The Custard Blog

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Social Media And The Spread of Mis-Information

Did you know that the average human accidentally eats eight spiders a year? You’ve probably read it somewhere or been told by a friend trying to creep you out. Well, it’s baloney.

Spiders, whilst being horrifyingly creepy nightmares, aren’t stupid enough to get themselves in such a manner. So how did this mis-information become supposed public knowledge?

It all (allegedly – ironically, I can’t actually find the original source!) began in 1993 (bloody hell, that was 20 years ago) when Lisa Holst, a columnist for PC Professional, created an article detailing similar facts as part of a story looking into how quickly information can spread thanks to the internet. Bear in mind, back in 1993 we didn’t have the social media channels we do today, so this information was mostly relayed by chain-emails and discussion boards.

But now, we can readily share this information contained within a single tweet or Facebook post, not just to our social circle but to the public. A vast majority of updates on the London/Manchester riots of 2011 were relayed through Twitter, Facebook and raw footage uploaded to YouTube.

BBM played an integral part in the London Riots, both in reporting, as well as organising where to riot.

BBM played an integral part in the London Riots, both in reporting, as well as organising where to riot. But it was probably less dramatic than this picture implies.

Obviously with the potential rumour mills of Twitter, as evidenced by the numerous ‘## is dead’ posts, internet users become more inquisitive and demanding of source materials. However, this has been quite quickly addressed by self-proclaimed social aggregation site, reddit, among others. Essentially, the breaker of the news can post to this hub of listeners and they can all evaluate whether it is worthy of being shared, and thereby inform their respective social networks.

However, it’s not flawless. Jeff Goldblum is likely still a bit miffed at the amount of ‘Jeff Goldblum dead’ posts, especially one that stuck after he ‘fell off a cliff in New Zealand’. This post was created by Global Associated News, a parody site that somehow, was interpreted as fact… however, the trend continues, particularly with the infamous ‘The Onion’ (see Literally Unbelievable for evidence of those that were fooled).


There’s a well-known theory that we are all connected within a maximum of six degrees and this has become increasingly relevant within social media, so it only takes a single post to be shared amongst friends for them to share it and the story to snowball. According to a study by Saarland University, it is thought “a rumor started at a random node of the Twitter network in average reaches 45.6 million of the total of 51.2 million members within only eight rounds of communication”.

Social networks have even become seen as a fountain of knowledge despite often not providing any kind of proof or source, as it has become increasingly important to have the latest tidbit of information even without the evidence to support it.

This extract is taken from David J Krajicek’s ‘The Social Media Revolution In Breaking-News Journalism’,

“When a big crime story happens now, every reporter and producer attacks Facebook for information and sources,” says Paul LaRosa, a CBS News producer. “It’s the first thing we do, and everybody does it.”

Why? Because Facebook worldwide includes more than 700 million users searchable by names, occupations, hometowns, schools and interests.

Each page is a potential lode of the biographical information that journalists crave. It also provides links to friends who might serve as secondary sources.

And while one reporter scours Facebook, a colleague is likely plugged in to TweetDeck, monitoring Twitter feeds about a breaking-news event, with the same scrutiny and trained ear police reporters once gave to police radio transmissions.

“Twitter is our wire service today,” says Mo Krochmal, a journalist and founder of Social Media News NY.


During breaking-news coverage of a shooting on the Virginia Tech campus on Dec. 9, 2011, a tweeter tried to lure news outlets into falsely reporting 7 that the shooter had killed a second law enforcer at a location far off campus.

His Twitter handle was an indicator of his lack of credibility: Drunken Bastard. “

However, with social media being seen as the fastest and most efficient way of sharing information, would this false information have been reported if the username hadn’t lacked credibility? There have been a number of stories that were broken first by Twitter, but there have been an equal amount of mis-informed stories leaving news outlets red-faced – see HERE, HERE and HERE.

So what’s there to do? It’s not like information will stop being shared – people love attention and the brief celebrity status they may get from breaking news, and new outlets will always be fighting to break the news first in the spirit of ratings.

So, whilst we know we’re not eating 8 spiders a year, there’s still a chance that someone will report it… like The Daily Mirror.

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