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9. Twitter and Archaeological Authority

Surveys 1, 3 and 8 were undertaken each year of my doctoral research from 2011-2013, and the data from these surveys can be found online. The research undertaken through the Twitter platform aimed in part to explore the subjects of credibility, reputation and trust regarding archaeological information shared on the social media platform. These are critical issues when dealing with the public dissemination of archaeological news and information online.

Credibility has been described as the perceived quality of information by the user, and consists of "two key elements: trustworthiness (well-intentioned) and expertise (knowledgeable)" (Lucassen and Schraagen 2011, 1233). Reputation is a "fluid, contingent, and precarious attribute generated entirely by the perception, attention and approval of others" (Hearn 2010, 423), and maintaining a positive reputation involves a continuous process and performance of image-management (Rodden 2006, 75). The active creation and management of personality and self-expression on social media platforms raises a number of issues around interpersonal perception, reputation management and controlled identity. No direct research has yet been undertaken into photographic or biographic representation on Twitter, and the image is only one small part of a very short biography. Unlike Facebook or blogs, the Twitter profile can carry only one picture (Twitter Help Center 2014). Users can choose an image that they feel best represents their communicated self or opt for the default Twitter avatar, which is a white egg shape on a coloured background. The range and style of the profile images is vast: individuals or groups, close-ups, blurred images, symbols, organisational logos, cartoons, or avatars, and "self-presentation on Twitter takes place through ongoing “tweets” and conversations with others, rather than static profiles. It is primarily textual, not visual" (Marwick and Boyd 2010, 116). The importance of the process of evaluating authenticity can be observed during the decision to exercise reciprocity after being followed by another Twitter user. Twitter's account profile facility is limited and many account holders prefer to maintain a high degree of anonymity, using nicknames and impersonal avatars.

As evidenced from the three years of survey results, many people using and interacting on archaeological social media platforms are professional archaeologists or researchers; many users work in the academic field, and the authenticity of, and trust in, archaeological news can be an emotive subject. The evaluation of information credibility online is far less simple than in the pre-Internet era — the user is frequently left to judge the veracity of the information discovered online themselves. However, recent studies have shown that there are discrepancies between what users consider relevant to ascertain information credibility, and that used by search engines such as Google and Bing (Schwarz and Morris 2011; Morris et al. 2012). Those seeking credible information rely on their experience and expertise with the subject, information literacy and critical awareness, or experience of the information provider, in order to form a judgement on the accuracy and validity of the information retrieved (Lucassen and Schraagen 2011). Research by Lucassen et al. (2013), unsurprisingly, showed that people with some knowledge of the topic evaluate the credibility of information found online differently from those with no prior experience or understanding.

Twitter can rapidly update information and facilitate swift analysis and interpretation of events far faster even than traditional media websites (Castillo et al. 2011). Yet, the speed and churn of the Twitter time-line, and the increasing use of mobile phone connections to update the platform (Twitter Advertising Blog 2013), may facilitate the spread of misinformation, and the issue of ascertaining credibility within online micro-blogging is an important aspect to consider within the paradigm of asserting archaeological authority in an online context. The Twitter platform has also been the focus of research into information credibility (Kang et al. 2012; Ikegami et al. 2013; An et al. 2013). The work of Castillo et al. (2011) suggested that Twitter users estimated the level of credibility of information exchanged via the website using several markers of believability; the emotional reactions and sentiments of users generated by certain topics; the level of questioning of topics by users sharing or retweeting information; the external sources cited, the existence and authenticity of an external source and URL; the numbers of followers, the number of Tweets sent, and the longevity of a Twitter account. The research concludes that credible news items "… tend to include URLs … have deep propagation trees … are propagated through authors that have previously written a large number of messages, originate at a single or a few users in the network, and have many re-posts…" (Castillo et al. 2011, 5). The asynchronous nature of the Twitter feed allows users time to consult external sources to verify information shared via Twitter (Schrock 2010, 2) and research the veracity of the information supplied: "Twitter feeds may be perceived as a stream of interesting titbits of information that are quickly evaluated and easily ignored…" (Schrock 2010, 17). While misinformation is not a new Internet phenomenon by any means, the use of a social media platform for political propaganda, marketing, spam and malicious behaviour could seriously damage the credibility of information publicised via Twitter. However, as Schrock (2010, 17) points out, 'for the Twitter environment there may be few risks to being deceived, other than the occasional spurious status update'.

"…projects [should] consider how influence and reach affects the longevity of information circulation, since reused and recycled content can last longer than expected online"

The responses to the three annual Twitter and Archaeology online surveys, which discussed the perception of archaeological authority and the need for accuracy when tweeting, are very interesting in the light of the literature on Twitter as a credible news source. Results from these surveys show that the limitations of the account profile mean that what users say on Twitter, how often and with whom they interact is of far greater importance to the perception of the authority and influence than the contents of the short biography and accompanying avatar or image. Personal and professional reputation and organisational affiliation, weak ties, the perception of reliability, the length of time the source has held a Twitter account, influence on the archaeological sector in 'real life', as well as biographical information found elsewhere online are all important factors in the perception of trustworthiness of both the information shared through Twitter and the individual source account.

For many of the Twitter and Archaeology survey respondents, a weak tie connection and the possession of social capital, as defined by Granovetter (1973; 1982) and Putnam (2000), including familiarity with the work of the connection, is central to the perception of authority, overriding the relative anonymity offered by the Twitter platform. Where Twitter users do not have personal acquaintanceship with the source, the data demonstrated that users will actively search for more information about a person or academic affiliation or professional status through the use of a search engine, in order to ascertain the reliability of the information provided. Archaeological tweeters are rigorous fact-checkers — checking sources of information, biographies and personal and institutional websites. Comments on this subject from the surveys include:

"I will assess the source of the information in terms of who the individual/organisation is and try to determine where the information for their tweets is coming from"

"…visiting the very source of news/links, checking what else people posted and wrote, whether they're acquainted with topic and/or where they work, for how long…"

"Follow-up search in search engines to check the veracity, as well as discussion with friends"

The extent that the potential reach and audience of a user's shared information Twitter can be vast, and is exercised through the simple act of receiving a retweet, has a number of implications for the use of social media platforms for dissemination of authoritative information and publicity. This is an important yet imperceptible example of why an appreciation of the requirements and abilities of the imagined audience around issues of information literacy and information credibility during the production of archaeological information online is essential. It is also fundamental that public archaeology projects consider how influence and reach affects the longevity of information circulation, since reused and recycled content can last longer than expected online.


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