19 March 2019

Tweets Misreport Disasters

Twitter logo.
Welcome back. Do you tweet? I sometimes check friends’ tweets about technical news, but I don’t have a Twitter account. That’s not to say I didn’t consider joining the Twitter universe. After going around and around, I even shared my pros and cons in a 2013 blog post, Tweet?

For example, I wrote:
Pro: It’s like Facebook but better.
Con: It’s like Facebook.

I recently learned that I was wrong about one of my cons from that post:
Pro: I could learn what people are saying about almost any topic.
Con: Whoa! Learning what Twitter users are saying about a topic is probably reliable if I’m keeping up with Lady GaGa and useful if I’m monitoring a disaster or crisis. But Twitter users are only a subset of the population…and those who tweet aren’t a random sample of that population…

Although the part about Lady GaGa was right, a study by investigators from the University at Buffalo found Twitter users aren’t very good at judging or responding to potential rumors during disasters.

Tweeting Rumors
The researchers analyzed over 20,000 tweets sent during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. They focused on two rumors from each disaster, examining Twitter users’ rumor and debunking response behaviors.

False rumor tweeted during Hurricane Sandy
(from www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2226188).
They found that, of the users who sent tweets:
- 5% to 9% tried to confirm the rumors,
- 1% to 9% expressed doubt, and
- 86% to 91% spread the rumors.

Topping it off, the researchers examined how the rumor-spreading tweeters responded to the news that the rumors were false. They found:
- 3% to 10% deleted their rumor-spreading tweet(s),
- 0% to 20% clarified the rumor information with a new tweet, and
- 78% to 97% neither deleted nor clarified their rumor-spreading tweet(s).

These breakdowns do not include Twitter users who may have seen and ignored the original tweets.

Wrap Up
The researchers note that, while many Twitter users went overboard to spread and not correct false information during the two disasters, Twitter moved quickly to correct the misinformation.

Though not addressed in the study, it should be clear that using Twitter or other social media to spread false or misleading information for, say, political purposes falls into a different category. Unfortunately, it’s become inescapable.

Thanks for stopping by.

Study of Twitter users’ rumor response during disasters in Natural Hazards journal: link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11069-018-3344-6
News release on study on University at Buffalo website: www.buffalo.edu/news/releases/2018/05/020.html

A version of this blog post appeared earlier on www.warrensnotice.com.

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