Here’s another great example of the power of social media. Today’s example illustrates just how quickly rumors can spread via social media properties… This weekend, rumors began to circulate saying that comedian, “Sinbad” died. The AP reports that the rumor started on Wikipedia, when someone changed the entry for “Sinbad” to say that he died of a heart attack. Reading the story, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the rumors of Ferris’ death in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:
Rumors began circulating Saturday regarding the posting, said Sinbad, who first got a telephone call from his daughter. The gossip quieted, but a few days later the 50-year-old entertainer said the phone calls, text messages and emails started pouring in by the hundreds.
“Saturday I rose from the dead and then died again,” the Los Angeles-based entertainer told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
(nb: Who knew Sinbad and Jesus had so much in common?!) According to the AP, by the time the error had been caught, the link reporting his death had been forwarded to hundreds of other websites. On Thursday, Wikipedia took down Sinbad’s Wikipedia page saying that it was temporarily being protected from editing to remedy vandalism. So far, besides the page marker, I’ve not been able to find any comments from Wikipedia about the incident.
This story illustrates something I’ve mentioned before. The success of social media hinges on the assumption that most people are good natured (and accurate). When people post malicious or inaccurate information about others on-line on popular social media properties, it has the power to spread like wildfire, and there is very little that the offended can do to ensure that erroneous information is removed. Even if an erroneous statement is removed from the original offending website, the false information may have already spread to hundreds, if not thousands of other sites. Individuals aren’t the only ones who can be hurt by social media terrorism. Corporate images can be badly damaged by the spread of false information using social media as well.
The good thing about a site like Wikipedia from a damage control perspective is that users have the power to correct inaccurate information. As one of Wikipedia’s founders, Jimmy Wales told the Social Media Club when he spoke at a meeting a while back, the community is generally well-intentioned and comes down hard on people who sabbotage (intentionally or not) entries, which ensures that most entries remain accurate. For the most part this is true, but it is difficult to control the spread of rumors about very obscure topics (like “Sinbad”) on a site like Wikipedia because the vast majority of people reading that information are likely doing so because they don’t know much about the topic and therefore wouldn’t know whether a statement on the site was truth or fiction.