The promise of social media runs headlong into viral disaster hoaxes

Posted on September 11, 2017 5:18 pm by | Ethics | Social Media | Transparency | Trust

This image of a shark swimming on a flooded Houston freeway is fakeOne of the first things I read this morning was a Facebook post from Peter Shankman. Peter shared three days’ worth of posts—September 11-13, 2001—from a mailing list on which he was active, hosted by the World Wide Web Artist’s Consortium. As Peter tells it, “The early morning hours of the list centered around the mundane, but quickly became hyperfocused on one obvious news story. As someone who was on a plane that day, I got my first bits of information from the list, transmitting back whenever I could, as well.”

I spent a fair amount of time reading the posts. The footage news organizations share of that terrible day doesn’t capture the raw emotions—from confusion to outrage—we all experienced 16 years ago the way that plain ASCII text did.

Something else struck me about these messages. There were no fake photos or images from other disasters masquerading as 9/11 pictures. There were no absurd or outrageous claims. No fake news. There was certainly no shortage of opinions and some vehement disagreements. The collection of messages is a microcosm of the anguish and searching for answers everybody went through. At their core, though, all of the posts were honest.

I participated in my share of mailing lists back in the day. The first was one of only two resources where PR practitioners and communicators could engage in community. One was the CompuServe Public Relations and Marketing Forum. The other was a mailing list hosted by Indiana University and managed by the late Bill Lutholtz (who was also an assistant sysop on the CompuServe PRSIG). The mailing list was the soul of simplicity: You sent an email to the list and, depending on your subscription preferences, you got every email any other subscriber sent or a daily digest of all of that day’s emails. What characterized the messages I read every day from subscribers—and, for that matter, from the active users of the CompuServe forum—was a sense of community. Nobody tried to bullshit anybody else. Nobody wanted to fake anyone out. Nobody hoped their message would go viral. We all just wanted to help each other out and share our thoughts.

I get the same sense from the WWWAC list. No bullshit. No fake-outs. Just authentic, tortured, angry, sad sharing.

Sharks on freeways, flooded airports, and daring escapes

Flash forward to more recent disasters, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, where sharing is public. It’s not a community sending tweets or posting on Facebook. It’s anybody sharing with everybody. In this environment, for reasons many have undertaken to explain, a lot of people feel compelled to publish entirely made-up images and tales. Worse, whether out of ignorance or some other motivation, many more are quick to share those images and stories until they have been seen by thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, many of whom take them at face value.

The White House's social media director retweeted a Hurricane Irma hoaxJust this morning, I read how hard Miami International Airport’s team was working to stay ahead of deceitful content and respond to the inquiries they produced. As explained in a Mashable account, “On Sunday, the account also proactively corrected people who tweeted out video of a flooded airport with claims that it was a scene from Miami. The video is from a flood at Mexico City’s airport.
The video is still being shared on Twitter as having come from Miami.” (How could that video spread so far? It didn’t help that President Donald Trump’s director of social media, Dan Scavino, Jr., retweeted it.)

As Harvey, then Irma, made landfall, dozens of mainstream media pieces have crossed my feeds filled with cautions about images like one of a shark swimming on flooded Houston freeways (photoshopped). A CNN headline screamed, “Fake Hurricane Irma videos are getting tens of millions of views on Facebook.” Photos also claimed to show flooding at Houston’s airport and a daring family escape from hurricane flood waters. (The Washington post kept a running list of Harvey’s viral hoaxes, and one dedicated to Irma.

Some of the content is fabricated from whole cloth. Some are unrelated images ascribed to the current disaster. (For example, has had to debunk an image of former President Obama serving meals; the photo spread during Hurricane Harvey and claimed Obama was serving meals to hurricane evacuees when it was actually taken two years ago at a charity event.)

Rebuilding trust

On one very real level, the willingness to spread this content—especially when there is so dire a need for accurate information—is discouraging, especially given that two-thirds of Americans now get at least some of their news from social media (including 55% of Americans over 50). Once, social media was touted as a channel for the free and open sharing of news. After all, we had the history of pre-social online sharing through mailing lists, CompuServe (and other) forums, and Usenet news groups. Today, unless you know and trust the source to verify the accuracy of content before sharing it, you really can’t trust any news anybody shares.

So much promise for social media destroyed by dubious people with dodgy motivations for sowing misinformation and the need by so many others to spread it.

On another level, though, as the public awakens to the fraudulent material that has become so common, we might see a resurgence of trust in the mainstream press despite efforts from some quarters to delegitimize the media. Ogilvy Media Influence’s global survey has found that the rise in fake news has actually boosted trust in traditional media.

Social media will continue to evolve, of course; after all, social media as we know it today is just a point on a continuum that includes those early mailing lists and private forums. Someday, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the rest may figure out a magical formula for ensuring fake news is stopped in its tracks so we can trust what we see in our feeds.

Until then, a healthy dose of skepticism and some critical thinking should be the filters through which we consume any news that shows up as a link or image shared publicly. For those of us tasked with getting the word out on behalf of companies and clients, that makes our jobs much more difficult. One thing we need to keep in mind as we go about our day-to-day work: It’s up to us to make sure whatever we share is truthful and accurate so we can build reputations as trusted sources among a throng of deceivers, fakers, and bullshitters.

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