Evacuation at Grand Central? Anatomy of a Twitter Rumor

Last Updated Jan 14, 2010 9:10 AM EST

If you've been paying attention to social media lately, you know that one of the hottest topics going is real-time search, and/or the validity of it. Is it meaningful to have social media telling us the fervor with which people have joined #teamconan, and to have citizen journalists tweeting the so-called news?

Or, and not many Kool-Aid drinkers want to hear this, is it not so valuable?

With all due respect to those who have used social media to help earthquake victims in Haiti and communicate what's going on there, the real-time Web can be its own worst enemy. This was amply proven yesterday when a rumor started in the early afternoon on Twitter that Grand Central Terminal -- one of the two main train stations servicing commuters in and out of Manhattan -- had been evacuated.

While it's been possible to track trending topics on Twitter or one of its ancillary services for some time, this time I got to watch the rumor mill churn on Bing, which is in deep competition with Google to win the real-time search battle. Streaming before my eyes was both the ebb and flow of traffic itself but the ebb and flow of rumor. It was fascinating, frustrating and mesmerizing all at the same time. (Sample screen grab above.) As @newyorkology put it: "Amazing to watch unchecked flood of totally contradictory rumors on "Grand Central".

Though I had come from Grand Central but hours before, I first heard about it from someone I follow on Twitter, naturally. He shared the link to the Bing stream with his 5,800 followers, and though he wasn't patient zero, from there things began to flow. You could pick whichever rumor you wanted:

  • That the 4,5,6 subway trains were bypassing Grand Central.
  • That there were SWAT teams on the subway platforms.
  • That there had been a steam explosion, resulting in one death and 15 injured (that turned out to be recycled news from a 2007 steam explosion outside Grand Central on Lexington Avenue).
  • That the entire report was a Twitter hoax.
  • Horribly, there was also one tweet claiming there was a dirty bomb. If there was any wisdom to this crowd, it was that the tweet didnt't seem to gain much traction.
So what was the truth? According to the New York-centric blog Gothamist, there was a suspicious package, a situation that caused some activity in the area for roughly a half hour. Business Insider confirmed with the NYPD that the terminal had briefly been evacuated.

In the meantime, for about 45 minutes, a lot of people seemed a little freaked out, while others just wanted to be on the tweet-scene, waiting for something, anything to go down. Little was confirmed; much was actively believed. No, boys and girls, real-time search isn't always what it's cracked up to be.