6 social media mistakes to avoid this Election Day

by Mallary Jean Tenore  Courtesy of Poytner
It’s hard to forget the famously incorrect “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline from the 1948 presidential election. Heading into the 2012 election, the potential for errors to spread is greater than ever before— largely because of social media.

While social media enhances our reporting, it also forces us to think more carefully about where we get our information, how to verify it and how to balance accuracy with speed in a 24/7 news cycle.

Here are six new social media errors journalists could make on Election Day, and tips for avoiding them.

Going rogue

Journalists and voters will use social media more this year than in any years past to spread and obtain information about the elections. To prevent mistakes, set expectations before Election Day. If your newsroom already has a social media policy, use it to guide your conversation. Here are some questions to discuss ahead of time:

  • How can staffers use social media to their advantage when covering the election?
  • Should staffers avoid making predictions on social networks?
  • Can staffers say who they voted for, or share their opinion about the winning candidate?
  • Are staffers expected to verify information before they post it on social networks?
  • What system, if any, does your newsroom have for verifying information on social networks?
  • What about retweets? Are staffers expected to verify voting-related information before retweeting it? The Associated Press has told staffers “not to blindly retweet what others may be saying” about election results on Tuesday night.

Here’s a helpful Atlantic piece on how to tweet responsibly during a breaking news event.

Falling for fake/anonymous accounts

Be wary of retweeting information from fake or anonymous accounts. During Hurricane Sandy, journalists were fooled by an anonymous account, @ComfortablySmug, which was tweeting incorrect information about the storm. One of the incorrect tweets — about the New York Stock Exchange being flooded — was retweeted 650 times.

Earlier this year, journalists fell for fake accounts for political news analyst Cokie Roberts, North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue, former New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane, and Wendi Deng, wife of Rupert Murdoch.

Here are some tips for identifying fake and/or anonymous accounts when covering the election:

  • Look at the Twitter bio. If there’s not a name associated with it, be cautious.
  • If a location is indicated in the bio, consider whether the information lines up. If the bio says the person behind the account is located in Colorado, and they’re tweeting photos of breaking news on the East Coast, that should raise a red flag.
  • If you’re curious about an account’s tweets, try DM’ing or @’ing the person behind it to find out more.
  • Be especially skeptical of tweets that say “BREAKING NEWS” or use journalistic language if they’re not from a journalist or a news organization.
  • Bottom line: Do some quick research before spreading information from an account you’re not familiar with.

Spreading fake photos, false information

It’s easy to get fooled by photos on social networks during breaking news situations. Jim Roberts of The New York Times recently tweeted: “On spotting Twitter photo fakes, common sense & skepticism go a long way.”

If you’re asking voters to send you photos or updates from their polling places, don’t assume all the photos you get are real; if they seem too good to be true, they probably are.

Here are some resources for verifying photos and other content on social networks:

Misinterpreting social media sentiment

When tracking political events on social networks, it’s easy to draw conclusions about what the posts mean. Avoid doing this when covering the election, and remember that not everyone uses social networking sites.

Only 16 percent of U.S. adults who use the Internet are on Twitter, and their views aren’t representative of the whole. A recent Pew study pointed out that the people most likely to use social networks to post information about politics tend to be further from the center — liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.

For more information about how to add context to — and understand — social media sentiment, read this piece by my colleague Regina McCombs.

Moving too quickly

The news cycle is more accelerated than ever, largely because of social media. Some news organizations that have moved too quickly in the past have spread misinformation during major news stories.

Journal Register Company’s Jim Brady made a good point after journalists spread incorrect reports about Joe Paterno’s death: “If you’re right and first, no one remembers. If you’re first and wrong, everyone remembers.”

When you start to hear news about winning candidates, ask yourself: Where is this information coming from, and how do I know it’s true? You can let your audience know you’re in the loop by tweeting/posting something along these lines: “X is reporting Y, but we haven’t yet confirmed the reports.” Or, “We are working on this story and will tweet updates as soon as we have them.” or “Here’s what we do know…” This will send a message to your audience that you are committed to accuracy.

Failing to correct errors on social media

If you do spread misinformation online, take steps to correct it. Data has shown that incorrect information travels faster on Twitter than corrections. Because Twitter doesn’t have a correction tool, it’s up to journalists and news organizations to correct the information — and make sure as many people see it as possible.

Tweet the corrected information more than once, and use Topsy or WhoTweetedMe.com to identify the most influential people who tweeted the incorrect information. Reach out to them on Twitter and let them know about the correction so they can help spread the word about it. Also, make sure to correct errors not just on social media, but on all platforms where the news circulated. Here are some additional thoughts on how journalists can do a better job correcting errors on social media.

Mistakes happen, but if your news organization has a social media plan in place, you’ll be much less likely to make them.


About Alana Hill

Alana J. Hill is a global public relations and digital strategist in Washington, DC.

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