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University of Washington researchers looked at Twitter activity surrounding the rumored hijacking of a WestJet airliner in January. (Via @WestJet Twitter)

You’re not alone if your first reaction is one of skepticism to any sort of “breaking news” on Twitter. The social platform can be rife with speculation and misinformation from a wide variety of feeds.

But the truth is out there, and researchers at the University of Washington have looked more closely at what it takes to keep online rumors in check.

According to a new report in UW Today, research shows that official Twitter accounts such as government agencies, emergency responders, media organizations or companies at the center of a fast-moving story can slow the spread of rumors.

Researchers looked more closely at two rumors which caught fire on Twitter — alleged police raids in a Muslim neighborhood during a December 2014 hostage situation in Sydney, Australia, and the rumored hijacking of a WestJet flight to Mexico in January.

In both instances, Twitter users tweeted and retweeted false information before official accounts — Australian Federal Police and WestJet — managed to quash both rumors.

UW Twitter research
(Via UW)

The research team from the Emerging Capacities of Mass Participation (emCOMP) Laboratory in the UW Department of Human Centered-Design & Engineering and the Information School’s DataLab presented their findings in a paper at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference for Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing  in March.

“Oftentimes in a crisis, the person operating a social media account is not the person who makes operational decisions or who even decides what should be said,” senior author and emComp lab director Kate Starbird said in UW Today’s story. “But that person still needs to be empowered to take action in the moment because if you wait 20 minutes, it may be a very different kind of crisis than if you can stamp out misinformation early on.”

Starbird spoke during the 2015 GeekWire Summit about how information-communication technologies are used during crisis events.

Kate Starbird
UW assistant professor Kate Starbird at the GeekWire Summit in October.

The research, particularly in the case of WestJet, points to the importance of having an official voice on social media, even though some companies may feel it’s a struggle to be heard.

“Being online is really important, even if you don’t want to be,” Starbird told UW Today. “Avoiding social media channels because you don’t want to be confronted with misinformation is a real danger for an organization. You’re essentially opening up a space for information to be spreading without your voice being a part of it.”

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