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The Twitter Snowball Effect, the Zodiac and NPR


Twitter has resounded with the news this week that there's now a 13th sign of the Zodiac, called Ophiuchus. Regardless how you feel about astrology itself, it's easy to demonstrate that the "news" is bunkum — a textbook product of what I call the Twitter Snowball Effect.

Tracing the story back, we find that the excitement was sparked Thursday by items in Time.com's NewsFeed and the Huffington Post, which reported that "astronomers from the Minnesota Planetarium Society" had found that because of the moon's gravitational pull on Earth, the alignment of the stars was pushed by about a month.

With the Minnesota Planetarium Society as the only attribution, the items printed the "new Zodiac," which slotted Ophiuchus into late autumn between Scorpio and Sagittarius (and transformed me from a Cancer into a Gemini).

In fact, the Minnesota Planetarium Society said no such thing.


The source was a rewrite by NBC station KARE of a feature article Monday in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (which is now time-stamped as having been updated Jan. 14, but which the site's search function shows as having originally been posted Jan. 10, a date confirmed by Factiva and other news databases). The KARE rewrite was noticed by NBC News, which sent it out to its local station sites, which explains why the Huffington Post misattributes it to "NBC" through a link to NBC's Fort Myers, Fla., station.

The Star-Tribune article quotes only Parke Kunkle, a member of the society's board, who notes that thousands of years of the moon's gravitational pull has thrown Earth off its axis, meaning the stars as we see them aren't the same as the stars as the Babylonians saw them.

"When [astrologers] say that the sun is in Pisces, it's really not in Pisces," Kunkle told the Star-Tribune.

No one else from the Minnesota Planetarium Society is quoted in the article, and if you go to the society's site, it simply links to the Star-Tribune. There's no "new Zodiac" there.

That's because there is no new Zodiac.

The Star-Tribune piece itself traces back to a New Year's Eve article on LiveScience.com by Robert Roy Britt, who simply pointed out what astronomers have said for centuries: The astrological Zodiac is plain wrong as a fundamental observational artifact, and it has been for millennia.

There's nothing new about any of this. The International Astronomical Union noted the misreading of the sky by astrologers in 1930, and people both pro-astrology and anti- have been writing about Ophiuchus as the 13th sign of the Zodiac for years.

All that happened this week was that some online news editors learned about him, incorrectly thought he was new and turned him into a viral phenomenon. As often happens on Twitter, the first, inaccurate take — "hey, there's a new Zodiac!" — took off, snowballing into an avalanche that buried all attempts to correct it.

This is the Twitter Snowball Effect.

Why is it important? Because the Twitter Snowball Effect can overwhelm serious, important news, too. This is what happened last weekend when NPR incorrectly reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died after having been shot in Tucson, Ariz. (NPR's report was defensible and forgivable, I would argue, but that's an argument for another time and place.)

Once NPR determined that it was wrong, the remarkable Andy Carvin (@acarvin) — a Twitter presence whom all users would be wise to model themselves after — undertook a herculean effort to right the record. But the snowball had started rolling, and with it the avalanche of retweets rumbled around the world. (If you haven't done so already, read Craig Silverman's postgame analysis here,  here and here.)

I don't pretend to know how to fix this. You can tweet corrections, as Carvin did repeatedly, but there's no way to ensure the corrections reach the eyes of everyone who saw the initial tweet. You can delete the tweet, but that opens you to charges of trying to rewrite history, and it still doesn't track down everyone who was misinformed at the beginning.

(At @breakingnews, where I sometimes also hang my hat, our policy is to tweet a correction as soon as possible, with followup and explanation at our editors account, @breakingnewseds — something we need to do more aggressively.)

What I do know is that the Twitter Snowball Effect is real and that it poses bigger challenges than I think many journalists realize. While this week must have been painful for Carvin and others at NPR, here's hoping they come to recognize that they handled it as well as it's possible to do so and that the episode will, in the long run, have done some legitimate good.