Web-Savvy State Officials Deny False Madagascar Rumors on Twitter

WASHINGTON -- U.S. diplomats on Thursday "tweeted" down false rumors they feared might lead to a siege on the American Embassy in Madagascar.

State Department officials turned to Twitter feeds after dubious claims appeared on the micoblogging network that Madagascar's newly ousted president, Marc Ravalomanana, had sought refuge inside the U.S. Embassy in Antananarivo, the Indian Ocean island's capital.

Twitter is a growing Internet phenomenon that people use to update others on what they are doing or observing. The postings, known as "tweets," are limited to 140 characters and can be sent and received on a mobile phone or computer.

Web-savvy State officials kicked into gear and within minutes, the agency had posted its own "tweets" denying the false reports on Ravalomanana.

"Misinformation can have serious consequences, and when we saw the story breaking that way, we decided we had to do something about it quickly," said deputy State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid. He added: "The situation was fluid and the embassy was open. We had to protect our people."

Several Twitter feeds posted from the capital claimed that after resigning and handing over power to the military, Ravalomanana had gone into hiding at the embassy. U.S. officials acknowledged concerns that the American compound might be attacked by opposition supporters.

The State Department's two-part Twitter reply: "We are aware of media reports that President Ravalomanana of Madagascar is seeking sanctuary at the U.S. Embassy in Antananarivo." And then: "President Ravalomanana has made no such request and is not in the U.S. Embassy."

The same message was sent simultaneously by e-mail to the State Department press corps but most major news outlets, including The Associated Press, had not reported the claims in the first place.

"We wanted to get the accurate information out in the place where it originated and that was Twitter, and it was good that we had the ability to do that," Duguid said.

There was no way to confirm if the department's efforts prevented an incident, but several foreign-based Twitter users corrected erroneous accounts of Ravalomanana's whereabouts, Duguid said.

The State Department has had a Twitter feed available through its Dipnote blog since last year, but officials said that it appeared to be the first time the social networking tool had been used to counter a potential crisis.