Tech & society

What To Do When You Tweet A Lie?

Updated: Think about this for a moment: you tweet something you genuinely think is the truth, and then you discover that you made it up. In effect, it was a lie.

What would you do?

This is not an academic question: the odds that one day each of us will tweet something that is less than 100 percent true are pretty high. How might you effect a correction?

I’m about to outline what you should not do, with Michael Durwin (@mdurwin) standing in as the poster child.

Who Is He?
His Twitter bio: online marketing genius turned web2.0 entrepreneur and idea guy. Digital Dad, analog husband.

What Happened?
About 11 am Pacific (based on Twitter’s timestamps), Durwin tweeted:
mdurwin sarah palin tweet

About an hour later, @NRDCNews retweeted but included a caveat: “untrue?” Durwin replied:
durwin palin tweet

The NRDCNews reply says it all:
durwin nrdcnews

The tweet was irresistible to the two Yankees (Boston and New York). There’s a world of stereotypes wrapped up in that statement.

Durwin’s url does not link to the alleged tweet: it goes to CNN’s “This Just In” page. The NRDCNews folks simply cut the link from the retweet.

From here, the retweets snowballed, so that by the time I stumbled on this — while searching for news about the explosion — Durwin had been retweeted more than 400 times. For someone with less than 4,000 followers, that’s phenomenal.

durwin palin search

And the tweet was a lie.

What Really Happened?
Three more hours go by before someone else challenges the veracity of the tweet. Durwin said he “saw it for a second just before I cliked Login on Twitter’s home page.” (His browser doesn’t keep him logged in? It doesn’t auto-complete his profile URL? He sees the Twitter home page? I never see the home page.)

He goes on: “Might have been one of the 100 Palin accounts.”

So, he saw something for a second — then typed it from memory and suggested it was a direct quote (he included half of the quotation marks)?

Would he advise a client to do something like this?

Another hour and Durwin switches fully into deflection and finger-pointing:
durwin palin
durwin palin
durwin palin

What’s missing is any acknowledgment that he was told that the account which sent the tweet was a parody account:
durwin palin

Rather than post a correction at this point, Durwin says, in effect, that he doesn’t care that he is spreading a lie:
durwin palin

Not your job?!?

Not your job to verify something before you tweet it?!? And here I thought that raising awareness of the need to verify before retweeting was what we need to improve Twitter’s credibility. I simply took it for granted that professionals would not knowingly Tweet misinformation.

So to have someone who is a self-professed social media expert say it’s not his job to verify before attributing a quote to someone … I can’t wrap my head around this. It was this deflection of personal responsibility that led me to write this post. Well, that and the fact that five hours later he was still replying as though he knew nothing about the spoof Sarah Palin account — “She has a history of posting and deleting” — even though he had just acknowledged that 10 people had told him about the spoof.

Oh, there are two lies in the original tweet. One is that the quote is from Sarah Palin. The other is that it has been deleted:

durwin sarrahpalinu5a

What Would You Do?
Returning to my opening question, what would you do? Would you own up to your mistake? If so, how?

Update – 12:05:
As Howard Rheingold noted in a tweet to me, I only tangentially touched on this point: “unthinkingly repeating a rumor can be as destructive as making up a lie.” In prior writing, I think I’ve made it pretty clear (see this from January) that I think it is the poster’s responsibility to verify before tweeting.

As @MDurwin notes in a comment below, I failed to explicitly answer the opening question in this essay. I hinted at my answer — Would you own up to your mistake? — but I didn’t make it explicit. So now I am doing so: yes, you should own up to your mistake, which is usually done best by posting a corrected or updated tweet.

Last year (2009) at Gnomedex several of us tweeted a quote from a speaker on stage because it was ….irresistible. (Reminder: if it sounds too good – or bad – to be true, it’s probably false.) Fortunately, one person at Gnomedex had his bulls***t meter on and said, “whoa!” I then tried replying to people who had ReTweeted the erroneous stat. One-at-a-time:

@kirste 9-yo stat is false. Average age homeless in US is NOT 9 yo. NYT: #gnomedex ^kegill

It was laborious, and I kept worrying that Twitter would think I was spamming, since I was sending the same message over-and-over.

The response I got, in the main, was not unlike Durwin’s triology above: it doesn’t matter if the stat is false, what’s important is that a there are a lot of homeless children in America and we need to let people know that, no matter how. I think this is not the best way to persuade or win an argument, but I’m feeling more and more like I am a (vocal) minority on this point. Do the ends truly justify the means?

Finally, I think the other reason that this particular exchange set my teeth on edge — or made my head explode — was because it reflects a public sphere gone horribly horribly wrong. I’m teaching a digital democracy class this fall, so public sphere is very top of mind.

Hope this update clarifies rather than muddles!

:: WiredPen permalink : Follow Me On Twitter!

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

15 replies on “What To Do When You Tweet A Lie?”

While the incident does raise *some* valid questions about the as-yet-not-very-established ideals of info curation, verification, etc in the Twitter age, it does rather seem like you’re grandstanding and rather overstating your case in this article. It’s hard to understand why you sound so aggressive and more than a bit sanctimonious in this article. Stick to the point you’re trying to make.

Hi, Michael:

Certainly there is nothing wrong in retweeting a *parody* — when it is identified as such.

What is wrong is presenting a paraphrase as a quote and not acknowledging the parody as the source but insisting that the “quote” came from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. If my insistence on this truth is like a “dog gnawing a bone,” so be it.

Because of your actions, there are now at least 400 people + some of their readers who probably believe Palin said this. They “believe” it, more than likely, because it fits their worldview. They “believe’ it because, as NRDCNews noted, it’s “irresistible”. For example, “I can see Russia from my house!” — many Democrats believe Palin said this instead of Tina Fey. Both Ds and Rs have this as a “shortcoming” because it’s human nature.

Thanks for the conversation. It has spurred my thinking on the importance of framing.

I’ve tried to close on a high note, but I’m afraid I have to acknowledge — laugh at — your closing jab about teaching. ;-)

Mistakenly paraphrasing a parody account is unconscionable behavior? Are you kidding me? If I was a journalist or public politician I could see it I see Palin, Limbaugh, Beck, and the entire Fox News team twist the truth, reinteerpret quotes and broadcast comments out of context to get conservatives wou d up every day. But Twitter is not a news channel specifically, and I am not a journalist. I am not presenting facts as a source of hard-researched journalism to millions of people. Anyone who reads my tweets knows that I do not represent myself as a serious political commentator, any more than John Stewart or Stephen Colbert do.

I am not going to delete me Tweet for the following reason:
Too many people have reTweeted it. I think it’s important for anyone who is interested to go back and see the course of events as the played out in real time on Twitter. Deletin it would look like I was trying to cover something up and the only record would be your vitriolic take on what happened which you’ve admitted is primarily fueled by your anger over my snipes at Palin. Yes I said I didn’t research it because it gave me an opportunity to make fun of Palin, who is constantly putting her foot in her mouth, but in fact I made every attempt to find the truth and posted what I believed at the time to be fact, based on the only conclusion I could draw. It certainly has no impact on political discourse in this country, certainly not to the the level of announcing to 2 million people that the government was instituting death panels, or that the President is a Muslim.

You’ve become like a dog with a bone about this and it’s time you just got over it. No one really cares what I said but you and it suites you as a lecturer on the topic of social media. What happened has had no impact on anyone but you and I. You’ve redefined what it means to be a lie, you’ve let your personal feelings blow this up into something akin to Watergate. It’s just Twitter and I’m just a guy on Twitter with a handful of followers.

You should also do a little more research on your Palin account list. You missed the accounts for the Palin blog, the Palin for VP, and Palin as Governor. Not to mention the myriad of Palin fan accounts. I found at least 10 pages of lists of Sarah Palin accounts both pro and parody. In the text I tweeted, I used none of them.

This has taken up far to much of my time. I have work to do, I’m sure you have students to teach. I’ll go back to doing, why don’t you go back to teaching?

Hi, Michael:

Presenting a paraphrase as a quote is a lie, whether or not the attribution is accurate. You stated emphatically that you did not fact check the attribution and later said that it was not “your job” to do so. In my opinion, both actions are unconscionable behavior.

Moreover, there is no admission of the mistake in your timeline; that is, there is no acknowledgment that Sarah Palin did not say what you said she said nor that you had confused a spoof account with a real one. Someone who follows you would not know that the original tweet was wrong on two counts.

Your comment about Palin — “Besides, if SarahPalin didn’t Tweet it, it doesn’t mean she didn’t mean too and got distracted by a shiny gun and forgot.” — should be offensive to anyone concerned about the state of political discourse (the public sphere) in this country. My concern has nothing to do with Palin. This is stereotypical FOX News/Rush Limbaugh partisan rhetoric that leads to ever more “coarse” discourse.

The tweet has not been deleted, as I pointed out above:

All of the Sarah Palin accounts:
* @SarahPalinUSA – her official account
* @SarrahPalinU5A – the spoof account
* @FakeSarahPalin – little-used account
* @SarahPalin – not the politician
* @sarah_palin – fan account

Finally, I am repeating my tweet: I did not call you a liar. I focused my critique on actions, not person.

Saying someone said something when they did not is a lie? I agree, if you knew it to be a lie.
So, by your logic, YOU lied, when you said that I lied because you didn’t know whether I lied (intentionally misinforming) or was mistaken (making a statement which I believed to be true, which as it turns out was not). You stated a fact without knowing the truth.
What’s worse is, you realized that I made a mistake. In your own Tweet you said “@mdurwin seems to have mis-read parody @SarrahPalinU5A as real thing.”. So, you KNEW I made a mistake and wasn’t intentionally lying, yet you still wrote this blog post and called me a liar. That makes you a liar by your logic and mine.
Now, whether or not you approved of how I admitted to being wrong is another thing:

@djhardy @DJBennyC she is, isn’t she? But, you may be right. All I saw was her name and avatar, then the quote as I was clicking to login

It’s been brought to my attention that there are several SarahPalin accts.

BTW, another user claimed to have seen it to:
“DianeLandry321: @mdurwin I’ll confirm that I saw that twit tweet!”

So making a mistake based on the information I had was inexcusable to you? Or is it really because you didn’t like my later comments about Sarah Palin which, according to you made your head explode a little?

Hi, Michael – thanks for your response. As I said in a tweet, your post was held for moderation (more than two links is an automatic hold) and I was otherwise occupied with a livechat with @Marshallk when you posted.

As @HRheingold noted in a tweet to me, I only tangentially touched on this point: “unthinkingly repeating a rumor can be as destructive as making up a lie.”

However, I’ve made it pretty clear (see this from January) that I think it is the poster’s responsibility to verify before tweeting. I see from your examination of my tweetstream that I failed to do that RE “3 Dog Night”. I’ll check out your link and post a correction if need be. And I’ll delete the offending tweet if Twitter will still let me.

That said, I think there is a big difference between RTing info about which radio station was the first to air 3 Dog Night and fabricating a quotation attributed to a national political figure.

Based your subsequent tweets, we know you were paraphrasing when you wrote that statement. Yet the opening quote mark on your tweet implies to your readers that this is a direct quote. (As to the missing closing quote mark – I chalked it up to 140 character limit when I read it.) As the author of the tweet, you said the quote was from SarahPalin. There was no waffling, no mention of the fact that you were paraphrasing. You presented it as fact.

In my mind, this was an act of deliberate misinformation.

It is the act of presenting a paraphrase as a quotation that is the lie.

Saying that someone said something that they did not say: gossip or lie? To me, it’s a lie.

Had there been an acknowledgment in your tweetstream that the original tweet was wrong — that this “quote” originated from the spoof Palin account — I may have still written about the incident (digital literacy and its corollaries are on my mind) but I would have used it as an example of what to do.

Instead, your response to a tweet about checking @SarrahPalinU5A was “not my job”. And at least 10 people – by your count – told you about the spoof account. Yet you published no retraction. Instead, your response was to make more denigrating remarks about Palin.

That made my head explode a little.

You’re correct that my parenthetical comment about the Twitter home page was not relevant to the analysis. I indulged in digital snarkiness. I apologize.

Oh. And AFA retweets of this post … not so much. Only one “new” RT that I’ve seen.

Finally, parody accounts? Help me see how they are relevant to this discussion. And thanks for not assuming that I’m a Palin fan in disguise.

Hi Kathy,

Interesting article. The title got me hooked “What To Do When You Tweet A Lie?”

I’m confused by your opening statement though:
“Think about this for a moment: you tweet something you genuinely think is the truth, and then you discover that you made it up. In effect, it was a lie.”

How do you “discover you made it up”? If you made it up, you’d know it wouldn’t you? Did you mean to say “…then you discover that you made a mistake”? Because if you knew you made it up, you wouldn’t discover it and if you thought it was genuinely true and found out it wasn’t you would either have been mistaken or mislead, correct? But neither would have it a lie? If it was a lie, I neither would have genuinely believed it nor discovered it, would I?

SO, your article entitled “What To Do When You Tweet A Lie?”, suddenly changes from What To Do, to What Not To Do. Interesting, I never learned that writing trick in college, but then again, I went to design school. But the article isn’t about What Not To Do either is it? It’s about what I did (or did not do), yesterday in regards to my tweet.

I’ll forget for a minute that you work for a university and use stereotypes in your argument when referring to me and the folks at NRDCnews as Yankees. I didn’t realize we were still in the mid-1800s.

I do agree that the amount of reTweets this post had is phenomenal. It’s certainly not what I expected. Believe me, I can think of far more valuable and self-serving things to Tweet than this! I’m taking a long objective look at what happened to figure out why and how do many reTweets happened. I have a sneaking suspicion that it was a combination of right time, right place, right audience, right climate, and the growing importance of Twitter to search and as a news source. I’ll save my opinions on how the content and how it was arrived at for a future post.

Yes, the Tweet did link to the CNN article rather than the Tweet for reasons I’ll discuss further.

“And the Tweet was a lie” – This is where you get yourself into trouble. A lie is an intentional misrepresentation of the truth. Do you have any proof that I intentionally misrepresented the truth? No, you don’t. As a matter of fact, as you point out, I told several users where I saw it and that I couldn’t verify the authenticity of the post. While I did not only post that I may have been incorrect, I thanked several people for pointing it out, as a matter of fact I began pointing out the growing number of people that were telling me I was quoting an incorrect account. Did take the opportunity to be snarky and use my mistake to point fun at Sarah Palin? Absolutely. Because I’m snarky like that. The only lie I DID tell was that I did no research to authenticate the post. So, how about a few facts, you’d have known if you had contacted me to verify the details of my behavior for this article that weren’t readily apparent through Twitter. Some will clarify your questions about how you perceive I interact with Twitter:

Yesterday I was in the midst of a tight deadline for a project. I took a short break and decided my computer was getting a bit slow so I rebooted it. Now, this is not a new computer, but it did have to have it’s hard drive replaced recently. Because of that I have yet to load all of the software I usually use on it such as Tweetdeck. That is my preferred method of Twitter use on a desktop. Otherwise it’s the Twitter app on my iPhone or iPad. I also usually use Safari but decided to open Firefox instead so I wouldn’t have to wait for Safari to load all of those website thumbnails. Doing this brought up Twitter’s home page. I clicked the Login button, it opened the panel showing both my login and password, as I’d used it before but not recently. I don’t think it would take too much effort for you to recreate this yourself. I, like you, never see the Twitter home page. I didn’t even know they were showing recent popular tweets it’s been that long. As I depressed the button to login a new Tweet popped up on the front page in the middle column. It contained the text I Tweeted next to an avatar of Sarah Palin with the user name that looked like SarahPalinUSA. It wasn’t until later that I found out about @SarrahPalinU5A. I think it’s easy to understand the mistake @SarahPalinUSA @SarrahPalinU5A. It’s obvious that the later user intentionally replicated the official account as much as possible for just these purposes. If you visit the account you’ll see the similar user name, the exact same avatar, and a background that is almost identical.

I thought the quote was typically idiotic of Palin. She is the one that said “Drill, baby, drill” ( right? So I checked her account and didn’t see her post. I tried to hit More at the bottom but Twitter gave back an error. So, I tried Google. While searching Google for Palin quotes on Twitter (I was sure someone else had picked up on this by now) I began to find a host of sites with screenshots of Tweets Palin had deleted (,, As you know, deleted Twets used to be searchable but no longer are ( I went back to Twitter, typed in a search for Sarah Palin and came up with a host of official and non-official accounts. I went through 3 pages of accounts before I gave up. While searching Google for that particular quote I came across the breaking story of the oil rig explosion. To clarify: the second oil rig explosion in the Gulf. My initial intention was to tweet back to Palin that perhaps she should consider the BP spill a message from God. Now, seeing this I assumed that the Tweet I thought she had posted was hers and that she might have deleted it, as she does, when she realized she just put her foot in her mouth. BTW, if you do a search on Twitter for Sarah Palin, you’ll find you have to dig to find @SarrahPalinU5A, I never saw it. Go ahead try it.

So, I did not link to the Tweet because I could not find it and assumed it was deleted. I did link to the CNN story because I thought that was important item. It certainly bore relevance and was worth sharing. I’ve seen several instances in your Tweetstream where you mention something you’ve read or quote someone without giving a verifiable link. Why is that okay for you but not for me? You reTweeted without verifying the information. You even wrote this blog without verifying ANY facts with me. You further, pushed this blog post out to any number of people, without a word to me about it. You haven’t even responded to my Tweet to you this morning.

You go on to attack me professionally but miss an important fact. This is MY personal Twitter account. I use it to research, keep in touch, share interesting, entertaining, useful and useless information that includes my son’s development (11 teeth), my dream car (1962 Volvo P1800), trash left by departing students in my neighborhood, and my opinion on everything from the weather to politics to changes in network programming (which particularly miff me, ask @syfy). Would I recommend posting a quote that you didn’t have 100% concrete proof of to a client? Absolutely not. On the other hand, I would advise a client not to quote anyone nor to have any political discussions whatsoever.

Before writing your article lambasting me as an evil Twitter misquoter, you posted:

“@down2earth2 : @mdurwin seems to have mis-read parody @SarrahPalinU5A as real thing. Tweet NOT deleted:

So, from the time you told someone else I mis-read a parody to the time you hit publish on your blog, you decided I was an insidious liar. Very interesting snap judgement for a University Lecturer.

When it was brought to my attention that the quote may have come from an unofficial or parody account I admitted it, as it shows in your screenshots above. THe screenshot you show of someone sending me a link to the parody account shows @SarrahPalin, an account which does not exist. It wasn’t until much later that the account @SarrahPalinU5A was mentioned. I did mention several times to everyone that corrected me that it may have come from an unofficial account, going so far as to mention that multiple sources had told me.

My comment to @pcorsmith that it’s not my job to check and recheck is something I still stand by. I’m not a journalist, I’m not a Social Media Lecturer, I’m not a pundit. I’m allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. I’m not an influencer like Sarah Palin. I don’t have the resources of CNN. I can’t ring up Sarah and ask her if she Tweeted it or not. Based on the information I had at the time I posted a Tweet, that I found particularly amusing. It isn’t even a quote I attributed to @SarahPalinUSA. My Tweet stated:

“SarahPalin tweeted “if we weren’t meant to drill for oil God would let us know. It was deleted as oil rig explodes” then the link to the CNN story.

To be completely technical, since there is no closed quote and there is no actual user name with an @ preceding it, I didn’t actually quote her official Twitter account. But that it splitting hairs with technicality. It’s the intent that I think is important. My intent was to post something that I read that I thought was interesting and might give someone a good laugh.

I saw you post a recent bit of information that you thought others might find useful or interesting:

“@kpedraja I did read where you could hack AppleTV to accept a browser. @AndruEdwards?”

You have no verification, no source other than “I did read”. And you’re giving this information as a Digital Media Educator in the Social Media Space to people who may very well void the warranty on their device and break it. That’s a helluva double standard don’t you think Kathy?

You even reTweeted mis-information:

“RT @NW_Mktg_Guy: The first station to ever play a 3 Dog Night song on the air was in Seattle in ’69, KJR? Pat O’Dayz? | A fav band!”

Actually the first station to play it was KISW-FM, the sister station to KJR-AM, at least according to DJ Larry Bergman ( So, technically you were incorrect, or does the question mark at the end mean you’re not sure, because that could be cut out of a reTweet…

I even found a few interesting things from Palin that look like she didn’t check her facts. I’d say telling her 2 million plus friends on Facebook and 250,000 plus followers on Twitter that the government is going to institute “death panels” to decide if her child lives or not is far more intentional than my mistake.

I took a look through your political postings and those surrounding social media and didn’t see this addressed anywhere. I guess she gets a pass.

I find it interesting that you don’t focus any of your ire about parody accounts or misinformation in your post about the BP parody accounts. Instead you use it as a teaching point:

I guess they get a pass too.

So why, I wonder, has my innocent mistake, corrections included, inspired so much aggression on your side? As I said, I do agree with the first part of your article:

“the odds that one day each of us will tweet something that is less than 100 percent true are pretty high. How might you effect a correction?”

I like that you end with a question on what would others do. Social Media changes every day, because user trends and technology change everyday. We’re constantly evolving in how we deal with it. What I don’t agree with is that you spent 90% of your post questioning my intentions, my ethics, my professionalism, and my morality. Is questioning how I got to Twitter’s home page relevant? Is it important for the subject of your article to call into question how I work with clients? Is it realistic or just sensationalism to Tweet that I misread something than to say I lied about it? You certainly got alot of reTweets out of your article’s headline and you certainly pushed out alot of direct links to folks about it. What I missed what any information from the part where you actually used your experience and knowledge as a “Digital Media Educator in the Social Media Space at the University of Washington” to answer the question “What To Do When You Tweet A Lie”. Not surprising since your thesis statement is contradictory.

I’m glad to have had the opportunity to respond, hopefully you don’t delete this from your blog post. If so, not to worry, I’ll move the whole conversation to my blog and make sure people get to read both sides. I’m glad I’ve been able to give you a teaching moment and no doubt increase your blog and Twitter traffic. Hopefully your allegations surrounding my personal and professional ethics don’t cause any damage to my career. That would certainly be a lose-lose scenario.

p.s. any time you’d like to discuss this, you can feel free to respond to the Tweet I sent you this morning. I haven’t seen one yet.

Excellent post. As you say, a classic example of how not to do it. I’ve tweeted mistakes before, and when I realized my error, I tweeted a correction and then followed up with all the people who had RT’ed me. if it were a big deal, I’d probably make a blog post apologizing and correcting. And while it’s not specifically social-media oriented, Teh Portly Dyke’s got some great suggestions.

Thanks, Drew — I’d like to think that as personal authority becomes a greater currency … more folks will think before (tweeting, blogging, forwarding an email, etc). Right now, we live in a culture that is migrating from centralized “media” authority to niche authorities. Transition.

You raise an important issue – one which i think requires us all to take stock of the position of responsibiity we are all in when Twittering. I think it comes down to how much we want to keep a status of ‘authority’. In my particular case I try to be as scrupulous as I can when deciding if a Tweet should be RTd or not and if I am in any doubt at all about it being contentious then I simply do not post it. I consider my reputation too important to be put at risk by careless or wrong or fraudulent Tweets. However, I recognise that other Twitter users may not care as much about this.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.