Joe Paterno Early Death Tweets Show Social Media Can't Be Trusted

At around 6 p.m. PST on Saturday night, Twitter absolutely lit up with reports of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno's death. Several people I followed were quick to retweet the news that Paterno had succumbed to lung cancer, and between the chatter of friends and official updates from reputable news organizations, I assumed the information was correct.

As did most people, it seems. Thanks to the lightning-fast nature of social media, thousands continued to spread the word of his passing, and Penn State students even flocked to the Paterno statue on Saturday night to honor his memory.

Unfortunately, they were paying their respects a bit too early. Joe Paterno actually passed away Sunday morning, about 14 hours after many people had already declared him dead.

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The whole bit of misinformation got started on Saturday night when a student-run website, Onward State, tweeted the following message to its followers:

Our sources can now confirm: Joseph Vincent Paterno has passed away tonight at the age of 85.

Within minutes, that solitary tweet had somehow turned into rock-solid data that was passed on by a number of websites, including CBSSports.com, the Huffington Post, and the Daily Beast. The result was a widespread chain reaction which wasn't corrected for quite some time, even when Joe Paterno's son Scott Paterno posted on Twitter with his own update:

CBS report is wrong -- Dad is alive but in serious condition.

Onward State (who apologized, and their managing editor has since resigned) blamed their misreporting on a fake email supposedly sent by a Penn State school official, but it's certainly not the first time something like this has happened. In addition to the seemingly endless celebrity death hoaxes, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was declared dead by several media sources before everyone got their story straight about that infamous Arizona shooting in 2011.

You can't really say social media is to blame for the false reporting of Joe Paterno's death, but the spread of bad information was certainly exacerbated by the modern ability to easily -- and instantly -- share news with thousands of people.

What's the lesson here? For journalists, I hope it's becoming clear that accuracy should never be sacrificed in the great race to be first to report a breaking story. For the rest of us, as tempting as it might be to view Twitter as a reputable news source, it shouldn't always be treated that way. Especially when it comes to sensitive information like a public figure's death, we should all probably double-check to make sure the reports haven't been, as the saying goes, greatly exaggerated.

Did you originally believe Joe Paterno had died on Saturday?



Image via Twitter

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