Exercising Twitter Caution

Every few months, we seem to hear about the potential damage that social networking sites like Facebook can bring down on our schools, particularly teachers who share too much information about their personal lives with students (or even former students).  Each school year brings new rules and new oversight for how educators and students engage over the Internet (with many a decisionmaker hoping we could go back to the good ol’ days before our schools had electricity).

At the same time, we are exploring ways to broaden the reach of other social networking tools like Twitter.  At the start of the new academic year, my own school district is now using Twitter (as well as text messages) to share school information with the local community.  Instantaneous news and information for those who happen to be watching their Tweet feeds.
But what happens when Twitter gets out of control?  Last week, The Washington Post suspended one of its sports columnists because of an “experiment” he decided to run on Twitter.  In an effort to show that Twitter doesn’t meet the same journalistic standards as other media, Mike Wise posted a “rumor” to his Twitter account, with an attribution that simply said “I’ve heard” without naming a source.  The “story” was picked up and repeated by numerous respected media outlets (none of which contacted Wise).  The next day, the Post suspended Wise for a month, and its ombudsman offered up this analysis of the entire situation.
So it begs the question — does the same thing happen in education policy-focused Tweets?  We’ve all seen how items are retweeted with bad links.  We are a relatively small community (by Twitter standards) that feeds off itself.  We trust individuals who post something, without determining its legitimacy.  If it is a piece of information that helps our cause or aligns with our thinking or interest, we move it forward.  And there is no check, no verification, utterly no responsibility to it at all.  It is the beauty of citizen journalism.  Through our blogs and our tweets, we can say anything.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad thing.  More information coming from more resources is a good thing.  But we cannot forget the need to verify what we are hearing.  Over the years, we’ve learned that Wikipedia is not infallible.  Those names on Twitter we like are still capable of being incorrect, or believing in a source that might need a second look.  In the words of Ronald Reagan, when we use Twitter for education information, we need to trust, but verify.
When Mike Wise tweeted what he tweeted, it made sense to those who followed him.  So why would education be different?  As we all started to see names of Race to the Top winning states coming across Twitter hours before the US Department of Education was to release the winning names, we believed what came across.  We retweeted and crossposted so that the 10 winners were known more than an hour before ED released them.  That day, Twitter was a powerful tool, yes.  But what stops some (particularly those less well known) from tossing out other names?  And what prevents others from pushing those names out?
Personally, I’d love to try what Mike Wise did, and see what makes its way across the eduspace.  Who wouldn’t want to read and retweet some of the following:
* Arne Duncan retiring at the end of the year, to be replaced by TN’s Phil Bredesen, I hear
* After her wedding, Rhee is headed west to work for Gates Foundation, I hear
* ED officials are putting off ESEA reauth until 2012, I hear
* $100M in remaining RttT $ to be distributed to 10 districts, I hear
* NAESP, NASSP, NMSA merge to create mega-association, I hear
* Gates putting $500M into early childhood ed, I hear
Not a lick of truth to any of these (that I know of), but if I posted any of those to my @Eduflack Twitter account, they would likely get attention.  And they would likely be retweeted.  Believe it or not, some trust my Twitter feed.  And adding the “I hear” gives me a little deniability when it never comes true.  But that doesn’t mean the damage wouldn’t be done.  The chum would still be in the water.  
Twitter is now reporting 145 million registered users.  Many of those are well meaning, well informed individuals.  But some …
It is up to those of us who play in this sandbox to tell the difference.  Trust, but verify.

2 thoughts on “Exercising Twitter Caution

  1. Good point on Twitter and social networking in general. It is amazing to me how much faith people put into what they read without going to verify the source. I’m not sure why people are so trusting online, maybe that is a better question? Raising awareness is always good.If you were to put something out that is false, a person in your position, it would be detrimental to their career and good name that you have spent a long time building. In those cases it is a little easier to believe what is put out there.

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