The Story of Twitter and the Chinese Whispers

Published on 10 August 2011 in , , , , ,

Over the last few years you’d be hard pushed to not have heard comments like “news sites are dead. I get everything through Twitter”. It only takes days like the last few to show what folly that kind of statement is.

Colliers Wood riots twitter post

Yesterday I sat at home reading through the results of Twitter searches for #collierswood and “Colliers Wood” trying to the gauge reaction from the highly organised and deplorable looting of our nearby shopping centres. Amongst the many tweets of reaction and photos were statements that it was all kicking off again. They’d struck the Tandem Centre again; people were fleeing Sainsburys in panic; hoodies were hanging round the tube station carrying golf clubs. Staples at South Wimbledon was on fire. Police sirens were going off everywhere as they couldn’t cope.

Living as I do a few minutes walk from the main shopping centres of Colliers Wood I stuck my head out of the window. If something major was going on I’d be able to hear. A few cars went past; young kids were playing in the street. Everything was as normal as normal can be for an area which had seen several shop windows smashed to bits and a branch of Mothercare torched.

But there was a problem. There was little to counteract the misinformation and naturally those at work or otherwise away from the area were getting worried once more.

All of which is why I spent a significant amount of time during the day repeating one simple message. Colliers Wood is normal.

At several times I went out of the house and walked around the streets, collecting several armfuls of hangers from JD Sports that had been strewn over some streets whilst I was at it. Every time I went out I saw exactly the same thing. Normal people getting on with their lives in a relatively normal way. The Sainsburys people “were fleeing” from was full of people heaving orange carrier bags of shopping to their cars and homes. Those youths with golf clubs were a bunch of teenage girls looking at a burnt out shop in amazement. Those police that couldn’t cope were casually standing around talking to people, reassuring them that everything was all right.

I went out several times and every time it seemed the same. By half four some of the bigger shops had shut but pubs and restaurants were busy. Buses were running, the tube letting people off.

Yet quite often in minutes of me posting a comment on the state of the area, I’d see another batch telling me it was all kicking off again. At one point I looked out of my window and dryly commented that if Colliers Wood was rioting, it was the quietest riot ever.

There was no denying that there were sirens going off quite regularly, but frankly there’s always sirens in Colliers Wood. It’s on the main road to St George’s Hospital for starters. Many of the people hearing the wails or seeing the flashing blue lights from afar would have been spooked by nothing more than a routine ambulance run. There’s no doubt there was plenty of police activity but they had a sizeable presence at both the Tandem and Priory Centres – if there was an issue elsewhere, some of those police would have bunged their sirens on and headed away. And then there’s the Met Police’s Dog Section who have buildings, offices and dogs on the industrial estate near my house.

Thankfully as the day went on the Colliers Wood tweets calmed down, although most attention was moved to nearby Wimbledon where businesses seemed to be on lockdown. The same problems of misinformation began again, including the notable comment that McDonalds had been firebombed from a passing car. This would have been quite an impressive feat of firebombing given the main McDonalds is in a food court on the third floor of a shopping centre that had been boarded up for a couple hours.

By this point it was late afternoon and people were returning home. Twitter was soon full of comments about Wimbledon being quiet, how there was nothing going on and that everything was normal, along with my favourite tweet stating that one of the pubs was firmly staying open until forced to do otherwise.

As Wimbledon, and indeed London, remained relatively calm and quiet, the problems moved to Manchester and Salford. As I read some of them I wondered. Was Affleck’s Palace really on fire; razed to the ground?

It’s easy to get carried away and believe everything you read on Twitter but you have to remember that not all of it is true or credible. As I thought about it earlier in the day, I mused that sometimes Twitter is a bit like a school playground where lots of kids keep over-exaggerating everything in order to impress their mates. Mix that in with a game of Chinese Whispers and you’re heading for trouble.

Not for nothing were the Greater Manchester Police imploring people to follow them on Twitter for reliable, accurate information about what was going on, and not to retweet unverified sources. Relying on Twitter for your information is certainly possible but if you’re going to, just make sure you rely on the right people.

Much of the above could also be re-written about the pages of The Sun and Daily Mail to be honest…


  • What is the reason for these inaccurate tweets, do you think? Panic? Mischief?
    How much of this problem is inherent in the way retweets work – easy amplification of exciting news? Bad news travels faster than good, exaggeration faster than accuracy.

  • Andrew Bowden says:

    I suspect it’s part mischief, part ill-informed rumour and part just people getting the wrong end of the stick when loads of sirens can be heard. Add it all together and you get a jumble, and blind retreating when you haven’t seen the facts yourself (which I’m sure most Twitter users, including myself, have done in the past) amplifies it.
    And yes, bad news certainly travels faster than good!