Twitter – always check your sources

Thursday 31 October 2013 09.47

Lou Reed - RIP

By Sinead Crowley, Arts and Media Correspondent

The news broke, as it so often does these days, on Twitter. Or did it? Early on Sunday evening I saw a tweet saying Lou Reed had died. I traced the tweet back to its source, the reputable Rolling Stone magazine, so I retweeted the news and watched the tributes roll in from others on my time line.

But as minutes ticked by I became concerned. Other than Rolling Stone no other news organisation was reporting the death. Many senior figures in the music industry, both here and abroad were all paying tribute to him but all were using Rolling Stone as their only source.

My twitter account says that all opinions expressed are my own, and not RTE’s. That is true, but I am also acutely aware that as an RTE correspondent any news I tweet or retweet can reasonably be expected to live up to the standards of, or indeed represent RTE news itself. I started to worry  – had I retweeted wrong information about one of the most influential musicians of his generation?

And just as these thoughts began to form in my head, other tweets appeared, most notably from a Guardian journalist expressing the same doubts I had. Had anyone seen this news other than on Rolling Stone? The answer appeared to be no. Even though some news wires and news organisations were now carrying it, it was all based on the same Rolling Stone tweet. No other source was quoted. I was getting very worried now. In my job I’m frequently asked to check out news of the deaths of famous people. If the person is Irish I can usually get a family member or close friend to confirm. If it’s a British or international figure and I don’t have a contact myself, then the BBC and newswires usually carry the story within minutes, in most cases quoting family members or other sources close to the deceased. But in this case, the original tweet was the only information out there. I had no reason to distrust Rolling Stone, but I hadn’t talked to someone at the magazine itself, I had merely read a tweet, and twitter accounts have been hacked before. I checked Lou Reed’s twitter feed – although it clearly was run by someone on his behalf, and not by the man himself, it did have the little blue ‘tick’ Twitter uses to verify accounts. It wasn’t carrying anything about his death. I checked his webpage. It had crashed. His Facebook page didn’t have the story either.

Checking twitter again I saw that ‘are we sure this is true’ tweets were now as numerous as those saying ‘RIP Lou Reed’.

If the story was a hoax, then this itself would have been a news story given the global reaction. Then I checked twitter again. New information. The Guardian had a second source – Lou Reed’s agent had confirmed the story. It was true. The whole episode, from my initial reservations to the Guardian’s confirmation lasted around 20 minutes. It doesn’t sound like a long time, but it would have been a long time to have been wrong.

Within minutes tweets complaining that ‘Lou Reed hoax tweets were wrong’ started appearing and when I checked my personal Facebook page shortly afterwards I saw a webpage proclaiming that ‘the report that Lou Reed’s death was a hoax, was a hoax’. It was a perfect social media storm, and, now that I had my confirmation, time for me to turn away from the internet until it abated.

RIP Lou Reed.

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