The Weird World of Twitter Plagiarism

I use social media casually, posting links to articles I write, content I find interesting, and the occasional funny post. My daily tweet output usually comes in at less than ten, on average. Facebook posts are fewer, mostly related to family stuff (not counting tweets autoposted from Twitter). Occasionally, I’ll retweet something I find pithy or amusing. So a few days ago, I retweeted this tweet.

I thought nothing of it; a mildly clever visual pun gave me momentary chuckle that I shared with my followers.

Then Jeff Atwood posted this in reply to my retweet:

I know Jeff from a few years back, and knows he feels pretty strongly about fairness when it comes to content and software attribution. Of course, the nature of Twitter makes Jeff’s post look like he’s accusing me, but I don’t believe that’s the case; it’s just the nature of the medium.

I replied to Jeff.

Social media makes it very easy to share stolen stuff, difficult to trace back. So Phil Lester, who apparently has over 70,000 followers, copied a Tweet and made it seem like his own. That’s kinda sad, but given the ephemeral nature of Twitter, would likely blow over in a few days.

But it got weirder instead. Asher Langton responded to Jeff’s tweet. Again, given the nature of Twitter, everyone in the original also appeared in the replay.

Two more tweets appeared from other users, using identical language and the same photo. So multiple people found a particular tweet clever, copied it whole, and made it look like their own. At this point, I gave up the trail, because I didn’t want to sink more time into following the provenance of Twitter posts.

However, given the nature of social media, people kept seeing my original retweet and retweeting it themselves. And the rabbit hole got deeper, stretching beyond people copying tweets to actual content infringement.

A UK newspaper printed the original photo. Either the Daily Mail or Phil Lanoue owns the actual copyright.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. I’ve seen professional photos appear time and again in social media, posted because people find them interesting, amusing, or otherwise interesting.

It baffles me that people would plagiarize tweets. Twitter is, at best, a medium with a short attention span. Even tweets that go viral and blow up eventually fade away. As editor of ExtremTech a few years back, I would occasionally find articles posted on our site reproduced whole cloth on other sites (usually overseas). Sometimes the bylines would be different, but usually the site would just rip off the content, byline and all. While I don’t condone that behavior, I can understand it: someone gets monetary gain.

Twitter plagiarism just seems weird to me. Is the momentary burst of retweets and a few new followers really worth the effort of copying someone else’s tweet? Since everything is visible on ┬áthe Internet, these transgressions eventually get exposed.

I’m not going to stop sharing posts I find funny, or pithy, or useful. Now, though, a small seed of doubt sits in the back of my mind, wondering if what I’ve shared is original, or the fruits of someone else’s creativity. Most of the time, we’ll never know.

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