I joined twitter all the way back in January 2009 and ever since then I've been keen to champion the network to anyone and everyone. I truly do believe that twitter is a force for good but as I followed the ongoing dramas of the London riots last night and today, I couldn't help but feel a bit uneasy. I was especially keen to keep tabs on Camberwell where I live and which thankfully escaped the brunt of the terrible riots on Monday night. But what I couldn't have known was that Camberwell was to become central to some very quick spreading rumours.
Camberwell is where I have lived since moving to London two years ago and, as well as wanting to know if I'd be able to make my way home OK from my job in King's Cross, I wanted to make sure my sister, who was at home in our flat, would be alright. This is where it all began to go wrong.
Keeping half an eye on twitter at work, I was staggered to read mid-morning that rioting and fires appeared to be kicking off in Camberwell.
As I glanced at my computer just before I headed out for a sandwich it appeared that the Guardian and the Telegraph were also reporting early signs of trouble in Camberwell. I gave my sister a call but she was blissfully unaware of the apparent mayhem that was happening just couple of hundred metres away.
I continued to find tweets that were reporting that the local McDonalds was on fire, just as the Guardian described in their live blog (these early entries have since disappeared from the website).
Soon though a number of people started tweeting contradicting the reports of riots and fires. In fact, lots of people were saying that everything was normal in SE5.
Still the tweets announcing trouble in Camberwell piled up - ranging from the very believable: groups gathering on the Green, British Transport Police warning they were diverting public transport away from Camberwell and Co-op being set alight - to the downright bonkers: King's College Hospital being evacuated.
Thankfully out of all the madness a couple of very sensible tweeters emerged, @Camberwellblog and @Sephora_Monroe. Sephora even appeared to go on a one-woman mission to quash every Camberwell rumour in the twittersphere and dear @Camberwellblog was clearly getting infuriated with the rumour-mongering and very carefully directed people to the local businesses and people who were actually on the scene.
In the end King's College and the Police had to tweet denying the rumours - proof of how widespread they were and how serious people were taking them.
I left work a little early, still unsure of what was going to meet me when I got back and of course, it was obvious straight away that everything was indeed fine. I set off for a little walk around Camberwell - partly so I could see for myself that Camberwell remained untouched and partly because I didn't want to feel like I was being forced to stay at home. I even took some pictures:
McDonald's, definitely not on fire.
Co-op, not a victim of rioting or arson but perhaps of some panic buying.
The Camberwell rumours are probably just one example of what has been happening across the capital and the entire country today, but regardless of location it's the ease at which these chinese whispers were spread that's most worrying. Especially because the rumours were picked up by the national press, perhaps without proper confirmation.
Making people feel afraid for no reason is definitely not what twitter is about, and the people who began tweeting the rumours probably didn't do so in malice. Twitter can be an extremely useful tool in times like this, so we should all make an effort to keep twitter rumour free.