Monday, December 7, 2009

How To (Not) Create a False Rumor

And Some Important Information About Privacy on Twitter

Note: This was one of the two posts I mentioned that were originally posted on my previous blog on Posterous. It was fairly popular (got more than 1.300 visits in the first five days) for having some useful information, so people say. Enjoy!

Good Intentions

Something unprecedented has happened to me last week. I was having a good time chatting with twitter friends, when I suddenly crossed with the information of a (supposed) privacy breach on Twitter: I was told that Direct Messages (DM) show up on Google searches. (!) I am the worried sort of person when it comes to privacy, so shortly after I imprudently posted a tweet about it. Which generated a number of ReTweets (RT) that could grow exponentially, if not for a kind twitter friend who wisely asked me where that information had come from. It was then that my two neurons decided to have a little chat, and I went on a frantic search for real facts.

So, in order to prevent creating an unintentional false rumor and therefore being vexed by the loss of credibility, and probably of followers, I suggest you take the following measures when sharing information on Twitter:

1) When retweeting, always open the links you receive to certify the quality of information; and be careful not to change any character in the haste of sending it, as it could lead to a very different place, or an error page;

2) When receiving information from others, always make at least a quick research to see if it is consistent. If you came across something as important/frightening as I did, and no one besides your friend mentions it, it’s likely that the information is untrue or results of some misunderstanding. So it’s advisable to refrain from sharing at least until you can confirm it;

3) However, if you are certain that you have a breaking news in your hands and want to be the first one to share it, I suggest you deepen your research (on line or not) and back yourself up with strong facts to support what you have to say.

Let’s go back to my tale, shall we? I contacted the two twitter friends who had mentioned the problem in the first place, and soon found that as nice as they were, they had misinterpreted some other facts related to DMs. After making my own research and confirming this, I quickly posted an update to stop the RT flow and sent (public) messages to everyone that had retweeted my original tweet, urging them to do the same.

When applying the advice above in this experience, I was lead to some interesting information I think you would like to know.

What I’ve Learned About Privacy on Twitter

DMs Don’t Show Up on Google Searches, Unless…

You already know that Direct Messages (DM) are private tweets you can exchange with people following you. And since they are private (as in, no one else besides the sender and the receiver can see them) they don’t show up on engine searches like Google searches.

Now, I’m not contradicting myself when I say that it actually happened that some tweets meant to be private could be found on public searches. Please stay with me to understand this well.

Back in 2008 some people tried to send direct messages by typing “DM” before the username and text, when the correct choice would have been typing only “D”. The result was that they ended up sending regular tweets instead of private ones, which being public could be found on search engines. This was called DM fail. (by Pete Cashmore, aka @mashable)

Fortunately Twitter changed the functioning of DMs (thank you @Twitter_Tips for the info!), and now you can use both “D” and “DM” to send private messages without worrying that it will turn up as a public tweet. I tested this myself and I was able to send DMs using all these possibilities (when sent from the web):
  • D mariblaser insert here your message
  • D @mariblaser insert here your message
  • DM mariblaser insert here your message
  • DM @mariblaser insert here your message
If you go to Twitter Support’s page for DMs you may get confused, as their instructions still mention the “D mariblaser” formula as the only one acceptable. Don’t worry about it. Twitter did fix this problem and forgot to tell us about it. But at least it was fixed, right?

Protected Accounts: Before and After Making the Choice

Protected accounts are the ones which tweets can only be seen by those you allow to follow you. This means that all your tweets will be private (between you and your followers), and they will not show on engine searches. However…

What happens if you had a public account, and at some later point you decided to protect it? All tweets you sent before protecting it will remain being public, and therefore will appear on Google and other engine searches.

Despite this being clearly explained on Twitter Support’s page for protected accounts people still got confused and angry when finding some part of their (now) protected accounts showing up on Google. So Twitter posted an explanation about it and even The Washington Post published an article that discusses the issue, taking as example the tweets sent by username @billclinton before the account was protected. Quick note: you can see the full text of the tweets in that article, in case you got curious.

After learning my lesson, I obviously went to the web to double check the facts, and with a simple search I found the said @billclinton account, which now is protected. So, we can rest assured that protected accounts remain private.

A few additional things you might want to know:
  • In case you don’t want your twitter profile to show on Google search results, here is what Twitter suggests you to do.
There Is Always a “But”

I really wanted to end optimistically, with reassuring news and so on, but while researching for this post I came across some troublesome information I felt compelled to share.

The Los Angeles Times also published an article on Bill Clinton’s protected account, claiming that there is a Google search engine called Googlebot that dodges the privacy of protected accounts, and gives a few more worrying examples.

On the same line of reasoning, Anthony De Rosa from used the feature mentioned on that LA Times’ article to find @billclinton’s tweets. Or at least a good part of them, as you can see here. If you click on the links that should lead to the tweets, you’ll end on inexistent pages, but what the Google search shows is enough to get a good glimpse of what is being said. Tell me this is not violation of privacy, and I’m not talking about Twitter’s point of view here.

If you read The Washington Post article I mentioned, you’ll know that these tweets were sent by someone impersonating Bill Clinton, and not the man himself, but there are tons of people with protected accounts who wouldn’t want to have about half their tweets opened to anyone who bothers looking up on Google. Would you, if you were in their place?

Now I ask you, have you ever had problems related to privacy on Twitter? If you have a protected account, did you (or someone else) find your protected tweets on engine searches? Please share on comments your experience, and any other information you might have.

A final note on links that might interest you:
  • If you are new on Twitter, check out this cool guide. (by @mashable)
  • If you were reluctant to join Twitter and now are sure you won’t, you might want to reconsider after reading this and this. (both via @mashable)

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