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Twitter users prone to sharing false news during emergencies

Twitter users prone to sharing false news during emergencies

Social media, in particular Twitter, provides an excellent way for people to share and comment on news as it breaks. When disasters occur, it often goes into overdrive, but how careful are people with what they share?

Not very, it would seem. A new study published in the Natural Hazards journal looked at how people behaved on Twitter relating to social media tweets about such disasters as the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 and the Sandy Hook shooting of 2012, and found that the vast majority of “active users” will like or retweet false rumours rather than check their accuracy or express doubt.

The researchers were looking out for three different types of behaviour: sharing the fake news, seeking clarification or casting doubt. Around nine out of ten (between 86% and 91%) of the users studied simply shared the tweet by liking or retweeting it. A much smaller 5% to 9% sought to confirm it (usually by retweeting it and asking if it was true) while just 1% to 9% expressed doubt, often by commenting that it was a falsehood.

Even when stories are proven to be false, Twitter users are still slow to correct themselves, according to the study. Fewer than 10% of those who tweeted the misinformation went back and deleted it, and under 20% tweeted again to correct themselves. In most cases, people shared inaccuracies and failed to retract them in any way.

The study gives a worrying example of how easily false news can spread on Twitter, and how many people believe something to be true simply because it appears on social media. With every person who likes or retweets fake news, it gains more reach and is seen by more people, helping misinformation to be seen (and believed) by more and more people.

Fake news affects the values we hold, the way we vote and how we view each other. A good example has cropped up on Facebook recently of people simply sharing and commenting in support of a post without asking the most basic of questions.

In this example, who is this man? What’s his name? Where is he from? Who is stopping him getting a “coucil” home? What is his story?

None of these questions seem to cross the minds of many of the 20,000+ people sharing and commenting on the meme, who have just seen a man in a soldier’s uniform with a bit of poorly written text next to it and expressed their outrage, often targeting immigrants and asylum seekers even though they’re not mentioned. With Facebook having been around for more than a decade now and it being common knowledge that fake news appears on it, you would think people might have wised up a bit by now, but it seems that droves of users are still very easily fooled.

While Twitter users don’t come out of this study with much credit, one party that does is Twitter itself. The study notes that although its users often show questionable judgment, the platform tends to correct falsehoods quickly.

John Murray

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