If you’re victimized by erroneous gossip on Twitter, no matter what you do, you probably feel like you’re sinking in quicksand. It just keeps getting worse with no end in sight.

So here’s some good news. With the right approach, you can stop the rumors and correct the misinformation.

That’s right, a University of Washington study shows that fast official statements by you on Twitter can solve your crisis.

“A lot of emergency managers are afraid that the voice of the many drowns out the official sources on Twitter, and that even if they are part of the conversation, no one is going to hear them,” says co-author Elodie Fichet, a UW doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication.

“We disproved that and showed that official sources, at least in the cases we looked at, do have a critical impact,” adds the graduate student.

The study includes two Twitter case studies: Rumors about police raiding a Muslim neighborhood in Sydney, Australia; and rumors about the hijacking of a WestJet flight from British Columbia to Mexico.

In each case, official accounts of the police agency and the airline, quelled the rumors.

“Oftentimes in a crisis, the person operating a social media account is not the person who makes operational decisions or who even decides what should be said,” says senior author and emComp lab director Kate Starbird, a UW assistant professor of human-centered design and engineering.

“But that person still needs to be empowered to take action in the moment because if you wait 20 minutes, it may be a very different kind of crisis than if you can stamp out misinformation early on,” she adds.

The paper is entitled, “Keeping Up with the Tweet-dashians: The Impact of ‘Official’ Accounts on Online Rumoring.”

Research team

The research team from the Emerging Capacities of Mass Participation (emCOMP) Laboratory in the UW Department of Human Centered-Design & Engineering and the Information School’s DataLab.

They presented their findings in a paper at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference for Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing.

Co-authors also include former UW Master of Digital Communication and Media/Multimedia student Cynthia A. Andrews, UW human-centered design and engineering undergraduate student Yuwei Ding and UW Information School assistant professor Emma Spiro.

The authors say one major “breaking news” account that doesn’t adhere to professional journalism standards can create havoc.

Retweets also play a major role – small Twitter accounts – spreading the rumors and denying them.

“Avoiding social media channels because you don’t want to be confronted with misinformation is a real danger for an organization,” says Professor Starbird.

“You’re essentially opening up a space for information to be spreading without your voice being a part of it,” she explains.

First case study

In December 2014, a gunman actually seized 18 hostages at a chocolate café in Australia. But a radio talk show host exacerbated the crisis by falsely claiming federal police had responded with raids on homes in a Muslim community.

In reality, the officers were simply touring a mosque that had been previously scheduled.

The rumor started on a mere five Twitter accounts. Ultimately, the rumor involved 1,279 tweets. Thirty-eight percent publicized the rumor; fortunately 57 percent denied it.

It took police an hour and 20 minutes to respond with an official account tweet. But it did the trick.

“Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip.”

-Will Rogers

Second case study

In total, there were 27,000 tweets about a false rumor of a hijacking of a WestJet flight to Mexico from Vancouver, British Columbia.

So-called breaking news accounts and others tweeted the false information.

Flight-tracking Web sites discerned what was thought to be a “hijacked” code from the jet. (Later the code was surmised to be a ground instrument error.) But the damage was done.

Fortunately for WestJet, a social-media team member spotted the negative tweets after about 20 minutes.

The immediate dilemma for the airline: Officials couldn’t contact the pilots right away as the jet was in descent at the airport in Mexico. Security protocol prevented any communication.

Doubting the rumor, the airline issued denials anyway. After two denial tweets, the uproar calmed down in about two hours.

Researchers learned that WestJet later designed a portfolio consisting of pre-crafted tweet templates in the event the company is again hit with rapidly escalating false rumors in the future.

“Being online is really important, even if you don’t want to be,” says Professor Starbird.

“Avoiding social media channels because you don’t want to be confronted with misinformation is a real danger for an organization,” she asserts. “You’re essentially opening up a space for information to be spreading without your voice being a part of it.”

The bottom-line: You must have a social media presence and act quickly before and during an escalating crisis.

From the Coach’s Corner, here are more social-media strategies:

Monitor Social Media to Learn What’s Said, What Isn’t — No doubt, you’ve heard the expression, “Things aren’t always as they seem.” That’s why it’s so important in careers and personal relationships to engage people – to listen, ask questions and weigh the answers. A savvy marketing executive reminds us that things aren’t always as they seem in social media, either. That by paying special attention you can better understand social-media users.

8 Basic Social Media Tips for a Newbie in E-commerce — Are you just starting out using social media? Well, if used well, social media is an excellent tool to accomplish two goals – connecting with your existing customers and attracting fans for new business.

Insights into How Twitter Users Can Forge Opinion — If you want to influence public opinion on Twitter, the trick is to get your message out early. Once your message is stabilized on the social medium, it’s too difficult for your competitors to overcome your lead.

Maximize Your ROI from Your Next Event with Social Media — Will you maximize the return on investment in your next event? Whether you’re a nonprofit or business, great social media strategy will promote your event and your brand. In addition, even after your event it’s possible to enhance your return from social-media investment.

How Twitter Levels the Playing Field for Small Cap Companies — Good news for venture capitalists and entrepreneurs who are known to kvetch that that their companies fall below the radar screen of Wall Street analysts and the media. It’s widely known that mainstream media coverage seems to favor large companies over small ones. But an academic study shows that Twitter can help such small cap companies gain market liquidity.

“Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip.”

-Will Rogers


Author Terry Corbell has written innumerable online business-enhancement articles, and is a business-performance consultant and profit professional. Click here to see his management services. For a complimentary chat about your business situation or to schedule him as a speaker, consultant or author, please contact Terry.