Is Twitter breaking news now? Is that a thing?
Unless Twitter employs people who source and fact-check the information that
ricochets through its network, the answer is no, Twitter does not break news.
Individuals and organizations may use Twitter as a vehicle for breaking news, but
that's not the same thing as Twitter breaking news.
Yet some bloggers and media Web sites use language that suggests otherwise.
Following Whitney Houston's death on February 11, the media site Mashable.com
ran the headline, "Twitter Breaks News of Whitney Houston Death 27 Minutes
Before Press." The story and headline were picked up by Yahoo! News and
numerous media sites and blogs. In the past, Twitter has also been given credit by
bloggers as having broken the news of the deaths of Osama bin Laden and singer
While they might not mean it literally, bloggers and news organizations that
credit Twitter and other social networks with "reporting" or "breaking" news are
implying a contest between social networks and the press, in which lumbering
news organizations are smacked down by a faster and more agile rival. And
what journalist with healthy competitive instincts wouldn't feel a bit goaded or
threatened by that? The far less provocative truth is that the media are working
through Twitter, not racing against it.
Here's a timeline of the Whitney Houston Twitter activity that was eventually pieced
together by a Twitter employee:
• 4:02 p.m. PT on Saturday, February 11: @BarBeeBritt asks, "Is Whitney Houston
• 4:15 p.m.: @AjaDiorNavy tweets, "omgg, my aunt tiffany who work for whitney
houston just found whitney houston dead in the tub."
• 4:30 p.m.: @chilemasgrande tweets, "My sources say Whitney Houston found dead
in Beverly hills hotel.. Not in the news yet!!" (Presumably this is the post to which
Mashable was referring when stating that Twitter broke the news 27 minutes ahead
of the press.)
• 4:57 p.m.: The Associated Press is the first media outlet to announce the news.
The Twitterverse explodes, going from near-zero to 2.5 million tweets mentioning
Whitney Houston by 6 p.m.
While nearly an hour passed between the first known mention of Houston's death
and the AP's report, Twitter's timeline clearly shows that the story flatlined until the
AP tweet. It was that properly attributed post by a credible news organization with
a broad following that broke through the noise.
The relatively few people who saw the initial Whitney Houston tweets had reason
to be extremely skeptical. Social media death hoaxes have befallen countless very-
much-alive public figures, including President Barack Obama, Lady Gaga, Eddie
Murphy, Jon Bon Jovi and Chuck Norris (who, as fans noted, is invincible and cannot
be killed). "Twitter Death" has become a near-daily occurrence, prompting a great
many users to respond with caution when they hear that Madonna, Jackie Chan or
Snooki has gone to the great beyond. In that context, it's tough to make the case
that a handful of dubiously sourced Twitter posts by unknown individuals with
relatively small followings broke the news of Houston's death in any meaningful
way. Those early tweets were indistinguishable from other celebrity death rumors,
except that they turned out to be true.
Other examples might be more nuanced. In the case of Osama bin Laden's death
at the hands of U.S. forces in 2011, the first documented report came from former
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's chief of staff, who tweeted, "So I'm told by a
reputable person they have killed Osama bin Laden... Don't know if it's true, but
let's pray it is." In that case, the first person to tweet the information had far more
credibility than the individuals who first tweeted about Whitney Houston's death.
But, as he noted, the information was rumor until news outlets confirmed it.
No doubt, social networks have introduced a dynamic to the news ecosystem
that didn't exist before. Now, conversations that might have occurred between
a few individuals can be amplified exponentially to hundreds or thousands of
people within minutes. Information that was once mediated and filtered by news
organizations can be shared peer-to-peer. That's not scary or threatening; it's just
the new normal.
Rather than marginalizing the news media, Twitter and other social networks may
be reinforcing their value. A generation of social media users is learning — through
debunked reports and hoaxes — the difference between saying something and
reporting it. The ways in which people first hear information may have changed,
but their reliance on reporters to separate fact from fiction and provide depth and
context to the news has not.
In this particular aspect of the Houston story, the media performed well. The AP and
other news organizations reported accurate information, quickly, and leveraged
social media to do it. That might not sound as exciting as "Twitter Beats the Press,"
but it's closer to the truth.