Letter: Bad Information Travels Fast

To the Editor:

How much thought goes into reading a Twitter message? Not much, judging from The New York Times’ report of the Dow’s response to the following tweet: “Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured.” The Dow Jones Industrial Average temporarily dropped by 150 points, erasing $136 billion in market value. As the Times asked in its April 28 issue: Could the global economy hinge on 140 characters? This is an alarming possibility!

It’s not as if we’re historically unfamiliar with false alarms creating undue public panic. Recall Sen. Joe McCarthy’s warnings of a “plot” at the highest reaches of the government “to reduce security and intelligence protection to a nullity.” Or President Lyndon Johnson asserting that “opponents of his Vietnam policy were part of an international Communist conspiracy.”

Though such pronouncements fanned public fears of Bolshevism, one can imagine how much more quickly public panic would have ensued had tweeting existed at the time. We cannot prevent such statements being made. But we can question them. In an age of almost instantaneous dissemination of information, it is essential that we think before we act.

How can we ensure that the use of technology produces results that cohere to our basic democratic values?

Given the potentially disastrous consequences of sending false messages on Twitter, I would argue that we ought to require the sender to identify his/her source of information. For example, if I tweeted that anyone with a modicum of means could purchase a drone for $299.95, I would need to disclose my source — the Apple store on the Internet , for example. Similarly, tweeting a message about explosions at the White House without providing any way to verify it, should engender skepticism and a demand for the source of that information. Why did no one initially question this report?

Bob Scobie