Twitter in action: Reports Amsterdam plane crash supposedly 15 minutes earlier than traditional media

When I woke up this morning, my Twitter contacts had just started to report about the plane crash in Amsterdam – the news pages I check only had one line of breaking news, but no full coverage. The #schiphol hash tag was bursting with quick messages; a Google Mash-up popped up with the exact location and distance to the runway, Twitterfall is even after a few hours still interesting to follow, citizen journalists have their five minutes of fame (@nipp reported directly from the scene and went from a handfull of followers to several hundred of followers within an hour). A lot of this reminds me of theĀ  Hudson river landing a few weeks ago: the first picture of the plane in the river was published by a Twitter user as well.

What concerns me is that people were copying or retweeting head counts obviously replicating false messages for a while and I was wondering about the ethics of reporting in this new way. The head count rumors went from 0 (everyone survived), to 1 (although right away denied by the Turkish government), up to 5-7 (at the moment – unconfirmed). This seems to be the only way to collect information when official reports are not available in a crisis: the official press conference won’t start until 1:30pm today (about 4-5 hours after the crash).

In crisis communication, social media tools are prone to be used to report false information, but also have the ability to quickly correct (see Facebook messages during the Virgina Tech attacks) – this procedure is comparable to the mistake eliminations on Wikipedia. The current communication during the aftermath of the plane crash in Amsterdam supports Lea Winerman’s findings recently published in Nature (“Social Networking in Crisis Communication” -> abstract):

Messages appear on Internet-based social networks within minutes of disasters occurring. Lea Winerman investigates how to harness this trend to create official community-response grids.

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