People are unknowingly spreading false rumors in a world where gossip travels faster than ever, highlighting the downside of an addiction to “said-it-first” mentalities.
Recent incidents of misstated facts, falsified documents and widely circulated rumors show people are addicted to sharing information quickly. Speed often takes precedence over accuracy, increasing the amount of misinformation on the Internet.
Social media turns every user into a news source, and every status or Tweet could be the jumping off point for a big story. But just because an update presents as fact doesn’t mean users should trust it — and as users flock towards smartphones and race to be first to spread the news, there’s a growing margin for error when it comes to veracity.
One hoax sent many Internet users over an outrage over something that never even happened. A picture of a restaurant receipt with a 1 percent tip on $133 bill went viral as millions of people on the Internet sounded off about the injustice and disrespect from the customer. But the receipt was a phony creation, proving users can be fooled as they quickly spread the link in attempts to be the first to introduce it to their friends.
Misinformation easily spreads during an emergency, as eyewitnesses and media outlets scramble to give updates. Expert media commentator Al Tompkins said eyewitnesses are often unreliable, while discussing the shooting at Chardon High School in Ohio. For example, tweeted photos of a boy with a gun did not depict the accused shooter, TJ Lane, but were easily understood as shots from the scene. As information flows from a number of sources about what’s happening in one particular circumstance, it becomes difficult to discern what is the truth.
“As consumers of social media, part of our responsibility is to understand that you can’t trust everything you read,” Tompkins told a news affiliate in Ohio.
Similarly, social media offered real-time updates to the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona last year, and some news agencies reported she was killed when that was not the case. But hearing such a rumor at the scene, a reporter could easily take it as truth, especially under the devastating circumstances, and tweet it as a breaking news update.
In some circumstances, reliance on social media supersedes that of the local news, which can give greater weight to false information. In Mexico, two tweeters were arrested for spreading incorrect information about a drug cartel attack on a school. The rumors spawned chaos on the streets as panic parents tried to reach their children, resulting in 26 car accidents.
The two Twitter users believed the information they were sharing was correct, and though neither was at the scene, they trusted what they were hearing from others enough to tweet it out to the public, inciting panic.
Sharing information about consumer interests can also contribute to a hazy cloud of information. Rumors about a device feature or name that get leaked to one site can balloon into a near-truth, only revealed as a rumor after all. The case of “iPad HD” illustrates this tendency, as Apple chose to abandon a qualifying title for its third-generation iPad in favor of sticking with the name iPad.
The intention in sharing breaking news on Twitter often comes from a genuine desire to serve the best public interest, but false updates create confusion as they spread, misleading that interest until others tweet or post the corrected information.
An Indiana University research team developed Truthy, a program that tracks how memes spread and examine how Tweets become popular. With a mission to “detect political smears, astroturfing, misinformation, and other social pollution,” Truthy can track a false Tweet back to where it started to pinpoint where the problem began.
Not just news outlets are responsible for sharing information anymore, since users with smartphones are likely to tweet or update real-life happenings as they unfold in front of their eyes. But such information is not necessarily reliable, either intentionally so or by accident, and when such news spreads on the Internet as an unprecedented speed, it may be moving too fast for the truth.