By Justin Goldsborough | December 28, 2009
(Photo courtesy of moderngirlstyle.com)
Have you ever had a conversation about social media with someone — a client, your boss, executives, your parents — and heard the following: “Well, what happens if someone posts information out there that’s incorrect?” I heard it just the other day for the 4,763,956 time. Yes, I’ve been keeping track.
Not every time, but almost every time, my answer to that question has been: “No worries. The community self corrects.” IOW, a large gathering of people online discussing a certain topic will eventually arrive at the truth. Yet, even when I share case studies, I always seem to get one of the following responses — eye roll, heavy sigh, blank “that’s nice that you’re so passionate about social media but I live in the real world, do you think I’m an idiot” stare. The only thing I haven’t gotten is a pat on the head. But I’m sure it’s coming.
So next time someone voices a fear about people posting incorrect information, I’m not giving the same old answer. In fact, I’m just going to sit back, smile and say two words — Natalie Portman.
I’ve always liked Natalie Portman as an actress. Just saw “Brothers.” She was good in that. And she’s never been too hard on the eyes . But I’m an even bigger fan today because when she died on Twitter, it proved a point I’ve been trying to make (somewhat unsuccessfully at times) to social media doubters for a while.
Ok, first off, she’s not really dead. But if you were on Twitter today, you may have seen tweets to the contrary. Two tweeps I have mounds of respect for — Rachel Kay (@rachelakay) and Stuart Foster (@stuartfoster) –retweeted the news that Natalie had died today before finding out it was a hoax. Could have happened to anyone. Neither was too happy to have tweeted the misinformation, and I can’t blame them. But it makes for a perfect example of how online communities respond when inaccurate information surfaces.
I did a little research to examine the chain of events. My methodology was simple…I counted tweets that included Rachel’s or Stuart’s Twitter handle and mentioned that Portman had died. Then I counted tweets that included Rachel’s or Stuart’s Twitter handle and noted the news was a hoax.
Rachel and Stuart are both influential folks on Twitter with a healthy following. So when each tweeted that Portman had died in an accident, tweeps did see their tweets and retweet them. According to Twitter search, 10 people shared the hoax via Rachel’s tweet and seven via Stuart’s. Portman was dead to many Twitter users and she didn’t even know it.
But then a great and not-so-unexpected thing happened. The Twitterverse began to realign itself around the right information. The result: 23 tweets debunking the Portman news and mentioning Rachel (including her follow-up that the rumor was false). And 14 Natalie’s-not-dead tweets for Stuart (his she’s-actually-alive tweet included). Furthermore, if you search both users handles on Twitter, you can see people discussing the issue and working together to come to the right conclusion. After all, no one wants to tweet the wrong information on purpose. We’re talking about people’s reputation here.
I realize that this is by no means a scientific method to write a thesis on. But I still think it proves a point to those who are so afraid of losing control of the message and those who worry so much about the potential proliferation of inaccurate information.
Through social media, we have access to more accurate news than we ever did with just traditional media. More whistle blowers, more fact checkers and more instant corrections. Reporters have been running stories for years that we’ve never had control of. Sure, we worked with them and gave them our side of the story in hopes they’d include our key messages. But if the story ran with misinformation, better call up the news outlet, beg for a correction and then cut it out of page 16 of the Metro section, copy it and mail it to every single newspaper subscriber. Guess how long it took for Portman to get her life back on Twitter? Less than an hour, give or take (Twitter search doesn’t track by the minute).
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Twitter funnel out the inaccuracies and surface the true story. Last week, someone who obviously forgot to get in line when God handed out tact and decency, posed as a news reporter on Twitter and tweeted that Cincinnati Bengals Wide Receiver Chris Henry had died when he was still in the hospital in critical condition. Users believed Henry was gone at first. But eventually, they uncovered that he was still alive and that the person tweeting about Henry’s death wasn’t who he claimed to be (Sadly, Henry did eventually die). And other celebrities like Jeff Goldblum have died on Twitter only to be reborn when tweeps found out the news of their demise was inaccurate.
I guess what surprises me is that a lack of understanding of social media is actually keeping some organizations and people from embracing a tactic, open online conversation, that allows them more control over the message than they’ve ever had before. Or at least that’s the way I see it.
How do you see it? Do you think it’s too easy for rumor to be reported as fact via social media? Or is a case study like this one just a result of our progression into a social media world? I look forward to reading your two cents in the comments.