Social Media and the Spread of Misinformation

These days, people get their news from Twitter, Facebook and similar media sites that get to the stories faster than traditional news outlets that get the news out to those looking for it as it happens. I’ve learned about the tragic tsunami in Japan, the tornadoes in Joplin, MI, the death of Osama Bin Laden and most recently, the sad death of Jackass castmember, Ryan Dunn, via trending topics on Twitter. The sad truth though is that in this age of fast paced breaking news, it can be extremely difficult to find the truth among the lies.

The devastation in Japan following 2011's earthquake and resulting tsunami.

When the tsunami hit Japan, I, like many other Twitter users, sat glued to Twitter waiting for any and all updates as they came in. I was horrified to learn of the destruction left in the wake of the earthquake and the tsunami that followed. Webcasts allowed me to watch as water washed across the land sweeping up cars, houses and anything else in its path. I woke my husband at four in the morning to show him what I was seeing. Then the lies started.

Fake Twitter accounts were created claiming to be from trusted media outlets such as CNN and the BBC. There was talk that Japan’s nuclear reactors were going to meltdown, killing eighty percent of the population of Japan and fifty percent of the population on the West Coast of the United States and Canada. Try verifying sources when Tweet after Tweet is coming through spreading that false information and in this environment, there is no room for the voice of reason. There is no room for someone to step in and correct the facts because those precious few fact seekers get lost in the shuffle of hysteria.

What's left of Ryan Dunn's car.

Early this morning (around 3 am local time) Ryan Dunn was killed in a car accident along with the passenger in the car he was driving. Twitter immediately lit up with hundreds, if not thousands of Tweets conveying not just the news, but the rumors associated with the news. As of this article’s publication, this is what we know for sure:

  • Ryan tweeted a picture of himself along with two other men hours before the accident. In the photo, he has a drink in his hand. The photo has since been removed.
  • Bar patrons are split on how much he was drinking and whether or not he was drunk when he left.
  • Ryan Dunn was in fact killed in a car accident along with an as of yet unidentified passenger.
  • Johnny Knoxville, Wee Man, Jeff Tremaine (director of the Jackass movies), Tom Green and Joel Madden have all tweeted words of sympathy.
Ryan Dunn dies at age 34.

Ryan Dunn was sadly only 34 years old when he died. It’s a tragic loss, for sure. Ryan was a funny man and although not my usual kind of humor, I really liked the Jackass movies. He was also a pretty talented actor. Check out Haggard to see him in one of his finest roles. The question of whether or not the accident could have been avoided is one we just can’t answer yet. Local authorities are only saying that speed may have been a factor, but until further information comes out, speculation beyond that is irresponsible.

Ryan Dunn and friends before the accident.

I would like to state for the record that I have very little sympathy for drunk drivers. I’ve lost several friends to drunk driving accidents on both sides of the accident, some as the drunk driver, some as passengers in a car driven by someone who was under the influence and one who was killed when she was driving home from work and was hit by a drunk driver. That accident also took the life of her child and the driver of the other car. There is never an excuse from driving under the influence. Too many lives can be destroyed in the blink of an eye to take that sort of reckless, irresponsible chance.

The hoax.

What spurred this article though, wasn’t the accident or Ryan’s untimely passing. It wasn’t the speculation that the cause of the accident was speed or drunk driving. What spurred this article is the rumor spreading through Twitter like wildfire that the whole accident was a prank and that Ryan is still alive. It started when someone created a fake post and then  fake post. That tweet was retweeted and then retweeted until many people believed it. The simple fact is that even a bit of research would show the post for fake. For example, a quick trip to the website it was reportedly from would show you no such story. That doesn’t matter, though. People will still believe it and the photo will continue to spread.

Randy Savage's death spread rumors of another wrestler's demise.

When ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage died suddenly at age 58 on May 20, 2011 confusion broke out when Hulk Hogan also began trending leading many people to believe both legendary wrestlers had passed away. The truth was, of course, that Hulk was trending because of his well known rivalry with Macho Man and people were commenting on that. Before long though, Hulk was yet another Twitter casualty with many people stating that he had passed away even though he was still alive and well. Confusion spread and I’m sure there are still people out there who believe Hulk Hogan is no more.

Johnny Depp: RIP? Don't rush the gun!

Hulk Hogan isn’t the only celebrity that Twitter has killed off. Far from it. Johnny Depp has been the victim of the fabled Twitter death many times. I don’t think it would be possible for me to list all of the people who have met their early demise via this social networking sites. Some of the most notable include Adam Sandler, Christian Slater, David Spade and even the Biebs himself, Justin Bieber. Celebrity death hoaxes actually aren’t all that common and are definitely nothing new, but the rise of Twitter has given the hoaxers a new platform from which to spread the hoax – one that allows for it to quickly be passed from one person to the next.  It’s to the point now that any death reported on Twitter should be viewed with skepticism – which perhaps helped fuel the rumor that Ryan Dunn is alive.

Captain Sully

It’s hard to talk about breaking news on Twitter without mentioning Captain Sully and his heroic landing on the Hudson River. Twitter had the news – and even the pictures – before any of the major news outlets started reporting what transpired. Captain Chelsey Sullenberger, of course, famously landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River after it became clear the plane was not able to safely reach its destination. He landed the plane safely in the water, saving the lives of all of those on board – bringing Captain Sully into the spotlight as a hero and bringing Twitter into the spotlight as a legitimate news source. One has to remember though, that for every story like Sully’s there is a story like Dunn’s (or Depp’s or Slater’s and so on) so before passing along information you learned on Twitter – before you hit RT – check the source of the story before you become part of the problem.