Why Twitter’s army of ‘Mechanical Turks’ will not conquer breaking news

Twitter revealed this week that it uses Mechanical Turk — a crowdsourced pool of people — as an innovative way to help identify and classify search queries as soon as they’re trending. For example, the Mechanical Turks could associate the phrase “Big Bird” with a Presidential debate.

Twitter’s announcement prompted a tech blog to proclaim, “Watch out CNN, new Twitter search capabilities will rule breaking news.”  The premise: if humans can help organize trending content on Twitter — perhaps in its Discover tab — then “why would anyone get breaking news from another source?”

But there’s a big distinction between trending content and breaking news. While Twitter’s Turks will help bring much-needed context to the platform, they’re not journalists who verify whether something is true.  As we’ve seen with the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and Superstorm Sandy, Twitter rumors ran rampant.  Some rumors turned out to be true, but many were inaccurate or even malicious.  Some were important, others were trivial.

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At Breaking News, we rely on experienced journalists (that’s one of them, Stephanie Clary, above) to verify real-time reports and prioritize their importance.  We also add context, associating reports with ongoing stories, topics and locations.  But accuracy and importance — along with speed — are the essence of breaking news for any news organization.

Let’s take an example from Twitter’s own blog post: the tweet with a photo of Flight 1549 floating in the Hudson River from January 2009.  Using Mechanical Turk, they would be able to associate that tweet with searches for “plane crash,” for example, as well as elevate it on its Discover tab.  But Twitter won’t know whether the tweet and photo are real or fake.

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It turns out that Breaking News’ Lauren McCullough discovered that tweet when she worked at The Associated Press, quickly verifying its authenticity (and obtaining permission) before it was published — the first news organization to do so.  As it ran on the AP wire, hundreds of newsrooms picked up the photo, bringing a trustworthy story to the masses.

In recent years, Twitter’s platform has attracted a growing wave of eyewitness news reports scattered among a firehose of other tweets.  Its audience is growing, too.  Verification and prioritization matter more than ever.  That’s one reason Breaking News exists: we provide a verification layer over the crush of real-time reports, boiling it down to what’s true and what’s important to you.

We believe Twitter is not a sweeping substitute for breaking news, but a complement.  Some consumers get their breaking news from Twitter — that’s why @breakingnews is there — others get their breaking news directly from trusted sources.  Others do both interchangeably.  Twitter will not replace news organizations, but as it has, it will work in concert with them.

Just as Twitter is taking steps to become more relevant for its users, so are we.  We believe breaking news is broken in many ways — a broadcast-style of journalism grafted to the web — and we’re working on a new version of Breaking News reinvented around the mobile device. 

Stay tuned!  (Post by @corybe)

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    Smart piece on the new Twitter service I wrote about previously; verifying and validating are the critical elements of...
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    Wait, “Mechanical Turks?"
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    Breaking News
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