June 25, 2008

Smart People, Stupid Tweets. Fake News Spreads Fast on Twitter.

The combination of a rush to publish and a low barrier to entry for microblogging makes posting quick notes to Twitter extremely tempting for people who are trying to break news. In seconds, a rumor can be launched, whether true or not, and hit thousands. If those thousands then, in turn, repost your note, you've got a rapidly snowballing mess to deal with.

Today, that happened, in real time, when a few popular Twitter users, including Kevin Rose of Digg and Adam Ostrow of Mashable posted a link to a parody site, claiming the famous Jared Fogle from Subway's line of commercials had passed away. The "news", which had long been debunked as an urban legend by Snopes, spread like wildfire, catching otherwise well-respected folks like Dave Winer thinking it was true.

Kevin Rose's Tweet Kicked the Rumor In High Gear

Many, Many Others Followed Suit

(See also: FriendFeed: "I'm so gullible I believed it. Oy. - Dave Winer")

Many have claimed Twitter can break news faster than traditional news media. People were buzzing on Tim Russert's passing away on Twitter before it hit NBC, and Twitter has already proven itself a news source for natural disasters, like earthquakes. But the mainstream media largely likes to prove rumors true and get multiple sources before reporting, to this day. When Twitterers run amok and post any old yarn they've heard, there's no stopping it.

When Kevin Rose posted his Tweet, it had the potential to reach his more than 46,000 followers. The trickle-down effect hit Ostrow's 1,300 or so followers, and Summize showed the gullible Twitter crowd re-reporting the bad news multiple times a minute, reaching who knows how many people?

See: Summize: Search for Jared

See: Summize: Search for Subway

Whether you're writing a blog post or entering something on Twitter, it absolutely makes sense to take a cue from traditional media and check your facts. While the Subway Jared parody is more amusing than critical, it highlights a need for people to take a deep breath before repeating everything they hear. Twitter can be a tool for good, but for mischief as well. I would expect people like Kevin, Adam and others, proven to be intelligent in other areas, could act smart here as well.