For the odd moments I can manage to think of something.

Ask without influence


People who know me (and those who don’t may get the gist), realise quickly that I ask a lot of questions. I guess I fall into interview mode quite often. Wise old owl and all that. The more I listen, the more I can learn.

I’ve noticed in a couple of incidents online that asking questions can also influence others in ways that are not always positive. The two that come to mind are associated with events and happenings that could affect a great many people.

I had a call about something happening around Oxford Circus in London – some police around and a siren heard, the person on the phone wondered if I was nearby and did I know what was happening?
– Nope. But of course I was curious – like any person living in the Capital, you know this will affect the Tube and probably your journeys that day. So I put a call out on Twitter…”Anyone at Oxford Circus?”
The first messages I got back were from people sounding somewhere between curious and mildly unnerved. More came in from people a little closer, there had been a fire engine and some cops – but essentially nothing to get fussed about.
I was unsure though. As I have been trained – if I cannot see it, I need a trusted source, otherwise I’d just be passing on irrelevant or worse information. Basically, adding to a panic.

Second case:
Much broader – swine flu. I know, were all bombarded with information so I’ll keep it short. There are cases cropping up, closer to home for me and others and there is also plenty of data online to help people learn the facts. But this doesn’t stop people having a panic or creating noise that is not so helpful. It’s been trending on twitter for days, so I guess we are all at it. So it’s giving me pause for thought when I ask questions of people online. I’d want to be sure that I am not adding to the brouhaha.

I had the privilege of talking to Marcel Salathe recently. He studies epidemics at Stanford. He also has a neat area of study ongoing asking people what they know and how they feel about swine flu. Then he can see if this feeling online can influence what is happening on the ground, in real life. If traditional meeting places are not great as a virus could be passed on, people communicate online about what is happening, swap links and pass on news. But they will also pass on things that are not news. It bears considering.

Thinking further, I wondered about what happens around various conflicts or even smaller cases of civil unrest. So many of us are wired, it’s so simple to send something and have that repeated or even corrupted and repeated.

I see a lot of propaganda emails, some with the sort of imagery no one should see from places of war and violence. Of course there must be a source and yes, these messages have origins that are terrible, but also they are cut and pasted into new scenarios, painting current events with a grim hue, falsely.

Marcel pointed out to me that calming misinformation is hard, but that people will also listen to some extent to the truth if it is put out there too. I wonder if human nature likes hyperbole though and that messages in the ether can be more damaging than the things we have to face in our real and fleshy lives.

What sort of data do you pass on?

If you want to take the Stanford survey, it’s here.

8 Responses to “Ask without influence”

  1. @ijeanes


    I was thinking about this. I’m almost a case study for your observation here. A lot of the information I export is information that has been shared and, of course, no doubt changed. Twitter is the perfect machine for this kind of information manipulation. Facts riddled with bias and opinion. Selective pieces of information that are tweeted and then shared via Retweets.

    Wouldn’t it be great if we create another platform called Earwigger, for example, that literaly captures information that people overhear and see the impact that selective text has on rumours and gossip spreading. It would be a haven for panic and presumption. A nice little experiment to highlight exactly the kind of influences that sharing information which hasn’t been validated on Twitter has on today’s media driven world.

  2. jemimahknight

    Nice thought @ijeans.
    Though I think twitter sort of does this already in many ways – it’s down to the reader to make it what they need or want. You can use a twitter sorter like seesmic desktop or tweetdeck to sort out your rumour mill from your regular news too – I go off new platforms quickly – if they are specific – mostly because i enjoy the firehose nature of all the general tweets.

    You make the app though and I’ll certainly come to take a look!


  3. @ijeanes

    Ha. Well of course I won’t be building it myself, was just a thought.

    Yes Twitter does have tha capability already, the difference between following individuals and businesses I guess. A person only has to represent themselves whereas a company/business account has to ensure the information they’re providing is acurate and from a reliable source.

    I, admittedly, am terrible at information researching on twitter. I don’t take everything as gospel but I listen to opinion as a reflection on character and it’s the opinions that I then take on and share. I’m a listener and reader by character but incredibly impulsive too, so I instantly jump on information the moment I receive it and wait to be corrected. Upon reflecting it is something I should certainly reconsider. In my blogs now, whilst they are riddled with my outlook and opinion, I’ve stopped writing careless blogs about facts I’ve read without ensuring i’ve got the facts write and the source reliable. Perhaps it’s in my nature to provoke.

    How do you rate twitter for information sourcing?

  4. Ian Campbell

    Earwigger sounds intriguing … a threaded Twitscoop perhaps. I think of Twitter as a watercourse, some days its a gentle alpine stream, with lyrical insights and tidbits occasionally drifting past; at other times its a technological Styx, full of dark tidings, gossip and foul rumour; abandon hope any who dare join the flow. When treated with respect and due diligence, the river of information provides both wonderful insights and valuable information, in a manner both more timely and, for the way I work at least, often more palatable manner, than other means.

    Personally, I provide little of import to the flow, occasional tirades hidden behind borrowed verse, or mindless replies to passing leaves when I all too oft forget that its not really a global IM; but whilst old in years, I’m young in Twitter-years, I’ll learn.

  5. @ijeanes

    I need to find you on Twitter. You command English like a powerful ruler of a successful empire.

    I agree with you entirely. There is much inspiration from the torrent of thoughts from the vividly vocal yet it is sometimes tarnished by ramblings of the crazy and angry. I find it all so intoxicating but only in the way that makes me enjoy life much more and understand that information can be not only perceived differently but also distributed differently. It’s like that text you received which was taken totally out of context, only a powerful machine which generates a million of them.

    • Ian Campbell

      Whilst I love words, as poor JK and others know from my love of Twitter’s reply mechanic, my musings are mostly moronic or blatantly boring; time, there’s never enough to practice the craft … and apostrophes are ever my nemesis. If these cautionary words have proved insufficient, @shyndarkly offers complete confirmation.

      Btw, just took a peek through your blog; now that’s well crafted use of language, nice work!

  6. jemimahknight

    I think the thing to remember is that Twitter is not there for providing sourcing or provenance or accuracy. Not any more than your phone should tell you if something is true.

    It’s how you use it. Do your homework and make sure your facts are straight – general good rules for journos eh? Otherwise why would you bother reading the news anywhere?

  7. jemimahknight

    Thank you @shyndarkly kind and encouraging words indeed.


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