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Mandela ‘death’ hoax exposes weakness of Twitter as news platform

The retweet didn’t kill the newsman, after all. As it turns out, the growth of Twitter simply reiterates the essential role of journalists in sifting through and filtering the rumour mill that hangs around the neck of the information economy. And a good thing it is, too.

This past weekend, users on social network Twitter inadvertently spread a rumour that Nelson Mandela had died. Many contributed to its spread by asking in tweets whether the rumour of his death was correct, thus spreading news of the rumour, rather than the rumour itself, but the end result was pretty much the same.

Lots of South Africans were left asking whether the former South African president and struggle-icon, now 92 and for years subject to rumours on his health, was still alive.

As any journalist worth their salt would have done, phone lines to the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which manages Mandela’s name and legacy, and the African National Congress (ANC) got especially busy.

The Foundation dismissed reports of Mandela’s death, telling the media he was “well and on holiday.” It would later place a rather terse statement on its website saying “Mr Mandela is on holiday, resting. We would like to ask the media to respect his privacy. We have made a commitment in the past that should anything happen to Mr Mandela, we will inform the public.”

While it’s nice to know that the Foundation “have made a commitment” to inform the public in the case anything “should happen” to Madiba, they must also realise that they are probably not the only stakeholder in managing such news.

The ANC, in its statement railing against those behind the hoax and calling on Twitter to “stamp out misuse” on its network, described the (false) news of Mandela’s death as akin to creating “an atmosphere of panic and anxiety in the country”.

It’s a clear indication of how they view the sad but ultimately inevitable demise of South Africa’s beloved statesman and icon. “Those behind this hoax are certainly people without any interest in the political and economic stability of South Africa, which we very much owe to the immense contribution by comrade Nelson Mandela – the country’s first democratically-elected President,” the statement concluded.

Social media has been playing an increasingly important part in people’s right to access to information. It bypasses censors and puts information, sometimes true, sometimes false, in the public domain, which effectively puts it in the laps of journalists. It’s a key part of the job of journalists to follow up on rumours, even (rather especially) if they prove to be untrue, and present that confirmation or denial to the public.

But calls on Twitter to monitor tweets and weed out false rumours are incredibly short-sighted and will impose an immense legal burden on the network. It makes the platform responsible for the content, and is a short skip and step to regulatory intervention, and the further curtailing of the free flow and exchange of ideas and information.

At the same time most users know to check reputable news sources when reading “breaking news” on Twitter, and while Twitter can break a story, news sites tend to have the confirmation up in a matter of minutes.

It is interesting to note that News24 published a story, from one of its newspaper stable mates, the Afrikaans weekly Rapport, on the rumour headlined “Mandela is ill” in which it dispelled news of Mandela’s death but noted that “Mandela’s health had recently deteriorated”.

The story, republished on the biggest news portal in South Africa, continued by saying that “several rumours about his health and imminent passing away were recently proven to be untrue.

But according to a reliable source, this time was different.” Rapport, a Sunday paper, is definitely more sensationalist than the daily papers and wires which News24 traditionally pulls its content from. The story seems to suggest that the rumours have some basis in fact, and that while the former President may still be alive, his condition is fast deteriorating.

Senior editors at News24 must be asking whether it’s worth the risk to their reputation as the go-to source for South African news when they pull content from such a diverse pool of newspapers, some with a more populist streak than others, and each with a different core audience in mind.

It is worth noting that the original story, published on Saturday, differs substantially from the one published on in the paper on Sunday, which was headline “Mandela nié op sterfbed, maar wel siekerig” (Mandela not dying, only sickly).

Senior editors at News24 must be asking whether it’s worth the risk to their reputation as the go-to source for South African news when they pull content from such a diverse pool of newspapers, some with a more populist streak than others, and each with a different core audience in mind. It sounds like a reputational nightmare to me and intricately links their brand to that of another — one over which they have no say.

  • Read the original story here of the ‘death’ hoax here.

    Author | Herman Manson (@marklives)

    Herman Manson (@marklives)
    The inaugural Vodacom Social Media Journalist of the Year in 2011, Herman Manson (@marklives) is a freelance business journalist and media commentator who blogs at www.marklives.com and his writing has appeared in newspapers and magazines locally and abroad. He also co-founded Brand magazine and is a columnist for BizCommunity.com. More
    • Cmft

      Why would anyone take what is put on ‘twit er’ seriously. It’s a site for those retards who are onely interested in celebrity gossip, not for real people.
      Chris

    • Taking this into account while writing on microblogging and twitter. Thanks for the article. Follow my blog to stay informed.

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    • Amod Munga

      The headline to this article is misleading. This is a piece about irresponsible journalism and the failure to follow up on sources, rather than Twitter’s shortcomings as a news platform. Ironically, by using the headline, the writer has fallen into the very same trap of sensationalism as the people mentioned in the article.

      As to the point about Twitter being a news platform, it’s not. It’s a (mostly) unregulated public forum. And anything that’s said there must be considered hearsay, rumour or speculation and must be substantiated with fact before being reported as news. That’s Journalism 101.

      And while Chris may not regard Twitter as being anything other than celebrity gossip, it’s worth pointing out that for the journos who took time to exercise that aforementioned due diligence, Twitter provided leads to some of the previous year’s biggest stories, like the USAirways flight that crashed in the Hudson River or the protests in Iran to name two.

    • On the contrary – this hoax, which is not unlike the many other internet celebrity death hoaxes points to its use as a disseminator of news and ideas, which is its strength. There has never been any pretence that twitter is any sort of respected journal its just a platform. In fact Herman the main thrust of your article confirms this and does not support your headline.

      It would be like saying that the printing press is discredited because it has been used to print propaganda.

      Twitters role in news is to give you a heads up and quickly spread that heads up . Anyone with any sense would use that head now lifted to check the story by looking for collaborating sources. Journalist would use that heads up as a news lead.

      The only news really was the ludicrous statement by ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu calling on a twitter investigation – much like trying to hold vodacom responsible for an SMS carried by their platform. How out of touch can you get?

      Maybe the real story though is once again to prove just how powerful and how effective Twitter is.

      Oh then there is the earlier commentator on this post. Chris; Oh well a wise man once remarked about it being better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and to confirm that fact.

    • I might be a huge believer and I got upset with the “RIP JUSTIN BIEBER” – thing. But joking with Nelson Mandela’s death is the most sick thing

    • Herman Manson

      Hi Walter – we make many of the same points – only our angle differs slightly. You say the whole hoax proves how effective Twitter really is in spreading information (it is!) and I say the hoax proves how ineffective Twitter can be as a medium for news. Twitter is hugely influential – no argument about that. People might not trust the platform but they do trust their friends, and if your friends are wondering out loud whether Madiba is alive or not, you might start wondering too, before rushing over to Google news and double check.
      Within the journalistic profession there is a real debate as to the impact of Twitter on how we disseminate news and gather news stories and sources. This story explores some of the constraints of Twitter as a vehicle for gathering news, why journalists remain relevant at a time when a lot of people are turning to social media for news, and indeed why it is important for Twitter to remain free as a publishing platform.

    • Hi Herman

      Yes we are actually on the same page, with a different perspective. I say it doesn’t matter whether twitter is ineffective as a news medium!

      I wrote an article once on how the newspaper industry had got it wrong – they think they are in the paper business whereas in fact they are in the news business and that we are entering a golden age of publishing and writing. But not in the way we know it.

      It is a nuance – but I think that its an important one.

    • My feeling is this has little to do with Twitter as a platform and everything to do with its use. Twitter is a platform with good, bad, useful, and useless information. It can be a good news platform, and a bad news platform at times, and both at the same time. The point is: What people do people do with that information and how do they use it.

      Journalists should know about checking sources and verifying information, and most get it right. For non-journalists — it’s a skill that is being understood and learnt and will become part of online culture in the future.

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