Thursday, February 24, 2011

Telling Taiwan from New Zealand: Anatomy of a thoughtless tweet

This is a cautionary tale based on the biggest ever blunder I’ve made in cyberspace.

My mistake happened yesterday because of the photo shown above. The photo is from a landslide which fell on a Taiwanese motorway in 2010. Unbeknown to me until yesterday, a 6.5 magnitude earthquake in the ocean north of the Philippines struck the port city of Keelung in north-east Taiwan on 26 April 2010. My ignorance of this event and photograph of the motorway landslide there would get me in trouble.

Yesterday morning, I was taking a break at work and looking for online images of the deadly Christchurch earthquake which struck a day earlier. I was feeling relieved at the time as a mate of mine from Christchurch had just gotten online to say he and his family were safe. I was now searching the #eqnz hashtag on Twitter for interesting Twitpics of the earthquake. I found some amazing images but one really stood out. It was the picture of the Taiwanese landslide above, but purporting to be from New Zealand.

I found it from a tweet by Frangii, one David Frangiosa from Brisbane which was then retweeted by Shotz Digital Prints also of Brisbane.
It read “Tragey in #EQNZ but this looks like it could be an add for a 4WD” You can't find that twitpic now, it no longer exists. Te spelling alone should have alerted me to a problem. The bit about “an add” also suggested it might have been photoshopped. Yet I was simply gobsmacked by what I saw. The scale of the landslide was massive and it was all too easy to imagine there might be dead people buried under the immense pile of rubble. For reasons I can barely fathom, I simply wanted this to be true.

I didn’t take a screen grab at the time so I can’t remember what the exact text of the caption was in the twitpic. I do remember it had #eqnz tagged against it but that was too small a token of authenticity and no excuse for what I did next. Without further research and still mesmerised by the photo, I went to twitter and forwarded the twitpic on with this tweet: “this #eqnz motorway damage photo is almost surreal”.

I then went back to my work and thought nothing more about Twitter for another hour or so, though I couldn’t get the image out of my head. While I was gone, I was unaware many others would see my tweet. I had committed two classic mistakes. Firstly I hadn’t taken the time to authenticate the photo and secondly I did take the time to remove the attribution.

The photo was more surreal than I gave it credit for. It took off and would be retweeted a further 90 times with the vast majority quoting me as the source. I would be later notified in a tweet from Trends NZ that my twitter handle was trending in New Zealand. By then I knew I was in trouble.

A quick look at the retweets showed me what had happened. Initially I was followed by six retweets with no comments. Then people started adding “holy hell”, “oh hell”, “WOW" and “Theres a mountain in my hwy”. In turn these people’s tweets were retweeted by their followers. A classic network pattern was emerging where I was the hub of the information. My "almost surreal" tweet was attracting a lot more attention than Frangii's original "add for a 4WD".

Finally some of the re-tweeters started to question its veracity. 18 tweets after mine, came the first question from @CNell_NZ in Wellington saying “You are kidding me”. One tweet later @flukazoid added “o hai photoshop”. But the next 16 settled back into admiration until @jesidres put the record straight with this tweet: “ - It's not actually from #EQNZ- the image is at least 6 months old.”

@Jesidres didn’t mention my name but the next seven did, all retweeting my comments or the additions to them without question. @lukechristensen also knew it was fake and admonished @nzben for retweeting it but not me. @BabetteNOS took the conversation into Dutch while still saying these were images of New Zealand: “Heftige beelden uit NZ, Correspondent @RobertPortier is onderweg, maar twittert even niet omdat hij rijdt. #EQNZ."
There were three more “wow” retweets of my mine when I got the first direct response saying there was a problem. @LMRIQ wrote “This is actually a really old photo pre-2011 RT @derekbarry: this #eqnz motorway damage photo is almost surreal”.

Still the reinforcing retweets came with another seven variants on the “Wow” theme.
Finally Elpie put Frangii straight about where the photo came from. “@Frangii - This image has nothing to do with the #Christchurch #eqnz. Its Taiwan, April 2010:”. Elpie didn't send it to me so I remained in the dark about its provenance. All I kept getting were nine more retweets which maintained the “holy hell” line. A questioning few were changing in tone. @carorolyn asked “only almost?”. A full 28 more tweets maintained the wow factor before @merrolee begged to differ. “I don't think so - this is not Chch..The ChristChurch earthquake buried this highway. Amazing image - #eqnz”. Yet right to the end, people swallowed the NZ line until Franjii deleted the photo.

The level of scepticism was higher among those who responded to me without retweeting the photo. This from @blisterguy: “@vavroom @derekbarry @cjlambert that's not actually anywhere near Christchurch, or New Zealand, for that matter #eqnz”
This from @simongrigor - “@derekbarry is that photo even NZ? Doesn't look familiar??”
And @Nathanealb - “@Sephyre @derekbarry @DDsD That photo is not #eqnz ...”
And @vebbed - “@ViewNewZealand @vavroom @derekbarry @cjlambert that aint NZ”
And @surgeInwelly “@sarahlalor @phoeberuby @derekbarry where is it exactly?... are you sure it's genuine?”
lmsmith - “@derekbarry @cadetdory STOP RTing that, it's not in CHch.”
altwohill - “@derekbarry except it's not exactly #nz, is it?
@mellopuffy - “@derekbarry @nzben that looks like a fake pls check before retweeting #eqnz”
And on it went. Some pointed out the cars were going the wrong way, Others that Canterbury was flat and had few six-lane highways. It was possibly Europe said one, possibly America said another until someone finally gave me the Taiwan link.

Some were angry I had posted it with a #eqnz tag conferring legitimacy (as the vast majority of the retweets seemed to swallow). “Don't know who started it, but it was fear mongering and stupid. Makes me sad,” said one.
I knew then it was time for a retraction. I went back online to post this: “apologies all about the motorway pic. Its a fake. A nano-second of research before sending it would have helped.”

The retraction was wrong too; it wasn't a fake. The photo was real but wasn’t New Zealand. I was right about the research though. Particularly as a journalist I should have known better. Too often I’ve laughed at the Richard Wilkins and Kochies of this world whose tweets get them into trouble and now here I was making an ass of myself the same way.

I showed naivety, lack of thoroughness and no care or attention to the consequences of my actions. In one sense it was a minor error, but it may also have helped to spread misinformation about a major tragedy. The death toll is approaching 100 and likely to far exceed that. I apologise to anyone I might have offended with my tweet. The power of Twitter deserves much better.


Grant Bond said...

Its not Christchurch, but we have had landslides.
Still shaking but very minor.
Long road to recover for some parts.

Jen Cluse said...

An open, honest, and appreciated admission of how a journo *should work being not practiced for a moment, and obvious admitted regret from making the slip.

I don't detect a flutter of slip away, or spin! Is this person *really a journalist?

You bet. I web-fed-bak-quoted him (you, lad, sit up straight and listen) (:D) as one of the few reliably reporting ones out there just this morning, after a certain ABC discussion by the media, on the media.

Well done, Mr Barry. You have cemented your reputation, as far as I am concerned. Keep up the excellent standards. One slip is allowed, surely. One learns heaps from post event personal analysis of what why & how it happened. Like an aviator.

Big tick.


Jen Cluse

Now. Lets get back to working out how we can help those shakey lot over the ditch.

Ann O'Dyne said...

I suspected photoshop the moment I saw the undisturbed vegetation on the 'landslide'.
but great sympathy to you, and what a valuable lesson and amazing example of how stuff can viralise in an unstoppable bad way.
Go here to Churnalism for more education.

peace and love from me