Be careful how you re-tweet: someone else’s integrity may be at stake

Re-tweeting is the act of forwarding a message on Twitter. But it can result in distorted messages being incorrectly attributed to people.

Accidentally altering meaning when forwarding messages is nothing new; so why is it different with Twitter?

Pitfalls of editing

Tweets (that is, messages on Twitter) have a maximum length of 140 characters. When a message is re-tweeted (ie re-published with the author attributed) the original author’s name and a prefix like ‘RT’ or ‘Retweet’ is added to the front of the message. This adds to the total number of characters, and often pushes it over the maximum 140 mark.

To get around this, people will truncate the original message to make it fit. This is fine if it’s edited well, but often the message gets paraphrased. Obviously there’s a danger here of changing the original meaning; this is exacerbated if the re-tweet is itself re-tweeted with new paraphrasing.

Let’s look at an example:

“@joswinson: recording an interview about the 100th anniversary of the suffragettes Parliamentary protest for BBC’s Record Review this weekend”

I’ve carefully removed two words (‘an’ and ‘the’) to shorten the text without distorting the meaning:

“RT @joswinson: recording interview about 100th anniversary of the suffragettes Parliamentary protest for BBC’s Record Review this weekend”

But now I’ve paraphrased the original message, which may have completely changed its intended meaning:

“RT @joswinson: recording an interview this weekend about 100th anniversary of the suffragettes Parliamentary protest”

Did Jo mean the interview was at the weekend, or that the BBC programme was? And what was important to her: the fact that she was recording a programme about the suffragettes, or that it was for the BBC (a detail I removed)?

And now let’s re-tweet the re-tweet:

“RT @citizensheep: RT @joswinson: 100th anniversary of the suffragettes Parliamentary protest, this weekend”

Jo never said the anniversary was this weekend. That presumption was made by me when I edited the message for re-tweeting.

It’s like Chinese Whispers. Unfortunately it’s more dangerous: because – unlike Chinese Whispers – the message retains an attribution to the original author, but may have a completely different meaning to what that person had intended.

And it doesn’t end there.

Problems with adding comments

People often like to add their own comments, which may contain their own opinion. If it’s added before the message it’s clear enough:

“Actually, I think it endangers them. RT @citizensheep: I think the internet changes lives, but not so sure it necessarily improves them.”

But often it’s added to the end:

“RT @citizensheep: I think the internet changes lives, but not so sure it necessarily improves them. Actually, I think it endangers them.”

In the second message Citizensheep appears to be credited with an opinion he never actually voiced.

Dangers

Arguably Twitter also makes it easy to find problems and correct them. But the speed with which information spreads now means that the damage can be done before the problem is even noticed.

There are potential dangers here for organisations – such as charities and public bodies – who have to be careful about the message they’re projecting. We need to try and make sure our messages are unambiguous in the first place, and be quick to manage any misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

We also need to be very careful how we treat other people’s tweets. Mis-representing someone could have unwelcome consequences that undermine their integrity and damage their reputation.

Note

In the examples above, the original messages were real (reproduced with permission) but the edited versions are works of fiction. I chose to illustrate it this way to avoid upsetting anyone, but real examples are easy to find.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

4 thoughts on “Be careful how you re-tweet: someone else’s integrity may be at stake

  1. All good points: it would be nice to see some standard practise for this. For example, if I shorten a message when re-tweeting (and I picked this up from others) I’ll remove vowels etc, make it a bit txt-speaky where I can, and leave the words as they are (just shorter!). If I add a comment or thought I’ll put it in [] square brackets. But I see people do all sorts – and I’ve seen a lot of confusion caused.

    Perhaps I should stop using all 140 characters to allow room to RT?

  2. Thanks for this, Michael. You raise some important points and I like to think your post will mean more people are conscious of careful editing 🙂

    I experienced this the other day – someone retweeting something I’d posted on Twitter and adding their comment to the end, so it looked like I’d said it.

    It didn’t totally distort what I’d originally said, but I felt it added an unwelcome spin that I wouldn’t have given it myself.

    I pointed it out, but I didn’t go so far as to ask for the tweet to be deleted – mainly because my original is in my stream for all to see.

    Unfortunately, with things like Twitter, there is a kind of ‘law of the jungle’ that applies – and most people understand these unwritten rules and abide by them. But, because there aren’t actually any stated rules or guidelines, and people sometimes don’t figure the unofficial etiquette out for themselves, using this medium does carry these risks.

    I don’t really know if there’s much organisations can do about this kind of thing – apart from ask, politely, for any misleading messages to be deleted – because, as unambiguous as you think your original may be, it’s always going to be open to interpretation.

    The good thing about Twitter is that you can always point people to your – accurate – original, or they can find it and cross-reference themselves.

    If you are tweeting campaign messages that you specifically want to be retweeted, I would recommend leaving some characters spare, to allow people to retweet without editing your original.

  3. I totally agree with this post – so often retweeting can lead to confusion when the original message is disorted beyond it’s original meaning.

    Another thing that bother’s me is that people don’t bother to verify the link/information in the tweet, they just retweet it ‘blindly’ and so I’ve seen false rumours spread like wildfire.

    Retweeting can be a great way to spread information – letting the twitter community know about worthy causes or valuable info. But so often it is misused badly, which is a shame as it is giving twitter a bad name – as seen with the over-retweeting of Swine Flu rumours.

    There are people who over-do it to, retweeting every link etc.. but hardly posting any tweets themselves – which is annoying in itself, as they are basically regurgitating other people’s tweets while barely letting their own voice be heard.

    All in all – I guess I’m still undecided about retweeting.

  4. Please excuse my terrible grammar in the last comment – “bother’s” & “to” where it should have been “too”- what was I thinking?! Oh yes, it was that I had your entry open in an ie tab at work and my boss was floating around near by.. Rapid alt+tab actions may have distracted me somewhat!

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