Skip to main content

Why bogus AP tweet tricked us

By David Weinberger, Special to CNN
April 25, 2013 -- Updated 1636 GMT (0036 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Weinberger: Bogus AP tweet highlights dangers of literalism when we use Web
  • He says open Web means we must scope out info around content to judge its authority
  • He says we need three sets of eyes to check assumptions, detect signals of unreliability
  • Weinberger: If we don't use them, we'll be tricked by cleverly designed, dangerous lies

Editor's note: David Weinberger is a senior researcher at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of "Too Big to Know" (Basic Books).

(CNN) -- When The Associated Press appeared to tweet Tuesday that there were two explosions in the White House, we were right to believe the news, even though it turns out that the AP Twitter account had been hacked. There were no explosions; the tweet was false. But believing the AP is not where we went wrong. Our occasional believing false reports should awaken us to the dangers of literalism.

The problem with literalism is that it thinks that language works simply: A word means what it means. But in truth it's never that simple. We hear words in sentences that provide context and attitude. So, when we see that the tweet announcing an attack on the White House came from no less than the AP, it's no surprise that the stock market went into a panic, as did many of us. You don't have to be from Boston, as I am, to be jumpy about news about bombs.

David Weinberger
David Weinberger

Upon learning that the words weren't really from the AP, the first lesson we probably want to draw is: Be skeptical. That's a healthy reaction, but we need to go beyond skepticism if we're going to survive the Internet's greatest blessing, the fact that anyone can post anything she or he wants. Skepticism recommends that we doubt every authority. I'm suggesting that before we even get around to doubting authorities, we need to remember that authority is conveyed not in the message but in the information that comes with the message.

Every tweet, for example, consists of more than whatever the message says in 140 characters or fewer. The tweet comes stamped with the time it was posted, the Twitter handle of the person who posted it ("@AssociatedPress") and an image chosen by the Twitterer.

The power of one wrong tweet

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



All of that is information about the message that helps you understand it. If it's from your old chum, you may take the message as a bad joke because she's always kidding around. If it comes from a particular acquaintance, you may ignore it because he's always passing around sensationalist false news. And if it comes from a source such as the AP, you are likely to assume that the information is reliable. None of these considerations are in the words of the tweet itself, but without them, the words are just words.

So, another of the lessons of the hacking of the AP Twitter account is that we should remember just how deeply we depend upon nonliteral reading. We depend upon a complex system of signs, signals and cues that help us understand what to make of the literal words we read. We will sometimes be led astray by these signs because, well, some people suck. But if we are to survive, we need to become highly aware of how the information that surrounds information determines what we make of that information.

Expert: Hackers targeting Twitter more
Tracking tragedy on Twitter

For example, how does a writer's competence in grammar and spelling affect our attitude toward him or her, and are we sure that we're not inadvertently lowering the credibility of people who deserve to be heard? Does someone acting like an expert increase the believability of the message, and does "acting like an expert" have gender overtones in your culture? Are we being swayed by a site's tone of voice and design chosen specifically to make the site seem more "friendly" and believable? How does the fact that the post you're reading right now is on CNN.com affect your perception of its worth ... and how should it?

Speaking figuratively, we now need to read with three sets of eyes, not the usual two. The first set reads the message. The second picks up the information that determines how we understand the message. The third pair tries to watch how the second pair is working, always trying to refine the assumptions we make, and looking for cues that the usual signals are unreliable.

We've always had the first two sets, but the third set is more important than ever because the new world of the Internet is so blessedly open and fluid. A failure to perpetually train that third set of eyes will doom us to being swayed by cleverly designed lies.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Weinberger.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT