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Kobe Bryant’s death highlighted Twitter’s misinformation problem

Early Sunday afternoon, news of Kobe Bryant's death, the result of a helicopter crash, started to spread — first via a report from TMZ, then with confirmations from Variety and ABC7, the local news affiliate in Los Angeles. The news was shocking, and much of the early response to the report of the 41-year-old basketball icon's death was disbelief. As people scrambled to find more information — what happened, who else was on board, how the NBA would respond — Twitter became an absolute mess. It was filled with falsehoods and misinformation, much of which spread by verified users who were parroting unconfirmed reports, and it became a struggle simply to find out what was real. The situation showed just how difficult it has become for Twitter to be a reliable source for information when it is needed most.

The breakdown of information started almost immediately after initial reports of Bryant's death were confirmed by multiple news outlets. It was initially reported that there were five people on board the private helicopter and none of the passengers survived the accident. That set off a flurry of speculation as to who the other victims were. ABC, broadcasting coverage of the NFL's Pro Bowl at the time of the incident, hastily broke a speculative report that all four of Kobe Bryant's daughters — Gianna, Natalia, Bianka, and Capri — were on the helicopter with Bryant. While viewers got the impression that all four daughters had lost their lives in the crash, ABC made no mention of that information in an article published on its website. It also never confirmed or followed up on the brief report. CBS allegedly echoed these reports, but there appears to be no record of the news organization confirming the information online.

Compounding the confusion were reports that fellow former Laker Rick Fox was on board the helicopter, as well. The source of these claims is hard to track down, but it doesn't seem like any news organization made any such mention of Fox. It seems as though the speculation formed entirely online. Whether it was a well-intentioned but ill-informed person trying to spread what they believed to be a true report or someone trying to intentionally cause confusion and upset people, the false word of Fox's death started making the rounds on Twitter. It spread so quickly that multiple sources ranging from Fox's step-daughter to his attorney and spokesperson all attempted to correct the record.

While these reports of deaths ran rampant across Twitter, more confusion was poured on as people started to speculate about what the NBA would do regarding its slate of games scheduled for Sunday. When news broke of Kobe's passing, one game was just an hour from tip-off, leaving the league little time to decide if it would go on as scheduled or postpone and cancel every game that was set to be played. On Twitter and Instagram — where aggregator accounts reign supreme and are one of the primary sources that basketball fans follow for information — it was announced that games would be canceled and the NBA would not carry on its operations for the day. It may have come as a surprise to the people who saw that news when highlights from the day started rolling in, including many teams paying tribute to Bryant. That's because the NBA never actually canceled its games.

Twitter via Slack

In the wake of these false reports, Twitter users started directing their ire at the media — and rightly so, in some cases. Several news organizations apparently ran with stories before confirming the details. But there became a much bigger problem on Twitter: verified users who ran with unconfirmed details. Claims that Rick Fox was on board the plane were shared by high-profile people like former NFL cornerback Byron Westbrook, YouTuber Alonzo Lerone, eSports gamer Mendo, radio personality Shar Jossell and a number of others who sport the blue checkmark badge on Twitter. Similarly, the report that the NBA was canceling its games appears to have originated from Jeff Mans, the owner of several fantasy sports operations and a radio talk show host. He would go on to delete his original tweet and correct his own reporting, but word spread — in part because people trusted him as a source of information on the matter.

The problem in almost all of these cases (and there are plenty of other examples of people who partook in this mess) is that these users are not reporters, they do not have sources and they have no way to confirm the information they are providing — yet they have an air of legitimacy provided by their verified status. This results in followers trusting them and users who are searching for information in real time leaning into these reports. These tweets get liked, retweeted and copied by other users, who spread the information to a wider audience. In some cases, these tweets were likely seen by millions — both cropping up in people's feeds thanks to retweets and showing up near the top of search results, which favor these verified users.

Twitter has in part trained people to think this way. For a time, the verified badge served as a sort of indicator of legitimacy. In a study conducted by Microsoft Research and Carnegie Mellon University, the verification seal ranked as one of the stronger indicators of a person's credibility. But in recent years, Twitter shifted course with its verification badge, providing it to "accounts of public interest," including white supremacists, extremists and members of hate groups, as well as public figures like gamers, streamers, online celebrities and just about anyone else who thought they needed their identity verified online.

While the idea was simply to indicate that people are who they claim to be, the result is a whole slew of people who have been granted a symbol that amounts to tacit approval and authority. This has significantly upset the information sharing and gathering that takes place on the platform. Someone like Mendo is exactly who he claims to be and he isn't trying to pose as a news gatherer or reporter, but when he tells his followers that Rick Fox died in the helicopter crash, they are likely to believe him — as is anyone else who comes across his verified profile while searching for confirmation of Fox's involvement. Then there are people who intentionally misuse and abuse their verified status on the platform with the intent to spread misinformation. That occurred last year when alt-right figures with blue check marks started pushing out fake and unconfirmed claims of arson as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was burning.

It's not clear if any of the disinformation surrounding Bryant's death was intentional — there doesn't appear to be any sort of agenda to push in regards to his passing — but it is clear that the blue checkmarks on Twitter served to spread and amplify misinformation. For at least some of their followers, that information likely stands uncorrected still.

Fixing this issue is a multi-faceted undertaking. It requires a shift in public perception regarding verification as simply a marker of identity rather than a marker of authority. It requires people on Twitter to treat information with more caution, particularly when they have a large audience and verified status. It requires news organizations to confirm information before going public with speculative findings.

Mostly, it requires all of us to take a deep breath and slow down, verify information, and stop the rush to react. Situations as shocking and sudden as the death of Kobe Bryant are almost always going to suffer from some misinformation as everyone tries to put together the facts. But finding the truth on Twitter should not require the amount of sifting through false reports as it currently does. The tragedy itself — the loss of life of Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others — is challenging enough without the added challenge of trying to verify news on the fly.