During disasters, active Twitter users likely to spread falsehoods

May 11, 2018 by Cory Nealon, University at Buffalo
During disasters, active Twitter users likely to spread falsehoods
Credit: University at Buffalo

We know that Twitter is littered with misinformation. But how good are the social media platform's most active users at detecting these falsehoods, especially during public emergencies?

Not good, according to new University at Buffalo research that examined more than 20,000 tweets during Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombing.

The study, published today (May 11) in the journal Natural Hazards, examined four false rumors—two each from the marathon and hurricane, including an infamous falsehood about the New York Stock Exchange flooding.

Researchers examined three types of behavior. Twitter users could either spread the , seek to confirm it, or cast doubt upon it. Researchers found:

  • 86 to 91 percent of the users spread false news, either by retweeting or "liking" the original post.
  • 5 to 9 percent sought to confirm the false news, typically by retweeting and asking if the information was correct.
  • 1 to 9 percent expressed doubt, often by saying the original was not accurate.

"To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate how apt Twitter users are at debunking falsehoods during disasters. Unfortunately, the results paint a less than flattering picture," says the study's lead author Jun Zhuang, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering in UB's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Even after the false news had been debunked on Twitter and traditional news media outlets, the study found that:

  • Less than 10 percent of the users who spread the false news deleted their erroneous retweet.
  • Less than 20 percent of the same users clarified the false tweet with a new tweet.

"These findings are important because they show how easily people are deceived during times when they are most vulnerable and the role play in these deceptions," says Zhuang, who is conducting similar research concerning Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.

On a more positive note, the study found that while Twitter users are likely to spread false news during disasters, Twitter and other media platforms move quickly to correct the misinformation.

Additionally, Zhuang says it's important to note that the study does not consider Twitter users who may have seen the original tweets with false news and decided to ignore them.

"It's possible that many people saw these tweets, decided they were inaccurate and chose not to engage," says Zhuang, who was recently awarded a $392,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to work on additional studies, including understanding what factors prompt Twitter users to ignore certain posts during emergencies, and the best ways to debunk false .

Explore further: On Twitter, fake news travels faster than true stories: study

Related Stories

Twitter bars ads from Russia's RT, Sputnik

October 26, 2017

Twitter announced Thursday it was banning advertisements from Russia-based media outlets RT and Sputnik, in response to US intelligence findings that the groups sought to spread misinformation during the 2016 presidential ...

Hackers send fake terror alerts from NBC's Twitter

September 10, 2011

(AP) -- A hacker broke into the Twitter account of NBC News and sent out a handful of false tweets about a suspected hijacking and a plane attack at ground zero just days before the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

'Hurricane Sandy's worst online troll' gets a beating

October 30, 2012

An influential netizen came under angry scrutiny Tuesday after dramatic information he announced on his widely-followed Twitter account at the peak of deadly superstorm Sandy was found to be false.

Countering fake news with contagions

March 28, 2017

Social media is a wonderful tool for sharing information quickly; But not surprisingly, some of that information is false and has played a role in the dissemination of conspiracy theories and fake news.

Recommended for you

Security gaps identified in internet protocol IPsec

August 15, 2018

In collaboration with colleagues from Opole University in Poland, researchers at Horst Görtz Institute for IT Security (HGI) at Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) have demonstrated that the internet protocol IPsec is vulnerable ...

Researchers find flaw in WhatsApp

August 8, 2018

Researchers at Israeli cybersecurity firm said Wednesday they had found a flaw in WhatsApp that could allow hackers to modify and send fake messages in the popular social messaging app.

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

xponen
not rated yet May 13, 2018
Why are we soo flawed? imagine if we human are genetically perfect and could spread correct & actionable information as effectively as fake news won't we human became a perfect society? Why are we soo broken as a user/organism when using this technology?

It is a fault in broken/flawed brain cognition not the problem of UI as the UI is already so simple such as Twitter.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (2) May 13, 2018
It's because we have pattern recognition. There's no disadvantage to being wrong about the leopard prints down by the watering hole yesterday morning.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.