Michael Jackson's death and who to believe online

By John Bowman, CBCNews.ca

I still remember the day Mr. Arseneau wheeled the school's (possibly the school's only) top-loading VHS tape player into the class. He had something special to show us.

I don't remember the date, but Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever aired March 25, 1983, so this screening of Michael Jackson's performance of Billie Jean probably took place late in the school year, as a special treat for us students.

I just watched it again on YouTube. Jackson's first moonwalk, and the crowd's reaction to it, gave me chills all over again.

It's cliche already to say that Jackson's death is one of those "where were you when" moments, but here's where I was, and I think a lot of people will have similar stories.

I first heard that Michael Jackson had been taken to hospital on Twitter, from @BreakingNews, which cited TMZ.com. The celebrity gossip blog was also the first to declare that Jackson had died.

The chatter on Twitter was already pretty intense after the news of his hospitalization broke, but it exploded with that first announcement of his death. There were thousands of tweets mentioning Michael Jackson posted every minute. Twitter, Wikipedia and even Google groaned under the pressure of so many people looking for information on the pop star's condition. Many people accepted the TMZ report as the truth, but some were skeptical, saying they would wait for a more reputable source before believing the Twitter rumours.

Here in the newsroom, we were trying to find another report to confirm that he had died, but the wires, Associated Press and Reuters, were already filing stories with TMZ.com as their source. This was a make-or-break moment for TMZ's credibility, said people in the newsroom. When the Los Angeles Times' breaking news blog, L.A. Now., updated saying Jackson was in a coma, that credibility was in doubt.

OK! Magazine filed a story on its website that appeared to independently confirm Jackson's death, but it relied heavily on TMZ.com for its information. The first independent confirmation from a main-stream media source was on L.A. Now, citing law enforcement and city officials. With that report, other news websites — including BBC News, CNN and CBC News — were satisfied and posted their tweets, alerts and stories.

So, as is often the case lately, the news broke on Twitter and blogs. Does that relegate traditional news outlets to the role of following and fact-checking what's happening in social media? People are always looking for reliable sources, and reputation goes a long way online. TMZ.com did a lot for its reputation with the Jackson story, and it's certainly a blog that knows its beat and does its own reporting, even if that reporting consists of following celebs, both physically and on Twitter.

It's hard to beat @BreakingNews in terms of speed. When Twitter's servers are working at full capacity, it is simply the fastest information dispersal medium there is. Unless you're there when it happens or watching it live on TV, you're likely to hear about it first on Twitter.

But both blogs and Twitter have a credibility problem. On another celebrity gossip blog, Perez Hilton, upon hearing that Jackson had been taken to hospital, speculated that he was "either lying or making himself sick" to avoid performing in his comeback concert. He later removed the speculation from the blog post.

And disinformation spreads as quickly as truth on Twitter. A fake news article saying Jackson had died of a drug overdose circulated on Twitter. False rumours that Jeff Goldblum and Harrison Ford both died while filming in New Zealand are still making the rounds. An Australian entertainment TV reporter went to air with the "news" of Goldblum's death.

(It turns out the same cliff that had "claimed" Goldblum's life was also responsible for the earlier "deaths" of Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise. See Snopes.com for the full history of this internet-spread cut-and-paste obit.)

It's not Twitter's fault that it's being used to spread falsehoods. It pretty easy to give nonsense the illusion of credibility in a tweet: just put "RT @cnnbrk:" in front of it. So it's up to individuals to check sources, follow links and make sure what they're reading is the truth.

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