Two recent university graduates have decided to stop updating the fake Twitter account they created for UK foreign secretary David Miliband, the Guardian reported. The fake account attracted attention when several news outlets including the Guardian, AFP, the Times and the Telegraph picked up the Miliband impersonators' tribute to Michael Jackson, once again highlighting the need for verification when journalists deal with social media.
The quote "Never has one soared so high and yet dived so low. RIP Michael" was published in several papers. Rory Crew and Knud Noelle claim that they were not aiming to trick the media, but think that journalists "learned something" about not taking such things at face value. They wrote in an email to the Guardian that "It does highlight the importance of the verification of sources, which is clearly becoming more difficult in the web 2.0 era." Crew expressed disappointment in the media and said he believes the mistakes were made as a result of newspapers cutting sub editors and hence falling behind on fact checking.
Social media such as Twitter opens up a vast new set of resources for journalists but also an array of potential pitfalls. Twitter can offer unprecedented insight into the thoughts of public figures, and breaking news information that could be otherwise unobtainable, but only, of course, if the accounts are real. Twitter can be used as a source like any other: journalists can contact the owner of the account and ask for more contact details and information for verification.
Sometimes, however, this is not possible, in a situation such as that in Iran following the recent election crisis, where censorship and unreliable Internet connections made it extremely difficult to contact people or double-check facts. Many news outlets ended up reporting unverified news broken via Twitter, which is fine as long as it is clearly stated that this news has not been confirmed. Arguably in such a news blackout, any news is better than none at all.
However, there are fewer excuses in the case of the fake Miliband account for not verifying information before reporting it. Looking down the list of 'tweets,' there are some which should have set of alarm bells, and it would not have been hard to contact the Foreign Office and check that Miliband did indeed have a Twitter account. The incident is reminiscent of one a few weeks ago when a student revealed he had inserted a fake quote into a Wikipedia entry for Maurice Jarre shortly after the composer's death that was then picked up by newspapers across the world. The lesson from these events is clear: journalists writing for trustworthy sources should not publish unverified information as fact.