Monday, May 23, 2011

Twitter and the spread of mis-information

One of the things people often credit Twitter with is the ability to break news.  It’s so quick that no other sites can match it in certain situations.  With almost every major news story, particularly things like the death of Osama bin Laden, people rush around to show that the story broke first on Twitter.

However they’re a lot less keen to show how Twitter can sometimes get it completely wrong.  In the case of Obama people took a punt on the news conference announcing the death of bin Laden, and when this came to pass they could look back and show that they were the first with the news.

But it also happens the other way.  On 12th of May a rumour started circulating on Twitter than Fabio Capello had quit as the England manager.  As with the bin Laden story, the spark was the announcement of a news conference.

This is the trend for mentions of 'Capello' over the past 30 days.  You can see that there was a huge spike on the 12th May.

As far as I can work out byrno25 made the first tweet “FA making an announcement at 11pm. Hearing rumours that Capello is gone.”

This was subsequently re-Tweeted over 100 times, and people started adding their own spin to it.

For example:

“Twitter riddled with rumours that Capello has left England manager's job. Supposed annoucement by #theFA at 11pm”


“Stuart Pearce is my bet to take over from Fabio Capello, true English determination! #capello #England”

But of course, the news conference at 11pm turned out to be about something totally unrelated (an enquiry re Triesman’s allegations) and Twitter moved on.

(At this point I should add that I also tweeted about the rumour when I heard it "Wow - has Cappello gone..?", but later followed up with "No truth in Cappello rumour it seems. FA story is about FIFA & Triesman")

This shows that while Twitter does break stories, it can also spread totally unfounded rumours.  The news sites wait until they get confirmation from trusted sources, so are often more reliable.  There's a reason why journalists study for so long.  It's a difficult job.

Rumours spread because they are stories that people want to believe.  It good to use twitter, but always question what you're reading.  As they Super Injunction stories grow and grow, it's important to retain a level of scepticism.

Update - see also this article on how writer Graham Linehan created a rumour surrounding Osama bin Laden and his TV show The IT Crowd.

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