“A lie gets half-way round the world

…before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”

Note: I wrote this story a few months ago, but I’ve reposted it as the other blog stuff was lost. Since I wrote it there have been loads more stories it could apply to, particularly perhaps the recent ‘Piers Morgan has been sacked’ story. 

There have been a couple of interesting posts that have gained a lot of traction in the past week or so online. One was the the Urban Outfitters stole my necklace design story, the other the Britain’s Got Talent is a fix story. Both of these stories were originally breathlessly retweeted by an indignant Twitter audience, then later when the dust settled neither were perhaps what they seemed. The necklace design that was ‘stolen’ wasn’t all that original*, and the BGT story, well, with a little thought that was obviously not ALL true. (SYCO have talent scouts at weddings and then they find people like Ray Quinn? They’re completely ruthless but will happily wait 3 years for a child to face his fears and perform onstage, even though he’s only worth money to them til his voice breaks? They were looking for a Bieber-like star in 2009, when Bieber’s first single was November 2009?).

And this is the point really; the ease by which you can distribute a story, just by clicking and adding ‘OMG’ at the start means that stories that sound good get distributed far quicker than the facts get checked. And if a celebrity retweets the story, then the impact doesn’t just come from the number of followers that celebrity has, but also from the credibility which that celebrity imparts to the tweet. If XXX has retweeted it, then it MUST be true.

The main headlines of these stories fall easily into belief systems which give the whole stories credibility. It’s easy to believe that BGT is fixed, so not only does the story work, but you also get world-weary tweeters saying ‘Well of course it’s true, we have all known that for years, you’re idiots if you don’t”. Which then causes more people to adopt that attitude, even if they haven’t thought previously about whether it’s fixed or not. So what happens is people are more keen to be seen to have ‘the news’, or to have known these things all along, than they are to check the facts. They’re more interested in what the story says about them, than whether or not the story is correct. Retweeting the BGT story shows that you can see through their lies, or that you’ve always known them to be lies, or that you’ve got hot gossip. Retweeting the Urban Outfitters story shows that you support the little guy, down with the system, man.

When agencies try and created good ‘social’ content for brands, they try and create something which, when retweeted, says something about the retweeter; ‘I find this funny’, ‘I find this cool’ and that gives it value for the brand, making it more likely that the content will go viral. The retweeter doesn’t check that the brand they’re retweeting is ethical, or supports their values, or truthful; it’s just a piece of content which is easy to distribute. The same applies here. Unfortunately what works when it’s just a piece of funny content doesn’t work in the same way when it’s something more serious. A Twitter account was set up this week allegedly breaking super injunctions; one of its claims was child abuse, distributing the address of the abuser. The headline which is believable is the ‘superinjunction’ meme; the powerful have things they want to hide from you. This makes it easy to believe the rest of the content – causing people to idly believe, or distribute, incredibly serious and irresponsible stories.

The short, easy to distribute nature of tweets – the thing which makes Twitter so powerful – also is the great flaw. It’s so easy to send something out that you can distribute without thinking. Sometimes though, the thinking is the important bit, not the distribution.

*there’s another post to come I about this, about the originality of ideas when millions of people are connected together; what are the chances of someone else having exactly the same idea as you? But later.

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