During times of public distress, such as calamities and disasters, many people turn to Twitter to get up-to-date information. However, Twitter, like most fast-paced platforms, goes through minimal screening and is, therefore, incredibly susceptible to false information. This is best exhibited during public emergencies, when tweet activity is high; in the scramble to be in the know ahead of everyone else, many Twitter users fall into the fake-news trap instead.
That’s what a recent study proved when they reviewed more than 20,000 tweets that were posted during Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged in 2012, and the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. Examining four fake news items, two from each crisis mentioned, that were widely distributed on Twitter during the times these events occurred, researchers from University at Buffalo discovered that an overwhelming majority of users who engaged with the rumor — 86 to 91 percent — spread fake news by liking or retweeting the original post.
Only 5 to 9 percent of engaging users made efforts to check the validity of the claim; most of them retweeted the original post and added an accompanying tweet asking for verification. 1 to 9 percent of users expressed outright skepticism of the claim.
Not only do Twitter users tend to spread fake news during disasters, but they’re also less likely to remove the offending post when media outlets have already debunked the rumor. Less than 20 percent of users provided newer, more accurate info after posting a false claim, while less than 10 percent of users who spread misinformation during the disaster removed their post. More than 80 percent of users neither deleted nor clarified their tweet.
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“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate how apt Twitter users are at debunking falsehoods during disasters. Unfortunately, the results paint a less than flattering picture,” said Dr. Jun Zhuang on the University at Buffalo website. He is the lead author of the study and an associate professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at University at Buffalo.
“We conclude that Twitter users perform poorly in rumor detection and rush to spread rumors. The majority of users who spread rumors do not take further action on their Twitter accounts to fix their rumor-spreading behaviors,” the researchers wrote in their study.
It is important to note, according to Dr. Zhuang, that the study does not include those who saw the claim, determined that they are false, and decided not to engage with it.
The study, titled “Rumor response, debunking response, and decision makings of misinformed Twitter users during disasters,” is published in the journal Natural Hazards.
Researchers have recently taken a special interest on Twitter and its role in the propagation of fake news. Earlier this year, an MIT analysis of 126,000 stories spread by 3 million Twitter users over 10 years revealed that “Fake news and false rumors reach more people, penetrate deeper into the social network, and spread much faster than accurate stories,” according to the Atlantic.
[Featured Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash]