In my job as the social media editor for MediaShift, I’m used to fitting big ideas into tight spaces. But recently, in the fray of 140-character editing, I struggled to condense a curious statistic. Finishing up, I double-checked grammar, the link, and clicked “submit” as usual.

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It was retweeted more than 100 times (see the tweet at left). And it was inaccurate.

Several people responded to note the mistake. After a second look, I knew they were right. I posted a correction and retweeted some of those who had noted the error. I commented on Facebook posts to acknowledge the mistake and state the correction.

Yet, in contrast to the original momentum, the correction was only retweeted a few times. A fraction of users on Facebook would see the correction in the comments — and that’s disturbing. There’s no good way to notify those who read erroneous information and moved on, believing it to be true.

On a platform you control, such as your own website, you can correct a story and acknowledge the error. But on platforms you can’t control, what’s the best way to proceed?

When Rep. Gabriel Giffords was shot in Arizona earlier this year, several news organizations tweeted that she had been killed. Some decided to delete the erroneous tweet, while others decided to leave it intact. There were strong arguments for and against deletion, but no clear consensus on how to balance transparency while stopping the spread of misinformation.

Twitter

Craig Silverman, author of “Regret the Error” and a columnist for the Columbia Journalism Review (and former managing editor at MediaShift), has suggested that Twitter should add functionality to correct errors and notify users who retweet them. But he, like others, remains skeptical that a native correction feature is high on Twitter’s priority list. Rather than wait for Twitter, he said in an email interview, it’s viable for users to develop something just as they created retweets and hashtags. He also pointed out these things don’t happen overnight. “Newspapers have literally been publishing corrections for hundreds of years — but it was only in the early 1970s that they began to standardize their placement on A2.”

In an online chat hosted by Poynter, EveryBlock founder Adrian Holovaty seconded Silverman’s thoughts on creating a third-party tool. He went so far as to volunteer to build a prototype. That was five months ago, and I was unable to get confirmation from Holovaty as to his progress.

Another prominent voice invested in media corrections is Scott Rosenberg, director of the error-correcting site MediaBugs.

“I do think there’s an opening or opportunity for one of the big three social media services today (Twitter, Facebook, Google) to distinguish itself by saying, ‘We want to be the real-time nerve network for news in our society, and we will make the refinements to our software that are needed to help that happen,’” he said in an email interview.

Both Twitter and Facebook openly court journalists by offering tips and best practices. Yet neither service includes suggestions for what to do when you need to make a correction.

Facebook

While Twitter has avoided commenting on the possibility of additional features, I was able to reach Facebook’s journalism program manager, Vadim Lavrusik, via Facebook message. He said a feature like this could complicate the user experience and design, but offered some hope: “Though we don’t offer this on Facebook right now, you are able to update or correct items after they are posted to your Page through the API.” He specifically mentioned Vitrue as one of several services that have this feature. However, Vitrue is an enterprise service that starts at around $600 a month for small brands.

Google+

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Among the new social tools Google+ offers, posts can actually be edited. This is a critical feature for correcting mistakes, one that is sure to be useful as news organizations begin taking to the platform. But when a post is updated, there are no inherent indications that it’s been changed. The lack of built-in transparency could lead to scrubbing errors.

UPDATE (7/13/11): After this piece was posted, Google+ started noting changes. Now when a post is updated, it notes the date and time it was edited.

But it remains to be seen what kind of correction standards will start to develop as public errors begin to appear.

Best Practices

While there may be some limited options on Facebook and Google+, Twitter remains the most difficult platform to correct. And without consistent tools to make social media corrections, what do we do in the meantime? Here are five suggestions, many of which are based on tips from those mentioned in this article:

Capture the error

If the error is going viral and you want to immediately slow its spread, don’t delete it without capturing it in a medium that allows others to view it. At its most rudimentary, you can take a screenshot. Better yet, use a more sophisticated option like Freze.it which saves the web page along with important metadata like the time stamp.

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Publicly acknowledge the error

It isn’t enough to post accurate information following the error. It’s critical to note the nature of the mistake; it’s unethical to scrub the record and pretend it didn’t happen; noting the original mistake adds transparency and builds public trust.

Reference the error in the correction

If you’ve captured the mistake as a screenshot or Freze.it page, you should link to it in your correction. If you don’t have enough room in a tweet to do all of these in one message, take advantage of the extended text option offered by Twitter clients like Tweetdeck to exceed the 140-character limit while containing the correction in one message.

Notify those who shared the error

As much as is technically possible, reply to users with a link to the correction (which should also include a link to the original error). If you choose to delete the original tweet, it will be removed from the timelines of those who initially retweeted it. While this keeps the error from spreading as quickly, it also deletes the record of those who retweeted it. That makes it even more challenging to notify those who did.

Repeat the correction

If there is enough of a delay between the time of an error and its correction, it’s likely many who saw the error will not see the correction. To complete your thorough correction campaign, your best bet is to repeat the correction several times.

We all make mistakes. It’s best to be prepared by taking the time to assess your organization’s plan for making corrections on social media platforms.

Do you agree or disagree with the list above? What might you add to it from your experience dealing with errors?

Nathan Gibbs teaches multimedia journalism as an adjunct instructor for Point Loma Nazarene University. Gibbs oversees multimedia content as web producer for KPBS, the PBS and NPR affiliate in San Diego. He played a key role in the station’s groundbreaking use of social media during the 2007 Southern California wildfires and continues to drive interactive strategy. Gibbs is on Twitter as @nathangibbs and runs Modern Journalist, a blog for journalists exploring multimedia.

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