Political retweets do mean endorsement

There are not too many results that Social Media research has discovered in the last few years that are as accurately reproducible as the title of this blog: Political RTs do mean endorsement. I have written a few things about the related research in my “Three Social Theorems” blog post a few weeks ago (this being the first theorem), and it was the theme of my talk during the “Truthiness in Digital Media” symposium at the Berkman Center.

This does not mean that every political RT is an endorsement. (If that were the case I could break it with a retweet right now). But it means that, when people retweet, that is, when they broadcast unedited to their own followers a tweet they received, most of the time they have read it, and thought that it is worth spreading. They practically endorse it.

If we realize the above, then we should not be very surprised by the spreading of the false news about Gov. Nikki R. Haley that the New York Times is reporting today “A Lie Races Across Twitter Before the Truth Can Boot Up“. While the reporter Jeremy Peters is impressed by the speed of the false news, detailing the path that it took (very good journalistic work, indeed), his most important point, I believe, is the one he makes in the second paragraph:

[…] it left news organizations facing a new round of questions about accountability and standards in the fast and loose “retweets do not imply endorsement” ethos of today’s political journalism.

Interestingly, it is mainly a few journalists that feel the need to explicitly mention in their personal profile description a disclaimer to the effect “My Retweets do not mean agreement”. In fact, out of more than 83,000 profile descriptions that my colleague Prof. Eni Mustafaraj  and I  have in our database of election-related tweets, we found only 53 that mention this disclaimer.  31 of them belong to journalists.

Should we expect more such lies to race across social media in the remaining months before the elections? Probably yes.
Should we expect journalists to be much more cautious the next time they retweet something from a source they do not trust? Certainly yes.

But the good news is that, lies, in general, have shorter, more questioned lives in Social Media. See Social Theorem 2 for the supporting research in this one.
Does it mean that no lie will ever be spread? Of course not.
But it means that most of the time they will be caught, especially as more people are aware of the RT Theorem and care about the truth.

Do all people care about the truth? Of course not. Take for example, Mr. Smith, the originator of the false blog post.



1 Comment »

  1. Harry Shearer

    April 10, 2012 @ 5:06 pm


    Oh, Lord, I wish it were true that “lies…have shorter, more questioned lives in Social Media”. But the meta-canard about New Orleans in 2005–that the flooding was caused by a natural disaster–has been abundantly, meticulously, scientifically disproved in two exhaustive forensic engineering studies of the event. Yet, journalists tweeting (and writing) about New Orleans continue to fling about the “Katrina drowned New Orleans” meme. I know. As a maker of a documentary film about the investigations, I’ve made it a part-time job to correct these folks (most recently Charles Pierce in an Esquire blog post). This particular canard is now more than seven years old, and shows no sign of slowing down.

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