It’s not exactly an innovative observation to say that you shouldn’t believe everything you read on Twitter, and that sometimes completely untrue rumours can be circulated as fact with alarming speed. I’ve written before on this blog about how I was at the centre of one such incident a couple of years back.
People can post what they like, so you can’t stop it happening. But what journalists can do is avoid giving credibility to rumours by spreading them without properly checking the information first. A brief Twitter storm that blew up last night following Andy Murray’s victory in the Wimbledon final shows us what happens when people don’t think before they retweet.
Tweets started appearing during the evening that Murray was going to donate his £1.6m prize to the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. This seemed extraordinary, but there was a reason to believe it might be true: Murray donated his £73k prize for winning Queen’s Club last month to the charity.
Quickly searching Twitter for the source of the rumour, there was no word from any official Murray or Wimbledon-related accounts, or from any of the journalists covering the tournament. The apparent source was actually from this Twitter account: a photographer who said she’d been told the information from a friend and fellow photographer who was at the Championships. Her original tweet, since deleted, was the first to mention the “donation” and was the main one being retweeted again and again.
However, the story seemed too good to be true. And before too long, one of the journalists at Wimbledon simply asked Murray about it.
Just bumped into Andy Murray and asked him whether it’s correct he’s donating his entire prize-money to Royal Marsden. Not correct.
— Paul Hayward (@_PaulHayward) July 7, 2013
End of rumour. But not really, because earlier tweets about it kept being recycled all evening and into today. Not a big deal in the greater scheme of things, but for some people it was a deflating end to a day of sporting excitement.
Doubt he cares given the win today, but way to take a bit of the shine off.
— James Ball (@jamesrbuk) July 7, 2013
I’m sure the original tweeter posted the information in good faith, but what happened isn’t really her fault. What transformed the life of the rumour on Twitter was the casual retweeting of it by prominent sports journalists at organisations including the BBC, Sky Sports, the Daily Telegraph and Reuters among others (I won’t ‘name and shame’ individuals especially as apologies and deletions soon followed, but the damage was done).
Twitter users with large followings who work for credible news sources have to take particular care when retweeting information. Partly because they are publishing that information to a relatively wide audience (wider than the information might otherwise reach), and partly because they are lending the credibility of both themselves and their employer to that information. A tweet or retweet from someone working at one of the organisations mentioned carries more weight than one from a random individual.
Given the amount of interviews Murray had to do on Sunday evening, there was no excuse for not waiting for a bit of verification from the man himself.
This Murray guy knows how to celebrate ! pic.twitter.com/UgEN9XIsQT
— Jon Wertheim (@jon_wertheim) July 7, 2013
So, what should journalists do? It’s not an exact science, but this particular Twitter minefield isn’t as difficult to navigate as it might first appear. Good rules to follow are:
1. Always try to find the original source of the information. If it’s not an official account of some kind or backed up with other credible evidence, treat it with caution.
2. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. So if in doubt, don’t retweet.
We all make mistakes on social media from time to time, but it’s worth making an extra effort not to. Because sometimes, false information on Twitter is about more serious things than tennis.
(ps. I couldn’t find a picture of the Wimbledon final on Flickr that I was free to reproduce, but I did find this one of the semi-final that was uploaded by filmstalker).