How rumours spread through social media? How do PIOs counter criticism?

By this time, all PIOs know that dealing with rumours in social media, as it was before social media started, is as important as an early warning alarm system in case, for instance, a new Hurricane strikes. But where do rumours come from? How are they spread through social media?

This post came to my mind after watching the new disaster film, Contagius. For those of you who has not gone to see it yet, the plot is about a new disease being spread from Hon-Kong to several cities in the U.S.A, as well as London and other countries in the rest of the world. A blogger shows up and spreads non-contrasted information though social media creating panic, disorder and putting in danger citizens and properties. 

But how rumours are spread through social media? What is more important, why do rumours spread and where do they come from? Coming back to the film, we have a clear answer. Rumours replace corroborated information. What is more, according to ANDA (National Association of Advertiser) in Peru, journalists are responsible for 10 % of rumours.

Before our not-that-new social media-scenario, we may have a journalist being informed of a new disaster. When s/he arrived to the place s/he needed somebody to tell them what was going on. If there wasn’t an official source, they would use a non official one, in order to inform their public as soon as possible. Yes. This is a matter of speed. And the need to fill the gap quickly is related to the quality of the information delivered. 

Nowadays, the problem has multiplied since anyone can broadcast their own version through social media. Rumours come from, according to @luisserrano, ambiguity upgraded by the important of the topic, multiplied by the number of RT in the internet.

Countering rumour

 How can PIOs avoid rumours in social media? Being the first sounds almost impossible, though it is the first step, but there is still the obligation to be the best, right, most credible, accurate and updated source of information. If social media has given us some problems to be solved, it has also given us the chance of a wonderful tool plenty of advantages. We only need to have a look at  this  job on digital volunteers in catastrophes to get an idea of how social media is useful when managing disaster. To check how useful they were during Irene Hurricane watch Major Cory Booker’s interview here .

Social Media Training

I provide media training in the National School of Civil Protection in Madrid within the International Coordination Course. It’s a job that provides me with a lot of fun, since we work on a drill and no one would be hurt whatever happens. As a role player, I monitor an exercise in which I am a journalist for an important international media newspaper and ask my students about their mission. The context is first aid/first responders coming from several countries – through the International Civil Protection Mechanism of the European Union- being deployed in a third country (outside the EU) struck by a disaster.  

ICC exercise at the National School of Civil Protection in Madrid
What sometimes happens is that they give me answers which shouldn’t be their concern at all, as well as wrong information.
Let’s have an example. Imagine my student is a non-governmental organization member deployed in the Bahamas  after a Hurricane strikes. Let’s say I’m a naughty journalist asking him. “I heard something about human rights violations going on. Are you here to prevent them? “ And he says: “Yes, of course that’s part of our mission”. I could immediately tweet something like: “ International team coming from the #EuropeanUnion deployed in #Bahamas during #Hurricane to prevent human rights violation.” If he says “No”, the problem will remain.

What I told them when giving the feedback is “imagine this wasn’t a drill, imagine what you just told me is  being broadcast to millions of people though social media. That is usually enough for them to understand where rumours come from and to rely only on trusted sources.

To end up, it is useful to remember the importance of keeping the media and public on your side on a daily basis, before any crisis occurs.

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