Twitter: Your No. 1 Source For Lies, Rumors, & Misinformation

Posted: May 20, 2009 in Social Media, Twitter
Tags: , , , ,

Several months ago, February 10th to be exact, I received an @ Reply from @Retweetradar claiming that I was one of the most the most retweeted people on twitter.

Most Retweeted

Most Retweeted

At this point, I only had a few hundred followers, needless to say I was skeptical, hopeful, and shocked. As it turns out, for a brief period of time, I WAS the most retweeted person. Why? Because I retweeted an ‘Amber Alert.’ It spread like a California wildfire; it saturated my twitstream all day. The problem: it was a hoax. Not perpetrated by me, but perpetuated by my lack of fact-checking. Even though the truth was brought to my attention shortly after my well-intended, but misinformed tweeting, the retweets kept coming. I posted again and again that I was wrong, that I had been fed faulty information, I and apologized for disseminating it before vetting it’s validity – something difficult to admit for any PR profession. But it didn’t matter. It was too late, the tweet was out there – there was no taking it back. Ironically, I gained about 200 new followers that day…

When I was a kid, my parents had to continually remind me “Just because it’s on TV doesn’t mean it’s true.” Though, these words fell on deaf ears as I distinctly remember aspiring to be a Power Ranger. Anyway….

In college, I applied this lesson to the internet -Wikipedia in particular. And by ‘applied,’ I mean the learned hard way – called out by professors for my laziness, leading, inevitably, to inaccurate reporting on my part. It didn’t take long for me to see the error of my ways and remedy the situation. As a matter of fact, as a consequence of this learning experience, I decided to make this issue the focus my final project in my “Creative Nonfiction – Magazine Journalism” class. I discussed the problem of TMI & how the internet has directed us to redefine how we value information, shifting priority from accuracy to accessibility, encyclopedia to Wikipedia, library research to Google search, respected medical journals to the first entry we come across on WebMD. Perhaps one day I’ll share the paper with you, though it’s no doubt become antiquated in the year since my writing of “One Omni Shy of A God.”

This problem has evolved once more as we twitter addicts have come to rely on the platform as our primary source of news, effectively equalizing CNN’s posts with those of anyone else, as they flow through our stream of incoming tweets.

Recent event’s made this clearer than ever. First it was that Proposition 8 was overturned. Rumors abounded (Abund?) about the California bill on gay marriage – as people flocked to an L.A. Times article from a year ago. Next was Patrick Swayze’s alleged death. As Mashable reported:

“Patrick Swayze, the actor who has been fighting pancreatic cancer since January 2008, is very much alive, despite rumors earlier today that he’d passed away.

Traditional media started the inaccurate rumor, with Florida-based radio station KissFM planting the seed this morning. However, it was Twitter that spread the news rapidly, even leading to Patrick’s Wikipedia page being wrongly updated.

The false Tweets forced Swayze’s rep to release a statement:

“This is to confirm that Patrick Swayze did not pass away this morning contrary to severely reckless reports stemming from a radio station in Jacksonville, Florida. Swayze is alive, well and is enjoying his life and he continues to respond to treatment.

And then there was the Quiznos Marketing Fail. Soon after discovering a video in which it appeared that Quiznos was attempting to capitalize on the horrors of ‘Two Girl One Cup’ (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, trust me, your better off…seriously), with a “2 Girls One Sub” video. Bloggers, consumers and media personalities, myself included, expressed their disgust and were quick to call out the brand for use of such tactics. But again, the speed at which news travels on twitter lends itself to misinformation and inaccuracy. In a matter of hours, Adage’s Emily York & Ken Wheaton uncovered the truth – Quiznos had no part in creating the video, it was made by playboy…And all of us breathed a sigh of relief, thinking “Wow, that makes a lot more sense.”

The open forum. The fact that 140 characters happens to be the perfect amount for a headline and link. The ability to retweet at the click of a button. The perception that every blog is a legitimate news source (and I’m not making any generalizations here). These features are what allow us to converse and inform and enlighten and at the same time accidently spread the unproven and juicy gossip that we’re so inclined to believe.

So, all I’m asking is that we be careful. Twitter is amazing for so many reasons. But it’s greatest offerings – access to breaking news, crowd-sourcing, etc…are also a potential source of erroneous reporting, falsehoods, and rumors, whether intentional or not. So don’t let the twitter-haters win by providing them more fodder with which to trash our platform.

Please…Think Before You Tweet.

  1. Liz says:

    I agree with you and I learned my lesson with the Mumbai terrorist incident when I got caught up in the excitement and retweeted “news” without verifying its accuracy. I also noticed a blitz of news with a hurricane last fall which completely out of proportion to the impact of the storm. I now would never post a “breaking” story without double-checking. I don’t need to be the first person weighing in.

    P.S. As a former teacher, I’d love to see that final paper!

    • aerocles says:

      ok ok…i guess i’ll have to post the paper… The Title – One Omni Shy of A God – refers to the Judeo-Christian definition of God as having 3 traits – omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence. My paper argues that we are building out ‘the internet’ to be a modern replacement for god, in our Agnostic/Atheistic society. The Internet can be perceived as omniscient (as it is a source of information), omnipresent (as it is accessible from pretty much everywhere at this point), and on it’s way to omnipotence, already doing things for us like GPS navigation…

  2. Heather Dueitt says:

    David–I couldn’t agree with you more on this post. A few of my friends have been on the receiving end of a rumor or “misrepresentation” on Twitter. This sort of free for all could come back to haunt us later down the road. When anyone can jump on board and act like they are the brand someone has to wonder when Twitter is going to respond. Also, thirteen days and counting on a Twitter Customer Service issue.

    Keep up the insightful posts.

    • aerocles says:

      Addendum: Just like spammers add popular hashtags to their spammy tweets, one could do the same with false retweeting. Meaning – If this post weren’t being retweeted as much as would have liked…what’s stopping me from tweeting “RT @Mashable” and then the title and link to my post? I, or anyone, theoritically, could capitalize on anyone or any outlets credibility and drive traffic to their blog or website by disguising it as having originated from a more respected source!

  3. Jennifer says:

    Very well put together. Couldn’t agree with you more on this. I’ve come across many folks on Twitter who just want to populate their ‘followers’- recently through starting (or attempting to start) a Twitter Trending Topic. Unfortunately, when your desire is greater than the good, false information spreads like wildfire.

  4. Becky says:

    Thank you so much. This was an awesome read…and really important reminder.

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