The Twitter news frenzy

The news media has been telling people that recent protests have been organised via twitter. That was spot on, but their attempts at explaining how have not been so accurate. For the people that don’t know, here is my explanation.

Twitter lets its users post a public message (tweet) of 140 characters in length. Those messages are automatically seen by their followers. Anyone can follow any other Twitter user and their tweets will be displayed in their “Twitter stream.” A tweet can also be aimed at or mention a person by including their name prefixed with an @ symbol. For example “@latentexistence Hello Steve!”

In addition, tweets can contain a subject prefixed with a # (a hash) and that is called a hashtag. Clicking on a hashtag brings up a list of all the other tweets containing the same hashtag. In this way it is possible to see a stream of tweets on a given topic. The most popular hashtags at any one time are called Trending Topics. Twitter shows a list of these on the front page. Finally, if a person likes a tweet they can “retweet” it which will send it out to all of their followers.

While most tweets are just inane chatter, many complete rubbish, a tweet that contains concise, well-written information, a link, a picture or a video, and that has the right hashtag is likely to be retweeted by a good percentage of people that see it. In turn it can be retweeted by their followers too. There are some people that have much more influence than others often because of the speed of their information or the quality of presentation, and these people tend to have more followers than average, and achieve far more retweets then others.

When a good tweet with a hashtag appears,  it can be retweeted over and over again because the tweet appears in the search for a given hashtag. Someone sees it, likes it and retweets it. Since the retweet also has the hashtag, the tweet appears in the twitter stream again and the whole process repeats. A really popular tweet can appear over and over again for hours.

This whole process goes in to overdrive when it comes to protests. It starts with getting the people there. Many people in search of a protest to attend ask about it on twitter. They are usually directed to the relevant hashtag such as #dayx3 or #ukuncut, and from there to the relevant website or facebook event. On the day of the protests, people start tweeting with those hashtags and anyone watching will see a steady stream of people announcing that they are on their way and how they have prepared.

Later on as the protests start people that are their take photos, videos, and send them to twitter along with their observations, in 140 character form. Other people watching at home will then retweet a lot of it to their followers and of course with the appropriate hashtag. That loop of tweet – hashtag – retweet becomes the main driver of the important information. In many cases people at the protest are sending out information about where they are, where they are going and what the police are doing is picked up by other protesters and acted upon.

During yesterdays protests the police announced that protesters were free to leave the crowd if they left via Whitehall. This information was given to the crowd through loud hailers, but also announced by the police via twitter. It was of course picked up by many people watching and retweeted. Unfortunately for the people that trusted the police and wanted to leave, they were met with batons and charging horses. Word quickly spread through twitter that in fact many people could not leave.

There are dangers to this system though, as I myself found last night. A photo was taken some time before midnight, of the thousands kettled on Westminster bridge. That photo was sent out on twitter with the message that although the police were still holding those people in freezing conditions, without toilet facilities or food and water, the tv news channels were completely ignoring it. The message was of course retweeted. Unfortunately there was no timestamp on anything, and so the message was also retweeted at about 12:45, by which point the protesters had been allowed to leave. I commented on the cruelty and legality of this containment at 12:50, and my own comment was picked up and started to be retweeted in that feedback loop of hashtags, eventually reaching 34 retweets and a cascade of other comments. Some time later although I commented that we had no up to date information, people were still convinced that the crowd was being held and it was only when someone tweeted that they had been able to cross the bridge that twitter calmed down and believed that the kettle was over.

Twitter is a wonderful tool for coordination through crowdsourcing, an incredibly fast way of getting news hours before the BBC or Sky news catches up, and fantastic for sharing information. It’s downfall is the way in which information is given too much trust, and fact checking is poor, sometimes even on my part.