Twitter in 2012: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

IN many ways social media network Twitter came of age this year, now the world’s most popular truncated internet messaging service with over 500 million users, generating over 340 million tweets a day and ranking among the top ten most visited websites. A look back at this year's big stories reflects contributions from Twitter some good, some bad and some downright ugly that shows how cleverly it is being manipulated to suit the modern news cycle.

Thanks to enormous smartphone uptake and Twitter’s truncated messaging format, the medium has proved invaluable in emergencies. During Hurricane Sandy the medium saved countless lives with its ability to send live alerts from emergency services, and broke news first as the public posted video of the unfolding carnage, some 398,565 tweets in total.


Trolling became a buzzword when online attacks on TV host Charlotte Dawson saw the former model suffer a breakdown, an example of unattributed social media vitriol which saw Sydney’s Daily Telegraph create its Stop The Trolls campaign and Twitter make a policy change. The subject attracted more than a million tweets this year, and the debate continues about whether the answer is just “don’t feed the trolls” or if they are too widespread to ignore.


The now infamous comments from Alan Jones at a Young Liberals function
in September have been universally branded as ugly, even by 2GB's own management in a recent interview in Media. But public anger can now be instantly packaged into an online petition and jettisoned with a keystroke on to a sponsor's desk. The Destroy The Joint social campaign against Alan Jones drew 130,000 tweets and was hugely successful in that it cost 2GB an estimated $1.5 million in sponsorship. There was a similar social media response to 2Day FM hosts Mel Greig and Michael Christian over the suicide of a British nurse, after she fell for a hoax call about the Duchess of Cambridge's pregnancy. While Jones and the 2Day FM hosts did not cover themselves in glory, the vitriolic nature of some of the campaigns against Jones in particular equally drew criticism from media experts such as Michael Gawenda. It raises the question: are lynchmob campaigns, deserved or otherwise, good for journalism?


At the peak of the gender war, Opposition leader Tony Abbott featured more in the media than any other time this time this year, while PM Julia Gillard’s 36,085 mentions were outnumbered only by the Labor leadership contest in February. But sentiment varied wildly according to the medium, revealing a disconnect between political reporting and social media. Abbott was deemed sexist by many of the 1.87million YouTube viewers who watched the PM turn what began as the defence of Speaker Peter Slipper’s sexist texts into a stunning victory for feminism. This was the story that made it back to traditional media as the Twittersphere judged Gillard’s speech on content not context.


London 2012 was the most covered event in Australian media this year, garnering 68,287 mentions across print, radio, TV and online. But no medium could match Twitter, harnessed by opening ceremony producer Danny Boyle who flashed #savethesurprise on screen at the dress rehearsal, the term trending worldwide. While some athletes earned social media red cards at the games, the direct line to world leaders and movie stars, among the seven million tweets, was hard to beat.



Twitter hosts an array of aggregated news packaged up to form a notion of online sentiment. Take the Twitter Political Index: where computer algorithms tried to determine if tweets about Obama or Romney were positive or negative, publishing a daily score. Not only were the measurements inaccurate, they fanned their own flames, turning a simple news tracker into content when it was reported that the political news cycle was trending on Twitter, these days news itself. It created a perfect storm of inaccurate information propagating biased reporting and vice versa. On the upside, there was no mistake when Obama claimed victory with a tweet.


As newsroom resources are cut, does Twitter enable lazy journalism for those looking to it for content and unverified news? Remember the Twitter reports of the Qantas A380 crash that the media ran with? It hadn’t crashed. While journalists’ passion for the medium sees it punching above its weight, mainstream media oft looks to Twitter sentiment as news rather than at the story itself. Perhaps the true benefit of Twitter is in breaking news and as additional information for journalists to produce investigative content that will be more widely read.

UK’s Lord Macalpine recently sued those retweeting false allegations about him being a child molester. As academic Matthew Ricketson, told The Australian: "The law is slow and media is fast. If you have been defamed, you need quick redress not slow redress." The ugly social media outcry following the murder of Jill Meagher sent false accusations flying for days as the investigation progressed. Once a charge was laid, social media posts were met with calls for quiet from the judicial system, which feared it would taint due process.


Twitter's abridged messaging format simplifies discussion; trends become self-fulfilling prophecy often propagated by retweets, themselves the new 15 seconds of fame. But it does break news and it can save lives.

By John Chalmers, Group Communications Manager, iSentia in Global Connections.

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