How to Fight False Rumors Online

truth or lies

If you have to ask…

TERRIBLY DISAPPOINTING SPOILER: you can’t. At the very least, it’s going to be difficult.

That’s the basic conclusion reached by Emergent, a web gossip tracking tool developed by Craig Silverman of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and covered by New York Times data blog The Upshot this week.

To use a very recent example, last week many bloggers, tweeters and readers seemed to believe that Burson-Marsteller had “boycotted” the nation of Israel. The truth is far more germane: in 2011, a journalist asked a former Burson manager a rhetorical question about the possibility of working with the country as a client; he made a statement of opinion without authorization. But that didn’t stop quite a few people from accusing the Burson organization of “rejecting” Israel and implying that its recent decision to represent the democratically elected “moderate Islamist” government of Tunisia was somehow a political statement of opposition to the former country. (The origin of the rumor was a misleading op-ed published in The New York Observer.)

Did a former employee say that Israel would make for a “controversial” client? Yes. Did the firm once decide not to work on a campaign with the country? No. Did the decision to represent Tunisia’s government in any way amount to a “rejection” or broader ideological statement regarding the nation of Israel and its politics? Definitely not.

But the damage, to some degree, had been done.

Unfortunately, that case fits the general pattern online.

Emergent is fascinating. Here, for example, the site analyzes the recent claim that ESPN had assembled an all-male “panel” to address the NFL’s growing domestic abuse problem. A screenshot:

Emergent screenshot

An Deadspin post from Monday explains how the rumor started and spread: last week, Esquire ran a story on ESPN’s plans to include some discussion of domestic violence in a pre-game segment in which every participating commenter would be a man.

There was no “special panel” convened to discuss the topic, and said segment was hosted by Suzy Kolber, who is obviously not a man. The conversation was simply one part of the standard pre-game show. Confusion over the article’s language led ESPN to release a statement and Esquire to amend its article — but not before thousands of people shared the story and their attendant outrage.

Former punter/target of controversy Chris Kluwe weighed in, and the activist group UltraViolet — perhaps best known for pushing Reebok to end its relationship with rapper Rick Ross — released a related statement to various outlets before Esquire published its retraction/clarification.

The initial story wasn’t false. It was just inaccurately worded, much like last week’s stories smearing Burson-Marsteller.

Stories like these two are far more serious than those dealing with, say, fictitious “pumpkin spice” condoms. But on the reputation front, Emergent’s work tells us that it’s incredibly easy to start a false rumor online — and that retractions and corrections almost never succeed in completely killing viral stories, no matter how fake they turn out to be.

It’s true that media folks tend to separate fact from fiction faster than, say, your uncle who joined Facebook in 2012. But the false narratives can stick around for months, if not years.

Why? Because it’s simply more fun to share the weird stuff, even if it’s not true. Ever heard about Al Gore claiming to have “invented” the Internet? What about the three-breasted woman or the bird that pooped on Vladimir Putin’s head?

UPDATE: This post has been edited to reflect statements from Burson Worldwide Vice President Jano Cabrera, who clarified that the firm never received an RFP regarding a potential contract with Israel in 2011 and therefore never “chose not to work with” the country as a client.