The mediating influence of official sources on Twitter

denial-tweetThe last few years have seen a huge number of studies looking at how information, and especially misinformation, spreads online.  Perhaps not surprisingly, influential hubs have been found to play a significant role in this.

Whilst previous studies have shown how this can be negative, especially when those hubs act irresponsibly, a recent study from the University of Washington found that responsible tweeting from influential accounts can slow the spread of rumors.

Slowing the spread of misinformation

The study tracked the spread of two rumors that germinated on Twitter.  The first involved a police raid on a Muslim neighborhood in Sydney, and the second was a suspected hijacking of a flight to Mexico.  Both rumors were false, and were eventually squashed by official sources.  The findings reinforce the importance of strong communication from influential sources.

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

It underlines the importance of social media during challenging circumstances, and places renewed emphasis on the value having someone at the helm that can confidently speak for the organization.  It’s often impractical to wait large chunks of time whilst an official message is prepared, cleared and then tweeted, and this can deny the organization the chance to stamp out misinformation at the outset.

Speed is of the essence

The plane hijacking story highlighted the importance of a rapid response.  The rumor was picked up by the social media team around 20 minutes after it first started, and over the following minutes a growing number of tweets were made fanning the flames.  The team decided to respond faster rather than wait.

“The biggest question for us was: ‘Do we respond now with almost confirmed information, or do we wait five minutes to get confirmed info? We chose, ‘Let’s get it out now,’ and then five minutes later confirmed,”  they told researchers.

This swift response had the desired effect, and the online chatter began to subside.  The incident prompted the company to create a wider range of pre-approved tweets that could be sent out in certain circumstances without requiring managerial approval.

The authors believe that their findings remind us of the importance of investing in good social media teams and procedures so that we can respond to such misinformation swiftly and accurately.  If we don’t do that, we create the kind of fertile environment for misinformation to thrive.

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