January 7 2015


January 7, 2015

When I heard about the recent missing Air Asia plane (#AirAsia8501), and wanted to find updates, I went immediately to my Twitter account. Using the hashtag #AirAsia8501 (hashtag is the search function that Twitter uses to designate a stream of posts on a certain topic), I was immediately able to see breaking news about the plane. When I checked the news channels that I usually refer to – BBC, CNN – I found that their most recent updates were often hours old.

Twitter posts, or tweets, are short and can be easily and quickly written and sent from mobile devices from anywhere. Due to the brief, fast nature of information being posted, read and shared on Twitter, this network is much more suited for covering breaking-news events.

While Facebook is a social network, and most people use it primarily to exchange personal news and events, Twitter is becoming a real-time news source and can be considered more of an information network.

A 2012 survey by Pew Research Center, called What Facebook and Twitter Mean for News reveals “Facebook news users get more news from friends and family and see it as news they might well have gotten someplace else if Facebook did not exist. For Twitter users, though, the news links come from a more even mix of family and friends and news organizations. Most of these users also feel that without Twitter, they would have missed this kind of news.”

According to blogger Adam Wexler, Twitter became the official breaking-news digital source five years ago “when US Airways Flight 1549 was forced to make an abrupt landing in the Hudson River, and the first news ‘reporting’ came from J?nis Kr?ms, a rescuer who took a picture of the passengers standing on the wings of the plane and shared on Twitter.”

Wexler says, “One of the best parts of Twitter as the 21st Century newspaper is your news sources can be a wide variety of sources. Whereas traditional newspapers have delivered the news in a second-hand context, Twitter allows you to learn the story from a first-person point of view.”

However, while searching for news about Air Asia 8501, I also have to sort through conspiracy theory posts about a Chinese blogger who supposedly predicted the crash, reports of smoke coming from Belitung Island, which lies on the flight route of the missing plane, general speculation and graveyard humor.

Simon Ricketts of the Guardian has noted that “Twitter does its best work in the first five minutes after a disaster, and its worst in the twelve hours after that” as conspiracy theorists, spammers and the misinformed contribute to the hashtag streams.

Barry Ritholtz, writing for The Washington Post, describes how he first heard about the Boston Marathon bombings on Twitter: “Three hours after the fastest runner of the Boston marathon crossed the finish line, my Twitter feed lit up. Someone in the office yelled, ‘Two explosions at the Boston marathon, may be terrorism.’ Within seconds, there were first-hand reports, photos, even video circulating on Twitter.” Ritholtz checked CNN, Reuters and Associated Press. He searched Google. No other news agencies were reporting on the bombing. Finally, after about 15 minutes, he saw coverage of the event on CNN’s cable channel. Twitter had captured exclusive news coverage of a major event in real-time, beating out all the traditional news sources.

Twitter’s ability to cover major events in real-time, before any of the major news channels can act, is known as the “Twitter effect.”

There is a growing list of world events that were first covered on Twitter: the killing of Osama Bin Laden; the Arab Spring uprisings, including the first reports of sexual assault of women involved in, or reporting on, the demonstrations; the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Twitter is ideal for covering confusing events such as natural disasters or demonstrations, where there is often conflicting information and people involved or witnessing can immediately post personal experiences, images and news from the ground before journalists can reach the area.

According to a study by Informa UK, tweets (or Twitter posts) are increasingly used by journalists as quotes in newspaper reporting in Europe, and are considered newsworthy enough to “support or illustrate” a conventional news story.

Ritholtz says, “People who are active on Twitter can tell you what is going to be on the evening news before anyone else knows it. Twitter is faster than print media, more in depth than television, and compared to the traditional newswire, its real time reaction to events news and headlines.”

American Twitter news consumers are more educated than both the general population and Facebook news consumers, according to a report from the Pew Research Center. While more Americans (30%) still get their news from Facebook, younger, more educated consumers, who mainly use mobile devices for access, are increasingly turning to Twitter as their primary news source. Almost half of Twitter news consumers are 18-29 years old, whereas only 34% of Facebook news consumers are in this age group. The implication is that younger people are increasingly turning to Twitter as their primary news source.

The Pew study cites 3 main themes that emerged in their research:

1) A core function of Twitter is to pass along bits of information as a story unfolds. Generally, about 40% of users pass information along in their feeds (re-tweet) without adding their own comments.
2) The conversations on Twitter about an event evolve over time, and can shift in terms of sentiment and topic. For example, immediately after the Newtown school shootings in the US, tweets expressing sympathy for the victims made up almost a third of the total number of tweets. However, within days, the expressions of sympathy declined to only 12%, being replaced on Twitter by debate about the shooter and mental health issues.
3) Although the opinions expressed on Twitter can often match those of the general population, Twitter is not a reliable census of public opinion. After the Newtown shootings, 64% of the Twitter conversation supported stricter gun controls, while 21% opposed them. However, a Pew survey found that 49% of the general population felt it was more important to control gun ownership and 42% more important to protect gun rights.

The Pew survey also states that while Facebook and Twitter are now “pathways to new … their role may not be as large as some have suggested. The population that uses these networks for news at all is still relatively small, especially the part that does so very often. Moreover, these social media news consumers have not given up other methods of getting news, such going directly to websites, using apps or through search. In other words, social media are additional paths to news, not replacements for more traditional ones.”

Email Liz at LizinBali@gmail.com

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