The real-time media distortion effect – Swine flu pandemic

There is a lot of excitement at the moment about the transformative power of real-time social media, not least on this blog, but the path from here to success for Twitter et al is not straight forward.  As well as the big issue of business model I have previously written about the challenges for Twitter in keeping the service useful as it scales

When I read Evgeny Morozov’s excellent post this morning entitled Swine flu: Twitter’s power to misinform I started thinking that services which seek to mine the realtime data flow face a challenge in understanding the distorting effects ‘group-think’ that hadn’t occured to me before.

Evgeny put it like this:

anyone trying to make sense of how Twitter’s “global brain” has reacted to the prospect of the swine flu pandemic is likely to get disappointed. The “swine flu” meme has so far  that misinformed and panicking people armed with a platform to broadcast their fears are likely to produce only more fear, misinformation and panic

and

too many Twitter conversations about swine flu seem to be motivated by desires to fit in, do what one’s friends do (i.e. tweet about it) or simply gain more popularity.

Or in other words with the swine flu pandemic a positive feedback loop has been created within Twitter which has taken the tweets out of synch with reality.  I would also posit that the same sort of positive feedback loops can be created with other topics that become hot, as everyone wants to be seen to be in the know.  The ease of Tweeting combined with the lack of context inherent in the 140 character message make it easier than ever before for the rumour mill to get going.

This is the real-time media distortion effect that I mention in the title to this post.

Anyone trying to get the most out of mining the emerging real time data stream needs to somehow take account of this distortion in their algorithms.  There is some value in simply knowing what people are talking about at any given moment, but there is much more value in analysing the contents of their utterings to figure out what is going to happen next in the real world.  In this case that would mean figuring out whether it is the pandemic that is spreading or just hysteria.

  • I agree, Nic. And I'm finding Twitter's search harder to use to find out what is going on as it becomes more popular.

    For example, I'm trying to find out if people are talking about the layoffs at Empire Interactive today, and it just happens that Aussie band Empire of the Sun has launched an interactive music video on the same day.

    And most of the tweets on either topic are simply either retweets or media outlets saying “empire interactive has gone bust” with a tinyurl.

    On Google, I could make my search more specific, but with only 140 characters to play with, Twitter isn't so good for that.

    So Twitter is tough to search, and as your post says, even if you do find stuff, it may be creating the story, rather than reporting on it.

    Maybe we'll reach the stage where it is illegal to shout “swine flu” on Twitter, in the same way it is illegal to shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre.

  • 🙂

  • That's a good observation about social media. If you think about it, it does not just apply to the interactive media. The real-time pressures of the 24-hour television news cycle has been causing the same issue for a number of years. In that context, it's the newscasters at Fox, CNN, MSNBC et al that are trying to outdo each other with hype, leading to increasingly gross distortions of the truth. They're doing it now with swine flu, they did it 10 days ago with absurdly breathless coverage of how dangerous a place Mexico City is and whether 'Obama would be safe' going there (I kid you not!). The underlying problem is the urge to pass on news in real-time, without verification or analysis. Social media throws more fuel on that fire, and makes it spread virally.

  • Charlie Brooker of Newswipe fame hit the nail on the head with a piece showing that the hype and nature of news reporting increases the likelihood of events such as the mass shootings in the German school in Winnenden.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8rMYyegT5Y

  • Charlie Brooker of Newswipe fame hit the nail on the head with a piece showing that the hype and nature of news reporting increases the likelihood of events such as the mass shootings in the German school in Winnenden.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8rMYyegT5Y