Sunday, April 20, 2014

Countering Rumors: 3 Ways to Slow the Flow of False News in a Crisis

Monday is the 2014 Boston Marathon, and it's a fair guess the event will have thousands more in-person spectators and millions more virtual observers after the tragedy of 2013's race.

The sad part of all of the increased attention is that much of the information that will be spread about the race is likely to be false. Major events bring out pranksters, scam artists and hoaxers.

After the terrible explosions at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, social media and mainstream media were both perpetuators of and victims of false information. In fact, there was more false information than true information on Twitter during the first 100 hours of the event according to a study done by the IBM Research Lab in Delhi, India. Here's the key takeaway: On Twitter, only 20% of information in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing was true. Put another way, only one Tweet in five was accurate.

For a good look at some of the most egregious examples of fake content spread via Twitter in the aftermath of the bombing, this article from is a great round-up. From reports of third and fourth bombs to misidentified suspects and false arrest claims, it was a nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction during the hours immediately the event. After an event like Boston, people are scared. They'll believe just about anything even if it sounds ludicrous. "If they bombed the Marathon, why wouldn't they bomb something else, too?"

The information environment we live in today requires that you be in position to counter rumors, spread accurate information quickly and discredit lies about your company or organization. Here are three ways you can do that.

Be Fast
Perpetrators of false and malicious stories use the chaos in the wake of disaster to exploit people's sympathies. The damage done by those false stories is greatest in the early hours after a crisis when there is a vacuum of accurate information. If you start Tweeting right away about your organization and its response to the crisis, you can limit the impact of rumors and false information.

There are many great, free tools you can use to monitor social media in real time. I use TweetDeck and I have used HootSuite. There are also monitoring services that you can pay for that will monitor your social media in real time and provide things like general trends and sentiment analysis. There are also more sophisticated services that will identify rumors and suspicious stories and provide actionable information to you in real time. A company that I'm part of, NarrativeTrack, is one such company.

Counter Rumors Repeatedly
Think voting in Chicago, countering rumors and false information is something you need to do early and often. Remember, in a crisis people come to information from all directions and at different times. You want to be sure that the accurate information you possess is out there when people need it. You might need to put the same Tweet out every hour for the first few days of a major crisis, especially if false information or rumors start to gain traction with your stakeholders. If you want an example of what you should do on your Twitter account during the first hour of a crisis, you can read my previous post here.

The sad truth is that there is no way to stop people from exploiting a crisis with bad information. Rumors have been around since the beginning of time and social media means that whether it's fact or myths, whatever gets shared will travel at light speed.

Good luck to all the runners in Boston.

Bill Salvin

Bill Salvin is a NarrativeTrack board member and investor. He is President and Founder of Signal Bridge Communications


  1. Andy Evans (via LinkedIn)April 21, 2014 at 7:48 AM

    Interesting that 20% of Tweets accurate, 29% false and 51% assessed as 'generic opinion'.

  2. Thanks for reading, Andy. That was interesting to me, too. There were a lot of Tweets that were simple hashtags like #prayforboston. That's what they assessed as "Generic comment or opinion."

  3. Phillip Clark (via LinkedIn)April 21, 2014 at 8:22 AM

    That sounds about right. Whether by tweeting, phoning, or even interviewing a person, I have found the reliability breakdown about the same. I trained law enforcement in communications and they often told me that if there was one or two witnesses they may get the incident right, more than that it was a shot in the dark. Even those witnesses that believed exactly what they saw often interlaced their assumptions in the discerning of events. It is like the old childhood game of whispering a statement to one person and passing it on. It never came out right. In any event, there are always people that relish the attention of "being involved" and cloud the situation.

  4. Phillip, it is remarkable that social media gets us "involved" in far flung events. I was working in Brazil at the time of the Boston Bombings and I had Twitter dialed in, live video feeds, everything I could get my hands on. Not sure if that helps us as a society, but it does connect us to people.

  5. Anneliz Hannan (via LinkedIn)April 21, 2014 at 8:28 AM

    It was interesting to hear how the Boston Police monitored social media to counteract misinformation and disinformation but also admitted it was a great resource.

  6. Hi Anneliz! Thanks for reading, as always. You're right about Boston PD. They got it mostly right, even though they confirmed wrong information a few times. That's going to happen in a crisis. One of the things I make sure all my clients know is that they will not be perfect in a crisis. The trick is to make as few mistakes as possible and recover from them quickly.

  7. Irene Bakaric (via LinkedIn)April 21, 2014 at 8:32 AM

    The breakdown doesn't surprise me. The beauty of a vehicle like Twitter is its speed. But given the lack of policies to govern its use and the fact that everyone and anyone uses it, it just means that misinformation can spread that much more quickly.

  8. Absolutely right, Irene. Thanks for reading. There's going to be a time in the not too distant future when there will be algorithms that sort truth from rumor. That will be really helpful in these cases.

  9. Phillip Clark (via LinkedIn)April 21, 2014 at 8:55 AM

    Bill, you mentioned something very important, "confirmed wrong information". What does distress me in the modern news era is just that...the confirmation process. It used to be many new organizations would look for 2 or 3 sources to confirm a fact or story. Now the rush to be first has opened up a new can of worms. What is another confirmation? Second tweets? Internet source? Just because another sources says it, or there are multiple reports still doesn't confirm a story. With the downsizing of media organizations and fewer reporters, I see a lot of first instead of right being out there. I often here now that our sources were wrong but here is the story. I even heard on the news one night that "we are not sure this is right but this is what we have now". I love the new way to fill in the 24/7 news beast when the go to a reporter who provides no new information so they ask them to , Give a sense of ". Why don't they say just give your opinion or the latest rumor etc. Make something up. It is enough to drive and crisis communicator mad.

  10. You are so right, Phillip. It seems news organizations have simply abandoned fact checking and story confirmation. Being part of the "conversation" is more important than being a credible source of accurate information. It does drive the crisis communicator nuts. You almost have to get to really Zen place to be a crisis comms guy these days. You know a lot of what's out there is bad info, but the clients react to every thing that shows up on Twitter. Talking them in from the ledge is one of the biggest challenges we face. Great insight! Thanks.

  11. Establishing a structured update press briefing and being out in front with almost an immediate "voice" lets reporters know you'll be in touch to give accurate information and dispel any rumors.

  12. Thanks for reading, Susanne! You're right, a nearly immediate press briefing is really helpful, but tough to pull off. The challenge for a communicator is to either convince the leaders to speak right away or fill the void themselves. I prefer the latter since a communicator can fill that time with how the response is being implemented, and talking in a general way until you can have more credible information. I appreciate your comment.

  13. RW Nye (Via LinkedIn)April 21, 2014 at 4:14 PM

    Even now, we do not know the complete true story of the bombing and the events of the next few days. We may never know unless the suspect is given a fair and open trial. It seems that at least some of the false or misleading information came from official sources and from the mainstream media. So how are you, Bill, going to determine what information was "false?" Are you referring to anything that doesn't match the official narrative? What IS the official narrative, anyway?

  14. RW, thanks for reading and for your insight on official sources. Many official sources, including the Boston PD gave out inaccurate information. CNN had a whole team of people getting things wrong repeatedly. As for determining what is true or false, the study (which I linked to in the piece, but was not part of) the authors went back after the fact to determine what was true and what was rumor. For example, it was easy to determine as false the story of the 8-year old girl who was running the marathon in memory of her friends who were killed at Sandy Hook. It's false because you have to be 18 years old to run Boston. But, it's a story that fits a particular narrative, in this case, the story type is "The Quest."

    I'm not referring to validating any "official narrative" or advocating use of tools to mislead or dissemble. And, I'm in complete agreement with you that a fair and open trial is required. I really appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  15. Paul Ivice (via LinkedIn)April 21, 2014 at 4:15 PM

    If one in five Twitter posts about the Boston Marathon bombing had accurate information, that is probably a higher rate than Twitter has had before or since.
    It doesn't take pranksters, scam artists and hoaxers to spread misinformation. The spread of social media has given every user the belief that they can be an accurate reporter and photographer without any formal training in either art.
    People using social media don't have to make an effort to get things wrong. They simply do because this don't listen closely or they misunderstand something.
    Professionals know how to confirm information, how to get multiple sources, understand the difference between reliable and unreliable sources and know to triple-check information from unreliable sources.

  16. Paul, you raise a great point regarding false information that the authors of the study didn't look at in their research. People get things wrong. They get things wrong for reasons having nothing to do with malice or intent. One of the hardest things for a reporter to do is deal with multiple accounts of an event by people who believe in their heart they know what happened, but their version isn't supported by facts.

    As a journalist, I've never made a mistake if I double-check a fact for a story. I've made lots of mistakes when I was absolutely sure of a fact for a story (lessons very painfully learned, btw).

    Thanks for reading and for taking the time to weigh in.

  17. Scott Thomsen (via LinkedIn)April 21, 2014 at 4:22 PM

    In many ways, Twitter and other social media are the grapevine. Anyone can and will share their thoughts about what's going on and then add to what others are saying or embellish it. During an emergency, it's never more critical to be a trusted source of accurate information. Pay attention to the chatter. Shoot down inaccurate rumors. But engage with your audience with reliable information.
    If you leave a vacuum in cyberspace, someone else will fill it with misinformation.

  18. Great point, Scott. In fact the study I referred to in my piece showed that more than 50% of the information on Twitter following the Boston bombings was general comment or opinion. We are a people that like to share. We know that you can't leave a vacuum when dealing with traditional media and you can't do it with social media either. Lots of people still have to learn that lesson. Thanks for reading and for taking time to comment.

  19. Very interesting - and good context for crisis management. However, I think your math is unintentionally misleading. It is technically true that only 1 in 5 Tweets are accurate according to the study. But by writing the results like that, the implication is that 4 in 5 Tweets are inaccurate -- and that's not true. Only 29% are false, or about 1.5 Tweets out of 5. False Tweets and "generic opinion" Tweets are two very different categories, and shouldn't be grouped.

    In this case, it would be more accurate to say that nearly 1 out of every 3 Tweets in the aftermath of the Boston bombing contained false information. You could also take the opinion Tweets out of the equation, and say that it's a roughly 60-40 split -- 60% inaccurate and 40% accurate -- when considering Tweets that purported to contain factual information.

  20. I'm making this a "must read" for the undergraduate class on crisis communications that I teach. Thanks Bill!

  21. Thank you for making it a must read. I appreciate it and I'm glad you liked the piece.

  22. Jeff, thanks for the more accurate look into the math. You are correct that false or misleading Tweets should not be grouped with general comments or opinion Tweets. In a crisis, those general comments can provide really valuable information regarding sentiment and emotions related to an event and can greatly help in shaping a response. Thanks for taking the time to weigh in!

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