I love Twitter. I really really do. When there’s a breaking news story – or, I guess, a rolling news story – then I’m usually glued to Twitter, watching the appropriate hashtags or searching for info and generally trying to find out as much as possible about what’s happening from as many on-the-ground sources as possible. It’s also nice to feel like there are other people out there, interested and concerned about the same things you are; it’s good to get assurances that your friends are okay, or let someone know you’re thinking about them, all in real-time.
But. Unfortunately, there has to be a but. When something is going on that’s as big and scary and emotional as the recent riots across England, it’s difficult to separate fact from rumour. I’ve spent an awful lot of time over the past few days reassuring people that nothing was kicking off in my area – and confronting people who were either mistakenly or maliciously spreading untruths about what’s going on. I know a lot of my friends were in similar positions, trying to fight the rumour mill and make sure that what was getting reported was actually accurate.
I don’t know what drives people to deliberately lie about what’s happening. I do understand a little better how people who are scared and have heard rumours might want to warn others, or seek confirmation of what they’ve heard, but Twitter can be like a giant game of Chinese whispers sometimes, with people retweeting or repeating things that aren’t confirmed, and often aren’t true. It’s been frustrating, and stressful, and scary, watching rumours spiral out of control and not being able to stop them.
I’d just like to ask that, if you’re going to tweet about a breaking news story, that you please, please, check your facts first. Please only repeat things you know to be true; if you don’t trust your source, please don’t retweet them. Things have been scary enough lately without frightening people unnecessarily.
My friend Mary Hamilton just wrote a very good article for the Guardian about the same subject; go check it out here. Twitter can be a really valuable tool in situations like this, but not if we’re not using it sensibly. Please tweet responsibly.