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20 January 2011updated 01 Jul 2021 12:14pm

In defence of healthy mistrust

Does panic over a non-existent shooting in Oxford Street mean we can’t trust Twitter to tell us the

By Steven Baxter

It’s the kind of thing that Twitter excels at, even when it’s got the wrong end of the stick. Within minutes, news of a “shooting in Oxford Street” created a huge amount of noise and a flurry of tweets. Understandably panicky Londoners told each other to stay indoors and be safe. But there was no shooting, and it was a misunderstanding that seems to have been based partly on a police training exercise and partly on a tweet about a fashion shoot.

Does that mean we can’t trust Twitter to tell us what’s going on? Tom Rayner, a Sky News producer, said:

The lessons from this morning’s non-incident are clear: for the police, they now have to be far more careful managing and protecting information, and more proactive in quelling rumours when they emerge.

For journalists, the advent of Twitter has made the importance of checking and verifying stories even greater.

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Tom’s colleagues at Sky News know this all too well, having cited a joke tweet from the spoof “Daily Mail reporter” account as evidence that Vince Cable was going to resign a few weeks ago. As we now know, Cable is still very much in his job, but it goes to show that a single tweeter may not be a perfect source of information, and even a mass of panicky tweeters chirping away can lead you in the wrong direction. In the quest to be first to break the news, it’s easy to see what you want to see.

On the other hand, getting information from the Twittersphere isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At the height of the recent student protests, it was easy for news to focus on safe, official information from the police which gave only one side of the story, while there was a mass of contradictory information coming from inside the police kettles. Who to believe? Journalists are taught to give more weight to “official” sources like the police – or at least to know that if a police source says something untrue, you won’t get in as much trouble for printing it – which can lead to a slightly skewed version of events appearing in the early stages.

Official sources aren’t without their drawbacks, though, when it comes to this kind of thing. Met Police commander Bob Broadhurst told MPs that there were no plain-clothes police at the G20 protests; we now know this not to be the case. An official, trusted voice can drown out the many eyewitnesses who may have the opposing view.

Perhaps the best way to proceed is to treat official sources and anonymous tweeters with equal cynicism. At the moment, a man in a suit and tie, or a uniform, sitting behind a microphone or carving out a press release is always going to be believed more than a funny avatar and fewer than 140 characters of text. Which is understandable. But that doesn’t mean we should always trust the suit and tie more; perhaps an equal amount of healthy mistrust might be appropriate.

Twitter does get it wrong sometimes, and can be misleading; but it adds to an environment in which readers find themselves constantly challenging the veracity of sources, tweets or statements, as well as comparing the official version of events to what people on the ground are saying. And that is no bad thing.

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