Thursday, March 18, 2010
A little tweetie bird told me...
Sacre bleu! Who is telling tales on Twitter?
Rumours of Sarkozy and Bruni's affairs were just the latest micro-blogging wind-up, says Susan Daly
Jeff Goldblum is dead and so is Kanye West. Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy are having a ménage-à-quatre and eating pork will give you swine flu. Well, no, not really. All of these startling bits of 'news' have broken on Twitter.com in the past year -- and not one is true.
The micro-blogging website allows anyone in the world to set up an account and post unlimited messages of not more than 140 characters. Anyone can read them and anyone can 're-tweet' your message -- pass it on to their friends and followers from their own account.
In this way, a tweeted bit of 'news' can become like a game of Chinese whispers. The context in which it was written and the reliability of its source are lost in the mists of the Twittersphere.
Some of this mis-reporting is fairly victimless. (Literally so, in the case of the many celebrities who have been tweeted as deceased when they are not.) Actor Jeff Goldblum had his publicist release a statement to reassure fans that, "He is fine and in Los Angeles", a new twist on the Mark Twain classic that reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated.
Some have wider-ranging consequences. In the early chaos of the Haitian earthquake, Twitter was buzzing with reports that two commercial airlines were running free flights for doctors and nurses to the country. A commendable action, but one the airlines had to deny publicly.
There were some instances where medical staff were being airlifted so there was a grain of truth in it. However, the subsequent kerfuffle detracted attention that needed to be re-focused on the plight of the Haitian people.
The same dangers that come with spreading gossip verbally also apply to false tweets. The fire might be put out by someone's publicist but the internet is a vast, uncharted territory where smoke lingers for a long time.
This has been the case with the French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni. Rumours of their affairs -- his with a cabinet minister; hers with a musician -- may have been greatly exaggerated. The French press has not been as interested in their private life as the international press has. (Mistresses, secret children and such extra-curricular activities are not considered to be of public interest there.)
The French magazine L'Express has broken le silence to state that the 'news' was created by a trainee French journalist who posted them on Twitter. It was an experiment to see how quickly unverified rumours could spread online.
The relentless pace of instant communication on Twitter means that rumours don't percolate -- they explode. The volume of people getting the message that Sarko and Bruni were at 'love loggerheads' gave it a critical mass, and it became mainstream 'news' overnight.
Now, despite the revelations about where the initial reports may have come from, Sarkozy and Bruni will forever have the cloud of doubt hanging over their marriage, at least in the public's mind. Bruni's statement about the chance of survival for the marriage in the aftermath of the story -- "I guess marriage should be forever but who knows what happens?" -- won't exactly have helped.
Yet the ability of Twitter to convey real news so speedily is one of its main attractions. It's why I joined it over a year ago, and why I continue to use it. I might be a freelance journalist, alone at my desk, but within an instant I can see what is preoccupying the world -- or at least the part that is on Twitter -- at that given moment.
I'm all for a forum where I can connect with interesting, like-minded people that I would never have otherwise met. Conversely, it's allowed me to gauge the opinions of people who are not so like-minded -- and that can be most interesting of all.
But it can be easy to forget how public it is. Posting a tweet is like shinning up the Spire and shouting your opinions through a loud-hailer.
Pop star Miley Cyrus discovered this to her cost. She abandoned Twitter when she realised it had begun to affect her privacy (what's left of it). "I'd tweet, 'I'm here,' and I'd wonder why a thousand fans are outside the restaurant," she said, "Well, hello, I just told them."
Actor and writer Stephen Fry liked that Twitter brought him in close contact with fans, but threatened to leave when one of his followers dared to brand him "boring".
The public nature of the site can blur the line between a professional and private persona -- a difficulty encountered by Sky Sports presenter Chloe Everton, who was given a slap on the wrist by her employers for her double entendre-laden tweets.
On the other hand, too much can be made of nothing just because the tweeter is high-profile. Newstalk presenter Sean Moncrieff, for example, had a tweet repeated and analysed in a Sunday newspaper last weekend, even though it was clearly a joke.
The tell-all technology -- it is just so easy to fire off an angry or emotional message and hit the 'Tweet' button -- can be all too tempting. We've had a woman tweeting that she was having a miscarriage in work, and another that her son had just fallen into a swimming pool and drowned. Both women were deemed to have 'over-shared' and roundly criticised.
A tweet might only allow 140 characters but those instances show it can carry an emotional punch above its weight. The brevity is the beauty of it, but not getting the full picture can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings. The key to safe twittering is this: don't tweet anything you're not prepared to say to someone's face IRL (that's 'In Real Life', folks).