Demonstrating the intrinsic nature of twitter as a stream of group consciousness more than anything else, the Haiti tragedy has brought out the rumor mill. And with it, it demonstrates one of the underlying weaknesses of relying on a group stream of consciousness — it’s not always the most accurate thing in the world.
The rumors were, thankfully, limited to things that didn’t cause any real harm or damage. Except to the companies who were the subject of the rumors. Their reputations were inadvertently tarnished by being included in the rumors, which they then had to publicly deny. The denial makes them seem a little heartless, so they followup with a public declaration of what they are doing to support the Haitians in their time of need (usually generous monetary donations to the effort).
One rumor was that Jet Blue and American Airlines were offering to fly doctors and nurses to Haiti for free. On the face of it, it doesn’t really stand up to much scrutiny. Are doctors and nurses really looking to fly into a disaster zone on their own, and not under the scope of a larger organization like the Red Cross or Doctors without Borders (both of whom have their own significant travel departments and travel arrangements for international events like this)? Why were only these two airlines doing it? How could you fly into an airport only open to military and direct aid flights? And why wouldn’t either airline have any information about this amazing program on their websites’ homepage?
Of course it made no sense, yet that didn’t stop thousands from tweeting and re-tweeting the same misinformation (which is still being done today!). In fact, the number of people who continue to retweet the same false information is far greater than those tweeting that the information is false. Based upon popularity of a topic alone — which is twitter’s lifeblood — an outside observer might believe the rumor has to be true. After all, look at all the people saying so!
It’s not just American Airlines and JetBlue who are the target of such twitter rumors, however. UPS, the ubiquitous brown-truck delivery service, was also the target of a twitter falsehood — “UPS is shipping any package under 50 lbs to Haiti for free.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? Let’s send food or clothing to the needy via UPS.
Again, it doesn’t stand up to the common sense test. Anyone who’s spent even 1 minute viewing the devastation wrought by the Haiti earthquake can see that the country is not exactly set up to be receiving packages from your local friendly UPS guy. The roads are impassable, rubble is everywhere, and the airport is open only to aid and military flights. And who would they be delivering these packages to? Unless you have relatives in Haiti, it seems like a fairly silly offer. Haitians are looking for the basic necessities of living — food, water, shelter. And that isn’t going to be delivered by a UPS man.
What all of these twitter rumors have in common is the sense that somebody is doing something good, so I should support it by retweeting it. Twitter doesn’t reinforce the concept of, “Wait, I should check into this myself first before RTing it.” Just like the old email urban legends that so many millions of people have forwarded along without thinking twice about, twitter users are doing the exact same thing. The technology may have changed, but the human behavior remains the same. Forward along (retweet) the “interesting” stuff, without ever bothering to check it out yourself.
On the flip side, Twitter has been a great source of accurate and useful information early on, with postings of photos of the tragedy and updates to individual families. It functions in a manner that gets the early word out faster than almost any other technology out there. But when it comes to followup, the “wisdom of the crowds” can sometimes take over — even if that wisdom turns out to be a lie. Twitter is information quality agnostic, meaning it doesn’t care whether the information it’s passing along is the truth, a falsehood, or something in-between. But with the force of the “crowds” behind it, it can turn a lie into the truth by the simple act of force (e.g., popularity).
All of these companies are making significant donations to relief funds in the effort to help the Haitians. They are joining hundreds of other companies doing the same, dozens of governments from around the world, and millions of individuals who are donating to the likes of UNICEF and CARE, the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders and AmeriCares. I encourage you to do the same.
And please, think twice before retweeting information you haven’t yourself confirmed as being true or not.
AA does have WiFi now! Awesome.
With a simple application of logic, reason and research many of those falsehoods can easily be seen through. What needs to happen is to stop this culture of knee jerk reaction without properly educating ourselves.
The only way to solve this is to show those people who ignorantly pass them how stupid they really look. In an age of PC kindness somebody needs to declare that the Emperor has no clothes.
I think if the media has problems with reporting the truth, how can we expect common people to research things before retweeting them. Besides I don’t think most people believe everything that gets twitted to them, most of it is garbage anyway.
The phenomenon isn’t limited to Twitter, of course. I’ve seen numerous status updates on facebook passing on the UPS rumour.
Absolutely. Although I used twitter as the example, the same phenomenon can be observed happening on Facebook. And probably other social networking websites as well.
The problem is that people, at the end of the day, don’t really care enough about what they’re forwarding (or in this case, retweeting) to take the additional minute to check on the validity of the information. They assume that if someone in their feed said it, it has a high probability of being true, interesting, or whatever.
“If I find this interesting, I bet others would too.”
Whether it’s true or not probably doesn’t seem to enter into most people’s minds. Most people don’t think or act like reporters — they think and act like normal people. And normal people are generally pretty trusting when it comes to information that seems on the face of it valid. Especially in times of crisis or need.
There’s no easy answer to this phenomenon. People won’t stop their normal human inclination and instinct to “pass it on.” But it still doesn’t hurt to make people aware that it’s happening. And they may be unintentionally doing it themselves.
I can confirm that I did read this before re-tweeting.
These same rumors are also being passed around via text message forwards.
This human behavior has always interested me, as I can see the same thing play out in small town rumors and I must admit being caught up in this kind of behavior in the heat of the moment.
Unfortunately, the concept of a practical joke can be amplified due to our information technology capabilities.
I think people are bombarded with so much information, that sometimes people are passing it around rather than actually taking the time to read or think about it carefully. There is just too much to keep up with these days.
I am not the only one I know who scans information rather than reading it fully. Often, when I start reading an online article, I am sidetracked by one of the many links within the text and click on one of those links before finishing the article I orginally intended to read.
You make some valid points.
Some time back it was suggested by many people on Twitter (can’t recall exactly who was involved, but it was some heavily into social media) to put UNVERIFED in front of “RT” . It was used faithfully, for a few months but then quickly forgotten. Perhaps people forgot, or just got lazy lol. But your examples illustrate the need for us to all be more careful. Especially when it comes to donating!
The key regarding Twitter information and RT’s lies best within each of us as consumers of information.
A best practice is to consume tweets and RT’ed information just as you would any other source of information. First, use common sense. Second, use your inner BS detector. Third, if it looks bogus hesitate on the side of not RTing. It really is rather simple. Twitter is just another medium. The medium really isn’t the message.
Every one of the food and beverage & related companies in this list is really, 100% donating money and fundraising – and it is getting impressive.
See if the grocer in your town is helping Haiti.
Good thing about Blog is can use links to verify.
Here’s The List: http://tinyurl.com/yftpu3f
I don’t think you are being fair to Twitter; by the title of your article you make it seem that the fault lies with the service, and not with the individuals. The service is not responsible for fact checking, and as you pointed out, Facebook had problems as well. Established news organizations also publish “facts” early on during a disaster that later turn out to be inflated or incorrect, so this phenomenon is not unique to media services like Twitter.
The human inclination to try to help is what is driving much of the re-tweeting. I don’t think that in this case it was necessarily a problem, as once people called to inquire about the free flights or free shipping, they found out the truth. In a perfect world, we would like all media to do fact-checking, but given the short amount of time it took to quash these rumors I think the benefits of people trying to do good out weigh whatever small harm they might have caused.
Did you see that Wyclef is now running for president of Haiti. What a joke!!