How journalists can end up spreading rumours on social media

Monday 1 August 2011, 13:04

Neal Mann Neal Mann is social media editor at The Wall Street Journal. Twitter: @fieldproducer

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Jon Snow apology tweets about Piers Morgan

There's no doubt Twitter is a fantastic forum for breaking news. By following the right journalists you can get news as it happens, in any field you're interested in. And when news breaks on Twitter it can spread like wildfire, as people around the world tap the retweet button on mobiles, computers and iPads. Unfortunately, rumour can spread just as quickly. 

When a tweet was sent last week from a parody account of the ex-News of the World showbusiness editor Dan Wootton, breaking the 'news' that Piers Morgan had been suspended by CNN due to phone hacking allegations, retweeting quickly spread the rumour.  As it gained traction a number of journalists thought it was from Dan Wootton: they were caught out plain and simple. It's easily done. 

By retweeting, they were at least referencing the parody account, embarrassingly spreading the rumour further.

Unfortunately, people often change a tweet before forwarding it. Channel 4 News' Jon Snow did just that, making it look like he was reporting Piers Morgan's suspension to his 100,000 followers. The rumour was now a 'fact' being reported by Channel 4 News. Reuters' Ant De Rosa immediately jumped on the bandwagon and did the same. And that was it: Piers Morgan had been suspended.

As well as being more than a little embarrassing for Jon Snow - who offered a fulsome apology and retraction (above) - the incident showed the danger of retweeting and amplifying rumour. Twitter is, by its nature, chaotic - full of rumour and hearsay. As a result, many journalists have seen their follower numbers soar as they become 'go to' people for reliable information. But with the power of a large audience comes responsibility.

Some journalists utilise their following on Twitter to help them to establish the facts.  Crowdsourcing relies heavily on retweeting and passing on information to others. On the surface it appears to offer a great way to interact with an audience and use others' knowledge to clarify unverified information.

However, crowdsourcing has a number of clear dangers. For example, even if a journalist passes on unconfirmed rumours with caveats such as 'anyone else heard this?' or 'any other source?', they can't guarantee that someone who sees their tweet won't change it and pass it on as fact. Jon Snow's tweet was still being retweeted hours after it was deleted and a clarification sent. And there is no way to guarantee that those who see a rumour see any clarification. So a journalist trying to establish truth using crowdsourcing may in fact take a rumour and give it a much wider audience.

In the past, journalists only ever engaged in checking rumours behind newsroom doors. But social media has changed their job. It was journalists on Twitter who stopped the Piers Morgan rumour, not CNN's PR team. It's clear that, as well as standing up the rumours that develop on social media, journalists now have a secondary role in knocking them down. 

A journalist's job is to be the trusted source people turn to on social media when they want the facts. What journalists shouldn't be doing is making rumours worse.

Neal Mann describes himself as a freelance journalist and social media junkie working for the likes of Sky News. He tweets @fieldproducer. 

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