Thu, 05/07/2009 - 09:01 — Igor Donchenko
The social network Twitter has become extremely popular in quite a short time, with several million members. In brief Twitter is a community where the members are able to post information (about whatever) of up to 140 characters. Members of this community are able to follow other members' postings, and may thus be updated about friends' and others' activities and interests.
One should however, as always be cautious and observe common sense.
Usually these security articles focus on technical issues. This time we will discuss a technological phenomenon from a more sociological perspective, and use the most talked-about incident these days as a kind of case study - the swine flu.
One should not underestimate the usefulness of social networks like Facebook, Twitter and similar. Most likely we have only seen the tip of the iceberg regarding the availability, spreading and general use of these networks. In the years to come, new variants will appear with functionality far beyond what we have seen so far.
Twitter, which is the network that is discussed here, has shown its strength as a social tool for friends to be in closer contact, as a powerful political tool (used with great success by the US President Obama during his campaign), and as a mobilizing tool for arranging "spontaneous" demonstrations. It is extremely easy to post a small Twitter message (called "update" in the Twitter community), and thereby spread this message literally world-wide in a few seconds.
One of the weaknesses of the Internet itself is however worth discussing. This weakness is even more obvious for Twitter postings than for general web pages.
The quality of information
A (relevant) criticism of the Internet and how easy it is to publish information, is that the quality of the information is not secured. Any amateur can publish information as quick and easy as the expert of the topic. It is therefore recommended that you check several different Internet sources to make certain that the information you come across is true. One of the characteristics that makes an article on the Internet more trustworthy, is the arguments, discussion, references, and links to other sources within the article.
Which finally brings us to the main point of this article:
Twitter's 140 characters message restriction represents a potential misinformation hazard.
It is simply not possible to publish any in-depth analysis of an issue with that few characters at one's disposal. The information will therefore be of a headline type, which may be dangerous.
The swine flu
When this article is written the swine flu is the most popular topic on Twitter according to the network's own search engine. New Twitter postings with this as the content are currently exceeding more than one per second!
In itself this of course is not a problem. It may however be dangerous regarding a phenomenon that is as new as the swine flu. Extremely little information about the disease is available. One does not really know details regarding the danger of infection, death-rate of those infected, full details about medication that works (and does not) - the list continues.
Headline-like Twitter postings telling that there are rumors of infected person(s) here and there, new countries have got the disease, more deaths have been reported (which may not be due to the swine flu at all), will easily inspire hysterical reactions by some readers, rather than useful information about what the real danger is wherever one lives.
It is therefore wise not to use Twitter and similar social networks as one sole source of information regarding topics that require more than headlines to be sufficiently informed.
Different communication technologies have various strengths and weaknesses. This is important to be aware of when one is using these to collect information. If possible, try to verify the information from different sources using various technologies.