On the night of Nov. 10, I sat and watched as a Twitter storm broke out.

Watching social media is part of my job as a news editor on the Interactive Copy Desk at the Columbia Missourian. During the day, listening to and adding to the community conversation is the primary job of the outreach team at the Missourian. But on the nightside, the copy desk takes over some community engagement duties.

So when we on the desk started seeing a lot of people tweeting about threats reportedly directed at University of Missouri (MU) students, the first thing we did was talk to the assistant city editor on duty to make sure she was on the story.

The reporting staff learned that MU police were investigating the social posts and were saying there was no immediate threat to the campus. But the volume of tweets about threats grew and grew.

A Twitter storm had broken out, fueled by speculation, rumors, a lot of “I heard” and “friends say” and fear.

The Verification Handbook notes that “it’s a fundamental truth that rumors and misinformation accompany emergency situations.” But what happened in Columbia, Missouri, shows that it doesn’t take an earthquake or tsunami for rumors to start flying on social media.

It’s the responsibility of journalists to take a measured approach to such a storm of speculation and to not fan the flames of rumor. Journalists should either repost only information that can be verified or be transparent about the value of the information being passed along.

Of course, that can be difficult when part of your job is to try to get the news first, and also when you’re being deluged with tweets to your news organization asking why you’re not reporting on something.

During the event, the Missourian was committed to not passing along unconfirmed information, but we also recognized that we needed to acknowledge what was happening.

Our immediate action was to quote retweet a tweet from the verified account of the chancellor, with some explanation, followed by this tweet:

“We're following the reports of threats on the #Mizzou campus. We will publish only what we can confirm. Please follow @MUalert and be safe.”

We're following the reports of threats on the #Mizzou campus. We will publish only what we can confirm. Please follow @MUalert and be safe.

— Columbia Missourian (@CoMissourian) November 11, 2015

Executive Editor Tom Warhover and the senior editors also gathered to discuss how we should handle the story online. The conclusion was similar: We should report only what we could confirm while acknowledging the rumors and promising more information as we got it.

It was a learning situation for the student copy editors working that night: First is never best if it isn’t correct. Don’t overreact to what you see on social media. And verify all information — and that starts with knowing who is tweeting (and making sure it’s a real person).

Stopping to verify can be especially difficult when you see other media just reposting everything and your publication seems to be behind. But it’s better to be last than to post incorrect information.

Ignoring a Twitter storm can be an equally bad reaction.

“I think a Twitter storm can become newsworthy in itself, and sometimes deserves attention, even if only to say that you're checking out a situation and have not been able to verify facts,” Steve Buttry, director of student media at Louisiana State University's Manship School of Mass Communication, told me in an email exchange the day after the Twitter storm.

He cited a case study he did on the Austin American Statesman's use of Twitter in covering the 2010 attack by a domestic terrorist on the IRS office in Austin, Texas.

“The Twitter buzz was that it was the FBI office the plane had crashed into. I like what Robert Quigley did, responding to the buzz without repeating the unverified information,” Buttry wrote. Quigley tweeted, “We're trying to get to the bottom of it. No official explanation out there yet. We’re working on it.”

“Once the Statesman confirmed that the IRS was in the building but not the FBI, Quigley acknowledged the FBI rumor more specifically and debunked it,” Buttry said.

“Some unverified facts and rumors gather steam on their own and demand reporting even before you can verify,’ Buttry wrote. “If you have to report (or acknowledge) something before you have it verified, consider acknowledging the buzz without repeating the unverified information.”

I offer the following tips for when you’re confronted with a Twitter storm:

  • Figure out who’s tweeting and find the people who might be in the know. Make sure you’ve verified that account really belongs to that person.
  • Cultivate Twitter lists of trusted people in the community. But still verify information even from known entities. On Nov. 10, the president of the MU student body tweeted inaccurate information about activities on campus.
  • Tweet back at the original poster to confirm the information and gather more.
  • Check out details that can help confirm a tweet — like location and whether the tweet is original or fifth or sixth generation.
  • Ask yourself, “How does that person know that?” And use social media to ask the tweeter that question.
  • Check other social media the person has posted. You’ll be able to tell if the person has a history of repeating rumors.
  • If you get something wrong on Twitter, acknowledge it with a correction. Add the correction as a reply to your original tweet and reply to those who have retweeted your information with the correction.

One final tip from the Verification Handbook: Have a procedure in place about how to handle tweeted information, including how to do that during a breaking news situation. And prepare a checklist so everyone handles the situation in a measured way, even in stressful times.

Gerri Berendzen  


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