I know a lot of people who don't "get" Twitter. Fine. There are a lot of things that other people do that I don't "get" either, like running. However, whenever a breaking news event occurs I am incredibly grateful to have Twitter. The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri are a good example of this. Here are four reasons why Twitter is an excellent source for breaking news.
1. What you see on Twitter isn't dependent on algorithm
With a few exceptions, what you see in your Twitter feed is in reverse chronological order. You always see the newest stuff first. This means you can see breaking news as it's breaking and calls to action can have almost immediate impacts.
Facebook's notorious algorithm that tries to show you what it thinks you want to see is not bound by chronology. Your post may appear at the top of your friends' news feeds hours, days, or even years after you posted the update, if they see it at all. This means timely calls to action like "Check out this livefeed of what's happening in #Ferguson" aren't likely to be effective on Facebook.
Zeynep Tufekci wrote an in depth article "What happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson" that explores how algorithmic filtering influences what we see online and how that further emphasizes the need for net neutrality. Read it here.
2. Twitter can overcome bandwidth limitations
Twitter's notorious character limit exists so that tweets can be sent and received via SMS text messages, which makes Twitter accessible even if people don't have access to computers, smart phones, or reliable Internet access.
Tweeting via text message may seem arcane to those who disdain tweeting even on Twitter's own web site and apps because they rely on complex tools like Tweetdeck and Hootsuite, but I assure you it can be done. When I first joined Twitter I didn't have a smart phone. When I wasn't at a computer I used text messages to send tweets and to receive replies as well as tweets from specific accounts I selected. It's very easy.
When news hits in an area without strong Internet availability or where too many people are exhausting the available 3G/4G bandwidth tweets can still get in and out. This is particularly important in emergencies and events in remote regions. I even find it helpful at places like Lollapalooza.
3. Twitter allows you to rapidly discover a wide variety of sources
If you are trying to follow news on Facebook you could like the pages of some relevant news outlets and possibly follow some of the reporters. You are unlikely to find any of the normal citizens who may be witnessing the events unless they happen to already be your friends.
On Twitter you can follow anyone who is publicly tweeting about an event whether that person is a famous reporter or just someone from the area.
Follow this list of locals and journalists tweeting from Ferguson for news about the events there.
4. You can watch the hashtag
Yes, people like to make fun of hashtags. Yes, a lot of people overuse hashtags. Hashtags, however, are very useful at finding what is going on with a particular topic. Watching the #Ferguson hashtag is a quick way to find out what is going on in Ferguson.
Of course, getting news on Twitter is not perfect. Here are a couple of caveats.
Twitter can spread misinformation as rapidly as it does good information
Twitter's strenth is how quickly it can spread news, but that can also be a detriment. Misinformation can also spread quickly on Twitter, so it is important to think critically about what you see, consider the source, and seek corroborating evidence when possible.
Twitter is who you follow
Just being on Twitter doesn't mean that you will be well-informed. What you see on Twitter depends on who you follow, so if you follow people who don't care about breaking news you won't see any breaking news.
I currently have two active account. On my main account (@observacious) I follow over 1700 people most of whom I follow because they are intelligent and well-informed. That Twittter feed has been dominated with the #Ferguson hashtag. However, my Halloween-themed account (@Halloween4all) where I follow people solely because of their interest in Halloween-related topics has only rare mentions of #Ferguson.
If you want Twitter to be a valuable news source you need to follow people who tweet about news.
Even with the caveats, if you are interested in national and world events and aren't already using Twitter I recommend you try it.
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