"We should have hung them when they were ten. Killing children is wrong" - Retweeting without verification

 by Martin Belam, 9 March 2010

Yesterday I tweeted a comment I'd noticed on the Daily Mail website underneath an article about Jon Venables:

Best ever user comment in the Mail? "We should have hung them when they were ten. Killing children is wrong" http://bit.ly/cTnFrE
My original tweet

Whether the original comment was intentionally funny or not, my message got retweeted quite a bit, and I noticed something curious about the way it was distributed. A lot of the retweets missed off the link to the source. People echoed the message with an audit trail of sometimes 2 or 3 retweeters, but with no link to the Mail to verify the message.

A linkless retweet

I found it odd that the link was the disposable bit. I did a quick analysis of Twitter search results this evening for "killing children is wrong", and found that around 35% of tweets taking that quote from the Mail's comments did not have a link back to the paper's website.

It seemed like a classic example of where the assertion that 'something has happened' by trusted peers was more valuable than a hyperlink that actually demonstrated that 'something has happened and here is the evidence'.

In the news industry we are discussing the importance of open linked data to establish provenance, and Ben Goldacre is campaigning for the BBC to link to precise academic articles rather than homepages. This struck me as evidence that for a lot of people, if the soundbite is good enough, people will repeat it without credit regardless.


I retweeted your Tweet, and it got picked up by a couple of my popular followers so it kept on getting retweeted throughout the day, so I kept on getting pinged in Twhirl and saw this evolve first-hand.

There's two factors to consider here - firstly the Mail either pulled the comment in question, or it got buried under a load of others (despite my best attempts I can't find it now). So all of a sudden the link to the evidence became a lot less valuable, which is perhaps why people discarded it (a lesson in the value of permalinks and not relying on AJAX-loaded comments which the Daily Mail have chosen to ignore).

And it's not necessarily the case that people didn't want to give evidence - once the original content got lost, one enterprising retweeter replaced the Daily Mail link with a screengrab in an attempt to make sure it lived on - a Twitter search shows this particular grab lives on.

Secondly, it's a by-product of Twitter's character limit - once you add in "RT @username0 @username1 @username2" you're running out of space for the rest of the Tweet, so whatever's at the end will get lopped off. It would be interesting to see the URL removal rate for a similar Tweet where the URL was at the start, not the end.

Could it simply be that people didn't want to give the Mail any more page impressions?

All very valid possibilities. It has been fascinating to watch it spread and mutate - it has certainly made my @replies inbox unusable at the moment!

Like Adam said...perhaps people deliberately didn't want to link to the Mail website? When Jan Moir wrote *that* Gately piece last year, I created a Google doc with the article text as I noticed that lots of people on Twitter didn't want to click on the Mail link and give the site traffic. The Google Doc was re-tweeted hundreds of times.

It's an education, education, education.

I was curious and had a look for the original comment (around 9pm last night). I found it by clicking on the "worst rated" tab, and sure enough it was there at number 2. This morning it looks like the Mail has disabled comments on that story altogether.

I'm not surprised the link fell off on the retweeted versions. People retweet this sort of thing because it reinforces their prejudices about Mail readers, and they retweet it to like-minded people in order to reinforce such prejudices.

So in that sense the "evidence" becomes irrelevant, or of secondary importance. Think how many people saw the link and assumed the quote was accurate simply because a link had been provided. I only clicked on the link when I wanted to pass the quote on to someone else, and thought I'd better double check (having worked as a journalist I'm aware of how easy it is to be stung by this sort of thing).

If it is the character conventions, then retweeting everyone who retweets it before you is just stupid. I always retweet the originator and whoever I saw retweet (thats a lot of uses of the word retweet).

I am sure those in between won't lose sleep over silly 'twetiquette'....

I retweeted your tweet sans link (though can't remember if it arrived to me already without the link via another retweet). Thought nothing of it, other than to say the original tweet said everything that needed to be said given it seemed to quote the original comment at length. Didn't occur to me to look for the original link either, as I took it on trust ... which is kind of the point of Twitter for me - news from trusted sources.

I trusted Chris (@qwghlm), Alistair (@duckorange) and yourself enough not to click through - knowing that if I did I'd be confronted with a page of hate.

I suppose if I were enough of a social media wanker I'd go on about it being a great example of the power of a standalone tweet, news from trusted people and all that.

Twitter is like that in a way, much like the mutation of news reporting both online and on television. A reporter might give certain content back to his editor, by the time it gets published it says something totally different, then people read it and take what they want from it, and those people mutate the information yet again on to the their friends. People just have a sense of possession on information, even if they didn't find it, they want to "own" it in a way.

It is amazing how people will believe something when they see it written down. It's like the mind doesn't even bother to stop and think about what is happening.

Brilliant tweet thought, and I bet 90% of people didn't even spot the genius of it.

Typical comment I'd expect from a Daily Mail reader but a very valid point, the web has made it possible for information (correct or otherwise) to pass quickly and without any verification.

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