Rumors Don't Always Win on Twitter

April 12, 2016 | Elizabeth Knowles

Photo credit: Quasic/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sometimes all it takes is one official tweet for the truth to prevail.

Nothing spreads faster than a rumor, whether it’s true or not, and the Internet is often the perfect vehicle. There is no official fact-checking body and anyone with a computer or Web-enabled device can say whatever they want. Because of the ease of information sharing through retweets, it might seem as though once a rumor is started on Twitter, there is no way to stop it. However, that isn’t always true.

Researchers from the University of Washington (UW) looked at two particular situations with a high volume of related tweets where the truth prevailed in the end. They found that “tweets from ‘official accounts’— the government agencies, emergency responders, media or companies at the center 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,” according to a press release.

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The first event they looked at took place in 2014 where the federal police in Sydney, Australia were accused of raiding homes in a largely Muslim neighborhood during a hostage situation at a local chocolate café. Over the first several hours, 1,279 tweets mentioned the rumor, with 38 percent affirming it — many of these originating from a small number of original tweets — and 57 percent denying it.

Once the Federal Police issued this tweet, the number of tweets increased, but their validity did as well:


Ninety percent of the tweets that followed refuted the rumor by retweeting the post from the police.

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The second situation that the police looked at was “a possible hijacking of a WestJet flight from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Mexico in January 2015.” Although no social media employees were on duty since it was Saturday afternoon, one noticed it from his home and decided to act quickly. Westjet was almost certain that the rumor was false, but they couldn’t confirm their belief because the plane was landing and communication was not possible. Company officials decided that it was better to refute the tweets quickly rather than wait to be certain, and their actions proved effective.

“The two WestJet denial tweets corresponded with a rapid drop in online chatter, and everything was back to normal within a couple of hours,” according to the press release.

"Oftentimes in a crisis, the person operating a social media account is not the person who makes operational decisions or who even decides what should be said," said senior author and Emerging Capacities of Mass Participation lab director Kate Starbird, a UW assistant professor of human-centered design and engineering. "But that person still needs to be empowered to take action in the moment because if you wait 20 minutes, it may be a very different kind of crisis than if you can stamp out misinformation early on," she said in the press release.

People in an official capacity might worry that their tweets will be drowned out even if they are telling the truth, but this research showed that it is worth the effort. It also showed that it is a good idea to have a crisis plan in place because time is of the essence when it comes to dispelling rumors.

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