The Twitter meme about American Airlines flying doctors and nurses to Haiti — coupled with a phone number to the Haiti Consulate in New York — is a case study highlighting a desperate need for digital media literacy.
This Twitter hoax is probably no surprise to anyone who has had email for any length of time: the number of email hoaxes and “legends” is so great that websites devoted to debunking them (such as Snopes, UrbanLegends.About.com) thrive. But email is, for the most part, private, and restricted to people in your social circle who you actually know; as such, the velocity at which bad info can be propagated is slower than it is in real-time public networks like Twitter.
Twitter is vulnerable to hoaxes and misinformation in part because of the brevity of messages, in part because we humans are motivated by emotional appeals, in part because retweeting is an easy way to “do something.” I think a very large part is because it’s so darn easy to “forward” (faster than in email if you default to the “new” RT option).
How To Keep Egg Off Your Face
Here are things to think about before retweeting something that you might need to “re-call” later:
- If a tweet sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This theme is very common in email hoaxes and legends.
- If a tweet sounds too bad to be true, it probably is. Think “so-and-so just died!”
- If the tweet contains a call to action but no link for verification, do not retweet without verifying!
- If the tweet is full of ALL CAPITALS and !!!! you probably want to run away.
- If the tweet is time-sensitive (related to a natural disaster or a major news story) then put on your virtual hoax-meter.
In other words, THINK before retweeting. Re-read the tweet; think critically about its message.
How To Verify
Google and Bing and Yahoo are your friends. Check the website of the organization or person mentioned. Check news sites. See if the person or organization has a Twitter or Facebook account, where there might be a rebuttal. These searches might take you five minutes to perform, but imagine how virtuous you’ll feel when you discover you’ve kept egg off your face!
In the case of the AA/Haiti meme, I ran a reverse-lookup on the telephone number. Simply stated: I pasted the phone number in the Google search box and hit return. But you could go straight to one of the many reverse phone number lookup websites. It’s called a reverse-lookup because normally we are looking for the phone number for a person or organization; that’s how telephone books and directories are organized. But in this case, we want to know who or what is associated with a phone number.
Memes? Hoaxes? What’s The Difference?
This definition from Wikipedia sums up internet meme:
[A]n Internet meme is simply the propagation of a digital file or hyperlink from one person to others using methods available through the Internet (for example, email, blogs, social networking sites, instant messaging, etc).
A meme may or may not be a hoax. A hoax is “an act, document or artifact intended to deceive or defraud the public.” Generally, we think of a hoax as something that is deliberately misleading.
In the case of the AA/Haiti meme, most people who were retweeting it were not trying to deceive. They thought that they were doing something “good.” What’s not clear is the motivation of the first person who tweeted the lie.
Tracking This Meme
When I documented this meme last night, I did not think to try to find the first instance, the first Tweet. (I did with the “United Breaks Guitars” meme.) Instead, I was focused primarily on reporters who passed along the meme without verifying. Today I headed over to Trendistic.com for a little legwork.
Here’s the earliest record in their Tweet database (note, that’s GMT):
Two “Original” Tweets – Unknown Which Is First – TimeStamps were estimates based on Twitter’s “x hours ago” but they are all 8 hours “early”
|@EntMag||222||~10 am Wed||New Jersey – from web||American Airlines is taking doctors and nurses to Haiti for free. Please call 212-697-9767. Spread the word. Continue texting YELE to 501501|
|@Star_Tym||173||~10 am Wed||Boston, Ma – from web||American Airlines is taking doctors and nurses to Haiti for free. Please call 212-697-9767. Spread the word RETWEET|
Note the similarities and the differences. Entourage Magazine (@EntMag, 222 followers) had already been tweeting about Haiti relief efforts, which implies that this was the first instance. I have written @EntMag and asked why the tweet; I’ll report if I get an answer. I doubt that I will, since 30 minutes ago someone there tweeted this:
RT @Haitifeed Just got Confirmation that American Airlines is taking doctors & nurses to Haiti for free with the RedCross #haiti #earthquake
See the similarities with the first tweet? At least they are no longer blasting out the consulate telephone number.
Who (or what) is Entourage Magazine? The ‘bio’ mentions two people: @MsNadie (181 followers, protected account) & @kandyi (82 followers, protected account). The Facebook page suggests the magazine is an idea: “Entourage will be a new dynamic in the magazine industry.”
First Round of ReTweets – TimeStamps were estimates based on Twitter’s “x hours ago” but they are all 8 hours “early”
|@Terry_McFly||942||~10 am Wed||NYC – from TweetDeck||RT @EntMag: American Airlines is taking doctors and nurses to Haiti for free. Please call 212-697-9767. Spread the word.|
|@Taiwan_Brown||1,053||~10 am Wed||Plainfield, NJ – from web||RT @EntMag: American Airlines is taking doctors and nurses to Haiti for free. Please call 212-697-9767. Spread the word.|
|@Princesskeesh||304||unknown/protected||UT||(deduced as RT) American Airlines is taking doctors and nurses to Haiti for free. Please call 212-697-9767.|
|@JessicaMelia||38||~10 am Wed||Malibu CA – from web||RT @TaiwanBrown: RT @EntMag: American Airlines is taking doctors and nurses to Haiti for free. Please call 212-697-9767. Spread the word.|
|@SmerkyGrl||37||~10 am Wed||Falls Church, VA – from twidroid||RT @STAR_TYM American Airlines is taking doctors and nurses to Haiti for free. Please call 212-697-9767. Spread the word RETWEET|
|@RamenBerry||228||~10 am Wed||NYC – from UberTwitter||RT @Terry_McFly: RT @EntMag: American Airlines is taking doctors and nurses to Haiti for free. Please call 212-697-9767. Spread the word.|
|@CharlMyr||151||~10 am Wed||New Jersey – from UberTwitter||(uncredited RT) American Airlines is taking doctors and nurses to Haiti for free. Please call 212-697-9767. Spread the word. Continue texting YELE to 501501|
|@musicinwords||94||~10 am Wed||New York – from txt||RT RT RT RT @Princesskeesh: American Airlines is taking doctors and nurses to Haiti for free. Please call 212-697-9767.|
First hour of activity: 10 tweets, 3,022 direct followers.
The next hour saw 30 distinct tweets. Within three hours of the original tweets, there were multiple tweets per minute that contained the Consulate phone number.
It was during this period that the meme was picked up by journalists, who not only amplified the message because of their follower count but who also validated the message by reason of their personal or professional brands. Of all the folks who should have known better than to retweet an unverified rumor, it is this group. Their failure to follow the standard journalist practice of verification demonstrates the power of emotional narrative — even in 140 characters. It also demonstrates the uphill battle we face when trying to help “normal” people understand the need to verify before reposting.