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What if Walter Cronkite’s Twitter account were hacked?

Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America. Or so they tell me.

-Ashton Kutcher

First things first – that quote was fake. But there was a period when Cronkite was considered to be a trusted source of information. Oh, not by everyone – but certainly by enough people that a negative statement on the Vietnam War from Cronkite could potentially have ramifications at the White House.

Several years later, when an incredible story broke about significant illegal actions in the Nixon White House, many (again not all) eventually began to trust the sources that were reporting this. As part of this process, many people considered these sources (the Washington Post, Walter Cronkite, and others) to be trustworthy, while other sources (the National Enquirer) were not so trustworthy.

But sometimes the not-so-trustworthy sources get it right, and the trustworthy sources get it wrong.

Take the National Enquirer. When the Enquirer first reported the marital shenanigans of John Edwards, many people regarded the story as similar to a story of the latest Elvis sighting. But eventually, the Enquirer was proven to be correct.

I could cite any number of examples of trustworthy sources that get it wrong, but I’ll confine myself to this morning’s tempest in a teapot. Whatever I may think of the Associated Press’ policies, I do consider them a trustworthy source. This morning, a Twitter account associated with this trustworthy source shared the following:

Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured

By the time I heard about the story, it had been denied. It turns out that the Associated Press Twitter account was hacked.

I don’t know how many minutes elapsed before the story was denied, but within that brief period, the Dow Jones Industrials plummeted. It has since recovered.

I can’t say how I would have reacted if I had seen the hacked tweet, but I can’t really blame the people who reacted the way that they did. The Associated Press is a trusted source of information, and Twitter is a technological marvel that is used by a number of trustworthy sources. What could go wrong?

But the AP account on Twitter, while supposedly trustworthy, is one thing. Your best friend from high school is another. Most of us cannot name anyone who works for AP, but we have spent a signficant number of years with our best friend from high school. In fact, we may trust our best friend from high school more than we trust the AP and Walter Cronkite put together.

So when your best friend from high school forwards you an email stating that the president of Procter and Gamble admitted his Satanic ties on Phil Donahue’s show, we tend to believe it. After all, your best friend would never lie to you.

(Incidentally, this comment does not apply to MY best friend from high school. When we would go to Mr. McCaskill’s class at lunch to watch Donahue, we’d go to see what wild freak was there that day. Times have changed.)

Now I’ll admit that most of the people who read this post do not fall for spurious or scam emails, and at least some of us would look askance if the AP Twitter account reported such a story. We’d want corroboration. But that is sometimes hard to get; how can you confirm something when all information sources sometimes become an echo chamber? Here’s an example that I presented:

Choosing a non-inflammatory example, let’s say that the Washington Times reports that Justin Bieber was seen drinking a strawberry milkshake. You go to another source to corraborate the news, and end up at Mashable:

“Justin Bieber was seen drinking a strawberry milkshake, according to the Washington Times.”

Still searching for independent confirmation, you end up at the Huffington Post:

“Various sources are reporting that Justin Bieber was seen drinking a strawberry milkshake.”

Well, we’re obviously in the echo chamber here, so we go to a U.S. Senator. The Senator would certainly know the truth, right?

“My lobbyists – I mean staffers – have informed me that Justin Bieber was drinking a milkshake, and that it reportedly had strawberry flavor.”

Finally, you end up at a really thoughtful source:

“Hey, is there anyone other than the Washington Times that can confirm that Bieber was really drinking that strawberry milkshake?”

This results in a comment:

“What are you, one of those crazy deniers? Everyone knows that Bieber was drinking a strawberry milkshake! It’s all over the news, so it must be true!”

But that comment results in a comment:

“No, that’s just what the Illuminati mass media WANTS you to believe. Not only did Sun Myung Moon (who’s not dead, by the way) order that this story be printed, but you should also know that Justin Bieber was kidnapped two years ago and is being held in an underground bunker in Brussels….”

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