How an errant tweet and a high-functioning algorithm
killed a man who was already in the grave
By Jack Murtha
Carolyn Ross was at work this winter when someone asked if she’d heard the news about her dad. There wasn’t much to hear, she thought, because Pa, as she affectionately calls him, had died more than six years ago. But when she searched his name online, the results were peculiar. “There it was: All this huge fuss, and people reacting and saying, ‘Oh this is terrible. This lovely man has died,’ ” she says.
Americans might not know the name “Tony Hart,” but in England, he was as famous and beloved as Mister Rogers. In nearly 50 years as an artist and children’s TV show host for the BBC, Hart taught generations of Brits to love art. His slow-paced television programs put a gentle, kind man on Britain’s main stage, where he carefully moved his pencils and paintbrushes across canvases, guiding his viewers to do the same until his retirement in 2001. Years after he left TV, his name showed up in tweets like, “Tony Hart was a huge influence on me in school,” and “any drawing capability I have came from you.”
Those tweets and similar tributes were published after Hart passed away—for the second time—in mid-February.
He actually died in 2009, at the age of 83, after two strokes disabled his hands and made him unable to draw. But on February 15 of this year, one misguided tweet (“RIP Tony Hart. #tonyhart #hartbeat #morph”) launched a wave of confusion that gripped social media platforms in the United Kingdom. Users flocked online to post tributes, links to his archived obituaries, and rants against those who hadn’t bothered to factcheck their information. Ignorant but well-intentioned people and algorithms (the formulas that determine what content appears on social media feeds and news outlets’ most-popular lists) plastered old news in big, bold print. By the early hours of February 16, the official Twitter account of Morph, @AmazingMorph—the naked clay figure created by Aardman Productions of Wallace and Gromit fame who accompanied Hart on his shows—published a tweet to set the record straight. The Guardian reported the story shortly after 8 o’clock that morning, and multiple major news organizations in the UK picked it up. The mix-up proved so widespread that Ross appeared on a BBC radio station a week later to discuss the phenomenon.
Strange as it seems, Hart’s second death is not unique—as I write this, news of Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s death is making the rounds on Twitter. He actually died in 2013. Twitter’s Trends, Facebook’s Trending feature, and Reddit’s popular-voting system have all, at some point, stripped the context from old news stories. As many learned at the end of 2014 through Facebook’s Year in Review, the algorithms that build our online experience can be cruel, forcing people to recall breakups and deaths as much as engagements and births. But to see that go on with the second death of a celebrity—an echo of an event that sparked so much grief less than a decade ago—calls into question how we consume news on social media. Websites like Emergent.info and PolitiFact.com try to fight the spread of factually incorrect stories, but they can’t actually stop old information from posing as news. Who’s to stop the internet from killing Tony Hart again?
When Tony Hart died in 2009, it was a different era. Conventional print and broadcast media covered his death with newspaper stories, radio packages, and televised segments. Social media had taken off but was not where it is today.
His second death occurred in an information universe that runs on social media buzz.
Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit have taken on increasingly large roles in the news industry in recent years, despite not being news organizations. A November 2013 report by the Pew Research Center showed that about 30 percent of adults in the US got some of their news from Facebook. Ten other social media platforms delivered news to just more than 30 percent of the population. Those figures are generally true worldwide, depending on the country, says Nic Newman, who helped shape the BBC’s online presence in its infancy and is now a research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. “They are bumping into news, traditionally on Facebook, or, with other social networks, they’re actively going out and using those networks to find news,” he says. “So, these social networks are very different, but they’re definitely changing the way news is distributed.”
Outdated news stories and false information regularly go viral. In early October 2014, NJ.com ran a story titled “No, it’s not going to snow in NJ next week,” after a forecast published by the website 18 months earlier climbed out of the online archives and onto Facebook and Twitter. “The reporter that wrote it left The Star-Ledger months ago,” the more recent story reads. “It appears that doesn’t matter. As of this writing, the story has been shared on Facebook more than 12,000 times.” Human error has botched social media posts about other storms and even the death of actor and comedian Robin Williams, who some mistook for the still-very-much-alive singer Robbie Williams. For Newman, the Tony Hart debacle is the latest example of a phenomenon that is not thoroughly studied or entirely new. “It just speaks to how hard it is quite often to verify information, how things can spread, but also how things get corrected pretty quickly,” he says.
Hart’s daughter, Ross, was lucky. The fiasco didn’t cause her to think her father had died when he was actually alive. And the post-mortem publicity didn’t place unsavory rumors, gossip, or criticism surrounding her dad in the spotlight. Instead, social media mourned the loss of Pa. Posters recalled his welcoming demeanor, which he used to touch and teach people through a medium built on the commercial and the superficial. They thanked him for his influence on their lives. Her favorite post that came out of the ordeal read, “Tony Hart: so good, we mourned him twice.” The knowledge that he wasn’t forgotten made Ross feel warm. “I’m very lucky that that is the feeling I take away from it, because social media can get things wrong and cause a great deal of upset,” she says.
For a bit, Hart’s second death caused distress for Ross’ daughter, though. She received several Facebook messages from friends who were concerned about her grandpa. They had either fallen for the hysteria or understood that the error might hurt Hart’s family. She didn’t know what happened, and these sympathetic messages were unsettling. Ross soon cleared it up, dissolving any lingering worries.
As Facebook’s director of product management, Will Cathcart oversees the News Feed and the year-old Trending feature. These are the platform’s two distribution lanes that push content, including news, to viewers. News Feed’s algorithm selects and orders content based on a user’s network of friends or publishers. Trending tries to tell users what, in general, is taking off on Facebook at any given moment. Factors like how somebody interacted with posts from a friend or news outlet in the past, which topics have interested that person, and how everybody else is reacting to a particular post all influence the algorithms. The formulas change over time, often based on user feedback, a process that never ends.
The goal of Facebook’s News Feed is to present important, interesting, and relevant information to its users. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be news, and it doesn’t have to be timely or factually correct. “We’re not interested in sort of picking and choosing which things are the important news but just want to make sure that for any given person who’s interested in a topic, they see the things they care about,” says Cathcart. “So, if a bunch of your friends post something that’s untimely or a joke or something like that, [Facebook] may not know that that’s untimely or a joke.” It’s like a modern-day version of sending newspaper clippings to far-off family members, or discussing the news over coffee with a friend.
Cathcart says his team hasn’t taken a close look at the resurgence of old news. One option, though, might be to make a story’s dateline clear on Facebook. The company has tried to distinguish fake news and hoaxes from factual news. In January, it gave users the power to flag posts as “a false news story.”
So who is responsible for all of this confusing info? Most social media sites claim no editorial authority—they are merely platforms, and thus not morally or legally culpable for the content that their users post—but they do sometimes don an editor’s visor. Emily Bell, director of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and former director of digital content for The Guardian, pointed to the removal of ISIS videos on Facebook and Twitter as an example of this; the latter clamped down hard on depictions of beheadings by the terrorist group. She says these “frontline editorial decisions” didn’t always fit with the platforms’ terms and conditions but were made in the name of good taste. That first step could ultimately lead to the shutdown of misogynist Facebook pages or racist Twitter accounts, she says. And the pressure to edit user-submitted content might grow from there.
But what happens when you’re in the eye of the media storm? For Ross, not too much. While she was glad to read condolences and late goodbyes, the problem fixed itself almost immediately. The first flurry of tweets and Facebook posts was sad and compassionate. “Then, very quickly, the tweets became a little bit mocking, and they were saying this happened six years ago,” she says. Misinformation now stood little chance in the clutches of the same machine that had propagated it.
Embarrassment has proven one of the best routes to fixing these growing pains. Newman, the Oxford journalism expert, says bungled posts like those connected with Hart’s second death are quickly debunked. “There’s normally a few people with red faces, but they get over it. And everyone learns, because basically every time you make a mistake, you never make exactly the same mistake again,” he says. So getting duped and losing some of your personal credibility is a rocky but reliable path to media literacy. His recent study subjects have said they don’t trust much of the information they find on social media, a point backed up by a November 2014 Edelman poll. Instead, they’ve ditched the one-source mindset, scoured the internet, and researched their way to the truth. “That’s essentially them doing the jobs of journalists, right?” says Newman.
For their part, news organizations could pay more attention to how they archive older stories. Editors tend to think ahead, and they would rather hire a reporter than a digital librarian, says Bell. A simple tweak to the algorithm could keep old stories out of the most-read verticals, which would have barred Hart’s 2009 obituary from landing a prime spot on The Guardian’s app almost six years later. If news organizations stay on top of their online data, which isn’t always easy to do, especially in real time, they can add notes to now-stubbornly confusing articles.
Reddit, on the other hand, rarely relies on its staff to correct or erase blunders. Volunteer moderators manage each vertical—commonly called subreddits—and every one of the 9,000 active communities plays by a different set of rules. Users can post just about anything they want, but each piece of content must comply with the law, the site’s policies and each individual subreddit’s rules. Reddit’s director of communications, Victoria Taylor, says moderators of news-heavy subreddits, like /r/WorldNews, often slap clearly visible labels on posts with misleading headlines or outdated information. The aggregator itself focuses more on the needs and wants of the community than editorial judgment.
Research centers and digital startups are looking into the consequences of news consumption through social media and how to clean up lone pieces of trash before they litter the media landscape. “At this point, so many of these trends that we see in the role of social media and digital technology influencing journalism have very brief lifespans,” says Jesse Holcomb, a senior researcher at Pew who focuses on journalism and news consumption via social media. “We don’t have any long-term, bird’s-eye-point-of-view yet to know where all of this is going.” But the relationship between journalism and social media is an important one that engineering-centric tech companies must consider, according to experts. There’s a lot that can go right and a lot that can go wrong.
It’s not always bad when old news resurfaces on social media. As Taylor points out, some of Reddit’s communities aim to add greater context or forgotten facts to contemporary discussions. “A lot of people tend to forget very cyclical news stories,” she says. “So, what may have been a big story about energy prices back in 2008 may have a lot of items that ring true nowadays.” Political movements that hold a firm command on the politics of 2015 can be better understood after a glimpse into the past. In-depth enterprise stories can reignite lively discussions when they find new life on social media, too. There’s no better place to see that than /r/TrueReddit, which regularly hosts yesterday’s insightful articles for fresh debate.
The second death of Tony Hart might as well have been lifted out of a Disney movie. Rather than tears and anger, the slip-up allowed Ross and her family to revisit the artist’s legacy. It inspired one fan to flip through her old Tony Hart art books. Shortly afterward, she approached Ross about naming an art therapy club, where she worked with clients who had psychological problems, after Hart. Ross gave her permission to use her father’s name—a chance to give a second life to the man who died twice.
Jack Murtha is a New York City-based journalist who likes to cover media, immigrant communities, and food and drink.