Twitter and the Bangalore bomb blasts: Part II – Verification

A series of bomb blasts was detonated in Bangalore last Friday, killing two people and injuring several others. Mukund Mohan, a technology entrepreneur, who was working nearby, decided he would provide updates on what was happening using Twitter, a micro-blogging tool that enables people to publish short, 140-character, updates online. Prompted by some interesting comments, this is the second post in a series looking at how reporting on Twitter compares with more traditional methods of journalism. The first post is here, the third is here, and the final post is here.
It’s not difficult to imagine a situation whereby a twitterer, for whatever reason, might try to hoax a news organisation or simply give out false information. While it might be argued that it’s easier to fool someone on the web, it’s hardly a new editorial concern. In January of this year, Sky News was conned by two ‘eyewitnesses’ in the flesh who falsely claimed to have been on the aeroplane that crash-landed at Heathrow airport.
I am confident, though, that Mohan was not making up anything that he twittered. His tweets carried a certain authenticity and some of what he was saying could be confirmed by other twitterers and news sources.
There were other ways in which Mohan’s account could be practically verified too.
1. He was not tweeting anonymously, and he is open about his identity online. Sceptics might say that this information could be completely made up – a journalist has no real way of checking the identity of the individual. But when a journalist contacts someone by telephone in a breaking news situation he might have even less to go on.
When journalists talk about using sources, they often refer to reliable sources as having a ‘track record’. The best sources are those people they’ve spoken to, or know, beforehand who have given them useful or trustworthy information.
The web enables journalists to check somebody’s online track record in order to help ascertain their value as a source. But only if they know how to do so and are involved in online communities. As one way of checking, I looked at Mohan’s blog. Here I found information about who he is and a photo. He also discusses travelling to Bangalore. I find it very hard to believe that Mohan has been keeping a made-up blog about his work since at least February of this year just so he can give out false information about a news event.
There’s no similar recourse to information when you simply phone someone up. They could equally lie to a journalist about their name, background and occupation and it would be much less time consuming than writing a blog for several months.
2. It would also have been straightforward to try and contact Mohan to aid the verification process, as his mobile phone number and his email address were available on his blog. (Calls from outside of India seemed to be working at the time of the attack even if the local network was down). Or, of course, you could have sent him a message on Twitter.
3. If you read Mohan’s updates there is evidence that this was unlikely to be a hoax. He consistently twittered for several hours; when he quoted police commissioners he used their correct names; and his updates were detailed and not general.
4. In a blog post, (admittedly written after the event), he also demonstrates that he employed some excellent journalistic skills in his approach to reporting eye-witness accounts and information that was passed to him. So if you’re still not convinced he had a sufficient ‘track-record’ to be trusted beforehand, he should have now.
Tomorrow: Does Twitter ‘hype’ news?