Twitter Terrorists: False information + positive feedbacks = real panic

Another example of how false information, amplified through positive feedbacks, can lead to real panic: in Veracruz Mexico two people posted messages on twitter reporting kidnappings at a local school. The messages spread rapidly through social media leading frightened parents to rush to try and save their children. The panic caused dozens of car accidents and jammed the city's emergency phone lines.

Amnesty International was quoted saying, "The lack of safety creates an atmosphere of mistrust in which rumours that circulate on social networks are part of people's efforts to protect themselves, since there is very little trustworthy information." As with many "tipping point" phenomenon, before the spark that set off the visible cascade, there was most likely a "contextual tipping point" that made the resulting contagion possible. Governments or managers have to realize that the only way to reliably prevent these cascades is by changing the context, not by stamping out all of the sparks.

"Social Media in Tornado Alley"

A recent New York Times newsletter contained an article, "Social Media in Tornado Alley," in which they describe how resident posted YouTube videos and reporter Twitter feeds contributed to their coverage of the tornado devastation in Joplin, Missouri.  They created a video by piecing together YouTube clips and their reporter Brian Stelter, "immediately began filing a stream of Twitter updates that provide a unique and up to the second account of what he was seeing on the ground there."

It's interesting to see how the Times and other "traditional" news organizations are folding social media into their portfolio.  On the one hand, social media is seen as a challenge to traditional news sources, since so much information is available via the Web. But, I think we're seeing how organizations like the Times can serve as curators of this information by collecting the most interesting/important/reliable pieces and adding expert commentary and analysis.

"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives ... "

There is a great story on the Atlantic’s website about a fake quotation that exploded on Facebook and Twitter after Osama Bin Laden’s death.  The quote, wrongly attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. is:

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”

The author of the article, Megan McArdle, traces the origins of the wrongly attributed quote to a facebook post from a 24 year old Penn State graduate student (check out the article for the fascinating story).  This brings up some interesting issues about rumors and social media.  An open question regarding information and the web, is whether technologies like social media and the Internet in general increase or decrease the prevalence of false information.  On the one hand, the “wisdom of the crowd” might be able to pick out the truth from falsehoods.  True statements will be repeated and spread, while false statements will be recognized by a great enough number of people to squelch them.  On the other hand, we know that systems like this with strong positive feedbacks can converge to suboptimal solutions.  If you think of retweeting some piece of information as like casting a vote that it is true, we might expect information cascades of the sort described theoretically by Bikhchandani et al..  In this case, two things seem to have happened.  Initially, there was a sort of information cascade that led to the spread of the quote.  Then it wasn’t the wisdom of the crowds that led to the squelching of the rumor, but the efforts of knowledgable individuals tracing the quotation back to the initial post.  What the Internet provided was a way to uncover the roots of the false information for those willing to take the time to look.

Twitter and Bin Laden 2

The burst of Twitter reports of Bin Laden’s death prior to any official announcements is continuing to generate interest.  NPR has an informative interview with Andy Carvin, NPR’s senior strategist for social media (thanks to Georgia Kernell for sending it to me).  The event raises several interesting questions about social dynamics and the spread of information.  It would be interesting to know how many false reports of Osama Bin Laden’s death there have been on Twitter prior to this that didn’t “go viral.”  It would seem that a key feature of this particular cascade of tweets was the apparent authority of the “earlier adopters.”  The initial tweet that got things going seems to have come from a former aide to Donald Rumsfeld.  This tweet was probably picked up by other “Beltway insiders.”  I would guess a key feature to the rumor’s success in spreading was the fact that these initial tweeters were people that other people trusted to know this sort of thing.  That’s a difficult aspect to capture in basic compartmental models of rumor spreading, or even standard network models of information transmission.  You not only need to have highly credible individuals, but you have to have a large cluster of credible individuals that are all tightly connected to one another.


Twitter and Bin Laden

By now many people have heard of how Twitter predicts the stock market. The Media Decoder blog at the New York Times has an entry today on how Twitter contributed to the leak of Osama Bin Laden’s death. A follow-up article was posted later.

“Unconfirmed reports — that turned out to be true — of Osama bin Laden’s demise circulated widely on social media for about 20 minutes before the anchors of the major broadcast and cable networks reported news of the raid at 10:45 p.m., about an hour before Mr. Obama’s address from the White House.”

“Twitter saw the highest sustained rate of posts ever, with an average of 3,440 per second from 10:45 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Eastern time. There were more than five million mentions of Bin Laden on Facebook in the United States alone.”