A recent research has found that tweets from “official accounts,” the government agencies, emergency responders, media or companies at the centre of a fast-moving story, can slow the spread of rumors on Twitter and correct misinformation that’s taken on a life of its own.
The researchers documented the spread of two online rumors that initially spiked on Twitter, alleged police raids in a Muslim neighbourhood during a hostage situation in Sydney, Australia, and the rumored hijacking of a WestJet flight to Mexico, that were successfully quashed by denials from official accounts.
The case studies also offer lessons for organisations that may have plans in place to deal with an actual crisis, but haven’t considered how to handle online rumors and communicate before they have complete information or know what is true.
The researchers found that the vast majority of the tweets both affirming and denying the tworumours were retweets of a small number of Twitter accounts, demonstrating that a single account can significantly influence how information spreads.
Much of the online rumoring behaviour was driven by “breaking news” accounts that offer the veneer of officialdom but don’t necessarily follow standard journalistic practices of confirming information. The first rumor was one of many that spread during the “Sydney Siege” of December 2014, in which a gunman took 18 hostages at a chocolate cafe in Australia. A radio talk show host reported that federal police were raiding homes in the largely Muslim Lakemba neighbourhood when, in fact, officers were on a previously scheduled tour of a local mosque.
Over a period of several hours, Twitter users posted 1,279 tweets related to the rumour. Of those, 38 percent affirmed the rumour, and 57 percent eventually denied it. Nearly all of the affirmations happened in the first hour and 20 minutes, before police responded to the rumour, and the bulk of these stemmed from just five Twitter accounts that were widely retweeted.
The study was presented in a paper at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference for Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing.