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.
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.
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.