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A Lie Races Across Twitter Before the Truth Can Boot Up

Jeremy W. Peters|The New York Times
Tuesday, 10 Apr 2012 | 7:41 AM ET

It took only two minutes. An unfounded report on a little-known blog claiming that Gov. Nikki R. Haley was about to be indicted rocketed from South Carolina political circles into national circulation, along the way becoming the latest lesson in the perils of an instantaneous news culture.

Twitter
Loic Venance | AFP | Getty Images
Twitter

The item’s rapid journey from hearsay to mainstream journalism, largely via Twitter, forced Ms. Haley to rush to defend herself against a false rumor. And it left news organizations facing a new round of questions about accountability and standards in the fast and loose “retweets do not imply endorsement” ethos of today’s political journalism.

There were elements of old-fashioned South Carolina sabotage: an embattled Republican governor and possible vice-presidential contender dogged by unproven accusations of impropriety. And there were modern twists: a liberal-leaning 25-year-old blogger eager to make a name for his new Web site, and a buzz-seeking political press corps that looks to the real-time, unedited world of Twitter as the first place to break news.

In retrospect, there were clear reasons to doubt the March 29 report, from a blog called the Palmetto Public Record, that Ms. Haley was facing indictment on tax fraud charges. The blog’s editor, Logan Smith, never asked the governor’s office for comment before he posted his report. Later, in an e-mail, Mr. Smith said he could not be sure whether his sources were correct.

“I reported that credible sources said they believed the governor would be indicted — not that I knew she would be indicted, or even whether or not I personally believed she would be indicted,” he said. (He did not respond to questions asking for further clarification.)

But journalists from news outlets that reposted Mr. Smith’s report on Twitter — including establishments old and venerable (The Washington Post, CBS News) as well as new and widely read (The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed) — had no way of knowing that in the minutes after it went online, and did not stop to check first.

March 29, 12:52 p.m.: The Palmetto Public Record publishes an article online with the headline “Haley indictment imminent? Stay tuned. ...” It cites two unidentified “well-placed legal experts” who said they expected the federal Department of Justice to indict Ms. Haley “as early as this week” on charges stemming from her involvement with a local Sikh temple.

12:54 p.m.: A blogger for The Hill, a Washington newspaper that focuses on government and politics, sends a Twitter post about the article to his 1,500 followers, who include several prominent political journalists with large Twitter followings that reach into the tens of thousands. Some then repost the item — BuzzFeed just two minutes later; The Washington Post 18 minutes after that.

1:03 p.m.: The Daily Beast posts a short article, which it later removes, about the Palmetto Public Record report, becoming one of many online outlets to write lengthier items, including Daily Kos and The Daily Caller. Headlines like one on the Atlantic Wire’s post, “Nikki Haley Probably Won’t Win Republican Veepstakes,” are common.

1:12 p.m.: A USA Today reporter contacts Ms. Haley’s office with a request for comment, the first of dozens of such inquiries that will deluge the governor and her staff for the rest of the day.

1:22 p.m.: The Romney campaign, which is reported to be considering Ms. Haley as one of many possible vice-presidential choices, receives a request for comment from ABC News.

1:25 p.m.: Mr. Smith seems bemused by all the attention his report is getting, posting on Twitter: “Well, now I know what it’s like to watch a story go viral in real time.”

3:29 p.m.: Matt Drudge, whose heavily visited Drudge Report can help drive decisions in newsrooms around the country, links to a Daily Caller article under the headline “REPORT: DOJ targets S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley.”

By the next morning, South Carolina’s largest newspaper, The State in Columbia, had an article on its front page.

Ms. Haley had tried in vain to persuade the reporter at The State not to write anything. “I remember getting on the phone, and I usually don’t do this, but I just yelled at her,” the governor said in an interview. “I said, ‘Why are you doing this? There are no facts here.’ ”

Her office, which chalked the report up to a plant by a political opponent, later released a letter from the Internal Revenue Service declaring that there was no tax investigation.

This episode is not the first time that a questionable Twitter report has roiled the 2012 elections — the first presidential campaign in which the microblogging service has been used broadly by news outlets as a way to report and break news.

"I think what you get is a running conversation and a chance to keep talking about it. The beauty of all this is the speed of the self-correction. If it had been a newspaper report, it could have hung out there for a day." -Editor-in-chief, BuzzFeed, Ben Smith

And although many news organizations have set standards for the use of Twitter by their journalists, reporters remain largely free to exercise their own, unedited news judgment. (At least one staff member from The New York Times sent out a Twitter post about the initial report.)

For many, that is Twitter’s beauty: it is a conversational device where words are impermanent and always revisable. And as the Palmetto Public Record episode shows, anyone can inject himself into that conversation.

Ben Smith, editor in chief of BuzzFeed, which mixes the silly (“Amazing Dog Lifeguard Rescues Pup From Drowning”) with serious original political reporting, said he believed Twitter users expected the news they read there was in a state of constant evolution and should not be taken as gospel.

“I think what you get is a running conversation and a chance to keep talking about it,” he said. “The beauty of all this is the speed of the self-correction. If it had been a newspaper report, it could have hung out there for a day.”

Reporters for BuzzFeed and most of the other news outlets that sent Twitter posts about the initial Palmetto Public Record report did later post about the governor’s denials and the letter she produced from the Internal Revenue Service. Tucker Carlson, editor in chief of The Daily Caller, apologized personally to Ms. Haley.

But even those who embrace Twitter’s value as a conversational reporting tool questioned what is ultimately gained by introducing illegitimate news into the conversation.

“I saw the original Tweets, and my first thought was that I’d never heard of the Web site that reported it,” said Byron York, the chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner. Mr. York, a prolific Twitter poster, decided not to send the item out to his 30,000 followers. “It was a pretty easy decision to stay away from it,” he said.

Ms. Haley, who has lived with an unfounded blog report of marital infidelity since before she took office, fears that the episode may have done lasting damage to her reputation. She said she was not certain that it could be easily repaired. But she is certain of one thing.

“There will be another one,” she said, predicting another attempt to smear her online. “I’m not one that thinks this is going to stop.”

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