keep up with. This is possibly one of the reasons why many newspapers and other traditional media outlets have recently decided to succumb to the Twitter bug – bringing a whole new meaning to the age old saying, if you can’t beat them, join them.
Traditional media are embracing social media in a whole new way in order to remain relevant in today’s fast-paced information race. One of the most recent instances was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) coverage of the shooting of Nathan Cirillo on Parliament Hill, Ottawa back in October 2014. The television reporter managed to secure an interview with the MP John McKay only a few hours after the shooting happened, and then he uploaded the interview video to his Twitter as soon as the Q&A had finished.
Indeed, this particular kind of Twitter update can provide public with important information regarding recent events, but there have also been other instances where information is being disseminated on Twitter in an untrustworthy manner. In a time when posting a selfie on Twitter follows the same regulations in posting a ‘fact’, it is often difficult for a person to discern which tweets tell the truth and which ones don’t.
Stephen Colbert, who is famous for hosting The Colbert Report, has summed the difficulty that we are facing in this growing age of opinion-based fact, rather than fact-based opinion, as the ‘truthiness’ factor.
“It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts,” Colbert noted. “But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty [that counts].”
Colbert is capturing what a lot of us are beginning to worry about, especially in regards to the persuasiveness a social media platform like Twitter can have on the world’s politics. For instance, Twitter proved to be quite useful in the Arab Spring movement in 2011, when up to 230,000 tweets were sent per day from the two countries involved, Tunisia and Egypt. Moreover, the hashtag #Jan25 was also trending from January 27, 2011 until February 11, 2011 with the highest day being on the day after President Mubarak resigned. In this case, the tweets served to bring information from the protests’ ground to the people waiting at home, which in turn became the one of first ‘Twitter-fied’ public outcries that was heard around the world. Arguably, the results of this unprecedented upheaval could not have been accomplished without Twitter; but while there are many positive side effects to these trending topics, there are equally, if not more threatening, negative side effects as well.
Political campaigns, for example, have been using this very same medium to hide their own agendas among the general population as authentic “grassroots” movements. Initially, this might not seem like a problem, since people always have the freedom to do their own research and decide whether or not these tweets have any real merit behind them. However, several studies conducted in the recent years have revealed the contrary. The psychology of the human brain is much more complicated than we assume, and also a lot easier to manipulate than we would attribute it to be.
In Science magazine, a recent article shows the results of a study on the influence of online reviews, specifically positive ones, on a random sample of people. They found that positive effects create an “illusory snowball effect”, which in layman terms simply means that people give more credence to positive remarks without questioning them and then go on to pay that positivity forward. Contrary to this, when participants in this study read the negative remarks they disregarded them as untrustworthy and they were more sceptical of such account. At the end of the study the MIT professors who co-authored this study found that their manipulated positive remarks saw an exponential popularity increase, receiving a 25% higher average rating from other site users. This was asymmetrical to the conclusions drawn from the negative reviews – meaning that people were less likely to be swayed by negative feedback. This is particularly concerning when it comes to things like politics, a field in which the researchers found this “opinion herding” technique to be quite effective.
Recently, The New Yorker did a short feature titled, “The Rise of Twitter Bots”, which in my opinion, similarly hinted on the issue surrounding the unfair role social media may play in the formation of people’s opinions on specific political parties. Their focus, however, was more of a spotlight on the artificial Twitter bots that can parse information from Twitter’s main feed and then retweet and post them as their own ‘information’ using a language of codes unique to each bot. Twitter bots can also follow and comment on tweets using their codes, with some even being able to propagate false facts; e.g. the Twitter bot @factbot1 was designed to show how pictures on the internet are being used to act as evidence for largely unsupported ‘facts’. Even though these Twitter bots can be considered as sources of creative innovation, they also threaten to graffiti the Twitter platform with mindless corrections (for example, @stealthmountain will correct you when you have misused the word “sneak peak”) and more importantly to falsely construct public interest in a company or political campaign.
Truthy has been investigating this matter. The organization is an Indian University- based research company that was given a grant of $920,000 over the length of four years to study the effects of popular internet memes, which could be anything from hashtags to trending topics of conversation. They were also assigned the much less popular task of discerning which Twitter accounts were real and which were bots. The term ‘unpopular’ was used since a lot of political organizations has been using these Twitter bots to falsely garner public interest in a topic or event relevant to their campaign. By revealing these bots as ‘artificial’, it could then lead to the organization losing the momentum their campaign had gained from the implanted ‘groundswell’ of attention they had gathered with the bot, and in turn losing the public’s trust and positive opinion.
And while the controversy over Truthy’s work begins to grow, their findings have actually begun to show some pretty interesting patterns in relation to how and why internet memes spread. In a lecture released on their Twitter feed back in the middle of November, Truthy contributor Filippo Menczer described how their research has proven how, “[u]sers who are popular, active, and influential tend to create traffic-based shortcuts, making the information diffusion process more efficient in the network”. In layman’s term, it means that if you tweet more regularly and have a larger ratio of followers to the number of people you follow, you will be more likely to generate what Truthy describes as network shortcuts, or what we often refer to as “retweets”. These information-oriented users are also the ones that live longer and will hold greater influence over the social platform. Does the description sound familiar?
Twitter bots are what Truthy’s research threatens to upend by revealing how they are being used for astroturfing; a technique used by political campaigns and organizations where they mask themselves behind several personas so as to create a false sense of ‘grassroots’ movement (hence the name astroturf). By studying the diffusion of information on social media and particularly how internet memes become popular, Truthy attempts to educate the public better about the sources they receive their supposed facts from and how they got to be so popular in the first place.
Ironically because of this, Truthy has recently come under fire by the same hands that first described them in a positive light as a site designed to expand the public’s knowledge: the media. In last August, there was a critical article published on the Washington Free Beacon that described Truthy as, “an online database that will track ‘misinformation’ and hate speech on Twitter”. This trend caught on like wild fire, as more and more media outlets released similar stories that painted the group of researchers from Indiana University as aspiring Big Brothers. This evidently was not the goal set out by the founders, and as the lead scientist on the project, Filippo Menczer, came out to say earlier this month in an interview with Science Insider, this is “not simply a misunderstanding of our research…(it is) a deliberate attempt to distort what we have done.”
Thus in a cruel twist of fate, Truthy’s hard work may be for naught as their reputation becomes tarnished by the very media they are discrediting for propagating false information to sway the public’s opinion. As the researchers begin to release their conclusions on their project, (information which you can receive live updates through following their Twitter account, @truthyatindiana) they also enter into a new phase of their work, which will involve more on rebuilding their public image. In this social media network of wormholes and blackholes, winning seems to be a construction of smoke and mirrors, and the odds are always stacked against you; especially, it seems, when you have the truth on your side.
So all of these affairs and developments leave us with only one course of action: to train ourselves to be more selective on the information we gather from social media like Twitter. The technology is definitely here to stay and keep growing, and therefore the amount of information bombarding us each day can only further multiply. Maybe one day we’ll find a better way to sort out the truths from the lies, the facts from the opinions; but then again, there may also be a whole different information game in play, and at that point Twitter might already become yesterday’s news.