Tuesday, 9 August 2011

When twitter goes bad: London riots rumours

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.


  1. I couldn't agree with your post more. Greenwich, where I live, was also a victim on twitter rumours yesterday. Received a text from a friend who lives there two telling me that all the shops were shutting early. I did a search on twitter for Greenwich to get back tweet after tweet about '400+ crowd of youths gathering in Greenwich Park' - 'Police preparing for the worst night of the riots in Greenwich' all of which were untrue as I discovered when I walked home. Fair enough the majority of shops had boarded themselves up (on advice from Police) but I believe this was the case with most shops across London.

    People should only tweet the facts!

  2. Hi, I'm one_iain_army and I'm an idiot. I work at one of the scientific research buildings on site at King's College Hospital and feel terrible I didn't take the time to write a better tweet. Our building was advised to leave early, not the entire hospital.

    So stupid to write that, and I'm very sorry. There was a lot of misinformation on Twitter the last few days and the last thing I wanted to do was add to it.

    I shall ensure I do no more of the same in future. You were completely correct to name and shame me.

  3. It's unbelievable that people perpetuate rumour in such a way, but it's not just twitter, it's real life too. At my work yesterday, lots of people were telling us there were gangs on the way, coming from every direction - and nobody was able to say where they heard this news from.

  4. It's a shame that people thought it OK to tweet that Macdonalds was on fire or that there was a large gang of youths heading for East Dulwich. I think some people might have been looking for excuses to leave work early and others just bored. I saw how quickly the fact that 23 people were charged at Camberwell Magistrates got turned into the fiction that 23 people had just been arrested in Camberwell - which tells a completely different story.

  5. Thanks for commenting everyone, and glad you liked the post, I was just completely gobsmacked at how quickly the rumours spread.

    Iain I never really meant to 'name and shame' anyone. It was very frustrating at the time, but perhaps the whole thing has served as a bit of a warning that we can't believe everything we read or hear.