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Exclusive: How the Ethiopian Hijacking Hit Twitter and Became a Social Media Emergency Lesson

February 17, 2014 at 10:42 PM | by | ()

At Jaunted, we strive to bring you the news, not be a part of the news. Today, we did both, and we wanted to take some time to talk about that.

Thousands upon thousands of retweets and shares, and even more regurgitation by general media, of our early and comprehensive coverage of this morning's Ethiopian Airlines flight 702 hijacking started the week. The news of the situation first broke out and took hold thanks to the diligent research and tweets of John Walton, aviation journalist, former contributor right here at Jaunted, and current Director of Data for Routehappy.

The bulk of the action transpired online around 6:00am local time in Geneva, or midnight in EST. The Twitters of John (@thatjohn), and of our own Editor, Cynthia Drescher (@JetSetCD), quickly became the top source accounts for updates on the situation (even yielding a recommendation from Twitter's Director of Data, @smfrogers), despite being 4,000 miles removed from Geneva.

There is a great saying, alternately attributed to Winston Churchill and Mark Twain, which cautions the belief of sensational news: "A lie is halfway around the world before truth has got its boots on." In the case of aviation emergencies, there is an instant thirst for information and transparency. Since the airlines themselves haven't yet gotten the hang of this, it was John's and our own years of aviation reportage, social media experience, foreign language knowledge and academic background in international relations combined with access to publicly available direct sources—flight tracking apps and live air traffic control feeds—that contributed to sharing the facts ahead of speculation.

The real-time journalism which kept the Ethiopian Airlines flight 702 news from running away with itself was a prime learning experience for use of Twitter in an emergency, and here John shares what he gained from the long night (with Cynthia chiming in):

· State facts as you know them, and briefly. The 140-character medium is more help than hindrance here. Be succinct.
· It's important for your credibility to distinguish very clearly between fact and speculation. [Cynthia: use all tools at your disposal to fact-check; I always made sure I had heard an ATC quote with my own ears before retweeting or further sharing it. If I wanted to share a personal thought, I did not use the #ET702 hashtag and therefore left it out of the tweet newsflow.]
· When you get things wrong—and I did, mishearing the BA flight “Speedbird 723” as ET 702—issue corrections and remove incorrect tweets to reduce the spread of false or confusing info.
· Show your sources, using rich media if you can. Screenshots are fast, easy, and go a long way to show what you’re telling people. [Cynthia: images also immediately grab the eye and share split-second information to whet interest.]
· Quote others' work. Matthew Keys' Soundcloud skills were very useful for confirmation of what I thought I'd heard, as he published recordings of the ATC transmissions. [Cynthia: cite early, cite often. Citing shows confidence in a source, and redefines that you're "on top of it."]
· Don’t be afraid of technical terms. If “ILS glideslope” is relevant and precise, tweet it. Others in the conversation will explain, or people can Google for themselves [Cynthia: ah hem #LMGTFY Let Me Google That For You]. If it’s complicated, point to an independent source like Wikipedia (as I did for transponder codes).
· Help where help is required. Excessive jargon doesn’t promote understanding. Consider tweeting information about the aircraft type (and links to images) to help the general media avoid “wrong plane” misinformation. [Cynthia: helpful nudges (such as sharing the associated foreign terms being batted around) enrich the story, not to mention entertain in their own way.]
· Once you're an accepted source, regularly state your credentials and situation. Several Twitter users assumed I was tweeting from the plane. [Cynthia: a friend even asked if I was okay, as she was late to the proceedings and assumed I was at Geneva Airport. In reality, we knew more than passengers awaiting their flights at GVA.]
· Tweet current state of play regularly ("To confirm, the plane is on the ground”), especially if earlier tweets (“the plane is in the air”) are being retweeted.
· You will almost certainly be retweeted by media outlets you find disagreeable, inaccurate, or worse. It’s your choice whether to engage with them or not. [Cynthia: this goes for individuals as well. The internet has its trolls, of course, and you may encounter replies seeking sensationalization. Resist anything other than a calm, complete, and factual response.]
· [Cynthia: continue providing valuable content. All those new followers and eyes on tweets don't want to go from reading a measured rundown of an emergency situation to find emotional chatter about your cat in their feed. There is something to be said for the golden rule; present a professional demeanor if you want to be treated with such.]

And, as a bonus, some advice for traditional media seeking to get a handle on viral spread:

· The “please follow me and DM” tactic for producers is not useful. Twitter as a channel is overwhelming during an event like this. My email address was publicly available; despite a load of “please follow and DM” requests, only one outlet emailed me. That outlet got a better response because it was easier to take the conversation off Twitter and into a one-on-one session for informed quotes and responsible fact citing. [Cynthia: there came a time when I had to disable Twitter notifications to continue listening in on ATC.]
· Learn how to get answers to the questions you don’t know how to ask. I’m unusual as a subject matter expert in that I’ve had journalist training; I know how to steer the conversation to what will be interesting for an audience.
· A news anchor or presenter probably isn’t an expert in this field, and they need to proceed quickly from the “can you tell us what’s going on” to “why is that important” and “what does this mean?" Ask open-ended questions, not closed-ended ones.
· Journalistic attribution standards and Twitter expectations are not the same. Twitter users who are not journalists expect continuous crediting of original sources, even when reporters have done the legwork on double-confirmation through traditional means. There is probably a middle ground to be walked between the credibility of your reporters’ experience plus hard work, and demonstrating that your finger is on the pulse (and your understanding of the mores of the medium) by quoting Twitter.

Curious to read more on this topic? Find all John's tweets on #ET702 in chronological order on Storify. Bubbles and Blender relates all this to the shift of popularity toward electronic media, and Simpliflying uses it as an example for airline social media crisis management.

Thanks for reading, and be sure to follow us for future breaking news, at @Jaunted on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Google Plus.

[Images: screenshots]

Archived Comments:

Fact from Fiction

One of the pitfalls of social media is that for every person who tries to do all the (excellent) things posted above, there will be dozens or hundreds who simply post whatever they believe to be true without fact checking. As evidenced by this event, the cream does tend to rise to the top.

That said, people do need to think twice about relying on social media when they are part of the event. After the Boston Marathon bombing, someone analyzed the related tweets and determined that only 20% were true. While that fact is annoying for anyone on the outside, it could have led to unnecessary panic for those in Boston.

As a former hotel guy, I always tell people that if you're in a hotel during an event/disaster, always listen to the hotel staff. They should have a disaster plan. And, emergency officials will be in contact with the hotel in the event of immediate danger.