Demonstrating the intrinsic nature of twitter as a stream of group consciousness more than anything else, the Haiti tragedy has brought out the rumor mill. And with it, it demonstrates one of the underlying weaknesses of relying on a group stream of consciousness — it’s not always the most accurate thing in the world.
The rumors were, thankfully, limited to things that didn’t cause any real harm or damage. Except to the companies who were the subject of the rumors. Their reputations were inadvertently tarnished by being included in the rumors, which they then had to publicly deny. The denial makes them seem a little heartless, so they followup with a public declaration of what they are doing to support the Haitians in their time of need (usually generous monetary donations to the effort).
One rumor was that Jet Blue and American Airlines were offering to fly doctors and nurses to Haiti for free. On the face of it, it doesn’t really stand up to much scrutiny. Are doctors and nurses really looking to fly into a disaster zone on their own, and not under the scope of a larger organization like the Red Cross or Doctors without Borders (both of whom have their own significant travel departments and travel arrangements for international events like this)? Why were only these two airlines doing it? How could you fly into an airport only open to military and direct aid flights? And why wouldn’t either airline have any information about this amazing program on their websites’ homepage?
Of course it made no sense, yet that didn’t stop thousands from tweeting and re-tweeting the same misinformation (which is still being done today!). In fact, the number of people who continue to retweet the same false information is far greater than those tweeting that the information is false. Based upon popularity of a topic alone — which is twitter’s lifeblood — an outside observer might believe the rumor has to be true. After all, look at all the people saying so!
It’s not just American Airlines and JetBlue who are the target of such twitter rumors, however. UPS, the ubiquitous brown-truck delivery service, was also the target of a twitter falsehood — “UPS is shipping any package under 50 lbs to Haiti for free.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? Let’s send food or clothing to the needy via UPS.
Again, it doesn’t stand up to the common sense test. Anyone who’s spent even 1 minute viewing the devastation wrought by the Haiti earthquake can see that the country is not exactly set up to be receiving packages from your local friendly UPS guy. The roads are impassable, rubble is everywhere, and the airport is open only to aid and military flights. And who would they be delivering these packages to? Unless you have relatives in Haiti, it seems like a fairly silly offer. Haitians are looking for the basic necessities of living — food, water, shelter. And that isn’t going to be delivered by a UPS man.
What all of these twitter rumors have in common is the sense that somebody is doing something good, so I should support it by retweeting it. Twitter doesn’t reinforce the concept of, “Wait, I should check into this myself first before RTing it.” Just like the old email urban legends that so many millions of people have forwarded along without thinking twice about, twitter users are doing the exact same thing. The technology may have changed, but the human behavior remains the same. Forward along (retweet) the “interesting” stuff, without ever bothering to check it out yourself.
On the flip side, Twitter has been a great source of accurate and useful information early on, with postings of photos of the tragedy and updates to individual families. It functions in a manner that gets the early word out faster than almost any other technology out there. But when it comes to followup, the “wisdom of the crowds” can sometimes take over — even if that wisdom turns out to be a lie. Twitter is information quality agnostic, meaning it doesn’t care whether the information it’s passing along is the truth, a falsehood, or something in-between. But with the force of the “crowds” behind it, it can turn a lie into the truth by the simple act of force (e.g., popularity).
All of these companies are making significant donations to relief funds in the effort to help the Haitians. They are joining hundreds of other companies doing the same, dozens of governments from around the world, and millions of individuals who are donating to the likes of UNICEF and CARE, the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders and AmeriCares. I encourage you to do the same.
And please, think twice before retweeting information you haven’t yourself confirmed as being true or not.