Category: social

When conspiracy theories strike, how do you respond?

Simple question: When misinformation is spreading on social media – can it be stopped?

Simple answer: No. As Churchill (edit: apocryphally) said,  “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” But, if you catch it early enough, you can potentially limit the damage.

Along with the tragedy of the Marathon bombing last week came the instant but well-worn conspiracy theories – none of which I am going to link to. Suffice to say, if you can dream up an improbable scenario someone has a webpage and a YouTube video dedicated to proving it is true.

One of particular interest here was pegged to a Boston Globe tweet sent at 3:53pm on April 15, an hour after the bombing:

Due to the vagaries of timezones and a lack of media literacy this was almost immediately seized upon by conspiracy theorists who thought it was sent hours before the actual bombing. (See below for details.) After intermittently responding on Twitter for a day or two, I compiled a timeline in Storify and began somewhat aggressively linking to it.

It is tough to quantify the success of those efforts. But, I did learn a few things along the way. These specifically apply to Twitter, but can extend to any platform.

First, I found five different types of users who were discussing the myth. Roughly categorized they were:

  1. Passers-by
  2. Questioners
  3. Trolls
  4. Accusers
  5. Conspiracists

Passers-by were people who simply got caught up in the conversation of friends and had little or no passion about the topic. Questioners had no particular reason to believe in a conspiracy, but were troubled by what others were saying about it. Trolls are just trolls – tough to say if some of them actually believed in anything aside from causing trouble. Accusers were the easiest to spot and respond to. Their tweets typically read  “@BostonGlobe why did you <fill in the blank>?” They tended to be skeptical of any answer, but may be reasoned with. Conspiracists were probably the smallest, but most vocal group. They are also the least likely to believe any evidence that contradicts their world view. They often responded with “Yes, but what about <link to conspiracy website> that was confirmed by eyewitnesses?”

In every case, the key is to respond honestly and directly and to stay on topic. Aside from some fairly amusing reactions (one person tried to report me to the FBI for spreading the myth) the effort seemed to be worth it. There are no fewer conspiracies floating around, but this particular one seems to have at least lost some traction. If there is a next time there are a few tips I would follow from day one:

  1. Before you respond, have something (in this case Storify) you can link to that tells your story.
  2. Track @ responses, but also check for keywords (in this case Globe, controlled explosion, drill)
  3. Prioritize responses to users who have large followings or numerous retweets
  4. Engage with individuals – but assume innocence. Some people are honestly confused and are just trying to make sense of events.
  5. Respond carefully, stay on topic and stick to the facts, avoid ANY extraneous detail.
  6. Humor does not work, sarcasm does not work. Use a few short words and a link.
  7. Everyone gets one back-and-forth but then disengage. This is fact-sharing not a debate. Stop while you are ahead.
  8. Don’t expect people to respond, correct their mistake, or even RT your link. The best you can hope for is they stop spreading the myth further.
  9. Look for allies already arguing with the conspiracists. They will be more likely to retweet the link and fight its spread for you.
  10. In the face of abusive responses say, “Thanks, sorry I could not be of more help.” or something similar. Then block those accounts as necessary.

You certainly can not “win” in these situations. There is no gatekeeper available to make a ruling on truth vs fiction. Some people will continue to believe whatever they want to believe. But, we can’t pretend that the spread of misinformation is not worth fighting. The more people that believe in a fiction, the fewer people will believe anything factual we do report.

Links are the currency of the Web. By staying out of these arguments we cede the field to the fantasists. By specifically addressing the truth (which many have this week) and then spreading the message on social media, we can fight fire with fire. We won’t convince everyone, but we can at least assure that a Twitter or Google search of the subject provides some facts, not just the fantasy.




Two small features Twitter needs

In the past few days two people who were not following me sent me direct messages (DM) on Twitter. Neither of us realized the asymmetrical nature of our “relationship” until I had to actually e-mail (oh the horror) them back to suggest they follow me so I could reply.

It is a small annoyance – but something Twitter could fix by notifying a user if the DM they are going to send cannot be reciprocated. Or — how about an auto-follow when you send a direct message to someone who is already following you?

Another more useful tool would be a rating (5%, 20%, 95% etc) connected to individual tweets to indicate how new, or valuable, a given message may be to your followers. If 99% of them already follow the person you are retweeting, you might think twice about rebroadcasting it

I wanted this Saturday when sending a RT – wondering how many of the people who follow me had already seen the message and link. I am not totally convinced this would encourage more productive retweeting, but it is a type of network feedback seems necessary as Twitter grows and becomes more important as a news distribution platform.

Wired, we love it when you make up words. But stop!

My copy of Wired arrived in the mail today.

Page 040 Jargon Watch:

“Cybercase v. To scope out a joint using geotagged data written into digital photos posted online. By browsing images of luxury goods on sites like Flickr or craigslist, thieves can often glean the exact location of the loot and then plot a targeted break-in.”

OK – I know Wired takes credit for popularizing terms like crowdsourcing and Great Firewall of China (page 30, same issue) but c’mon.

First of all, this meme dates all the way back to May of this year when two researchers at the International Computer Science Institute and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. created it. The pair, Gerald Friedland and Robin Sommer, wrote a paper titled: Cybercasing the Joint: On the Privacy Implications of Geo‐Tagging and presented it at the  Fifth USENIX Workshop on Hot Topics in Security (HotSec ’10) at the 19th USENIX Security Symposium in Washington, D.C.

See how boring all of that sounds in context?

The topic got a bit of a run after the paper was published. ReadWriteWeb and The Atlantic, probably among others. And yet, a Google search for cybercasing turns up fewer than five relevant references in the top 100 results. And those are all to the paper or to the RWW or Atlantic coverage. This is a word in search of a use case to apply itself to.

I really only noticed the term in the magazine today because a few weeks ago we had a potential “cybercase” which took place in a next door town. Police reported that some thieves had broken into homes based on people’s Facebook updates. It took about 2.5 seconds for that to go viral. Unfortunately for the sake of a good story, as Jeff Jarvis discovered, the thieves and the victims were known to each other – that’s why they could read their Facebook updates in the first place.

Of interest to me, the actual local paper (my former employer) reported, but never played up the Facebook angle possibly by luck, or just plain good judgment.

But, getting back to Wired: I love it when they “discover” words and it is always worth at least a chuckle, if not some further thought. But please, this is obviously a fake trend story so next time let’s try to couch the definition a bit more:

“Cybercase v. The potential threat, though never actually spotted in the wild, that really intelligent thieves (who apparently prefer crime to a career in IT) might spend their time scoping out a joint using geotagged data written into digital photos posted online, instead of just driving around to the nice parts of town and looking for homes with a week’s worth of mail on the front step. By browsing images of luxury goods on sites like Flickr or craigslist, thieves can often glean the exact location of the loot and then plot a targeted break-in, that is assuming the images were taken in your current home, and the item you put on craigslist did not sell that very afternoon. By the way, if the images were in fact taken at home, you might want to warn your neighbors since the GPS tags are probably going to drop the crooks in their swimming pool.”

Live from 39,000 feet

What is it about new toys?

My flight back from Las Vegas this afternoon (Southwest 1159) was on one of the airline’s few planes that have WiFi hotspots. Apparently they are still testing out the system and it was free.

So – having a new iPhone, 5.5 hours of flight time and free Wifi – of course I had to check it out. First up was Qik:

Not too thrilling – but my son did get to watch the live video for a while which was fun.

I also tested out Skype- which worked like a charm on my end – though Annette could not hear much over the engine noise. Need a noise-canceling mic apparently.

The VPN connection into my office network was no problem. More fun was the SimplifyMedia app for the iPhone – which let me stream my home iTunes library for awhile – till I decided to save my battery I can imagine the Slingbox app would be pretty cool as well.

In the end I spent a fair amount of time watching our flight progress on mostly just to watch the weather we were routing around.

And of course, I had time to write a blog post…

The life of a tweet

I sent a note out over Twitter earlier today trying to gather some additional responses to a Web Tools Survey I am working on: Doing a survey of news Web sites – what open-source and free tools and services do you use: #journ

Typical enough – but what was interesting was watching the traffic (via

I have noted on the chart the timing of each re-tweet (red) and, perhaps more importantly, the actual conversions of clicks to survey responses (green). In the first hour the survey received five re-tweets, 110 referrals from Twitter, and four people actually completed the survey.

You can check out the raw data here