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An experiment in creating an ‘Auto-Debunker’ twitter account

As the conspiracy theories flew around last Friday, one in particular caught fire: the idea that the News Of The World might have been closed down because it would then allow for its assets – i.e. incriminating evidence – to be destroyed.

Perhaps because it was published under the Reuters brand (although the byline abrogated them of any responsibility for its contents) by the end of the day it had accumulated over 4,000 retweets.

I had already personally tweeted a couple of those users to point out that comments on the article had quickly debunked its argument. And by 6.26 that evening David Allen Green had published an explanation of the flaws in a piece at the New Statesman.

But people were still retweeting: how to connect the two?

Creating @autodebunker

It took me all of 20 minutes to hack together a simple automated service that would reply to people retweeting the Reuters blog post.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Create a specific Twitter account

I first of all named it autocorrecter but have now changed it to autodebunker. Make sure there’s an explanation in the biography that it is automated – and attribute authorship so people can make a judgement on its authority. Use the bio link to point at a page explaining more – I’ve linked it to this post.

2. Find an RSS feed for tweets that need debunking

If you use Twitter’s advanced search facility you can search for all tweets mentioning the Reuters blog post in question – even if they’ve been shortened. Just put the URL into the box marked ‘All of these words‘.

You’ll also want to prevent yourself creating a loop where you are replying to your own tweets (because these will contain the URL too). So in the box ‘None of these words‘ put your new Twitter account name – in this case, debunker.

Unfortunately the user’s name is not included in a tweet unless it is retweeted, so it’s best to make sure that you only include tweets with RT in them too. Add RT to the box marked ‘All of these words‘.

As others debunk the story you may have to exclude mentions of them as well, so you’re not tweeting at people who are already debunking. Likewise any other similar indicators.

My search boxes eventually looked like this (the account was originally called autocorrecter, so I had to exclude that as well)

3. Create a new RSS feed using Feedburner

The service we’re going to use will not let us publish a Twitter search RSS feed onto Twitter, and we also need to be able to easily edit this feed in response to changes. Feedburner is a very useful service for doing both.

You’ll be using the RSS feed for the advanced search mentioned above. When you conduct the search you will see a link to that RSS feed on the right – and if you click on it you should be taken to an address like: http://search.twitter.com/search.atom?q=+RT+http%3A%2F%2Fblogs.reuters.com%2Fmediafile%2F2011%2F07%2F07%2Fis-murdoch-free-to-destroy-tabloids-records%2F++-autocorrecter+-autodebunker+-davidallengreen

Copy that address and paste it into the box in Feedburner when you’re asked what feed you want to convert – it’s pretty much at the bottom of the first page you get when you log on to Feedburner. Follow the steps for creating a new RSS feed.

You’ll then be given a new address that begins with http://feeds.feedburner.com/ (something like: http://feeds.feedburner.com/Http/blogsreuterscom/mediafile/2011/07/07/is-murdoch-free-to-destroy-tabloids-records/-TwitterSearch?format=xml)

Copy this address for the next stage.

4. Use Twitterfeed to automatically publish debunking tweets

Twitterfeed is a great service for this. Log on and click on the button to create a new feed.

Give it a name and paste in the Feedburner RSS feed you copied above – but staying in step 1, click on ‘Advanced Settings‘ below.

The key areas here are ‘Post Prefix‘ and ‘Post Suffix’. This is what you want added to what you’re republishing.

Sadly, both are limited to 20 characters, but here’s what I added: in Post Prefix, I typed ‘See comments though’. In Post Suffix I added (probably not true).

You could add a shortened URL in either, too.

In Step 2 connect this to your new Twitter account by clicking the ‘Authorise’ button.

Don’t forget to click the final ‘Finish’ button to activate it all.

After a while it should start publishing tweets like this:

5. Monitor and tweak

Don’t forget to keep checking what people are tweeting, and what the account is tweeting, and adapt the Feedburner feed or Post Prefix and Suffix accordingly.

Any suggestions?

This is just a quick hack – there will be better ways of doing the above, but it’s an illustration of how you can use computer power to communicate with a distributed population of distributors. If you decide to do more with the idea, I’d love to know about it.

And after all this, of course, you have to ask: why have Reuters not updated their blog post to at least acknowledge the criticisms?

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