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misTWinformation: When tweets turn ugly Add to ...

A couple of weeks ago I was doing an interview with a radio show in San Diego. As one of the hosts was introducing me, he mentioned what I do for a living and made a comment about my passion for collecting wristwatches. Wristwatches? Strange, I thought, considering that I've had the same watch for many years and don't have a back-up (let alone a collection). Following our chat I let him know that, while I do like to know the time, I haven't turned it into a hobby. Turns out he pulled the watch "fact" from Wikipedia, a minor piece of misinformation that led to an innocent and humorous exchange.

While Wikipedia has its fair share of misinformation, there is no site that can mislead more effectively than Twitter. To prove this, on Monday a Washington Post sports writer tweeted that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would get a five-game suspension due to a recent incident at nightclub. However, the facts proved different. As columnist Mike Wise later explained to his bosses at the Post, he tweeted this misinformation to see how quickly it would spread online (an experiment gone wrong).

Wise's tweet was picked up by major news organization's such as the Miami Herald. Thanks to his little experiment, he is now suspended for a month. While writers at The Post will probably be careful about sharing on Twitter, there are many out there who make it a habit to share inaccurate gossip on the popular microblogging site.

The most popular misinformation to circulate on Twitter often centres around celebrity deaths. A few weeks ago, tweeters were spreading the news that Bill Cosby was dead, leading the actor to post a message that he was alive and kicking (and had just launched an iPhone app). In February, Canadian music legend Gordon Lightfoot was proclaimed dead on Twitter. A major news service in Canada picked up on the rumour and went to air with it. Lightfoot's team quickly notified the media that the artist was alive and kicking, explaining that the news was simply yet another Internet hoax.

Most recently, a tweet about bed bugs at a film screening sent TIFF planners into a tizzy. When movie critic James Rocci posted that a friend suffered bites at the Scotiabank theatre on his "back, bottom, and thighs," the news spread like wildfire. Fortunately, the festival's organizers were quick to react, investigating the allegation and confirming that there were no bed bugs to be found.

Twitter is a great tool that makes it easy for anyone to have a platform to broadcast information. The site also easily facilitates casual conversations. With a 140-character limit, a tweet is a digestible piece of content that is easily shared. However, the very things that make Twitter great, can also lead to misuse. With so little space for text, there is little room for pesky little details like facts.

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