The fast-finger Twitter dilemma: a small confession

I did something yesterday that I probably shouldn’t have. I yielded to the temptation of what the people at lolcats.com call “ease of do”.

I retweeted a short tweet from the Libyan expatriate novelist Hisham Matar about what has been happening in Benghazi. On Saturday afternoon, fragments of fact were starting to seep from the city on the eastern Libyan coast suggesting that something very bad was happening there. I happened to be looking at Twitter. I saw and retweeted this short message from @hishamjmatar:

Doctor in Benghazi hospital puts the death toll at 120. A massacre is taking place in Benghazi. Please spread the news. #Feb17 #Libya

While I still feel uneasy about having relayed it, I don’t think I’ve done any harm. Everything we’ve heard or seen since tells us that the Libyan authorities have been killing protesters in Benghazi; the death toll may well be higher than 120. I gave Matar’s message a modest extra push because I admire his fine novel In The Country of Men, which is based on his own childhood and gives a chilling child’s-eye picture of what Ghaddafi’s regime feels like if you dare to oppose it.

I guessed that Matar’s tweet was probably not hysterical exaggeration. But I also hit the retweet button because it is so extraordinarily easy.

It’s so simple, in other words, to bypass the usual check in your head. Do I know that this is true? Is that actually the real Hisham Matar? If I was considering retweeting, say, a Chinese tweeter who I didn’t know I’d want to be sure that I wasn’t amplifying something be written by a plausible-sounding avatar controlled by the authorities. If it is Matar, how does he know? I didn’t let any of this stop me.

I began reflecting on this because one innovation driven by the Egyptian events has been the curation of Twitter messages by Andy Carvin. Today he warned his followers:

Just another reminder that much of the info we’re getting from #Libya is unconfirmed. Doesn’t mean it’s not credible but we just don’t know.

It’s always worth marking the moment when someone in the spotlight has the brains and guts to admit that there are limits to his or her knowledge. It’s worth marking because it’s rare. We can so easily get caught up in debates about platforms and techno-enthusiasm that we forget that the content counts for more. Twitter may or may not carry journalism. The journalism is the verification. There are always good and bad uses of new ways of connecting peoples’ thoughts. If we concentrate on the ease, we’re liable to overlook what’s more important. As I did.

PS: Hisham Matar’s latest book Anatomy of a Disappearance is published on 3 March.

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