Beware of Spreading Misinformation Through Social Media

A recent Haiti-related mix up in the Twittersphere left American Airlines scrambling — and it appears it wasn’t even their fault, but misinformation spread by a third party. Let this be a lesson to all businesses about being prepared in case of a PR calamity. The Dallas Morning News writes:

For all the upsides to social media, its viral nature can be difficult to handle. American Airlines learned that in the wake of the Haitian earthquake.

Soon after the Jan. 12 quake hit, the Fort Worth-based airline was deluged with inquiries from people who had heard that it was offering free flights to Haiti for doctors and nurses.

The culprit was an erroneous post on Twitter that mentioned the free flights and gave a phone number for the Haitian consulate in New York.

The mistaken post originated from a person on the ground in Haiti who misconstrued some information, said Christopher Vary, a spokesman who helps lead the airline’s social-media efforts.

But the false message took on a life of its own late Jan. 13, when film critic Roger Ebert reposted the information to his nearly 50,000 Twitter followers.

Scores of retweets ensued, including from actor Rainn Wilson, who has some 1.8 million Twitter followers. The damage was done.

American acted quickly, directing tweets to major news outlets warning them that the free flights rumor was not true, Vary said. The airline also used its own Twitter feed, AAirwaves, to combat the buzz.

Not long after Ebert’s post, reporters for The New York Times began cautioning their Twitter followers about the free flight rumor. A day later, CNN posted a Web story about the mistaken tweet.

"We got the message within an hour and hit the social space," Vary said. "When things pop up like that, you have to act."