I Am @NotBurtReynolds and Neither Are You

Is this photo real? Think again.

Aug 8, 2013· 4 MIN READ
is the President of Pivot, a division of Participant Media.

I love this Twitter account. It illustrates, in one elegantly kick-ass way, why Twitter exists.

Using just 140 characters, @NotBurtReynolds creates satire. @NotBurtReynolds makes a statement about how he sees the world. And trucker hats.

If you RT it, you make a statement too. Most would see this as a statement about your sense of humor. Few, if any, would believe that this tweet came from the real Burt Reynolds. That’s because the name on the account is @NotBurtReynolds.

However, some things that get retweeted are not so easily detectable as inauthentic.  

Take this photo:

This epic pic of giant waves engulfing the Statue of Liberty went viral during Hurricane Sandy. Problem was, it didn’t happen. It’s a still from the movie The Day After Tomorrow, starring Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal. So not only did this not happen, the movie from which it is taken sucked. (Ed. note: The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of TakePart or its VP of Programming. Just sayin’.) Still, a LOT of people believed this was a real photo (except those of us in New York who love NY1 for its quaint and utter inability to deliver a shot this dramatic), and passed it along to their tweeps as such.

OK, you’re saying to yourself, So what? So some people thought the Statue of Liberty was hit by a tsunami-like wave. It was a bad storm. And no one got hurt, right?

Maybe (cue ominous music). Maybe.

But take a look at this photo:

On July 13, two days after George Zimmerman was found not guilty for killing Trayvon Martin, this photo blew up on Twitter and the rest of the interwebs.

It was tweeted and retweeted bajillions of times (I really don’t know how many—I’m not even sure bajillion is a word [Ed note: It is]) as a photo of a protest against the verdict on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

It was not, however, a photo of a protest on the Golden Gate Bridge. It was actually a picture from a celebration for the 75th anniversary of the bridge. In 1987.

So roughly a bajillion people (see above disclaimer) shared something to their entire social network that was blatantly untrue, and encouraged them to do the same, resulting in a subsequent bajillion retractions.

Again, say you. Where’s the harm? People were angry, and there were lots of protests. So, someone got confused.

You have a point. There were a great many protests. Like this one in Times Square:

However, now that I’ve shown you the first pic from the bridge and the earlier one of the Statue of Liberty, do you believe me about this one? You’re skeptical, aren’t you? You’re questioning my credibility.


It is, in fact, a real picture from a real protest in the real Times Square.  I know this because I know the source of the picture. In this case, I swiped it from TakePart.com, who secured the rights to post it via Reuters.

However, if I tweet both of these pictures as representing the backlash against the Zimmerman verdict, I become an unreliable source. I hurt my own credibility and, even worse, I damage the credibility of the story itself. If fake pics of the protests fly about, couldn’t that cast doubt on the importance or existence of the protests themselves?

OK, say you again, But now that your cred is ruined, everyone will know not to retweet you again.

Oh, if only that were true. (And stop using the word “cred,” by the way. Say the whole word already.) The problem is, in the quest to get stuff out, fast, most people—and sometimes some news organizations—don’t bother to check the authenticity of what they post. Hence:

Yet, despite these notable lapses, the attitude of the twittersphere to posting content does not seem to change. 

This summer, we surveyed 800 citizens of the Internet between the ages of 18-34. People just like you (assuming you’re 18-34). 

A full 66 percent admitted to being misled by social media within the past month; 47 percent said they’d been misled by traditional news; and 43 percent were misled by online news sources. 

Yet amazingly that hasn’t made people more cautious: 55 percent are “not always confident in the truth” of information they share online.

Most troubling is how little we value our own credibility. While 72 percent proudly claim they’re considered a valued source of news and information by friends, 38 percent admit to sharing information or news without checking the source frequently; 61 percent have posted content online they wish they could retract; and 29 percent confess to having misled others with posts or info they didn’t verify.

No wonder this went viral:

The faster news moves, the more frenetic the race will be to be first among friends (and news competitors) to get a story out. Yet the more inundated by information we are, the harder it is to verify the source.

Luckily there’s the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology. 3I Tech worked with IBM Research Labs and The University of Maryland (go Terps!) to create an algorithm that predicts the authenticity of a tweetpic with 97 percent accuracy. #IshitYouNot.

A report on their research is here. While they had awesome supercomputers and many researches to run their analysis, there is stuff there for regular people like us to use in determining, figuratively speaking, who is and is not Burt Reynolds.

Eighty-six percent of tweets containing fake photos are RTs. Despite that, there’s only an 11 percent overlap between a faux tweeter’s followers and those who retweet his fake photo. This means 89 percent of people who retweet a retweeted fake pic do not know the person who first posted it (I’m extrapolating a bit, but I tend to do that).

How does this happen? During big news events, and especially in crises, we tend to search by term— like #Sandy or #Trayvon or #RoyalBaby. The results are full of posts using that hashtag from people we don’t know and would not normally come across, even online. Twitter tends to let the most popular tweets in any subject rise to the top. We see that tweet is popular, so we assume it’s real. And thus a mememyth is born. 

But many of us see hundreds of thousands of tweets and posts each day, and many are not so obviously jokes or fakes. When something happens about which we feel passionate, we use Twitter and Facebook to look for more information on that story, and when we find it, we push it out, quickly.

Unfortunately, that’s the very moment we are least discerning. A full 56 percent say, “When I come across information or news that I agree with I share or post it right away.” This number goes to 72 percent for the heaviest or “uber” users. So eager are we to push out our point of view, we risk our credibility and potentially hurt the cause we are trying to help.

If you are looking at a RT, and you don’t know the RT-er, and you also don’t know the ORIGINAL tweeter, then you have to presume that there’s a chance that what you’re looking at is horseshit. Before you post or retweet anything, take a minute—hell, take five if needed—to verify what you’re about to post actually exists or is Photoshopped from a @fakeMichael Bay movie. (The actual twitter account for fake Michael Bay is @michael_bay__).

Many of you spend a great deal of time curating your digital social networks. You take your number of followers and RTs seriously. You look for interesting, funny and important things to share on your graph. But many of those we asked use speed or being busy as an excuse for inaccuracy. This is the definition of a short-term gain in favor of long-term risk. Your credibility is your most valuable commodity. Once it’s lost—online or off—it is incredibly difficult to regain.

In the world of RTs, even if you are @NotBurtReynolds, speed kills.