Shock horror: Twitter does occasionally get things right

Official accounts can halt misinformation

Twitter, eh? What a cacophony of nonsense. Always blowing things out of proportion, spreading false rumors and getting facts wrong.

Except that it isn't. A study of the spread of two rumors through the Twittersphere has shown that it's perfectly possible to stop a lie in its tracks and correct misinformation, as long as denials are swiftly issued from official accounts.

Researchers at the University of Washington examined two separate incidents where false information spread fast on social media - alleged police raids in a Muslim neighbourhood in the midst of a 2014 hostage situation in Australia, and the purported hijacking of an aircraft bound for Mexico.

They found that the vast majority of tweets related to both cases were simply retweets of a handful of accounts, showing that individuals can significantly influence the spread of information. What's more, the rumors quickly halted after denials were issued from official accounts.

'Critical Impact'

"A lot of emergency managers are afraid that the voice of the many drowns out the official sources on Twitter, and that even if they are part of the conversation, no one is going to hear them," said Elodie Fichet, who co-authored a study presented at the Association for Computing Machinery's Conference for Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing in March.

"We disproved that and showed that official sources, at least in the cases we looked at, do have a critical impact."

Kate Starbird, a senior author on the paper, added: "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.

"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."