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World Economic Forum warns of real-world damage inflicted by social media wildfires

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Misinformation propagated through social media can hurt businesses in the real world, according to a new report from the World Economic Forum (WEF).

The Global Risks 2013 report says that Twitter rumours and Facebook hoaxes can cause real life panic among citizens. According to the report, the hyper connectivity afforded to society through social media can lead to "digital wildfires" of misinformation.

"Social media can rapidly spread information that is either intentionally or unintentionally misleading or provocative," managing director at WEF Lee Howell in a New York Times op-ed.

"In the summer of 2012, for example, a Twitter user impersonating the Russian interior minister, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, tweeted that president Bashar al-Assad of Syria had been 'killed or injured'; crude oil prices rose by over one dollar before traders realized that Assad was alive and well."

Howell uses the example of the Assad hoax to illustrate how social media can cause panic in investors. In that case, oil prices quickly levelled out when the truth was revealed through a press release sent out by the Russian government. However, the idea that some oil traders took the tweet at face value is still alarming.

The report also points to the Twitter ordeal of Paul Chambers as proof of the real world consequences of social media. Chambers was fined £1,000 for sending out a joking tweet about blowing up Robin Hood Airport. His ruling was later overturned following a public outcry from celebrities like Stephen Fry.

Whether the communications is meant as a joke or something more nefarious the truth remains that social media is still an industry in its infancy. The WEF says that industry will have to evolve to prevent social media misinformation from causing real-world harm in the future.

The report outlines a variety of options to ameliorate the threat, such as governmental regulations and new technology that could be used to discover the veracity of information.

However, in the end, the WEF says it will need to be up to the users to issue caution when using social media. In other words, it's up to end users to use better judgment to tell whether a tweet is part of a hoax.

Users will, most likely, become more discerning as the social networking industry grows. Users have just started to fully understand social media's impact in the last few years. Like anything sometimes people will get tricked but, for the most part, not everyone is so gullible.

09 Jan 2013

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