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Tweets Aren't Necessarily True

“A lie can be halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on.” -An old proverb

Recently we’ve seen some of Twitter’s positive uses -- for spreading information on how to help victims of the Haitian earthquake and for disseminating news about the opposition movement in Iran, for example. But like any technology, Twitter’s power to quickly disseminate information can be a two-edged sword. Just ask Gordon Lightfoot or Mark Pincus.

Lightfoot, of course, is a well-known Canadian folk singer. Pincus, though less well-known, is CEO of Zynga, creator of the popular Facebook game FarmVille. Both have recently been victimized by inaccurate Tweets that quickly spiralled out of control.

In Lightfoot’s case, it was a false report of his death. The rumour didn’t start on Twitter, but through a hoax phone call which was repeated in a few media outlets. The erroneous story was quickly pulled by the media, but in the meantime it had been picked up and repeated by Twitter users.

Zynga, unfortunately, is still being affected according to Matthew Ingram’s gigaom.com. Again, the falsehood originated offline, in a Brazilian magazine that claimed that Zynga was keeping 50 percent of donations raised for Haitian earthquake victims. As Ingram explains, the magazine confused two separate initiatives by Zynga -- a pre-earthquake offer to donate 50% of proceeds from the sale of “Sweet Seeds for Haiti” to “support sustainable and healthy meals for children and their families” and a post-earthquake campaign where 100 percent of the proceeds were sent to earthquake relief.

 In neither the Zynga or Lightfoot incident did the misinformation originate on Twitter, but as Ingram points out, “Zynga’s current woes are just another example of social media’s ability to spread both information and misinformation at lightning-fast speeds.”

Moral: just because it’s on Twitter (or Facebook, or Wikipedia or wherever), doesn’t mean its true. As my old journalism prof used to say, “When in doubt, check it out. If still in doubt, leave it out.”

Update: I have since been made aware that Zynga has been the subject of much controversy over FarmVille, Mafia Wars and other games (a good summary of the controversy can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zynga). There have also been complaints, which I have been unable to substantiate, that Zynga did not give charitable receipts for the earthquake relief donations. Whatever the truth of the matter, it does not affect the basic point in my story, which was that the Twitter campaign confused two separate initiatives by Zynga and that this serves as an example of why you shouldn't believe everything you read on the Internet.

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