- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 2, 2009

NEW YORK

Cassy Hayes and Jasmine Coleman were among the first fans to arrive outside the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, where Michael Jackson was brought and later pronounced dead.

How had Miss Hayes, 25, and Miss Coleman, 21, heard the news so quickly? Twitter.

The two young women had learned about Mr. Jackson’s health the same way many get their news nowadays: by reading the ever-flowing feed of real-time information on the microblogging service.

Mr. Jackson’s unexpected death at 50 was just the latest major news event for which Twitter played a central role. But just as quickly as Twitter has emerged as a news source, so, too, has its susceptibility to false rumors become abundantly apparent.

The extraordinary amount of news coverage the mainstream media has devoted recently to Twitter has led some to think the press is in love with the three-year-old microblogging service. But it’s a jealous love.

Twitter’s constantly updating record of up-to-the-minute reaction has in some instances threatened to usurp media coverage of breaking news. It also has helped many celebrities, athletes and politicians bypass the media to get their messages directly to their audience.

Make no mistake about it, Twitter has, in many ways, been a boon to the media. It’s one more way a story might go viral, and it’s arguably the best way for a news outlet to get closer to its readership. Most outlets have a presence on Twitter with a feed directing readers to their respective sites.

However, even in an Internet world that for years has eroded the distance between media and consumer, Twitter is a jolt of democratization to journalism.

To date, the most salient, powerful example of Twitter’s influence has been Iranian protesters using the service (among many other methods) to assemble marches against what they consider an unjust election.

Early in the protests, the State Department even urged Twitter to put off maintenance that temporarily would have cut off service. Twitter is difficult for governments to block because tweets - 140 characters or less - can be uploaded from mobile phones like text messages. (The Iranian government nevertheless has often succeeded in blocking Twitter, Facebook and other social networks.) Further, many Americans were upset at what they considered CNN’s thin early coverage of the revolution in Iran and voiced their complaints (where else?) on Twitter. Some said they preferred news on Twitter to that on the cable news network.

Twitter also produced eyewitness accounts of the Mumbai terrorist attacks last year. And when the U.S. Airways jetliner crashed into New York’s Hudson River, Twitter was among the first places photos of the landing were linked.

The popular technology blog TechCrunch recently questioned whether Twitter is “the CNN of the new media generation.” “Twitter absolutely changes the media landscape,” said Ross Dawson, author and communications strategy analyst. “I like to refer to Marshall McLuhan’s description of media as ‘an extension of our senses.’ Now, Twitter is extending our senses to tens of millions of people who are often right on the scene where things are happening.”

However, comedian Michael Ian Black, a popular figure on Twitter, notes that while Twitter enables someone to “communicate very directly with people,” it also allows one to keep them “totally at arm’s length.” There are no follow-up questions on Twitter if the user chooses not to hear them. When tweets replace an interview or a press conference, something is lost. Twitter - where brevity can neatly do away with messy details -thus can be used to control one’s message and image.

Cyclist Lance Armstrong, for example, has caused some news organizations to question how they approach Twitter. Mr. Armstrong, who’s in the midst of a comeback bid, often treats Twitter as his primary news outlet.

In May, during the Tour of Italy, Mr. Armstrong’s end run around the media caused some news organizations to boycott his tweets. VeloNews.com, the Web site for a competitive cycling magazine, avoids using Twitter to establish facts without independent sourcing.

“It’s one-sided,” says VeloNews.com editor Steve Frothingham, a former Associated Press reporter. “It’s us just sitting there taking what he’s giving. We can’t just not ask follow-up questions, we can’t ask any questions.”

Truthfulness, however, remains the biggest problem. In the days following Mr. Jackson’s death, fake reports frequently had to be knocked down by news organizations that do the fact checking. Mr. Dawson notes that established media channels still have a virtual monopoly on credibility.

Erroneous declarations of celebrity deaths have been one trend.

Patrick Swayze, who is battling pancreatic cancer, recently had to announce that he is indeed still alive after thousands of Twitter users spread the news that he was dead.

Jeff Goldblum had to do the same. On Monday, he appeared on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” to confirm his warmbloodedness. While involvement in the protests in Iran might be Twitter’s most meaningful achievement thus far, some have noted that many inaccuracies were circulated. That has raised the concern that some people or governments may use Twitter to spread disinformation even more dangerous than suggesting Mr. Goldblum is dead.

Andrew Keen, author of “The Cult of the Amateur,” says Twitter - and whatever real-time Web services follow in its wake - represents the future of both the Internet and media.

But Mr. Keen says the Iran coverage on Twitter “exposes all the weakness of the service, the fact that it’s so chaotic and unreliable. Who knows who’s tweeting what?

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