On the one hand, the microblogging site had, along with other social media tools, positioned itself as source of critical real-time information during Hurricane Sandy. For at least some, the effort has produced meaningful results, accelerating recovery efforts and, in some cases, providing up-to-the-minute updates that enabled rescues from devastation.
On the other hand, inaccurate reports went viral, resulting in potentially dangerous confusion among storm victims and emergency response teams alike.
[ For more on how to make social work for your business, see Social Business Success Requires Looking Inward. ]
But that's only part of the story. The false reports are also a reminder that many trending topics are driven less by facts than by sensational 140-character headlines. Governments aren't the only entities that should heed this lesson; it also applies to the way enterprises handle day-to-day interactions with their customers, partners and competitors.
First, some background on how the Hurricane Sandy predicament developed. Among the false reports that prompted FEMA's response, the most prominent was a claim that the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) had flooded. The rumor originated from a Twitter account using the handle @ComfortablySmug, which was quickly traced to Shashank Tripathi, an investor who was at the time working as campaign manager for Christopher Wight, the Republican Congressional candidate vying to represent New York's 12th District. The rumor was quickly debunked, leading to condemnation from Wight, an apology and resignation from Tripathi, and reports that a criminal case could be in the works.
Though corrections were issued quickly, they weren't fast enough for today's 24-hour news cycle; by the time accurate results had surfaced, major outlets including CNN and The Weather Channel had already reported the tweet as a fact.
Social media hoaxes are nothing new, but they typically center on celebrity gossip or fantastic but dubious claims designed to poke fun at society's most gullible. The stakes involved in the recent incident were obviously much higher. Imagine, for example, if first responders had failed to reach someone in need of rescue because they had acted on bad information.
That's not to say, however, that it takes a natural disaster for run-of-the-mill rumors to cause widespread consequences. The NYSE Twitter predicament somewhat evokes a 2008 prank post on 4Chan that reported Steve Jobs, then very much alive, had died. Apple's stock plummeted nearly 10% in a matter of minutes, costing the company billions of dollars.
Today, one might view Twitter as a highly evolved version of what 4Chan represented five years ago. Each illustrates both the unfettered expression and access to information that makes the Internet so powerful and the capacity for mean-spirited trolling and close-minded echo chambers that can make cyberspace so dehumanizing. A difference is that Twitter is more mobile and fast-paced than any online message board. With a global user base attuned to an interconnected culture that was still developing in 2008, Twitter can not only popularize memes but also -- as examples from Hurricane Sandy to the Arab Spring demonstrate -- mobilize populations.
How can businesses and institutions handle social media's competing forces? According to Niklas Myhr, an assistant professor at Chapman University who frequently blogs about social media trends, rumors and pranks cannot be stopped. Managing these risks is thus a matter of getting ahead of the threats and reacting quickly when they strike.
In a phone interview, Myhr said, "The expectation with social media is inflation. Every year, people are expected to respond twice as fast." In the past, he explained, corrections or updates could wait until "first thing Monday morning," but today, it can be very damaging for a company to let false information linger for even a few hours, let alone an entire weekend. "If you let it sit for too long," he said, "that's difficult to turn around."
According to Myhr, organizations need to cultivate social media followings ahead of time. If they fail to do so, they might not have the social capital to discredit false reports. "Once you need it, it might be too late to build trust and credibility," he remarked. But if a network is already in place, an organization can augment its official communication pipeline with the social media firepower of its fans.
Myhr said that companies must understand how various social media resources prioritize content. Facebook, he explained, uses an algorithm that rewards participation. If a business posts only an occasional, single-minded message, its communications won't necessarily show up in news feeds. Though Myhr did not say so, the fact that Facebook and other sites frequently tweak their methods makes this understanding all the more important.
A focus on social media isn't confined to dispelling rumors or correcting false reports, Myhr said; it can also be used as a competitive PR tool. For example, a business might use social media to congratulate a competitor for its accomplishments. At the same time, that business might frame the accomplishment as a sign of the industry's overall health -- and, by extension, of the business's health as well. Organizations that effectively employ this tactic, he explained, can infiltrate news cycles that would otherwise be focused on the competitor, diluting the adversary's achievement while increasing its own profile.
Myhr also pointed out that the consumer need to blow off steam is responsible for many highly visible criticisms, such as those posted to a company's Facebook wall, or those that show up in a business's Twitter feed. Many people see organizations as non-responsive, he said; they don't expect replies when they post their tirades. "A guy who complained is thinking he'd complained to other complainers," Myhr stated. But if a company reacts to the criticism quickly, the customer often feels silly for his or her aggressive tactics. In some cases, Myhr said, the customer might even follow up the original post with an apology.
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