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Talking back

A science blog, sans blague

Twitter Twaddle and the Psychology of Crying (Screaming) Wolf


Barack Obama on Twitter

The Dow Jones Industrial Average and Twitter, both cultural mainstays that suffer at times from acute alphanumeric ADHD, collided at ultra-high velocity on April 23 to induce an institutional chain reaction. The half life of the "flash crash" stretched a couple of minutes—and then the market came roaring back.

But fewer than 140 characters sufficed to send the ticker spiraling down a poetic 145 points, with losses reaching $200 billion at one point. Symmetries in the natural world are so mind numbingly gorgeous, eh?

According to the Wall Street Journal, algorithms in institutional computers that scan news feeds took at face value a hacker-placed tweet on the AP's Twitter feed. The bogus report of an explosion at the White House triggered automatic sell orders. Let's hope our ICBMs don't use the same software.

This all came less than a week after social media's wisdom of crowds had tagged as suspicious more than one person who had not left a pressure cooker bomb in a backpack near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Among social media titans, Twitter is a great place to retrieve news pointers, join a 24-hour party (as my colleague Ferris Jabr likes to emphasize) and retrieve the minutest musings of friends and family. But it has always served equally as a hyper-kinetic wire service for rumor.

That seems obvious but we—and I mean even we at Scientific American–need to sometimes revisit the initial ardor that suffuses the reporting on a new medium. We reported in 2010 that Chileans after an earthquake had started using Twitter to sort truth from fact, maybe no longer such a good idea as the micro-blogging site continues to attract anyone and everyone, including apparently hackers from the Syrian Electronic Army who broke into the AP.

Press reports suggested the possibility of two-step verification for Twitter as one solution to tighten up security. But requiring the input of a code sent to a cell phone before being able to log on and tweet what's for dinner seems kind of a non-starter. Could this be the ultimate use for the much-vaunted Google Glass, allowing retinal security scans before logging on to an account?

Probably not. The upshot should be that it's always going to be tough to sort the wisdom from the noise in 140 characters when looking for a bombing suspect or placing a million-dollar sell order.

Source: White House


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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