rampant misinformation online re: Mumbai (from the archives)

This blog originally appeared on a different blog host on 28 November 2008. If any URL does not work, type it into archive.org to see if there is an archived version there. For more information about why I am republishing these old blogs, scroll down to the bottom of this blog entry.

I’m intensely interested in how rumors and myth derail humanitarian efforts — or affect our understanding of various events, both current and historical. So yesterday, as I watched CNN reporters trumpet again and again how easy it was for “ordinary people” to find and disseminate information regarding the Mumbai attacks via various Internet tools such as blogs and Twitter, as well as cell phone text messaging, I wondered how long it would be before CNN started reporting unverified items from these Internet sources and ended up repeating things that would turn out not at all to be true.

I think it took approximately 15 minutes after that thought before a reporter started retracting some of the things being reported online that CNN had repeated. Suddenly, cyberspace wasn’t such a great example of “citizen journalism” after all.

In CNN’s own story about this online phenomenon today, they admit that a vast number of the posts on Twitter amounted to unsubstantiated rumors and wild inaccuracies. As blogger Tim Mallon put it, “far from being a crowd-sourced version of the news it (Twitter) was actually an incoherent, rumour-fueled mob operating in a mad echo chamber of tweets, re-tweets and re-re-tweets… During the hour or so I followed on Twitter there were wildly differing estimates of the numbers killed and injured – ranging up to 1,000.”

Amy Gahran has posted Responsible Tweeting: Mumbai Provides Teachable Moment that includes four excellent tips for people who want to micro-blog the news as it happens. It emphasizes checking sources and correcting information that you have found out is incorrect, and cautions journalists to remember that everything you read on the Internet or your cell phone isn’t necessarily true (how sad that they even have to be reminded…)

Sometimes misinformation is bad, or even worse, than no information at all. As with any communications tool, when it comes to instant networking tools like blogs, Twitter, and cell phones, use with caution. And TV journalists — please re-read your journalism 101 text books.

Why I’ve republished this old blog:

I have long been passionate about debunking urban legends, and that I’m very concerned at how easy online and phone-based tools, from email to Twitter, are making it to promote rumors and myths. Five to 10 years ago, I was blogging on this subject regularly. The web host where I published these blogs is long gone, and I’m now trying to find my many blogs on the subject of how folklore, rumors (or rumours) and urban myths Interfere with development work, aid/relief efforts and community health initiatives, so I can republish them here. I’ll be publishing one or two of these every Saturday until they are all back online.


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