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Fake news on Twitter causes problems during disasters

Fake news is a problem on Twitter even during the best of times. Now, new research shows how quickly false information can spread during an emergency situation.

The study looked at four false rumors that spread around social media following the Boston Marathon bombing and Superstorm Sandy’s landfall in New York City. One of the included rumors was the fake news that the New York Stock Exchange had flooded during the monster winter storm-meets-hurricane.

“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,” said lead author Dr. Jun Zhuang of the University of Buffalo.

The researchers weren’t able to determine how many people saw the false tweets but chose not to spread them. However, they could look at those who interacted with the tweets and determine whether they spread, questioned or cast doubt on the news. They found that:

  • 86 to 91 percent of users either “liked” the original tweet or spread it by retweeting it without question.
  • 5 to 9 percent retweeted or replied with questions about the accuracy of the information.
  • 1 to 9 percent retweeted or replied and cast doubt on the original tweet, sometimes outright calling it incorrect.

Even when false information on Twitter was debunked, less than 10 percent of the users who had retweeted the fake news deleted it, and fewer than 20 percent corrected their mistake 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 social media platforms play in these deceptions,” Zhuang said in a press release.

The study, published in the journal Natural Hazards, is part of a larger project led by Zhuang and Dr. Janet Yang to study the use of social media during public emergencies and natural disasters. The pair are also studying how false information spreads and what agencies like FEMA are doing to combat fake news.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

Image credit: PiXXart /

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