Mainstream meets Twitter meets Gaza Flotilla

A “late-breaking” news item at the end of the 10 p.m. TV newscast said the Rachel Corrie ship, part of the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla,” had been boarded by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). That sent me diving for my computer, to find out what I could.

UPDATE 8:15 a.m. 6/5/2010 Minnesota time: About five hours after the Twitter and news reports described in this post, the Rachel Corrie was, in fact, boarded by the IDF and towed into Ashdod. That would be between 3 and 4 a.m. CDT, between 4 and 5 a.m. EDT, or between 11 a.m. and noon in Jerusalem.

The Twitter-verse was full of news on #RachelCorrie and #flotilla, mostly about the IDF boarding the ship, placing all aboard under arrest, and steering the ship toward Ashdod.  I like Twitter, but consider its reliability very limited, so I headed for more traditional news media.

Finding nothing on Al Jazeera English or Ha’Aretz, I turned back to Twitter. Tweets and retweets flew frantically – unspecified Malaysian press reported the Rachel Corrie had been boarded, unspecified Irish press reported the same, the Jerusalem Post reported …

Aha! At last a link to a news site, even if the next tweet warned against believing anything in the Jerusalem Post. Apparently the tweeters were more skeptical than the Post, which ran this story at 06:08 a.m., Jerusalem time:

‘Rachel Corrie’ boarded, no one hurt.

06/05/2010 06:08

Reported on Twitter at about 5:50 am. Three navy boats involved. Passengers under arrest.

At about 5:50 am on Saturday, the first reports came in over Twitter that the ‘Rachel Corrie‘ had been boarded close to Gaza.  Earlier the activists reported that their radar had been jammed, however their Twitter accounts continued to operate.

The activists reported that three boats were following them for about twenty minutes and then that they had been boarded.

The passengers are said to be under arrest. …

A mainstream news organization reporting as if Twitter were a reliable source? What’s wrong with this picture?

@Mayabong said it best:

Latest: Mayabong #flotilla haha Twitter reporting what they see on Jpost and Jpost reporting what it sees on Twitter. Great stuff.

But the Jerusalem Post was not alone. Reuters followed suit, reporting in its own Twitter feed:

Israel seizes new Gaza-bound aid ship: activist 14 minutes ago via

Reuters report at 11:20 p.m. EDT(6/4/2010)

Twitter veterans maintained a more skeptical distance. @avinunu, with a bio claiming “co-founder of the http://electronicintifada,” warned:

Am suspicious of authenticity of certain *recently created, unfamiliar* accounts tweeting about fate of #RachelCorrie #Flotilla

Sure enough, 11 minutes later, Reuters backpedaled:

FLASH: Activists on Gaza-bound aid ship say have not been boarded by Israeli navy, but being shadowed 3 minutes ago via Seesmic Web

And that was the end of the story – at least for this hour.

Reuters report at 12:38 a.m. EDT (6/5/2010)

Both @avinunu and @freegazaorg, clearly identified as anti-blockade, tweeted carefully throughout the episode, telling their followers when information was confusing, who was reporting what, and whether they were able to confirm any news. As the hourlong fake news flurry drew to a close, both confirmed that Israeli ships were shadowing the Rachel Corrie, but had not boarded, and that the Rachel Corrie was still bound for Gaza.

Lessons from the episode?

1) Be suspicious of anyone WHO WRITES OR TWEETS IN ALL CAPS.
2) Observe who has original sources and who is simply retweeting everything over and over again. (If someone retweets the same item six times, they have no news and may just be trying to drive a hashtag to the top of Twitter’s trending tags.)
3) Remember who got it right – there’s always another story coming and reliable sources are good to know – and who the “official sources” are. On this story, I’ll look for @avinunu and @freegazaorg and @IDFSpokesperson

At about 11 p.m. Minnesota time, @freegazaorg tweeted, “Trying to contact passengers on dedicated phone. No answer from them.”

As near as I can calculate, the ship should reach Gaza about 2 a.m. Minnesota time. I think I’ll wait until morning to see what happens.

UPDATE: About five hours after the news reports referenced above, the Rachel Corrie was boarded by the IDF and taken to Ashdod.

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