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An image from the Columbian Chemicals hoax. Courtesy of ChemInfo

In 2014, hundreds of Twitter users reported a huge explosion at Columbian Chemicals in Centerville, LA. Some, purporting to be eyewitnesses, posted photos and video of the explosion and a cloud of black smoke rising from the plant.

Twitter users said news outlets were covering the disaster, and posted screen shots of the news from newspaper and television network homepages. A YouTube video showed ISIS claiming responsibility for the attack.

It was fake. Columbian Chemicals quickly distributed a press release reporting no problems at the plant. “It was a highly coordinated disinformation campaign, involving dozens of fake accounts that posted hundreds of tweets for hours, targeting a list of figures precisely chosen to generate maximum attention,” the New York Times stated.

In other incidents, possibly the same hoaxers spread fake news of an Ebola outbreak and a police shooting of a black woman in Atlanta.

The hoaxes illustrate why it’s essential for writers of PR content to verify user-generated social media content, says Stuart Bruce, a PR advisor and trainer. That’s especially true for crisis communications. An organization’s PR department or agency must continually obtain updated and accurate information about an ongoing crisis as well as how people are reacting to the situation. Social media monitoring tools can provide valuable information and insights, often before other sources.

But during a corporate or community crisis, people swamp social media networks with updates. Some are factual; others are rumors and lies. Often, people innocently pass on misinformation, exaggerate memories or misunderstand an event. Other times people intentionally lie. Worst of all, organized groups can spread disinformation. Hoaxers can easily duplicate, alter – and then distributed — images.

Verify Everything before Reacting

Any involved PR professional must avoid repeating or giving credence to misinformation that appears in social media. In reporting information, PR must follow key dictums of journalism: obtain two verified, credible sources before using the information and have greater confidence in those sources that unquestionably are on the scene.

Bruce offers these key tips for PR pros.

  • Like journalists, verify everything and strive to find the original source. Always ask the source “How do you know?”
  • Verify the source by checking their different social accounts, followers, contact, and photo.
  • Confirm the date and location of the post with tools like YouTube date stamps.
  • Verify images and video with reverse image searches by uploading the image or URL. Seek visual clues like landmarks, signs and weather conditions.

Create a Plan

The most important part of crisis management is creating a plan before a crisis erupts.

Bruce recommends that organizations:

  • Develop a suitable social media presence and digital media platform,
  • Identify potential influencers, allies and detractors,
  • Establish reputation and trust,
  • Prepare a war room,
  • Understand new Web-based search and research methods and tools, and
  • Test their plan and ensure that it is current.

Advice from a Journalist

Mark Little, founder and CEO of Storyful.com, agrees that verifying information from social media is essential. “Journalists the world over are struggling to cope with a social and mobile tsunami of ‘user generated content,’ to use an increasingly inadequate phrase,” he writes. “Twitter and YouTube will overwhelm news organizations who can’t master their potential.”

Little offers the following tips. Although meant for journalists, PR pros can also benefit.

• Review the uploader’s history and location to see if he has shared useful and credible content in the past, or if he is a “scraper” who passes along other people’s content and claims it’s their own.

• Consider their location. Don’t trust uploaders in Japan who post videos supposedly from Syria.

• Google street view, maps, and satellite imagery can help verify locations.

• Consult other news sources or validated user content to confirm events in a video.

• Examine key features in a video such as weather and background landscape to determine if they match established facts.

• Translate every word that comes with a video for additional context.

• Monitor social media traffic to see who is sharing the content and what questions are being asked.

• Develop and maintain relationships with people within the community around the story.

Bottom Line: Social media can provide PR important and timely information. Monitoring social media is a valuable resource to help PR understand what’s happening during a crisis. The problem is that much information on social media is inaccurate or outright lies. Hoaxers can easily doctor photos and videos. It’s therefore essential for both journalists and PR to verify all social media information before reporting it or passing it on.