Preston Riots: Feeding the Twitter Rumour Machine

Picture the scene, as it unfolded on Twitter: “Shops boarded up on retail, fire on Larches estate, trouble on Church Street and kids meeting on Capitol Centre… a nursery has been set of fire… Preston Bus Station on fire.”

Except, this didn’t really happen.

Most who know me, know that I love Twitter. I love meeting new people, finding new opportunities and I love the sense of community it fosters with its inherent altruism. So when I decided to keep an ear on the Twittersephere about goings on in Preston, I was quick to relay and retweet warnings of possible trouble in the city to others. People began asking me what was happening and where, so I tried to distil the most useful tweets of the fixed searches I had in place.

I‘d considered and hoped my tweets to be helpful, that they might deter people from heading into the city (I’d ensured to let people know many claims weren’t verified). What I hadn’t considered was that by retweeting, I was amplifying speculation and perhaps galvanising any sense of fear. In short, I was feeding the already rampant Twitter rumour mill. It was thanks to a few tweets from followers that I paused to reflect on the consequence of retweeting misinformation.

He was right. Cue the guilt. In penance, I focussed only on confirmed reports – particularly those with supported image evidence that nothing was happening in Preston (to diffuse and allay). By this point, tweets about riots in Preston were increasing in regularity: tweets about supposed events, reactionary tweets to the supposed events and then tweets which underpinned the situation. Like the one by Lancashire Evening Post journalist, David Coates:

Thankfully, Preston did not riot. But there were, on my part, lessons to be learnt. Lessons of which I was already aware but which seem to have been overlooked in favour of wanting to help.

  • Lesson #1: Be wary of misinformation and speculation. Seek to verify facts.
  • Lesson #2: Understand the implication of reach and influence. A quick analysis tells me my last 50 tweets reached almost 20,000 people.
  • Lesson #3: Listen. Think. Heed good advice. It was thanks to people I know and trust on Twitter who alerted me to the risk of what I was tweeting.

So how have you been using Twitter or other social media during these times of civil unrest? Is there anything you’ve picked up or been reminded of? Feel free to share and help me feel less of an idiot.

Article by Tom Stables

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