Student guest post: Sorting truth from parody on Twitter

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the ninth of those posts. Brooke Pryor is a junior majoring in journalism on the reporting track. She is an assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel and will be an intern with the Colorado Springs Gazette this summer.

In the age of the Internet, it seems like we have instant access to celebrities and public figures. Through Twitter and Facebook, ordinary people like you and me can get information directly from the source without having to pick up a telephone. It’s as easy as reading a status update or a new tweet.

Or is it?

Outlets like ESPN, the Huffington Post and TMZ report tweets from celebrities as indisputable facts. A tweet from the account of a public figure should be taken as a fact, right?

Tiger Woods tweets that he’s in a relationship with Lindsey Vonn. It’s from his verified account, so it must be true.

But what if these tweets from celebrities and other public figures weren’t as ironclad as they appear to be.

A new service called “Let Me Tweet That For You” generates a realistic-looking tweet from any account. It’s simple — just type in the name of the account and what the tweet should say, and the service creates a tweet that can be captured and shared.

In a world where journalists and editors already have to stay on their toes to avoid Internet hoaxes or misinformation, this addition of fake tweets only adds to the confusion and frustration of copy editors trying to check facts.

While Twitter is a great resource for breaking news and disseminating information across the globe at breakneck speed, the rise of these websites and parody accounts makes it increasingly difficult to use Twitter as a trustworthy source.

After the recent selection of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new pope, a fake Twitter account for the new head of the Catholic Church was shut down. The account had been up for nearly six months, but after Bergoglio was chosen, people began tweeting to the fake account in congratulations. The fake account gained more than 100,000 followers before being suspended.

This case is a prime example of why copy editors have to be wary before trusting a Twitter account. It’s important to be extra careful when linking to the tweets in a story or putting together a Storify page. As instances of parody accounts and fake tweets rise, it will be increasingly difficult to go to twitter for information.