Most of news spread on Social Media likely unverified

Monday was the 2014 Boston Marathon.  Many used the opportunity to reassess the tragic experience of 2013 to identify lessons learned. I found of particular interest an analysis by Bill Salvin  assessing that much of the information spread about the race was false, as major events bring out pranksters[i], scam artists[ii],  hoaxers[iii] and trolls[iv]. But may also play in the hands of organizations and states engaged in propaganda battles.

According to a study done by the IBM Research Lab in Delhi, India on Twitter, only 20% of information in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing was true.  Examples in this article from


 “… There is a need on the part of all journalists to never assume anything and to always cross-check and verify in order to remain trusted sources of news and information.” – Santiago Lyon, vice president and director of photography, The Associated Press

There is a useful free tool on the net, to help us in preparing to verify digital content when a crisis erupts : the Verification Handbook that can be downloaded at .

The question at the heart of verification is: “How do you know that?”  But also “How else do you know that?”  Technology allows anybody to  upload content, and to label or describe it as being from a certain event. This  leaves many journalists, and particularly editors, terrified about being hoaxed or running with false content.  Images can be easily doctored.  A video shot elsewhere or at different time can be associated with a different event. We are having lots of examples from the Russian propaganda during the current crisis in Ukraine.

If the information has been relayed from other sources, the first effort should be aimed at identifying the actual originator.  Online profiles leave a digital footprint that allows us to examine history and activity. Most platforms enable us to contact uploaders, which is an essential step.  Of course this may be tough to be done when time is compressed by the increasing number of postings on the same subject.

There are tools on the net can help during the verification process. And companies who do this for their living. But, if Social Media is the vehicle used to spread information, Social Media has an embedded verification system: crowd  sourcing.  As the Verification Handbook brilliantly says, Algorithms and automated searches can generate a huge amount of content when it comes to breaking news events, as detailed in the next chapter. But arguably only human beings can sift through and make sense of that amount of content in an efficient way, in real time.

For those who work for organizations that may have active role in future crises, preparedness is key to getting accurate information to the people who need it – and to ensuring not to accidentally spread false information. But preparedness requires also a strategy to counter false or inaccurate information, which in turn requires instruments to verify whether indeed the information spread by other sources is instead more timely or accurate than what you are prepared to disseminate…

The cited Handbook includes advice about establishing a verification process.  A process that was not applied by many during the latest worldwide communication crisis: the disappearance of the Malaysian aircraft.

Only two days after the event, the information circus was running towards several different directions, all without any substantiated evidence. For instance, Chinese state run media outlet Global Times then incorrectly said that a signal from the missing aircraft was picked up by Vietnamese authorities (excerpts from a post at

A Vietnamese official of search and rescue said Saturday that the signal of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane has been detected, local media reported. The official said the signal… has been detected at some 120 nautical miles southwest of Vietnam’s southernmost Ca Mau province.

Vietnamese officials later said this rumor was false. Twitter users immediately started to relay the phony information:

Praying for passengers and crew on #MH370. Unconfirmed reports of an aircraft that has landed in China. – Chase Meyer @stcharlespilot

Got some inside news from a pilot uncle that #MH370 has emergency landed somewhere in China! Hope everyone is safe. RT pls. – MB™ #twinkel @melakaboy

NBC News said others on social-media speculated that “the plane could have been struck by a North Korean missile.” The South Korean government reported this week that North Korea had fired several short-range missiles, which likely fueled this guesswork.

The same NBC however stated: “The Malaysia Airlines rumors echo the speculation and false stories that tend to whip through social media platforms in the wake of national tragedies. After last April’s Boston Marathon bombing, for example, representatives for the social/news site Reddit were forced to apologize on behalf of users who falsely “identified” multiple people as the bombers.”

How can we limit the risk to us or even repeat false or  inaccurate information?   Here is what Bill Salvin recommends:

Be Fast Perpetrators of false and malicious stories use the chaos in the wake of disaster to exploit people’s sympathies. The damage done by those false stories is greatest in the early hours after a crisis when there is a vacuum of accurate information. If you start Tweeting right away about your organization and its response to the crisis, you can limit the impact of rumors and false information.

Monitor There are many great, free tools you can use to monitor social media in real time. I use TweetDeck and I have used HootSuite. There are also monitoring services that you can pay for that will monitor your social media in real time and provide things like general trends and sentiment analysis. There are also more sophisticated services that will identify rumors and suspicious stories and provide actionable information to you in real time. A company that I’m part of, NarrativeTrack, is one such company.

Counter Rumors Repeatedly Remember, in a crisis people come to information from all directions and at different times. You want to be sure that the accurate information you possess is out there when people need it. You might need to put the same Tweet out every hour for the first few days of a major crisis, especially if false information or rumors start to gain traction with your stakeholders.

Let’s be better prepared to deal with pranksters, scam artists, hoaxers and trolls!

— Definitions from Wikipedia:

[i] pranksters: people who create hoaxes or practical jokes, sometimes just for their own amusement, sometimes for purposes of political or social satir

[ii] scam artist: an individual, operating alone or in concert with others, who exploits characteristics of the human psyche such as dishonesty, honesty, vanity, compassion, credulity, irresponsibility, naïveté, or greed.

[iii] a hoax is a deliberately fabricated falsehood made to masquerade as truth.It is distinguishable from errors in observation or judgment,or rumors, urban legends, pseudosciences or April Fools’ Day events that are passed along in good faith by believers or as jokes.

[iv] a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory,extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional responseor of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.


About fveltri

Former NATO and military spokesperson, currently Public Affairs consultant and President, ComIPI (
This entry was posted in crisis communication, propaganda, public affairs, public information, social media, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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