One of the primary benefits of Twitter during times of massive coordination and rapidly changing contexts is the speed in which information can be shared. In 140 characters or less, Twitter users can pass on information to large networks of geographically disparate followers through hashtagging. The more quickly events unfold, the more quickly information is received, passed on, and acted upon. This acceleration has had a large impact on the ability of communities to confirm information and filter for accuracy. Though it is commonsensical to deduce that the speed of information production will correlate with a reduction in its quality, the benefit of a raw information environment is undeniable particularly in changing media and political environments such as that of the January 25th uprising in Egypt.
Three trends (anecdotally documented) in information processing through digital media and social networks took place in the three week time period of January 25th to February 11th: changing paradigms of confirmation; changing incentive structures for spreading information; and a looser tie between information and its source.
In quickly changing situations, trust mechanisms become localized. As the January 25th uprising pushed ahead, the sheer distance between demonstrations, centers of power, and populations coupled with a lack of formalized media coverage resulted in an exponentially increasing flood of information. Twitter and personal level social networks responded to fill this void and information-sharing became a socially embedded and ubiquitous force: “What’s new?” replaced traditional greetings of “How are you doing?”. As the sheer volume of circulating information increased, the requirements for confirmation were at first lowered. To confirm information before sharing it, all that was required was a phone call from a cousin who heard from a neighbor that live ammunition was being used on protestors in a distant neighborhood. As “confirmed” information shared was largely disputed by eyewitness accounts, the process of confirmation radically shifted. Unless an individual saw an event unfold firsthand or knew someone very well who did, information was prefaced with “I have heard that…”. Twitter reports during the beginning of the uprising were retweeted with wild abandon, but as the uprising entered the second week, retweeting was increasingly reserved for tweets marked “confirmed”.
Incentive Structures for Sharing Information
In support of the idea that raw information sources like Twitter are important in fluctuating contexts, the primary features of information worth sharing was the degree to which it was actionable and the novelty of content. The first false reports of live ammunition being used were much more likely to be redistributed than later false reports of live ammunition both because the first reports proved inaccurate and because the newness of the event (confirmed or unconfirmed) had worn away. The degree to which information was actionable – coordinative information (reports of violence, police movements, demonstration locations) and reports concerning the uprising’s impact on daily life – was also positively correlated with the likelihood of that information being shared.
Changing Association Between Information and Its Source
In alignment with the changing requirements for confirmation, information was at first increasingly detached from its source. Details about a piece of information’s source became highly relevant and expected as the information environment proved largely unreliable. As the uprising reached the second and third weeks, actionable information that was retweeted as confirmed largely came from a subset of trusted Twitter users. This association of trust with Twitter users that had high levels of readership, previous tweets that were proven to be factual, and a firsthand view of the events, resulted in a true socializing of mediatized communication. The social bonds of trust extended to reputable public online figures.
It is unfair to say that Egyptians were unduly trusting of unconfirmed information before the uprising. Given the state control of media and rampant political scandals, healthy skepticism undergirded confirmation and information-sharing decisions. However, the uprising posed a particular challenge: there was no time to wait for confirmation or a reactive media sphere to cover and confirm the rumors but actionable information and access to an aerial view of events was needed more than ever. In this environment rumors gained momentum before being dispelled and retraction of disproven information became impossible in a media environment saturated in information detailing the uprising. This meant that rumors about things such as looting and live ammunition (later dispelled) planted deliberately by those attempting to incite fear were more capable of spreading far, wide, and quickly. (Though there were instances of looting and the use of live ammunition, the vast majority of reports of both were later disproved.) In the days after Mubarak’s resignation, as the army tried to quell further protests, it attempted to revive the perceived severity of the curfew. A text message was widely distributed saying that those out after 12pm would be taken to jail and serve a three month sentence and a note to forward as received was included after the message. In this scenario the source and veracity of the information was impossible to determine but in uncertain times even the rawest actionable information is oftentimes passed on. This shift in traditional confirmation and source expectations led to a rich but confusing media environment throughout the uprising, but it also undoubtedly contributed to the revolution’s success.