Monday, 22 August 2011

Twitter - break the news, not hearts

Twitter is a fanatic source of quick information. This evening, for example, the Panther of News and I were jolted from our Sunday night bubblegum telly by a tweet about rebels streaming into Libya.

With one eye I watched Alex Crawford of Sky give her compelling and courageous report from the streets of Tripoli and with the other eye I watched Twitter reaching fever pitch.

Among the messages of support, incredulity at what the Libyan government was saying and comment of every shade from fatuous upward were mentions of the death of Gaddafi. Right now (about 11pm, August 22) I have no idea whether he is alive or not although his desperate broadcasts on state radio would suggest otherwise.

I noticed tweets about Gaddafi's death being bounced on by all kind of people including politicians and other public figures. People who should know better.

The family of Gaddafi - alive or dead - are likely to be too busy with other matters to be concerned with my twitter stream. In any case, they are probably somewhat exempt from ordinary empathy.

It was, however, a different sorry yesterday after news broke that one of the Red Arrows had crashed. Twitter was quickly full of reports of wreckage, rescue attempts and expressions of dismay.

Quickly the fact of the accident was confirmed by officials. Then it all went a bit quiet.

Twitter filled itself with all manner of speculation, couched as fact - the pilot was pulled from the river alive, it was the woman who crashed, the pilot ejected, it was a bird strike, and several suggestions of the name of the victim.

Time passed. The newspaper office I was working in received a message from the MoD confirming what we suspected. The pilot did not survive the crash, but they urged us not to publish this fact until his family had been told.

So we, along with every other news organisation kept quiet. And a widow, a mother and father, and siblings received the worst possible news.

Meanwhile twitter contented itself with speculation and increasingly urgent requests for news. Some people used the information vacuum to conclude the worst. Others took those conclusions and repeated them freely.

Imagine one of your special people is in the Red Arrows. You know nothing untoward has happened - then you glance at twitter...

I urge you to have a moment's pause before pressing your retweet button. It only takes a second or two to check a proper news source. Twitter is quick, but not much faster than online news teams who get accurate information out as soon as it's possible. And if there's no news theres perhaps a good reason for it...


  1. Well said Ellen! I watched the same thing last night and it saddens me. I often wonder why people think that they have a right to instant information like this. How hungry they become for a tale.

    It put me in mind of that terrible fire in the West last month where someone sold a mobile phone snap to the Sun of a parent jumping from the second floor of their burning flat. Tragically both children died and both parents ended up in intensive care. The media played with this for days while both parents were in a coma and it had already become a chip wrapper by the time the parents emerged from the coma to be told that they had lost their only children. While the whole world had known for days.

  2. Oh Mammy, Thanks. I've noticed it a few times on Twitter. People seem to forget that official news comes almost instantly when there's something to say - speculation can be very hurtful.

  3. Well said!!! I couldn't agree more.

  4. I was just having this exact conversation with my OH yesterday. Journalists are fully trained in the legalities of media - libel laws, embargos, etc. The general population on Twitter are not, and this can be dangerous, and illegal. There needs to be some kind of tightening up of on-line regulations to bring them into line with the ethical and legal requirements for hard copy publications. Although how the heck they're going to implement, monitor and enforce them is another story!!

  5. Interesting times. I've no idea how they could regulate Twitter etc. I suspect a lot of the control must come from the public themselves.

  6. Very true, the amount of misinformation that was being banded around on twitter during the riots the other week was ridiculous, causing undue panic and making a bad situation a lot worse.

  7. VBiC, Yes Twitter was very bloodthirsty those nights.

  8. I'm sure I'm not alone in giving a horrified twitch every time someone I admire's name trends on twitter, but when it happens and it is because they've died, what really annoys me are the posts which are using that tag just for advertising.

  9. solnushka,
    It seems to be happening more and more, spammers jump on something that's trending. Not nice.


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