Around 9 p.m. Eastern last night, my Twitter feed lit up with messages from respected journalists and bloggers declaring that NBC News had projected Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren the winner of the closely watched Senate race in Massachusetts, in which she was running against Republican Scott Brown. That’s funny, I thought. I had been watching NBC News, and I couldn’t recall the anchors announcing Warren as the winner.
In fact, it turned out to be another Twitter hoax.
It’s still unclear exactly who started the rumor, but once it was live it spread rapidly across the network, amplified by trusted media figures. News blogs posted about her victory, and celebration ensued among pro-Warren tweeters. But by 9:20 p.m. or so (Eastern Time) Twitter began to fact-check itself. Warren had not won, at least not yet. (Twenty minutes later NBC called her the winner for real.)
This is just the latest example of Twitter being used to spread misinformation. During Hurricane Sandy, one user was the source of several potentially dangerous false rumors. A message claiming the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange was flooded by three feet of water fooled even CNN and the Weather Channel.
However, that night, like last night, skeptical Twitter users helped the network self-correct fairly quickly.
Twitter is invaluable because of the quickness with which information can flow through the network (see “Information’s Social Highways”). News organizations, relief groups, governments, and citizens will continue to rely heavily on it for this reason.
The potentially dangerous flip-side is that untruths can propagate just as quickly, and there will inevitably be more hoaxes like the ones we saw during the hurricane and on election night. But if these two examples are any indication, misinformation won’t live long. Just be careful what you retweet.