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Nov. 2, 2012, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: Truth and lies on Twitter during Sandy, and the pundits vs. Nate Silver

Plus: Lowering paywalls during Sandy, the ongoing fallout from the BBC’s sex abuse scandal, and the rest of this week’s media and tech reads.

Twitter as both truth and lie generator: As Sandy finally dissipates, millions remain without power, heat, and transportation. The news-about-the-news crowd has moved on pretty quickly to analysis, though, so there’s a ton to sift through. First, I’ll look at everything on social media and misinformation, then everything else involved with Sandy and media.

We’re well past the big milestone moments for Twitter, but this storm was a big one for Instagram, as hundreds of thousands of photos on Sandy were uploaded, including at 10 per second at one point, according to Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman. PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy wondered whether this could be Instagram’s breakthrough as the place for breaking news images. Of course, with all those photos came loads of fakes, some more convincing than others.

Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic and Tom Phillips of Is Twitter Wrong? (more from both in a bit) did some fantastic real-time image fact-checking, and Storyful’s Fiona McCann offered a quick guide to spotting fake photos. Salon’s Laura Miller wrote about the strange hybrid of art and commentary and truth and falsehood that the collection of photos on social media constitute during crises.

On Twitter, the ratio between information and misinformation was similarly problematic. Andrew Kaczynski of BuzzFeed traced many of the most egregious falsehoods (including some picked up by mainstream news orgs) to one well-connected Twitter user known as @comfortablysmug, whom fellow BuzzFeed writer Jack Stuef unmasked as hedge fund analyst and Republican campaign manager Shashank Tripathi.

Tripathi subsequently apologized (though that didn’t satisfy a lot of people), and one New York city councilman asked the DA to look into charges against him. GigaOM’s Jeff John Roberts explored the question of whether such deliberately false tweeting in a crisis should be criminal, and Techdirt’s Mike Masnick concluded that no, it shouldn’t. GigaOM posted a couple of pieces on whether Tripathi’s identity should have been revealed — one by Mathew Ingram, and the other an internal discussion among its writers. At the Guardian, Heidi Moore said our anger over the spread of false information should be directed more at the news orgs that didn’t check it out than at Tripathi himself.

There was also a larger debate about the effectiveness of Twitter itself in stamping out falsehoods and providing useful information during crises. BuzzFeed’s John Herrman kicked it off by arguing that “Twitter’s capacity to spread false information is more than canceled out by its savage self-correction,” and others also contended that Twitter is actually quite good at collaborative verification, referring to it as a “self-cleaning oven” (Mathew Ingram) and an “information immune system” (Jeff Sonderman).

A lot of others weren’t so forgiving. Gawker’s Cord Jefferson argued that the lies on Twitter far outpace its verification, especially in terms of potential harm. Bloomberg’s Jared Keller pointed out that falsehoods on Twitter might get corrected on Twitter, but they often spread much further than that.

Tom Phillips of Is Twitter Wrong? talked to several people about correcting information on Twitter, telling Poynter that we need a massively collaborative real-time verification platform for it, noting to The Verge that you need an influential Twitter account or separate site to bring proper attention to the correction, and telling PandoDaily that correcting information on Twitter is “a losing battle from the beginning.”

Phillips’ partner in verification, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, had perhaps the smartest post on the subject, writing, “In the drive to flatten the production of media, to make everyone a publisher, we’ve ended up destabilizing the system we have for surfacing bits of truth.” The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta gave some great tips for tweeting responsibly when news is breaking, and a couple of others gave their own personal reflections on their experiences with media during the storm: The New York Times’ David Carr wrote about how the storm slapped the snark out of his Twitter feed, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman testified to the mainstream media’s continued usefulness.

Lowered paywalls, strong journalism during Sandy: Outside of Twitter, Sandy wreaked havoc on news organizations, but they managed to do some essential (and even creative) journalistic work. Several newspapers dropped their paywalls in anticipation of the storm, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun, and Newsday (though Newsday lifted its soon after the storm ended). GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram wrote a thoughtful post questioning newspapers’ use of “public service” to justify dropping the paywall, and wondering why that only applies in certain situations.

Before the storm, David Carr of The New York Times looked at the simultaneous silliness and importance of cable news’ storm waiting game. Once the storm hit, numerous news orgs had their websites, broadcast signals, and printing presses knocked out, as did popular websites like the Huffington Post, Gawker, and BuzzFeed.

Still, many of them did remarkable work, especially in New York, where the Times earned praise from public editor Margaret Sullivan for its storm coverage, and for lowering its paywall. NY1 and WNYC’s Brian Lehrer were also singled out for excellent journalism. Poynter, Nieman Storyboard, and eMedia Vitals all looked at the creative coverage of Sandy through various story forms, including maps, webcams, story streams, and old-fashioned narrative grace.

The challenge to horse-race journalism: Nate Silver, who does statistical analysis of political polling data at the FiveThirtyEight blog at The New York Times, has become something of a lightning rod in this American election season, especially as his projections of President Obama’s probability of winning re-election grow higher. BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray profiled Silver and his emergence as a security blanket for liberals, and he also talked to the Boston Phoenix about his work and its relationship to political journalism.

Politico’s Dylan Byers voiced the backlash against Silver from mainstream political journalists and pundits in a piece referring to his analysis as “highly overrated” and saying he “often gives the impression of hedging.” He quoted two pundits, David Brooks and Joe Scarborough, who questioned his ability to so precisely quantify an event that hasn’t occurred. (Silver later offered a bet with Scarborough on the election’s outcome, for which he was chastised by Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, for which Sullivan was chastised by Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall.)

That criticism was met pretty quickly with a rebuttal from people like The Atlantic Wire’s Elspeth Reeve, who said Scarborough is defending what feels true to him regardless of what is actually true, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Brendan Nyhan, who said critics’ problem is with the data itself rather than Silver. (Many people, myself included, immediately saw a connection to the “Moneyball” debate over the use of statistical analysis in baseball over the past decade, which The New Republic’s Marc Tracy and Deadspin’s David Roher both spelled out well.)

There were several ideas floating around as to why political pundits are so averse to Silver’s methods. TechCrunch’s Gregory Ferenstein said Silver reveals the inherent uncertainty of elections: “In a world where certainty is a tradeskill, statisticians reveal how little we definitively know about the world — a threatening concept indeed.” The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein’s diagnosis was related, but in the other direction: Silver was taking away horse-race journalism’s fundamental question — “Who will win?”

The Atlantic’s Reeve also called Silver a threat to horse-race journalism, and here at the Lab, Jonathan Stray argued that Silver is setting a new standard for the horse-race style, revealing just how wasteful and inefficient the current one is. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon framed it as a confrontation between journalism as entertainment and journalism as math, noting how poor journalism is at analyzing the future. And I traced the conflict back to differences between how journalists and Silver claim authority to know what they know.

Continued questions over BBC’s scandal: A few updates on the BBC’s sexual abuse scandal: British police arrested former ’70s glam rock star (and convicted pedophile) Gary Glitter on accusations that he abused a girl on the BBC’s premises. Jean Seaton, the BBC’s official historian, explained why this scandal could be so damaging for the BBC. The key figure for American journalism in this scandal is incoming New York Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson, who was the BBC’s director general when one of its programs killed an investigative report on its own former host, Jimmy Savile, who is at the center of the abuse allegations.

Thompson claims he wasn’t aware at the time that the report was spiked, but reports surfaced this week that two news orgs tried to ask Thompson for comment about the decision shortly afterward, only to be denied. Thompson’s spokesman said neither request actually made it to Thompson himself. Times columnist Joe Nocera wondered whether it’s plausible that Thompson didn’t know about the decision, though the Guardian’s Michael Wolff said the Times’ role in this scandal is being overblown. However, his Guardian colleague Glenn Greenwald praised the Times journalists who have questioned Thompson’s fitness to lead the paper.

Reading roundup: A few other stories of note going on during this tumultuous week:

— The Chinese government blocked web access to The New York Times late last week after the paper’s report on the extraordinary wealth of the country’s prime minister. Times public editor Margaret Sullivan went into the financial risk the Times took by publishing the story, but the Guardian’s Michael Wolff said the Times’ real value took a big leap as a result. The Washington Post’s Max Fisher looked at China’s move in the context of its other censorship decisions.

— American newspapers’ quarterly circulation numbers were released this week, and they were generally steady. A few notable exceptions: The New York Times’ circulation was up sharply, mostly because of digital subscriptions, and The Washington Post saw a significant drop, though maybe not as big as it seemed on first glance.

— Researchers from Columbia and Indiana universities published an interesting study surveying New York Times readers about what might motivate them to pay for the paper’s content online. They found that financial necessity was a key justification for many people — one that was pretty under-used by the Times. A paidContent summary also noted that most people didn’t end up paying. In Europe, a study was released projecting strong increases in paid-content through tablets and smartphones, though less advertising possibilities as a result.

— Two sharp pieces to give some thought to this weekend: Social media researcher danah boyd in Wired on the morality of unveiling anonymous users’ identities online, and technology researcher Evgeny Morozov in Slate on the ever-encroaching power of intermediaries in online communication.

Photo by Nate Silver by JD Lasica used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 2, 2012, 10 a.m.
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