When the news of Steve Jobs' medical leave broke on Twitter the other day, I checked the news agencies before retweeting: Twitter is famous for spreading utter nonsense, and it wouldn't have been the first time people tweeted news that someone had simply made up.
Sadly the Jobs story was true, but many social media stores aren't.
We had two not-true stories yesterday. The first was that there was a crazed gunman in Oxford Circus; the second was that the Crazed Gunman in Oxford Circus panic came from a throwaway tweet by a fashion stylist.
As a Met spokesman told Thinq.co.uk, "There was a hypothetical written scenario about an armed individual in Oxford Street as part of a training exercise, which somehow got into the public domain. This was picked up by the social media as a real event."
Social media Chinese Whispers and thoughtless retweets tend to be more innocuous than tales of crazed gunmen, but they can still be annoying: a few days ago otherwise sensible people were retweeting "an actual letter that was sent to a bank by a 96-year-old woman", a newspaper humour column that has been floating around the Internet for the last 12 years.
Still, it made a change from hoaxes claiming that X person had died in a hangliding/gardening/snowboarding accident: this year's crop already includes Justin Bieber and Nelson Mandela, both of whom are very much alive.
Winding up the Beliebers
Sometimes the retweets are malicious, so for example the Bieber's-dead tweets were intended to annoy the singer's fans.
Most of the time, however, they're perfectly innocent. We see a bit of news, think "Oh my God!" and pass it on to our followers. Social media doesn't have time for fact-checking, or for thinking "hang on, this sounds like every email forward my mum has ever sent me"; fast matters more than facts.
Unless social media installs a dumbass detector, it's only going to get worse. When our Facebook friends and Twitter followers are measured in the hundreds, keeping on top of everything is a full-time job that none of us has the time for - so instead we scan our feeds like magpies, pulling out the shiny bits we want to share. Who cares if it's correct? We see it, tweet it and move on.
The good news is that this is nothing new. As Mark Twain said in 1918, "a lie can make it half way around the world before the truth has time to put its boots on" - although it's unclear whether he really did say that then, or if he said it at all.
It seems we've been spreading nonsense since we first learned to grunt. Technology just makes us better at it.
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