Twitter you made a fool of me!

Teenage boy pulling fire alarmWait, maybe I made a fool of myself.

January 13, 2010, Twitter users alerted their communities about an explosion at Grand Central Terminal. Grand Central Terminal was allegedly evacuated and shut down by SWAT teams. Subway lines, specifically, the 4,5, and 6 were completely bypassing those specific stops or shut down as well. I work in Manhattan and in relatively close proximity to the station. I have co-workers commuting daily through that station, and many others that use the 4,5,6 line to go home. This is what happened after digesting the “warning”:

TJ: “Christina – you seeing this?”
Me: “About Grand Central Station? I know. WTH? This can’t be real.”
TJ: “I don’t know. Everyone’s tweeting about it. Even Keith and he can’t lie.”
(Note: Caroline McCarthy of CNET also tweeted it)
Me: “Ha, then it has to be true! But seriously, I can’t find it anywhere except for Twitter. Should we tell the staff?”

What do you think I did? Yup. I told the staff. I sent an e-mail with the subject line: “GC Station possibly shut down with reported explosion. Will keep you posted.” My reason for sending it out? I had a flashback of 9/11. (I know, very dramatic). But honestly, my cousin was working in the city at the time. She heard the news about the first crash through Howard Stern and wasn’t sure if he was kidding or not. (Who the heck would kid about that?) Obviously he wasn’t. I figured I should let everyone know just in case.

5 minutes later I learned that this was false. ::Head meets desk:: I was forced to send an e-mail to the staff, again: “Just kidding – it was a hoax. Twitter lied.” What bothered me most was having to field the question from my managers: Where are you getting this news from? My managers are already Twitter skeptics and I gave them more of a reason to see no use to it at all. Let’s just say that for the rest of the day I was the butt of most jokes. Cest la vie.

However it got me thinking. How much can we actually trust this open forum? How can we trust Twitter? For me – I made a fool of myself. I take pride in the fact that I can admit that to the PRBC community. I laughed it off and now relentlessly research any “warning” tweets even if they’re from Keith ;). Yet it got me thinking, what if we had Twitter during 9/11? Or what about a smaller scale crisis like a night club shooting? Imagine being the rep of the hottest night club in NYC and one person tweets about a shooting/murder at your club. What can you do? How can you control that situation? More so, how can we control the messages that are on Twitter?

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  • mikeschaffer

    Good morning, 'Stina! Hope you had a good cup or three of coffee!

    Do you remember the old saying about not believing everything you see on TV? Well, perhaps we need to upgrade that statement to Twitter.

    One of the fantastic things about Twitter is the way information can be passed around real-time. One of the bad things about Twitter is the way information can be passed around real-time.

    Hoaxes, half-truths and full-blown lies can all break through the clutter – especially if they are sensational enough.

    Now ya' know…and as GI Joe always says…knowing is half the battle!

  • I like that you asked this question because it's definitely a valid question.

    I don't think it's a question of whether we can trust the medium, I think it's a question of whether or not we can trust all the people on Twitter to only pass along relevant and truthful information.

    Just like anything else, you must take news from Twitter with a grain of salt. We need to find people we trust and rely on them to be truthful and honest. And you did the right thing by fact-checking.

    It is tricky when you think of situations like that because it's likely it would hit Twitter before mainstream news, but we still have to be careful. So I guess I only half-answered your questions. 🙂

  • Great post, Stina! Who cares that you “made a fool of yourself?” I don’t think you did really. You work at a smaller agency and showed your concern for your colleagues (especially in a city that was rocked by tragedy on 9/11). Had you been at a huge company and produced wide-spread panic, then I would laugh at you. 😉

    I find a huge percentage of my news from Twitter: Tiger’s infidelity; John Edward’s child; Brittany Murphy’s death; etc. Somewhat sad, but regardless, it’s true. Trusting the masses can be good (you aren’t listening to a single talking head), or bad (like high school, rumors spread wildly on Twitter). I think the best approach when people tweet about unconfirmed news such as this, is to say “I’m hearing about this but do not know if it is factual. Can someone confirm?” I follow a number of news outlets on Twitter and I would actually @ reply them hoping they would help investigate and report the accuracy of what may or may not be happening.

  • Poor Keith! He has such a high standard of truthiness to uphold.

  • Now I know, I know I know 🙂

    But the best lessons come from foolish mistakes right?

    I'm more curious to see how people would live tweet crisis's like the one I mentioned in the post. Since you do have experience working in the entertainment industry – how could Twitter be incorporated in a crisis lets say at a concert or event?

  • I don't think you made a fool of yourself. You did what we've been doing since the dawn of Twitter. When it was a smaller community, people could confirm or squash rumors with relative speed, but now that it's a mass medium, we have to change the way we react when reading tweets because anything that glitters now, might simply be glitter.

    At least everyone was safe though, that's what counts.

  • Oh Evan, always making me smile. Thanks for commenting!

  • I tend to ask too many questions in my post anyway 😉 but thank you for adding to the discussion.

    I just started to wonder though – I mean what if I was checking Ubertwitter, cause I'm on it constantly, at a concert and saw some other crisis. I'd be interested how Twitter can be an advantage and disadvantage in a crisis.

  • it stinks. happened to me too a couple of weeks ago. saw NYT reporter brian stelter (@bstelter) tweet that pitt-jolie had un-merged. retweeted and turned out it was a hoax. stupid me, i broke the news to Dudette who wasn't happy when i told her it was false. she's on team aniston. if you can't trust a NYT reporter, who can you trust? needless to say, i felt like an idiot and will be more careful retweeting 'breaking news.'

  • Oh PRdude – If I was dudette, you'd be in timeout. 🙂

  • jeffespo

    This is a great post and while the story made you look foolish, you were not alone. This phenomenon of false news tweets catching fire or citing Tweets as news is something that traditional media will have to come to grip with and figure out a vetting process. This is especially true given McCarthy's Tweet.

    We too often will take the here and now stories as gospel, but it might be worth a few extra minutes on all of our part to get to the real story.

    Oh and did you hear? PeeWee Herman is on the Empire State Building waiting to jump.

  • I see what you're saying, and I honestly don't know! It was interesting to see Tweets coming from the Hudson River landing last year, and those were definitely an advantage because we could all get first-hand accounts and photos quickly.

    Are you thinking like if someone got shot at a concert and they wanted to evacuate or something? I know there are both advantages and disadvantages, but I'm afraid I'm at a bit of a loss to type them out.

    Just one of those days…

  • Right – so for example:

    I went to a concert and was tweeting the my favorite song on Colbie's new CD was playing and saw that “OMG – Someone's been robbed/beaten/put whatever crisis horrible thing here – just occured at the Colbie concert.” Wouldn't that create chaos? How could a PR team deal with real-time crisis. They can't stop people from live tweeting and I'm not saying they should. Perhaps directing the live tweeters to their information/stream may help control the situation better.

    Does that make it clearer?

  • Glorysgirl

    Kate, I really like the point you make about asking for confirmation and being up front about your certainly or uncertainty about the truthfulness of what you are reporting. I like the idea of citing your source when reporting something like a crisis or breaking news (i.e. I am here at GCT and the 5 line is completely shut down; or I just heard on @cnn that …).

  • i made the boo boo too and told everyone in my office 🙁

  • Oh my! Yes, well I see your point. In that case, I think the best thing that anyone in PR could do would be to try to @ reply as many people as possible to ask them what information they have and would they please exit calmly or whatever instructions might be.

    I think it could be a great advantage to PR teams trying to manage a crisis like that from a remote location because it would help get information incredibly quickly and they could then respond with the proper instructions or information.

    But then again, there is the chance that tweet would cause chaos if enough people were tweeting about it. I think, though, there would be more advantages as far as gathering and disseminating information.

  • GoKTGo

    Great post, Christina! I love that we were totally on the same mental wave this week! It seems like it's impossible to know for sure sometimes – and I think your example was especially interesting because it's different if it's people you follow who you may not necessary *trust* tweet things, vs. someone you know well and trust tweeting things – I think I'd be 110% likely to believe it if it came from someone I trust (or even an authoritative voice like someone CNET)!

    I think I would have done the same thing! I know that I was guilty of retweeting the American Airlines Haiti Relief thing, and that ended up being false!

    I guess I just want to believe that people are good and that they tell the truth, but that's not always the case…and one piece of wrong information that gets into the right hands can go a loooooong way!

    I don't think you can get too down on yourself though just because it's soooo hard to tell the truth from lies sometimes and you were definitely just trying to help out your coworkers, which is awesome! They should appreciate your concern!! It's like a fire drill or a bomb scare – you'd rather take the precautions in case it's true then wait to find out and be wrong!

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