Rapper Chris Brown was declared dead on Feb. 15. A week earlier, so was actor
Fidel Castro, Bill Cosby, Jon Bon Jovi, Tiger Woods and North Korea's new leader Kim Jong Un have all faced the same demise -- on Twitter.
None of it was true.
"To the people behind the foolishness, I'm not sure you see how upsetting this is," an exasperated Cosby said on his own Twitter account in August 2010 after he was knocked off for the fourth time on the social networking service.
It's easy to blame the Internet and social media -- Twitter, Facebook, Sina Weibo or even Pinterest -- for unreliable reports, but more important to figure out how to suss out the false ones. In the case of Whitney Houston, tweets about her Feb. 11 death proved true.
Experts say that in addition to the development of new technology to ferret out what's accurate on social media, a community-based, citizen-policed system might be the answer to bad information.
Consider the online encyclopedia site, Wikipedia, where contributors often flag entries that are suspicious or unreliable.
"How did Wikipedia, with an unstructured base, become a depository for reliable information?" said Ari Lightman, professor of digital media and marketing in the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University.
"It came about because people aggregate around specific sources, and that creates a mechanism that helps determine how best to identify the clear signal amid all the noise."
Lately, "the noise" might be anything from a blog that erroneously reports the death of Penn State's Joe Paterno, to the weekly tweets and retweets of yet another celebrity death. For mainstream news sources, it's a daily challenge to determine which reports are scoops and which are false.
In the case of Paterno's prematurely declared death on Jan. 21, CBSSports.com picked up the news from Onward State, an online news organization serving Penn State students, faculty, staff, alumni and State College, and published it to its website. The report was quickly denied -- via Twitter -- by Paterno's two sons, but not before it had made the rounds via social media.
"Accountability is prized in social media," said Anthony DeRosa, social media editor for Reuters. "Once you've lost trust it is hard to earn it back. I rely less on CBS because of that one-time lack of attribution."
CBS later posted an apology on its website.
At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the report came as the paper was preparing its Sunday edition, where a story on Paterno's grave illness was planned. The paper began to update its obituary on Paterno while checking on the report of his death.
Seeing the tweets and retweets "kind of put the pressure up," said PG Sunday editor Lillian Thomas, but the paper determined it would not run anything without verification by its beat reporter or from credible sources such as the Associated Press.
"AP had been really on top of the story, and they weren't reporting it," she said, adding the Post-Gazette's Penn State beat writer also could not confirm Paterno's death. "When we see [social media reports] we can't go with it, but you can't ignore it, either."
Paterno was pronounced dead at 9:25 a.m. the next day at Mount Nittany Medical Center of complications from lung cancer.
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