Official Engagement Stops Viral Rumors from Spreading on Social Media, Study Says

A new study by the University of Washington’s Emerging Capacities of Mass Participation (emCOMP) Laboratory shows that ignoring the problem won’t get you anywhere and that a simple statement from an official can turn the tides on rumors gone viral.

by / April 5, 2016

When faced with an information gap, the public will move to fill it.

In the age of social media and constant access to information, the once complacent populace — who in years prior might have waited for the nightly news for the latest on an major crisis event — is becoming more proactive in sorting through and distributing information. The trouble is that sometimes that information is wrong.

This is how rumors get started nowadays; a person publishes a piece of information to his social media account and others consume it, correct or not. On occasion, this information is used to maliciously target an organization; other times, it is simply the result of a misunderstanding and a growing need to be the first person to hit the post button.

Whatever the case, when faced with the new realities of online life, many organizations falter when it comes to addressing the problems cultivated through social media outlets. Ignoring the problem won’t get you anywhere, according to a new study by the University of Washington’s Emerging Capacities of Mass Participation (emCOMP) Laboratory, which found that a simple statement from an official can turn the tides on rumors gone viral.

Kate Starbird, emCOMP lab director and one of the authors behind Keeping Up with the Tweet-dashians: The Impact of Official Accounts on Online Rumoring, said the research team began looking at rumors surrounding crisis events following the Boston Marathon Bombing in April 2013.

After studying the patterns of what Starbird refers to as Twitter “rumoring behavior” following a crisis event, the team noticed that rumors began to recede once an official statement was released — even when followers of the official channel were limited.

The researcher said two incidents made this point abundantly clear. The first was the alleged raids against a Muslim neighborhood in Sydney, Australia, in 2014 and the second was the 2015 rumor that a WestJet plane had been hijacked.

In both cases, official counterpoint to the whirlwind of speculation resulted in a shift in online correction behavior.

“There are lots of users who want to do the right thing, and during a crisis event they want to pass this information along because they think they are helping. When they see that it’s wrong, they feel bad and try to fix it,” she said. “Now, that’s not everybody; some people are just out there trying to drive up their followers. They don’t feel like correcting and they don’t feel like telling people when they’ve done something wrong. But it does seem like there are users who want to do the right thing.”

Starbird said the general public is not alone in the rush to push out information for consumption. The news media can also fall victim to the pressure to publish and stay relevant.

The fact that information found on platforms like Twitter is imperfect opens the door for mistakes and the development of rumors.

“They feel there is time pressure because the crowd is going to move much faster. The crowd doesn’t care as whether or not they’re tweeting the right thing or sharing the right things on their platforms as much as a journalist does or [an] official account,” she said. “So the crowd is going to move very fast, and I think journalists are feeling this pressure to keep up with that crowd, but at the same time if you are keeping up with them, you’re going to make the same mistakes that the crowd makes.”

Elodie Fichet, a doctoral candidate in communications, was also involved in the study and said the officials and organizations who do not actively engage in the social media space open themselves up to being left out of whatever conversation might be occurring.

From her perspective as a student of public relations and crisis communication, she advocates for thorough preparation on the part of governments and organizations. This can include tools like tweet templates for a range of situations or simply the development of clear protocols for addressing problem scenarios.

While the organizations can greatly benefit from managing online perceptions through engagement, this practice requires work and constant monitoring of the landscape. Fichet jokingly refers to it as being like a free puppy in that its free to participate, but requires a lot of work to maintain.

Eyragon Eidam Assistant News Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the assistant news editor for Government Technology magazine, and covers legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.