Tweeting Is Believing? Understanding Microblog Credibility Perceptions
Twitter’s real-time updates makes it uniquely suited for broadcasting breaking news. However, the service seems to attract hackers and pranksters, ranging from a political impersonator‘s unusual policy suggestions to a bogus report of Obama’s supposed assassination. How does a reader determine what is true on Twitter?
A 2012 paper from Carnegie Mellon University and Microsoft Research presented at the annual Computer Supported Cooperative Work conference, “Tweeting Is Believing? Understanding Microblog Credibility Perceptions,” analyzes how users assess a tweet’s credibility. The researchers examine survey and experimental data captured from college-educated participants ages 18 to 60 who found tweets in a variety of ways; collectively, the survey group found them through “searches on search.twitter.com (84%), clicking trending topics on the Twitter homepage (84%), searching for tweets using Bing’s and Google’s social search functionality (72%), or serendipitously encountering tweets mixed into the results of general Web searches (81%).”
Key study findings include:
- Users assessing the credibility of an isolated tweet divorced from contextual markers such as the author bio and number of retweets are forced to rely on limited — and unreliable — cues such as subject matter or author prominence.
- Perceptions of the author’s influence, topical expertise and reputation all enhance a tweet’s credibility. Additional measures include the public profiles of tweeters and how often their posts are retweeted. “Features that often are obscured in the user interface, such as the bio of a user, receive little attention despite their ability to impact credibility judgments.”
- Typical users are not unduly concerned with the credibility of tweets on celebrity news and restaurant reviews, but are concerned with the veracity of breaking news and political content. They tend to most trust tweets from individuals they follow and trending topics listed on Twitter, and are very concerned about the credibility of tweets they find through Twitter searches and online search engines.
- While the perceived credibility of a tweet was linked to its author, it was not associated with the truthfulness of the tweet itself. This held true regardless of the assessor’s experience with Twitter; in fact, more experienced users typically rated tweets as more credible overall. “Those with more experience with a given technology view it as a more credible information source” than those with less experience.
- Tweets on science topics are rated as more credible than tweets on politics or entertainment topics; tweets with a topical user name relating to the discussed topic (i.e., ScienceNow) are rated as more credible than those with traditional (i.e., John Smith) or Internet (JSmith84) style user names.
- Users represented by the default Twitter icon are perceived as significantly less credible than users with any other type of icon image.
But even under the best circumstances, the authors caution, “Tweet consumers should keep in mind that many of these [trustworthy] metrics can be faked to varying extents.”
Tags: ethics, technology, news, cognition, Twitter
Note to instructor: The suggested lessons are designed for flexibility. The goal is to have students understand how to convey the study’s findings accurately and to consider techniques for making the subject matter broadly accessible. In addition, it is well worth discussing how the study was put together and the intellectual context from which it comes. There is also a related news article in the study analysis section.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?
Read the Microsoft Research paper “Tweeting Is Believing? Understanding Microblog Credibility Perceptions.”
- What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Read the issue-related Foreign Policy article titled "Fake Wendi Deng Account Casts Doubt on Twitter Verification."
- What key insights from the study and article should reporters consider as they cover Twitter content and credibility? What assumptions should reporters remain skeptical of?