Can you trust Twitter in a crisis? The vast majority of users retweet rumours without question

And they don't even delete their tweets after they've been exposed as false
A new study examines how false stories spread during public emergencies. (Pixabay)
Listen8:15

Sometimes, people spread incorrect information on Twitter. This is not news to most of us. But what may be surprising is how people spread misinformation.

Jun Zhuang is a professor in the department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Buffalo.

He and his colleagues tracked several specific rumours and false stories to measure how many people did—or, more accurately, didn't—attempt to verify the truth before passing on information. The results were disappointing, to say the least.
Jun Zhuang, Assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Buffalo (Nancy J. Parisi)

The study, published in the journal,"Natural Hazards,'  tracked erroneous tweets posted during public emergencies, and examined their path through social media.

Analyzing the spread of news during Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombings, They focused on four false news stories, including an infamous rumour that the New York Stock Exchange had flooded.

Jun found that in all cases, 90 per cent of Twitter users retweeted the stories without trying to confirm the story first or expressing any kind of doubt about the story, which is clearly dangerous, especially considering the "network effect," said Jun.

"If you just simply retweet, maybe you will reach thousands of people...and later maybe millions of people," he said.

And, perhaps worse, Jun's team also discovered what the vast majority of Twitter users do when that information they passed along was proven to be false: Nothing.

"I find this one pretty shocking and counterintuitive, " Jun said.  "The majority of users just do nothing, and it seems kind of unacceptable to us."

He added that it may be that many users no longer thought the story was timely, but worried that many just couldn't be bothered to "spend an extra minute" tweeting out a correction.

What those people don't realize, Jun said, is that the false tweets live on, and continue to be retweeted even though the story has been debunked, a problem which is compounded when people don't take measures to correct bad information they share.

The majority of users just do nothing, and it seems kind of unacceptable to us- Jun Zhuang

The next stage of Jun's research will be an attempt to contrast how rumours are spread on social media, constrasted with how they are debunked.

He hopes to ultimately come up with measures to reduce the amount of false news that is spread during public emergencies.


 

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