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
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT