behind the news

Is This the World’s Best Twitter Account?

Meet Andy Carvin, verification machine
April 8, 2011

Yesterday morning NPR’s Andy Carvin took a break from running one of the world’s best Twitter accounts to explain what it’s like to be a living, breathing real-time verification system.

“All of this is more art than science,” he said.

In truth, it sounds equal parts exhilarating and exhausting.

As has been repeatedly detailed in other places, Carvin is the NPR senior strategist who transformed his Twitter feed into a must-read newswire about the changes taking place in the Arab world. Carvin sends hundreds of tweets a day that, taken together, paint a real-time picture of events, opinions, controversies, and rumors relates to events in the Middle East.

There are few established rules or journalistic policies for what he does. Just as Carvin is breaking ground in curation and crowdsourced verification, he is at the same time encountering new ethical conundrums that must be managed, as with everything else, in real-time.

Yet, when following his work on Twitter, Carvin seems in total control of the onslaught of information. Here he is attempting to confirm information reported by media outlets:

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Anyone else reporting this yet? RT @andinieffendi: White House confirms Pres Obama has received a message from Colonel Gaddafi – Sky Newsless than a minute ago via TweetDeck Favorite Retweet Reply

Prodding his followers to help him understand the context of a video:

How unusual is this? RT @ahmed: [VIDEO] female teachers protest outside the civil service ministry in Riyadh #saudiless than a minute ago via TweetDeck Favorite Retweet Reply

Sharing information while noting its unconfirmed status:

Hearing reports that Abdul Majeed al-Zindani hurt or killed in car accident. Politician, head of Yemen Muslim B’hood. *Not* confirmed.less than a minute ago via TweetDeck Favorite Retweet Reply

Asking his followers to check in on the status of a fellow Twitter user:

Anyone? RT @SuDif: tweeps any news on @JustAmira ? the lack of action on her timeline is really unusual!less than a minute ago via TweetDeck Favorite Retweet Reply

Challenging a report in order to move towards verification:

Source? RT @mohdashoor: Bahrain regime demolishes “Shahrakkan Maternity Hospital” after it accepted injuries from previous clashes.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

Passing along a report from one of his sources on the ground:

My source in Misurata is saying that at least one Gaddafi tank made it into the city center today, fought with snipers. Unclear who won.less than a minute ago via TweetDeck Favorite Retweet Reply

And here he is yesterday, just minutes after we hung up, sharing a point we discussed:

.@arabisin Been thinking a lot that we need to discourage peeps from using words like BREAKING or CONFIRMED unless actually confirmedless than a minute ago via TweetDeck Favorite Retweet Reply

We spoke about how he judges the accuracy and quality of a tweet, and Carvin said that a red flag for him is when non-journalists adopt the language of breaking news.

“Some of the rumors I see floating around seem to be accompanied by the words ‘breaking’ or ‘confirmed’ or ‘urgent’ all in capital letters,” he said. “I think it’s partially because you’ve got people on the ground in the Middle East hearing information and they’ve very excited about getting it, or feel like it needs to be out there as quickly as possible. They start using phrases that reporters use but they are using them in a very different way.”

When he sees these terms used, Carvin often replies and asks for additional details, for pictures and video. Or he will quote the tweet and add a simple one word question to the front of the message: Source?

That query is now something of a trademark for Carvin on Twitter. (He even uses it to engage in lighthearted self-mockery.) The source of information is a constant concern and cause of conflict for him.

“Some of these folks are working to actively overthrow their local regimes,” he said. “I just have to be aware of that at all times. Perhaps the answer is transparency, so a certain person might be giving me good information but I should never forget that they are part of the opposition.”

Carvin’s conundrum is that, on the one hand, he sees a problem with people misusing journalistic terms because, through no fault of their own, they lack basic reporting skills. On the other hand, he wonders how far he can go in educating and help them.

“I have a lot of people who say, ‘look, we’re not trained to be journalists, we don’t know what we’re doing and we’re just finding stuff and seeing stuff and we want to get it out there,’” he said. “I’ve had people actually say to me, ‘Can you teach us how to do this?’”

Carvin’s followers are the engine that drives his reporting. They help him translate, triangulate, and track down key information. They enable remarkable acts of crowdsourced verification, such as when they helped Carvin debunk reports about Israeli munitions in Libya. But they are by definition a slice of the population, an inexact (though curated) collection. They are people he has come to respect and admire; but he must always tell himself to check and challenge what he is told.

“On the one hand I’d love for these sources to be more accurate and to not have us wasting each other’s time,” he said. “But at the same time, am I aiding them in any way that is inappropriate to journalistic ethics? It’s the whole notion of, does teaching people to be better reporters cross the line? I’m not necessarily convinced that it does, but it’s a conversation worth having.

“Am I aiding them or am I making them better sources?” he asked. “It’s probably a bit of both.”

Correction of the Week

“The Post incorrectly attributed a quote to Toni Braxton in an article published on March 25. Braxton did not say: ‘I have a big-ass house, three cars and I fly first class all around the world. Some say I have the perfect life.’” – New York Post

Craig Silverman is currently BuzzFeed's media editor, and formerly a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.