Monthly Archives: October 2012

From War of the Worlds to fake Sandy images, disaster hoaxes have run their course.

On this very night, 74 years ago, perhaps the most famous unintentional hoax in history had millions fleeing the cities of the Northeast. This week, as a very real natural disaster bore down the same cities, the intentional hoaxsters who complicated the flow of real information should be ashamed of themselves.

Orson Welles’ radio presentation of War of the Worlds in October 1938 had disclaimers throughout the show, yet listeners to the acted-out news bulletins of H.G. Wells’ tale of Martian invasion missed the cues and/or got caught up in the public hysteria at a time heightened tensions in Europe barreled the planet toward World War II. Thus the fake invasion of New York City generated very real panic that in some cases took days to unravel.

Fast forward to 2012, where the very real threat of Hurricane Sandy threatened New York City and the Northeast again. The pranksters were out early, spreading false rumors that a number of colleges — most notably Cornell — had canceled Monday classes. While a majority of colleges in New York did indeed cancel classes later, the resulting confusion and need for institutions to pull their crisis communication resources into rumor control did no one any favors.

Then, as Sandy headed toward landfall, the hoax photos came out, jamming Facebook and Twitter feeds. I’m not sure what drives vile individuals to start hoaxes for a laugh and confuse a volatile situation. Many well-meaning folks — desperate for a glimpse into the disaster — shared the images which, like the Statue of Liberty in the eye of the storm, seemed too good to be true.

By the time what should have been an obviously fake photo of a shark in the water following someone out for a drive started making the rounds, the hoax photos had, well, jumped the shark. In addition to old standby debunking site Snopes.com, the Tumblr account IsTwitterWrong disproved many of the hoaxes in real time. Its coverage included the seemingly noble image of soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns during the deluge — that even made it into the Washington Post — being debunked respectfully by the Twitter account of The Old Guard itself.

By nightfall, as the storm inflicted damage to New York City perhaps beyond that imagined of War of the Worlds, we didn’t know what to believe any more. My twin brother and I, both born in Manhattan and he a resident of the borough until several months ago, traversed the Internet looking for photos we could trust. No easy task. The sentiment pervaded social media, as folks everywhere sought out verification for sensational images … perhaps showing the media literacy we should always have. When CNN and the Weather Channel went with a false account of flooding on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange — a delicious anti-capitalist election-year narrative — citizen journalists shot it down very quickly. I saw the first account of it and a subsequent debunking within a minute. With so many truly heartbreaking things going on in the city, untrue accounts swaying media and the public away from matters that needed attention prove truly unfortunate.

To state the overly and simplistically obvious, had social media been around 74 years ago, the panic of War of the Worlds would have been blunted before people packed their roadsters and headed for the countryside. Yet on the brink of another Halloween, some people use social media to spread disinformation while others use it to dispel rumors and disseminate truth. It takes increased vigilance to separate the tricks from the treats.

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stop begging, start creating (cont.): a very short story

I’ve talked before about how social media accounts should stop begging for users and instead find and post quality content. Saw a very stark example of that with our campus this weekend. At about the same time on Saturday, the following two posts went out, the first from an affiliate site, the other from our main site.

The “please, please like us to reach an arbitrary figure” post goes against the very currency of social media — creating content people want to see, interact with and share. It makes everything about the account itself, and not about the user (and it should be about the user). As you can see, this post scared up 5 likes, no comments, no shares and — surprise! — as of Monday morning, the account still needed 7 likes to reach 2,000. It’s unfortunate because this account is run by smart, creative and very likable people capable of producing outstanding content.

Contrast that with the above image of the mind-bending 3-D chalk art from Art for After Hours, part of our Family and Friends Weekend. By Monday morning, it had 192 likes, 7 comments, 7 shares. While those are a good number of likes, the shares are what I consider the highest level of user engagement — they like it enough to take some kind of ownership and share it with friends. While this was far from our most-shared image, it had more shares than the begging post had likes. Plus this scene was available for any member of the campus community to capture and share.

As my friend Georgy Cohen of Meet Content has pointed out, the most-shared stories are ones to which the initial reaction of users is “wow!” or “whoa!” That was my actual reaction upon seeing the chalk art, and others seeing it in a photo (which honestly didn’t do it justice) felt the same way. No one says “wow!” or “whoa!” over an account begging for more users. Sadly in part because it’s so commonplace.

Consider this cocktail party example: You walk into the party and one person is asking people to like him, while the other is telling interesting stories. Where would you gravitate? Exactly.

I can’t say it enough: If you run a social media account, stop begging and start creating. Look around you for interesting content. It’s quite possibly everywhere. Then share it. It really is that simple.

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Alyssa Explains It All, or on being social and open to ideas

Our student blogs have really stepped up in content concepts this year, evolving past “this is what I did last week” and into more purposeful and useful directions. Since I believe in sharing, I’ll post more info here on the various projects, but wanted to start with how a random tweet turned into an outstanding freshman video blog.

On Sept. 1, this tweet to @sunyoswego caught our attention:

A freshman willing to make videos on the college experience? Were we dreaming? After checking Alyssa’s video channel, we realized she had talent, panache and essentially everything you’d want in a video blogger.

After a meeting, we decided on a theme, Alyssa Explains It All, often on the transition to college, an area where she is eminently qualified. Each webisode focuses on a topic, conveying it with humor and honesty, and it appeals to new students as well as those looking at colleges. She does all the work herself. The shows so far:


Episode 1: Time Management


Episode 2: Making Decisions

I’m very happy with how she’s developing the shows, and she has been asking users for topics to explore and explain. But the series also shows one more example of the importance of being in and listening to social media channels. And the importance of remaining open to new ideas and fresh talent. Because who knows … your next great content contributor could be just one tweet away!

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