Cosby went on CNN's Larry King Live that night to refute the rumor and plead with the person starting false reports about him to stop. He said on the show that it was the fourth time such a rumor had been spread. He said he shrugged off the previous rumors, but after a friend called him in tears to see if he was alive, he could no longer ignore it.
As more people get their news and information from social media, unchecked stories will continue to circulate, people will be hurt and the public will grow more wary of information. That's why it's more important than ever to preserve the role of society's fact-checkers: Researchers who write books and encyclopedias, scientific journals that publish materials after months-long peer reviews and my industry, the press with its trained, professional reporters, editors and copy editors.
People can easily publish rumors on social media anonymously so they don't suffer the consequences. A couple of weeks ago, a Twitter user with about one hundred followers started a rumor that Broadway actor Marty Thomas contracted a sexually transmitted disease from a cast member of another Broadway show. The Twitter account, @bwayanonymous, was shut down, but perhaps the damage to Thomas' reputation was done. Thomas denied the rumor and is taking Twitter to court to get the company to reveal the Tweeter's identity, according the New York Daily News.
The social media rumor mill does not only crank out falsehoods about celebrities; it gives people with motives to distort the truth a platform, including special interest groups trying to sway politics, scammers trying to influence consumers, disgruntled employees and spurned friends.
It's probably more common for a rumor to stem from a simple mistake or misunderstanding. ESPN reporter Bill Simmons wrote in a recent column that he meant to send a personal, "direct message" to a colleague that he heard National Football League star receiver Randy Moss was being traded from the New England Patriots to the Minnesota Vikings. But instead he sent a public Tweet. Because Simmons has a large fan base, the information spread quickly despite subsequent tweets where he explained the mistake. In the column, Simmons told how much of a mistake it was, especially since the information was unconfirmed and ESPN requires breaking news to go through the news desk. Fortunately, for Simmons, the rumor turned out to be true.
I don't advocate censoring information online. When thousands of Iranians protested corruption in their elections last year on Twitter and Americans expressed outrage about the Gulf oil spill on social media sites, it's possible some information that circulated was incorrect.
But the Iranian protests sparked major media outlets to increase their coverage of the issue and the Gulf oil spill Tweets helped keep the story in the news longer.
Social media isn't going away, and neither are rumors and unchecked news reports. The best we can do is make sure our information is coming from reliable sources, and be willing to make the extra effort to make sure we're not passing along any information that might not be true.
Seth Liss is online content editor for SunSentinel.com. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/sliss33.