The death of Osama bin Laden is considered the biggest story told on Twitter. Now a new study by Georgia Tech and reported in Homeland Security Newswire provides insight into how news is done today, particularly the interplay of Twitter and mainstream media, in informing the world.
The study confirms the understanding the story broke on Twitter with tweets from Keith Urbahn, an aide to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. I don’t know why the study did not include the tweets from the next door neighbor of bin Laden in Abottabad who complained about the helicopters overhead and saying he was going to get out his giant fly swatter. Even though these were undoubtedly the first tweets about the incident, they did not inform of his death.
The interesting thing about this study applies to rumor management–the task that is now the number one priority of crisis communications. The team analyzed 400,000 tweets (using software, of course) and categorized them as “certain” or “uncertain.” That was a way of determining how confident the tweeter was of passing on info that considered to be true. They found that almost immediately 50% of the tweets were certain, meaning the tweeters had high confidence in the accuracy. This was well before there was any TV reports confirming the news.
Why? How could people be so certain of something so important and so subject to rumor? The researcher concluded this:
“We believe Twitter was so quick to trust the rumors because of who sent the first few tweets,” said Hu. “They came from reputable sources. It’s unlikely that a CBS News producer or New York Times reporter would spread rumors of something so important and risk jeopardizing their reputation. Twitter saw their credentials and quickly believed the news was true.”
So, it comes down to the credibility of the tweeter. Aristotle is still on target (he said of the three proofs in rhetoric, logic, emotion and credibility, the most important was credibility (ethos)).
It’s hard for me to believe, but it is clear that many in crisis communications continue to discount the role of Twitter in this field and in the news world overall. Technology is changing far faster than our minds can adapt to the changes. But this study makes it clear how important Twitter, and for that matter, other social media are in informing the world of important events. Yes, as in my previous post, new ways must be found to verify facts. But despite the technology and sea change, some important things never change and being completely believable is one of those.